I had only one formal class with Asma —Understanding Islam— but it set off an intellectual and personal relationship that has marked my development ever since. I can hardly characterize the impact here, but I would love to offer a few snapshots.
When Asma and I first crossed paths, I was a senior at Ithaca College. Having heard so much about her classes, I knew I had to find an opportunity to take one before my time was up. I was a major in philosophy and religious studies, and I had the opportunity to take Asma’s storied course on Islam, a course that raised the question of Islam from several different angles: historical, spiritual, political. Asma’s classroom was a space in which the texts were the centerpiece; the session was as good as the individual readings that we brought to the table. Her interventions were always measured and exacting —and sometimes fierce— but as I am sure others will agree, it was those interventions that we students were always eagerly anticipating. Wake us up, Asma!
While a formidable presence in the classroom, I also want to recall and acknowledge how closely and conscientiously she read my work. I poured a lot of energy into writing for her and I felt recognized by the energy she returned in her comments and critique. In one of my journal reflections —an assignment different from a formal essay in that we were encouraged to think a bit more personally about the material— I reflected on how I felt my parents had raised me without too much in the way of dogmatic ideological conditioning: my parents were rather non-interventionist on matters religious, political, and philosophical, or so I felt. Asma, of course, did not let that fly. The open-ended and purportedly non-biased subject is a highly historically specific subject: a liberal subject, a product of a Western cosmology in which the individual floats detached from all social and historical determinations. Asma had her own gentle and subtle way of bringing this to my attention. I still recall this exchange often when thinking about the secret culture of liberal individualism.
It was only after graduating and working for a year in Ithaca that I realized the extent of Asma’s generosity as a teacher and as a person. I found myself over at her and Ulises’ house often for tea, to catch up, and to discuss our reading and our writing pursuits. There was even one day that Ulises made a delectable dinner that I happened to stumble into —I believe it was minced lamb— and I think of that meal often, too!
The last time I had the pleasure of sitting down for tea with Asma was not like the other times.
I left Ithaca in the summer of 2016 to move home and apply to graduate school. Having decided to pursue a Masters degree in Vancouver, British Columbia, I took some money I had saved and hit the road to see Europe for the first time. Asma and I had been exchanging emails periodically, and when I told her I was headed to Granada, Spain, she said: “Oh, us too!” Amazingly, Asma and Ulises happened to be in Granada the same week I was, en route to teach summer courses in Saint Petersburg, Russia. So we sat for tea in that beautiful historic city. I cannot remember the precise subjects of conversation, but I do remember that the sun was hot and the tea was rich.
I am so happy that my first return to the city of Ithaca will be to celebrate Asma’s career in teaching and research. I cannot imagine a better occasion for a return.
Asma, thank you for the seriousness, the intensity, the depth, the compassion, and the gentleness that you have brought to your teaching and your work. I will see you before too long.
—David K. Johnson