Obituary: Canadian pioneer in Islamic studies crossed tense boundaries
University of B.C. religious studies Prof. Hanna Kassis was educating British Columbians about Islam in an era when there were fewer than 10,000 Muslims in Canada.
It was the 1960s and ’70s when Kassis, who was raised in Gaza City, which is part of the Palestinian Territories, began his popular UBC classes on the theology, scripture and sociology of the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing religion.
Everyone in Kassis’s classes assumed he was a Muslim, since he taught the religion with such respect, emphasizing its strengths while trying to get students to appreciate the inner logic of Islamic movements, spirituality and ideals.
It was only after I graduated from UBC that I learned Kassis was actually a Palestinian Christian, one of many who felt forced at a young age to leave the strife-torn territories, which are now almost empty of Christians.
Kassis, who died this month at age 86, after struggling with Parkinson’s disease, was at UBC for 33 years, where he also taught Hebrew.
His Vancouver Sun death notice accurately says, “He was revered by students and colleagues for his warmth, inspiring teaching and profound knowledge. He had a particular passion for connecting people of different faiths and backgrounds.”
Kassis, who attended Christ Church Anglican Cathedral in Vancouver, went to school as a youth in Jerusalem and eventually finished a PhD in Near Eastern languages and literature at Harvard University. He wrote short stories and studied archeology and authored at least four books, often about the Qur’an.
Teaching courses on Islam wasn’t entirely uncontroversial in Vancouver, even three or four decades ago, long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Muslim population of Canada grew to its current 1.2 million.
Although Kassis was well-known for his expertise on Islam, being somewhat self-effacing he was often reluctant about being quoted on news stories related to the religion, in large part because he wasn’t Muslim and thought Muslims should be speaking for themselves.
He was devoted to inter-faith understanding. Christ Church Cathedral Dean the Rev. Peter Elliottsaid Monday, “I think he helped a whole generation of UBC students develop attitudes to other religions of compassion, understanding and respect.” After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shocked North Americans, Elliott said, Kassis frequently offered workshops to the public on Islam.
“For reasons of health, and although I am Christian, I was nursed in my infancy at the breast of a Muslim woman from Jabaliyah,” Kassis wrote. “According to the tradition of my people, she became my nursing mother and her daughter Zahra (‘Blossom’) is my nursing sister. My nursing mother is dead; Zahra is still alive. Our infant eyes must have met as we shared the milk of one woman. Today, my heart throbs to the beat of hers in her suffering in Jabaliyah. My childhood in Gaza has certainly left an indelible imprint on me. It introduced me to convivencia(living together) in a bi-religious, multi-sectarian society in which learning and gentle debate were held in very high esteem.”
A funeral will be held at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Christ Church Cathedral, at the corner of Georgia and Burrard streets.