Letter: Remembering a friend who modeled inclusion, acceptance



I recently attended the funeral services for my friend, Dr. Shahid Athar. Dr. Athar, a prominent endocrinologist at St. Vincent Hospital, was a man of science; he was also a person of profound faith, one of the pillars of the Muslim community in Indiana. From the time that Sandy and I arrived in Indianapolis four decades ago, we befriended Dr. Athar and had the privilege of engaging with him in interfaith dialogue and community service.

We would speak before the nurses and administrators at hospitals to help the staff better understand and serve the needs of Jewish and Muslim patients. We also addressed houses of worship and civic organizations about Jewish-Muslim relations, and about medical, faith and ethical concerns.

Dr. Athar would often talk to me about one of his medical heroes, Moses Maimonides, the rabbinic scholar, scientist and physician of Cordova and Egypt in the 12th and 13th centuries. This was toward the end of the period when Christian, Muslim and Jewish science and letters flourished side by side in Spain. Regrettably, this age of coexistence would come to an end with the religious wars and persecutions that led to the Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews and Moors from Spain in 1492.

Shahid and I hoped to emulate that era here in Indianapolis. Our Jewish-Muslim dialogue began before it was PC to do so, before 9/11. We were joined by committed Christian colleagues, notably a young pastor, the Rev. Jerry Zehr. Together, with other colleagues we founded the Northside Interfaith Project, which expanded into the Indianapolis Interfaith Alliance, to educate our congregations and community about the richness and diversity of the religious and cultural landscape in this Midwestern heartland. At a time of increasing division and religious intolerance, Dr. Athar modeled inclusion and acceptance.

These groups spawned other organizations. The Center for Interfaith Cooperation, directed by Charlie Wiles, operates out of the Interchurch Center. Upon Jerry Zehr’s recent return to town, he reconnected with us to launch the Carmel Interfaith Alliance. Just last year, as Dr. Athar’s illness progressed, a tribute to his life of teaching, healing and service was held at the Carmel Christian Church.

Dr. Athar’s funeral at the Al Huda mosque Aug. 6 was modest and dignified. Following a brief eulogy, the afternoon prayers were recited. The bier carrying the body covered by a simple white shroud, was brought in to the prayer hall and the “janaza,” or funeral prayer, was quietly pronounced.

Dr. Athar died and was buried as he had lived – with dignity, modesty and peace, surrounded by his beloved wife, Nisreen, their children, family and friends. Shahid Athar was the consummate physician and scholar; a devoted and humble ambassador and servant to the community. He lived by the words of Maimonides’ Prayer for the Physician:

“Almighty God, inspire me with love for my art and for your creation. Let me be content in everything, except in the science of my profession. Never allow the thought to arise in me that I have attained sufficient knowledge, (for) the mind of your creatures is ever expanding. You have appointed me in your mercy to watch over life and death … support me in that I may benefit all humanity.”

Dr. Athar understood that the world’s religions are journeys of the spirit and that we are invited to participate in each other’s travelogues, to learn and grow from each other’s itineraries.

Dr. Athar’s journey blessed our city. May he rest in peace, and may his trajectory be an inspiration to all of us.

Dennis C. Sasso, Congregation Beth-El Zedeck senior rabbi


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