Ibrahim Abdul-Malik, Pioneering Interfaith Religious Studies Teacher, Dies at 96

By Justin Rimpi
Managing Editor 

Dr. Ibrahim Abdul-Malik, an adjunct professor in the School of Humanities since 2005, died last week, at 96, after being diagnosed with the coronavirus, his family reported. The esteemed professor is believed to be the first member of the FDU community to die of the coronavirus.

FDU President Christopher Capuano said, “We are very sorry about the passing of Dr. Ibrahim Abdul-Malik. We send our deepest condolences to his family and all his many close friends and students who benefited from his warmth, compassion, knowledge and commitment to justice for all. He will be very much missed by the FDU community.” 

Rev. Jack Baron and Rabbi Ezra Weinberg taught side-by-side with Abdul-Malik in the interfaith course One God, Three Paths, the cornerstone of the Religious Studies program on the Metropolitan Campus since 2005.

 The school notified the campus in an email: “Abdul-Malik was born in New York City and enjoyed a 25-year career in the New York City school system as a teacher and administrator. Over an academic career spanning eight decades, he also served as an adjunct professor at City University of New York, as director of the Bank Street College outreach program, as a UNESCO Science Advisor, and as associate director of the United Nations Summer Internship Program in Geneva. At FDU, Dr. Abdul-Malik team-taught numerous interfaith courses such as One God, Three Paths with Christian and Jewish colleagues.”

“I talked to him the day before he died,” Baron told The Equinox in a phone call. “He sounded great. He was very healthy. He did not take any medications. We have known each other for 20 years.

“He was a wonderful man in many ways. One of the best pedagogues I have ever experienced in my life. He was not just interested in teaching the class material, he really wanted to teach students about life and wanted people to all live harmoniously,” he said. 

Weinberg, via Zoom, recalled his teaching colleague’s empathy toward students. 

“He could sense what students were going through. He had great instincts. You never doubted him,” Weinberg said. “ If the student would let him help, he would really help them. He was an advertisement for letting elders mentor younger people. High-functioning societies give respect to their elders. They see things that others don’t see. He was an example of that.”

The caring nature of Abdul-Malik was mentioned by colleagues and students alike.

“Dr. Ibrahim was one of those rare professors and individuals that truly cared about you on a personal level,” senior Julian Bell, who was in the One God, Three Paths course, told The Equinox. 

“For him, it was more than just making sure you learned in his class. He wanted to learn about you and make an impact. His presence and love for his students will continue to be felt,” Bell said. 

“Dr. Ibrahim was one of the most well-spoken individuals I have ever met, and his soul spoke wisdom. He was kind and insightful and he will be missed dearly,” junior Gabby Sesin, who was also in the One God, Three Paths course, told The Equinox via Instagram.

“During the first class [Wednesday] after his passing, we will dedicate some time to reflect on his contributions and the amazing personality he was. I’ve spoken to a few of my classmates and we were all heartbroken, but we feel peace knowing we were given the opportunity of knowing the amazing man Dr. Ibrahim was.”

Abdul-Malik was born in New York, but was sent to live with his grandparents in Barbados during the Great Depression.

“Barbados is an almost exclusively black Island. As a black man raised in a nearly all black community, he was not a victim of racism nor did he suffer from a lack of access in his formative years that he would have certainly experienced growing up black in the U.S. in the 1930’s and 40’s,” Weinberg said.

“By the time he began living in the U.S. as a young man, he had not internalized the experience of someone who grew up inside a systematically and racially divided country. From a young age he believed he, and anyone else for that matter, was entitled to a good education, no matter what their background. And that’s what he did and who he became,” he said.

Abdul-Malik held two doctorate degrees– one in Science and Education from Harvard University and another in Islamic Studies from the Graduate Theological Foundation located in Indiana.

“Ibrahim did mention to me that he was one of the only blacks in Harvard back in the 1960s,” Weinberg said. “But he did not let that fact impact him though. I believe that it was because of his upbringing.”

He became a Muslim in his 40s and wrote the book “Islam and Muslims: 25 Questions and Answers, which he self-published.

Weinberg said, “The book should be required reading. It would help to push back against the Islamophobia that has grown since 9/11.” 

Baron and Weinberg would like the interfaith class to continue, but with someone to replace their colleague. 

“We will look for another Imam or a Sheikh. Ibrahim was both of those things. It will be very difficult to replace him, though. Father Baron put so much social capital into this class. We have really soared. We do not want it to end now,” Weinberg said. “We think that it should be mandatory learning. All students should know the basis of the three faiths: Islam, Catholicism and Judaism.”

“We want to continue this class. That’s what Dr. Ibrahim would have wanted. You do not find imans like Ibrahim in the phone book. His experience was unmatched,” Baron said.

Wednesday night’s class, April 8, will be the first taught without Abdul-Malik, and Weinberg says a memorial will take place to honor his dear friend during that time.

Weinberg also had very comforting words to those who are struggling during this pandemic, and seeing all those around them affected so greatly by COVID-19.

“This was my first major loss [from COVID-19]. Dr. Ibrahim was a part of my life for the past 15 years,” Weinberg said. “We discussed our life, our loved ones. Being so isolated made it that much worse. Jewish faith says to keep people in the community, so they can handle these tough times. Force the people out of hiding. Demonstrate that we are there for each other. Follow the Jewish tradition and stay in touch with people. Use the technology to be able to do that.”

Baron also addressed how all people should try to come to grips with the current state of the world.

“I believe that God is suffering with us,” Baron said. “God is telling us to reach out to reach other during this time, and he is with us each and every step of the way. G-d is not letting us go at this alone here. G-d is here.”

Abdul-Malik is survived by his daughter Sky King and granddaughter Krista Ambats.

A formal ceremony celebrating the life of Dr. Ibrahim Abdul-Malik will be organized in the fall, the university said in an email.