Professor Said affected thousands as an educator. For six decades, year after year, thousands of students passed through American University’s School of International Service under his watch. He was equally well known as an advocate of peace, particularly but by no means solely in the Middle East. He was the founding director of AU’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution program. He was an advisor to both the Bush and Carter Administrations and a frequent formal and informal envoy to the region.
But his influence also extended in a third arc: as a spiritual guide. Professor Said emerged from a Syriac Orthodox Christian family and the Sufi traditions in his native land. His “students” were typically touched in origin by one or more of the three Abrahamic faiths—Jewish, Christian, Muslim—though some had also followed Buddhist or other Eastern traditions and among them were even “Nones.” Perhaps central to his teaching was the concept of tawhid, that the Universe is One and its corollary, that we are all connected.
I first met Abdul Aziz at his office at American University on a winter solstice in the early 80s. He told me the following story:
The student asked the teacher, where shall I go to find God. The teacher pointed to what appeared to be little more than a dot on a distant horizon. So the student set out and after months of travel saw the dot gradually growing into a vast, steep mountain. He thought he would never be able to climb the escarpment. But then he grew closer and saw that there was a path curving across the slope. Encouraged, he travelled further. When he arrived near the base of the mountain, he saw that there were in fact many paths going up the mountain and many people rising along the paths. The student went further and began to climb the mountain but as he came within sight of the top, he suddenly realized—together with the others who had climbed so far—that there was in fact no mountain.
And so it is that I learned that in the search for our deepest identity, we find the unity that connects us all.
May the Peace and Unity of his Being remain and inspire us in the difficult months ahead.
Bill Espinosa has been drawn to Cynthia’s teachings as he has rediscovered his Christian roots through its contemplative traditions. His background includes nearly a decade’s participation in the Gurdjieff Work, and the spiritual guidance of Abdul Aziz Said, a Rifai Sufi who has been a leading voice in peace and conflict resolution. He has been blessed with help from many others including Murat Yagan. He created an educational board game about whales and is the author of the speculative eco-thriller, WARMING!
See The Whole World Need the Whole World, here; A companion piece to this post, written by Abdul Aziz Said twenty years ago that shares his vision, as relevant to us now as it was in the aftermath of 9/11.
Images from the top: Starry Skies, courtesy of Max Pixel, free to use; Portrait of Abdul Aziz Said by 20th century German-American photographer, Lotte Jacobi, courtesy of Bill Espinosa.