Inna Lillah Wa Inna Ilayhi Raji’oun (Al-Baqara – 2:156) (Truly we belong to Allah and truly to Him shall we return). It is with great sadness that one reports that Pakistani-Muslim-American leader, scholar and thinker Dr. Agha Khalid Saeed passed away at Monterey, California on Friday, February 19. 2021.
Quetta-born Dr. Saeed was 73 years of age and had been ill for some time. His funeral was held on Tuesday, February 23, in the scenic coastal town of Seaside, California. And as we have become accustomed in this era of the COVID-19 pandemic, his last rites included an online live Zoom session.
Dr. Agha Saeed spent most of his life deeply involved in local, national, and international politics, mostly in educating often reluctant American Muslims on how the American political system (actually) works, and on the how important it is for our community to get involved in it. Many people including this scribe are indebted to him for sharing the wealth of knowledge that he possessed on various political, social, and literary topics with us. One cannot think of any time that we did not value his incredible insight and views.
The epitome of leadership, Dr. Agha Saeed was an amazing powerhouse of activism. Whether one agreed with him or not, there was only one Agha Sahib. He was arguably the finest public intellectual that our community has produced to date, not just here in Northern California, but possibly nationally as well. Through the Pakistan American Democratic Forum (PADF) and the American Muslim Alliance (AMA) and a host of other organizations, he strived to guide Pakistani-Americans and American Muslims towards mainstream political inclusion, not just in the good days, but during the bad times too. His ability to think, write and deliver in English, Urdu or Punjabi remains a standard for the rest of us to follow. We have lost a rare teacher and mentor.
He was a member of the old 1980s “Berkeley Group” whose other titan Professor Syed Jahangir Hamdani we lost a few years ago.
Agha Sahib earned his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Punjab, Pakistan, and completed his MA and PhD in Rhetoric from UC Berkeley where he was a regular fixture at political, cultural, and especially literary events around the campus. I got to learn about Agha Sahib almost 40 years ago and can briefly touch on his public life here. He was always a political person and one of the sharpest minds that I have ever encountered. His incubation was his association with the once idealistic Pakistani Left of the late 1960’s (he kept in touch with Abid Hassan Minto of the Awami Workers Party and hosted him here in the San Francisco Bay Area along with well-known left-winger Tariq Ali from Britain).
We got to know about Agha Sahib through two organizations, the PADF already mentioned above, and a small group of intellectuals associated with a publication called the Pakistan Progressive. Both were active in their resistance to the Zia dictatorship in Pakistan which ended in 1988. It is also during this time that Agha Sahib found himself a focus of attention here in America which was then fully supporting radical Islamists to fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
During the 1990s the tables started to turn on the promotion of “political Islam”. Here in the U.S. Agha Sahib started to focus more and more on domestic politics and religion with an emphasis on the Pakistani-American and Muslim experience in this country. He became our “one-man gang” of activism during a time when most of us were busy with our careers, trying to make some money and raising families in our newly adopted country. That is when differences arose. Agha Sahib was strongly focused and a seasoned political professional by now, but the rest of our community just could not match his intensity or keep up with him. He was way ahead of us and there was no stopping him. And after 9/11 it dawned on the American Muslim community that people like Dr. Agha Saeed and his work mattered a great deal. In a hostile environment he kept on reminding us that the fight for Muslim rights in this country and the Palestinian and Kashmiri causes overseas remained important and should never be abandoned. These issues remained his focus till the end of his life.
One always came away learning something interesting after attending meetings hosted by Agha Sahib. His role as a teacher never really ended as he tried his level best to overcome his health challenges (Parkinson’s disease) – which he kept fighting during the last years of his life. He continued to raise a voice for the oppressed from his wheelchair. His followers came from very diverse backgrounds: those of the African-American communities being especially prominent.
What did other people in our community have to say about him? One example came from luminary Dr. Nazeer Ahmed who sent me this response after receiving information of Agha Sahib’s passing. “He was indeed a great soul, an unusual combination of spunk, elan, capability, compassion, courage, knowledge and drive. It was my privilege to work with him for a brief while,” wrote Dr. Ahmed.
In a statement, CAIR-California CEO Hussam Ayloush said in part: “AMA and Dr. Agha Saeed were among CAIR’s strongest and closest partners and friends. Prof. Agha Saeed was one of my earliest mentors and advisors when I started my career with CAIR, 25 years ago. I had the pleasure and the honor to learn from him and participate in dozens of meetings with him where I got the chance to be inspired by his passion, charisma, and commitment to justice. Prof. Saeed was a visionary political scientist and strategist, an optimist, a compassionate leader who firmly believed in uniting our Muslim community’s political efforts, and a principled advocate for freedom and justice in Palestine and Kashmir.”
Hazem Kira, a long-time associate of Dr. Saeed expressed his sentiments with these words: “I worked side-by-side with Dr. Saeed for a number of years. On our daily drives and walks, he always had a poetic couplet or words of wisdom at the ready. He would cite Thomas Jefferson and Fanon, Edward Said and the great poet Hafiz or Confucius in the same breath. He inspired, in me, the love of knowledge —from all sources. I would eventually dedicate a book of quotes in his honor.”
And Attorney Javed Ellahie’s sentiments just had to be added here as they point our community forward. “As a tribute to him, and as a meagre payment for what we owe him – we must continue to use all our resources to move his agenda forward – an agenda that requires our full support of just candidates and a commitment to oppose those who thrive by fanning the racist flames of hatred while they build a thriving career on Islamophobia.”
In closing one needs keep in our thoughts the grieving (immediate and extended) family of Dr. Agha Saeed at this time. It must not have been easy to share him with all of us for so many years. The time and the pains that he took to guide us must have meant time taken away from his own family. We as a community and his followers really need to appreciate their enormous sacrifice. Rest in Peace, Agha Sahib.