Omar Khalidi (1952-2010) was a Muslim scholar, writer, activist and librarian.

Khalidi was born in Hyderabad, the eighth of ten children. His father was Abu Nasr Khalidi, a well- known scholar of Arabic and Islamic studies at Osmania University. Omar studied for a BA at Wichita State University, Kansas; he graduated in 1980. In 1991 he was awarded a Masters in Liberal Arts from the Extension School, Harvard University. His PhD, awarded by St David’s University College in 1994, was entitled Indian Muslims in the political process. 

From 1981 to 1983, Khalidi was librarian of architecture and planning at King Saud University Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He spent the rest of his career as the Aga Khan Librarian for Islamic Architecture at Rotch Library at MIT. As a librarian, he was known for his kindness and patience. His colleague, Karen Gyllensvard commented, ‘He was a great reference librarian especially in his fields. He spent a lot of time with students and researchers, and was always patient and willing to take the time to help people.’ Khalidi served as President of the Middle East Librarians Association in 2008-2009. 

However, he was also a fine and outspoken scholar. Khalidi became a world expert in two areas, the status of Muslims in India past and present, and on mosques in the west. He published widely on these subjects, and on the history of his home city of Hyderabad. His first work, published by Hyderabad Historical Society in 1981, was The British residents at the court of the Nizams of Hyderabad.  In Romance of the Golconda diamonds (Mapin Publishing, 1999), he wrote about the diamonds mined round Hyderabad, including the famous Koh-i-Nor. But Khalidi also broadened his horizons to write about the socio-economic and political issues facing India’s Muslim minority. In Indian Muslims since independence, (Vikas, 1995), he argued that the condition of Indian Muslims had deteriorated significantly in every sector since independence. (Muslims were scattered thinly throughout the country. Urdu was not taught in schools, except in Kashmir. After partition, many middle class Muslims, who could have provided leadership, migrated to Pakistan.) In Khaki and the ethnic violence in India (Three Essays Collective, 2010), Khalidi discussed the ethnic composition of India’s armed forces. The under-representation of Muslims was a significant theme running through the book; (he compared the treatment of Muslims with that of Sikhs, who were recruited in large numbers and sometimes rose to prominent positions). Khalidi’s work is thought to have motivated the Sachar Committee to undertake a community wise census of the Indian armed forces.  

Following on from this, Khalidi was also known as an activist committed to fighting for social justice for minority Muslims in India and around the world. He believed that the entrenched Hinduism in India’s official machinery meant that the country was not a secular state. His vision of India was of a secular, progressive and democratic nation which guaranteed human rights for all. Khalidi was active in a range of Indian Muslim organizations in the US, including the Federation of Muslims of Indian Origin, the Indian Muslim Relief and Charities, the Indian Muslim Council and the Association of Indian Muslims. 

Khalidi’s interest in mosques was a natural consequence of his post as librarian for Islamic architecture. He began documenting the architecture of mosques in the United States and wrote several items about them. His influential essay ‘Approaches to mosque design in North America’ was included in Muslims on the Americanization path?, edited by Y.Y. Haddad and J.L. Esposito. He examined the feasibility of using traditional Middle Eastern patterns in American neighbourhoods. He concluded that using such designs reinforced a view of Islam as a static religion; mosque designers should construct buildings that fulfilled Muslim requirements but also met the needs of a different environment.  The US State Department tapped his architectural expertise, sending him to India twice, Pakistan twice and Afghanistan once.  

Tragically Khalidi died in a freak accident at the Kendall Square MBTA station. He was a diabetic and it appears his sugar level reached abnormal levels. It is thought he was trying to catch a train to buy medicine at the next station. Sadly, he seems to have fainted and fallen in front of an oncoming engine. His wife Nigar only learned of his death when she contacted the police about his failure to come home. Khalidi was also survived by a daughter, Aliya.  Nearly a thousand people attended his funeral at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury. Arab News reported ‘India has become a little poorer with the passing of Dr Omar Khalidi, a great scholar and the man who articulated the voice of the Indian Muslims during some of their darkest hours.’ 

Sources 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2010). Remembering Omar Khalidi. Retrieved June 9, 2020, from http://news.mit.edu/2010/khalid-rememberance 

Rabbat, N. (2010). Omar Khalidi (1954-2010). MELA Notes, (83), 1-2. Retrieved June 9, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/29785922 

ARCHNET (n.d.). Omar Khalidi 1952-2010. Retrieved June 11 2020, from https://archnet.org/authorities/2736 

Sanyal, U. (1997). Indian Muslims since independence. By Omar Khalidi [Review] The Journal of Asian Studies, 56(1), 233-234. doi:10.2307/2646405 

Guha, S. (2011). Khaki and the ethnic violence in India: armed forces, police and paramilitary forces during communal riots. 2nd ed. rev. and updated. Pacific Affairs, 84(2), 375-377. Retrieved June 11, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/23056792 

Ayub Khan, M. (2010, December 2). Obituary: Omer Khalidi. The Muslim Observer. Retrieved June 11, 2020, from https://web.archive.org/web/20111002214817/http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=7505 

Johnson, A.J. (2001). Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John L. Esposito. Muslims on the Americanization Path? [Review]. Islamic studies, 40(1),168-172. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/20837085 

International and Comparative Librarianship. (2010). Dr Omar Khalidi – a rare scholar-cum-librarian-obituary. Retrieved June 12, 2020, from http://lisindica.blogspot.com/2010/12/dr-omar-khalidi-rare-scholar-cum.html