A lantern in the darkness.
A man who leaves behind a hole in his community that cannot be filled.
There were kind words and tears shed for Dr. Shahid Athar at his memorial service Monday. But there was one resounding sentiment that permeated the Masjid Al-Huda mosque in Fishers: Athar was an idealist without a mean bone in his body, one who envisioned the world as a place where people of all creeds could come together in harmony.
Athar died Saturday following a long battle with an illness. He was 73.
“His loss is a loss to the entire community,” said Dennis Sasso, the senior rabbi at the Congregation Beth-El Zedeck. “We lost a pillar of many communities.”
Athar was many things in life: a father, a husband, an endocrinologist at St. Vincent’s Health, an associate professor at Indiana University School of Medicine. But when more than 100 people came to his visitation Monday, they came in honor of the work he did for the Indianapolis interfaith community.
Having immigrated from Pakistan to Indiana in 1969, Athar completed his medical residency in Chicago at Cook County Hospital and his endocrinology fellowship at Indiana University School of Medicine. He married his wife Shaista in 1970 and later began an internal medicine practice in Carmel.
Ahmed Athar, one of Athar’s four children, remembers his father not just for his work in the community but also for the man he was at home: a man who loved muscle cars, pizza, taking his children fishing, going on road trips and gardening.
He also made it a point for his kids to be educated in their culture and Islamic faith.
“It was through his work with the human body that he found his calling for God, who made this amazing creation,” Ahmed Athar said. “As a child I would go to (St. Vincent’s) on rounds with him, and (I remember) one of the heads of cardiology stopping me to say: ‘Your father walks on water.’ That’s the kind of person he is.”
It was while being a father that Athar laid the foundations for faith-based community dialogue. He didn’t just want to make sure his children knew about Islam, he wanted to make sure his community did as well.
Athar realized there was something between he and his friends that might not be happening in their respective congregations: a judgment free, well-intentioned dialogue regarding the intersection of faith and community.
The fix? The creation of the Interfaith Alliance of Indianapolis.
The now defunct group served as a means for individuals within the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Sikh communities to engage in dialogues which helped to dispel fears or misinformation surrounding another religion. The more human congregants saw one another, the more likely they were to reach out and help one another.
The initial group later split into several smaller groups, and now lives on as the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, the Carmel Interfaith Alliance and other groups across Indiana.
“Athar was one of the founders, amidst some very special people, who fostered interfaith understanding, education and love,” said U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind. She met Athar when she served as U.S. attorney for the southern district of Indiana from 2001 to 2007.
Following the 9/11 attacks in New York City, Athar reached out to Brooks to see if the two could create community dialogues to help non-Muslim people better understand Islam. During this time, he hosted lectures both in the state and other parts of the country, speaking to churches and synagogues.
Over the course of his storied career, Athar published a number of books on religion, health, world events, the science of global warming and more. Alongside his books, Athar was also published in the Indianapolis Star’s opinion section, writing religious themed columns.
Athar was a recipient of a number of awards, including the Golden Hoosier Award, teacher of the year award for St.Vincent Hospital Internal Medicine residency department and the St. Vincent Distinguished Physician award.
“When you think of people who make a difference in life, people who do not have a negative bone in their bodies, that was Shahid,” said K.P. Singh, an Indianapolis based artist and practicing Sikh who worked with Athar founding the original Interfaith Alliance. “He exuded kindness and happiness to all others.
“That’s not just his legacy; it’s his lesson for all of us to follow.”
Contact IndyStar reporter Jordyn Hermani at (317) 444-6579. Follow her on Twitter: @h3rmani