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Wilfred Cantwell Smith, one of the past century's most influential contributors to interfaith dialogue and the comparative study of religion, died February 7, 2000 of natural causes in his native Toronto at the age of 83.
Dr. Smith's work has had a profound impact worldwide, through his writing and teaching, and through the various academic programmes and departments he helped establish. Early in his career, he established a distinctive Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill, where he taught from 1949-63. He was involved in planning the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University, and moved there in 1964 to take up its directorship. In 1973 he moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia to establish the Department of Comparative Religion at Dalhousie University, returning to Harvard in 1978 to oversee the development of a program in religion within the faculty of arts and sciences. Harvard appointed him Professor Emeritus of the Comparative Study of Religion on his retirement in 1984. After returning to his home town in 1985, he was appointed Senior Research Associate to the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College, University of Toronto.
In all these posts, and through a dozen books and numerous articles, Smith won over many to the view that religion is best understood as the living, vital faith of individual persons rather than as an abstract set of ideas and doctrines. A consequence of this view is that for an outsider to "understand" a religious tradition (such as Islam), one must achieve a degree of empathy with the situation of the participant in that tradition, though without giving up critical and historical analysis.
Smith's interest in and sensitivity to other cultures and languages were nurtured by his schooling at Upper Canada College in Toronto, a year in Grenoble, France, and by an extended visit to Europe and the Middle East at age 17 with his mother, a professor of classics. It was on this trip that he began his study of Arabic, in Cairo. He subsequently obtained a B.A. at the University of Toronto, where he met and married Muriel MacKenzie Struthers. His wife became his lifelong partner, actively participating in his research, travels, and interactions with his students and their families. After graduating they moved to England, where Smith studied at Cambridge, and continued on to India, where he was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry and taught at the Forman Christian College in Lahore (then part of India, before the formation of Pakistan), while his wife completed a medical degree. His first book, Modern Islam in India, was published in 1946. Smith completed a Ph.D. at Princeton University after the war, and his Islam in Modern History followed in 1957.
Smith moved to McGill University in 1949 and established the Institute of Islamic Studies in 1951, based on a new approach to inter-religious scholarship. He recruited Muslim scholars and students to the faculty and graduate student body, involving them in a joint venture of scholarship formerly carried on largely by Western orientalists. By giving emphasis to numerically dominant South and Southeast Asian Islam, he also balanced earlier reliance on classical Arabic, Persian, and Turkish texts.
A comparable reorientation resulted as Smith addressed Christian theological approaches to the other world religions. Instead of making exclusive claims to truth and salvation, Smith argued, Christians have a moral duty to respect the identity of others with whom this world is shared. Smith posed this challenge as early as 1960, but it was only two decades later that the issue of religious pluralism took center stage in theological studies, as reflected in the positive response accorded Smith's 1981 book Towards a World Theology.
Often considered an historian, Smith was fascinated with processes of change in institutions and in ideas. The Meaning and End of Religion (1963), regarded by many as his most important book, explained that the term "religion" did not have a plural, nor mean a system of doctrine, until the seventeenth century. Before that, 'religion' meant the quality of trusting piety that Smith saw as present in the lives of participants in various traditions. He pointed out similarly shifting definitions of such key words as "faith" and "belief."
As his knowledge of and respect for a variety of religious world views gained world-wide recognition, Smith was increasingly called upon to share his perspectives with a wider audience. In the 1970s, for example, he was asked to write the overview article on Religion in the Encyclopedia Britannica, entitled "Religion as Symbolism." He was also advisory editor for numerous journals.
Smith's writings have been translated into French, German, Spanish, Swedish, Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, Indonesian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
Smith received honorary degrees from more than a dozen institutions, and at one time or other served as president of practically every academic society to which he belonged. These included the Canadian Theological Society, the American Society for the Study of Religion, the American Academy of Religion, the Middle East Studies Association, the International Congress of Orientalists, and the Humanities and Social Sciences section of the Royal Society of Canada. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in January 2000 was inducted as an Officer into the Order of Canada, the highest distinction, comparable to knighthood, that his native country confers.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith was born to Victor Arnold Smith and Sarah Cory Cantwell. Arnold Cantwell Smith, his only sibling, a Canadian ambassador and former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, died in 1994. Smith is survived by his wife of sixty years, Muriel, as well as five children and ten grandchildren. The children are: Arnold (Ottawa), Julian (Appleton, Ontario), Heather (Toronto), Brian (Bloomington, Indiana and La Honda, California), and Rosemary (Montreal).