Stanford University has received $9 million to endow a program and professorship in Islamic studies -- gifts that could position the school to become a powerhouse in the study of the world's second-largest faith.
The field of Islamic studies has attracted more interest, research and students since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
In the last two years, student demand for classes on Islamic religion, culture, history and languages has soared. And many universities, including Stanford, have not been able to keep pace.
Retired Oracle executive Sohaib Abbasi and his wife, Sara, hope to change that, Sohaib Abbasi said. The Atherton residents, who were born in Pakistan, donated $2.5 million to establish the Islamic studies program, Stanford announced Friday.
In addition, Stanford alumna Lysbeth Warren gave $2 million to endow a new Islamic studies professorship. Both gifts were matched by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, bringing the total to $9 million.
Abbasi said he and his wife made the gift "to ensure this becomes the premier program of Islamic studies in North America."
The money "enables Stanford to really jump-start and develop a major program," said John Esposito, founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. "You don't have anything like that between the East Coast all the way over to the West Coast."
Alan Godlas, a religion professor at the University of Georgia who runs a prominent Islamic studies Web site, said there are fewer than a dozen endowed professorships in the discipline across the United States.
In part, he said, that's because Muslims have not donated to higher education to the extent that people of other faiths have.
"Now, I think, after 9/11, American Muslims realized that unless they endow Islamic studies programs, Islamic education is going to be in the hands of people abroad who have little understanding of the importance of developing a progressive Islam," Godlas said.
An estimated 7 million of the world's more than 1 billion Muslims live in the United States, according to a Georgetown survey.
Abbasi said the Bay Area is home to one of the country's largest communities of Muslims.
Robert Gregg, a Stanford religious studies professor who will direct the new program, said the gifts from Warren and the Abbasis will secure funding for graduate students; beef up offerings in Arabic and other languages widely spoken in the Muslim world; and strengthen Stanford's library.
While Stanford is noted for its archive of modern Middle Eastern writings, Godlas said, it lags behind the University of California-Berkeley when it comes to archives of classical Arabic and Persian texts.
The program endowment also will allow Stanford to sponsor visiting scholars, conferences and lectures. Courses from a range of disciplines, including history, religion, law and anthropology, will be woven into the new program, Gregg said.
Sohaib Abbasi said he and his wife began discussions with Stanford a year ago, after a friend introduced them to Sharon Long, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.
Abbasi joined Oracle in 1982 when it was a start-up with 30 workers.
By the time he retired in March, the software giant boasted 42,000 employees and yearly revenues of $9.5 billion.
Sara Abbasi is on the executive board of Developments in Literacy, an international non-profit that has built 200 schools in Pakistan since 1997.
The couple previously endowed a computer science professorship and fellowship at the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana, Sohaib's alma mater.
The Stanford donation is the couple's largest gift to date, and both will continue to help raise money for the program.
"We both feel very privileged to be a part of this," Sohaib Abbasi said.