Ataul Khabir has ten years of experience with risk evaluation on the trading floor of some of the world’s biggest financial institutions. His recent career shift from investment banking to postgraduate study of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations was not made without extensive risk evaluation.
He had been looking for a university with an Islamic Studies emphasis, but the idea of doing so from a theological angle – that is, at a School of Divinity – had not yet crossed his mind. The possibility presented itself when he attended an interfaith event in London, where he met Dr Joshua Ralston, Director of the Christian-Muslim Studies Network, and co-founder Prof Mona Siddiqui.
After working in investment banking and risk strategy consulting for ten years, Mr Khabir realized that if he was ever going to pursue his interest in Christian-Muslim relations, he had reached the time to make a dramatic move. He left his career in banking and struck out for the scholarly world, and he chose Edinburgh to do it.
‘It kind of got to a point where I either go back to Uni now, or I’m never going to do it’, Mr Khabir explained.
Mr Khabir is now deeply engaged with work on Islamic law and theology, as well as their relationship to modernity and secularity. Ultimately, he intends to write on epistemology, exploring the consistency of Ashʿarī theology with their legal theory, in both the classical period and among modern scholars. His focus for his masters research, however, is on al-Ghazālī.
Strictly speaking, Mr Khabir has made significant changes to his career path several times before. Originally from Yorkshire, he received a bachelors degree in philosophy with an economics minor from University College London, followed by a masters in social anthropology from Goldsmiths, University of London. His first masters degree was initially inspired by a challenge from friends who had studied in the social sciences.
‘It was really helpful to learn the framework of a new discipline, as at times it’s so far removed from your training as a philosopher, you just don’t see the world like that’, he said.
Now, he is learning once again to see the world through the prism of many more disciplines.
‘I can have a conversation about one thing with one person specializing in Islamic law, and another who specializes in Christian theology’, he said. ‘It’s great to have access to that kind of people, and they’ve been so approachable here’.
In fact, interactions with staff and fellow students quickly allayed concerns about the dramatic shift from banking to academia. Rather than questioning why he had entered academia so late, staff and students in Edinburgh were eager to discuss options and help him refine his ideas.
‘Here, we actually found people were really willing to help you,’ he said of the student experience. ‘I think it’s been really useful going and speaking to other members of staff and simply asking how I can pursue this line of research’.
He was impressed by the diverse specialties of staff and students, which have helped him to refine his own research. As a masters student, Mr Khabir has accessed courses both within the School of Divinity and within the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department of the University of Edinburgh.
Far from concerning him, he sees the programme’s relative newness (this is only the second year that students have been admitted formally into the Christian-Muslim Studies programme) as a distinct advantage.
‘It’s like a start-up’, he said. ‘There’s a certain energy’.
Does he have any regrets about leaving the trading floor for the towers of New College?
‘I don’t really miss banking’, he said. ‘Sometimes I miss the environment and the dynamism of a trade deal, the adrenaline. Otherwise it’s nice to have the time to evaluate my decisions rather than just reacting to everything’.
The gap in studying left him feeling that he had missed ‘ten year’s worth of reading’, but it has left him more certain of the path forward.
‘I think not doing it straight after the bachelors and other masters degree meant that it was a very conscious decision, rather than just a gradual progression, especially due to the opportunity cost – this time last year I was drafting Brexit policy for the European Central Bank in Frankfurt’, Mr Khabir said.
‘There are eighty other things I could be doing, but I chose to be here’.