By Susan DeGrane
In 1969, Mir Masoom Ali, now the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Statistics and professor emeritus of mathematical sciences, arrived as the only passenger on a 10-seater plane from Chicago to Muncie. After surveying the landscape of cornfields, his first thought was to call his wife. “I told her, ‘I’m coming back as soon as possible. There’s nothing here.’”
Contrary to his words, he did not return to Toronto, where he received his PhD and where Firoza (Leena) Ali and their young children were still living. Nor did he return to Bangladesh, where he was born in 1937.
Instead, he stayed in Muncie for 44 years, making an indelible mark on the community, both academically and culturally.
At Ball State, he established the statistics programs for undergraduates (later called Applied Mathematics) and the graduate statistics program. His legacy continues with the establishment by his children of the Dr. Mir Masoom Ali Scholarship, awarded annually to two graduate students studying statistics.
He also co-founded the Midwest Biopharmaceutical Statistics Workshop, held annually since 1978, and the North America Bangladesh Statistical Association. A keynote speaker at statistical meetings around the world, he continues to be an active scholar, having published dozens of papers in top statistical journals. Before retiring in 2007, Ali prepared hundreds of men and women who became professors as well as statisticians working for the government, private industry, in fields of finance, public health, science, risk management, marketing, public policy, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and more.
Recognized internationally, Ali also won Ball State awards for both Outstanding Researcher and Outstanding Faculty and was given the 2002 Sagamore of the Wabash Award, the highest honor given by the governor of Indiana, for his contributions to Ball State, to higher education in the state of Indiana, and to the field of statistics.
A place to join
But there is more to Ali than his professional life. A devout Muslim, he played a key role in establishing the Islamic Center of Muncie.
“My goal was to make my children familiar with the Islamic practices of their parents and grandparents so they would know where we came from,” said Ali, who spoke from his Carmel, Indiana, home where he and Leena have lived since 2013. “I wanted a place for them to join together with others to pray or for fasting or celebrating.”
His effort to bring Muslims together in religious community served as inspiration for “Muslims in Muncie.” Comprised of 22 oral histories and culminating in an hour-long documentary film, the immersive learning project was created by 11 Ball State undergraduate students through the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry.
The project’s faculty leader, Elizabeth Agnew, worked with Ali and the Islamic Center board to enlist participation of leaders of Muncie’s Muslim community.
“Mir Ali provided the scaffolding for the documentary which ended up conveying a much larger world view,” said Agnew, associate professor of religious studies and director of Women’s and Gender Studies.
Without his help, it would have been very difficult to take on this project. We wanted it to be a community narrative that covered the arc of many individuals’ lives.—Elizabeth Agnew
The oral history received the 2020 Alice Smith Prize in Public History from the Midwestern History Association, the 2019 Award for Oral History in a Non-Print Format from the Oral History Association, and the 2019 Faculty Immersive Learning Award for leadership of a Virginia B. Ball Center seminar.
Now accessible online in the University Libraries Digital Media Repository, the resulting interviews and hour-long documentary received hundreds of hits within months of being posted.
“Clearly this historical information is being accessed by Ball State students and faculty and by others around the world,” said Agnew.
An immersive experience
In 2016, Agnew asked Ali to write an account of the early history of the Islamic Center of Muncie. In it, he recalled what began in 1970 as a prayer and meeting room for Ball State’s Muslim international students. As Muslims from the Muncie community joined in, the mosque branched off with worship services and gatherings in a rented apartment. It then moved to a church property, and finally to its present location with considerable acreage situated in north Muncie.
The student group, which came to be affiliated with the Muslim Students Association in the late 1970s, is still going strong, while the Islamic Center has become a community hub for about 80 Muslims of diverse cultural heritage living in the area.
For the participation it garnered to make the documentary, the Islamic Center received the 2019 Ball State University Community Partner Award. That participation involved welcoming immersive students to mosque services and gatherings and granting interviews with mosque members who hailed from 12 nations, among them Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan as well as from Muncie and neighboring communities.
Among the diverse group of students who worked on the project was Kyle Orr, ’19. A religious studies major, Orr said when the project was completed, “As an evangelical Christian in Midwestern America, I have little exposure to people who are ethnically and religiously different from me. This experience has given me the opportunity to change that, and I am grateful for it.”
Bridging cultural divides
While Ali speaks with satisfaction at the “Muslims in Muncie” project and his many professional achievements, a tender side of his personality is revealed when he talks about his long marriage to Leena Ali.
“When I first met my wife, I saw this beautiful girl. I fell in love. I was 22 and she was 16, but also from an educated family much like me. I knew we would make a good match. I met her on June 2, 1959. By June 25, we were married.”
Coming from a culture of arranged marriages, he admits, “It was an impetuous thing to do, but we’ve been together now 61 years.” He also credits Leena, ’80 MS ’82, a practicing behavioral psychologist, for their longevity as a couple and for the success of their four children.
Mir and Leena have welcomed hundreds into their home and their lives. Leena served as president of the University Wives and Women Club, organizing activities for couples and singles affiliated with Ball State.
Among those who have appreciated the couple’s hospitality are Saber and Bibi Bahrami. Saber came to America as a refugee, having been jailed by the Russians when they invaded Afghanistan. Now a family physician affiliated with IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital, he has served as president of the Islamic Center, and Bibi Bahrami now heads the mosque.
“Dr. Ali and his wife were the first family to invite us into their home,” Saber said. “That was in 1986, when Bibi was straight from Afghanistan and didn’t know a word of English.”
“Muslims in Muncie” conveys the closeness of those who formed the mosque, as well as a successful bridging of cultural divides by many who came later. Those interviewed included Muslims who hailed from America and all over the world.
The depth of their testimonies results from the student-filmmakers devoting an entire semester of study to the endeavor as Virginia B. Ball Seminar participants, said Agnew. “Much of the quality of the content had to do with time the students were able to invest.”
A deeper appreciation
Besides expressing their sense of belonging to the mosque community, interviewees divulged traumas still reverberating from historic events like 9/11. One woman told of having her hijab torn off while shopping for groceries with her children. A female nurse shared how a patient, fearing ill will, refused treatment from her.
At the same time, interviewees expressed deep appreciation for support shown by neighbors who rallied to protect the mosque around the time of the destruction of the World Trade Center.
The weight of such compelling oral histories was not lost on philosophy and religious studies major Benjamin McIntosh, ’18, and public history major Allison Hunt, ’20, who created the storyboard for the documentary with three others.
“One of the most challenging things was with 40-plus hours of interviews, pulling specific quotes that would tell the story,” said McIntosh, who interviewed Ali.
The immersive learning experience caused McIntosh to decide to continue his education, focusing on public history or journalism. Hunt said the project reinforced her education plans to focus on oral history as a tool for public historians.
For interviewing Ali, who had shown love to so many, the students traveled to his Carmel home. “Through this project,” said Hunt, “I was able to learn so much about the history and diversity of Muncie, my hometown.”
Alumni Benefitted From a Professor Who Deeply Cared
According to his former students, Dr. Mir Masoom Ali had a profound influence as a Ball State professor.
Those include Doo Young Kim, MA ’07, who arrived in Muncie from South Korea. “I was able to write but not speak English,” he said, adding that he improved his language skills by studying Dr. Ali’s writings and listening to his lectures. “These were impeccable,” said Kim, who served as a teaching assistant.
Notes taken in Ali’s classes now serve as Kim’s “bible” for teaching statistics at Sam Houston University in Texas. “Dr. Ali was always taking care of all the students, thinking of their futures,” Kim said. “He helped many students with their careers. He took an interest beyond the classroom.” Kim still seeks advice from Ali and has even referred some of his students.
Mohammed Rahimuddin Chowdhury, MA ’08, served as Ali’s last graduate assistant. Now an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, he applies his mentor’s approach. “He’s my role model, my inspiration, my professor, my guardian,” Chowdhury said.
Also thanks to Ali, J. Adam Wright, MA ’07, taught mathematics and statistics for two years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and later served as a branch chief for the U.S. military in Iraq, overseeing analysts in human resources. A retired major, he now serves as digital strategy manager for Accenture Applied Intelligence in Indianapolis.
“With Dr. Ali’s help, and the village it took to help me get my degree, I was well-prepared,” said Wright. “I certainly think there’s a humanity to him. He always made himself available to everyone. You have to care about people to teach, and he was certainly a great role model.”