KARACHI - A professor of Islam known for his liberal religious views was shot dead in Karachi Thursday, officials said, two years after he was labelled an “apostate” in a text message campaign.

Prof Dr Muhammad Shakeel Auj, the 54-year-old dean of Islamic Studies at the prestigious University of Karachi was gunned down in his car within the remits of Aziz Bhatti police station. He was on his way to an Iranian cultural centre, Khana-e-Farhang, where he was invited as a guest of honour.

The attack by armed bikers came near Baitul Mukarram Mosque in Gulshan-e-Iqbal area. His car was being driven down a ramp from a flyover, when “bullets were fired, one hit the professor in the head and he died”, senior police officer Pir Muhammad Shah said.

Another bullet struck a junior colleague of Auj in the arm, wounding her. Another of his colleagues accompanying him, Prof Dr Tahir Masood, who remained unhurt, took him to the hospital where doctors pronounced Auj dead. Police said that assailants managed to flee after the attack. Police spokesman Atiq Shaikh said: “Police investigating the case are considering various aspects, including personal enmity and other possible motives.”

Karachi Police chief Ghullam Qadir Thebo formed a team to investigate the murder and announced a reward of Rs2 million for any information which may lead to arrest of the killers. The six member investigation team is headed by DIG East Munir Shaikh while SSP East Pir Muhammad Shah, SSP SIU Farooq Awan and other senior officers are also part of it.

Dr Auj was author of many books and government of Pakistan had recently announced to honour him and Prof Dr Tahir with the second highest civilian award, Hilal-e-Imtiaz. Prof Auj was known for his unorthodox views and was fighting a legal case against the originator of a widely-circulated text message that called him an apostate. Colleagues alleged his predecessor was to blame. At the time he opened the case, he told police: “It has endangered my life and on the basis of the propaganda I could be murdered.”

The professor had issued controversial fatwas (religious decrees) – pronouncing for example that a Muslim woman could marry a non-Muslim man, and that women need not remove lipstick or nail polish before saying their prayers. Such views can cause serious offence to some conservative Muslims in Pakistan, which has been battling a homegrown religious insurgency for more than ten years.

“We would tell him to be cautious as he was very aggressive in promoting his liberal views regarding the religion,” said Professor Tauseef Ahmed Khan, an old friend, and chairman of the Mass Communications department of the Federal Urdu University.

DSP Nasir Lohdi while talking to The Nation said that assailants were experts in target killing. He said the gunmen targeted the victim from back side of the car. He said Dr Auj had received threats over some controversial religious issues a couple of years ago and had registered FIR against four people of his own department.

The funeral prayer of deceased professor was offered in a mosque at the university campus and he was laid to rest in university graveyard.

University students meanwhile held a protest inside the campus, demanding the arrest of Auj’s killers. They held placards that read: “The murders of teachers is a murder of the whole society,” and “Security should be provided to the teachers.”

In a statement issued by KU revealed that Dr Auj was born in Karachi in January 1960 and he joined the university as a lecture in 2005. He supervised 21 students of MPhil and PhD and had written various books and research papers. KU Registrar announced the closure of university for three days.