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My Memoirs part 17


Blog 17


A Journey to Cairo

It was 24th of October 1974, when after a visit to our Head office in Riyadh, I travelled to Zahran on the Eastern Coast of Saudi Arabia to take a flight to Cairo.

The objective was to fulfil my keen desire to register myself at Al-Azhar University, as a foreign student to pursue a doctoral degree. With two B.As (Punjab and Medina) and one M.A from Punjab University, I was well-equipped for the task ahead.

How difficult was this task, manifested in my constant struggle for the coming eighteen days. It was a hectic stay, in three star hotels for the first eight days followed by a ten days stay in a guest room in an upper storey of a building, housing the Headquarters of “Ansar as Sunnah” organisation, in an area known as Qaula Abeedin.

I was fortunate enough to be assisted by a number of people, totally unknown to me, but they extended a helping hand to me in my tiresome struggle to achieve my goal. Though, by the last day of my stay in Cairo, I got a piece of paper showing my registration number as a foreign student. However, I could not benefit from it as I was unable to meet the requirements needed for the particular study programme. Nevertheless, I am honoured to mention those kind and compassionate souls, to whom I owe much gratitude and thanks for their help and assistance, albeit brief.

I do not remember how I came to get the name of Muhammad Ali Abu Zayed, a fruiter at St. Marks Cathedral Road, who was the first one to host me. He welcomed me with open arms, deposited my briefcase in a safe place at the rear of his shop and entertained me with food and fruit. He then took me to the mosque of Ansar us Sunnah, where we prayed Maghrib and Isha. I was asked to deliver a short speech after the prayer, which I obliged. In the following days, I met my new friend many times and accompanied him to several places of interest.

Then there was Ismaeel Ahmad Salim, an official at the administration of State issues. At Tahrir Complex, Tahrir Square. He was always there to accompany me to the different offices, beginning with the Language College, Al-Azhar, to various other academic institutions like Dar ul Uloom, the Centre for Foreign Islamic Delegates, the House of the Egyptian Books, the Higher Council for Islamic Affairs, the House of Books and Arabic documents. He took me to a doctor when I was taken by fever in the second week of my stay. I visited him at his home as well. Walking beside him, I came to know many streets and places in the Capital like Mosky Road, Al-Duqqi, Tahrir Square,, Zamalik, River Nile and Al-Azhar Mosque. I took a boat journey in the Nile with him, a lift to the tower overlooking the city and a visit to the Zoo. He was also there at the airport to bid me farewell, the day I departed.

Then, there was Muhammad Zaman of the Pakistani Embassy who came out to be an old acquaintance of mine because of his previous similar role in Nairobi. I had to come a number of times to the Embassy, to either verify the certificate issued by the Punjab University, to verify my birth certificate and pursue the curriculum of the Punjab University as an equivalent to the degrees recognised by Al-Azhar. This man took me to his flat for dinner twice.

During my visit to Dar ul Uloom, I met the great writers Dr. Ahmad Shalbi twice. Once to introduce myself to him as an applicant to the doctoral degree and secondly when he was busy tutoring a student who was writing his thesis for a Masters degree. I knew Dr. Ahmad Shalbi through his book on the history and beliefs of different religions.

There were some more people of knowledge who benefitted me with their expert opinions in my field of research.

Among them I remember:

–          Dr. Abdulaziz Ghunaim, a teacher in history at the College of Linguistics in Al-Azhar.

–          Syyed Ahmad Hussein who had gone through the difficult process of registering for a Doctorate.

–          Syyed Muhammad Mahmood Shaibum, a graduate of Al-Azhar who, along with some of his colleagues, was on his way to Pakistan as a delegate to teach there in a university. He told me that at one time Sheikh Ibrahim bin Muhammad al-Sheikh (a minister of Justice later in Saudi Arabia) was among the students.

–          Syyed Ali Salim Khamis, a graduate of Cairo University who completed his P.H.D thesis in Pakistan on the subject of the Planning of the city of Islamabad. He asked me about the Urdu terms of measurement like ‘Marla’ and ‘Kanal’.

–          Dr Mustafa Ramadan, the History teacher who discussed with me the subject of Islam and the Muslims of East Africa.

–          Ahmad Muhammad Ali, a third year student at Dar ul Uloom who accompanied me to the lecture hall at Qasar al-Aini street, where we listened to a speech by Dr. Abdul Haleem, the Sheikh ul Azhar on the Islamic Rejuvenation. In this speech, he asked for the implementation of the limits of Allah like amputating the hands of a thief. He gave the example of Saudi Arabia where the crime rate is far lower because of carrying out the Hudud ullah. He was met with thunderous applause. It was a good practise there in Egypt, to start the session with the recitation of the Quran and end it in the same way.

–          Syyed Nuh, a double graduate from Al-Azhar, who was employed by the army as an Imam and preacher.

–          Syyed Abdulaziz Muhammad Abd, the head of Tablighi Jamaat in Cairo. He has been to Pakistan with the Jamaat and was keen to do his doctoral studies at Punjab University.

–          Jahangir Khatak, a teacher from Peshawar University who was delegated to Cairo at this time.

–          Ali ‘Abdul Basit, another teacher from Peshawar who was well-acquainted with Sheikh Hasan Jan, my colleague in Medinah.

–          I met on the premises of the Directorate of foreign Islamic delegates brother Iqbal Azami who was on his way to Ivory Coast, as a delegate of the Darul Ifta of Saudi Arabia. With him was Muhammad Nur Nadawi as well. Later we went to meet Syyed Khali Kamal, another delegate to Ghana at his hotel.

Now a brief discussion about the subjects of my intended research for a P.H.D degree. I presented two titles for my paper to the College Head of Linguistics:

1)      ‘The Political Trends of the Rightly-guided Caliphate (Khilafa-tu-Ar-Rashidun)’

2)      ‘Islam and the Muslims in East Africa’

I have to admit that I was quite naïve in presenting my suggestions without presenting even an abstract for each of these two titles.

And then I do not remember why I started pursuing to find out a manuscript of “Gharib-ul-Hadith” by Al-Khattabi”. Was it due to a change of mind for the title of my paper? Or was it a desire to acquire a copy of an unpublished work?

First I had to visit the ‘House of Books and the National Documents’, near Al-Zamalik Bridge to trace the manuscript.

The keeper could not find this work under the number is given in the catalogue.

I was then told by an expert to visit ‘The House of the Egyptian Books’ (Dar-ul-Kutub al-Misriya’ at Luqa Street, somewhere near the Tahrir Square. So I took a bus back to the place which I had visited previously as well. There at Khalq Gate (Bab-ul-Khalq) I approached the place, just to find out the correct number of manuscript.

They had two catalogues by the names of ‘Al-Tal’at and Taimur Pasha’. It was No. 25821 L at the first one and No. 79 (language) for the latter one. It was around 12:30, So I had to rush back to the premises of Dar-ul-Kutub wal  Al-Wassaiq Al-Arabia before they close their gates.

I was there by 13:15 and the man was able to trace both copies for me. One of them was good for reading and the other was partly torn and poorly written. Here ends the story of my endeavour to register for a doctoral degree.

Let me, in the end, record a few more events during my stay in Cairo.

1)      I was invited to deliver a lecture in the Headquarters of Ansar-us-Sunnah on the subject of ‘Qadianiya’, a subject not known much by the Arabs in general. There I met Dr. Jamil Ghazi as well. I had listened to his explanation of Surah Al-Fatiha a day or two earlier. A Sudanese brother commented after my lecture, and gave a short account of  ‘Bahaia’ in Sudan.

2)      Once I had to take a trolley bus to reach the house of brother Isma’il Salim. It was one of the most dreadful experiences of my life. The buses were always crowded, especially during the rush hours. People would flock to the doors of a bus in swarms. The people would storm inside, but still there would be a host of them clinging on to the steel handles of the door. I was one of them and unfortunately the last one at the back, along with a number of others holding on to the same handles. There was no concept of the doors being shut by the drivers. As soon as the trolley moved, we were all hanging outwardly. Since I was the last among them, I took the brunt of their weight on my body. The bus was speeding and I was trying my best to not lose my grip on the handle. However, with each jerking motion of a moving vehicle, the load of people in front of me started pressing on me a lot. It seemed that I was about to lose my hold on the handle and fall on the road to an unknown destiny. But! Thanks to Allah! Just as I was about to slip, the bus stopped at the next station. Yes! I was saved. Alhamdulillah. Are angels not meant to protect you until that moment which is destined for you to meet the Lord!

3)      I prayed Jum’ah once in one of the mosques of Ansar-us-Sunnah at Masjid Al-Nur. Imam was an eloquent speaker but I was surprised to hear him supplicating (Du’a) after Raku’ loudly. Moreover, he shortened the recitation by reading Surah Al-Asr and Surah Al=Ikhlas in the two Raka’a of the Jum’ah prayer.

4)      Among the few things I managed to buy were some books like Muqadimah Ibn Khladun and a set of the recitation of the whole Quran by Sheikh Abdul Basit, in more than one hundred tapes.

5)      I was amazed by the Egyptians’ fondness of eating Ful Mudammas (crushed beans) a lot. Once I asked for an omelette for breakfast in a public restaurant, the waiter brought me a plate of Ful. I was about to shout at him but I discovered that an omelette was hidden under the Ful!

6)      Though, as an inhabitant of Africa, I was in no need to visit the zoo in Cairo, but my host Ismaeel took me to it. Among the new animals, there were Kangaroos of Australia, a bear from South America and some sea-horses bigger than what I witnessed in Narirobi.

It was the morning of Sunday 10th November, when I had to leave Cairo to catch a flight to Jeddah. I said farewell to the caretaker of my residence at Ansar-us-Sunnah’s centre. He was a kind good-hearted man. His family, including his wife and his younger daughter served me with tea, washed my clothes, provided me with hot water for a bath, etc. Once, the younger daughter, while she was serving tea to me said: “Will you marry my sister?”. I was bewildered, but I had to tell her that I was a married man with four children (at the time).

Two days later, after performing ‘Umrah at Makkah and bidding farewell to my elder brother in Jeddah, I was on my way to Nairobi via PIA (Pakistan International Airlines)

It is a pity that I had no record of any further event in 1975 apart from the blessing of Allah, my fifth child, my daughter Hafsa who was born in October of this year.

I recall three more journeys full of adventure and exploration. I don’t remember which years they took place. As we are approaching the end of my stay in Nairobi, I should mention a brief explanation of them.

A daytrip to Lake Magadi

I heard about this place as a lake of salty water good for people with skin problems, about 72 miles from Nairobi. One afternoon we sat on this journey towards Kenya’s borders with Tanzania. Up until Athi River on Mombasa road, we had to drive on the highway, but as soon as we left the main road, a muddy road with all its bumps, stones and ups and downs were waiting for us. Being very near to Amboseli Natural Reserve, we could see the wild life in all its abundance.

The way was deserted and the lake appeared to be a wilderness except for the presence of flamingos. There was a small town of Magadi before we came across the lake. The very limited population of this town must have survived because of the Magadi Soda Ash Company. The lake itself constitutes a part of Rift Valley and was governed by the nearby Kajiado district.

The ghostly appearance of the lake did not encourage us to stay there long. We had a good view of the murky waters, a taste of delicious packed lunch and then we turned back on our way to Nairobi. Eighty percent of these waters comprised of Soda and it stretched across an area covering one hundred square kilometres.

On our way back, evening shadows prompted us to speed on the dirt road. It was an area of the Masai African tribe, which out of all Kenyan tribes, preserve their traditional style of life, especially in their attire. At one point, we were surrounded by a group of them who were out there looking through the glasses of the car’s window to this Asian family. I had no other way to escape except for honking loudly. They quickly dispersed and I swiftly drove with clouds of dust behind me.

We breathed a sigh of relief once we approached the highway and got back home all safe and sound.

A nightmare on our way to Machakos

In those days, Machakos was a small town though it was established long before Nairobi, at a distance of 41 miles from the capital amidst the homeland of the Kamba tribe. To reach Machakos, you have to leave the highway (towards Mombasa) at Athi river, and travel ten miles further through the jungle.

I used to visit it a lot because of my two older colleagues Syed Fatahuddin Tangal and Muhammad Ibrahim Arkokonail. I never knew that there had been an exit from there, which you could lead you to the Mombasa highway. I later discovered it accidentally in one of my journeys.

Once I was driving back from Mombasa (a distance of 332 kilometres) towards Nairobi. We left the coastal town by the setting of the sun and kept on driving until midnight. I thought of taking a break, before continuing with the remaining part of the journey, which was no more than fifty miles. On a moonlit night, I saw a small road sign pointing towards Machakos. Indeed, that was the other exit which I had no idea about.

The sign was a breath of fresh air. Why not go to Machakos and spend the night at our friend’s house? Without any hesitation, I turned the car down this dirt road, which I hadn’t known of previously. The road was surrounded on both sides with bushes tall and thick. We could see the wild life, especially giraffes, which could be seen because of their necks, which were higher than the bushes.

However, in the glimmering light of my car, I could see an African woman on the side of the road, wearing her tribal attire and waving to the car. Why on earth, at midnight amidst a thick jungle, would a single woman be asking for a lift?

Sudden thoughts came to mind. It is unusual. It might be a trap. I should not yield to her request. So I kept on driving forward. Indeed, the woman was part of a trap. We could see a number of Kamba men and women hidden behind the bushes, but their spears, high in the air, were revealing their presence.

They wanted us to stop, on the pretext of giving a lift to the woman. Allah knows better of what could have happened to us in such a deserted and forlorn place. However, the matter was not yet over. After a while, I could see a narrow bridge on a rivulet, wide enough for a car to pass through. There was another group of Kamba men and women with spears in their hands who filled the narrow pathway on the bridge. There was no escape for me; my only option was to go headlong. So, I honked and kept on honking as I drove forward, and dashed through them towards Machakos. Of course, they cornered themselves when they saw the car at a high speed heading towards them. Once I crossed the bridge, I could not see any more of them. The road itself entered into a mountainous area where you had to drive very carefully on the edge of the hills and cliffs. It took us to the sleeping town of Machakos with a few dim lights here and there.

My friend Syyed Fatahuddin could not believe his eyes when he saw us at his door at this odd time. Thanks to Allah! We were safe and sound. Nonetheless, I shudder and am left startled whenever I remember this nightmare.

I will never do it again. That was my promise to my wife and small children, who witnessed these dreadful moments, that night on our way to Machakos.

Road to Darussalam:

This was the longest journey which I had taken during my stay in East Africa. A journey covering two lands: Kenya and Tanzania. This journey took us to Tsavo, Malindi, Mombasa, Darussalam and then back to Nairobi via Moshi and Arusha; a journey of a thousand miles or more.

On our way to Mombasa, we left the main highway at Tsavo, turning north, deep into the East wing of Tsavo Safari Park. A previous journey was in the West where I happened to overturn my car. This time I was well-equipped: I had a detailed road map of East Africa, a membership of AA and a car with dependable tyres and engine. Since we left Tsavo, we travelled on an unpaved, bumpy dirt road. Along the way to Malindi, we could see the wild game, a less thick jungle, a glimpse of Tana River, which flowed through the Garissa towards the Indian Ocean. We passed by waterfalls, crossed a number of rivulets and hit many potholes, stray stones and mounds of solid clay. Thanks to Allah, not a single tyre was punctured, nor any accident occur.

Eventually we ended up at Malindi (Kalifi  District) from where we could drive smoothly on the tarmac. We were on the road along the East Coast, which would take us all the way to Darussalam via Mombasa.

We passed by the Ruins of Gedi, a remnant of 13th century Muslim settlement. Among them were a mosque, some houses and a well-built drainage system. Mombasa, 80 miles away from Malindi, had been a popular destination for us a number of times. In our previous visits, we had been to Fort Jesus, a legacy of Portuguese rule which was sparked by the visit of Vosco de Gama in 1498. Long before him, it had been visited Ibn Batuta, who spoke about a Muslim sultan, his subjects, followers of the Shafi’i  madhab.

Rulers kept on changing hands; there was the Arab sultanate, followed by the Portuguese in 1502, then the Omani emirates, ending up in English colonial rule until independence in 1963. Mombasa had been a prominent seaport with flourishing trade with India, China and being en-route to Southern Africa.

During the British rule and with Indian labour, the project to link the coast with Kampala (Uganda) started in 1896.

Mombasa is well-known with its beaches, safari lodges and hospitality, but it is mostly visited by European and Western tourists who fill the coast with their unique culture totally alien to us. We normally used to have a glimpse of the sea, from a height or from the windows of our car. We left Mombasa, enjoying a cool breeze, one sunny morning on our way to Darussalam, 330 miles further away towards the south. We drove on a single highway along the coast, then entered into Tanzania on a road with mango trees on both sides.

I had no acquaintances in Darussalam, except for Master Muhammad Hussein, who reminded me of my school days in Sialkot where he used to be a deputy to the headmaster. He was the one who facilitated our entry (myself and my elder brother Shuaib) to the Muslim Modern High School. As a member of Jamaat Islami, he used to be a good friend of my late father in the mid-50s of the last century. He was expecting us and by the time we reached the capital, he and his wife had prepared a nice meal for us. He also arranged for us a temporary residence at an adjacent empty house.

It was my wish to visit the famous island of Zanzibar, but the limited time at my disposal did not allow me to embark on another journey. Darussalam itself was a product of the Sultan of Zanzibar, Majid bin Saeed in 1865. After the First World War, the British East African company took hold of the city which used to be a part of Tanganyika at the time, from the Germans who occupied it for a while. The country gained independence in December 1961 and later in 1973, after an expulsion of the Sultan of Zanzibar, the island joined the main land with a new name: Tanzania. The Muslim rule in both islands (Zanzibar and Pemba) was known to have introduced the Swahili language, a flourishing trade in cloves and spices and slaves for a while as well.

Our stay in Darussalam was short. Very soon, we were on the final leg of our journey, back to Nairobi at a distance of 410 miles. During that long journey, we passed by Moshi, the town at the foot of Africa’s highest mountain; Mount Kilimanjaro, with its snow-capped summit of 19,341 feet. It was a great sight to see, with clouds hanging below the top of the mountain. We saw a similar sight in Kenya as well. We saw the summit of Mount Kenya, ninety miles away from Nairobi and around ten miles south of the Equator.

After staying a night in Moshi, we continued with our own journey. At a further 43 miles away, we passed through Arusha which provided us with a sight of another mountain, Mount Meru, with a height of 14,960 feet.

Passing along the edge of the Serengeti National Park, a vast area of wild life, spread on Masai land and shared by both countries, we finally entered into Kenya. And this is how I was able to acquire first-hand knowledge of all three East African states: Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.


I am not able to provide readers with enough information about the Islam and Muslims of Tanzania because of my short stay, but fortunately I came across an article entitled, ‘A Journey to Tanzania” by Dr. Salih Mahdi al-Samarrai in Arabic. He is a close friend of mine, one of my early teachers of Arabic from my days in Lyallpur (Pakistan) who happened to visit the country in the middle of August 1981 as a member of a delegation led by Sheikh Abdullah Al-Za’id, the then president of the Islamic University of Madinah, Saudi Arabia. It was very close to my visit in the mid-seventies. Therefore, I’d like to give a summary of his accounts of their findings about the Muslims in Tanzania. A short summary of the report by Dr. Al-Samarrai.

Article by Dr. Salih Mahdi Al-Samarrai:

Tanzania is a country with an area of more than a million square metres and a population of which 85 percent are Muslims. The capital Darussalam itself has a population of half a million, ninety percent of which are Muslims. We reached Darussalam on 17th of August 1981 and stated our visit by meeting Sheikh Humaid bin Jum’a, the head of The Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs and his deputy, Muhammad Ali Humaid, an official body to look after the mosques, Imams, and all Islamic schools. We found with them an ambitious programme to rejuvenate the conditions of the Muslims in the entire country. Later, we visited the Centre of Al-Haramain Al-Islami, headed by Abbas Maqbul, a graduate of the Islamic University of Madinah, then a Muslim Secondary School with 133 students. In the evening, we paid a visit to Ubaid Jumi, the Deputy President of Tanzania.

He told us that he had met some Tanzanian students during Hajj and hoped that they would serve in the field of Da’wa after they concluded their studies. He said that the country had 25 districts and if we get one graduate for each district, that would be a great favour shown to us. He spoke about their need for more copies of Mushaf for the benefit of the public at large. He also pointed out a dire need for the people to learn the Arabic script because Kiswahili, the lingua franca of East Africa used to be written in Arabic script until it was changed to Latin letters by the Western colonial powers.

The following day we flew in a small plane to the island of Zanzibar. The flight lasted only 15 minutes. We were welcomed by the minister for education. Zanzibar is predominantly a Muslim land with around 108 Masajid out of which, eight are located for Jummah prayer. The time followed by the people is known to be sunset-time, i.e the new date starts at 12.

Among the places we visited were the teachers training institute, a Masjid built on Indian architecture, then the Masjid of the Hadramout people, which is looked after by Sheikh Umar, who served before the communist revolution, as Zanzibar’s ambassador for Britain. We also visited the vast plantations of clove, coconuts, kakas and bananas.

Wherever we prayed, the people flocked to shake hands with us after the prayer. On our third day, we visited a Secondary Islamic School, and took a glance of a huge castle built by the Portuguese. In the late afternoon, we flew to Arusha, a town very near to Kilimanjaro. Arusha had been a seat for Christian missionaries and with the constant struggle, they were able to turn this town into a predominantly Christian place. After arriving at a rest house, we enjoyed a good three-hour stroll in a Safari Park where the beasts and all sorts of animals roamed in their natural environment. However, the visitors had to remain in their vehicles.

On Friday, before Jummah prayer, we were given a welcome reception by the Commissioner of Arusha who received us with open arms and emphasised in his speech about the cordial relations between the Christians and Muslims.

After the prayer, we visited a number of places including Al-Zahra Madrasa. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed gave a good amount of assistance to a number of projects during the visit. We could compare Arusha with one of the outer locations of Damascus heading towards Beirut. On our return journey to Darussalam, we passed by Mount Kilimanjaro which must have witnessed the early bearers of the torch of Islam, a light which spread like wildfire throughout Africa. Later, it had always been competed by the so-called followers of Jesus who wanted to replace it by a way of hypocrisy: The Bible in one hand and a strong grip on the land by the other.

Back in Darussalam, I felt peace and tranquillity next to what I always felt in Makkah, Madinah and Jerusalem. A town, peaceful and quiet, like its name, situated at the edge of the Indian Ocean where the water itself was calm and soothing. It was abounding with natural beauty along with all the signs of a natural path of Allah. It was really a city of Islam.

That is why we hear now about the intention of the authorities to move the capital somewhere in the middle of the country, where a new town devoid of Islamic structure could be created.

Once again, we were hosted by our friends whose ancestors migrated centuries ago from Hadramout. I always enjoyed their hospitality whenever I visited them, in Kotabharu (Malaysia), Jakarta (Indonesia), the Reunion Islands in the Indian Ocean, or in England and now in Tanzania. They migrated to all these places for trade and good livelihood, but they lived like Muslims, established the houses of Allah and invited the local inhabitants to the Deen of Islam.

We were shown a vast land and were told that this piece of land had been allocated by the municipality for the use of different faiths. All of them, except the Muslims, had built in the plot located for them a Church, a temple, a school and a hospital. There was not even a boundary wall around the place for the Muslims, due to a lack of funds. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed offered a cheque for twenty thousand dollars to let them preserve this land by constructing a boundary wall around it.

Does it not show that the Muslims, instead of blaming others for all their shortcomings, should think of what good they could do for the benefit of their own brothers? We do not want them to compete with the Christians in raising lofty buildings of churches and cathedrals. No that is not what is required. They should be practical. Even a simple and modest building, as long as it is full with activities would serve their purpose.

One evening we visited the University of Darussalam and met the Students’ Union Muslim members who told us that there were around 350 Muslim students out of a total 2000 students. It was because the Christians used to have 42 Secondary Schools in the town with well-equipped staff and Laboratories whereas there were no more than four Secondary Schools for the Muslims.

The Union itself was in need for assistance to improve its office and expand its activities. The delegation returned to Madinah on 20th August 1981 with a hope to achieve a substantial help for the Muslims of Tanzania in the coming days.

About Me

Sheikh Suhaib Hasan Abdul Ghaffar is the Secretary of the Islamic Sharia Council of Great Britain.

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