My Memoirs part 11-13
It was our first flight to a land unknown, to a people unfamiliar with, and to a destiny already ordained by Allah. Approaching Nairobi, the city in the sun as described by its residents, the landscape under us from beneath a descending aircraft besides the airport appeared to be amazing with lush green fields where wildlife could be detected easily.
We were received by an English immigration officer who became curious once he saw our passports without any visas stamped upon them. Because there had been no Kenyan embassy in Jeddah, we carried with us a paper confirming our delegation to a religious Madrasa by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He allowed us to contact our host in Nairobi, Hasan Jaizan by name to stand as our guarantor. He has to provide a certain amount of money to secure our safe entry into Kenya. Speedily he drove back to his father’s place of business Hadramaut Hotel, and swiftly he returned with a bundle of shillings notes for the satisfaction of the officer. We safely made our way to his father’s residence in Eastleigh. Hasan and his father Salim Jaizan were among those noble and compassionate souls I have come across in my life.
We were allocated to a small room in an ‘L’ shape on a one floor building. The courtyard facing our door had a number of bedrooms on the right ending besides a bathroom, a lavatory and a kitchen. Such a house could accommodate more than one family. That house was enough for him, his married son and a number of other children.
Kenya had many early Arab immigrants, mostly from Yemen and Hadramaut and mainly on the coastal belt with Mombasa in the centre. Nairobi and areas further west enjoyed pockets of Arab presence. Salim Jaizan was one of them.
One month later we moved to a similar house with two rooms at our disposal and by sharing all other amenities with the landlord, an emigrant from Punjab, Pakistan. It was not a pleasant experience for a person like me who had never previously witnessed such a shared accommodation. Soon we had to leave it to a welcoming friend’s small back room where we had our first taste of living in an African town. Windows in each and every house used to be totally sealed by a net of iron bars. Doors could only be opened towards the interior in order to allow the air to pass and the daylight to enter.
This was a temporary residence offered to us by our friend Bashir Ahmad until we could find a suitable place for us. That was our first night in a single-bed room. There was not enough room for our extra clothes except to remain hanging on a railing fixed between two walls just under the ceiling.
We had left the window open from inside not realizing that the net with iron bar had a big hole at the top because of a missing bar. Tired and fatigued, we had a sound sleep at night, only to discover at Fajr time that all our clothes had disappeared. A skillful thief must have dragged them one after the other, by a rod with a small hook at its end.
The area was known as Pangani, mostly populated by Asians as a remnant of the colonial days when the best and posh parts of Nairobi were populated by the whites, then areas like Eastleigh and Pangani by Asians and some neglected areas with mud houses by the africans. Among which was the place of my job, Mungano Riyadaha Madrasa Islamia in Pumwani , better known as Majengo.
Eventually we found a two room separate accommodation in the first floor of a detached house owned by another immigrant from Punjab. And before I continue elaborating on my wanderings from one house to the other, let me speak about another bitter experience of my life, right at the start of my career as an activist in the field of Da’wa.
A fresh arrival of a ‘Maulavi’ from Madinah had been a welcoming news for the Asian community in that part of Nairobi. Two trustees from a mosque in Eastleigh approach me and invited me to lead Jum’a prayer in their mosque.
Welcoming this invitation, I attended the first Jum’a of my life as an Imam. Later I came to know that Sheikh Abdulrahman Tarapuri was their regular imam. Once the prayer was over, the chairman thanked me for my sermon and asked me to wear a turban and hold a staff in my hand at the time of the delivery of the Khutba. Very humbly I said to him thatI I had no issue in holding a staff but I will rather stick to my cap as I had never practised tying a turban around my head.
Let me clarify this issue before I proceed further, is it Sunnah for the Khateeb to hold a staff and wear a turban?
As for the staff, the Prophet ﷺ used to hold the staff in his right hand while delivering the sermon until a wooden pulpit with three steps was made for him. So he abandoned this practice. He used to wear a black turban a lot but he had led the prayer with a cap on his head without wrapping a turban around it. So it is treated as a ‘Adah’ (custom) rather than a sunnah to be followed necessarily.
A second time, I delivered my sermon with a staff in my hand. Before the third Jum’a I was approached by someone to attend a gathering at a home which was held on a third day after the death of someone in that area. This practise is known amongst punjabi muslims as ‘Teeja’ (the thirdly) when the relatives and friends of a deceased person assemble at his house, each person holds a Juz (one part amongst the 30 parts of the Quran) and finishes reading it from the beginning, till the end.
Then comes the turn of the ‘Maulavi’ to transfer the reward of that recitation to the deceased person. The assembly enjoys a feast as well. For me, it was a first sight of this innovative practice. I did not mind reading the Quran with readers in a big circle, but I was shocked and bewildered by the sight of a number of food items which were brought in plates, only to be placed in front of me.
I was shocked and bewildered as I did not know why the food is just offered to me leaving all aside. Was it all for me to consume? “No. It can’t be.” I said to myself.
“They want me to bless this food along with carrying out the ritual of transferring the reward of the recitation to the deceased.” I thought at the end.
Being aware of the situation, I pointed to them to remove the food and then made a short speech quoting this saying of the Prophet ﷺ “When a son of Adam dies, all his actions come to an end except for three: a continuous charity (after his death), knowledge which is beneficial and a pious son who keeps on supplicating for him,”
These are the things which had been initiated by him in his life-time and they are the ones which are going to benefit him after his death. As for the actions of other people like daily prayers, recitation of the Quran, they cannot benefit him simply because he did not initiate them.
The Quran is very clear about this, does it not say:
وَأَن لَّيۡسَ لِلۡإِنسَـٰنِ إِلَّا مَا سَعَىٰ
“And the man does not have except that what he did by himself.”
(Surah An-Najm 53:39)
Only in two cases of an act of worship can a living soul be deputised from a dead one and award him as mentioned by the Prophet ﷺ himself
(i) Someone who has vowed to fast and then died before fasting the prescribed days.
(ii)Someone who was able to do Hajj but delayed it until he became severely ill or too old to do it.
In addition to that, an act of Sadaqa or financial help on behalf of a dead person will benefit him as well because the beneficiaries would always be there to supplicate for that person who became a source for their help at the time of their needs (in this life)..
That was the jist of my speech that day and let me reiterate that this is the understanding of Imam Shaf’i on this is issue which I still hold and propagate. If the opposite opinion is to be accepted a door would be open to the non-praying rich person to simply employ a host of the people to pray on their behalf after they pass away. And what an easy way to ‘enter’ Paradise (!)
I came back to my house only to know later that people in Nairobi have been informed by phone that the new Maulavi was none but a Wahhabi. Soon I was approached by one of them inviting me to attend a meeting at the house of one of my neighbours in Pangani, a contractor by profession. I was there in time to face a host of them who wanted to know about my faith. My reply to being a Muslim adherent to the Book and the Sunnah did not convince them a lot. So they came back to ask specific questions.
“What do you say about Isma’il Shaheed of India?”
“He was a great Imam.” I answered, “A great scholar who joined the Jihad movement with Syyed Ahmad Shaheed of Braili, India.”
“But he insulted the Prophet ﷺ as he wrote such and such things in his books.” They said.
I knew what they meant, his writings in ‘Sirat-e-Mustaqeem’ and ‘Taqwiat-ul-Iman’ had been grossly misinterpreted because he wrote vehemently against Bid’a (innovative practices) prevalent in the nineteenth century which were of course, not liked by the followers of Bid’a.
When they kept on slandering him with their venomous words, I could not resist saying to them in a stern tone:
“Are you speaking ill of a person who shed his blood in 1831 at Balakot (Northern Pakistan) fighting the Sikhs? How dare you slander him while you people are not equal to the dust stuck to his shoes as he was a martyr in the way of Allah!”
As soon as I finished my remarks, they shouted:
“Now we know who you are! So do not come anymore to our mosque for Jum’a.”
So that was the beginning of my encounter with the people of ignorance, deviation and innovation. It lasted for the rest of my stay in Nairobi for the coming nine years which, in the end prompted me to move away from Kenya.
As one gate was shut in my face but a greater or more wider was opened straight away. The chairman of the Jami’ Masjid (the main and the oldest mosque in the city) asked me to address the gathering on Fridays before the ceremonial sermon given by Sheikh Mawlid Jashu, the Swahili Imam.
Soon I found the gates of Landhi mosque opened for me to deliver the Friday sermon itself. The invitation came from the two elderly brothers, Ismail and Yaqub, who use to manage the Mosque’s affairs. I became their regular Khateeb for the rest of my stay in Nairobi until my departure in 1976.
Mungano Madrasa Riyada Islamia:
This was the name of the Madrasa to which I had been posted as a teacher by Dar-ul-Ifta of Saudi Arabia. And before I had a visit of this site of preliminary teaching of Arabic and Islam, I was welcomed by an Asian businessman who was the head of the trust looking after the institution. He took me to the side of the site of his glass factory.
I was in the back seat of the car while his young English wife was sitting next to him in the passenger seat with an English attire: a shirt and a mini-skirt.
Though after being introduced to his old mother, we had developed a very cordial relationship with his family, especially his younger brother. Our visits confined to his mother’s house. I do not recall any more of a personal affiliation with him and his wife.
The Madrasa was located in one of the most deprived areas of the African population known as Majengo. Its real name ‘Pumwani’ was hardly heard or quoted. The whole locality consisted of Mud houses for dwelling. The only buildings with brick-work were that of the Mosque and the Madrasa, a hall for public meetings and the post office.
There was an ‘L’ shaped building accommodating an office and three classrooms behind the Mosque itself. I was introduced to Muallim Saeed Uthman, the secretary and another African elderly person, the Chair of the Madrasa committee. It seems that the Mosque management, the Imam and those in-charge of its affairs had anything to do with the Madrasa. I myself remained a stranger to them throughout my stay in Nairobi.
In my first visit, I found a lady teaching children. There was Syyed Shariff, of Arab origin, Hadhramaut of Southern Arabia and Muallim Solaiman of Swahili origin.
I had to pick the older boys and start teaching them Arabic from the beginning. The classes used to last only two hours in the evening, just after the state schools came to a close. For me it was not enough. I had to find ways to expand the classes in order to accommodate the elder students who could read books in Tafsir, Hadith and Fiqh as well. Would it not be a good idea to pay a visit to Mombasa, the famous coastal town and the hub for Swahili Muslims? Moreover, it would be a good opportunity to meet my colleague Ibrahim Khalil who had also been posted at Madrasa-tul-Falah, an old seat of knowledge. With this idea we set for that city which was around 300 miles away from the capital.
A Journey to Mombasa:
A coach in the morning and another in the evening; this is how they used to run by a wealthy Asian businessman. We took the morning coach. As soon as we leave Nairobi, the single highway to Mombasa passes through a non-ending jungle, with grassy meadows, green fields, thorny bushes and sparsely scattered trees.
Your sight can glimpse from time to time at deers and gazelles, giraffes and antelopes, all grazing and moving. The road goes by the outer fence of Nairobi Safari Park which covers a large area full of wildlife. Even if you leave the Safari Park behind you, the wildlife would seldom leave you. A small settlement of a tiny African population was seen at Athi river, the only sizeable concentration of people until you reach Mombasa.
Around the middle of the whole distance, we passed by the entrance of the largest Safari Park in Africa: Tsavo National Park. At one point, the driver had to stop the engine and bring the coach to a halt whilst still on the highway. There was a huge elephant right in the middle of the road. No way he could be disturbed by the noise of a running engine. You have to wait, even for hours until he leaves the road voluntarily. We were fortunate enough to see it leaving in less than an hour.
Among the other memorable sites we passed by was a Sikh shrine at Makindo where travelers could get free entertainment, Dal Roti and water.
Miles before approaching Mombasa, you could see on your left, besides the only railway line connecting Kampala through Nairobi, all the way to Mombasa, a tomb of an Asian saint. They say you must stop here, even for a short moment to pay homage to the holy shrine; otherwise you might be facing trouble in your journey. In or around eight hours we entered Mombasa through Nayali bridge which joins the island with the mainland with its narrow alleys and the famous Jesus fort which was a remnant of Portuguese colonialism that started in 1593, ended in 1689 when the Sultan of Oman took over.
Ibrahim Khalil was there to receive us and take us to his small house which abounded with the fresh ocean air. It was a pleasant experience to have a stroll in the small alleys surrounded by houses which allowed a sight of the scenic view of the sea from place to place until you ended up to Fort Jesus.
I visited Madrasa-tul-Falah which was still in its preliminary stage. My next attraction was a number of bookshops which printed and sold Arabic/Swahili text books for the pupils of the Madrasa. Two small books were very common:
- Mubadi-ul-Fiqh by Umar Abdul Jabbar, a Makkan compiler of the issues of Fiqh according to Shafi’i school of thought. It was in the form of questions and answers, easy to teach and easy to learn. The book was serialised according to the primary school grades.
- Khulasatu Nur-al-Yaqin by Al-Amir Al-San’ani in the subject of the Seerah of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ
Mombasa may be a variation from the Arabic word Munbaththa (spread far and wide), was a small island, 15 kilometres long and 13 kilometres wide, and was linked with the mainland by two bridges, one in the East leading to the coastal highway heading towards Malindi, all the way to Darus Salam, Tanzania; the other in the south which we had crossed recently.
It had a mixed population of Indian, Arabs and Swahilis. Swahili came as an Arab/African breed which developed the lingua franca of all East African countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Linguistically it goes back to the Arabic word ‘Sahil’ i.e. the coast.
That was my first visit to Mombasa. More to come, especially the one when I stayed there for a week to learn Swahili grammatically with an American Muslim who had already mastered the language because he was married to a Swahili woman.
Our return journey was by the night coach which left the bus stand by Maghrib, traveled all through the night and dropped us at our doorstep at Fajr time. This was how they used to operate in those days. The driver would help each passenger to bring him closer to his house.
A Note on Nairobi
There had been no town by this name before 1907. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the English had occupied the East African countries. This colonial rule, wherever they went, was distinguished by a fantastic railway network and postal facilities. In their endeavour to link the port of Mombasa with Kampala in Uganda; a place 700 miles away, they had to bring Indian labour, about 30,000 strong workers, mostly Sikhs, in 1860 to cut off the jungle en-route to Kampala, Once the work was carried out, the majority of them went back. Around 7000 decided to settle locally. In around 1897, more labour was brought in to lay the railway line.
A central place in the Masa’ee land was chosen to be a depot for the material with a resting place for the workers. Nairobi, a Masa’ee name for the river, was given to the place. Being at an altitude of 1000 metres, Nairobi enjoyed a moderate weather against the scorching heat of the equatorial areas, Mombasa included.
By 1907 it had emerged as a town amidst a jungle flourishing with wild beasts and animals. The railway workers who started their pioneer work of laying the railway lines from Mombasa, faced a terrible threat at Tsavo where two man-eating lions played havoc by dragging the poor labourers from their camps besides the lines. The work almost came to a standstill because of daily intrusions into the camp. Many efforts were made to either capture or kill them. Hunters like Jim Corbett had given interesting descriptions of their encounters with the man-eaters.
In 1898. Colonel Peterson was eventually successful in shooting them down and bring the sad saga to a close. But before that, 135 labourers, 35 Indian amongst them were to be lost to the appetite of these two ferocious beasts.
After a successful movement ,known as Mao Mao led by Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya became independent on the 12th of August, 1963.
When I came to Nairobi in 1967, it was a very neat and clean city, known as little London as well. Following the British pattern of life, there were still some posh areas like Muthega, populated mostly by Europeans; next in line were localities like Pungani and Eastleigh, flourishing with Indians and Pakistanis; and then those like Pumwani; Majengo crammed with Africans.
I had to confine myself to Pungani throughout my nine year stay in the ‘City of the Sun’.
Prior to my appointment as a delegate to Kenya, I happened to visit Cairo where I met, in the city of foreign students studying at Al-Azhar, a young man who introduced himself to me as Syyed Fatahuddin Tangal, a graduate of Al-Azhar, who was also interviewed to be a delegate to Kenya on behalf of Dar-ul-Ifta of Saudi Arabia.
Three months later, I was at Nairobi airport to receive him. His colleague Muhammad Ibrahim Malibari, a new delegate like me at Machacos, a small town at a distance of one hour’s drive from the capital, was there as well. Our host Hasan Jaizan brought us back from the airport in his Saab, a very popular car with him.
I invited him to be with me at my Madrasa, but his colleague M. Ibrahim persuaded him to join his Madrasa at Machacos. It was a clear choice for him. They were both from South India; studied at Al-Azhar, and spoke the same language: Tamil. That day he was a guest with me. Soon we developed a good friendship which lasted my nine year stay in Nairobi. Even after leaving Nairobi in 1976, I kept in touch with him and M. Ibrahim, and there were further opportunities to meet both of them in Makkah, London and elsewhere. My friendship with Syyed Fatahuddin was not just, ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’, but it was more than that. It was as has been said in Arabic,
رب أخ لك لم تلده أمك.
‘There are some brothers to you, whom your mothers did not give birth’
Originally, he did not come from Malabar, but from Lakkadev, an island facing the shores of Malabar in the Indian Ocean. We, in the course of our Da’wa work, travelled together to a great many places; we suffered together, as to be disclosed later, and enjoyed many evenings together in pleasant conversation and dining. His family joined him two years later, and I had to host them once again.
A delegation from Riyadh:
In 1968 a delegation of two people came from Dar-ul-Ifta. They were: Sheikh Muhammad bin Ibrahim Qa’ūd, the director for Da’wa abroad and Sheikh Abdullah- Mohsin Al-Turki, the head of the Shari’a college in Riyadh. These were two promenent Shuyukh with whom I remained attached to a very long time, especially the latter who held a number of responsible posts in Saudia Arabia, first as the President of Imam Muhammad bin Saud, then the Minister of Islamic Affairs and Da’wa and Endowment, then an advisor to the king and finally the secretary general of the Muslim World League from where he had retired recently. But when he came to visit us he was just head of the Shari’a College.
Syyed Fatahuddin told me that Ghulam Hussain Faqih, a trustee of the Grand Mosque in Nairobi invited Sheikh Muhammad bin Qa’ūd to lead Jummah prayer there. The local African Imam Sheikh Ramadani was very reluctant to allow him such a prestigious opportunity. Just prior to the khutbah, he hastened towards the pulpit. Sheikh Ibn Qa’ūd was well aware of the situation, so he pushed towards the pulpit before he could step on it. This mosque had been established by a great Indian Imam Sheikh Abdullah Ghaznawi, who was known to be ‘Shah Sahib’. The mosque itself was designed according to Indian mosque structure. For wudu (ablution) it used to have a pool of water in the middle of the courtyard of the mosque. In the sixties, Habib Adam, a wealthy Memon merchant was the chairman of the board of Trustees. The appointment of a Kenyan Imam came with the growing African interest in all local activities after independence. But it was sad to see such a prejudiced stance taken by the local imam, who failed to honour the guests.
A journey within Africa
The guests from Saudi Arabia asked me to accompany them to a proposed journey to Uganda and some other countries as an extensive observational tour in the field of Da’wa.
Our first stop was at Kampala, the capital of Uganda.If Nairobi is a city in the sun, Kampala is a city in the hills. On each hill, you will find a monument. I remember the grand mosque as one them. Deep in the valley was the market and the railway station. It was the British great venture to deploy around 32 thousand Indian labourers, beginning from 1890 to lay down a railway track from Mombasa on the Eastern coast of the Indian Ocean to Kampala, a further seven hundred miles away towards central Africa. Once the job was over, they all left back to India except 6724 of them who made East Africa their home. Uganda, with an area of 241,038 sq. kilometres, could be compared in size with Romania (237,499 sq. km) , Ghana (238,533 sq. km.), and U.K. (244,109 sq. km).
A land which is bordered by five countries, Kenya and Tanzania in the East, Congo in the West, South Sudan in the North, and Rwanda in the South. It has no sea around it, but Great Victoria Lake provides it with sweet waters. The source of the river Nile can be traced in its mountains and you can see it flowing at Jinja with all its glory and splendour.
It gained independence from U.K. on 9th October 1962. It was Milton Obote in rule when we visited Uganda. Our main objective was to visit the seat of knowledge, where our colleague Sheikh Sirajul Rahman Nadwi of India was appointed as the first delegate from Dar-Ul-Ifta, of Saudi Arabia.
Though the Muslims constitute 14% of the total Christian majority population, one can see the Muslim marks everywhere in this beautiful country, with lush green valleys, three more lakes other than Victoria, tea and coffee plantations on hills and plains, and a great number of wildlife pastures of evergreen land.
We were hosted by the chief Qadi and escorted by brother Sirajul Rahman to a number of smaller institutions.
It was a short visit, but more are destined for me during the reign of General Edi Amin, who took over on 25th January 1971 and ruled the country with an iron hand till the day he was deposed in 1979.
Rwanda and Burundi
Our next destination was Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, followed by Bujumbura, then capital of Burundi.
I think that was the first time I heard about these two countries, among the smallest in Africa. But how small they are? Rwanda, an area of 26,330 sq. km and Burundi 27,834 sq. km could be compared with Macedonia (25,713 sq. km), Haiti (27,700 sq. km.), Albania (28,749) and Belgium (30,528) . As for population, both were within a population of 11 million each. I remember the road with many curves passing through hills and dense forest which took us to the Muslim quarters in Kigali. I had also a dim memory of their talk about fierce enmity between the two tribes, Hutu and Tutsi, who populated that part of the world. But now I can say, after turning the pages of history, how the greed for land and ambition to rule led to one of the worst genocides which took place in these two small places. Both were colonised in 1884 by Germany who had to exchange hands with Belgium in 1916, after their defeat in the first world war.
Just after independence, the Hutu revolted against the Tutsi and massacred them. Later, long after our visit, a civil war broke out in 1990 and most surprisingly the presidents of both countries became the victim of this war, when their plane, in which they were both travelling, was shot down in 1994.
It is estimated that the Tutsi might have killed between half to a million Hutus in this war. Earlier, Burundi had seen a similar genocide of around 80 to 210 thousand people. This was followed by a second massacre in 1993 which took the lives of around 300 thousand people. Both tribes go back to Banyarwanda race in the region, but at daggers drawn to each other because of land and power.
They were unique in their blood-stained history, just like the mountain gorillas which was unique in its presence in this land, beside its presence in a neighbouring country.
Both countries had a majority of Christian (mostly Catholics), with 2% Muslims in Rwanda and 3% in Burundi.
Our visit was confined to the main mosques both in Kigali and Bujumbura where we given a warm welcome by the Muslim imams and leaders. Our Sheikhs were there to given them a lesson on unity and extended to them their upper hand with some assistance to improve their places of education.
I was there to interpret for them, but I do not remember whether I was able to do that: because they were not English speaking, but they could communicate in Swahili and Arabic on a small scale.
Like Majengo, the African quarter of Nairobi, the Muslim locality in both these places was among the poorest: narrow allies with mud houses and tin roofs. They were poor, but their mosques were glowing with the light of iman, with the impression of sujud to Allah Al- Mighty.
Our next destination was Blantyre, the second largest city of Malawi, after the capital Lilongwe. I remember another name of a locality known as Limbe, which was visited by us. It may have been the place of Muslim concentration. We had been led by an Indian Muslim businessman whose name I fail to recall.
There is not much with me to say about this visit, but there is a lot to say about Malawi which I had visited as a chairman of Muslim Aid in the middle of the nineties.
If you look at the map of Malawi, you can easily trace it beside Lake Malawi, which is long like a snake but its unique length brought it a unique title: ‘Calendar Lake’. It is 365 miles long and 52 miles at its widest point. It constitutes one third of the whole of Malawi in area. Malawi is approximately 118,484 sq. km, with a population of 18 million people.
Islam preceded the spread of Christianity by 350 years or more in Malawi, but could not make the impact which was created by the latter. Since the 15th century, the Arabs frequented this land in their trade adventures which included slaves as well. As many as 20 thousand slaves were exported through the port of Kilwa, on the Eastern coast.
David Livingstone, a Scotsman, discovered this amazing Lake in 1859, which was followed by the Catholic missionaries. Not only did they colonise the country, but they ruled on their minds and souls as well. It was Nyasaland in the beginning which turned to ‘Malawi’ after independence on the 6ty July 1964. And such was the Christian impact, that Muslim school children used to change names as to appear Christian in order to get through the exams.
I heard one of the Muslim speakers, Amin Yusuf Sauudi by name, who said how his brother had to register himself as Johnathan in his school days during the nineties. It may be because of the influential first president after independence, Dr Hastings Banda, who ruled as a head of a one-party democratic system for thirty years.
I had a second visit later to this country in the mid-nineties as the head of Muslim Aid, U.K. Here I should pay tribute to a great man who had left unforgettable marks in the field of Da’wa and charitable work not only in Malawi in particular, but in around 29 African countries. The man was Dr Abdul Rahman Al-Sumait of Kuwait. He was a student of medicine during a period of 6 years from 1974 to 1980, in the U.K. I met him a number of times and was much impressed by his zeal and tireless efforts to reach the people in Africa and Southeast Asia with copies of the Quran and books on Islam. His studies of tropical disease must have led him to explore Africa which won his heart and soul since his first visit to Malawi in 1981.
What a great soul who abandoned his very promising medical career in a rich Arab country, surely to live a very humble life among the impoverished inhabitants of small villages and places devoid of any modern facilities for living.
For the next thirty years he devoted himself to invite people to Islam, to reach them with food and medicine and to provide them roof and shelter. Each year he used to spend ten months in Africa, only to see his family in Kuwait for the remaining two months. Then he introduced his family to Africa directly. Let them stay with him during summer vacations and share with him a life of camping in the jungles, travelling their paths in hills, valleys and mountains. He could not resist crossing stagnant pools of water, filled with bacteria and bitting insects, if there was no other way to reach the other side, where people were in need of physical aid and spiritual nourishment. Through his own charity, Direct Aid Society, he managed to provide assistance everywhere. Looking at his achievements in brief:
Countries visited : 29
Mosques established : 7500
Wells in rural areas : 9500
Orphans taken care of : 9500
Schools established : 860
Universities initiated : 4
Students sponsored for
Education at secondary level : 95000
Those who entered into Islam : Around 5 million
Copies of the Quran distributed : Around 50 million
Such a person should have been a target of enemies within and without. Those who wanted to snatch from him, the bread and butter for the poor and needy, and those who could not tolerate a preacher among them. A number of attempts to assassinate him were carried out in Somalia, Mozambique and some other places where he had to escape narrowly. For a short while he tasted prison life in Iraq as well. He was deservingly awarded the King Faisal Prize in 1996. Apart from his Da’wa and charitable work, he wrote a number of articles on tropical diseases, cancer, the tribes of Africa and their tongues. A very harsh and troublesome life in the African jungles impacted his health. He suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes, malaria and the like. He remained under treatment in Germany, and then in Kuwait he breathed his last on 15th August 2013 at an age of 66 years. May Allah bless his soul and elevate his ranks in the highest paradise.
Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe)
Next, we landed at Salisbury, the capital of Rhodesia. What I knew about this country was its unique political nature: a white minority (8% of the population) ruling the black majority country. I will touch on its history later on. First, a few personal observations. We were received by an Indian Muslim leader, who took us around. We visited an evening Madrassa, where I was shocked to see young boys and girls sitting on the floor, reclining on the wall, studying together.
My best memory is that of my visit to the Grand Mosque in Harare, the African quarter of that divided town. My Arab colleagues were taken to another mosque for Jummah prayer, but I had to lead the Africa Muslims in Jummah prayer. I delivered the Khutba, both in Arabic and English and led them in prayer. As soon as I finished the prayer, they asked me to lead them in Zuhur prayer. This was a big shock to me. I had never ever been confronted with such a situation. I knew according to the Shafi’i madh’hab, if the congregation is less than 40 people, they will add an extra Zuhur prayer lest their Jummah prayer was not valid. But here it was a big crowd and in no way this opinion could hold water. ‘Why do you want to pray Zuhur, when you have already prayed Jummah?’, I asked. They replied, ‘We do not know whether our Jummah was accepted by Allah or not. So we always add Zuhur prayer to Jumuah salah’ as a precaution . I declined, giving them the principle which governed such a situation: you cannot do Tayamūm (dry ablution) as long as water is available for Wūdū (ablution). It means, if an original is available, you do not need to replace it with a substitute. Similarly, on a Friday, Jummah is the main prayer instead of Zuhur, So, you do not need to have a substitute after it. That day, the additional Zuhur was not offered on my advice. Allah knows better what happened in the coming weeks.
Our host had a surprise for us. They took us in the evening to a flood- lit arena, where a wrestling competition had been going on among white wrestlers. Spectators were mostly white, who had been seated on the grass around the arena. I don’t know whether they had been more amused by the wrestling or by sighting a group of Arabs with white ‘Jallabia’ (long shirts) entering into that arena to share with them their pleasure and recreation. They giggled and they mocked, only to let us taste what apartheid meant in a white- led country.
For me, going out for a walk in the surrounding streets of our hotel was a pleasant experience. The streets were well lit with shop windows displaying good in western style. After Nairobi, Salisbury (present day Harare) seemed to be a clean organised town.
I do not remember all the centres, mosques and madrassas visited by us during this journey. What I remember, is that I was the mouth for my two Arab superiors who used to deliver their speeches in Arabic and I had interpreted them in English.
The time had come to part. They had still to carry on travelling southwards, but I had to return back to Nairobi.
Before returning, I took an internal journey by road towards Kwekwe and Bulawayo in the south and then turning west towards Zambia to have a sighting of the great Victoria Falls, which got its name from the Scottish explorer David Livingstone, who was the first European to sight this amazing phenomenon of nature on 16th November 1855. It was a wonderful sight!
The river Zambezi brings that huge amount of water which falls at a height of 355 feet (double that of Niagara) with a width of, at its base, 5,604 feet (double that of Horseshoe Falls). This point is shared by both Zimbabwe and and Zambia. But Zambia still remembers it with its African name: Mosi-oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders).
I with my host, a young Asian Muslim, were bewildered with the unique scene which projected before us.
The smoke, the steam, the vapour, whatever you call it, was rising towards the sky as high as 1300 feet. Then that constant thunder and uproar which showed the might of the falling water. If you look downwards, deep in the valley was that great pool of water which made its way through the steep.
Apart from the thundering noise, there were not many human beings around. Quietness of the jungle around, the presence of many unknown beasts behind the bushes and the trees, created an atmosphere of awe and fear. It is said that Victoria Falls could only be compared with Iguazu Falls in South America.
On my way backs, I remember addressing a Muslim gathering in a school either at Kwekwe or Bulawayo.
In my speech, I quoted the story of Rip Van Winkle, a narrative by Washington Irving. Why I quoted this story? I am now puzzled as to why I did mention it but now I think about it. It was an imaginary story of a Dutch American, who was lazy and tried to escape from the constant nagging of his wife, who kept asking him to work. This escape came when he went to the mountains with his dog, near his home town in New York. Then he helped an old weird man to carry his barrel to a stream. There were many weird people, like the man who asked for his help. Rip van Winkle joined them in a drink which the barrel contained. He was fast asleep after three cups. It was the evening when he woke up. To him it was about a day’s sleep, but he did not realise that he had slept for twenty years. His dog was gone. He had come by himself, only to discover that everything had changed. There seemed no person to recognise him, especially when had grown a beard one foot long. He enquired about his friends. The reply was a surprise for him. No one was left. Some of them, including his wife, were dead, and some had left. In the end, he was able to convince one young woman, that he was her father, the very same Rip van Winkle who disappeared twenty years ago.
This story was set at a time of the American revolution during 1775 to 1783. The man because of his long sleep had missed all the amazing events of the war which ended British rule and gave birth to the U.S.A. The moral was: time never stops. It goes on and brings changes.
By narrating this story to my audience did I mean the same moral in the context of Rhodesia’s political conditions or not? I am still bewildered what I meant by it. I must be explaining the ‘swift passage of time’ in the context of Surah Al- Asr:
By the time, Indeed man is in loss,
Except those who believe,
Those who do good deeds,
Those who instruct each other to stand by truth,
And those who instruct each other to have patience
Now I am about to end writing about my visit to Rhodesia, let me summarise a bit of its past.
It was named after Cecil Rhodes, who was the first European to help colonise the southern part of it in 1889 under the flag of British South African Company. It was under a charter until 1923, then became a self-governing colony. In 1953, the county turned into a federation which covered North Rhodesia and Nyasaland as well. The federation was short lived and came to an end in 1963.
The country was ready for independence and a black majority rule. The white minority was not prepared for this unexpected undesirable change. Its leader Ian Smith was apt to declare the UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) on 11th November 1965 severing its link with Britain. Supported vehemently by the Portuguese, in neighbouring Mozambique with its many ports, good for import and export, Ian Smith had not much to lose even if he had to face sanctions from Britain. That is what Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister did. He couldn’t do more than declaring Rhodesia’s stand as an open act of rebellion. The country’s exports of chrome, tobacco, steel was not blocked due to the generosity of the Portuguese, who had bitterly swallowed the capture of Goa by India in 1961.
It took another fourteen years for Rhodesia to adopt multi-party rule, which eventually led to majority black rule and Muzorewa as prime minister in 1979. A year later, in April 1980, the country acquired its African name, Republic of Zimbabwe with Harare (formerly Salisbury) as its capital. Rhodesia was lost in the annals of history.
Now it was time for me to leave Salisbury, back home to Nairobi. It was a pleasure for me to enjoy a good time with both Shuyukh. Though one of them was my boss and the other, a big name to shine in coming days, they treated me well, and tolerated my moments of displeasure, at one time when I felt I was the ‘weakest link’ in the trio. I always thought that I was the main link between them and the people whom we visited :those who were not able to communicate to them except through me.
Part 13: 1968-1969
We had to move to a third residence: a two room flat in the upper floor, owned by an old man of Pakistani origin. He was known with a very curious nickname in the community: Gurway in Ki-Swahili meaning a swine. I don’t know why he was given such a name but to us he was kind and helpful. My second child, Wohaib, was born in this flat and we received help and assistance from his wife. There I acquired my first car: a second-hand Peugeot 105. If I had retained that car, it would have been a part of a vintage collection. To start it in the morning, you had to apply a crank handle from outside the engine, then revolve it until the engine bursted on roaring.
My good friend, a barrister by profession, comes to my mind whenever I happen to visualise the impression of this car. He was a good jolly character; he used to talk a lot and boast to have known the whole Quran by heart. Once he happened to join a Tablighi Jamaat group who kept on moving from one mosque to the other. Overwhelmed and bewildered by his constant talk of his knowledge of the Quran, they let him lead them in Maghrib prayer. The man recited in the first Rak’a Surah Al-Fatiha followed by Surah Wannas, the last short Surah of the Quran, then he moved to the position of Ruku (bowing) and Sujud (prostration). He must have thought while he was in his Sajda, what to read in the second Rak’a as he had already read the last Surah of the Quran in the first Rak’a. It had been an embarrassing situation for him; a man who had been portraying himself as a Hafiz of the Quran. The only exit left for him to slip away stealthily from the mosque while the group behind him was still in the state of prostration. Allah knows better how long they waited for him to raise his head by saying ‘Allah-o-Akbar’. They must have realised that to have the knowledge of the Quran is totally different from committing it to memory.
One morning he came to me in a hurry. “Can I borrow your car as I have an urgent appointment to reach somewhere?”. I was hesitant but I had no excuse to deny him. I handed over the car key to him; assisted him to start the engine and with a roar of engine, he left the compound of the big house. A few seconds later, we discovered the car stranded in the street outside the house. The poor fellow had applied the gear with such a force that it had come out of the hook and halted the car right in the middle of the road. Thank God, he had left the key in the ignition point and we were able to push it back home.
I had narrated about my journey with the two Sheikhs from al Riyadh in the previous post. Now I remember another journey which I took with Sheikh Muhammad bin Ibrahim Al-Qa’ood to a small town, Kitui by name through a very difficult mountainous terrain. It was a visit to the place of our Somali delegate Muhammad Hadi who was very keen to see us. We stayed in his mosque for a short while and after addressing the local Muslim community we took the way back to Nairobi. The road was no more than an unpaved passage through the hills and cliffs. A sharp slip at any point could have plunged the car deep into the valley. At one point, Sheikh, sitting next to me on the passenger seat, jumped from his seat to hold the steering wheel in his hands while I was struggling with the driving at my best. Thank God that we arrived safely to our destination.
Mungano Madrasa Ryada Islamia
I turned one of the rooms into a residence for about eight young students who occupied four bunk beds. The deserted small kitchen came to life with an African dish known as Ugali. There were many students, mainly Somali, the denizen of NFD (North frontier district) bordering Somalia, who were keen to join the Madrasa, I discovered that a residential plot was available as an endowment for the Madrasa at Eastleigh, a locality at a walking distance from Pumwani or Majengo.
It took me a year or more to collect enough funds to build a two-storey building with eight rooms. Eventually, the building accommodated around fifty students, with a similar arrangement as that of the Madrasa room. To collect funds was a hard job but to deal with the African contractors was harder. I remember how the poor fellow was once chased by his workers to whom he failed to pay in time. He appeared in front of an angry mob who were shouting at him. Of course, I had to calm them down by coming to the aid of the helpless contractor.
Now the teaching was organised in the morning hours. I was there with Sir Kamaluddin of Sudan and Muhammad Musallam of the East coast. The students were classified as that of a primary level of an Arabic Dar-ul-uloom. The syllabus contained small books in Aqeedah, Hadith, Fiqh, Seerah and Arabic language. I used to print the lessons and test papers on a stencil machine. It was a unique experience of writing with a sharp ended pen on some special blue sheets which were later dressed up on a roller dipped in a special ink. I had to always struggle with the machine which by an excessive amount of ink would destroy a lot of papers before producing a legible reading material. For that small Madrassa I was a teacher, a Head-master, a registrar, a printer and over and above all, a care taker for the benefit of all the boarding students.
For me, the Madrasa was everything. I was there in morning hours till Zuhur. Then I had to come back for the evening Madrasa for local children at Asr time till Maghrib. In between I had my lunch at home and a short siesta before heading once again to the Madrasa.
It was a great joy for me to discover a vast number of books stalked in shelves of the library in the first floor of an annexe to the Gami Mosque in the heart of the city. I took the task of cataloguing the books in my odd visits to the mosque. I discovered many volumes of the weekly magazine of ‘Ahl-e-Hadith’ edited and published by the great Indian scholar Maulana Sanaullah of Amristar. The magazine started its publication in 1903 and remained in circulation till Pakistan came into being in 1947. Its pages stood as a witness to Maulana’s written encounters with the self-appointed prophet of India, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian. There were many dialogues, arguments and cross-arguments between the two which ended with the famous public announcement of Mirza of Qadian in which he pleaded to Allah Al-Mighty to let him die during the lifetime of Maulana Amrastari if he was to be a liar and fabricator in his claim of prophethood. That was miraculously proved when he died of cholera on 26thMay 1908 while Maulana survived him by 40 years. He died in 1948 in Sargodha after migrating to Pakistan.
I was curious to know how the copies of this humble paper reached to Nairobi in those remote years. I was told that it was due to an Ahl-e-Hadith Imam, Maulana Abdul Momin who must have subscribed to this magazine while he served the mosque as an Imam or teacher. One day I happily welcomed Shaik Abdullah Al-Farisi, the Grand Qazi of Mombasa who was famous because of his vast knowledge, his contribution to the institution of Islamic judiciary and mostly for his great work of translating the meanings of the Quran to Ki-Swahili, the lingua franca of east Africa. He was delighted to visit the library and go through some of the books of this great valuable collection.
Mr. Habib Adam, a famous businessman from the Memon community and the chair of the mosque trustees was there to facilitate my work at the library. I found him courteous, helpful and an amazing person. He had been a sincere supporter to the work of my two colleagues at Machakus, Syyed Fatahuddin Tangal and Muhammad Ibrahim Malabari. I was a bit disappointed, when I presented to him a set of books printed by my stencil machine, to be a part of a unified syllabus for madrassa education. He received them in a cool manner. I realised my mistake. It should have come through Machakus and not from me directly. May Allah accept his services towards the Islamic cause in general, and in particular his services to the mosque.
Let me mention here that we, the delegates from Dar-ul Ifta in Kenya and Uganda, had agreed to compose a unified curriculum for the Arabic Madrasa. What I had prepared was a manifestation of our agreed deliberations. The course covered six years of primary and two years of middle levels. Ironically, my stay in Nairobi did not last more than nine years; a period that cover these two levels only.
Pangani and Landhi Mosques
Just across the road from my fourth residence, a flat in the first floor of a complex of flats owned by Mehdi Khan of Chakwal, was the famous Pangani Mosque. A small and Indian style built building which served the local community for their daily prayers. For Juma prayers, the people would go either to Eastleigh or the central mosque in the city. I was blessed to start a weekly Arabic class after Isha prayer which was set to be held at 8 p.m. throughout the year. Nairobi, being situated very near to the equator, enjoyed the equatorial weather on one hand and a 12 hours day light and 12 hours night fall. If there was a fluctuation of time, it did not go more than half an hour. So, if the sun set at 6:30, still we were at ease to pray Isha at 8 p.m. It was Pir Habib of Chakwal, a tall heavy-built personality who in one of his visits raised the issue of the timing of Isha. According to him, the white twilight was still on the horizon at 8 p.m. Thus, Isha should be held at a bit later time. Our African Muslims, mostly known as Swahili were known to be raised in following Shaf’i Mad- hab which allowed the performance of isha as soon as red twilight disappeared. Accordingly, we were within the allowed time to offer our prayers.
My weekly Arabic circle was attended by a number of the local residents including a non-Muslim English gentleman who used to take a long journey to reach this area. I had many memories of the event in this mosque and I would keep on narrating what I remembered in these memoirs. After my bitter experience in the Eastleigh Mosque in the beginning, I was allowed to deliver a pre-khutba speech in the central mosque for a few weeks. Later I was approached by Sheikh Mohammad Ismail and Shaikh Muhammad Yaqub, the two brothers from Landhi Mosque to start delivering khutba in their mosque on the other end of the city. The mosque was known as railways Landhi mosque which was started by the dwellers of the railway workers in a tin shed many many years ago. Then it moved to its present site. Like Pangani mosque, it was marked with an Indian style. Its entrance was decorated by Sikh builders. The main building had a dome and a big courtyard as well. Unlike Pangani, it enjoyed a big surrounding area which served as a car park. Both brothers, Sheikh Yaqub, the younger one, in particular used to come all the way from South C, to carry out the activities in the mosque. Maulana Abdul Momin had served there for a long time. This is how they were familiar with Ahle-e-Hadith traditions and were happy to welcome me as a Khateeb of Friday prayer. I developed a close friendship with them. I found them honest and sincere and for first time in my life, I was made aware by Sheikh Yaqub how old postal stamps were preserved in an album. His collection of stamps was colourful and astonishing. I made up my mind to learn Ki-Sawahili to enable me to address the gathering on Fridays in their language.
For this purpose, I had to travel to Mombasa and stay there for a week. My teacher was a young man from Germany, Khalid by name, who after embracing Islam happened to visit East Africa and marry a Swahili woman. He stayed in Mombasa for quite a good time and was able to learn and master the language through many knowledgeable sources including his wife, a native of this country. I was able to cover the whole book, a book of Ki-Swahili grammar with him. I needed more practice and to widen the scope of my vocabulary for which I had plenty of time in the coming months. Soon I was able to address in Ki-Swahili even for a short time during my Friday Khutba.
It is interesting to note that Ki-Swahili is itself an Arabic word (from Sahil: the coast) and it has a vast number of Arabic words rendered into its own structure. For example, note the following Arabic words and how they have been turned into Ki-Swahili by adding a ‘u’ in the end.
Kitab – Kitabu
Qalam – Kalamu
Muallim – Muallimu
Hurriyya (freedom) – Huru
Among the numbers three are Arabic in their origin. This is how they are pronounced:
- Moja 2. Pili 3. Tatu 4. Inne 5. Tano
- Sitta 7. Sabaa 8. Nane 9. Tisaa 10. Kumi
How Swahili culture is inspired by Arabic is well portrayed by their sense of time. If you ask a Swahili ‘what is the time now?’ he would see his watch and then say to you for example ‘Saa Sitta’ while his watch is displaying 12 noon. It is because they still follow the old Arabic practice of the timing. Their new day starts by the fall of night: the precise time of the setting of the sun which happened to be normally 12 p.m. (Kuminapili in Ki-Swahili) which is 6 p.m. according to GMT. So, the 12 noon will turn into 6 o’clock (Saa- Sitta) with Swahilis. The old books in Ki-Swahili are still found in Arabic script. East Africa, being an occupied territory could not resist adopting the Roman script for its mothers’ tongue.
Before I end this episode, let me have a few more lines about Pangani Mosque. I was honoured to be a member of the Mosque committee. We were looking for a permanent Imam. The man selected for this job was a young imam, Izhar Ahmad Qasimi by name, who was finally chosen for this job and who came all the way from Deoband (India) to join this post in Pangani. Could I have imagined at that time that around forty years later I myself and my wife Umm-e-Wohaib would be invited by his son Rashid Ahmad Qasimi to present some religious programmes on his newly established T.V. channel known as ‘Iqra’ in London?
This is what unseen (Ghaib) which is always known to Allah. It is hidden in a folded scroll which keeps on unfolding its secrets by the passage of time, some in this life, others in the life Hereafter.