Raficq Sheik Abdulla (1940-2019)

Raficq Sheikh Abdulla passed away peacefully at home in London, England on 19 December 2019 in the presence of his loved ones, finally succumbing to cancer.

Despite being faced by the inevitability of death, Raficq carried on with the dogged determination that had characterised his life as a Muslim mystic, Oxbridge-educated lawyer, educator, writer, poet, and inter-faith and community activist. It seemed as if he was challenging Malak ul-Mawt (the Angel of Death) to give him a few more years grace because he was not yet ready to meet his Creator. He was too young, even at the age of 79, and had much unfinished business pertaining especially to his close family, his poetry, his other writing and, of course, his friends.

Raficq was born in Durban, South Africa in 1940 to businessman Sheik Abdulla, a scion of a prominent local Indian family, and Dr Moseda Ismail, a ‘proto-feminist’ trendsetter from a prominent Cape Malay family, who herself was the granddaughter of two imams – one of whom was sent to the Cape by Sultan Abdulhamid II of the Ottoman Empire.

Both of Raficq’s parents played a seminal role in his life. Moseda came from a prominent medical family. Her audacity and courage was underlined by her defiance of a local Muslim community convention to become the first Muslim woman in the Western Cape, if not South Africa, to study medicine at Edinburgh University in 1927, where she also went on to specialise as a gynaecologist. In this endeavour she was supported by the veteran Cape political leader, Dr Abdullah Abdurrahman, who very much influenced her and facilitated her study at his alma mater. It was during her time in the UK that Moseda met her first husband, Dr Goolam Gool, who graduated from Guy’s Hospital Medical School. Moseda and Goolam had one son, Reshard, who became an academic in Canada and a novelist who authored the book Cape Town Coolie.

That marriage ended in divorce and Moseda later married Sheik Abdulla of Durban, which resulted in the birth of Raficq. Moseda’s peripatetic and liberated life perhaps lies in the family genes. Raficq’s paternal great-grandmother, Rabia Bee Bee (Raboobee), was a prominent businesswoman in Durban and is reputed to have contributed financially to the establishment of the Natal Indian Congress by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Dada Abdullah Jhavery in 1894, a year in which the Natal Legislature was trying assiduously to disenfranchise the Indian immigrants in that colony.

It is in this family tradition on both sides that Moseda and Sheik Abdulla decided to send both Raficq and his half-brother Reshard to study in England in the 1950s. Raficq attended Epsom College in Surrey and then gained admission to Brasenose College, Oxford, to read Jurisprudence. He then went to Middle Temple Inn where he qualified as a barrister in the early 1960s. For most of his working life Raficq was a legal advisor with various organisations, his last formal position having been Secretary to Kingston University where at the time of his death, he was a Visiting Fellow of the Faculty of Business and Law.

Sometimes I wonder how Raficq would have fared working and living in apartheid South Africa, whose white supremacist ethos was naturally anathema to him. Here lies Raficq’s great South African conundrum. On the one hand, he ended up living his life as an expatriate in exile, eventually evolving into a South African Brit. But on the other hand, he had an innate and visceral attachment to his South African-ness.

This was manifested by his love for konfyt (jam) especially suur vye (sour figs) and appelkoos (apricot) konfyt – a heavenly Afrikaner/Cape Malay version of fruit preserves or jam. He also loved the traditional Cape Malay pastries such as koeksisters (a type of doughnut) and tertjies, a puff pastry usually with an apricot preserve or coconut filling – a love we both shared and in which I indulged him by occasionally supplying him with these goodies from home whenever I visited the mother country.

Raficq had a keen interest in art, the theatre and cinema, and an eclectic taste in music with a passion for opera and serious Western music, but he also loved jazz, including the earthy and yet sonorous compositions of Dollar Brand (who later converted to Islam and took the name Abdulla Ibrahim). Raficq was equally at home listening to South African township blues which played such an important ‘underground’ role in the struggle against Apartheid.

This attachment to his South African roots was a core part of his psyche, from which I felt he found it impossible to extricate himself. Whenever we met, he could not stop asking me or talking about his extended family there – history and all. Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that he never had the chance to go on a voyage to rediscover his South African roots.

While Raficq was closely attached to the land of his birth, he made the United Kingdom his home and loved England very much. He saw great value in integrating with his new land of settlement and helped Muslims in Britain to do accordingly. In the mid-1970s he worked very closely with the al-Azhar trained jurist, Sheikh Zaki Badawi, in helping Muslims in Britain find a balance between their new home and their Islamic values and principles. Dr Badawi invited Raficq to sit on the panel of the Muslim Law Sharia Council (MLSC) as one of three UK-trained lawyers to ensure that its deliberations accorded with the principles of English public laws. Over a 35-year period the MLSC has provided support to over 25,000 women. Dr Badawi also enlisted Raficq’s help in developing a fatwa (legal opinion) that showed that organ donation for Muslims was fully in keeping with the principles of Sharia. This fatwa constituted the cornerstone of further work in this field that has led to Muslims in the United Kingdom participating in organ donation today. Along with Dr Badawi, Raficq also played an important role in interfaith dialogue for which he was awarded an MBE in 1999.

Raficq was most at home when writing poetry. He wrote thousands of poems many of which remain unpublished and he kept on writing until the very end. His range of interests encompassed law, art, Islam in the modern world, Islamophobia, poetry, music, spirituality, identity, diasporas and the role of the sacred in human life. He contributed chapters to various works on subjects such as John Ruskin, holocaust poetry, art, law, Muslim ethics and identity. Raficq published two books on the poems of the Muslim mystics, Rumi and Attar: Words of Paradise: Selected Poems of Rumi (London, 2000) and The Conference of the Birds: Selected Sufi Poetry of Attar (London, 2003), some sections of which were set to music and performed at Carnegie Hall in New York. In 2016 Raficq published Reflecting Mercury; Dreaming Shakespeare’s Sonnets in which he matched his poetic contemplation to each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. Raficq was naturally a strong believer in freedom of expression and spent much of his time with English PEN as a member of its Board of Trustees and then as Acting President. He was also a trustee of the Poetry Society and Planet Poetry, and a board member of Exiled Writers Ink.

Being a diasporic Muslim himself, Raficq was deeply conscious of the fact that Muslim communities from outside the Arab heartlands had their own cultural traditions to maintain and that these had to be respected. He recognised the value of culture in engendering a respect among diasporic Muslims about their identity and he encouraged a fusion of cultures whereby British Muslim children would be able to embrace those British humanistic values which were compatible with their own Islamic values.

In 2006-2007 Raficq chaired the Festival of Muslim Cultures in Britain, working closely with social change curator Isabelle Carlisle, and a number of Muslim scholars and thinkers. With a broad understanding of Islam’s rich diversity within its fundamental unity, Raficq contributed to a greater understanding of Islam as a culture, an ethic, a metaphor, a faith and a way of life. He presented a large number of radio programmes on Islam for the BBC World Service, including The Four Caliphs, Rumi, The Conference of the Birds, a new allegorical poem by the 12th-century mystic poet Fariduddin Attar, as well as a series on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. He also wrote screenplays for Channel 4 and the scripts for two award-winning films produced by the respected Pakistani film director, Jamil Dehlavi, called The Blood of Hussein and Born of Fire. Raficq addressed a wide variety of national and international audiences on a range of subjects including Islamic finance — in the UK, Canada, USA, Spain, UAE, Portugal and Germany. These included being a narrator at a concert at St Ethelburga’s in London in 2008 on the German/Jewish composer Victor Ullmann who was killed at Auschwitz in 1945, the 15th-century Persian mystic poet Jami, and the 20th-century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

And what would be an apt epitaph for Raficq, my dear departed friend and South African compatriot (assuming that once born a South African, always a South African)?

For me, Raficq was a universal patriot, embodying the diversity and essence of his worldview, his work and his very being – a Muslim patriot albeit disillusioned by the dire state of the Muslim world; a British patriot with a love for its post-colonial liberal democratic values; an expatriate South African patriot ‘exiled’ to the UK for a first-class education to escape the injustice and brutality of the apartheid state; a patriot of humanism and philosophy embodied by his deep interest in Sufi and esoteric Islam, especially the writings of the great poet/philosopher Jalaluddin Rumi, whom he even dared to challenge occasionally in his own poetic riposte; and a lay patriot given his unselfish work in the various communities, inter-faith forums, Islamic legal councils protecting the personal law rights of Muslim women, Black and Ethnic minority communities, exiled writers, promoting gender empowerment, and the pushback against domestic violence and abuse.

His epitaph however would not be complete without a mention of his overwhelming honesty and openness as a human being, a son, a husband, a father and a friend. Suffice to say that at least as far as the travails of the Muslim world and the diasporic Muslim communities are concerned, Raficq was consumed by a deep-seated frustration, which he often desperately communicated to both Dr Zaki Badawi and to me. And yet, Raficq embodied hope.

Ironically, in the last five years of his life, which should have been devoted to his poetry, he co-authored a book with fellow South African barrister Mohamed Keshavjee entitled ‘Understanding Sharia: Islamic Law in a Globalised world’. Being the poet that he was, he stressed the need for constant interpretation to ensure that Sharia remains open to the ongoing needs of Muslim peoples and that its fiqh (human understanding) does not become ossified  in the sands of time.

Raficq found it difficult to articulate this frustration to a wider audience, not because of a lack of understanding or compassion, but perhaps because of a lack of patience in dealing with the vagaries and complexities of a multi-faceted Muslim diaspora in the West in general, and in the UK and Europe in particular, let alone in the 57 Muslim countries themselves. However, he saw great hope in education as a major lever for bringing this about but often wondered whether change would happen in his lifetime. Unwittingly, through his eclectic and prolific writing coupled with his social activism, he contributed significantly to this process.

Rest in Peace with Allah’s blessings, dearest departed friend, Raficq Sheik Abdulla (1940-2019), survived by his dear spouse Marianne and son Adam, relatives, and a bevy of friends and colleagues the world over!