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A Man for All Seasons

A Man for All Seasons

Issue 6 Jun / Jul 2004

First Published on July/August 2004

To access the issue page, click here   


In May 2004 Iqbal Sacranie was re-elected Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the foremost body representing UK Muslims. Sacranie has led this organisation to much acclaim and widespread recognition. Here he talks to Mahmud Al-Rashid about his early life, his father and the inspiration behind the daily demands of the MCB.

Iqbal has just returned from Istanbul where he attended the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting of Foreign Ministers from Muslim countries. “Turkey is a rapidly developing Muslim countryand has a good blend of tradition and modernity. The people are very hospitable and generous, and eager to bepart of the EU. However, my meetings with the various Ministers convinced me even more that the Muslims inBritain have a vital role to play in the future of international dialogue and development.” That’s a rather heavy burden on this struggling community,I suggest to him. “Maybe, but every cause needs its foot-soldiers and the current situation requires Muslims to exert all their energies and talents into creating an environment that is conducive to peace and security, justice and stability.” Is that what the MCB’s about? “Yes he says, "and more." Every society needs to have these basics and every time I go abroad I am constantly made aware of the respect for the MCB and the expectation others have of us here in Britain.”

Perhaps it’s this expectation, particularly from British Muslims, that drives Iqbal to devote endless hours to the MCB. No one can deny that his personal commitment has been pivotal to the organisation’s success so far. We sit opposite each other on deep comfortable sofas, surrounded by Chinese furniture belonging to the Royal Collection, amidst images of past monarchs. This is not quite the MCB offices in London, but Clarence House, residence of Prince Charles, where Iqbal has come to meet Sir Tom Shebbeare, director of the Prince’s Charities, to discuss areas of co-operation between Muslim charities and the Prince’s charities, particularly in the areas of youth work and the creation of employment opportunities. Iqbal had pressed Sir Tom on the need for well-run Muslim charities to besupported. The meeting reflects again the vital role the MCB has come to play in promoting Muslim interests.

“In the MCB, we believe in the common good – that is the good of everyone in the UK, not just Muslims. Naturally, our first constituency is the Muslims. And we believe that promoting the interests of Muslims will make Britain a better society.”

Iqbal has been representing one cause or another almost all his life. He recalls, whilst at secondary school in Malawi, aged 16, approaching the headmaster to be allowed time off for Friday prayers. No one had done that before. The headmaster was furious: “Prayers, boy! What Friday prayers? This is a Catholic school.” Iqbal persisted and the headmaster relented. Gradually, other boys joined him. “You know,” he says with a hint of satisfaction, “some of those boys who came with me to Friday prayers have gone on to achieve high positions in Malawi. One is a Police Commissioner, another an Assistant Commissioner of taxes and others are senior civil servants. ”

Another ‘representative action’ Iqbal remembers is during his days as an articled clerk at a firm of accountants in London. The foreign clerks were paid much less than the British ones for the same work. “I couldn’t accept that as it was most unfair, so I took it up with the student society. After a period of campaigning, the Institute of Chartered Accountants agreed and ensured there was parity in pay.”

Born in Malawi (then Nyasaland) in 1951, Iqbal is the third of eight children and the eldest of four brothers. The family had a comfortable life in Malawi; a large home with domestic helpers, a cottage near the lake and access to leading members of the society.

Though there were only a few thousand Asians in Malawi, they looked down on the poor indigenous black population; even the black Muslims were unfairly treated. Iqbal’s father detested this racism and fought against it. He funded the education of many and would go out of his way to invite and welcome visitors, especially the poorer ones, and made sure they would eat at the dinner table with the family. “I remember as little children we were pulling faces at one of these visitors and sniggering at his dirty and smelly clothes. Later, my father took us aside and warned us that their poverty was not their fault, and our behaviour was absolutely unacceptable. He told us to visualise how the blessed Prophet Muhammad would have treated such people – with honour and respect – and said that’s how we should behave. That lesson has stuck with me all my life. And I have always tried to fight against and discrimination.”

Iqbal’s father lived by his convictions. In countering the prejudices of the Asians against the blacks, he enrolled Iqbal into an all black school. “In those days the British enforced a system of educational apartheid. So white kids went to all-white schools; Asians to Asians-only and black children to blacks-only schools (these were usually the most underresourced schools.) My father decided he would send me to an all-black Catholic school.

He had to get special permission to do so as I was one of the first Asians in Malawi to do this. And so I ended up in the Zomba Catholic Secondary School. It was quite a shock – apart from being the only Asian, I was one of the few kids who wore shoes to school! Initially, I was quite isolated, but it was definitely a character building exprience and made me understand other cultures. Eventually, I settled down and made good friends. I was a keen sportsman and excelled in cricket as a fast bowler. I played for the school volley ball and tennis teams.” Iqbal also captained the local cricket team and was vice-captain of the national B team.

Iqbal talks fondly of his father. “He was a supporter of the independence movement in Malawi and fought against injustice and discrimination.

The ‘rebels’ would meet in our house late at night to plan the end of British colonial rule. My father assisted them with funds and advice on how to maintain unity amongst their various groups. He knew the leaders of the movement very well, including Banda, who became the first president after independence in 1964, and Bakili Muluzi, a Muslim who succeeded Banda.

After the meeting in Clarence House, we head for the Foreign Office where Iqbal meets Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary. As we drive into King Charles Street, we come across a security barrier. “When was that put up?” he mutters under his breath. “This ‘war on terror’ is eroding everyone’s freedoms. You know, in Britain you used to be able to take your liberties for granted,” he laments. “Not any more. There’s a cloud of suspicion over every one now.” He quotes the latest Met Police figures which show a dramatic increase in the number of Muslims being stopped and searched. But isn’t it justified, with the threat of terrorist attack imminent? “Well, let’s look at this threat. I have no sympathy for any form of terrorism – and the MCB has condemned it categorically, and that’s why we wrote a letter to all the mosques inviting them to keep vigilant. But that is not the whole picture; I try and understand what is going on, especially with the Muslim youth. Like all young people they are quick to spot hypocrisy and double standards. 

They see much injustice and inequality in the Muslim world, sometimes brought about by misguided leaders. We are deeply concerned about injustices, whether it is discrimination at work or the brutalities in Palestine. We are aware of Britain’s historic role in many of the festering wounds around the world. We want Britain to help resolve these disputes in a way that is just, fair and according to international law. And we want a level playing field in domestic matters – so religious discrimination in all public spheres of life should be impermissible; Muslim schools should receive equal treatment as Christian and Jewish schools; the media should not become alarmist when it reports Muslim issues; insult and vilification should not be so freely practised, and the constant attack on our loyalties is very mischievous and counter productive. I think more fairness and equality will remove the anger and hostility felt by many young Muslims and everyone else who is passionate about justice.”

From the FCO we make our way to the office of Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the Arabic daily Al-Quds. Palestine is an issue close to every Muslim’s heart. “If there is one thing that will bring some comfort to their tormented hearts, it is a fair restitution of the Palestinian rights. But the signs are ominous, especially with the powerful settler movement and religious extremism in Israel holding such a sway in Israeli politics.”

Iqbal’s comments about Israeli oppression roused some controversy recently. In June the Sternberg International Prize was withdrawn from him after he accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Palestinian people. The Sternburg Foundation found his remarks 'unhelpful, and even counter productive.'

Iqbal was invited to retract the comments or even suggest that it was a ‘slip of the tongue’. “I wasn’t having any of that,” he says defiantly. “We cannot shy away from injustice and oppression, even while maintaining good interfaith relations.” This incident illustrates how complex the MCB Secretary-General’s position often is. But, on a personal level, it also illustrates the completely selfless character of Iqbal; he is definitely not after any personal glory or recognition.

What is the impact of all this on his family life? I ask. Within minutes he receives a call from his brother to say his aunt had been taken to hospital with a suspected heart attack. “My wife, Yasmin, is a very patient woman. She has known my lifestyle since our marriage. Though it was the Rushdie affair that threw me into national public profile, I have always been active in the local community.

No wife should be expected to tolerate the frenetic life I lead, but I am extremely fortunate to have someone so understanding. She is a great source of inspiration and comfort to me. My children, though, are far more critical. “Is this really what Islamic life is about, Daddy?” the twins always ask. “How can you justify this? You never have time for us,” are common complaints from my children. I do feel guilty about that, very guilty. And I keep telling myself that soon, very soon, I shall have more time for them all, insha-Allah. Sometimes my dear mother chips in: ‘Your father was a busy man too, but he always maintained a balance between family, work and the community.

What would he think of you if he were alive?’ They have a point, and I am always trying to juggle with everything to maintain some sanity.” I wonder how realistic that is, for even before the inception of the MCB, Iqbal was heavily involved in Muslim affairs on a national level, initially with the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs. He became an executive member of the Union of Muslim Organisations (UMO) and at the time of the formation of the MCB strongly felt there was no need to create a national body, arguing that the UMO could represent Muslim affairs adequately.

However, the UMO was not inclusive enough and neither was its leadership willing to change. Discussions with Abdel Bari range from Palestine to domestic matters. Both men are optimistic about the long-term future, but the current situation they agree is very uncertain and even dangerous.

Danger is not new to Iqbal. He remembers visiting Bosnia with some Eid supplies of food, clothes and gifts in 1995. “This was the first Muslim delegation from the UK just after the truce was signed. We had to enter Sarajevo through Croatia. The Croatian police were abusive - they would stop us every few miles, board our coach and start to intimidate us. They rummaged through our luggage and spitefully threw out some of the gifts. We had to cross this particular bridge in the Serbian sector before sunset, otherwise the snipers would shoot at us. However, when we reached the river it was dark and the driver dared not cross, neither could we turn back due to the snow. Someone was required to go by foot to the nearest UN camp and call for help. No one was willing, so I volunteered, after which a couple from Leicester joined me. The prospect of being shot by snipers was extremely frightening, but the job had to be done. Thank God, we managed it safely, rearranged our journey and were transported in Bosnian military vehicles through convoluted paths across mountains and forests – which was also fraught with danger. We found out that another coach that crossed the bridge a short time later was shot at and there were fatalities.

In the end, however, our predicament melted into insignificance when we saw the plight of thousands of orphaned Bosnian children for whom we had brought the presents.”

Volunteering for responsibility seems to be Iqbal’s personal destiny. He recalls once in hajj he was with a group of friends from south London. “There was an elderly man with us with his wife and daughter. He was quite sick and kept wondering whether he would make it.

I kept constantly reassuring him. Then, on the day of hajj, on the plains of Arafat he died. We couldn’t bury him without his passport which he had left in the hotel in Makkah. Taking one look at his distraught widow and daughter, I volunteered to retrieve his passport. It was an almost impossible task: more than one million pilgrims streaming in one direction and me going the other way! Eventually, thanks to God, I made it to Makkah. The whole city was deserted, not a soul in sight. Arriving at the hotel I despaired at seeing the gates padlocked. I searched around and found an iron bar, and with the words bis-millah I broke the chain. Imagine that – on the holiest day of Islam, there I was, dressed in two pieces of white cotton, breaking and entering locked premises! But God is merciful and I hope He will forgive me.”

The meeting with Abdel Bari was about establishing links with the Arabic media. Apart from keeping himself informed on the Palestinian issue, Iqbal is always keen to involve more people with the MCB. “The most satisfying achievement for the MCB is how it has managed the interaction of such a diverse range of people. We have just about everyone in the MCB: men and women, young and old, professionals and lay people, scholars and students, Shias and Sunnis, all the schools of thought and almost all the ethnicities.

Managing this diversity is a real challenge, but it has to be a tremendous achievement. Unity is a vital component of the Islamic way of life.

We have our differences and disagreements, but we are united in promoting the best interests of the community and the common good of society.” Indeed, one of Iqbal’s priorities for the next two years as Secretary-General is to increase the involvement of other ethnicities within MCB, in particular the Turkish, Somali and Chinese Muslims.

We then make our way to a meeting with the Turkish Ambassador. Iqbal’s father had said to him when he was only 15 that he would one day meet people of great influence and importance, “but never be intimidated by them,” he had warned, “nor look down upon those who are poor and powerless.” Over the years Iqbal has met more than 30 heads of state, including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, when she invited Iqbal for a private lunch at the Palace.

At all times his father’s words guide him and to this day Iqbal misses his friendship. Abdul Karim Mussa Sacranie died in 1982 and is buried in south London. “My father lost his mother when he was only seven. My grandfather then decided to return to India, and with his two sons and one daughter he set out from Malawi. They reached Mozambique and waited at the port for the next ship. My father was aged nine, his brother seven and his sister was five at the time. In the hotel my grandfather began to feel unwell and then suddenly collapsed in my father’s arms. The young boy was obviously shocked, being in a foreign country and not knowing anybody, but he still had the courage and presence of mind to ask the hotel manager for the nearest mosque. There the people arranged my grandfather’s burial and the return of my father with his siblings to Malawi.” Abdul Karim then took a job as a shopkeeper earning one pound fifty a month.

He gave 50 pence each to his brother and sister for their education and maintenance, and spent the other 50 pence on himself. During this time he came to the attention of Iqbal’s maternal grandfather who was a highly respected businessman.

“My father was offered a job in one of my grandfather’s shops. He did so well and his honesty and business acumen impressed my grandfather. During that time he saw wmy mother and asked some friends to take a proposal to her father. My grandfather was agreeable, but the rest of his family objected strongly; they were concerned my father was poor and relatively uneducated. But my grandfather recognised the good qualities in the young man and so the wedding went ahead.”

Iqbal’s own marriage was not so precarious. His sister introduced Yasmin to him, and his aunt arranged a meeting with her. Yasmin was a student in Leicester. A meeting was arranged in London and both parties agreed. “That was all there was to it, really. We have been married since 1975 and have been blessed with five lovely children. My eldest daughter is married, the next one has just got engaged and the three boys are still at school. I want my children to have a good education – both my daughters are graduates – and I want them all to know more about Islam than I do. I only had basic Islamic education, but I would like my children to have a good grounding and to learn Arabic.”

Religious awareness is a theme that has run through the Sacranie household for generations. “My paternal grandmother was extremely religious, as was my father, whose faith in God was very strong. He implicitly trusted in God and impressed upon us the need to seek His guidance in all matters. He had no formal education; learnt the Qur’an from his mother as well as how to read and write Gujarati. He learnt English from a tutor at home in the evenings. My father had this practice of reading the Qur’an aloud every morning after fajr prayer. This is a tradition we have continued in my own household; every morning, before breakfast, we recite the Qur’an.” Iqbal then mentions how, when his father was in a coma, the only thing he responded to was the recitation of the Qur’an. “His eye-lids would flicker when we recited his favourite surahs, Yasin and Muzzammil.”

“I think my father knew his time had come,” Iqbal almost whispers. “He was due for a heart bypass operation. This was in 1982 – not a common procedure then. He was admitted on the Wednesday. The operation was due the following Monday. On Thursday night, he said he wanted to go to the mosque for Friday prayers.

I told him to just do his prayers in the hospital, but, as always, he won the argument and so I drove him to Balham Mosque. After the prayers, he started shaking everyone’s hands and bidding them farewell.” Having to recall this was clearly emotional; Iqbal could not withhold his tears. “I found this very strange and asked my father what he was doing. He said he knew what he was doing. Once in the car, I began to drive fast. ‘Slow down, my son, slow down. I want to talk to you all. I may not have the chance again,’ my father said. By now Iqbal’s tears were flowing freely. “My father then advised us on personal matters including the distribution of all his property according to Qur’anic injunctions. I was getting irritated as I did not want to accept the implications behind what he was saying. He then said to us not to blame the doctors if anything went wrong and to avoid a post mortem, and told my mother to bring some fresh clothes for him on the Monday after the operation.”

“On Sunday night we said our farewells and left the hospital. The doctors had told us to return at midday on Monday, by which time he would be out of theatre. At 11am I received a call from the hospital telling me to come quickly. Something had gone wrong and my father had had a heart attack during the operation. He later went into a coma from which he never recovered. He managed to sip some zam zam water and we were with him till he breathed his last. We buried him on 10th November 1982. Of course, the ‘fresh clothes’ my mother ended up bringing the night before were his white shroud.”

Remembering his father’s death reminds Iqbal of his own fragile condition. “In 1972 I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. It was very serious and I had to have my colon surgically removed. I was on 20 different tablets a day. I had to avoid certain foods and the doctors warned me that if gangrene set in I could die within two hours. Nothing happened until 1990, when I went on a delegation to Jerusalem. It was my dream to pray Jumma in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. There was a particular fruit I loved and on this occasion I ate it with the skin on because it was so sweet. I immediately began to feel a very distinct pain and was rushed to hospital. I was apparently close to death and my colleagues were frantically contacting relatives in the UK. Praise be to God, I recovered sufficiently to ‘escape’ from the medics and pray at the great mosque on Friday.”

We approach the Turkish Embassy. After meeting the ambassador, Iqbal was due to see MCB’s newly appointed executive director and his fellow office-bearers. Then there was another meeting, after which he would make his way home. During our time together Iqbal received dozens of calls. “This is a very typical day in my life. Actually, sometimes it gets busier,” he jokes. 

Is there a salary for any of this? I enquire. “No. It is through God’s bounty and grace that I have the opportunity to serve the community. I am grateful to my family, especially my brothers, who value what I am doing and support me.” But, I ask, isn’t that a worrying precedent to set for the MCB – the Secretary- General can only be someone with a private income? I expect an apologetic answer. Instead, Iqbal gives a robust rejoinder. “You underestimate the desire and capacity of Muslims to do voluntary work. Yes, I have set high standards, but that is not something to be ashamed of. I know there are others who will take this standard even higher. We must aspire for the bests in everything we do. The MCB is full of dedicated individuals who give their time and effort voluntarily. They expect their reward from God, and He is most Bountiful.” 

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