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Gems of the Old Guard

Gems of the Old Guard

Issue 74 November 2010

The elders of our community serve as pillars, upholding faith, tolerance and humility.


Last month, another gem of the old guard, Abdullah Bawhab, who had served on the Birmingham Shari’ah Council since its inception, passed away. He had achieved a good age at 81 but had been far from frail thanks to his great self-discipline. Sadly, he suffered a pulmonary embolism whilst driving back to his home, having just negotiated an extension on his PhD submission date. At the graveyard, Dr Ibrahim Surti reminded the mourners that as someone dying in the pursuit of knowledge, he died the death of a shaheed.

 Bawhab was an exceptional man in many ways. He maintained his dedication to learning to the very end of his life and it was wonderful to meet his family and see the love and respect they all had for him. But what I found myself dwelling on was his exceptional vision for the future of Islam in the UK. There has been much comment on the idea that the British Muslim community has been held back by leaders who are locked into the culture and thinking of their countries of origin as their ‘real homeland’. On the other hand, there are those who argue that we should completely abandon Indian or Arabian culture in favour of developing a wholly ‘British’ or European Islam. This is a popular topic for discussion in the community today, especially with crowd pulling speakers such as Tariq Ramadan and Hamza Yusef. Yet there have been a handful of truly exceptional individuals who have used their experience of different cultures to good effect, enabling them to draw out the best aspects of a number of societies.

 When I first became a part of the Muslim community, it was Khurrum Murad that particularly inspired me. He conveyed an understanding of the issues facing British Muslims better than many raised in the UK. It was his vision that paved the way for the establishment of the Islamic Foundation as one of the foremost centres for research on Islam in Europe and the Markfield Institute of Education, one of the first Islamic centres dedicated to Higher Education and the training of Muslim leaders for work in the UK. Yet while many were motivated by his speeches and writings, few have seemed able to sustain that same clarity of vision.

 Bawhab was another of these exceptional characters. Few outside Birmingham central mosque were aware of his work there because he was a quiet and humble man who worked hard for his family and the local community, without seeking a prominent or leadership role. Instead, he worked for the improvement of our community support structures. Both practically through his work on the Shari’ah Council; where he developed a reputation for his gentle and compassionate yet forthright manner, and theoretically through his academic writings on subjects such as Muslim family law. On the occasion of my inaugural lecture on Religious law in a Secular Society, he travelled to Cambridge to support me along with the entire Birmingham Shari’ah Court panel. That included Dr. Naseem, who himself is now quite advanced in age, and contributed to the programme in both the Q&A and the private discussions afterwards.

 As young adults, it is easy for us to criticise the backwardness of our communities and feel we could have done so much better but we should always remind ourselves that it was the elders who first established the community networks of Mosques, community centres, halal meat and Islamic schooling. Even the forward-thinking ideas we tend to identify as coming from the younger generation have their roots in the exceptional characters amongst our elders. Individuals who were not always charismatic and did not necessarily have eloquent English but whose minds were open to both the ancient and the modern; the religious and the secular and who could see a path forward for us all to gradually develop as a community. We read in Tirmidhi that the Prophet said, ‘He does not belong to us who does not show mercy to our young ones and respect to our old ones, who does not recommend what is reputable and prohibit what is disreputable.’  Let us all strive to develop and maintain the humility to listen to our elders and learn from them, for if we fail then what chance is  there that we will raise our own children with the respect and manners we would like to see in them?

Dawud Bone is the Stone Ashdown Director of the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations at the Woolf Institute. Click here to read more of his articles on our site.

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