Saturday, September 24, 2005
Farid Esack visited Australia as a guest of the al-Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences & Human Development, a Zaytuna-wannabe thinktank based in Sydney.
Maulana Esack was the first international guest to be invited by the Centre, though I doubt they would now wish to be associated with him. Indeed, when their second guest (Imam Zaid Shakir) arrived as second international guest, I remember sitting on a bus and asking one of the al-Ghazzali dudes about the Esack tour. He was most circumspect and seemed reluctant to talk too much about it.
I, however, am proud to wear on my lapel that I am a huge fan of Maulana Esack. Yes, I know he may be a pin-up boy for the “progressive Muslim” movement. I also know that my teachers were Deobandis and I am a huge fan of “traditional Islam”. Yes, Maulana Esack may preach a form of Islamic “liberation theology” that some followers of Tim Winter find somewhat unpalatable. But I can say with great confidence that Maulana Esack was one of the people who helped me rescue my faith.
In March 2002, I was diagnosed with a number of illnesses. I was forced to take time off work and to close my thriving and growing legal practice. My Rumi syndrome journey began. And the first casualty was my faith.
After a period of hospitalisation, I spent 1 month isolated from all but the World Cup soccer. Being isolated from Muslims was extremely difficult. Thankfully, a close friend from Nigeria was back in Australia with his wife. They welcomed me into their fold.
However, my intellectual and spiritual journal could not be quenched by the rational waters of B Aisha Lemu and her offspring. The stuff I used to read seemed so familiar and insufficient. Then one day I was at the library and came across a book with a simple title.
“On Being A Muslim – finding a religious path in the world today”.
Wow. Nice title. And as I was to soon find out … very interesting author!
When I started reading Maulana Esack’s book, it became obvious to me that the Maulana’s life was just one Rumi syndrome after another. And like me, he found that so many of his closest friends and useful helpers were not people you’d usually see describing themselves as “practising Muslims”.
Maulana Esack grew up in a poor neighbourhood in the deep south of South Africa. His mother struggled to keep the family going. While many Muslims were busy growing fat on the apartheid, the Esack household could only turn to kind-hearted Catholics and other Islamically-behaved non-Muslims for assistance.
I could relate to this. Many Muslims would have made a scandal about my illness. Many had already created scandal about the closing of my legal practice and the sudden end to what seemed like a promising political ascent. I felt unable to turn to the “practising Muslims” (I prefer to call them cultural or ghetto Muslims), as their version of Islam allowed them to spread innuendo behind my back and chew my dead flesh.
But most importantly, Maulana Esack taught me that being a real practising Muslim is not just a matter of repeating formulae or dressing a certain way. Islam was in fact a state of mind, an attitude that often placed you at loggerheads with the Muslim ghetto.
Some Muslims think that only they know what is good for Islam. You often hear them using conspiratorial language about non-Muslims. They often believe in promoting the lie that all Muslim are united, and are offended when I criticise the wrong attitudes and action of Muslim leaders in the mainstream media.
Versions of these Muslims existed in South Africa in Maulana Esack’s time. They criticised him for being involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, arguing that Muslims were benefiting from the oppression of the black majority and that this was therefore good for Islam.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learnt from Maulana Esack’s book was that the best things for Islam are things which are inherently true and just and right. And more often than not, in today’s corrupt world, these are things which go against the interests of ghetto Islam.
I have now met Maulana Esack on two occasions of his visiting Australia. On the second occasion, I had him autograph a copy of his introductory book on the Qur’an. He wrote an awesome message about us being fellow strugglers. I treasured that book, and kept it in my pile of 50 books I have to read before I die.
Struggle for what is right became my yardstick for measuring a Muslim’s worth. So when I met one of my post-illness anchors, the humble Sayyida Jane, I could recognise in her the qualities of what I might call an Esackian Muslim.
Jane was a researcher who refused to work in the interests of multinationals. She would rather work behind a bar than support oppression. During my pre-illness period, I would have dismissed this as trendy lefty nonsense. But now I could recognise her wisdom.
Jane asked me to recommend a good Muslim author so that she could rediscover her Muslim roots. I immediately thought of Maulana Esack. I promised her I would bring her a book of his next time we met.
A few days later, I was rushing to meet Jane before she started her bar shift. I grabbed the Farid Esack book to give to her. I intended giving her the book that inspired me so much. Jane was going through her own Rumi syndrome, and I wanted to give her something in addition to her Deepak Chopra and the Dalai Lama.
When I handed her the book, she looked at it and said “Wow, thet’s fentestuk” in a thick South Pacific accent. She then read the hand-written note from Maulana Esack and planted a big fat kiss on my cheek. "Thenk Yoh! Thus uz sich a spishul guft!!"
I then proceeded to tell her about the book. She opened the book and looked a little confused.
“But I thought this book was about the Qur’an,” she said.
“No, it’s about how to be a Muslim in the modern world.”
“No, it’s an introduction to the Qur’an”.
I grabbed the book off her and realised she was right. I had given her the wrong book! And I have given her my cherished copy that Maulana Esack had signed himself!
Still, I may be of Indian descent but I couldn’t be an Indian giver. Jane still has the book, and she says she started reading it after buying a CD of Qur’an recitation. She really enjoys Maulana Esack’s writing style, and loves his good humour and his approach to gender issues.
So Maulana Esack has made a huge contribution to the lives of a lapsed lawyer and a Bani Alawi ex-barmaid. God-knows how many other people’s lives he has touched. And so, dear readers. Do yourselves a favour and grab one of his books. Let him touch your life also.
© Irfan Yusuf 2005