Ahmed Deedat: A Life in Da’wah

For a period spanning more than half a century missionaries of Christianity were unsettled by few other names than that of Ahmed Hoosen Deedat of Durban, South Africa. Spurred on into the field of comparative religion and the defense of the faith by the counter-productive activities of these very Christain missionaries themselves, he succeeded in countering their antics like no other in recent Muslim history. Doubtless, Deedat’s demise in the early days of August 2005 will leave behind a void unbridgeable for the near foreseeable future. Presented below is an account of his life and achievements.

 

Ahmed Hoosen Deedat, a man whose voice of courage and truth served as a beacon of light, amidst the prejudice and hypocrisy of the neo-missionary crusaders of the 20th century and amidst the gloom cast by the oppressive injustices of the capitalist world order, has finally passed away into the presence of his Lord. He remained the one figure over whom the Muslim Ummah of the present day in general, and the Asian community in particular, prided itself, even in the last stages of his life lived out from the confines of a sick-bed.

With his determination and patient labour, Deedat came to occupy a position of scholarly repute within the Muslim world for nearly half a century. His style of preaching was varied since he was blessed with, among other things, a great depth of knowledge in the Christian scriptures, a remarkable skill in oratory which came into particular prominence on the platform of inter-faith dialogue and last, but not the least, a convincing methodology in all his critiques of Christian ideology.

Undoubtedly, therefore, with his demise, a vacuum has been created. The Christian evangelists will heave a sigh of relief. Alas! The learned Sheikh passed away at a time when he was most needed. In the contemporary era wherein Muslims are perceived as a threat to global peace; at a time when they are constantly labeled as terrorists, fundamentalists and extremists, Deedat’s absence will be sorely felt. Those who attended the funeral at Verulam Muslim cemetery, in Durban, South Africa, expressed the sheer sense of loss they felt at the passing of a man whose name had elevated the status of the South African Muslim community in various parts of the Islamic world.

Hundreds of people participated in the funeral of Sheikh Ahmed Deedat, who breathed his last in Durban in South Africa in the early hours of 8th August 2005, after a prolonged illness that followed a stroke in 1996 which left him paralyzed from the neck down and which rendered him unable to speak or swallow for almost a decade – a decade during the whole duration of which he was entirely bedridden. During his prolonged illness, he was flown to Saudi Arabia on a medical jet, where he was taught to communicate by coordinating his eye movements with an alphabetical chart, which he memorized. In this way, and despite his disadvantageous position, he continued to inspire, educate, challenge and inform the people on the universal message of Islam.

Notwithstanding his stature and popularity, Sheikh Deedat was an exemplary character who retained his humility and simplicity throughout his life. He also belonged to that rare tribe of Muslim intellectuals who had the heart to gratefully acknowledge the services of other preachers. About Dr Zakir Naik, Deedat once said, “He has achieved in thirty years what I could not get in seventy.” The statement shows this particular aspect of his character.

With more than fifty years of experience behind him, Deedat was a scholar who had an amazing amount of knowledge regarding Christianity and Islam alike. It was mainly due to this fact that any Christian missionary had to think many times over before entering into a debate with him. While in quoting from the Qur’an, the exact chapter and verse number came so easily to his prodigious memory, he would, with no further difficulty, recite different quotations from different Bibles and that too where they actually contradicted each other. This precise handling of scriptural data often made his Christian opponent rethink the basics of his own religion. Through Deedat’s untiring, and rational, methods, hundreds of people, including a large number of Christian missionaries, embraced Islam in South Africa alone.

Born in the Surat district of India in 1918, Ahmad Hussain Deedat had no recollections of his father until he made his way to Durban in 1927. There the young Ahmed joined his father – a tailor by profession – who had immigrated to South Africa shortly after Ahmed was born. Fighting off the abysmal poverty and with neither formal schooling nor a command of the English language, Deedat thus began preparing for the role he was to play decades later without realizing it. He was enrolled at the Anjuman School in central Durban, where he applied himself with diligence in his studies. Soon enough, not only was he able to overcome the language barrier, but he also excelled in school. Despite his avid passion for reading, an acute lack of financial resources forced him to leave school after the sixth standard. He then started working for his livelihood. “It was a matter of survival,” he said about those days of his youth. “I wasn’t sad when I had to leave college. My father told me to go and work and I went to work.”

As fate would have it, Ahmad Deedat started working in 1936 in a store owned by a Muslim and which was located near a Christian seminary called ‘Adam’s mission’ on the Natal south coast. The incessant insults hurled by the trainee missionaries against Islam during their visits to the store in their leisure time infused an ardent desire within the young Deedat to do something to counter their false propaganda. One thing led to the other and finally one day, while cleaning the shop in which he worked, he came upon a book named Izhaar-ul-Haqq, which was all about a religious dialogue between a Muslim Imam and a Christian priest. This book was to have a marked influence on the young Deedat, destined many years later to become a great Daa’ee himself.  After his chancing upon that book, he began filling his memory with facts and quotes, compiling his own notebooks wherein he would record his constant search for the sublime truth. Izharul Haqq not only helped him to record the techniques and enormous success of the Indian Muslims in turning the tables against Christian missionary harassment during British rule in India, but it also reinforced in him the idea of holding debates with the missionaries of other faiths and, particularly, of the Christian one.

Armed with this new-found zeal, Deedat purchased his first Bible and began studying it deeply while, at the same time, comparing it with the Qur’an which he was scrutinizing in similar fashion. In his approach, Deedat believed that while the questions raised by the missionaries and the Christian viewpoints should be dealt, and answered, with rational proofs, all such efforts must be able to reach directly into the inner self of the listener in order that he, or she, be equipped to judge the truth without any sense of ambiguity.

He frequently countered the arguments of trainee missionaries with great success and when they beat a hasty retreat in the face of his incisive counter arguments, he grew in confidence so much so that he was soon calling their teachers, and even their priests, in the surrounding areas for debates. But he would always do so with humility and with the purest intentions of Da’wah alone. These successes spurred Ahmed Deedat more and more in the direction of active Da’wah work. With missionary zeal to project the truth and the beauty of Islam, Deedat immersed himself into a host of activities over the next three decades.

In 1940, after he had acquired an extensive knowledge of both the Bible, and the Qur’an, he took to the stage for the first time. There he delivered a lecture entitled “Muhammad (SA): The Messenger of peace” to an audience of only fifteen people at Avalon Cinema at Durban. He went on to declare that “there were many contradictions in the Christian Bible and doctrine,” and proved, with their own scriptures, that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was, indeed, the final messenger of God.

Not even his marriage, the birth of his children and a three-year sojourn to Pakistan after its independence dampened his enthusiasm or dulled his desire to defend Islam from the deceitful distortions of the Christian missionaries. Within a short space of time, he became a noted figure who was attended upon by huge audiences. At City Hall in Durban, on one early occasion, he presented his arguments and dared to face questions in front of an audience that numbered up to two thousand – an audience that had crossed the then rampant, legally enforced racial divides of an apartheid-era South Africa to listen to him speak. In the ‘question & answer’ session, Christians lined up with their Bibles, attempting to refute him. But, perhaps, as a sign of things to come, no question proved too difficult for him, and he silenced them all by quoting the Bible from memory.

Since then nothing stood in the way of his voyage through the holy path of the propagation of Islam. Da’wah began to dominate his life, and he was soon invited to Cape Town, where he lectured in huge halls, attracting crowds of thirty to forty thousand people. With his spell-binding performances, he was thus able to raise the morale of the local Malay people who had been feeling disillusioned and downtrodden by white supremacy.

Deedat never overlooked any platform to spread the call of the Almighty, and never cared whether the audience was, or was not, in full strength. The very apparent benefits of his oratorical skill were dispersed among the audience with a uniformity of purpose and conviction that was remarkable in itself. In 1957, Deedat, together with two of his friends, founded the Islamic Propagation Centre (IPC) in Durban. It was through the offices of this institution that he printed and published a variety of books and organized and offered classes to new Muslims.

Deedat’s approach in the propagation of Islam was unique for the reason that he not only employed the classical way of Da’wah but also pioneered the way of using the electronic media for the propagation of Islam. In usingaudio/ video cassettes as well as pre-prepared documentaries and through TV interviews, Deedat showed the right path to Muslims all over the world, and that too at a time when Muslims quarreled with each other for the silliest of reasons which oftentimes revolved around the bases of sectarian partisanship. In time, the versatile way of Da’wah which Deedat stood for, crossed all barriers and had found for itself a genuine and worldwide acceptance. It was not long before the King Faizal Award, late as it was, reached his doorsteps in 1986 for the services that he had rendered for the propagation of Islam.

Following the establishment of the Islamic Propagation Centre (IPC), he was offered seventy-five acres of land by one of his admirers for the propagation of Islam. Deedat grabbed this opportunity since he had for long fostered a dream of establishing an institute to train the propagators of Islam. Thus, to his credit also went the establishment of ‘Al-Salam’ in Braemer, where he trained thousands of young, dynamic preachers who were enabled in effectively defending the false propaganda of Christian missionaries against Islam in the light of the Qur’an. This young band of Muslim preachers could, thus, invalidate the illogical arguments of Christianity as a religion altogether. Deedat then went on to erect a building-complex for ‘Al-Salam’ with the help of his family members. This included a mosque inside the complex. However, by 1973 he had to shut down the institute due to shortage of funds. By then, he had come to realize that ‘Al Salam’ didn’t quite turn out to be an institute of the high standards that he had set for it.

But this was just the beginning of his journey to higher goals and to wider, greener pastures, for he then made himself available to the service of the Ummah worldwide. Recollecting this juncture of his life, Deedat once remarked: “I was relieved when I left Al-Salam, because I wanted to focus more on the IPC. Al-Salam did not let me focus enough on Da’wah internationally.”

His Da’wah activities, thenceforth, resulted in huge turn outs at his lectures worldwide, and, as a direct result, people in their hundreds embraced Islam not only in South Africa but also in other countries abroad. As for the Arab world, which had initially viewed this new-comer with some suspicion, it was swept off its feet by Sheikh Deedat’s entertaining approach, dynamic personality, deep knowledge and powerful presentations of both Islam and Christianity. Where once Saudi television refused to have an interview with him, the doors were now always kept open in front of him that he may freely offer his suggestions – suggestions that were always taken up to be fulfilled in sincerity.

Over the years, Deedat published over twenty of his own books and distributed millions of copies of pamphlets and literature the world over. Many of his publications have been translated into Russian, Urdu, Arabic, Bengali, French, Amharic, Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Indonesian, Zulu, Afrikaans, Dutch, Norwegian and other languages. A collection of his important works was later published in 1993 in two beautifully bound volumes under the title The Choice by Ebi Lockhart in Durban.

Al-Qurán, the Miracle of miracles was another of his masterpieces which was of great service to Islam and the Muslims. Written and argued out in grand style, this book wreaked havoc with the Christian world and thousands of people embraced Islam. In it Deedat highlighted the Qur’an’s inherent capacity to suggest the best solutions for all human dilemmas of the present times. This was in stark contrast with the acute inability of the Bible in this regard since the Bible had been distorted from its original purity. Deedat showed with marked precision where, and how, the gospel writers had distorted it. He dealt a severe blow to the Christian clergy when he clearly showed how the word Allah (Ellah) had been deleted from the Bible. The credit for convincingly showing the Christians what the Bible had to say about Muhammad (PBUH) also belongs to Deedat. In his book What the Bible says about Muhammad (PBUH), he explained his eight irrefutable arguments while citing frequent authentic examples from the Bible.

Of the many stories of conversion to Islam linked to the work of Deedat, one calls for especial mention. This relates to the conversion of an African attorney from Catholicism to Islam – a conversion that had to do less with a miracle and more with the charm and appeal of Shaikh Deedat’s book, Crucifixion or Crucifiction?  Dawood Ngwane, a distinguished African attorney, was a man of great substance who was actually not searching for a new religion. He was quite pleased and happy with his Catholic faith. It was a coincidence that he came across this book, which shook his faith and radically changed his concept of God and of his entire life. The book which he found while searching through some old books in his library grabbed his attention with its title itself. Having read the booklet, it plunged him into a decisive period of deep inner-questioning. He had reached a point in his life where he began to doubt his core beliefs. He mustered the courage to go and talk to Sheikh Ahmed Deedat at the IPCI with the intention of convincing him that he had got it all wrong.

He says: “My personal encounter with Sheikh Deedat further weakened my faith in the Trinity.” But Ngwane, a man of ardent faith in Christianity, was not convinced fully and decided upon consulting his Bishop at the Marian Hill Diocese. Clutching Sheikh Deedat’s booklet under his arm, he approached his Bishop and declared that he no longer believed that God is a trinity. In a firm and authoritative voice the Bishop asked him the reason for his changed beliefs. Dawood handed him Sheikh Deedat’s book, and asked him to read it and to get back to him with his response. Three months passed without any response from the Bishop. Dawood informed the Diocese Management Committee what transpired between him and the Bishop and they were quite shocked. The committee then decided to arrange a meeting between him and Father Doncabe with whom he could discuss his questions of faith. He says: “When I met Reverend Father Doncabe he had several Bibles with him. Father Doncabe said that I need to understand right from the outset that the ‘trinity is not in the Bible and that it belonged to the teachings of the church.’

The fact that Deedat’s decades of activism in Da’wah and debates with renowned Christian missionaries like Jimmy Swaggart and Prof. Floyd E. Clark propelled him further into the midst of international audiences in all corners of the world will be long remembered and celebrated. His debate with Prof. Clark at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1985 attracted Muslim holiday makers from all over the world, and Deedat proved to be an instant hit there. Very soon thereafter, he found himself swept up in a whirlwind of lecture tours in places like Morocco, Kenya, Sweden, Australia, Denmark, and USA. It was a measure of his immense popularity and appeal that not less than eight thousand people showed up to watch Deedat’s great debate in USA entitled “Is the Bible the word of God?” with the American Reverend Jimmy Swaggart, who was the head of a $100 million ministry. Henry Hock Guan, a Christian himself, in one of his scholarly articles says regarding this debate: “Sadly Swaggart merely relied on TV showmanship to influence the crowd. When Deedat challenged him to prove the Bible as the word of God, Swaggart simply quoted John 3:16 and claimed that his life was changed by it. Even such a claim was shattered to pieces when Swaggart’s personal sexual weakness was later exposed in the press.”

Inevitably, however, some of the numerous lectures which Deedat delivered all over the world were also characterized by their political message especially with regard to the question of racism and Israeli apartheid. He promoted the Palestinian cause by depicting Israeli brutality in its true form: an activism for which he was forever maligned by Zionist pressure groups around the world.

Now,with his passing away the Muslim Ummah has, in many ways, become destitute and orphaned. It may be that, perhaps, he will never again be seen proving a point to an evangelist; it may be that he might never again be seen sharing the stage with non-Muslim scholars; but it is by no means uncertain that succeeding generations of Muslims will remember his work in the cause of Islam for long times to come.

 

(To be continued)