Personal Shahadah: A ‘Muslim’ Reverts to Islam (Part – 1)
The following is a simple, inartificial, and appealing real story of a “man of action”, his struggle against the odds, and his humble and realistic aspirations, endeavors and successes. His consistent and persistent efforts, with meager means at his disposal, brought on a lasting change in Australia where not only, he but the whole family of three generations that he raised, are looked at by Arab, Asian, other emigrants and locals, as a model to follow.
A Born Muslim: Muslim by Chance
My older cousin and I were sent from early childhood in 1935 to study at the primary school of AMU. The three years 1935–1937 gave me the basic foundation for morals and etiquette but unfortunately this period did not give me the foundation for Islamic beliefs because there was no such education of this type. We were not even punctual in prayers. And were not taught the basic tenets of Islam in the professional way in which other subjects were taught.
After leaving Aligarh, I continued as a student one year in 1938–39, in Shibli Nomani School at Azamgarh followed by three years, 1939–42, at Jumna Mission High School, Allahabad. Everything went normally. Except that I was the best student in Mathematics because of being coached rigorously by my grandfather. I passed my High School in second division with a distinction in Mathematics. I obtained admission to the prestigious institution, Ewing Christian College, Allahabad. The session started in July 1942. From the very first day I started taking part in extracurricular activities: sports, meetings and get-togethers.
Two separate but indirectly related involvements made a great impact on my life. One was the fortnightly get–together at the house of our American lecturer Mr. Gould. There we used to have tea parties, plays, games-playing and talks about freedom of thought and action. This group was the supporter of the Indian National Congress in thought, but not in action.
The other group, which I joined, was of active congressmen and women, organized by our Physics lecturer, Mr. Sharma. Thus I started taking part in the Quit India Movement of the Indian National Congress. Hardly a month passed, and in September 1942, we congress students, about 40 in number, formed a procession and shouted slogans against the British Government. The police rounded us up and seven of us were caught. We were kept in jail for three days. This was the first political encounter in my life.
Then the Congress decided to demonstrate the Quit India Movement by having big rallies in almost every large city of India. It was a non–violence movement against the British Government, demanding the freedom of India. I, with six colleagues, was in the forefront of the rally. After one and a half kilometers when almost all the groups had joined the rally, we proceeded towards the Government House. The army had been called and fire was opened over the mob. Many people were wounded. My very close friend Surrendar Nath, was very seriously wounded. I and two of my colleagues, took him in a Tonga and rushed to a hospital. Surrendar’s father had died two years before and his mother was brought to the hospital by my colleague. The brave lady did not shed any tears and said, “you all are my sons. Thank God you are not hurt. Surrendar will be alright.”
Unfortunately I was the only Muslim student in the Congress group. Other Muslim students were either in the Communist group or in the Muslim League. But not very active in Ewing Christian College. My year was lost and that made me lose Interest in the Indian National Congress, forming the basic notion that it was more in the interest of Hindus – not being for Muslims.
I passed intermediate in Science at Ewing Christian College. Allahabad, in the Second Division in 1945. After that I went to Patna studying at B.N. College, and completed my B.Sc. in 1947. I secured First Class, First in B. A. and B.Sc. and broke the record in Maths and Physics.
My two years at Patna were very tumultuous as it was the time of the struggle for the freedom of India. I was the Secretary General of the Bihar Muslim Students Federation (under Muslim League). And I went through the whole tragedy of the barbarous killing of Muslims. It was another big experience in my life when I came in contact with the provincial and national leaders of the Muslim League and I also came in contact with Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru. Without going into detail, very sadly, I have to disclose that while the Muslim leaders, local as well as national, could not, Nehru helped us in rescuing the trapped Muslims of Bihar Sharif, when a mob of over 2000 Hindus attacked the town. The Muslim leaders were arm–chair elites, out of touch with the masses, and did not know how to deal with the rioters.
When I came to join the Aligarh Muslim University for engineering studies in 1947, I had completely lost confidence in the Muslim leadership, having been an active worker and advocate of the Muslim League for two years from 1945 to 1947. The riots of Bihar turned me against Hindus. I was completely disillusioned. I was proud to declare myself as a Muslim, but had no knowledge of and no real belief in Islam. I started my extra–curricular activities by joining the progressive group of students’ federation and I got further away from Islam, to the extent that I stopped going for the prayers that were held in Sir Sulaiman Hall, a boarding house for the engineering students.
Between July 1947 to November 1949, for two-and-a-half years, I developed into a promising young man, excelling in my studies, always getting highest marks, captain of basketball team and member of cricket team, and also the Quartermaster in NCC. After deep involvement with the progressive group of Students’ Federation, I was disheartened by the emotional and shallow behaviour of its members. By September 1949 I left that Organization.
At the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, a communal tension arose in AMU, as for almost two days it was not known who killed him. Meanwhile, events of the Partition and its aftermath brought out a general feeling of hatred between Muslims and Hindus. Riots erupted throughout India.
The Most Significant Turn One incident jolted me and sharpened my thoughts. There was a Hindu class-fellow of mine, Panna Lal, of Hyderabad (I still remember his name) with whom I was arguing the superiority of Islam over Hinduism. He was a very close friend of mine and was very frank with me. He asked, “Ashfaq, have you studied Islam? Do you know what is written in the Qur’ân? Do you know the life history of your Prophet? Have you studied other religions, say Hinduism? How can you claim that Islam is better than Hinduism? You are such an intelligent person, but you are talking like an ignorant fanatic.” I still remember his words. I was stunned and I could not argue with him any more. His words hovered in my mind. I felt distressed. I did not know what to do. I had a vague idea about Islam but I did not have full belief. I did not understand fully about Allah or how the Prophet (s) fulfilled his mission.
Allah opens the ways when you are really cornered, and in reality you are in search of truth. Now I narrate the story of how Allah gave me the hidayah and caused my reversion back to Islam. Although I was born as a Muslim, I consider myself a Muslim revert. There are many like me, but they do not feel like that, and are hesitant to declare it.
I heard a knock at my door. It was one of my friends, Noman, who had called on me on his way back from the Hall mosque. He was very affectionate and very soft- spoken. He took my hand in his, and very earnestly, in a very polite manner, pleaded with me, “Ashfaq! You are in search of truth. You are confused. There is a very good opportunity for you. Jamaat Islami is holding an Ijtima (official gathering) at Rampur next week for five days. We three persons from Engineering Hall are going to attend. Please join us and have a direct contact with the persons who are conveying the message of Islam to all Indians.” This was the moment that Allah decided to turn around my whole life. Without fully understanding; still half asleep; moved by the passionate appeal of Noman, I agreed to accompany the group that was leaving ten days later.
From the very start of the journey, by watching the enthusiasm of my group, and other groups who were joining us, I became very attentive. I felt something strange was going to happen. The moment I arrived at Rampur, I became serious, minutely watching every movement of individuals and groups, listening to the speeches and talks of different groups, even watching their method of eating, praying and relaxation, I found myself in a different world, very different to that of the mammoth gatherings of the Muslim League. There was no grandeur, pomp or show, no slogans, no emotionalism, and no loud claims, no hatred against Hindus, no self-conceit or self-pride as in the gatherings of Muslim League.
There were many things that impressed me, but the most striking thing that completely affected my future direction was the following event: It was a morning session for the members and all the delegates and visitors from different places. Maulana Hamid Ali was to give a speech on ‘Shahadat-e-Haq’. The place was jam-packed. The speech had just commenced. While all attention was paid to the speaker, Maulana Abul Lais Islahi, the Ameer of Jamaat Islami, India arrived. No one cared to direct their attention to the leader of the All India Jamaat. He silently came forward, and finding no other place, moved some shoes and sat on the floor near others. He kept sitting there for the whole duration of the speech. For me it was astounding.
I had worked with many organizations of Muslims where leaders were almost worshipped. Qaid-e-Azam, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, etc., used to enter under loud slogans with the roaring sound of ‘Allahu Akbar’. The little knowledge of the life of the Prophet and the companions that I had read, and heard in the sermons of the Imams of mosques, gave me the idea that this was the Jamaat, the Organization which sincerely believed in Islam, and was following the footsteps of the Prophet (s) and the Companions.
A great storm was building up in my mind regarding myself. What should I do? For the first time, I sincerely prayed and asked Allah to guide me further. There were four other students from Aligarh attending the Ijtima. Noman introduced me to them. They started talking, and then I came to know that they were the workers of Jamaat and were involved in the students’ group of Jamaat Islami in Aligarh Muslim University. Here they had come for a Specific purpose and had brought with them the proposal to open an institution as outlined in the renowned book of ‘Taalimat’ of Maulana Maududi. They had put a proposal for starting the classes soon after the Ijtima. They were asked to stay, as this was to be discussed in the meeting of Shura after the Ijtima.
I remembered the words of my Hindu friend Panna Lal. ‘Do you know Islam?’ I considered it a God-given opportunity to devote myself to the study of Islam – deep self-study, by undergoing the rigorous Madrasah education, as outlined by Maulana Maudoodi. I immediately got hold of the book and that same night I finished it, and I was convinced that this was the only right direction for anyone wanting to work seriously for Islam. I requested the group to allow me stay with them. If Jamaat decided to start classes, I would also join them.
The general meeting was over, and the issue of starting a tertiary institution for the graduates of modern universities, for learning all aspects of Islam, was to be discussed in this special Shura meeting. After a lengthy discussion it was decided to start with three students, who would constitute the first batch. After learning of my background as the most brilliant student of engineering, expected to complete the course in first position in the following April, the Shura decided that I should go back and continue with my engineering studies.
The Ameer-e-Jamaat, gauging all the injunctions of Islam together with the Masalah Mursalah, softly but firmly replied: ‘You go back without any heaviness upon your heart. The doors are open to you after your final examination if you still insist on joining the Sanwi Darsgah.’ I returned light-hearted, with the firm determination to change myself totally and to consider this period of five months as the period to make myself worthy of taking such a great responsibility upon my shoulders.
I was guided by Allah and it was His taufiq (grace) that I fulfilled my pledge and went very successfully through this period. When I returned to Aligarh, I was a completely changed person. All at Aligarh were astounded to see such an abrupt transformation in the life of a person. Those who were within my sphere were totally shocked about my condition. They considered I had gone mad, crazy. They waited to see how long Ashfaq could sustain this change – one week, four weeks or two months. I thank Allah that the five months from December 1949 to April 1950 was the best period of my life, which brought out one of the best models of a genuine worker for the Islamic movement.
Upon my return from Rampur ljtima I immediately joined the students group of Jamaat Islami as a worker. Noman was too busy in his studies but there was another engineering student – Abdul Mannan – who was an old worker of Jamaat in Aligarh. The Jamaat had planned a schedule for holding its meetings in almost every hall between Maghreb and Isha prayers. The scheme was there, but because of non-availability of workers it was not properly implemented.
I, myself, volunteered to take the responsibility of conducting the da`wah meetings every evening in such a way that two persons, myself and Abdul Mannan, could cover all the hostels and halls of the AMU. I conducted daily, seven days a week, while Abdul Mannan held meetings, thus covering twelve gatherings a week at different places on the campus. It was a great breakthrough for conveying the message of Jamaat Islami to all types of students at the University.
My activities made the ‘progressive’ group upset but they did not dare to mobilize anything against me. Still, I continued to be the best student of engineering with a high reputation. My extra-curricular activities were all channelled in a different way.
In the meantime, in the villages around AMU, riots broke out. Muslims were looted and killed. It was the responsibility of the AMU to give shelter to victims and evacuees of the villages. A refugee camp was established by the authorities, but the question was, where to get volunteers from. I put forward the proposal to the Jamaat’s circle to take part in such a noble task. Again the question of responsibility arose. Who was to organize all this?
Again, I offered myself after consulting with my old friend, Noman, to take part in these activities. Noman, very gladly and enthusiastically, agreed to work hard for this project. It was also a very difficult task of organizing meals, arranging the recreation for children and treatment for the wounded. Noman, myself and two other senior members of Jamaat, Safdar Saheb and Rafiq Saheb, took charge of this project which continued for two months, January and February 1950.
I never missed my classes. After the classes, I devoted all my time for these two assignments. I was completely transformed. I was so much engrossed with the idea of service that my colleagues, and even the professors, were upset that I was ruining my future. They suspected that I was neglecting my studies. But this was not the case. Every day for two hours, from eleven to one o’clock during the night I used to study completing all my assignments on time. Thus, I was still the best student in the class, being attentive and answering questions correctly. I had made up my mind that I had to maintain the first position so that no one would think my involvement with Islamic activities was going to deprive me of the educational excellence, or a bright professional future.
With proper time management I was able to carry on Islamic activities to my full potential as well as fulfilling my responsibilities as a top student. I set a unique example for the students to pursue their studies. I firmly believe, and have proved through my lifestyle, that Islamic activities are not a hindrance for material pursuits, provided one is methodical, systematic and time-conscious. Not a single minute was wasted. My reports were sent to the Markaz Jamaat Islami, Rampur. I wrote a personal letter to Maulana Abul Lais reminding him of his promise that after getting my results I would join the institution Sanwi Darsgah in July 1950. He informed me that the arrangements for teachers would be made for me if I still insisted and did not change my plans. I stood first class, first in Engineering and was awarded the Tufail Gold Medal for first position in Engineering, with distinction in five subjects out of seven.
I left Aligarh with such a high impact that its effects were carried on among many batches of engineering students. From then onward the table was turned. Until now the trend was that the top students belonged to the progressive group, but from this time onward, the Islamic-minded group came up to the mark, at least in engineering. After me most of the high-mark achievers were Islamic=minded students adhering strictly to the tenets of Islam.
Study of Islam: Muslim by Choice
By not taking up an engineering career immediately after my graduation; by not accepting the prestigious Tata scholarship for foreign training; by not going to Pakistan to teach engineering, it seemed that I was closing the doors of material prosperity, position and high rank. This made my relatives, my well-wishers and my professors annoyed. All were of the opinion that learning Qur’an and Hadith through Arabic was not very essential for a Muslim. The main thing was to build your career. Education must give you honour, wealth and position. My precarious position could not be realized by these society-oriented people. I was at the crossroads to know, accept and follow Islam, or reject it outright. It was a matter of life and death for my soul, my own self and my world view. It is a long story of how I passed my four years of intensive study of Arabic, Qur’an, Hadith and Fiqh together with comparative religion, philosophies, ideologies and other languages, and how deeply I became involved in contemplation and thinking, while all the material losses or suffering never perturbed me for a moment. Again, only with the grace (taufiq) of Allah, I went through my Islamic studies very successfully, receiving the highest marks in my batch of students at Sanwi Darsgah.
Just after finishing the first year of our four-year course, we had to study the discipline which we had selected for Islamisation. The basic aim of the Sanwi Darsgah was to produce people who, after developing a deep understanding of Islam, specialize in a branch of humanities with an Islamic perspective. My colleague Br. Shamsul Huda and I had selected political science as our field.
Now we wanted expert and professional advice for pursuing the modern trends in our field. We decided to approach Prof. Habeeb of AMU, the famous historian, the scholar of Islamic mysticism and the Professor and Head of the Department of History and Political Science. I wrote a letter from Rampur that we wished to take his advice for studies of the modern period. He gave us an appointment at his residence in Badar Bagh. We arrived there in time. He came down and point-blankly asked us to introduce ourselves in detail as to who we were and why we wished to pursue these kinds of studies.
When each of us had finished our stories, he had tears in his eyes. He remarked, “I have seen and heard stories of many people who left their prosperous careers for the sake of Westernized knowledge, but in my experience you are the first people in these times who have undertaken the very noble and urgent work which had to be started. I am proud to help you to devise a course for you.” He spent two hours dictating to us different ideas and their resources. He asked us to come again for further consultations and review. We went back to Rampur and followed the outline which he had given us for modern Western studies in history and political science.
I handed over myself completely to the Jamaat Islami after my Islamic studies to decide what I should do from then onward. Jamaat had become much interested in the Aligarh Muslim University and decided that I should work full-time in organizing Jamaat work, and establishing groups in other universities. My other colleagues Nejatullah Siddiqui, Abdul Haq Ansari and Mohammad Hameedullah also came to Aligarh for research in their various fields of interest. A group of the members of Jamaat Islami numbering around ten were residing in the AMU campus, and directly or indirectly were involved with the University as staff members, research scholars, and students. The burden of the Ameer of this group was laid upon me, which I very reluctantly accepted because there were my other senior colleagues of Sanwi Darsgah, and senior arakeen (members) of Jam’aat who were much more capable than me. This period of my stay at the AMU was from June 1955 to September 1957.
There were many tasks to be performed. The dominant progressive group of staff and students became alert after realizing that Islam was going to play an important role from now onward. The most profound manifestation of the dominance of the ideology was depicted by the election of the Students Union of AMU. The result of that election was the barometer to gauge the inclination of students towards communism, Muslim nationalism or Islamic trends.
It was very difficult at that time, and even now, to distinguish and separate the services to the Muslim community, and the Islamic work of da`wah and mobilization.
(To be continued)