A Tribute to My Father: Muhammad Muslim
Updated: Sep 2
Maulana Muhammad Muslim Saheb was one of the founders of Majlis-e-Mushawarat (India's apex consultative body of Muslims). He was a member of the Jamaat Islami's Shura Council for more than three decades and former editor-in-chief of the Daily Dawat.
Here are my reflections on his life
There were days when we did not have enough food to feed ourselves, and he would advise us to learn how to live within means. There were occasions when he would ask us to donate the monetary gifts we received during Eid celebrations to the needy and the poor we never knew. There were times when he would buy us second-hand clothes from the flea market while wearing a Sherwani (long jacket) without a shirt because he had given that to someone he found shirtless in the streets. There were moments when we saw him giving a helping hand to a janitor carrying human waste. We also saw him fasting for days because the food he would consume might serve his children or even guests. There were nights when he would ask us to sleep on the footpath out in the streets because homeless elders or children and women had nowhere to go, and they stayed in our home.
In our young and tender age, these images lived in our minds, but we did not know why he was doing what he was doing.
There were recollections when we saw him standing up late at night, praying alone, crying, and mornings when we saw him focusing on a page of the Quran gazing at the horizon for hours, not responding to our questions. There were hours when we saw him waking up in the middle of the night, writing on a piece of paper.
We observed all this, but we could not understand why he was doing what he was doing?
There were times when we watched him go alone, risking his life to calm mobs advancing to Muslim homes to destroy them during Hindu-Muslim riots. There were occasions when we saw from the roof of our house his efforts to persuade angry Muslim mobs to spare the lives of Hindus living in our neighborhood. We knew what he was doing, but we did not understand why.
There were times when he would not return home for several days or months and years. We would not know where he was only to discover later that he was in prison for days or months or years of writing something objectionable to the authorities who had accused him of defying them.
But, we also saw him submissive and quiet when his elder brother would admonish him or yell at him for not informing him of the financial strains our household had gone through. He would smile and politely refuse any monetary support his own elder brother would offer in crisis times.
We saw India's President Shankar Dayal Sharma visiting our one-bedroom house in the crowded Old Delhi, offering condolences at the elder brother's demise in the quietness of late-night. We also saw Inder Kumar Gujral, a powerful minister in the cabinet of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, visiting our family when he was in prison during the emergency. We remember when Kuldip Nayar and other journalists would call our house to discuss with him in the room while we were running around. We saw several prominent Muslim leaders and scholars sharing whatever food we had during long hours of debate.
We grew up observing all this. I remember the day when I returned home shirtless and shoeless on a cold night, my mother asked me several questions. He was attentive to what I was saying. Finally, I told her that I had given my shirt and shoes to a person I found semi-naked in Delhi's streets.
I saw his face light up, and I still remember what he told me with a smiling face that night: It sends goosebumps whenever I recollect that. He said, "this is the beginning of your understanding of Islam and the Quran." I did not understand how to give a shirt, and a shoe teaches me Islam and the Quran. When I learned to read the Quran with translation and then in the Arabic language, I realized what he had meant.
We learned Islam by observing him. He never gave us long lectures on the importance of the Quran or Islam. He never recommended any specific books to develop our comprehension of the deen we were born. We did not even have the money to buy the books published by his organization, and he would never ask for a free copy of any. But he taught us how to pray and how to read the Quran through personal examples. Thus, we acquired our fundamental understanding of Islam and the Quran while imitating him.
Later on, when we started reading what he wrote in the Daily Dawat or the Daily Nadeem, a newspaper published from Bhopal, his native town, we realized that he was probably writing his journey to Islam because we had seen him walking that.
In his understanding of the deen, human beings' dignity was central regardless of their background. As we discovered from his writings, Islam's essential message is to create a community of believers that would not allow the weakest and the most vulnerable to suffer humiliation because of a lack of means and resources. When his brother would tell him that it was impossible to change the world, his typical response was, "one can change oneself."
In his writings, we discovered that he would advocate equality of human beings, regardless of gender or religious differences. Therefore, Allah created all human beings equal, and all of them deserve a dignified existence.
In his writings, we found out strong advocacy of the right to dissent in matters not already settled by the divine writ, as explained by the Prophet. Of course, people would differ with him on many issues, but he would smilingly and politely conclude the conversation by saying, "I hope you are right." I never found him saying a disrespectful word against those who were against him.
We discovered in his writing acceptance of all sound practices in Islam. We saw him visiting the masjid of the Shia community and the Bohra community and encouraging them to work with the Muslim community on broader issues to live a genuine Islam.
In his writings, we also discovered the importance of modern education to expand and explain Islam's original message.
He wanted to see Muslims become a practical component of Indian society with full participation in all spheres of life permitted by Islam. He advocated political participation, social welfare, academic excellence, and unity of purpose within the Muslim community.
We saw him working long hours to help Muslim organizations and groups thrash out their differences and work for a common cause. People would come and talk about others in a hostile manner, and he would listen, trying to persuade them to change their opinion of others. However, he would never repeat the assertions of people about each other. Instead, he would give a positive perspective on each organization and individual.
We never saw him taking a day off from his work, not even during his illness. He had tuberculosis, but he continued to write his column even under that condition.
When he was active in organizing the Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat after the wave of bloody riots in different parts of India, many, including his friends, accused him of having compromised his organization's position. Yet this did not change his relations with them. He was still their friend. Many of these people visited him at home and rebuked him for changing the nature of his organization; he would patiently listen to them without defending himself personally.
He was not a scholar as he did not have significant degrees attached to his name. He never went to an institute of higher learning. He did not memorize the entire Quran, and he did not master any books of ahadith. But he knew how to respect knowledge. He lived it. He never sought any limelight for anything. He was an average person in terms of his educational skills as he had not gone beyond high school because of his family conditions. He had lost his parents when he was under the age of 4. A friend of his grandfather raised him. He studied Arabic, Persian, Urdu, English, and Turkish from his grandfather. He never pretended to be a scholar. However, he used the knowledge that he gained from his basic understanding of the Quran and the Prophet's teachings effectively to the best advantage of his community and faith. He never hesitated to speak the truth, even if he was in a prime minister's presence.
His vision was simple. The Quran and the one who introduced the Quran to humanity are the sources to acquire our character's essential traits. Building character is a lifelong process, and one should not wait until perfection to start working for the ideals of the Quran. He devoted his life to this ideal. When he was part of the Khaksar movement, he worked for the same object, and when he was part of the Jamat e Islami, his mission did not change.
He was a salaried employee of the Jamat-e-Islami's newspaper Dawat. His children's request was straightforward: "give back every penny that I have earned as a salary from the organization." So, after his death, one of our brothers took it upon himself to ensure to fulfill his request. We know how happy our mother was when my brother returned home after returning the amount to the organization's president.
I was in England working when I got the phone call from one of his friends about his demise. I had never thought that I would be away on that day because I always had the honor of serving him in the hospital or home during his long years of illness. When I called home, my mother told me that we did not have enough money to buy his shroud and buy the grave. So we borrowed money to buy the coffin. The land for the burial was given free by the in-charge of Dargah Shah Waliullah on the outskirts of Old Delhi. He left the world without complaints. He breathed his last on the prayer rug on which he had just concluded the early day prayer. There was not a single penny in his household on the day when he left this world. How rich he had left this world, we now realize.
He lived in a rented home with his wife and 11 children in a 10x10 room for 35 years without even thinking of buying a bigger home. He refused to move into a bigger house when his organization offered him that. We still rent the home. From the property he had sold in his native home, he bought land in Delhi to give to a person in need. He was once given a shop by his friend to run a bookstore in Delhi's most expensive area, near the Jama Masjid. He gave this shop to the organization voluntarily because it was needed to distribute the literature.
He never complained about anything. He did not talk about his financial problems with anyone. But he often apologized to our mother for putting her through a life of hardship and challenges. We never heard him raise his voice in his home. We never heard him say anything hurtful to her or us. We never saw him angry except on one occasion when I had asked him to use the influence of his friend in government to find me a position on the All India Radio. He told us to work for our livelihood and not be dependent on his contacts to win any favors.
So, on July 3, the day he passed away, I take the day off from everything else to spend time alone reflecting on his life, working quietly, and reminding myself how deep his commitment was in the Quran and the messenger of Allah. We find him speaking to us in our imagination, saying individuals' life and death do not alter the nature of the Quran and the Prophet's message. "Do whatever you can, always raising the bars of work with sincerity and dedication without expecting any reward, and you will leave this world rich and contented."