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A Tribute to My Father: Muhammad Muslim

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

Maulana Muhammad Muslim Saheb was one of the founders of Majlis-e-Mushawarat (India's apex consultative body of Muslims). He was a Jamaat Islami's Shura Council member for over 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 our means. There were occasions when he would ask us to donate the monetary gifts we received during Eid celebrations to people in need and people experiencing poverty we never knew. He sometimes bought 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 his food might serve his children or guests. At night, he would ask us to sleep on the footpath out in the streets because homeless elders, children, and women had nowhere to go and stayed in our house.

At 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, and 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.

Sometimes, he would not return home for several days, months, or years. We would not know where he was, only to discover later that he was in prison for days, 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 admonished or yelled 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 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 I had given my shirt and shoes to someone 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 Quran or Islam's importance. He never recommended 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 read the Quran through personal examples. Thus, we acquired our fundamental understanding of Islam and the Quran while imitating him.

Later, when we started reading what he wrote in the Daily Dawat or the Daily Nadeem, a newspaper published in 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 dignity was central regardless of 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 the equality of human beings, regardless of gender or religious differences. Therefore, Allah created all human beings equally and deserved a dignified existence.

In his writings, we found 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 disrespectful words 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 and Bohra communities and encouraging them to work with the Muslim community on broader issues to live a genuine Islam.

His writings also focussed on modern education's importance in expanding and explaining the original divine 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 work, not even during his illness. He had tuberculosis but continued to write his column even under that condition.

When he actively organized the Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat after the bloody riots in different parts of India, many, including his friends, accused him of compromising 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. His educational skills were average, 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 with 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 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 newspaper Dawat. His children's request was straightforward: "Give back every penny I have earned as a salary from the organization." So, after his death, one of our brothers took it upon himself 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 a phone call from one of his friends about his demise. I had never thought I would be away on that day because I always had the honor of serving him in the hospital or at home during his long years of illness. When I called home, my mother told me we did not have enough money to buy his shroud and 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 considering 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 needy person. He was once given a shop by his friend to run a bookstore near the Jama Masjid in Delhi's most expensive area. 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 All India Radio. He told us to work for our livelihood and not depend on his contacts to win favors.

So, on July 3, the day he passed away, I took the day off from everything else to spend time alone reflecting on his life, working quietly, and reminding myself how deep his commitment was to 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."

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