Abdul Wahid Hamid, writer, editor, educationalist, teacher and community activist, was born in Trinidad in 1943. His paternal grandfather had migrated to the Caribbean from Kanpur (Cawnpore) in India while his grandmother as a young Hindu girl of 14 was kidnapped off the streets by British agents in India and taken to Trinidad as an ‘indentured labourer’.
His best-selling ‘Islam: the Natural Way’ has been translated into several languages including French, Spanish, Turkish, Bossanski, Urdu and Malay. He has recently published ‘Burnishing the Heart’, selections from the Qur’an for self-awareness with some personal reflections.
Earlier publications include a pioneering course for the teaching of Qur’anic Arabic, and life histories of the Companions of the Prophet based on original Arabic sources. He has edited numerous books including the important ‘The Meccan Crucible’ by Zakaria Bashier, and more recently M. S. Kayani’s ‘Pondering the Qur’an’ and ‘The Quest for Sanity – reflections on September 11 and the Aftermath’.
Prior to arriving in Britain in 1964, Abdul Wahid was a primary school teacher and had a brief sojourn as a student at Al-Azhar in Cairo. In London, while doing further ‘A’ levels in Latin and History, he joined the Labour Party but left in disgust at Harold Wilson’s Rhodesia policy. AbdulcWahid studied history and Arabic at the School of Oriental & African Studies.
A life-long activist and mentor, he has been president of the London Islamic Circle, general secretary of the Federation of Students’ Islamic Societies, editor of ‘The Muslim’ a member of the team that launched ‘Impact International’ in 1970, and a mainstay of community initiatives both in Trinidad and Britain, in particular the founding and development of The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). He was a member of the MCB panel that presented evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences in October 2002.
He was responsible for the major refurbishment of the Rabitah Centre and Mosque, Goodge Street, Central London under the supervision of the architect Ayyub Malik and the graphic designer Zafar Malik. His career has included work as a university lecturer and an educational consultant in Saudi Arabia and the teaching of Qur’anic Arabic in London, Chicago, Toronto, Trinidad and Bahrain.
Sound Vision: What personalities have had the most impact on you (both alive and in the past) and how?
Abdul Wahid: Undoubtedly, I must start with my parents, may Allah bless them. They were hardworking people and lived a simple and frugal life. Their knowledge of Islam – so far as book knowledge was concerned was not great but they had a strong and passionate attachment to the diin. They were very practical people and lived through difficult times and it was at their hands that we acquired a wide variety of skills – from building to planting crops and rearing animals and small scale trading – and the values that we cherish. My father for example would prefer to go without something than to borrow. Debt was something he avoided like the plague. This is why it took him about twelve years to build the house that we lived in, brick by brick. My mother could count very well and although she only learnt to read and write late in life, she was determined that we should have an education.
I had my first job as a primary school teacher in Trinidad and I was put under the supervision of two excellent teachers, one of whom was Mr Sadick Ramzan Ali from whom I learnt a great deal. He was a constant source of encouragement and maintained high professional standards, He was also involved in youth and community work and living the life a Muslim seemed easy and natural for him. He performed all his duties well without having any ‘airs and graces’.
I went to London, after a one year stay in Egypt at the Al-Azhar – with the intention of doing a degree in English Literature. I did a pre-university course in History. One of my teachers was a Mr Dean, an Englishman who always seemed to wear the same chequered jacket, patched at the elbows. He taught European and English Social History as if people mattered. He was a socialist and partly under his influence I joined the Labour Party in the mid-sixties but left it in disgust over the Wilson’s government handling of the Rhodesia question. Anyway, this Mr Dean made me look at the world in a way I had never done before and opened up perspectives which as a very insular person coming from a very small island, were new to me. He made me realize the importance of history and how very little I knew of how the world as we knew it was shaped. It was largely through him that I decided to change from English and Latin to History at university.
My first years at University reading history with special reverence to the Middle East (in addition to Arabic and French) were often times of acute anguish. The head of our department was Professor Bernard Lewis who is now at Princeton. He is a very sophisticated person with a powerful and often sharp pen. His book, The Arabs in History, was a standard text. Reading it was very painful. I did not know at the time that he was an ardent Zionist. Many of the other teaching staff there were also not at all exactly partial to Islam and Muslims. I searched the university library shelves for books and writings that would give me some alternative to the received wisdom that was being handed down to us. It was at this time that I came across a little booklet called ‘English-speaking Orientalists’ by Dr Abdul Latif Tibawi, a meticulous Palestinian scholar who had a persuasive and at times an acerbic pen. This booklet restored my faith. I later had on a few occasions the pleasure of meeting Dr Tibawi who originally came from Palestine . He didn’t suffer fools gladly even if they were professors and experts. He set himself very high academic standards. He output was great, both in Arabic and English. Later, while working as a journalist, it was nice to know that he read some of my published pieces on the Middle East and made some encouraging (dare I say ‘favorable’) comments. He remains one of the largely unsung Muslim academics. He was run over by a car at a pedestrian crossing close to the University where he worked. He had a house in Surrey called ‘Sakinah’ or Tranquility. May Allah grant him tranquility.
Another person who has had a great impact on me was a fellow student, Ebrahimsa Mohammed. He is a quiet, unassuming person and one of the most well-informed and practical persons around. He came to London from Penang in Malaysia to study law, His law studies fell by the wayside as he took it upon himself to look after the needs of students who started coming to the UK in substantial numbers from the early sixties onwards. He made it his business to get to know Muslim students in all parts of the country, put them in touch with one another and where they needed help, financial or otherwise, he would arrange something. He was one of the founders and early presidents of FOSIS – The Federation of the Students Islamic Societies in the UK & Eire. I had the privilege of being its General Secretary under his presidency. I can honestly say that I learnt more from being in this milieu than from the academic courses at university. Brother Ebrahimsa not only knew students but scholars and activists at all sorts of levels in Britain, from the big names in the Muslim world – Muhammad Natsir, Mawdudi, Said Ramadan, philantropists like Ebrahim Bawany, Malcolm X and many others including even even more notorious guys like Michael X. He is extremely widely read and maintains an abiding and passionate interest in making the best use of resources and in helping the poor and downtrodden. One of my recent meetings with him was at a gardening centre in north London shovelling horse manure – he is very much into organic foods and healthy eating.
Another person who has had an enormous impact on me and many student contemporaries is Dr Jafer Sheikh Idris from the Sudan. We got to know him in the late sixties when he was a Ph. D in England doing a thesis on Causality. We were part of something called the London Islamic Circle and met every Saturday at the old Regents Park Mosque. Over a period of several weeks Dr Jafer gave us a series of talks on the Quran. These were the most wonderful talks and study sessions that I had ever listened to and participated in. In one of them, Dr Jafer talked about the thematic coherence of the Quran and this had the effect of banishing any notions of the Quran as a haphazard and repetitive book with all sorts of things and themes thrown together in a random (a common impression of those who read mere translations). In addition, it had the effect of spurring us to study the Quran in its original Arabic.
We also learnt a great deal from Dr Jafer who has a clear and incisive mind. And you can’t meet someone more charming and approachable, someone who could talk to little children and hold his own against the best philosophers at the same time. Dr Jafer is still active in educational work and we pray that Allah will give him the strength and the zeal to allow some of his great gifts to continue to rub off on others.