Greetings from Shaikh Ahmad Deedat
Bala A. Muhammad
For Muslims in Nigeria and many other parts of the world, South Africa is synonymous with Shaikh Ahmad Deedat, that indefatigable Islamic da’i who has been bedridden since he suffered a stroke in 1996. The Shaikh had a massive stroke, and was first taken to hospital in Saudi Arabia. Not too long after, rumours had reached most parts of the Muslim world that the Shaikh had passed away. It took a long time for people to know and come to believe that he was still alive. Alhamdu lillah, Shaikh Deedat still lives and, according to the Shaikh himself, his continued existence is another of the miracles of Allah, and he is thankful to Him for giving him more days on earth to continue the Call.
I was most fortunate to have visited Shaikh Deedat several times during the year 2001 while working on my Ph.D. at the Centre for Cultural and Media Studies of the University of Natal, Durban. The Shaikh’s home, in Verulam, a suburb of Durban, became my frequent haunt. His son, Yusuf Deedat, became a close friend and Yusuf’s mother, the Shaikh’s wife, Mrs. Hauwa Deedat, a mother to all who visit.
Shaikh Deedat, and the Durban, South Africa-based Islamic Propagation Centre International (IPCI) which he founded, opened the eyes of millions of Muslims in the fine art of inter-religious dialogue. The Shaikh’s mastery of the English language, his eloquence and diction, and his knowledge of other scriptures and manner of debate endeared him to the millions who have seen his videos or read his tracts, millions of which are sent free of charge all over the world.
The Shaikh’s ailment means that he has lost the use of his limbs but, as Allah would want it, the Shaikh’s brain is as sharp as it had always been. He can see and hear, he can laugh and cry, and he can blink and nod. And more than all of these, he can also reason. He is also surprisingly sensitive to touch, for he can feel the warmth of human hands when they shake his.
But perhaps a greater miracle than his existence, according to the Shaikh himself, is his ability to communicate, using his eyes only. Yusuf Deedat, who is almost always at the side of his father, has devised a simple method of communicating with the Shaikh using the letters of the alphabet. The 26 letters A-Z are grouped into five lines, each given a number from one to five. In this method A-E, for example, fall in Line One, F-J in Line Two, and so following. So, if for example the Shaikh wants Yusuf to call someone with the name Jabir, the Shaikh would indicate with his eyes that he wants to say something. Yusuf would then ask: Line One? (or just: One?) and the Shaikh would shake his head, meaning no, as the first letter of the name Jabir does not fall in Line One. Line Two? The Shaikh would nod his agreement as ‘J’ is in Line Two. Yusuf would call out the letters F, G, H, I, J? On the correct letter, the Shaikh would nod yes. Back again to Line One for the next letter. By the time Yusuf spells J.A. he knows that his father wants a JABIR.
This is just by way of explanation, as Yusuf and his father have so perfected this medium and conduct it so fast that one could almost feel that one was having a normal conversation with the Shaikh. Using this Allah-given medium I have seen, during my visits, the Shaikh give interviews, discuss politics, debate Christian clergy. And debate he has continued to do. Even in his condition, he records sermons on video, dictate tracts and continues his distribution network.
Dying is an English word which does not exist in Muslim discourse. It is no coincidence that in Islam, and in Islamic cultures such as the Hausa, the word has no equivalent and cannot be translated. Muslims believe Allah is the Giver and Taker of lives, and that all living things have their appointed hours. Yusuf Deedat told me that, when his father had his stroke, and the family took him to hospital in Saudi Arabia, the European doctors ‘gave’ the Shaikh only a few more weeks to live. The Deedat family, knowing and believing that it was Allah alone that can ‘give’ life, decided to return the Shaikh home after only a few months. This is six years since, and he is still alive.
Today, two people take care of Shaikh Ahmad Deedat: his wife, the sweet old Mrs Hauwa Deedat, who doubles as his doctor and nurse, and Yusuf Deedat, the son who had been the Shaikh’s constant companion during his globe-trotting da’wah days. Mrs Deedat told me that the last doctor to visit the Shaikh came many years ago, as she has learnt all there is to treat her husband: she is now very familiar with all things intravenous and intra-muscular, she feeds the Shaikh through a tube directly inserted into his stomach, and prepares all the necessary medicaments. (Before I left, I felt she deserved to be called Dr. Hauwa Deedat). One other ‘miracle’: Mrs Deedat is said not to have even once stepped out of the house in the five years since the Shaikh was returned from hospital in Saudi Arabia.
Then came September 11, 2001. The western world had long known that the building housing the offices of the IPCI on Grey Street, Durban, used to be called Bin Laden Centre (although for many years now it has been called Shaikh Ahmad Deedat Centre). In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, everyone seemed to remember that old name of the centre. A plethora of broadcast and print journalists from all over the world descended on Shaikh Deedat’s Durban home, wanting to know the Shaikh’s relationship with the Bin Laden family and, ostensibly, with Osama. (It was speculated on the South African media that Yusuf, the Shaikh’s son, was a personal friend of Osama’s.)
And so it was that I was visiting Shaikh Deedat when a French television network arrived early October, 2001. The first question was: did Shaikh Deedat know the Bin Laden family? “Yes”, said the Shaikh in answer to the French television interviewer’s question. “I did know the Bin Laden family quite closely. In fact, the most senior Bin Laden, Shaikh Muhammad, had contributed the largest chunk of money during the building of the IPCI. Therefore, when the building was completed, we felt that we should name it Bin Laden Centre after the family, and we did. Many years later, I met Shaikh Muhammad bin Laden and told him what we did. The senior Bin Laden humbly declined the honour, saying were that the family donated one hundred percent of the building’s expenses, they would have accepted. So we reluctantly had to remove the family’s name”.
“But has Shaikh Deedat personally ever met Osama bin Laden?” At this question, the Shaikh’s eyes shone and he smiled before he answered, using his eyes, interpreted by Yusuf. “Yes”, Shaikh Deedat said, “I did meet Osama, a rather shy, respectful young man. One day when I was visiting Shaikh Muhammad bin Laden, his brother Osama was sitting not too far away. He showed interest in what we were discussing, but did not utter a word, since his comments were not sought. Such decorum, such respect to elders. It was after our conversation that the senior Bin Laden called Osama closer and introduced him to me as his brother just back from Afghan jihad. That was the first and last time I met Osama”.
When that interview was broadcast, Yusuf Deedat and his father became hot media stuff in Europe, North America and locally in South Africa. Tour guides made brisk business shepherding visiting journalists to the Shaikh’s home, which became a major tourist attraction of Durban. During my few visits, I met various types of visitors: Muslims, Christians, Jews, Europeans, Asians, Africans. Shaikh Deedat’s memory was still very sharp, as he could remember that many Nigerians, including Kabiru Yusuf of Trust who was in Durban for the 1999 Commonwealth Summit, and another brother who had also published a similar story in a past Weekly Trust, had visited him not too long previously.
When the Shaikh learnt that I was from Kano, his eyes shone brilliantly. He told me, through Yusuf, that Kano and Nigeria are places forever in his heart. Yusuf went on to tell me what many Nigerian Muslims had always wanted to know: how Shaikh Deedat was denied entry to Nigeria on arrival at Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport in 1991. Yusuf told me that they arrived aboard a British Airways flight from London, after visiting Sudan and other countries, with valid Nigerian visas (for it had then been rumoured that the Shaikh had arrived without a visa). The Shaikh was full of expectation of Kano and Nigeria so much so that, when they disembarked at the airport and the Shaikh noticed scores of people making towards them, he turned to Yusuf and remarked, “See, I told you. Many people would surely turn up to receive us. I am sure this is the welcome party.”
Welcome party it was, but not what they expected. Security operatives politely told the Shaikh that they had orders not to allow him entry. He wanted to know why, but they told him they only had orders. Yusuf told me that Shaikh Deedat stubbornly refused to return to the plane, which had been delayed for the purpose of back-to-sender. After many hours of haggling, during which Shaikh Deedat requested to be taken to prison rather than leave Nigeria, the BA pilot came begged the Shaikh to consider other passengers on board and reboard, which he reluctantly did. Not too long after, in October 1991, the Reinhard Bonnke crusade was scheduled for Kano. And Kano became angry, very angry.
I also gathered that when Shaikh Ahmad Deedat became incapacitated, there was a struggle between some former disciples of the Shaikh on the one hand, and Yusuf Deedat on the other, for control of the IPCI. Yusuf Deedat told me that it was a rebellion, and a mini-coup against the Shaikh. But Fuad Hendricks, spokesperson of the IPCI, told me that it would have been disastrous to have turned the IPCI into a family affair, and that the new management was still doing the Shaikh’s work, and that he is still their model. For example, Hendricks said, the IPCI building, the former Bin Laden Centre, is now called Ahmad Deedat Centre, and the organisation’s website is appropriately named www.ahmed-deedat.org.za. Therefore, according to IPCI’s new management, it was with Yusuf Deedat that they had a falling out, not with his father. Today the IPCI continues to attract international du’at. I was there when Waris Deen Muhammad, son of the founder of the US’s Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, came on a da’wah mission, accompanied by John Yahya, father of one-time world heavyweight boxing champion Hashim Rahman. I was also there when a Zulu Christian pastor and his flock of thousands came and embraced Islam. The pastor is now the local Imam, the church a mosque.
On the international da’wah circuit, Shaikh Deedat has handed over to one Shaikh Zakir Naik, a New Delhi, India-based preacher and one of the Shaikh’s disciples. Shaikh Deedat is always happy to say that Dr. Naik will become greater than him in inter-religious dialogue. When Shaikh Naik came to Durban and I listened to him, I understood what the Shaikh meant, for Naik was really a great rhetorician. But he humbly repeated several times that he was but a disciple of Deedat.
When the Shaikh was running IPCI, Yusuf Deedat told me, the first thing he would do was read the morning mail. There would be letters from all over the world—cheques of donations from the Arab world, questions from Christians, and letters from people requesting free literature. More often than not, every morning the Shaikh would read quite a few letters from Nigerian Muslims requesting free literature. The Shaikh, according to Yusuf, would instruct the IPCI staff to first reply Nigerian and other African Muslims before anybody else. When some staff would call his attention to the fact that there was need to speedily acknowledge a donation from some Arab Shaikh, for example, the Shaikh would usually say that he knew some of those who wrote him from Nigeria and other parts of Africa could barely afford the postage, so how could anyone delay replying them. And, he would add, were those African Muslims to be half as rich as the Arabs, they would donate more than twice to IPCI. And Shaikh Deedat would end up with his usual quip about African Muslims generally: they may be black, but their hearts are as bright as gold.
One thing the Shaikh asked me closely on was the Shari’a. He was very happy, as he had told earlier visitors, that Nigerian Muslims had not disappointed him by introducing Islamic law. I explained to him as earlier visitors had done: that the shari’a is the result of decades-old collective struggle by Nigerian Muslims. I was also honest to have told him that many of the governors who established shari’a did so only as a populist political statement, but never meant to really implement it. And I gave him examples. And asked for his prayers.
When a broadcast version of this narrative on the Shaikh’s situation was aired on the Hausa Service of Radio Deutschewelle last December, many listeners sent me Islamic remedies for the Shaikh to try: habbatus saudaa, honey, Suratul Fatiha, which have all been communicated. Should a reader feel he or she has something to help the Deedat family in terms of medicament, Yusuf Deedat’s GSM number from Nigeria is 009-27-82-670 1652, and the Shaikh’s home can be reached on 009-27-32-533 1790.
The Shaikh asks for du’a from every Muslim, especially Nigerian Muslims whom he so loves. He promised me that if Allah makes him well again (and may Allah make him well), Nigeria would be the first country he would visit. And he would come through Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, again.
(Published in Weekly Trust of Friday March 29, 2002).