Paying Homage to The Sage of Moroni: The Legacy of Sayyid Omar Abdallah 1918-2018

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Paying Homage to The Sage of Moroni: The Legacy of Sayyid Omar Abdallah 1918-2018

by Professor Mohammad Bakari Sagaaf,  Vice Chancellor RAF UNIVERSITY, Kajiado, Kenya

(This piece will appear as an afterword in the Sayyid Omar Abdullah's full biography which will be published in a few weeks' time )

It is appropriate that we should celebrate the centenary of the birth of Sayyid Omar Abdallah, here in the place of his burial, in Ntsudjini, a few kilometers from Moroni, in the Grande Comoros. Though born on the island of Zanzibar, for all practical purposes, he lived the life of his equally distinguished ancestors, who devoted their lives to the propagation of Islam along the East African Coast, and beyond.

The Comorian ulama, and the Comorian Sayyids have their antecedents in both Africa and the Hadhramaut, as is the case of the ulama along the Eastern African Coast, stretching from the Banadir Coast in the north, to Mozambique and South Africa, for this is a homogeneous cultural zone, despite the political demarcations that abstractly separate one region from another. It is important to bear this reality in mind when looking at the contribution of the ulama in shaping the cultural landscape in this part of the world.

We glean all these facts from the scholarly contributions of both indigenous scholars and those from Europe’s and America’s great institutions of learning. For example, we all knew about the possible connections between East Africa and the Malay World, but it took the work of Dr. Anne Bang, the Nordic scholar of East African Islam to properly weave these connections in her important study Scholars of the Sea: Sufis, Scholars, Sayyids and Family networks in the Indian Ocean, and before her, the seminal articles by Professor R.B. Serjeant, a historian of South Arabia, and B.G. Martin, the late University of Indiana’s Africanist.

In his inaugural lecture, Serjeant charted the Sada migration to East Africa and the Far East, from Hadhramaut. On his part, Martin described the intellectual classes learned in Islamic sciences along the East African Coast. These too studies are so seminal that no one doing work on Muslim society in East Africa will escape their influence as part of the building blocks of their research. From these studies emerges the interconnectedness of the cultures of the Swahili Coast and those far-flung regions of South Arabia and the Far East. Again, when we read the descriptions of Mogadishu, Mombasa and Kilwa and other places visited by Ibn Battuta in the 14th century, we are immediately struck by the cultural and religious similarities between these city-states. These places were engaged in processes of establishing cosmopolitan cultures occasioned by the phenomenon of globalization centuries before the terms became fashionable.

To me, Sayyid Omar Abdallah was an embodiment of all these forces of cosmopolitanism and globalization. But unlike his ancestors, he was destined to live at the heydays of European colonization, and was thus, marked by his era. He was a product more, of the British colonial system of education than he was of the local madaris education that he picked in the chuo, in the evening mosque seminars, and the private sessions he had with his Islamic scholar-teachers in the privacy of their residences. But it was the Sufi discipline, both metaphorically and literally, that left an indelible mark on his personality, on his personal deportment, in the way he interacted with various social, political and academic classes, and above all in his manner of dressing. His exposure to western education helped him structure his life and mind.

It was at Makerere University in Uganda, that he first encountered the challenge of living in a sectarian and multicultural environment where different groups from different confessional backgrounds, ethnicities, and ideological leanings had been thrown together. It was different in that Zanzibar, though multicultural, was a predominantly Muslim society. Uganda was a bit different, and Makerere even more. Makerere was a colonial institution with all that that implied. It was top-heavy with colonial emissaries with missionary zeal to impact on the young African minds the superiority of Western Christian culture over all other cultures. He was used to the idea that Islam was God’s own religion. Now, he was confronted with alternative worldviews, very confident in their civilizations and conscious of their scientific and technological achievements, and this, before the advent of space programmes and the internet.

Muslims, on the other hand, were content to rest on their past laurels, their medieval achievements. It was here, it seems to me, where he began to look at the Western intellectual tradition with reverence, accepting that in certain departments of life, others might have achieved much more than the contemporary demoralized and unfocused Muslim societies. It was when the opportunity to further his studies arose that he was afforded the opportunity to observe Western achievements at close quarters. Though he left to do a diploma in comparative law, he also took the opportunity to visit the new Mecca of technology, popular culture and innovation that was America. It was later that he went down to Oriel College, Oxford.

His admission to Oxford was a mere stroke of luck tinged with paradox. He was ironically admitted to Oxford because, though a holder of University of London diplomas, one from Makerere, which was then an affiliate of London and gave external degrees from there, and the other from SOAS, his alma mater demanded that for him to do postgraduate work, he had to have a Bachelor’s degree. But Professor R.D. Serjeant could already see that Sayyid Omar Abdallah was not your ordinary student, because he was very well read in the Islamic intellectual tradition. At the time, the young man was already an acknowledged alim in his own right in the local scholarly community, someone who had already gone through all the canonical works within the Shafi’ jurisprudential tradition, and therefore used his connections at Oxford to get Professor Beaston, the Laudian Professor of Arabic at St. John’s College, Oxford, to sign up for a B. Phil degree to do an aspect of Arabic language and literature. But Sayyid Omar Abdallah was more inclined to deal with purely speculative issues and felt confident when Dr. Richard Walzer suggested that he come over to work with him. At this time, Walzer was introducing and researching on Islamic philosophy. Already, he had translated Farabi’s famous work, The Perfect City.

Sayyid Omar Abdallah wisely opted to register at Oriel to pursue studies in Islamic philosophy. Since Islamic formal philosophy had pagan antecedents in the Socratic, Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, he had to immerse himself in that tradition first, before any meaningful research in Islamic philosophy. My own hitch is that, at SOAS, the main impediment was Professor J.N.D. Anderson, with whom he had endless arguments over what Anderson objected about aspects of Islamic history and law, although he had no formal training in Islamic jurisprudence as such. Scholars like Schacht was more grounded in the foundations of Islamic law than Anderson was, and might have felt uneasy with the potential of being challenged by his student who might have exposed his inadequacies in that area. In any case, Sayyid Omar Abdallah’s admission to Oxford was therefore, as we now say: a win-win situation both for him and for his nemesis Anderson, the problem literally went away!.

Sayyid Omar Abdallah adjusted very well in the West, socially and intellectually. He never exhibited any inferiority in the course of his studies or social engagement. His B. Phil dissertation was probably one of the very first on Al-Ghazali.

The person that resembled Sayyid Omar Abdallah in his modesty, intellectual acumen and commitment to Islam, to me, was the Indian polymath, Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, famous for his French translation of the Qur’an. He too, was an exceptional Muslim intellectual who was focused and determined to call people to Islam. His task was more compounded in that he was in Paris, first as a postgraduate student in philosophy at the Sorbonne, at a time when existentialist philosophy and surrealism were the reigning intellectual fads, and centred round Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

In any case, France was ostentatiously secular, a fig-leaf for atheism. Both Sayyid Omar Abdallah and Dr. Hamidullah eschewed any form of extremism in personal conduct or deeply held views. They reasoned their way out of arguments politely and intellectually.

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