THIS is the one obituary I have never wanted to write, that of Shaykh Seraj Hendricks al-Marhum, my closest friend, my teacher and my confidante. I was three years older than him, and I was supposed to pass on before him – but as we always say, Allah knows best.
We became close friends 31 years ago. The Shaykh, then just in his post-Afro-bell-bottom days, was studying to be an ‘alim at Umm ul-Qura’ University in Makkah and sitting at the feet of the great sage, Sayyid Muhammad ‘Alawi al-Maliki. I was a long-haired surfer, photojournalist, magazine editor and eclectic activist.
I was introduced to him by my late wife, Nur, who was his first cousin, and who had grown up in the Azzawia in Walmer Estate, Cape Town, with him. She was his first cousin. He was the nephew of my late father-in-law, Shaykh Ebrahim Hendricks.
Nur always referred to her cousin as “Serajie”, and later as “die Shegh” (the Shaykh).
She would blow into the room and ask him: “hoevaar die Shegh?” (How is the Shaykh?) And he would laugh, and say, “niggie, djy is altyd stout, maar gee my ‘n soentjie.” (My dear cousin, you are always naughty, but come and greet me).
I met Shaykh Seraj for the first time, in the late 1980s, after he had come back to Cape Town for the annual summer recess. In those days, he was staying in Salt River at the house of his late father-in-law, Boeta “Rashiedjie” Abrahams, one of the Azzawia’s imams.
People must have thought us an odd couple. Here was a Shaykh-to-be, imbued with Fiqh and Tasawwuf reflecting a classical tradition, and a salt-stained nobody filled with the stuff of nonsense. But we seemed to click, and I certainly met my match in debate, something we would do for hours on end.
Shaykh Seraj was the one person who had read more books than me. And as his intellectual inferior, I have to confess I was always amazed at how effortlessly, he could bat my philosophical googlies away. He would stylishly out-quote me, and like Brian Lara in his prime, dispatch my argument to the ropes.
Whilst a passion for Deen was our rallying point, our love of literature, the arts and the esoteric was our academic playground. I would come in with ideas about UFOs, he would counter with theories on jinn; I would come in with words of Omar Khayyam and he would quote me Shakespeare or Imam Ghazali.
We were both obsessive about history, and he actively supported my writings on Makkah, Palestine and Tuan Guru – as he supported so many others in their creative endeavours over the years.
As a friend, I tried many times to get the Shaykh to surf, as he tried to get me into computer gaming (one of his recreational passions). He got me as far as admiring the graphics of Warcraft, and I got him as far as fish and chips.
Over the years, we found ourselves sharing many projects and experiences: the United Democratic Front anti-apartheid movement, Voice of the Cape, Dome Publications, the Islamic Unity Conference in Washington, the Imam Ghazali Conference in Cape Town, the soap operas of Muslim Personal Law, the politics of the lunar calendar, TV productions and the hosting of international guests.
However, ours was a friendship that could never be a selfish, or exclusive one. He was an important public figure, a community leader – and he had to be a man for all people at all times.
And although I was in the public eye too (for more frivolous reasons), I could see from a bird’s eye view that people really looked up to him. In three decades, I never saw him giving anything less than 100 per cent in whatever he did.
As media colleague, Mahmood Sanglay, so aptly puts it: “…he always displayed compassion, humility and a genuine recognition of the humanity of the other.”
In other words, his warmth of welcome would transcend the artificial, stilted social mores usually associated with figures of status. He would foreground his own weaknesses in showing himself to others in a rare combination of humble heart and superior intellect.
What I so admired about my dear friend was this bigheartedness. He would so often interrupt his own lectures to acknowledge those sitting in front of him, and lavishly praise their qualities before his.
If the Shaykh had a weakness, it was his inability to say “no” and his inborn innocence about the goodness of human nature. He loved people unconditionally, but there were admittedly times when the demands would become too much, and it would seriously affect his health.
I harbour strong feelings about the “commoditisation”, or exploitation, of scholars such as Shaykh Seraj. I would see this happening at the hands of agenda driven people, and express my concerns, but the Shaykh – despite the inevitable knocks – had too many good thoughts to ever listen to me, a cynical journalist.
As I write, still numb at his passing, I realise just how much I will miss my dearest friend. I will miss the tea we would have after the Tuesday classes, the random discussions we would have from Terrabytes to Tawhid – and of course – the banter at the Friday lunch table.
It reminds me that our friendship was about laughter, aspiration, hope and good things. It was about our families, about the future, the things we still had to do.
What I console myself with is that the name “Seraj” means a “lamp”. My dear friend, Shaykh Seraj, was a lamp – not only just for me – but unselfishly for the thousands of people whose hearts he so lovingly touched.