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Dr Sulaiman Nordien: a name that should remain enshrined in the collective memory of Cape Town

September 8, 2020
September 8, 2020 September 8, 2020

Moulana TAHA KARAAN, in paying tribute, says there were lessons he learnt from Dr Sulaiman Nordien: let your studies be your passion; and never underestimate yourself.

A MAN who combined within himself the rarest set of gifts: the mind of a scientist, the soul of a poet, the taste of an artist, the intrepidity of an adventurer, the perspicacity of a scholar, all of that together with the best of human benevolence was Dr Sulaiman Nordien.

Dr Nordien was a bibliophile and scholar devoted to his love for languages, especially Arabic, and calligraphy. He is pictured here at his home on February 13, 2018. (Photo MAHMOOD SANGLAY)

I became bound to him by areas in which our mutual interests overlapped – the Arabic language, more specifically, poetry, Arabic calligraphy, an insatiable passion and endless curiosity for the Islamic sciences, and a very deep love for books.

Year after year, we would trek together to the Cairo book fair where, for two weeks, he would immerse himself in both latest publications and ancient first editions.

The bibliophile’s delight on discovering a rare work would be as bright and uninhibited on his face and person as the joy of an innocent child. And that is precisely what so many of us will remember him for: the guileless joy of a child that he exuded.

But he was no pointless collector of books. In his mind, there were no limits to the aims one should set for yourself. While others were content with Hans Wehr and Ba’labakki’s Mawrid, Dr Nordien would set his sights on the ultimate prize in Arabic-English lexicology: Lane’s Lexicon.

And not simply as an acquisition to be consulted now and then but as an unaccomplished masterpiece that begged to be completed. I do not think the thought of this perhaps being over-ambitious ever occurred to his daring and intrepid mind.

And such was his approach to everything else. While others who knew a thing or two about Arabic poetry were quoting Mutanabbi and Imru al-Qays, he revelled in tales of the exotically named Kashajim and Ta’abbata Sharran.

Other students of calligraphy laboured with Naskh and Thuluth, Dr Nordien was practising Muhaqqaq and Rayhani. And he was firmly a purist: not even our isolation at this southern tip of Africa condoned the conflation of classical calligraphy with graphic art.

When any of the fields of his scholarly or artistic interest required financial patronage, he would be not only patron but also avid student, and passionate teacher.

Ramadaan would see him passionately teaching Surah Yaseen from charts scripted in his own fine hand.

Readers who did not know him might find it amazing to know that all of these were what he indulged in in his spare time. He was, first and foremost, a medical doctor.

There will be many lessons that will be drawn from the life of my friend Dr Sulaiman Nordien. I will leave those to others who knew him.

There are just one or two lessons from his life which I want to offer to students of the Arabic language and Islamic sciences. The first is to let your studies be your passion. The second: never ever underestimate yourself.

Dr Nordien didn’t shy away from undertaking the completion of Lane’s Lexicon, a task which deserves, by every standard, to be described as mammoth. Perhaps one of our young men or women will, one day, find in his intrepidity the inspiration to complete his work.

Moulana Taha Karaan is a renowned Shafi’i scholar, recipient of numerous chains of transmission (ijazaat) and founder of the Dar al-Ulum al-Arabiyyah al-Islamiyyah in Strand, Western Cape.

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