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Tribute to Shaikh Seraj Hendricks: committed to justice, scholarship and compassion

Tribute to Shaikh Seraj Hendricks: committed to justice, scholarship and compassion
August 14, 2020
August 14, 2020 August 14, 2020

SHAIKH DR HISHAM A HELLYER pays tribute to his teacher, Shaikh Seraj Hendricks, who gave of himself with khidma (service) and mahabba (love), all in accordance with the Prophetic model.

One of South Africa’s greatest Muslim scholars, Shaikh Seraj Hassan Hendricks of Azzawia Institute, was laid to rest a few metres from his father, uncles, and grandfather, in a Cape Town cemetery early last month.

The grandfather, Shaikh Muhammad Salih Hendricks, had been the first of three generations of Hendricks to travel from this, the southernmost tip of the world, to Makkah, in order to study with sages and scholars of the Islamic tradition. Shaikh Seraj, who died at the age of 64 on the July 9, 2020 due to complications arising from a COVID-19 infection, had entered the annals of history.

His close friend, confidante, and renowned South African public figure himself, Shafiq Morton, wrote thereafter: ‘He had to be a man for all people at all times.’

He was a scholar of international repute, able to communicate and engage on the level of state leaders, religious scholars and the broader public. As a scion of one of the most prominent Islamic institutions in South Africa and internationally, who also spent a decade studying at the hands of the most prominent of Makkan scholars, he not only inherited a grand bequest, but expanded that legacy’s impact worldwide. In particular, he upheld a mainstream understanding of Islam, embedded in the normative tradition, stretching back more than a millennium – simultaneously, deeply cognisant of the needs of the age, including the need to strive to make the world a better place. For myself, he was an irreplaceable teacher and shaikh, whom I benefited tremendously from for more than a decade.

Shaikh Seraj was a high school English teacher between 1980 and 1982 in Cape Town before leaving for Saudi Arabia in 1983 to study at Umm al-Qura University in Makkah.

Shaikh Seraj had spent many years being schooled in Islamic thought at the hands of his uncles, who themselves had been scholars of Islam in South Africa, at Azzawia Institute, which Shaikh Seraj’s grandfather had founded; a distinguished institution that celebrates its centenary this year. His teachers in Cape Town included the likes of the late Shaikh Mahdi Hendricks – erstwhile Life President of the Muslim Judicial Council – Shaikh Seraj’s father, Imam Hassan Hendricks, and Shaikh Seraj’s uncle, Shaikh Mujahid Hendricks.

Shaikh Seraj studied the Islamic intellectual tradition for more than a decade in the holy city of Makkah, specialising in fiqh and usul al-fiqh in the Faculty of Shari’a of Umm al-Qura University before graduating with a BA (Hons) degree in 1992.

Outside of his university studies, he studied with his primary teacher, the muhaddith of the Hijaz, a scholar of scholars, the distinguished Sayyid Muhammad bin Alawi al-Maliki al-Idrisi al-Hasani, master of the Tariqa Ulama Makkah – the (sufi) path of the sages of Makkah. Eventually, he and his brother, Shaikh Ahmad, may Allah grant him many more years in health, inwardly and outwardly, received full ijazas in the religious sciences from Sayyid Muhammad bin Alawi al-Maliki, and became his representatives (khulafa). They also took ijazat from both Sayyid Ahmad Mashur al-Haddad and Sayyid Abdal Qadir bin Ahmad al-Saqqaf, as well as spending extensive time with the likes of Shaikh Hasan Mashhat and others; pre-eminent ulama of the ummah in the 20th century.

Shaikh Seraj taught a variety of subjects at Azzawia Institute as resident shaikh, as was, and is, Shaikh Ahmad Hendricks. Alongside his duties at Azzawia, he also read for a Master’s degree at the University of South Africa (UNISA). Part of his MA thesis on Sufism in the Cape, which was awarded at the level of Cum Laude, is being prepared for publication as a book.

Beyond his academic studies, he also wrote a great deal publicly in the various fields of the Islamic intellectual tradition. I personally first came across him through his writings online, around two decades ago, before I had the opportunity to meet him in person, become his student, and working under his direction. His classes showed an encyclopaedic knowledge that was rooted in the tradition, while completely conversant with the modern age. His first full length book, co-written with his brother and myself, was entitled, A Sublime Way: the Sufi Path of the Sages of Makka, which was on the tariqa.

Some of Shaikh Seraj’s previous positions included being the head of the Muslim Judicial Council’s Fatwa Committee (which often led to him being described as the ‘Mufti of Cape Town’), lecturer in fiqh at the Islamic College of Southern Africa (ICOSA), and lecturer in the Study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

He was a member of the Stanlib Shari’a Board, chief arbitrator (Hakim) of the Crescent Observer’s Society, and was listed consecutively in the Muslim500 from 2009 to 2020. He was also appointed Dean of the Madina Institute, and professor at the International Peace University of South Africa.

Apart from fiqh and usul al-fiqh, some of Shaikh Seraj’s primary interests were in Sufism, Islamic civilisation studies, interfaith matters, gender studies, socio-political issues and related ideas of pluralism and identity. He lectured and presented papers in many countries, sharing platforms with international peers. His teaching in private and public always showed the skills of a master instructor. Additionally, he translated and taught many works of Imam al-Ghazali, including in the Travelling Light series, together with Shaykhs Abdal Hakim Murad and Yahya Rhodus.

Shaikh Muhammad Salih Hendricks had grown up in a South Africa that had banned slavery only a few decades earlier. Shaikh Seraj Hendricks grew up during apartheid: it was a system he detested. Additional to his religious education, Shaikh Seraj was actively engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, supporting the United Democratic Front – a collective of anti-apartheid groups – while still a young man. As a student, he found himself as one of the key figures of the famous Purple Rain March in Cape Town in 1989. Temporarily back home from his studies in the holy city of Makkah, Shaikh Seraj was detained for a time due to this stubborn commitment against injustice.

While fiercely maintaining the independence of the institution he pledged himself to his entire life, he was insistent on expressing constant opposition to injustice. At a time when different forces in Muslim communities worldwide try to instrumentalise religious figures for partisan political gain, Shaikh Seraj showed another, arguably far more Prophetic, model. It was something that particularly fascinated me because of the notion – that has become commonplace in certain quarters – to argue that mainstream, normative Sunnism, is somehow naturally and instinctively quietist and supportive of autocracy. Shaikh Seraj was profoundly connected to that same Sunnism, and he, along with many others such as Imam Abdullah Haroon, another Muslim South African figure, were vigorously opposed to Apartheid. 

The Shaikh was keenly supportive of the rights of women, whom he saw as important to empower and cultivate as religious figures themselves. His students, of which there were many thousands over the years, included many women at various levels of expertise. I know it was his wish that they would rise to higher and higher levels, and he took a great deal of interest in trying to train them accordingly, aware that many unnecessary obstacles stood in their way.

Beyond his classes, Shaikh Seraj was a pastoral figure to many – a community made of thousands – whom he gave himself completely to, in service of the religion, and counselling them as a khidma (service), with mahabba (love), in accordance with the Prophetic model. One could not have asked for a better teacher; he was on another level.

In the aftermath of his passing, there were condolences from disparate parts of the Muslim world, even those countries and forces who might otherwise be at odds with one another; from the US to Turkey to the United Arab Emirates to India and Indonesia. For any Muslim figure, in this political environment, to receive such resounding non-partisan support, is emblematic in and of itself.

The Shaikh was an international figure, a teacher to thousands, and an adviser to multitudes. Many today ask the question as to why ulama truly matter, seeing as it seems so many of them can be compromised by different forces in pursuit of injustice, rigidness and petty partisanship. Such a question will not be asked by those who knew Shaikh Seraj, for in him they saw a concern for spirituality, not paltry political gain, and a commitment to justice and wisdom, not oppression or slogans. In him, many saw, and will continue to see hope for an Islamic commitment to scholarship that seeks to make the world a better place, rising to the challenge of maintaining their values of mercy and compassion, and exiting the world in dignity.

[Different parts of this article were published in obituaries for Shaikh Seraj Hendricks in ‘ImanWire’ (USA publication) and TRT News (Turkish publication), with subsequent reprints elsewhere in the US, Indonesia and India.]

Shaikh Dr Hisham A. Hellyer is professorial fellow at Cambridge Muslim College, council member of the British Board of Scholars and Imams, and senior fellow at the Royal Institute (UK) and the Carnegie Endowment (USA). Educated at Sheffield and Warwick universities to post-doctoral levels in law and the social sciences, he studied the Islamic tradition in the UK, Egypt, Malaysia, & South Africa, before being authorised as muqaddam by Shaikh Seraj Hendricks. A prolific commentator who is regularly included in the annual global list of The 500 Most Influential Muslims, his academic career includes affiliations with Harvard, Brookings, and the American University in Cairo. A British scholar of English and Egyptian extraction, he was appointed as Azzawia Institute’s senior scholar.

FEATURED IMAGE: The writer, Shaikh Dr Hisham A Hellyer (left), with his teacher, the late Shaikh Seraj Hendricks, taking part in the annual commemoration of Moulood-un-Nabi (SAW) the Azzawia Institute in Cape Town. (Photo SHAFIQ MORTON)

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