Obituary: Raficq Abdulla (1940-2019), a true humanist

31st Jan 2020
Obituary: Raficq Abdulla (1940-2019), a true humanist

Raficq Abdulla, writer, lawyer and poet (Courtesy of M M Keshavjee/Francesco Cincotta)

The death of Raficq Abdulla in London on December 19, 2019, is a great loss that will be felt across several communities and organisations in Britain with whom he was closely associated for the last 50 years. A man of many talents, Raficq can be aptly described as a modern Renaissance man.

Born in South Africa, Raficq hailed from the Cape where his mother, Mosida Ismail, was the granddaughter of two leading imams – one of whom was sent specially to South Africa by Abdul Hamid II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and the other belonged to an Islamic mystical tradition in Indonesia.

Mosida, the godchild of the veteran Cape politician Abdullah Abdurrahman, studied medicine at Edinburgh University in the late 1920s where she met her future husband Goolam Gool, a Guy’s-educated doctor who played a prominent role in the social and political arenas in the Cape and who would become President of the National Liberation League in 1937.

Mosida and Goolam had one son, Reshard, who wrote the novel Cape Town Coolie and who ended up in Canada as a Professor of Philosophy and a writer. The couple divorced after a short marriage, and she later married Sheik Abdulla of Durban, whose mother, Rabia Bibi known as Raboobee, was said to have contributed to the establishment of the Natal Indian Congress by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1894.

Raficq was the only child of Mosida and Sheik Abdulla.

Following Sheik Abdulla’s death, Mosida moved to England in 1958 where she worked as a gynaecologist and where Raficq was already attending Epsom College. Raficq then went to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he read jurisprudence and was later called to the bar at the Middle Temple Inn in the early 1960s.

Raficq then spent most of his working life as a legal advisor with various organisations, his last formal position, having been Corporate Legal Secretary to Kingston University. At the time of his death, he was a Visiting Fellow of the Faculty of Business and Law at Kingston University.

A writer, lecturer, public speaker and a broadcaster on several topics including art, law, Islam, identity, poetry, spirituality, diasporas, and the sacred, Raficq played an important contributory role, along with the al-Azhar-educated jurist-cum-psychologist Sheikh Mohammed Zaki Badawi, in portraying a more “moderate” and “humanistic” dimension of Islam in the UK.

Badawi and Raficq worked with Sir Sigmund Stenberg and Rev Dr Marcus Braybrooke on the Three Faiths Forum. Raficq’s work in the field of interfaith dialogue was recognised with the award of an MBE in 1999.  Badawi also invited Raficq to become a member of the panel of the newly-established Muslim Law Sharia Council as one of three English-trained lawyers to ensure that the deliberations of the Council were in accordance with the public laws of the UK.

It was in the field of writing and poetry that Raficq excelled. He published two books of new interpretations of the work of Muslim mystics Rumi and Attar. These were Words of Paradise: Selected Poems of Rumi and Conference of the Birds: The Selected Sufi Poetry of Farid Ud-Din Attar. Raficq penned the script for the award-winning film The Blood of Hussain and Born of Fire, by the leading Pakistani film Director, Jamil Dehlavi, with whom he had studied at Oxford. He also wrote scripts for Channel 4 productions.

He chaired the UK’s Festival of Muslim Cultures (2006-2007) working closely with the social change curator Isabelle Carlisle to celebrate the pluralistic civilisations of the Muslim peoples. In 2006 Raficq was instrumental in setting up a conference in London in collaboration with the Chautauqua Institution of the US and the Ismaili National Council of the US to further the Abrahamic program established by Chautauqua Institution.

This was the first time that Chautauqua ventured outside New York for their programmatic work. He also spoke at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. In 2016 to coincide with the Ismaili Centre’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death Raficq published his book Reflecting Mercury: Dreaming Shakespeare’s Sonnets in which he matched his poetic contemplation to each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets.

The book was launched at the Ismaili Centre, London, by Lord Gowrie, a former UK Minister of Culture and himself a poet. The event itself was a cross-pollination of art and culture at which Raficq’s poems were read in conjunction with Shakespeare’s sonnets to the accompaniment of music performed by Katie Rose and her ensemble of Shakespearean singers, the Anima Acapella Group.

Raficq cared deeply about human rights and peace and for years worked closely with Exiled Writers Ink by participating in their literary activism events. He always looked for opportunities to help young writers and poets to express themselves through their writing. He mentored them in poetry and attended many of their reading sessions.

Raficq was also a dedicated supporter of English PEN and was for many years a Trustee on their board, contributing to the different aspects of their work. He assisted their Management Committee and Writers in Translation Committee. In 2014, he assumed the role of Acting President and guided the organisation through a period of transition with consummate skill and wisdom.

Raficq was deeply imbued with a sense of social justice. With his South African background, he was always sensitive to the needs of the “other” and made a point of helping those most marginalised in society. He also chaired the Happy Soul Festival (dedicated to promoting mental health in the black and minority ethnic communities) and was a non-executive director of St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust.

In 2017 the Wandsworth Black Mental Health Conference in London entitled “Healing our Broken Village” conferred its highest annual award on Raficq for his outstanding contribution to the reduction of Black mental health inequities in the UK. The award was given to him for his advocacy for race and ethnicity as key factors in addressing black and minority ethnic mental health inequalities which enabled the space of innovation in the design and delivery of services to the various communities.

The citation mentioned that “Raficq Abdulla extended his support beyond the board room attending community and conferences, speaking on our platforms and listening to peoples’ expectations and hopes for better mental health services.”

Over the past two decades, Raficq spent a great deal of his time reading, writing and lecturing to students in places as diverse as Dubai, Lisbon Toronto, London and New York. From 2014 to 2018 he was involved with me as co-author of Understanding Sharia: Islamic Law in a Globalised World, published by the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. During this time he was also a speaker at the annual Milad lectures in London and Toronto and contributed numerous articles to journals and chapters to book compilations of poetry, contemporary issues affecting Muslim communities and more particularly on Islamic Finance.

He attended numerous conferences on Islamic Finance in London and Frankfurt.
As an English trained Barrister with a poetic sensibility and an esoteric bent of mind, Raficq always veered towards constructive dialogue. He saw no real dichotomy between “eastern” and “western” thought and was universal in his outlook. He read prolifically but always with what he termed “a hermeneutic resolve.” He was an individual with a prodigious sense of intellectual curiosity matched only by a commensurate sense of humility. He espoused reason and eschewed dogmatism in whichever form it presented itself.

Raficq’s poetic voice shone through everything he wrote, but more poignantly in his grappling with Wittgenstein’s logic in reading scriptural texts “[which] are seldom monolithic or monotonous unless they are read by minds or people so inclined or brainwashed to explicate them as such.

This inherently ambiguous condition of language compels us to learn to receive different interpretations and dissonances that we may not find congenial.” He firmly believed that by its very nature the practice of interpretation should help blot out bigotry, encourage debate, and accommodate the ethos of uncertainty, for failure to “take the route of reflection risks encouraging the preponderance of extremist thinking.”

A deeply spiritual individual, Raficq did not wear his faith on his sleeves, but lived its ethical values of compassion, kindness and large-hearted tolerance and understanding each day, through everyone he met regardless of class, colour, gender or creed.

Raficq leaves behind his lifelong companion, his loving wife Marianne Rohlen, a practising existential psychotherapist from Sweden, his son Adam who studied classics at his father’s college Brasenose, his nieces, nephews and great-nieces and nephews from the Gool family, the Rohlens, the Raboobees, the Abrahams, and the countless friends and admirers who found in his friendship great hope and inspiration – something he shared amply with all those who came into contact with him and for which he will always be remembered.

Mohamed M Keshavjee

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