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Obituary: Passing of a pioneering Muslim scholar

27th Sep 2019
Obituary: Passing of a pioneering Muslim scholar

Photo taken in July 2007 with permission from the late Mawlana Yusuf Sulayman Motala (Photo: Ahmed J Versi/Muslim News)

Mawlana Yusuf Sulayman Motala

A master of hadith and Qur’an. A Sufi, spiritual guide and teacher to thousands. A pioneer in the establishment of a religious education system. His death reverberated through hearts and across oceans. We are mourning the loss of a luminary who guided through increasingly difficult times.

Monday, September 9 was a day of profound sorrow for many around the world as the news of the death of 75-year-old Mawlana Yusuf Sulayman Motala, fondly known as “Hazrat” (His Eminence) to his acquaintances, spread. He passed away the previous day in Toronto, after suffering a heart attack two weeks earlier.
He was born in the small village of Nani Naroli in Gujarat, India, on November 25, 1946 (1 Muharram 1366) into a family known for their piety.

His early studies were largely completed at Jami’a Husayniyya, one of the early seminaries of Gujarat, after which he travelled to Mazahir Ulum, the second oldest seminary of the Indian Sub-Continent, in Saharanpur, to complete his ‘alimiyya studies. What drew him to this seminary was the presence of one of the most influential spiritual personas, Mawlana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhlawi (d. 1982), aka “Hazrat Shaykh”, whom he had seen only briefly at a train stop, but it was enough for him to understand the magnitude of his presence.

Mawlana Yusuf remained in Saharanpur for two years. Despite being younger than many of the other students, the Shaykh took a great liking to him even deferred his retirement from teaching Sahih al-Bukhari so that Mawlana Yusuf could study it under his instruction In Saharanpur, Mawlana Yusuf also studied under a number of other great scholars, such as Mawlana Muhammad ‘Aqil (author of Al-Durr al-Mandud, an Urdu commentary of Sunan Abi Dawud and current head lecturer of Hadith at the same seminary), Shaykh Yunus Jownpuri (d. 2017) the previous head lecturer of Hadith there), Mawlana As‘adullah Rampuri (d. 1979) and Mufti Muzaffar Husayn (d. 2003).

Upon completion of his studies, Mawlana Yusuf’s marriage was arranged to a girl from the Limbada family which had migrated to the UK from Gujarat. In 1968, he relocated to the UK accepting the position of an imam at Masjid Zakariya, in Bolton. In the UK, he focused his efforts on establishing a seminary for memorisation of Qur’an and teaching of the ‘alimiyya programme with the vision to train a generation of Muslim scholars who would educate the growing Muslim community.

Establishing the first Muslim seminary, in the absence of any precedent, was a daunting task. The lack of support from the Muslim community, lack of integration into the wider British community, and the lack of funds made it an impossible endeavour. This did not waver his commitment, and he diligently worked to make the dream of his teacher a reality. In 1973 he purchased the derelict Aitken Sanatorium in Holcombe Village, Lancashire, becoming one of the first fully-fledged higher-education Islamic institutes outside of the Indian Subcontinent teaching the adapted-Nizami syllabus.

The years of struggle paid off handsomely. Today, Darul Uloom Al Arabiyya Al Islamiyya, and several affiliate institutes, also founded by Mawlana Yusuf, such as the Jamiatul Imam Muhammad Zakariya seminary in Bradford for girls, have produced well over 2,000 British born male and female ‘alimiyya graduates – many of whom are working as scholars and serving communities across the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Portugal, the US, Canada, Barbados, Trinidad, Panama, Saudi Arabia, India and New Zealand.

A countless number of individuals have memorised the Qur’an at these institutes. Moreover, many of the graduates of the Darul Uloom and its sister institutes have set up their own institutes, such as Jamiatul Ilm Wal Huda in Blackburn, Islamic Dawah Academy in Leicester, Jami’ah al-Kawthar in Lancaster, UK, and Darul Uloom Palmela in Portugal, to just mention a few of the larger ones. Mawlana Yusuf witnessed the fruit of his labour – his graduates providing religious services to communities around the world in their local languages.

What started as a relationship of love between a student and teacher, manifested into the transmission of knowledge across continents. In countries such as the UK and Portugal, one would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim who had not directly or indirectly benefited from him.

Mawlana Yusuf was a man with deep insights into the needs of Western contemporary society, one that was very different from the one he had grown up and trained in. To contribute to mainstream society, he encouraged his graduates to enter into further education both in post-graduate Islamic courses and western academia, and to diversify their fields of learning through courses at mainstream UK universities.

As a result, many ‘alimiyya graduates of his institutes are trained in law, mainstream medicine, natural medicine and homeopathy, mental health, child protection, finance, IT, education, chaplaincy, psychology, philosophy, pharmacy, physics, journalism, engineering, architecture, calligraphy, typography, graphic design, optometry, social services, public health, even British Sign Language.

His students also include several who have completed PhDs and lecture at universities. His vision was to train British-born (or other) Muslim scholars who would be well versed in contemporary thought and discipline along with their advanced Islamic learning, equipping them to better contribute to society.

Despite his commitment to the establishment of a public good, the Shaykh was an immensely private person and avoided accolade or attention. For many decades he refused invitations to attend conferences or talks around the country, choosing to focus on his students and his family, teaching the academic syllabus and infusing the hearts of many aspirants with the love of Allah through regular gatherings of remembrance (dhikr) and spiritual retreats (i’tikaf) in the way of his shaykh’s Chishti Sufi order.

During my stay with him at Darul Uloom (1985-1997), I did not come across a single student who spoke ill of him. He commanded such awe and respect that people would find it difficult to speak with him casually. And yet, for those who conversed with him, knew that he was the most humble, and loving individual.

He had affection for his students and colleagues and had immense concern for the Muslim Ummah, especially in the West. He possessed unparalleled forbearance and self-composure. He spoke in a subdued and measured tone weighing the importance of every word. Even after a surgical procedure for piles and subsequent pain, he continued to teach us Sahih al-Bukhari.

Anyone who has listened to his talks or read his books can bear testimony to two things: his immense love for the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and the late Shaykh Mawlana Muhammad Zakariya Kandhlawi (may Allah have mercy on him). It is probably hard to find a talk in which he did not speak of the two. His shaykh was no doubt his link to the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) in both his hadith and spiritual transmissions.

Over the last decade, he had retired from most of his teaching commitments (except Sahih al-Bukhari) and had reduced meeting with people other than his weekly dhikr gatherings. He spent time with his family and young children and writing books. His written legacy comprises over 20 titles, mostly in Urdu but also a partial tafsir of the Qur’an in classical Arabic.

After his heart attack on August 25, his well-wishers around the world completed hundreds of recitals of the Qur’an, several readings of the entire Sahih al-Bukhari, thousands of litanies and words of the formula of faith (kalima tayyiba), and donated to charity in his name. He passed away two weeks later with reports stating that approximately 4,000 people attended his funeral. He leaves behind eight children and several grandchildren.

Mawlana Yusuf educated, inspired and nourished the minds of countless across the world. May Allah Almighty bless him with the loftiest of abodes in the Gardens of Firdaws in the company of Allah’s beloved Messenger (pbuh) and grant all those who cherished him patience.

Dr Mufti Abdur-Rahman Mangera Whitethread Institute, London
(Graduate, Darul Uloom, Bury 1996–97)

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