Obituary: Nabeel al-Azami, an ardent teacher of prophetic qualities

30th Aug 2019
Obituary: Nabeel al-Azami, an ardent teacher of prophetic qualities

(Photo courtesy of the family)

It seems hard to think of someone whose passing has inspired as much intense outpouring of love and emotion as Nabeel al-Azami’s who died two weeks ago aged 39.
To die so young is often seen as to die too early, yet Nabeel lived a full and varied life, combining professional success with community duty, leaving a lasting mark on many with his selfless determination and wisdom beyond his years.
If we draw on our tradition and take forty as the age of maturity, then we can say that at 39 al-Azami must have been nearing the peak of his powers.
Even as his illness spread he was able to bring to fruition his life’s work together in the form of a book on Prophetic leadership. And Murabbi, the ethical leadership consultancy he co-founded, marked its tenth-anniversary last year.
Born in Manchester in 1980; Nabeel was the first child of Mamoon Al-Azami and Umme Salma Al-Azami. Nabeel is the grandson of  a renowned Islamic scholar in Bangladesh.
Born into the Islamic movement as the eldest grandchild of such a towering figure, he had, from a young age, a profound sense of responsibility and concern for those around him as well as for the ummah at large. In time he became a dependable rock and wise counsel to many, including elder family members.
His qualities would come to the fore following the untimely death of his mother, Umma Salma, from cancer in 2004. With his father now working in Saudi Arabia, it was left to Nabeel to look after his four younger siblings, Nazeel, Usaama, Lubaaba, and Nusaiba.
After schooling in Jeddah, London and Manchester, he graduated from Manchester University in Maths with Business Management in 2003, before completing a Masters in Management at Alliance Manchester Business School in 2006.
By then he was already well-known in Islamic activist circles across Britain, having served on the Executive Committee of the Young Muslim Organisation (YMO) in the 1990s.
At YMO, which set out to instil Islamic values among youth in Tower Hamlets before spreading nationally, his thinking about community service and leadership began to take shape.
“Since I’ve known him, he has always been thinking about new projects to serve the community,” said Junaid Ahmed, who served with Nabeel on the Executive Committee of YMO in the mid-nineties.
They both travelled in 2005 to Egypt to study Arabic, an important step in his lifelong commitment to distilling the prophetic qualities of leadership.
On his return, he married Nasreen, a psychiatrist, who comes from a British-Bangladeshi family which, like his family, distinguished itself in Islamic scholarship and community activism. They would have three children together, with Nasreen remaining a pillar of fortitude and grace to the last.
He spent four years working for Ford Motor Company in Dagenham as an analyst and in Human Resources. Notwithstanding the prestige of his position, he kept his eye on the prize: how he could invest what he learnt back into his community.
A five-year spell as Head of Human Resources at Islamic Relief Worldwide followed. Nabeel was also a Citizens-UK Trustee.
A turning point came when he was introduced to Professor John Adair, considered the world’s first leadership professor, by family friend Muhammad Abdul-Bari, then Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain.
Over the years Nabeel looked up to Adair as a mentor, his influential book Leadership of Muhammad, a constant source of inspiration for his work. On his passing Adair privately remarked to Dr Abdul-Bari that he saw Nabeel as his own “spiritual son.”
While at Ford he also came under the influence of his senior Andy Pellant, who in a reversal of roles today chairs Murabbi, the consulting firm he co-founded with Junaid Ahmed in 2008, drawing together the separate shards of experience — Islamic activism, spiritual knowledge modern-day leadership theory and HR professional experience — he had picked up along the way.
Thrashed out over dinner at a Turkish restaurant behind East London Mosque, Nabeel told Ahmed he had ambitions for the ethical leadership consultancy lead its field one day
By the time the two met to celebrate its tenth anniversary last year, the consultancy boasted an international clientele, including governments and multinationals spread across three continents.
For Nabeel, it made little difference if you were a taxi driver or an international personality, such as his friends former Aljazeera chief Wadah Khanfar and Tunisian politician Rachid Ghannouchi. Consistently grounded and courteous, he possessed a rare gift — a prophetic gift — of turning mere acquaintances into lifelong friends.
“Many people are not just mildly acquainted with him, but there are a lot of people close to him because of how he made them feel,” a friend said.
In many ways, Murabbi, based on a word which means mentor or guide, was just an extension of his person.
In 2011, alongside Dr Abdul Bari, he founded the Usrah group in London, based on an earlier model in Manchester, conveying qualities of prophetic leadership to a new generation of leaders in laidback sessions at his East London home, where I was grateful to be a guest.
The last time I saw Nabeel was on a group video call held he held with Usrah members. Despite the sudden onset of his illness and in the face of great pain, it was deeply moving to witness his unwavering resilience and smiling contentment, which could only have been brought about by his deep reliance on Allah.
Those who went to visit him in the last few months have said that he appeared more worried not to burden visitors with the news of his inevitable decline than with his self.
It must have been a monumental effort to complete his life’s work “Muhammad (s): 11 Leadership Qualities that Changed the World” as he did in those last days and months as the paralysis resulting from the aggressive spinal cancer gradually crept up his body.
Written while in spiritual retreat during the last ten days of Ramadan, Nabeel fittingly launched his book in June on 27th Ramadan.
While that book, which drew on twenty years of experience in leadership theory, HR and activism, will serve as an enduring legacy, so will the mark he has left on many of us, embodying, whether he knew it or not, the very prophetic qualities he dedicated his life to teaching.

Amnadla Thomas-Johnson,
London-born journalist currently residing in Senegal. In 2019 he was nominated for the Muslim News Ibn Battuta Award for Excellence in Media.

 

One Response to “Obituary: Nabeel al-Azami, an ardent teacher of prophetic qualities”

Mohammed Faridul AlamAugust 30, 2019

Sad demise of legendary young islamist Nabeel will continue to shed tears on our heart . Muslim ummah lost a great son who had potential to be a successful Islamic leader to spiritually guide nation. May Allah swt gives savrun jamila to his berieved wife, dad, siblings, uncles and all other relatives, colleagues and friends.

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