In Memoriam: Raficq Abdulla (1940-2019) A Man of His Time

By Mohamed M Keshavjee

Raficq Abdulla’s passing away in London on 19 December 2019 after a battle with cancer is a great loss to all those who came into contact with him over a 50-year period. He wasraficq_photo1_1 an individual who was difficult to forget because, in your first meeting with him, he showed that he cared and wanted to know who you were. He did this by asking what you were doing, what you were reading, whether you liked poetry, whether short stories interested you more than non-fiction and whether you loved jazz or opera or even folk music. He asked where you came from and what you were studying and he made you feel that you were of interest regardless of whatever stratum of society you came from. Raficq was well poised to play this role of making people feel that they mattered.

Born in the Cape Province of South Africa in Walmer Estate in the shadow of the Table Mountain, Raficq was the son of a Malay mother, granddaughter of two Imams — one of whom had been sent to South Africa by Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire, and an Indian father of Hyderabadi origin. In a way Raficq was neither Malay nor Indian but felt at home in both those cultures with relatives on either side of the cultural divide. He spent much of his time between the Cape and Natal – both South African provinces with a more liberal British influence which experienced apartheid but not in its virulent form as it was practiced in the Transvaal. Raficq’s other maternal great grandfather imam hailed from an Islamic mystical tradition from Java and Sumatra. It is from this heritage that Raficq acquired an esoteric bent of mind, always searching to find out more about the inner life rather than being obsessed with the outer form. He applied this approach to all texts and not necessarily only to the written. He had a passion for art, the theatre and cinema, and had an eclectic taste in music but his main interest was in opera and Western serious music for which he had a discerning ear. He also loved jazz and was equally at home listening to South African township blues which he enjoyed enormously.

Raficq’s maternal grandmother, Rabia Bibi, was a prominent businesswoman in Durban and is reputed to have contributed financially to the establishment of the Natal Indian Congress by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Dada Abdullah Jhavery in 1894, a year in which the Natal Legislature was trying assiduously to disenfranchise the Indian immigrants in the colony. These immigrants, over the two preceding decades, had worked themselves hard to acquire property and establish themselves in business. In this process the Indians, who were in business, as well as the Indentured Indians, who came earlier, made a significant contribution to the prosperity of Natal. The Natal Indian Congress played a prominent role under Gandhi in mobilizing Indian political consciousness in the 1890s and subsequently in the political struggle in South Africa in the 20th century with the aim of dismantling apartheid. The Congress did this through the work of veteran freedom fighters such as Dr Monty Naicker and Dr Goonam both Edinburgh University educated colleagues of Raficq’s mother. A third important and towering figure in the freedom struggle, Dr Yusuf Dadoo, was also an Edinburgh-educated medical doctor.

Raficq’s mother Mosida Ismail played a seminal role in his life. A god-daughter of the veteran Cape political leader Abdullah Abdurrahman, Mosida followed Abdurrahman’s educational path and in 1927 went to his alma mater, Edinburgh University, to study medicine. While in the United Kingdom she met her first husband, Guy’s-educated doctor Goolam Gool, who went on to play an important role in the social and political life of the Cape and who would become President of the National Liberation League in 1937. Mosida and Goolam had one son, Reshard, who became a novelist and wrote the book Cape Town Coolie. Reshard also wrote poetry and later ended up in Canada where he lectured in philosophy and literature and joined a small literary group focusing on third world literature and protest poetry. After a short marriage, Mosida and Goolam divorced and Mosida then married Sheik Abdulla of Durban. Raficq was Mosida’s son by this second marriage to Sheik Abdulla. Mosida and Abdulla sent both Raficq and his half-brother Reshard to study in England.

Raficq went to Epsom College in Surrey following which he went up to Brasenose College Oxford to read Jurisprudence. This was followed by Middle Temple Inn where Raficq qualified as a barrister 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 Legal Secretary to Kingston University. At the time of his death, Raficq was a Visiting Fellow of the Faculty of Business and Law at Kingston University. Though qualified as a lawyer, Raficq was not enamoured with legal practice. He saw law as an overarching framework of thinking and social governance, and, while he respected its canons he always thought of law in the context of socio-political realities and tried to understand its purpose in serving the cause of justice. In all the social and administrative work he did, while he respected the law scrupulously, he always looked for its higher purpose, which for him was the equity and fairness that law is meant to uphold.

A writer, lecturer, essayist, public speaker and a poet, Raficq was most at home when writing poetry. He wrote thousands of poems many of which remain unpublished and he kept on writing until the very end. His interests encompassed, law, art, Islam in the modern world, Islamophobia, poetry, music, spirituality, identity, diasporas and the role of the sacred in human life. He contributed chapters to various works on subjects such as John Ruskin, holocaust poetry, art, law, Muslim ethics and identity. He was a strong believer in freedom of expression and spent much of his time with English PEN as a member of its Board of Trustees. His input was not only at the policy and conceptual levels but he also participated in the work of its Management Committee and its Writers in Translation Committee. In 2014, Raficq also took on the role of Acting President, guiding English PEN through a period of transition with considerable skill, energy and wisdom. He was also a trustee of the Poetry Society and Planet Poetry. He was a good team player who was able to engender team consensus through active listening and motivating group participation. Yet, he was never afraid to speak truth to power which he often did without fear or favour.

Raficq was always sensitive to the plight of the writer in exile and worked closely with Exiled Lit Cafe nights where he read and performed his poetry, working with young budding poets in basement venues and encouraging them to continue writing. He was deeply concerned about human rights and peace and this was expressed through his poetry and participation in the activities of the Exiled Writers Ink of which he was a board member. He also participated in their literary activism events. This was exemplified by his contribution to Poets of Peace for Colombia organised by its late Chair, the Palestinian poet and medic, the late Dr Fathieh Saudi. A deep and reflective thinker, Raficq presented a paper in relation to the ‘other’ at Exiled Writers Ink’s 2012 symposium entitled ‘Hospitality Poetica’.

Raficq published two books on the poems of Muslim mystics, Rumi and Attar: Words of Paradise: Selected Poems of Rumi (London, 2000) and The Conference of the Birds: Selected Sufi Poetry of Attar (London, 2003), some sections of which were set to music and performed at Carnegie Hall in New York. In 2016 Raficq published Reflecting Mercury; Dreaming Shakespeare’s Sonnets in which he matched his poetic contemplation to each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. This book was launched at the Ismaili Centre, London, by Lord Gowrie, a former UK Minister of Culture and himself a poet. The event was held to mark the 400th death anniversary of Shakespeare over a weekend of literary activities under the aegis of The Aga Khan National Council of the United Kingdom and Raficq helped to conceptualise the activities for the full three days by incorporating poetry on Shakespeare by budding poets from Exiled Writers Ink. These poets performed prior to the book launch, and the well-known Swahili scholar, Dr Farouk Topan of the School of Oriental and African Studies, spoke about the role of Shakespeare in the evolution of Swahili literature, highlighting Julius Nyerere’s Swahili translation of Julius Caesar and the Merchant of Venice. Katie Rose and her ensemble of Shakespearean singers, the Anima Acapella Group performed at this session. The weekend event was a cross-fertilisation of art and culture where Raficq read his poems in conjunction with Shakespeare’s sonnets read by the actor Alice Bonifacio to the accompaniment of music. Over the weekend, more than 1,000 British schoolchildren visited the Ismaili Centre to learn about how different cultures had appropriated Shakespeare as a universal poet in their respective linguistic and cultural traditions.

Given this broad worldview and the inclusive vison that Raficq always espoused, Dr Zaki Badawi, a leading Al-Azhar trained jurist and a psychologist, called upon him in the 1970s to contribute to his interfaith work in the United Kingdom at a critical time of Muslim integration in the country. Raficq worked closely with Dr Badawi, Sir Sigmund Sternberg and the Rev Dr Marcus Braybrooke in engendering greater interfaith understanding. Dr Badawi then called on Raficq to advise him on the newly established Muslim College that was committed to training imams locally to respond to the needs of a diverse diasporic Muslim community whose children were born in the United Kingdom and were losing the linguistic and cultural traditions of their parents. Raficq provided the legal framework for this institution. Being a diasporic Muslim himself, Raficq was deeply conscious of the fact that Muslim communities from outside the Arab heartlands had their own cultural traditions and these had to be respected. He saw the value of culture in engendering a respect among diasporic Muslims about their identity and encouraged a fusion of cultures whereby British Muslim children would be able to embrace British humanistic values which were compatible with their own Islamic values. Dr Badawi also called on Raficq to sit on the panel of the Muslim Law Sharia Council (MLSC) that he had set up to protect the rights of Muslim women who had obtained a secular divorce in the courts of the United Kingdom but were denied a religious divorce by their husbands. Raficq was one of three UK-trained secular lawyers on the panel specially mandated by Dr Badawi to ensure that the MLSC adhered to the public laws of the United Kingdom. Raficq worked with two other imams, Maulana Shahid Raza Naimi and Sheikh Gemal of the MLSC, and over a 45-year period the MLSC has extended help to over 35,000 women in the United Kingdom and Europe. For his work in the field of interfaith dialogue Raficq was awarded an MBE in 1999. Raficq continued to work with the Three Faiths Forum and collaborated closely with Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger.

In the early 2000s, Raficq, Dr Badawi and Mohamed Risaluddin who established the Calamus Foundation in the UK, collaborated with the Ismaili National Council of the USA in helping the Chautauqua Institution broaden its scope on their Abrahamic Initiative by inviting leading scholars, speakers, film-makers, artists and musicians from different Muslim cultures to speak at its summer programme in Upstate New York. This endeavour was set up to highlight the humanistic dimension of Islam as part of the Abrahamic family of faiths, made up Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with a view to promoting greater interfaith literacy. Raficq spoke at Chautauqua on “Islamic spirituality” and on the “the Sacred”, and in 2006 along with Professor Azim Nanji, Dr Habib Jamal, Dr Barkat Fazal, Dr Badawi and myself, he was instrumental in setting up a conference in London with the Chautauqua Institution and the Ismaili National Councils of the UK and the USA to further the Abrahamic Initiative. This was the first time that Chautauqua had held a programme outside New York. Raficq worked closely in this endeavour with President Tom Backer of the Chautauqua Institution, Reverend Joan Brown Campbell, its Director of Religion, and Rev Dr Ross Mackenzie who went on to become Chautauqua’s historian.

In 2006-2007 Raficq chaired the Festival of Muslim Cultures in Britain, working closely with social change curator Isabelle Carlisle, Dr Badawi, Professor Nanji, Mohamed Risaluddin, Mahmood Ahmed, myself, and a small group of people, to celebrate the pluralistic civilisations of Muslim peoples. Over the period of one year a number of cultural activities were set up and others co-opted throughout Britain highlighting the humanistic heritage of Muslim peoples. These included talks at schools, plays by children, musical performances by individuals and groups, films by Muslim cinematographers on social issues impacting Muslim societies, and performances by small groups from different Muslim countries ranging from NW China to the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, highlighting the cultural diversity of the Muslim peoples.

With a broad understanding of Islam’s rich diversity within its fundamental unity, Raficq contributed to a greater understanding of Islam as a culture, an ethic, a metaphor, a faith and a way of life. He presented a large number of programmes on Islam for the BBC World Service Radio, including The Four Caliphs, Rumi, The Conference of the Birds, a new allegorical poem by the 12th-century mystic poet Fariduddin Attar, and a series on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Raficq was also invited to participate in various live current affairs programmes, such as News Hour on the BBC World Service. He was a regular book reviewer and a BBC commentator on contemporary issues impacting the Muslim world and its relations with the West. He wrote screenplays for Channel 4 as well as the scripts for two award-winning films produced by the well-known Pakistani film director, Jamil Dehlavi, called The Blood of Hussein and Born of Fire. As a public speaker, Raficq addressed a wide variety of national and international audiences on a number of subjects including Islamic Finance, in the UK, Canada, USA, Spain, UAE, Portugal and Germany. These included being a narrator at a concert at St Ethelburga’s in London in 2008 on the German/Jewish composer Victor Ullmann who lost his life at Auschwitz in 1945, the 15th-century Persian mystic poet Jami, and the 20th-century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Raficq, however, was most in his element as a teacher lecturing on poetry and the need for interpretation, art and Islam — Islam and spirituality including a post-graduate class at the London School of Economics on Sharia — and on various topics relating to Islam at the undergraduate level at Syracuse University’s London campus. He also lectured to Ismaili students in Lisbon, Montreal, London and New York, on spirituality and on the contemporary issues impacting Muslim societies.

Raficq was deeply imbued with a sense of social justice. His mother though not personally involved in the anti-apartheid struggle strongly abhorred apartheid’s racist ideology which she felt was fundamentally evil. In her medical practice in South Africa she constantly helped the poor and the indigent. Raficq thus grew up deeply sensitive of the “other” and made a point of helping those most marginalised in society. He was Chair of the Happy Soul Festival (dedicated to promoting mental health in the Black and minority ethnic communities) and was a Non–Executive Director of South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust. In 2017, the Wandsworth Black Mental Health Conference in London, at its session entitled “Healing our Broken Village”, conferred on Raficq its highest annual award 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, Asian and minority ethnic mental health inequalities — which enabled the space for innovation in the design and delivery of services to the various communities. The citation mentioned that “Raficq Abdulla extended his support beyond the boardroom, attending community and conferences speaking on our platforms and listening to people’s expectations and hopes for better mental health services”.

It was in the last five to seven years of his life that I came to know Raficq more closely as we met each week to work on a book that we were writing together. Often our meetings were at The Institute of Ismaili Studies(IIS) which during that time became Raficq’s second home. He loved frequenting the IIS and made many friends there. He made optimal use of its wonderful library and often remarked that “the Aga Khan has it right. He understands the role of education in addressing the problems of the Muslim world and he exemplifies it through pragmatic action.” At times, Raficq and I met at his home where his loving wife Marianne would spoil us with fresh smoked salmon sandwiches, quiche and cranberry juice punctuated by hot cups of tea. We laughed as we discussed different chapters of our book as Raficq played the devil’s advocate, cross examining me with the incisiveness of a forensic English barrister fighting a criminal case at the Old bailey. In between he would write a short poem. I would read to him a new short story that I had written earlier and he would comment on it. Sometimes Marianne would join in with the discussion. Raficq and I did not agree on all issues and we argued sometimes for hours, but I found Raficq to be a very balanced, fair and objective individual who saw the best in every human being. He had a curious mind and wore his scholarship lightly. He read avidly and never gave up learning. Despite his illness, he always made a point of staying abreast of cultural happenings, which exhibition was on at which art gallery, and which event he wanted to attend. He would encourage me to join him at these events and would explain things to me.

Raficq read prolifically but he read with what he termed “a hermeneutic resolve”. He was always ready to listen and to reason. He had an incisive mind matched by an equally brilliant way of articulating things. He was not given to superlatives and was able to provide the added poetic flourish to a thought. He never wore his faith on his sleeves but understood what it meant to be human and extended this humanity to everyone he met regardless of their station in life. He showed kindness to all and was compassionate. These were the only enduring values he felt mattered in a dystopic world which gave him much concern. He had much he still wished to accomplish and often reminded me that he had his poetry to write and that was his passion. Sadly, he did not live to see all his work published, but fortunately we have his writings which include Reading Shakespeare —poems, a series of poems based on his reading of García Lorca, the poems of Sappho, The Bite of Life — a book of his poems, Tao poems — a poem for each day of the year, poems upon reading Rilke, Troilus and Cresida – a book of poems, and a translation of Salman and Absal by Jami. Hopefully, some day his prolific output will see the light of day. Fortunately, a close friend and a budding poet, Dr Rachna Chawla, a medic, is preparing for publication a short collection of poems by Raficq called “Mother Mine”. In the last weeks of his life Dr Chawla brought the final draft to his home and she and his family read it out to him.

Raficq never imprisoned his identity in any one time, in any one culture, or indeed in any one faith. He was a universal man and saw himself as a part of the universe whose meaning he constantly tried to fathom. His fascinating life was a search for truth — not “the” truth — as he strongly believed that no such thing existed. He held that no faith group or individual had a monopoly of the truth. He lived as he died — in constant awe of the mysteries of life with the humility to recognise that these will remain hidden and that one just has to search and search in the hope of finding the grace to know. And he often said that when that time came “one would be enveloped in silence as words may not be able to describe what it means and one may not even feel free to say”. A cosmopolitan individual who espoused a cosmopolitan worldview, Raficq was a man of multiple talents and a plethora of interests which he nurtured with great zest. He can aptly be termed a modern Renaissance man and he will be sorely missed by the many who had the good fortune to have known him.


Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

One thought

  1. A very befitting memoriam for A Man of His Time – Late Raficq Abdulla and more befitting for this to have been written by another Man of His Time Mohamed M. Keshavjee with whom I have had the unique opportunity to work with. We pray that may the departed soul of Raficq rest in eternal peace. Ameen.

    To the publishers of IsmailMail our deep gratitude for keeping us informed of all significant events and happenings and also for posting other educational pieces of interest. Thank you very much.


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