– by Jaihoon

Meeting with Sayyid Shihab (14 Oct 2006).

It was an October afternoon in the month of Ramadan in 2006. He was sitting inside the hall without a shirt. Guests were strictly restricted from going near him for fear of infection. He had just returned from US after a critical operation. The Sufi Sultan was perhaps in the greatest crisis of his life. Losses enveloped him from all frontiers.

His physical health was in its historic low. It prevented him from fulfilling the greatest passion in his life – to relieve and resolve, to console and comfort the distressed and deprived.

Secondly, his beloved wife, Sayyida Shareefa, had passed away in Kerala when he was being operated in US. The illustrious daughter of the legendary leader of Kerala, Sayyid Abdur Rahman Bafaqi, would normally accompany her husband on all distant journeys. But Fate was not generous enough to give her time till his return from US. And he was informed of her death only after he reached back in Kerala.

Thirdly on the political front his Party suffered its worst humiliation in its political history. The movement had endured the embarrassing electoral misadventure in his absentia.

Although no one was allowed to meet him, I managed to get a benevolent pass with the help of his eldest son, Sayyid Basheerali Shihab Thangal. I had a camera in hand, but he requested not to be photographed in his sick posture. He was not well groomed in his cap or his shiny white shirt. And he had medical cables hanging in his neck as well.

One could only imagine how difficult then it would have been in that condition for the Sayyid to meet, listen and talk to an insignificant youth who simply came to quench his curiosity.

Yet, the Sayyid showed no signs of irritation or frustration. He shared his memories about his early education, life in Cairo, his liking for Arabic literature and much more.

He began with saying that he met a delegation from Al Azhar University named Islamic Congress when he was doing his Dars in Kerala. He enquired from them the details to enroll in the institution. He was around thirty then.

The Secretary General of Islamic Congress was Anwar Sadath, who later became the president of Egypt. He made all arrangements for the Sayyid including stay in the hostel. After two years in Al Azhar, he joined Cairo University in the Faculty of Arts for six years.

When I asked if he was very interested in Arabic, he said he just had faint idea about the language.

He said Arabic Poetry is divided into stages of Jahiliyya, Islamic, Ummayyid and Abbasid periods. Co-incidentally, he was reading a book by Dr Shawki Saif who taught him Arabic poetry at Cairo University. He recalled the author was an expert on the Arabic poetry. Among the professors who taught him Arabic, one was a lady.

The hostel in Cairo University had students from around sixty nationalities. Three of them from Mali later became the president, foreign minister and education minister. He recalled another Jamal Jalal from Burma whom he later met in Mali. His old college friend treated him with a lavish Burmese Biryani.

He also talked about his fondness for Bonsai plant. When I persistently asked why he cultivated them expecting a philosophical answer, he replied in a laugh saying it was simply out of passion when he had nothing else to do.

About his decision making process, he says he gives importance to consultations with all parties of conflict and tries to arrive at a mutually agreeable decision.

When I asked him what gave him the confidence despite the disheartening setbacks in his personal and political life, he corrected me saying he was not disheartened at all. He admitted his Party had lost due to its own doings and would make corrective measures to make up.

About the upcoming rearrangements of constituencies in the State, he said his Party will carry out necessary studies on its impact to face the elections.

On the qualities of a leader, he says one should solve the problems at hand if any and also keep the movement united as much as possible without factionalism. Each member will have different qualities. So give each their due influence in the Party.

He has traveled to many countries in Arab world, Europe and Americas. I asked him what he found most unique about Kerala Muslims. He asserted that Kerala Muslims are well organized and their activism is in a disciplined fashion

He also appreciated the Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb who earned a livelihood for himself.

About the areas in which Kerala Muslims need to improve, he said they need to equip better with education. A fundamental sense of religious consciousness is important for a community. Only religious knowledge can build harmony in a pluralistic society. They also need to enhance modern education and work for better career opportunities.

He said conspiracies against the Muslim identity have been prevalent since the British Colonial days. But ultimately it was up to Muslims to preserve their identity.

Communal harmony should be respected. Love should be shown not just towards members at home, but towards everyone in the society.

He believed that the Community’s approach towards education has changed since past few decades. He noticed the boys and girls on the roadside in uniforms.

When requested to take a snap, he joked saying it would look very embarrassing if your friends in Sharjah would see it. But he did enquire about the technical specifications of the Camera which reminded me about what I heard earlier about his curiosity to know every detail of technology.

I recapped to him about my earlier interview with him around seven years back about the Indo Arab relationship and about the Ahl-Bait family spread around India. He also showed me a book of the history of Arab literature in Al Andalus (Muslim Spain).

We ended the talk with Al Andalus. He reminded that it was the internal decay and disunity which brought an end to the glory of Al Andalus. I bid farewell and he prayed for success.