Shaykh Seraj was an internationally renowned Muslim scholar, from a century old tradition in a minority context, studying in the Muslim heartlands.

When Shaykh Seraj Hendricks of Cape Town passed away early this month, aged 64, his close friend, confidante, and renowned South African public figure himself, Shafiq Morton, wrote: “he had to be a man for all people at all times.” 

I knew exactly what Shafiq meant – because my own relationship with this mountain, who grew up in the shade of so many other peaks, bore that out very well. 

I first came across this South African icon, as a young man, close to two decades ago. It was fascinating to see thisproduct of a hundred-year-old tradition, be so erudite about the contemporary, while being so rooted in a classical religious tradition of Islamic thought. 

But that was Shaykh Seraj. 

He’d spent many years being schooled in Islamic thought at the hands of his uncles, who themselves had been scholars of Islam in south Africa, at Azzawia Institute, which Shaykh Seraj’s grandfather had founded. He named it ‘Azzavia’, which was spelt as such owing to Ottoman influence among Muslim Capetonians of the time, rather than as ‘Azzawia’ (al Zawiya) – an institution that celebrates its centenary this year.

It was three generations of Hendricks that went from Cape Town to Mecca to study with the great scholars of the day, particular the traditional Sunni families of al Maliki, and the folk of the Bani ‘Alawi, as well as many others. That was the tradition that Shaykh Seraj was born into – the tradition he lived his whole life – upholding it until his end. 

Shaykh Seraj, and his brother Shaykh Ahmad, the two grandsons of Shaykh Muhammad Salih, who both went to study in Mecca in his footsteps, were the latest chapter in this epic saga, which has deep meaning for Western Muslim communities. 

In Azzawia, one sees an institution of pedigree – a whole century of learning – founded in a British colony, where Muslims were a minority, and managed to keep its tradition thriving under various types of regimes and political manifestations. 

Throughout, Azzawia maintained its traditions – and its independence. That is something that Shaykh Seraj valued tremendously throughout his life, even while he had his own political opinions. 

Shaykh Seraj grew during Apartheid – and was deeply opposed to it, via his support for the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front movement in the 1980s and 90s. It was something that particularly fascinated me because of the notion – that has become commonplace in certain quarters – to argue that mainstream, normative Sunnism, is somehow naturally and instinctively quietist and supportive of autocracy. 

Shaykh Seraj was profoundly connected to that same Sunnism, and he, along with many others such as Imam Abdullah Haroon, another Muslim South African figure, were vigorously opposed to Apartheid. 

But Shaykh Seraj didn’t become a politician once he’d completed his studies in Mecca, returning with his brother to be a shaykh at Azzawia. He was a community activist; a scholar; a mentor; an adherent to Sufism. 

In political matters, he upheld the time-honoured tradition of Azzawia being non-partisan, and non-aligned. It gained Azzawia the respect of all sectors of the Muslim community, which remains to this day. 

In the aftermath of his passing, there were condolences from disparate parts of the Muslim world, even those countries and forces who might otherwise be at odds with one another. For any Muslim figure, in this political environment, to receive such resounding non-partisan support, is emblematic in and of itself.

One ought not be too surprised – for Shaykh Seraj held a number of rather noted positions in South Africa. Primarily a Shaykh of Azzawia, he was also at different times considered as the ‘Mufti of Cape Town’ as a result of being head of the Muslim Judicial Council’s Fatwa Committee; lecturer in the Study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg (UJ); chief arbitrator (Hakim) of the Crescent Observer’s Society, and Dean of the Madina Institute in South Africa. Since 2009, he was listed in the ‘Muslim500’ list that was set up by Georgetown University and the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre of Jordan. 

Shaykh Seraj Hendricks wrote a great deal, and recently, his writings began to get published. I was pleased to cowrite with him, alongside his brother Shaykh Ahmad, a book titled A Sublime Way: the Sufi Path of the Sages of Makka

Another book about the history of Sufism in the Cape is due out in the coming year, along with translations of the works of the medieval polymath, Imam al Ghazali, and others in due course.

At a time when religion and religious figures are being used and abused for petty partisan political gain in different parts of the Muslim world, it’s easy to see why so many are disillusioned with the role that religious scholars might play in the public arena. 

But Shaykh Seraj is yet another reminder that there are religious figures that continue to uphold principle, not partisan gain, as the bedrock of their public engagement. His continual abjuration of the slogans of identity, and consistent perpetuation of understanding Islam as a way of being, not of Machiavellian politics, will outlive him for many years to come.

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