28 February 2023 Dr Kamal El-Helbawi, legendary activist

The passing away of the veteran London-based Islamic activist, Dr Kamal El-Helbawi, on 28 February 2023, is a loss mourned by many to whom he was a mentor and inspiration. He was a larger than life personality, fiercely independent and deeply pious. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajiun. He combined a passion for the ummah’s upliftment – material and ethical – with business acumen.

Among his experiences and adventures of life was time spent in Nigeria on dawa activities in the 70s. In the early 80s he was in Afghanistan, as an advisor to the muhajideen leadership during their struggle facing the Soviet Army. He joined the Institute of Policy Studies in Pakistan in 1988 and also lectured in the country’s Academy of Dawah. He also served as the first executive director of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. Prior to settling in Britain in the mid-1990s, he was associated with the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States, based in Saudi Arabia. Later, Dr Helbawi was called to serve as the spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood in the West.

Dr Helbawi was born in 1939 in Kafr el Batanoon in Egypt’s Delta area. He studied literature at Cairo University and later business administration and simultaneous translation at the American University in Cairo. As a member of the Muslim Brotherhood from adolescence, he was under careful watch during the Nasser years. He was only able to travel abroad in 1970 after the dictator died. Much of his life subsequently was one of a political exile from his homeland.

He was a man of compassion who took practical steps to help others. Once, a Sri Lankan taxi driver unburdened to Kamal his financial worries. Kamal’s response was to immediately offer him employment in one of his business ventures. It was the sort of response that earned him loyalty and respect. His own life principle was to be self-sufficient through business ventures rather than depend on largesse of any state.

In spite of a lifelong association with the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr Helbawi was always his own man. He disagreed with Sayyid Qutb’s writings about jahiliya in the West, When he returned to Egypt in 2011 after Mubarak was deposed, he described it “as the two most busy months of my life”. Later he was at odds with the Brotherhood’s strategy in the post-Mubarak era and resigned in 2012. He went public lamenting the Party’s decision to field a candidate in the presidential elections that year. He argued that it should take up a social services rather than pursue political ambitions in an unprepared manner.

Ustadh Kamal – as he was fondly called by the many young people who benefitted from his experiences and learning at his weekly study circles – was a driving force in the establishment of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) in 1998, MAB was one of the founding national affiliates of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB, and for many years Dr Helbawi participated in the annual general meetings and followed the work of the central working committee/national council.

Among his many other ventures was establishment in London of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism, after the atrocity of 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’, with the aim of providing “unique insights into the global trends in Islamic resurgence, democratisation, terrorism and extremism in the Muslim world”.

He will be missed for his congenial company, vast range of stories he had to tell of his experiences and, above all, his talent to convey a lesson on the message of Islam even in the shortest of meetings.

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