Ebrahimsa Mohammed, institution builder & mentor (2018)

This obituary was first published in The Muslim News, 26 January 2018

Ebrahimsa Mohamed dedicated his life to the cause of Muslim welfare, and his passing away in Penang, Malaysia, on December 31, 2017, leaves us bereft of a trusted and wise counsellor. His humble and soft-spoken demeanour was complemented by a sharp and perceptive intellect. He was a rare, charismatic individual, demanding high standards of probity and integrity from colleagues, exemplified in his own conduct.

He lived by pan-Islamic ideals, always making efforts to work for Muslim unity, and outspoken against ethnic prejudices or partisanship. He was a good listener and ready to see the merits in others and do whatever he could to be of help in a truly selfless manner.

Ebrahim Mohamed was born in the village of Thinaikulam near Chennai (formerly Madras), South India, in 1937. At the age of 10, he came to Penang, where his uncle Haji Mohamed Idris was a well-established businessman and community activist. He was enrolled in the island’s Anglo-Chinese School – later renamed the Methodist Boys School.

He arrived in London around 1962 to pursue legal studies, but soon found his vocation rested elsewhere. He became active in the nascent Islamic activities of the times, the London Islamic Circle, and also the Federation of Students Islamic Societies (FOSIS, formed in 1963). Ebrahimsa remained on FOSIS’s executive committee in subsequent years, a member of a talented generation who were to make their mark in scholarship, public life and community service: Adil Salahi, Talip Alp, Zafar Zaidi, Abdullah Naseef, Salah Shaheen, Abdullah Jibril Oyekan, Tariq Solaija, Ashur Shamis, Ghyasuddin Siddiqui – to name a few.

At the time Ebrahimsa lodged on the fourth floor of a terraced house on Randolph Avenue in Maida Vale, which served as a FOSIS address and a rendezvous point for friends needing an overnight stop. The landlady was a kind and helpful soul and did not grudge passing on to him the numerous telephone messages received.

He was the FOSIS General Secretary in 1964 – a highlight that year was the visit to the UK by Abdul Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X). Ebrahimsa travelled with Malcolm and coordinated his lecture tour. This included historic speeches at Malaysia Hall in Bryanston Square, London, and other cities. In this, Ebrahimsa was ably supported by the FOSIS treasurer of the time, the Manchester-based accountant, Hoosain Rajah, from Mauritius (died 2017) and Ghyasuddin Siddiqui, then working on his doctorate at the University of Sheffield. Remembering these encounters in an article in Impact International (October 1971), Ebrahimsa provided a rare behind-the-scenes portrait, in words that also convey what is to be admired in leadership,

“I was with Malcolm most of the time he was in England and before he died. I travelled with him. I attended meetings with him and stayed with him in his hotel. What struck me was his clean living and his humility, his very simple tastes and his capacity for hard work. He had none of the vices which plague people in organisations which function in his shadow . . . there is another thing which marks him from present-day revolutionaries. He was humane. He had a genuine care for people. He was kind and was grateful for any kindnesses shown to him. I remember one day we were travelling on the overnight train from Sheffield to London. Brother Malcolm was very tired because he always worked hard and drove himself to the limit. He fell asleep. I remained awake. There was a lady sitting next to us who offered me tea and biscuits. When Malcolm awoke, I told him about the lady’s offer and he said to me, ‘Did you thank her?’ This is the human touch which moves you and leaves a lasting impression. How much does it contrast with the arrogance, the lack of warmth, the carping rhetoric of those who call for liberation. In their presence, there is a feeling of unease. They take people for granted. Malcolm X did not. He could lie low in the gentlest of fashion the most hostile of critics and questioners. And this is what the audience in England warmed to. He also worked closely with the statistician Tanzim Wasti of the UK Islamic Mission in organising the reception hosted by London’s Muslim communities for King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in May 1967 – the invitation card featuring details from the Alhambra Palace in Granada.”

Ebrahimsa ensured FOSIS remained broad-based and mainstream, welcoming new talent, such as AbdulWahid Hamid from Trinidad, who edited the pioneering The Muslim monthly magazine [and later author of the widely acclaimed Islam the Natural Way and other publications].

Hashir Faruqi Sahib also benefited from Ebrahimsa’s encouragement and contributed to The Muslim, writing a political-cum-satirical column (as ‘The Scribe’), helping in proof-reading and other pre-production work, prior to launching the Muslim news magazine Impact International (in 1970). Ebrahimsa was also instrumental in persuading Tunku Abdul Rahman (former Malaysian Prime Minister, resigned 1970) to take up the post of first Secretary General of the OIC (Organisation of the Islamic Conference, now Organisation of Islamic Cooperation), and together with his close friend, the late Arshad Dahlan, practical help was provided by forming the core of a secretariat in London.

Ebrahimsa believed in maintaining cordial relationships and building alliances, and through these efforts, FOSIS conferences and affiliate activities were enriched by contributions from leading Islamic thinkers such as Hossein Nasr, Hamid Algar, Omer Austen and Nagib Al-Attas.

Ebrahimsa also pursued a FOSIS project of strategic significance – establishment of a Muslim students’ hostel in London. He was elected FOSIS President for the 1967-68 period. His quiet, practical leadership made FOSIS an important voice on Muslim affairs, both nationally and internationally, with strong ties with like-minded groups in Turkey and Malaysia.

He guarded the organisation’s independence, seeking to keep it a body of students managed by students and open to most major strands of Islamic activism. He stood up to pressures to bring it under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood network of the time. It was with this non-partisan spirit that he remained in touch with all sections of the movement, including Dr Saïd Ramadan, helping him in his visits to London in 1968-69 and publishing his articles in The Muslim. At the same time, the journal also commenced a groundbreaking series of translations of Sayyid Qutb’s Fi Zilal al-Qur’an in 1968, initially by Ashur Shamis, later joined by Adil Salahi in this venture.

Among Ebrahimsa’s most enduring legacies is the Muslim Students Hostel, Mapesbury Road, Kilburn. With the help of the late Salem Azzam, Counsellor at the Saudi Arabian Embassy (later resigning on matters of policy), sufficient funds were obtained to purchase this residential property in 1971. The subsequent work required liaising with the Council and architects, and work on conversion and refurbishing – all personally supervised.

The hostel, also serving as the FOSIS head office, was formally opened in November 1972. With an as yet unmarried Ebrahimsa as warden-in-residence, ‘Mapesbury Road’ rapidly became a hub of activity: wedding ceremonies, conversion ceremonies and most importantly, receptions for newly arrived students. He also helped in unnoticed ways – such as organising dispatch of halal meat to students in towns where this was unavailable – though he was a strict vegetarian himself! Throughout the ‘70s, generations of freshers, notably from Malaysia (it was the Bumiputra policy era) were welcomed and through this introduction anchored to an Islamic milieu.

His innovative work included the production of Eid cards, thus providing FOSIS with a source of revenue. He also was meticulous in preparing and publishing FOSIS’s multi-city pocket-sized Ramadan timetable for many years (he acknowledged the debt to the British Rail timetable for its design!).

Ebrahimsa continued his association with Salem Azzam when the latter was appointed Secretary-General of the Islamic Council of Europe in 1973, with offices in London. He was the organisation’s secretary and coordinator throughout its active period. With support from Professor Khurshid Ahmad of the Islamic Foundation, Leicester (also founded 1973), the Islamic Council of Europe organised a series of conferences and other activities were organised in 1976.

This effort complemented the World of Islam Festival’s programme, by ensuring Islam was not just viewed in terms of museum-piece artefacts and cultural achievements, but also a living socio-political reality. Ebrahimsa characteristically maintained friendly and cordial terms with Paul Keeler and Alistair Duncan, two key organisers of the Festival.

Over the next decade, the Islamic Council of Europe was to provide an institutional framework for Muslim statesmen and thinkers meeting at its offices in Grosvenor Crescent, Hyde Park. Their discussions attempted to formulate and articulate a Muslim position on a range of contemporary issues, while also addressing the many crises of the period: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and President Zia ul Haq’s support for the mujahideen; the 1980 coup in Turkey that saw the banning of Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party. Participating in the Council’s seminars were, for example, the former Sudanese Prime Minister, Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the two leading Pakistani legal experts of the day, A K Brohi and Khalid Ishaque, and judge Midhat Azzam and Dr Kholi from Egypt.

Among the outcomes were two seminal papers that capture Muslim thinking of the period: the ‘Universal Islamic Declaration Human Rights’ (1981) and ‘A model of an Islamic Constitution’ (1983). The Islamic Council also organised conferences in Istanbul, which brought Ebrahimsa in contact with the then Mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ebrahimsa was much loved by Turkey’s Muslim activists, not only Talip Alp, Niyazi Eruslu and other Turkish members of the FOSIS network, but by the Refah Party leader, Erbakan (Prime Minister, 1996-97), Abdullah Gül (co-founder of the AKP Adalet ve Kalkınma Party, and President, 2007-14) and the Mayor of Sivas (and Felicity Party leader), Temel Karamolloğlu. Ebrahimsa had the gift of dealing with persons from all walks of life, be it tradesmen or heads of state.

In the aftermath of the sacrilegious Satanic Verses and the Bosnian Crisis, discussions started in the mid-1990s within Muslim networks in Britain to seek out better coordination on matters of shared concern. Ebrahimsa backed this initiative, and the ties of trust and friendship he had built over the years were central to the involvement of Abdul Wahid Hamid, his former FOSIS colleague, and Zafar Malik, an associate in the work of the Islamic Council of Europe – these two jointly designed and prepared the documents for the launch of the Muslim Council of Britain in November 1997.

Ebrahimsa later provided his expertise to the British Muslim charity, Muslim Aid, also serving as Chief Executive Officer at its headquarters in the East End, 2002-2006. It is a measure of the man that when a fresh appointment was made, he continued working as a special advisor and relief coordinator, content with a tiny office. In these roles, he undertook several field trips where relief and development projects were underway, including Iran, Iraq and also the Tsunami affected parts of South Asia.

His son, Dr Umar, notes: “Atta’s vision for Muslim Aid was one where donor and recipient recognise that they are equals working towards maintaining human dignity and fulfilling the duties placed upon them by their Creator. Hence his keenness to focus on locally driven development, managed by local organisations, as opposed to an almost colonial model of central control.

This is probably typified by the projects in Sakarya {earthquake in Turkey in 1999; Muslim Aid contributed £600,000 to a housing project} and Aceh [the 2004 Tsunami]. In the latter, this led to the revival of traditional modes of building to address the need for appropriate shelter in the wake of a calamity. So that whilst others were deliberating, here displaced communities were already living in buildings that thrive today. The Sakarya Displaced Persons Project now provides funds for university scholarships.”

In one of the few occasions when he was willing to enter the limelight, Ebrahimsa accepted the Ibn Khaldun Award for Excellence in Promoting Understanding between Global Cultures and Faiths in 2005, organised by the London-based Muslim community newspaper, The Muslim News. The award was given to him by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. It was only deteriorating health that stopped his daily commute to the Muslim Aid office in Whitechapel – he suffered from a heart condition and then an incurable brain tumour. He bore these with stoicism and patience, remaining lucid and alert, with perceptive observations to the end on Muslim affairs.

Abdulwahid Hamid, in an interview in 2008, reminisced about their forty-year friendship,

“[A] person who has had a great impact on me was a fellow student, Ebrahimsa Mohammed. He is a quiet, unassuming person and one of the most well-informed and practical persons around. He came to London from Penang in Malaysia to study law.

His law studies fell by the wayside as he took it upon himself to look after the needs of students who started coming to the UK in substantial numbers from the early sixties onwards. He made it his business to get to know Muslim students in all parts of the country, put them in touch with one another and where they needed help, financial or otherwise, he would arrange something . . . I had the privilege of being its General Secretary under his presidency. I can honestly say that I learnt more from being in this milieu than from the academic courses at university.

Brother Ebrahimsa not only knew students but scholars and activists at all sorts of levels in Britain, from the big names in the Muslim world – Muhammad Natsir, Maududi, Said Ramadan, philanthropists like Ebrahim Bawany, Malcolm X and many others, including even notorious guys like Michael X [Michael de Freitas]. He is extremely widely read and maintains an abiding and passionate interest in making the best use of resources and in helping the poor and downtrodden. One of my recent meetings with him was at a gardening centre in north London shovelling horse manure – he is very much into organic foods and healthy eating.”

Hopefully his wife Ayesha bint Idris may find solace in the appreciation and respect with which Ebrahimsa is remembered. She was his exemplary life partner and equal to him in extending a warm welcome to guests at their modest flat in Willesden Green. The couple displayed much fortitude when their son Ismail died in a traffic accident in London in July 2010.

May Allah subhanahu Ta’ala in His infinite Mercy reward him for his upright life and good deeds. We also pray for His mercy in helping Ayesha and their children – Dr Umar, Abu and Zainab – cope with their loss. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.

His life brings to mind a hadith (conveyed here in sense only, not literally) which conveys how Ebrahim will remain an inspiration for those who knew him: “Allah loves those who never boast; those who are God-fearing and innocent; those whose absence you feel when they are not present, but of who’s silence you become aware of when they are present; their hearts are like lanterns that emerge from every crisis undimmed.”

Ebrahimsa Mohammed, 1937-2017