By Shaykh Ismā’īl Ibrāhīm Patel
As Dewsbury Markaz was my local mosque growing up, seeing him was a routine occurrence in my daily life. Knowing he is no longer either at Markaz or on a Dawah journey somewhere in the world will take a long time to sink in.
Although no single post can do his life justice, I feel compelled to share some experiences to my connections here and elsewhere, who may not have known him as well but happen to read some of my musings. He was, after all, ultimately responsible for creating hundreds of accomplished graduates in Islamic studies, thousands of people active in the field of Dawah, and hundreds of thousands rectifying their religious lives. I can confidently say that I personally would not be anywhere near what I am today had it not been for his efforts during my life – and, in fact, for his efforts decades before I was even born.
Everybody who knew him – student, teacher, the local layman, and those regularly engaged in Jama`at ‘l-Tabligh – will have their personal experiences and stories about him. I was a student at Markaz during the 98-03 period. I was not present when he really hard-grafted himself into who he eventually became, during the 60s, 70s and 80s. I only hear stories, like how he was advised – for fear of life and limb – not to go out to invite people to the mosque in Johannesburg after nightfall, only to do the exact opposite.
During the early 90s, I used to see an important man walking from his room in Markaz to the first row to stand behind the Imam. That was his place and it was known to all. He regularly delivered speeches on Iman after Fajr, Asr and Thursday nights. He had mastered the art of public speaking in Dawah from the Markaz Chair long before the platform was opened up to others.
Almost singlehandedly, he erected Dewsbury Markaz, which spawned tens of spin-off mosques across the area, and hundreds across the country and the continent. He takes the credit for all the tough work involved in gaining approval for such a building in the first place. Any prostration in that patch of Allah’s earth is registered in his book of deeds – and so much more that only Allah knows of. In no time, the best of the best from the world of scholars walked through its famous gates – from the most revered of his time, Abu ‘l-Hasan Nadwi in 1994, whose speech has been recorded and transcribed far and wide; to the Imam of the Prophet’s Mosque, Abd ‘l-Muhsin al-Qasim in 1999, who delivered a lecture to students; to Yunus Jaunpuri in the early noughties, delivering a lesson on Hadith from the Markaz Chair no less; to Abrar ‘l-Haqq, the last spark of Ashraf Ali Thanwi; to the success that was the World Gathering of 1994, attended by virtually everybody carrying any significance in Tabligh, including the late In`am ‘l-Hasan Kandhalwi. Nowadays, despite the vast area it occupies, Markaz cannot even cope with a solitary London Gathering – solid testament to how far Dawah has come since. He singlehandedly put Dewsbury on the Dawah map – and the Islamic higher studies map.
I have never seen anyone associated with Dewsbury Markaz, whether student or teacher in the adjacent seminary, or anyone even loosely associated with Dawah, or the local residents speak ill of him, behind his back. Such was the respect he carried with anyone who knew him.
When I went to his room with my colleagues upon his frequent invitations, I oftentimes saw was a man being massaged on his shoulders and feet. At the same time, however, he was on the phone, or talking to someone, about a Dawah project in some remote part of the world. It seemed he was more preoccupied with the concern of the religious state of Muslims in Southern France or Oslo, than his legs being massaged. I used to tell myself that he really must have earned this; yet, he vocally shunned this world and was very scornful of it.
He regularly invited all the student class years to his room, admonished them, and followed it up with a generous dose of kulfi. The assumption was that the kulfi was only permissible should you implement his advice. He once gave some fine Ajwah dates to us local Dewsbury and Batley students to give to our mothers and sisters – in exchange for their participation in Dawah. His fees for conducting marriage proceedings were extracting a promise from the groom to go into Dawah. This is how he was, sometimes said out of banter, but a deadly serious and heartfelt desire overall behind his words that everybody should be part of Dawah.
He would especially pick on his favourites in our class (I was not one of them; I was gleeful then but I now feel I missed out) – whom we would refer to at the time as ‘the Akabir of our class’ – admonished them in front of everyone, including his eldest grandson, and poked fun at them for not meeting his high standards. He would have students read Quran to him; having gone through intense doses of Tajwid theory and practice, this would be a badge of honour for anyone who read to him in front of the class by his side.
He was a man of the scholar and student. In front of the laity, he rigorously defended them. He stressed that the value of a scholar is not lessened if he chooses not to actively participate in Jama`at ‘l-Tabligh. He emphasised normative and universal Islamic practices over everything. He repeatedly said that those who have not made the Hajj of Islam and can afford to do it should do so before they embark on going on a four-month Jama`at ‘l-Tabligh travel plan. I once heard him mention in a students’ lecture that they should memorise Hadith, and to focus on the authentic ones. Away from the public eye, he had to step in when the admin laity at the Markaz forgot their place vis-à-vis the scholars, and issued stern warnings to them.
Yet, in front of the student and scholar, he held them to account in their Dawah obligations. He had an idealistic vision for the learned of Dewsbury Markaz – that they become pioneers in Dawah, knowledge and spirituality. This idealism gave rise to his trademark telling-offs after the final Sahih ‘l-Bukhari lesson gatherings each year. In these, he routinely pointed out that he does not care if anyone took offence, “whether it is Shaykh ‘l-Hadith, a big Mufti, a scholar” – all said when Shaykh ‘l-Hadith sat right next to him. It is a moment when student, graduate and scholar would hang their heads low and agree with everything he said. He berated students for sleeping after Fajr, citing Imam Abu Hanifah’s stance. He rightfully expected the highest of standards from students at Dewsbury Markaz. This is what helped Dewsbury become one of the most recognised traditional Islamic academic institutions in the world.
In his speeches, he frequently recited the Quran, and cited stories of the Sahabah, ancient scholars, and scholars from the past two centuries in the Indian Sub-continent. However, he rarely ever cited Hadith in his lectures, perhaps for a fear of not citing it properly. Being the highly critical person I am, I honestly do not recollect a time where he made a poor reference. Unbelievably, and despite not being a scholar, he read the Quran as if he understood Arabic, with verses and their translations tripping off his tongue.
At his bedstead in his old room, he had a calligraphy-handwritten version of the very first syllabus at Dewsbury. He entertained students with his own 1940 stories during his time at Dabhel, India. One famous story he said was the state of daal (lentil soup) – it was cooked so watery that they used to make paper ships and set them off on the daal, reciting بسم الله مجريها ومرساها.
His speeches were instinctive, unscripted, from the heart, somewhat repetitive, but absolutely clear and direct in their message. He did not mince his words when it came to explaining how Islam needed to be safeguarded in society. He spoke monotone but occasionally broke out into a trademark shout in front of the mic, usually when highlighting Muslim neglect vis-à-vis Islam, causing considerable consternation within those sitting. His speeches were littered with genuine cries, and oftentimes smiling, demonstrating that everything he said was from the heart. People naturally paid more attention to his Dawah talks than others.
I distinctly remember once, in 2004, when I returned from my first year at IU Madinah, that he walked into the Musalla from his old room, on the right wing of the Markaz main building. I was standing in a central position at the back, waiting for Salah to commence. Upon seeing me, he deviated course and started walking to the back of the mosque towards me with intent. Perplexed, I started walking towards him as well, so that he would not have to burden himself by walking all the way to me. There I was, standing with him, and he whispered to me something that I cannot share here. What I will say though is that his son – our teacher – was absolutely spot on when he said that he wasn’t the type of person who admonished others for the sake of admonishing; rather he would have supplicated a hundred times for them before admonishing them. And I have seen the effects of his supplications on me personally.
One of my absolute privileges was to meet him in my second year at IU Madinah, in the Prophet’s Mosque, and to introduce him to a few students from Pakistan and Qatar, beneath the first set of umbrellas towards the Rawdah. He looked at them with a smiling face and instinctively advised them with the importance of Islamic Dawah in general, though not giving a hint about Jama`at ‘l-Tabligh type of work. He understood that asking all people to go into Jama`at ‘l-Tabligh was not wise idea. There they sat, absolutely focused on him and listening attentively. I guess his awe transcended to those who had not ever yet met him, and only just learned of him. During his travels to Hajj, he also lectured on occasions to Barelwi groups and Muslims of other orientations. His appeal transcended his own circles.
Beyond the four walls of the Markaz, he had transformed Dewsbury. In fact, he transformed the United Kingdom. The very face of Islam in the UK would not be as it would be had Allah not sent the man to deliver His message. Some ruminated in the past couple of days that over 50% of mosques across Europe in the past half century are directly or indirectly from his intervention, many a time through people associated with Dawah. He held many people together, as well as the Dawah. He was an absolute constant in a time of mass change. People knew they and Dawah were safe as long as he was around.
He went through great tribulations. He stuck on the work even when his children, most of whom are now accomplished scholars and administrators, were crying out for him. A few years ago, he had to endure the death of his son – also another one of our teachers. He endured the hell of travel for the best part of five decades – and more, clearly an act of wonder (Karamah), or should I say a sign of steadfastness (Istiqamah), والاستقامة فوق الكرامة – just for Dawah. In many ways, he was afflicted with similar tribulations that the Prophet (peace be upon him) went through. During all this, his ailment came, and he reclused to personal worship and devotion to Allah, almost as per Surat ‘l-Nasr. Analysing his career in hindsight, he clearly falls somewhere within the ثم الأمثل فالأمثل category.
He never missed Qiyam ‘l-Layl. He made Dua for everybody, his son says. I got to see him in Qiyam ‘l-Layl when he invited us to his room during the late evening, and during I`tikaf in Ramadan when he was able to stand: his shadow body spectacularly fell on the thin white curtain that he reclused in, at the back-right side of the Markaz Musalla, during the last ten days of Ramadan – all when everybody else in I`tikaf was eating or sleeping.
He was really the only saint in the flesh and in practice I really knew. It turns out that the locals of Dewsbury Markaz were fortunate enough to actually be close to one such person – many people do not get a chance to be so geographically close to such a human being. However, one of the most striking things about him was how he behaved when other saints came to town. I distinctly remember when Abrar ‘l-Haqq Hardoi came from India, in the late 90s. The entirety of Batley and Dewsbury were running for cover after hearing about his frequent putdowns, embodying the scrupulous methods of his mentor, Ashraf Ali Thanwi. Even the Quran shelves in the Markaz Musalla were covered with custom curtains to avoid the scorn he had expressed in another local mosque. As he arrived to the excitement and amazement of hundreds in the audience, I kept my eyes on Hafiz Patel. He sat next to him in utter humility. I felt that Abrar ‘l-Haqq reciprocated the respect, and he just grew in my eyes manifold.
He was not the type who would be flanked by several servants, nor did have the personality that would breed cheerleaders. He was not a scholar, but sometimes quipped that he was a father of scholars. He was inspirational and influential, yet absolutely independent in his personality.
His death caused Savile Town to grind to a halt. Prior the 4pm Funeral Prayer, I read Asr in a place I imagine no person has or will ever read Salah – such was the sea of humanity that had engulfed this part of Dewsbury. The scenes were unprecedented and shall never be replicated. This is the funeral that everyone present will talk about for the rest of their lives. It reminded of all the famous funerals of the past, which we read about in biographical books and the annals of Muslim history – funerals of men that spent their entire lives in the struggle of Islam, had actually produced something in the society at large, and had tangible evidence to show for it. All the 20,000+ were witnesses unto Allah that this man had done good. The number would have easily reached 40,000 had it been a weekend, or if his burial was delayed by a day. Many missed the Funeral Prayer due to the standstill.
Some graduates of Dewsbury Markaz felt compelled to cut short their Umrah trips. Others took the first flight from Canada and Barbados; one even left the beaches of Trinidad and went straight to Piarco, onto Gatwick, Victoria, King’s Cross, Wakefield – he arrived just in time in Dewsbury for the Funeral Prayer with the sand of Trinidad’s beaches between his toes. Such dedication was only the reflection of how much he had given to them, their lives, and their countries.
Simply put, he was Hafiz Sahib. And most do not know his first name, such was the title ‘Hafiz Patel’ that everybody instinctively knew who he was. It echoes of Abu Amr al-Basri, one of the Seven Imams of Qira’ah, whose name was rendered virtually unknown by his popular Abu Amr title.
Hafiz Patel was not only a leader of Jama`at ‘l-Tabligh. He was a figurehead in the timeless and universal obligation of Dawah that the Messenger of Allah brought, period. His message was a global and a universal one. Irreplaceable, his passing leaves a yawning chasm within the Ummah. The closer one was to him, the greater that hole seems to be.
As for Dewsbury, it will never be the same again. Rest assured, his name will be on the lips of those who have not even been born yet, and it is they who will take pride in him being their inspiration and elder. And it is in them, unscarred in not having had to endure his death, that we seek hope even if we may have lost some of it.
هذا ما نحسبه والله حسيبه ولا نزكي على الله أحدا، غفر الله له وأسكنه فسيح جناته، أحسن عزاءنا في فقيد الدعوة ومحيي الملة والقائم بالليالي المظلمة داعيا للأمة بالسلام والإسلام والجنة، آمين
This post first appeared on the author’s Facebook page and has been reproduced without any changes.
Further reading on Ḥafiẓ Patel:
Wifaqul Ulama UK: http://wifaqululama.co.uk/society/44-tribpatel
Attablig Audio Portal: http://www.attablig.com/hafiz-patel-ra
Channel Islam International: http://www.ciibroadcasting.com/2016/02/24/a-compendium-of-moving-tributes-to-hafiz-patel-ra/