A LAMP IN THE SHADE OF A MOUNTAIN: Shaykh Seraj Hendricks
[First published on Azzawia Institute’s official Facebook page on the 12th of July 2020]
[Photographs above: Shaykh Seraj and Sh. Dr. Hisham at Mawlid al-Nabi at Azzawia, November 2018, courtesy of Shafiq Morton; and in the room of the relics of the Prophet, ‘alayhi salat wa salam, next to the maqam of Imam al-Husayn in Cairo, holding the sword of the Prophet, January 2016, personal collection]
A LAMP IN THE SHADE OF A MOUNTAIN: Shaykh Seraj Hendricks
By Shaykh Dr. Hisham A. Hellyer, Azzawia senior scholar
The allama, Shaykh Seraj Hassan Hendricks, returned to the mercy of his Lord on the 9th of July, 2020, in Cape Town, after decades of serving the Divine, His religion, and His Prophet. If not for the COVID19 restrictions, there would have been tens of thousands, undoubtedly, who would have attended his funeral prayer the following day at the mosque that his grandfather, the great Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks, built in Cape Town, in the shadow of Table Mountain, a hundred years ago. Azzawia Institute, known as ‘Azzavia’ in local parlance, would have seen Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who would have known him as a father, a friend, a scholar, a teacher, a poet, and a shaykh of taṣawwuf. As for myself, he was all these things to me.
MEETING A LAMP IN THE SHADE OF A MOUNTAIN
The first time I met Shaykh Seraj was on Friday, January 9th, 2009, more than 11 years ago, in the imam’s office adjoining the prayer hall of Azzawia, in Walmer Estate. I was somewhat in awe of him before I had met him. I was an academic doing research, and it was my first visit to Cape Town: but I had heard of Shaykh Seraj and his brother Shaykh Ahmad for many years before that, via their writings online. There was something that deeply appealed to me about both, before I had even met these two scions of the legacy of Azzawia, one of the great historical institutions of Islam in South Africa and the world, and spiritual heirs of the great ‘alim of the Hijaz, Sayyid Muhammad b. ‘Alawi al-Maliki.
Perhaps it was the South African connection – my father had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement, and I think I knew that Azzawia had been on the right side of this struggle that meant so much to my father. Indeed, Shaykh Seraj had been actively engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa during the 80s and early 90s , and identified, like so many, with the grassroots movement, the United Democratic Front. Perhaps it was the sort of broadminded traditionalism their writings had indicated. Perhaps it was the haunting tunes of Azzawia’s awrad and adhkar.
Perhaps it was the superb writing on spiritual traditions that I had found written by them. Perhaps it was simply the shaykhs’ eloquence, which was legendary in English and Afrikaans, as well as the Arabic language which became a first language to them after years of study in Makka. I do not know, really. But I knew I had a profound curiosity about meeting them – and when I walked into that office, I do remember feeling very much a sense of awe, as I met the ‘lamp in the shade of the mountain’, ‘Seraj’ in Arabic, in the shade of Table mountain, which overlooked Azzawia.
A lot happened that first day that I met Shaykh Seraj. I shan’t go into details here, for some things remain the purview of privacy and close company. I’m forever grateful that the people who were witness to it include my wife; Shaykh Seraj’s close friend and confidante, Shafiq Morton, the anti-apartheid activist, journalist, spiritual sage, photographer, and surfer, all rolled into one; and his wonderful wife, Nur, may God have mercy on her, who was actually the daughter of Shaykh Ebrahim, one of Shaykh Seraj’s uncles. Suffice it to say that what happened that sunny Friday in a Capetonian summer, meant that I became linked to Shaykh Seraj, and Azzawia, in a fundamental and intrinsic way. But it was one that took me completely by surprise; one that I even thought couldn’t quite be true. And when I did realise – which I did eventually – I felt so incredibly grateful and full of thankfulness.
I regarded the shaykh as a wali, a friend of the Divine; but I wasn’t the only one. On the contrary, as the condolences kept coming in – and no doubt, they will keep coming in for a long time to come – it was clear that he benefited people all around the world. Yes, in Cape Town, his impact was most felt, where I personally estimate his pastoral responsibilities to encompass a community of thousands. These were duties he took incredibly seriously, often to the severe detriment of his own personal health, despite students and friends trying hard to encourage him to hand over such responsibilities to others who might manage. But as noted: he took his duties seriously, and it’s one of the many reasons he was so loved. He gave so much of himself to those who put their trust in him.
His family assisted him in this role tremendously. His wife, Rhoda, was, and is, a mountain that befits the natural wonder that is Table Mountain, in whose shadow Azzawia was built. His three children, Nuha, Alia and Rashid, are all individual testaments to the strength of their parents. When my wife learned of Shaykh Seraj’s passing, she noted, ‘We meet lots of people in life whom we love; but it is few that we can call family without the ultimate connection of blood.’ Shaykh Seraj and his family all became my family, my family became their’s, and I developed a connection to the community of Azzawia that I would have hitherto not thought possible. When I’d be seen on television, commenting on political events in my role as an academic and analyst, Shaykh Seraj would tell me that his family and members of the community would proudly point it out, as they would for one of their own.
A TRADITION OF A CENTURY
During that trip, I was thus exposed to a tradition that I had never seen before. Shaykh Seraj and Shaykh Ahmad were the third generation of Hendricks that had trained in Makka at the hands of a family and a tradition that was unique, powerful in knowledge, and distinguished in spiritual prowess. The first generation was the grandfather, Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks. He had been expected by his family to leave South Africa to train as a medical doctor in London – a prized profession then as it is now – but following an encounter with a member of the Maliki family of Makka, who met him while trading in South Africa, the direction of his life changed. He opted to leave Cape Town – and head to Makka, to study, at the very beginning of the 20th century, when Makka was a very different place, still under Ottoman sovereignty. Shaykh Muhammad Salih went with his father, who eventually passed away in Makka – and stayed in Makka for around two decades, training at the hands of some of the most famous luminaries of his time. By way of east Africa, particularly Zanzibar where he was temporarily a Qadi, he returned to Cape Town, where he founded Azzawia Institute in 1920. Almost a century later, his grandson, Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, researched Shaykh Muhammad Salih’s time in Zanzibar, with his family and the Norwegian academic, Anne Bang – the latter published a book with Brill entitled ‘Sufis and Scholars of the Sea’ following that.
For three generations, the scholars of Azzawia have been linked to the sages of that city, primarily, but not exclusively, through the Maliki family, beginning with the caller (da’i) al-Sayyid ʿAbd al-Aziz al-Maliki, who first identified the potential of Muhammad Salih Hendricks. Shaykh Muhammad Salih would then go with him in 1888 to Makka, and study with al-Sayyid ‘Abbas b. ʿAbd al-Aziz al-Maliki, the jurisprudent (mufti) and judge (qadi) of Makka, who was also considered to be the prayer leader (imam) and preacher (khatib) of the Sacred Mosque. He held that position during the Ottoman era, then continued it in the Hashemite times, and proceeded to hold it after the Saudi kingdom was established, by virtue of the respect that all had for him. The founder of Azzawia, Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks, studied with al-Sayyid ‘Abbas; and then the next generation of Hendricks studied with the Maliki family also; and so, that relationship of learning continued to a third generation of Hendricks when two sons departed for Makka in 1983 to study under al-Sayyid Muhammad b. ‘Alawi al-Maliki. There was intermarriage between these families also – and the bonds of spiritual and familial kinship were and are strong. To this day, it continues.
PROPHETIC TRADITION, VIRTUOUS UPBRINGING, AND TRANSMISSION
When Shaykh Seraj then indicated he knew of me from my work in the public sphere, he made me feel like I was almost the most famous man alive. As time went on, I saw him exhibit that Prophetic virtue time and again. He had the innate ability to make people feel the loftiness of their worth; how often was I introduced to people he knew, and he would give me a background brief on them that meant they were basically all worthy of Nobel prizes. At one point, I began to wonder if every member of Azzawia was almost superhuman in some way. Maybe they were – because of the training and the encouragement that they received from the shaykhs of Azzawia. Shaykh Seraj always strove to motivate everyone; encouraged them to commit to excellence in whatever they did, as a way to show gratitude and thankfulness to the Divine. At the same time, he put that kind of effort in its right place: he said to me many times, “It is not incumbent for us to succeed. It is incumbent upon us to do our best.” We were not responsible for the final result – that was in the hands of the Divine – what He had placed in our hands was the ability to intend to do our best.
That kind of training did not begin with Shaykh Seraj and his esteemed sibling. They benefited from that training themselves, from their father, Imam Hassan Hendricks, may God have mercy upon him; and from their uncles, Shaykh Mahdi Hendricks, Shaykh Mujahid Hendricks, and to a lesser extent (due to his age at the time), Shaykh Ebrahim Hendricks, God bless them all. These were all the scions of the founder of Azzawia, the Allama, Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks, who established Azzawia in 1920, a hundred years ago.
Shaykh Seraj and I discussed Shaykh Muhammad Salih, may God’s mercy be upon him, many times; not least because we co-wrote a book that discussed the tradition of Azzawia, entitled, “A Sublime Way: the Sufi Path of the Sages of Makka”. Embedded in that title is one of the secrets of Azzawia; for its tradition, embedded deeply into the soil of Cape Town, was a seed that dropped from a powerful tree of Makka. When I asked the mashaykh of Azzawia about the tariqa, one of them related to me what Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki had answered in response to the question, “What is our path (tariqa)?” The scholar replied: “Tariqa ʿUlamaʾ Makka”—the Way of the Sages of Makka.
Shaykh Seraj spent many years studying in Azzawia himself, particularly at the feet of his illustrious uncle, the late Shaykh Mahdi Hendricks – erstwhile Life President of the Muslim Judicial Council and widely regarded as one of the foremost scholars of Islam in southern Africa. But before he decided to follow in his uncles’ and grandfather’s footsteps, he was a high school English teacher in Cape Town – an experience that no doubt was crucial in honing his tremendous eloquence. It was also an experience that meant that whenever he edited or looked over my work, invariably, he’d find a better word than I had in one place or another. His depth in knowledge; his scholastic prowess; his articulacy; all of this was a part of Shaykh Seraj.
But it wasn’t the education he received at Umm al-Qura University, or his feistiness for political justice, that fully made Shaykh Seraj who he was – it was the people who trained him. During his studies at Umm al-Qura University, Shaykh Seraj was also a student of the late Sayyid Muhammad Alawi al-Maliki in Makka for a period of eight years and from whom he obtained a full ijaza in the religious sciences, becoming eventually his khalifa in the tariqa. Sayyid Muhammad’s family and Shaykh Seraj’s had been intertwined by marriage and by student-teacher relationships for three generations, going back to Shaykh Muhammad Salih himself, who studied with Sayyid Muhammad al-Maliki’s grandfather. The tradition of Azzawia had not simply been about one seed a hundred years ago – but about a tree that had constantly been nurtured by Makkan water.
When the Shaykh met Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki, there were obviously some high standards that he and his brother Shaykh Ahmad were expected to meet – they were the third generation of Hendricks to come and study with the Maliki family. Several generations of them, over the span of two centuries, and scores of different regimes over Makka. Shaykh Seraj went through many different tests with Sayyid Muhammad; took the path with him; and eventually became his muqaddam, while still in Makka as a student. Ultimately, both Shaykh Seraj and Shaykh Ahmad were openly declared as khalīfas of Sayyid Muhammad – publicly affirmed as such on one of the trips of the Sayyid to Cape Town.
Shaykh Seraj also obtained ijazat from both the late Sayyid Ahmad Mashhur al-Haddad and Sayyid Abd al-Qadir b. Ahmad al-Saqqaf (d. 1431/2010). These scholars are all known as some of the pre-eminent ‘ulama of the umma in the 20th century, worldwide. But Shaykh Seraj didn’t advertise that all that much. Shaykh Seraj taught several times a week in Azzawia, and it was rare, if ever, that you’d hear him mention the names of the distinguished and celebrated figures that gave him such authoritative licenses. It was more in private sessions that I heard him discuss Sayyid Muhammad and his teachings in more detail; such was the etiquette, or the adab, of Azzawia. He didn’t brandish his accolades like confetti, nor did he commercialise them for fame; though he certainly had them, and aplenty. He remained in Makka, before returning some time thereafter to Cape Town, to take up his rightful place as a shaykh at Azzawia.
His splendour of intellect was rooted, deeply, in the tradition of his shaykhs, of Azzawia, of the best of Capetonian tradition, and he kept that when he returned to Azzawia after his time in Makka. In that vein, he was firmly attached to the theology of the Ash’ari approach of Sunnism, and entrenched in the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence; that was, and is, the core of Azzawia, from the time Shaykh Muhammad Salih returned from Makka and established this institute. And yet, at the same time, this commitment never led to the impetus of exclusion. Many a time, Shaykh Seraj would, even as a Shafi’i, tell me the argument of other scholars in other schools of law on specific points, with great approval – he never had any time for tas’sub, or fanatic attachment to a particular approach, at the expense of the greater whole of the Islamic tradition. As he wrote in ‘A Sublime Way’:
“However, there is no gainsaying the fact that fanaticism is a reality of a recurrent nature. Every epoch and era—regardless of geography, place, time, habitation or belief—will produce its fanatics. So far are all true sages from the temptation of fanaticism. In the latter respect, prejudice—the stubborn antagonist of harmony and understanding—is often the result of an inability, or sheer lack of will, to understand and accept difference and diversity. In our quest for peace, therefore, we need to understand the wisdom behind the diversity that we witness in the world. As that understanding sinks in, we might yet be able to contribute to a renewal and rejuvenation—at the heart of which Sufism is vital and pertinent.”
That always informed everything he did at Azzawia – as Shaykh Ahmad once told me, the institution is based on religion, shaykh and mahabba. The ‘mahabba’ element being exemplified in the shaykh’s making a clear distinction between unity and conformity – a skill that he needed whenever dealing with any community discord. He always seemed to manage, because he was always so tolerant of the diversity of his community, and of human beings writ large.
AZZAWIA: TRADITIONAL AND STEADFAST, UPHOLDING JUSTICE
Azzawia of Cape Town is rooted in two realities: the first is the Makkan lineage discussed above, and the second, also deeply important reality, was the environment in which the Hendricks family resided. The Muslim community was battle-hardened, in that it existed as a demographic minority and for most of its existence, had suffered under severe repression in the country that upheld apartheid. That implanted a certain emphasis in and consciousness of all kinds of justice among Azzawia shaykhs—and that continued after the ending of apartheid, and also among those who took the spiritual path from their hands from lands far beyond Cape Town and South Africa.
In that regard, they continued a certain type of resistance to the ‘powers that be,’ that their own shaykh, Sayyid Muhammad b. ‘Alawi al-Maliki, demonstrated in Makka. In his defence of the Ash’ari tradition of theology, and the pure Sufism of his intellectual and genealogical ancestors, the Sayyid was wronged many a time by authority figures in his native land. Indeed, he was imprisoned himself, as was Shaykh Seraj Hendricks in Cape Town, but the Sayyid held firm, as per his commitment to the tradition.
The name ‘Azzawia’ comes from the Arabic, ‘Al-Zawiya’, which became known as ‘Azzavia’ in accordance with 1920s Cape Muslim lingo, due to Ottoman Turkish influence at the time. It then also became known as Azzawia. Azzawia’s folk – whom are all affectionately described as ‘murids’ of Azzawia – are and were also integral parts of a community – the Cape Muslims – that had struggled against the oppression of apartheid and were deeply concerned about issues pertaining to social justice. Indeed, Shaykh Seraj himself found himself briefly in prison as a result of that period. That commitment to integrity, and that open rejection of tyranny, while profoundly connected to a normative spiritual tradition, spoke to me tremendously. It was something he sometimes described as ‘radical traditionalism’ – ‘progressive’, in a sense – but so deeply rooted within the tradition, no normative assessment of his approach could really be faulted. They could try, though – they’d fail.
As I reflect on the past decade of my life, having spent much of it in authoritarian states in the Arab world, and trying to make sense of how different religious factions responded to oppression and repression, I see more than ever why the likes of the Hendricks appealed to me on that level. Years after visiting Cape Town that first time, I read the words of another shaykh, this time one of the Azhar in Egypt, who represented that spirit in one of the most exemplary fashions I’d ever seen:
“I urge everyone, especially my students, to pause and reflect. The gauge is not the success of the revolution but taking a stand. Revolutions can be aborted, and sincere calls can be defeated. Some prophets, peace be upon them, will come alone on the Day of Judgment, some were killed, and that is not a measure of failure. Not at all; the gauge is one’s stand.”
THE INSTRUMENTALISATION OF RELIGION FOR INJUSTICE – REJECTED
I’ve mentioned Shaykh Seraj’s orientation in the anti-apartheid struggle; one can simply listen to Nelson Mandela’s comrade in arms, Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, as I did, regale about Shaykh Seraj being in a protest alongside him during those troubled years. Many a time, we discussed the insanity of that racist system; about his experience being arrested and confined in prison.
The more I learned about his political orientations, the more I grew to appreciate him as a rare breed indeed. Here was an ‘alim, a scholar, who could brook no injustice on the altar of ‘security’ or ‘stability’. To myself, this was a type of gold dust, particularly towards the latter years of our time together. When I became disillusioned and disappointed with how significant and substantial parts of the religious establishment elsewhere, in Egypt in particular, but further beyond, had become so unapologetically in favour of applauding authoritarian power, I knew that in Shaykh Seraj, I would find not only a sympathetic ear. Rather, I’d find a comrade, who relied on me for details, but who shared with me the general thrust of a common perspective.
Shaykh Seraj was respectful of scholars that he disagreed with, and he valued their learning where they had it – but he valued justice and the upholding of it, before and after considerations of good etiquette. A son of the anti-apartheid struggle could be nothing else. I remember discussing the political stances of one such pro-authoritarian scholar with him, who was quite prominent – and saw Shaykh Seraj’s disappointment about those stances, clearly and evidently.
At the same time, Shaykh Seraj seldom mentioned individual names publicly in a negative context. Many a time, we would have a discussion about a particular political event, with no one around, and it would be clear that the shaykh was opposed to this political stance by a scholar, or that politician’s stance. To this day, I’m cautious about mentioning specifics, because the shaykh was always very careful about placing Azzawia into any kind of partisan position, at a time when the intricacies of the Muslim world have created slews of partisan silos, where it is no longer about justice, but about one’s ‘team’. Shaykh Seraj zealously protected the tradition of Azzawia of being independent, and whether it was figures in Cairo or Ankara, Abu Dhabi or Doha, the shaykh would be polite and courteous. Azzawia always had to be a place that could not be used by one side in an internecine war between Muslims. But no one could ever be in doubt about his principles, which he proclaimed loudly from the minbar. In later years, I grew concerned that certain parties might try to use his manners and etiquette to claim he supported this scholar or that one that had made questionable political decisions. But it was abundantly clear from his consistent discourse that he opposed authoritarianism of all kinds – as his close confidantes on political matters, such as Shafiq Morton, would undoubtedly attest.
When it came time for me to write my book on the Egyptian revolutionary uprising and its aftermath, including many discussions about the instrumentalisation of religion for partisanship, it was to Azzawia that I went to write at. I went into something of an author’s seclusion to do it, spending all my days and nights at Azzawia, alternating between writing, and sitting with the Shaykh. The Shaykh and I discussed those themes about abusing religion for injustice many times, and by this time, I’d already become what he called a ‘huis kind’ – a child of the house, which meant I was basically like part of the furniture.
He constantly reminded me that the approach he upheld was one of coming together, and of mutual benefit. That has seen a lot of opposition in our time and previously: from purist and extremist Salafis, of different types, including the ‘modernist Salafis’ of different political movements – and from many among the ranks of those who call themselves Sufis. Indeed, we’ve seen it in the expression of certain types of politics, where our men and women of religion (though usually men) back authoritarians, tyrants and scoundrels – all in the name of upholding faith and virtue.
AN INTERNATIONAL FIGURE – A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
Shaykh Seraj received various public accolades, such as being included in the ‘Muslim 500’ list continuously for many years. There were scores of South Africans who flocked to see him and take his advice; Muslim and non-Muslim alike; and often from extremely influential sectors of society, though this wasn’t advertised as such. Shaykh Seraj took the tradition of Azzawia tremendously seriously, and that meant being open and welcoming to anyone who sought sincere advice and counsel – even if it meant that advice and counsel was not necessarily what they wanted to hear. But it did mean that even though, many times, different forces would have been most pleased to instrumentalise Azzawia for their own paltry agendas, Shaykh Seraj stubbornly held onto Azzawia’s tradition of independence from all, even if – as he often did – he had deeply held political convictions of his own.
I travelled to Cape Town many times to see him and spend time with him. I knew others who did the same. I also knew of scholars who visited Cape Town who insisted on making a visit to Shaykh Seraj a priority; the likes of Habib Umar bin Hafiz of Yemen; Shaykh Muhammad al-Jilani of the Gambia; Dr Umar Faruq Abd-Allah of the US; Shaykh Afifuddeen al-Jilani of Iraq; Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad of the UK; Dr Mona Hassan of the US; Shaykh Faraz Rabbani of Canada; and of course, Shaykh Seraj’s friend and collaborator with the Madina Institute, Shaykh Muhammad Ninowy of the US. There were many, many more; numerous scholars and servants of the religion, who knew of Shaykh Seraj and made it a point to visit him. They collaborated with him as well, and he made it clear he wanted to collaborate with them. When Shaykh Ninowy wanted to establish a branch of his Madina Institute in Cape Town, he invited Shaykh Seraj to become its dean, who readily accepted. As professorial fellow of Cambridge Muslim College, I offered to have classes I was doing for them be simultaneously under the aegis of Azzawia, where Shaykh Seraj had appointed me as senior scholar – Shaykh Seraj welcomed the idea with open arms, looking forward to the co-operation with Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad’s institution.
After his return to Cape Town, Shaykh Seraj pursued further academic studies, after a decade of study in Makka. He never stopped learning and reading more and more. In recent times, I assisted him with correspondence, which meant I saw a lot of the emails coming through, invariably relating to yet another notification about another journal article, due to different online subscriptions he’d made. The Shaykh took his Masters degree from the University of South Africa (Cum Laude), with a dissertation entitled “Taṣawwuf (Sufism) – Its Role and Impact on the Culture of Cape Islam”. It’s an incredible piece of work, which frankly could have turned into an M.Phil, if not a PhD on its own, with not much more work. At the time of writing, the edited work was being prepared for publication – one hopes that the publishers will move forward with it.
He also translated works of Imam al-Ghazali, and summarised parts of the Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihyaʾ ʿUlum al-Dīn), most notably in the Travelling Light series, together with Shaykh ʿAbdal Hakim Murad of Cambridge University and Shaykh Yahya Rhodus of the United States. Shaykh Seraj’s scholastic expertise went into Islamic law (fiqh) and jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh), which he taught to students at Azzawia; at Madina Institute; at the International Peace College of South Africa; and which informed his thinking about Islamic intellectual thought in a wider sense.
But he wasn’t parochial in this regard; he read extremely widely, and he studied far beyond the Islamic canon on the one hand, and was incredibly open to people of other faiths on the other. Azzawia’s tradition was built on that – the number of families connected to Azzawia over the last century that were originally non-Muslim cannot really be counted due to their number. I met many of them myself – but unlike other communities I’ve visited, there was no distinction made between recent converts and ‘established’ Muslim backgrounds. They all became part of the very same community, intrinsically and integrally. In a country that is still recovering from the trauma of apartheid, Azzawia is full of a wide array of different ethnic backgrounds.
But it is one thing to be full of diversity, and another to be actively inclusive of it. And in this, Shaykh Seraj continued the tradition of his grandfather, who faced a good deal of opposition in the early part of the 20th century, when he insisted on teaching and instructing women, which was controversial at the time. Shaykh Seraj not only persisted in that regard, but discussed with me many times the need to empower women from within the tradition, and to encourage spiritual leadership therein. Beyond that, he was deeply disturbed whenever it came to his knowledge that the abuse of women by any person of religion took place – it was one topic that would make him angry, as he viewed it as such a profound betrayal.
Some of his previous positions included being the head of the Muslim Judicial Council’s Fatwa Committee (which often led to him being described as the ‘Mufti of Cape Town’), lecturer in fiqh at the Islamic College of Southern Africa (ICOSA), and lecturer in the Study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). I could go on about other positions, such as being a member of the Stanlib Shariʿa Board, and chief arbitrator (Hakim) of the Crescent Observer’s Society. He was also appointed Dean of the Madina Institute in South Africa, a recognised institution of higher learning in South Africa and part of the world Madina Institute seminaries led by Shaykh Dr Muhammad Ninowy. Shaykh Seraj was also appointed as professor at the International Peace College of South Africa, holding the Maqasid Chair for Graduate Studies.
I connected with him on those intellectual levels as much as one could – he was leaps and bounds more advanced than I on such issues. On the issues where I spent more time researching, particularly when it came to political matters, he was always deeply respectful of my experience and training, never insisting upon another point of view because of an ideological difference. On the contrary, he often consulted me on specific political matters where he had to get involved in advice of some kind; which honoured me tremendously, but also showed me a humility that is so often lacking in many who sit in positions of such authority. It’s what made him so beloved to so many.
In the tradition of Azzawia, there were, and are, thousands of murids, in the sense that they were attached to the teaching and the reading of the litanies of Azzawia. And with all of them, he treated them in the spirit of the school of Ahl al-Bayt — in service (khidma) and love (mahabba). From the minbar and in public, he could give direct and uncompromising corrections for infractions of principle and ethics – but everyone knew he would welcome anyone who wanted to come to him for advice or counsel. Sometimes, that counsel would be given in a very direct and clear manner, without any room for interpretation; but more often, he would be more suggestive than expressive, more oblique than pointed. For the thousands who came to him privately or listened to his classes, there will be scores of witnesses to this approach he had. Even in his Friday talks before the actual khutba (sermon), he was informal. As one long-time attendee said after his death, he was ‘always seeking to engage and dialogue, rather than preach, judge and pontificate.’
TRAINER OF HEARTS AND SOULS
Much like his own shaykh, Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki, Shaykh Seraj’s activity was in concentric circles; and while everyone who benefited from his personal direction benefited from his public teaching and his pastoral care, the reverse wasn’t always the same. He had an international role; he had a public role based in Cape Town, which was intellectual, academic, and religious; he had a pastoral role for Azzawia’s community in particular, and for anyone who came to him for advice; but he also had a more sequestered role as a murabbi, a trainer of hearts and souls.
When he spoke to me about his time in Makka, I knew he had gone through stages of tests with his own shaykh; such was and is the way of training. Some of those tales related of a shaykh that could be rather strict; Shaykh Seraj, however, probably went much easier on his students in many ways. On certain points of adab (etiquette) and akhlaq (good manners), he was impeccable and insisted on such from his close students. For him, the comportent and morality of a student was a barometer of spiritual progress. But he was such a balanced and easy soul, one might never have noticed any insistence anyway. He was just so… easy. And yet, we knew he had spent more than a decade in Makka with his shaykhs, after many years at the hands and feet of his own uncles in Cape Town – but if that had been hard for him, he certainly made it easy for his students.
The aforementioned book, ‘A Sublime Way’ includes some pertinent information about the tariqa that the Shaykh was attached to. Suffice it to say that the shaykh’s shaykh, Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki, said: “I am Idris, Shadhuli, Alawi – until the Messenger of God permits me other than this.” But when Shaykh Seraj deciphered his tradition into a way of engaging with the world, it was always about a radical beauty; a far-reaching inclusion; a spiritual way of being, rather than simply a set of do’s and don’ts. When he taught about that way, he taught by example; not simply by words. As I spent more time with him, I learned that the more learned a person was, the more flexible – not more rigid – they could be.
That was certainly the case with Shaykh Seraj, who was dedicated to applying universals and remembering ‘first principles’, rather than reducing this religion to a narrow and shallow vessel of simply ‘haram’ and ‘halal’. He knew the forms of the rituals and the protocols extremely well as a result of his training, and taught them precisely – but he also knew that it was mandatory that such forms were to be infused with ihsan (spiritual excellence). Formalism was there, but was never harsh or cruel – he always emphasised the virtues of love, hope and mercy, in contrast to many figures of religion today. The works of al-Ghazali were and are the backbone of Azzawia’s tradition – and embedded in Shaykh Seraj himself. Including in terms of his own tariqa.
When we consider the path of Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawi al-Maliki that Shaykh Seraj took, there are three major aspects to recall. The first is that it was undoubtedly Shadhuli in terms of spiritual path, with a Shadhuli-Idrisi influence par excellence. The second aspect is that it was indelibly Ba ‘Alawi, which is why so much of what the tariqa is enveloped and protected by is essentially the teachings of Imam al-Ghazali. The sada of Bani ‘Alawi love and cherish the sāda of the Bani ʿAlawi, and the Ba ʿAlawi sada uphold the teachings of Imam al-Ghazali passionately and completely. The third aspect to recall is the surrounding scholastic-tariqa environment of Makka that the Sayyid inherited. The different ṭuruq of the umma flowed into Makka, and some of our shaykhs mastered their methods to the point that they became, essentially, independent interpreters (mujtahids) in the sciences of Sufism. Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawi al-Maliki carried on with that huge combined spiritual inheritance. Or, as Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks referred to it: ‘this melting pot of turuq’; and the Sayyid referred to this as, ‘the Way of the Sages of Makka (Ṭariqa ʿUlamaʾ Makka)’.
In that regard, the tariqa suited him very well. The lines of transmission that Shaykh Seraj inherited went through the whole gambit of the Islamic tradition, and in the ijaza that he provided his students, it mentioned not one, but many orders of Sufism. In ‘A Sublime Way’, we discussed that type of ‘united multitude’ at length – but suffice it to say, Shaykh Seraj always took seriously the impetus to respect and celebrate difference via commitment to principle, virtue and value. And he did so, in all of his roles, whether in the international arena, in South Africa, in Cape Town, or with the community of Azzawia.
But there were a few who developed another type of relationship with him; who received authorisations and permissions to pass on litanies and invocations. Fewer still who were given the ability – and the instruction – to induct people into the tariqa. In this way, Shaykh Seraj’s spiritual impact spread far and wide – but the width and breadth of that impact did not negate the reality that there were different levels of spiritual instruction going on. In this regard, he mirrored Sayyid Muhammad bin Alawi al-Maliki quite closely, who, likewise, had modes for reaching huge numbers of people in general gatherings – but for those few who sincerely wanted ‘more’, found ‘more’. In those kinds of meetings, where he would take on the role of a spiritual father with more precision, he’d want to focus on works like Qawa’id al-Tasawwuf by al-Zarruq; Bidayat al-Hidaya of al-Ghazali; Qut al-Qulub by al-Makki; the Luma of al-Tusi; the Ibriz of al-Dabbagh. There were others too, in different sciences.
As noted above, that ‘more’ was about directing one to be about ‘being’. Shaykh Seraj’s entire spiritual edifice was one that was built around the notion of ‘being’; experiencing and viewing the world in a fashion that was connected always to the Divine with one’s heart, and being just with one’s hands. When he visited Cairo once, I had the good fortune of travelling around with him to various resting places of the saints of al-Qahira – and I witnessed his own deep connection to the spiritual sanctity of those places. He severely disliked the cliched phrase ‘way of life’ to describe Islam, seeing it as empty and hollow – rather, he spoke of Islam being a ‘way of being’. And he imparted that consciousness to his students, in private and public.
But at the same time, he was very particular about what kind of works would or should be read with different people at different times. A year ago, the Shaykh had given me an appointment as ‘senior scholar’ of Azzawia, in preparation of work he had hoped we would do together. In the days after the COVID19 lockdown began in Cape Town, we had a discussion around how to bring Azzawia teaching into the online space, as otherwise the students would be bereft until the lockdown ended. I told him that I was preparing to put my own classes, which had hitherto been private and offline, onto a private Zoom video call for my students, but if they might be useful for Azzawia, I’d make them public, and affiliated to Azzawia. Despite his appointment of me as Azzawia senior scholar, he asked me details about each of the classes, and then he picked two of the classes; he also suggested the possibility of a third in due course, though separate from the other classes of doing. He made clear exactly why – even though the content of at least one of the other classes would have been very familiar to Azzawia’s ethos, he knew precisely what the community needed in this moment of time, and that’s why he wanted certain things emphasised right now. It was a valuable lesson for me to learn – that the teacher very often has a wider angle than what the student might even perceive of.
But while that kind of active engagement on intellectual issues stimulated my mind, Shaykh Seraj was who he was the most when he instructed as a spiritual teacher. The litanies he kept to, besides the Qur’an and the Prophetic adhkār that are generally recommended, included the likes of the ‘Du’a of the Basmala’ – one can find it in Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki’s book of awrad, ‘The Glimmering Lights’ (‘Shawariq al-Anwar’). When I asked Shaykh Seraj who compiled that particular litany, he mentioned a chain of transmission back to Sayyidina Ali, karamaAllahu wajahu.
Shaykh Seraj gave a small number of general ijazas out to individuals he met or taught; ijazas that were meant as encouragement for them to continue teaching, or as recognition of their pedigree. That was in accordance with the tradition that he learned from within. Those were very few in number, and were usually committed to paper, with witnesses, or declarations about them in public thereafter. Unlike other mashaykh, he never withdrew an ijaza; as far as he was concerned, if one gave an ijaza of this kind, the cancellation of it wasn’t impossible, but it was certainly not part of the protocol. His close friend and confidante, Shafiq Morton, was often present when he gave such ijazas, documenting them sometimes by writing or pictures.
When it came to the tariqa itself, there were scarcely any who were given public permission to induct, give guidance (irshad) and train (tarbiya) – one muqaddam with such permissions was declared at the Friday jumma’ talk some years ago, but I am unaware of any others with the same type of ijaza. It wasn’t that the shaykh was overly stringent about this sort of thing – he spoke many times about the need to serve people who were feeling so much spiritual trauma in the contemporary age. Rather, that such things had to be done carefully. For any that he did prepare over time, he did allude to trials they might encounter; and that they should expect the unexpected, with perhaps ‘surprises’ taking place along the way. When those ‘surprises’ were relayed back to the shaykh, he invariably would smile and show he wasn’t actually surprised in the slightest.
The shaykh was also meticulous about ensuring such permissions were specifically included in their ijazas explicitly; teaching how the dhikrs were to be read, even what movements might be allowed; books of awrad were provided; and other documents, as well as objects such as prayer beads and shawls, as his own teacher had done. Such objects were then treasured by those whom he gave them to, as reminders of their commitment to God and His Prophet.
Shaykh Seraj was born in Cape Town on the 12th of November 1955, in the last days of Rabi’a al-Awwal (probably the 25 or 26th) of 1375. It’s quite fitting that he was born in the month of the Mawlid of the Prophet, alayhi salat wa salam, and that he passed in the month of Dhu al-Qa’ada, one of the blessed four ‘sacred months’ mentioned in the Qur’an. Dhu al-Qa’ada is also when Imam al-Haddad, of the great saints of the Bani ‘Alawi, passed away – Imam al-Haddad was in one of the many chains of transmission that Shaykh Seraj possessed back to the Prophet, ‘alayhi salat wa salam. Shaykh Abdal Qadir Jilani (May Allah be pleased with him) mentioned in one of his discourses:
"The number of months in sight of Allah is 12 months. These months were already inscribed in the "Book of Almighty Allah", that is, on the Well-Kept Tablet [al-lawh al-mahfuz] – "on the day when He created the heavens and the earth; four of them are sacred…" The names of the sacred 4 months referred to are: Rajab, Dhul Qada, Dhul Hijja, and Muharram.”
Shaykh Seraj passed away on Thursday 9th of July 2020. He was then buried on Friday the 10th of July, just around the time that outside of COVID19, it would have been time for the Friday congregational prayer.
Thousands of miles away, I walked into my own study that morning, and it was dark – for the first time in months, it was dark. I quietly whispered to myself, “Ah, so today is going to be the day.” My wife told Shaykh Seraj’s children that day: “we could feel that the air & wind themselves are saddened. It is hot, and there isn’t a breeze in sight; even at midday, the sky is grayish. It is almost wailing.” About the same time in Cape Town, the clouds gathered up in a massive way – and suddenly, they emptied out a torrential downpour of rain.
“Say: ‘Praise be to God. He will show you His Signs and you will recognize them. Your Lord is not heedless of anything you do.’” (Qur’an, 27:93)
Shaykh Seraj went peacefully, and without pain, after having been in the intensive care unit for almost five weeks, before being returned to the One to whom we must all return. That’s a trial; that’s a tribulation; for him, and for all of us. But most of all for him, of course. And the thing about trials and tribulations is that we have three scenarios for what they mean. The first is that the trial and tribulation is a punishment, and the sign of that is that you are constantly complaining and moaning about it. The Shaykh was never like that. The second is that the trial is a source of expiation of sin. And the third is that the trial is a source of spiritual rising.
Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks, may God give him a much longer life in health, inwardly and outwardly, recently reminded me of a lesson of the verse:
“And your Lord creates what He wills and chooses.” Qur’an 28: 68
That’s the reality of our entire time and life: God decides. Our teachers say that one of the meanings of this verse is: only the Choice of Allah exists. He gives and answers prayers; with what He Chooses; and in the way that He Chooses; at the time that He Chooses; not according to our choices. And what a wonderful choice it is.
It was only a few days after Eid al-Fitr when Shaykh Seraj comes into the hospital in the blessed month of Shawwal; the month of great blessing; and then his trial begins, almost immediately. Easily, so very easily – he went from home, walking easily into hospital, engaging in remembrance of God, as is witnessed by someone who was with him. And then almost immediately, he is rushed into the ICU. And there he stays, until his last.
It’s not easy surviving in the ICU for five weeks; it’s quite rare that even happens. But he did, and one has to wonder why. Remember that initial lesson – that the trial and tribulation may be for expiation of sin; and raising of maqams. And that Allah gives, and answers, with what He Chooses, and in the way, and in the time, that He chooses.
God knows best. But perhaps indeed – what seems abundantly clear to me – is that in the early part of his time in the ICU, perhaps indeed our shaykh was going through that phase of purification of sin. And then the rest of it, day after day, was something very different.
Our friend Shafiq Morton narrated to us a story a few weeks before the Shaykh’s passing that he was told by someone who sometimes gets a sense of what is happening beyond the realm that we can see. That person got the very clear sense that Shaykh Seraj was not alone at all. That there were angelic presences around him – and that he was being well, and truly, taken care of. Perhaps indeed, our beautiful and wonderful Shaykh Seraj, was being constantly elevated, day after day – and then, he is taken. And in what kind of state is he when he is taken.
The Prophet, may blessings and peace be upon him, said that those who die from the plague are martyrs. Scholars today use that narration, but also use other narrations, to make the argument that those who pass away from COVID19, as our Shaykh Seraj did, are liable for the rank of ‘martyr’ in the hereafter. And Allah knows best – but that is how Allah, Glorious is He, Chose to have Shaykh Seraj return to Him. He has Chosen him to return to Him, with him having gone through this trial and tribulation. With so many of his sins having been removed; and with him, by the permission of God, raised to a lofty state, when he still exists on this earth. So that he might return to his Lord in the best state that he could be returned to Him, in accordance with the time and choosing of his Lord.
TRIBUTE TO THE LEGACY
From around the world, condolences have been sent. Shaykh Muhammad Ninowy of Madina did; Shaykh Afifuddeen al-Jilani of the Waritheen Trust did; Dr Umar Faruq Abd-Allah of Chicago, the Dean of Zaytuna College, Shaykh Dr Omar Qureshi did; Shaykh Faraz Rabbani of Seekers Guidance; Dr Mona Hassan of Duke University; Professor Jasser Auda of Canada; scores of officials in and out of South Africa; Muslim and non-Muslim academics and friends; the list seems to be endless. What stirs the heart out of them is that, as one of them mentioned, it is striking to see how all of them corroborated each other on a single theme: the impeccability of Shaykh Seraj’s character.
The day after his passing, Shaykh Seraj’s son, Rashid Seraj Hendricks, led the funeral prayer over his father, just as he fulfilled the duty of preparing him for burial, and then placing him in the ground. Worldwide, salat al-gha’ib (the ‘absentee funeral prayer’) was made for him. At the first majlis of dhikr following the death of al-Allama Shaykh Seraj, may Allah be well pleased with him, those gathered supplicated for him in the post-dhikr supplication, where his father, his uncles and his grandfather are also mentioned. Shaykh Seraj had taken his rightful place alongside them.
I was contacted by someone asking about the community, and I responded to them, “They have been well-trained. Shaykh Seraj, and Shaykh Ahmad, and the shaykhs of Azzawia of history, have done a great job. They are strong.” Azzawia continues to stand firm and tall, if tender to the touch after such a monumental event. Its community continues, as ever, to pledge to Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks, as resident shaykh of Azzawia, and to remain loyal to the traditions, teachings, imams and scholars of Azzawia. The Shaykh, al-allama, al-murabbi, Seraj Hassan Hendricks, pointed not to himself: but to Allah, following the example of His Holy Prophet. He oriented himself to that which lives, and never dies – and so must all of us.
May God bless the people of Azzawia; the community of Cape Town; the umma everywhere; and humanity at large with the knowledge the shaykh taught. May He be well and truly pleased with His servant, our teacher and shaykh, Shaykh Seraj Hassan Hendricks. Blessings and salutations be upon our liege-lord, Muhammad, and praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds.
Shaykh Dr Hisham A. Hellyer, a British scholar of English and Egyptian extraction, was a student of al-marhum Shaykh Seraj Hendricks. Shaykh Hisham was appointed as Azzawia Institute senior scholar by Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, with whom he co-wrote a book entitled ‘A Sublime Way: the Sufi Path of the Sages of Makka’, alongside the Shaykh of Azzawia, Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks. Dr Hellyer was also appointed as professorial fellow of Cambridge Muslim College by Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad and visiting professor at the University of Technology’s RZS Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation [RZS-CASIS] in Malaysia. He is also senior associate fellow at the Royal Institute in London and the Carnegie Endowment in Washington DC.