Cape Times


- NORMA COHEN and DR MOHAMED KESHAVJEE Keshavjee is an author and Cohen is a member of English PEN and an actor/ writer who has been politicall­y active all her life. Her journalism spans the Guardian, TES and Social Work Today, focusing on the arts, societ

BORN in South Africa, Raficq Abdullah died last month aged 79.

He was the son of a Malay mother, Moseda Ismai l (née Abraham) from Walmer Estate in the Cape, the granddaugh­ter of two imams, and an Indian father, Sheik Abdulla of Hyderabadi, originally from Durban.

One of the Imams was sent to South Africa by Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire.

Raficq’s other maternal greatgrand­father imam hailed from an Islamic mystical tradition from Java and Sumatra. Raficq spent much of his time between the Cape and Natal provinces with a more liberal British influence.

Raficq’s paternal greatgrand­mother, Rabia Bibi was a prominent businesswo­man in Durban and is reputed to have contribute­d financiall­y to the establishm­ent of the Natal Indian Congress by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Dada Abdullah Jhavery in 1894, a year in which the Natal Legislatur­e was trying assiduousl­y to disenfranc­hise the Indian immigrants in the colony.

These people had worked hard to acquire property and establish themselves in business. In this process, the Indians who were in business, as well as the Indentured Indians who came earlier, made a significan­t contributi­on to the prosperity of Natal. The Natal Indian Congress played a prominent role under Gandhi in mobilising Indian political consciousn­ess in the 1890s, and in the political struggle in South Africa in the 20th century with the aim of dismantlin­g apartheid.

The congress did this through the work of veteran freedom fighters such as Dr Monty Naicker and Dr Goonam, both Edinburgh University-educated colleagues of Raficq’s mother. A third towering figure in the freedom struggle, Dr Yusuf Dadoo, was also an Edinburghe­ducated medical doctor.

A god-daughter of the veteran Cape political leader Abdullah Abdurrahma­n, Moseda followed his educationa­l path and in 1927 went to Edinburgh University to study medicine. While in the UK, Moseda met her first husband, Guy’seducated Dr Goolam Gool, who would play an important role in the social and political life of the Cape to become president of the National Liberation League in 1937.

Moseda and Goolam had one son, Reshard, who became a novelist and wrote the book Cape Town Coolie. Following her divorce from Goolam, Moseda married Sheik Abdulla of Durban. Raficq was their son of this marriage. Moseda and Abdulla sent him and his halfbrothe­r Reshard to study in England.

After reading Jurisprude­nce at Oxford, Raficq qualified as a barrister in the early 1960s. He spent most of his working life in London as a legal adviser to organisati­ons, always looking for a higher purpose: the equity and fairness that law is meant to uphold. In 2019, he co-authored the critically acclaimed “Understand­ing Sharia Law – Islamic Law in a Globalised World” with fellow lawyer Mohamed Keshavjee.

A writer, lecturer, essayist, public speaker and poet, Raficq wrote Reflecting Mercury; Dreaming Shakespear­e’s Sonnets, and published books on the work of Muslim mystics Rumi and Attar: Words of Paradise: Selected Poems of Rumi and The Conference of the Birds: Selected Sufi Poetry of Attar. He was a commentato­r for the BBC World Service on Islamic issues and was a book reviewer. He wrote screenplay­s for Channel 4 and scripts for two award-winning films produced by Pakistani film director, Jamil Dehlavi, The Blood of Hussein and Born of Fire.

Raficq was a strong believer in freedom of expression. In 2014, he took on the role of acting president for English PEN, promoting freedom of writing across frontiers. Deeply concerned about human rights and peace, he was ever sensitive to the plight of the writer in exile, working closely with Exiled Lit Cafe nights.

His participat­ion in literary activism events included Poets of Peace for Colombia organised by Palestinia­n poet Fathieh Saudi. For his work in the field of interfaith dialogue, Raficq was awarded an MBE in 1999.

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