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 South Africa News · Arts · Literature · Politics · South Africa · Africa · Cape Town · Hyderabad · Durban · Java · KwaZulu-Natal · Indian National Congress · Mahatma Gandhi · University of Edinburgh · Edinburgh · Yusuf Islam · United Kingdom · England · Oxford · Oxford University · London · William Shakespeare · BBC World Service · Channel 4 · Colombia · Walmer · Abdul Hamid II · Ottoman Empire · Natal Indian Congress · Monty Naicker · Yusuf Dadoo · Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi · International PEN

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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