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Remembering our teacher, Saleem Kayani Sahib

Ustadh Saleem Kayani, a gentleman and scholar, and a jewel within the British Muslim community, passed away on 19th November 2016.  His was a life immersed in the study of the Qur’an and imparting its message. His demise is a loss to contemporary Qur’anic scholarship and the activities of study circles in London. He was an able exponent of the study of the Qur’an based on the principle of coherence (nazm) and an eloquent communicator who opened the horizons of many generations of students, encouraging them to read the sacred Book with an inquiring mind.

ustadh-kayani

Ustadh Kayani was born in 1934 with early schooling in his birthplace , Nowshera, Punjab. He took to Islamic activism at an early age, to the consternation of his father who was a Superintendent in the North West Frontier Police Force during the times of the Raj. When in Class 7 – perhaps 12 years old – he came across a pamphlet in his home  by the leader of the newly-founded Jamaat Islami, Abul A’la Maududi, contrasting the narrow message of nationalism with Islam’s address, which was to all humanity. There was a notice at the back of the pamphlet and he was able to order books by post, apparently giving the school’s address for delivery. Ustadh Kayani described the sequel as follows,

I was thrilled when the teacher announced there was a parcel. I shared it with a friend, who told me that there was a political party that held meetings. At the first  meeting there was a cobbler, a hakim and a businessmen, who were reading out an article by Maulana [Amin Ahsan] Islahi, stating ‘It is not for Muslim soldiers to march left or right on the orders of a British ruler’.

There were to be other dramatic moments:

At the age of 13, I remember one day lying in bed reading Maududi’s Tankihat. It had an electrifying effect: you have the power to change things. I went out into the street to see what can be done.

The enterprising and activist-minded student proceeded to study for his FSc (equivalent to ‘A’ levels today) at the King Edward College, Peshawar.  He wished to study medicine but there wasn’t a course available. He then enrolled on a Science course at Government College, Rawalpindi, but a week later took up BA studies in English Literature and Political Sciences, and subsequently completed an MA. His continued Islamic activism in the Jamiat Taleba, which was being monitored and the authorities put pressure on his father.  He defied his father when asked to renounce these connections – though in later years he confided, ‘I much regretted this act of defiance.

Saleem Kayani moved to Lahore, where the political climate was more relaxed. He held a teaching post at the Naya Madrasa high school set up by the Jamaat in Ichra from 1956-66. He pioneered the establishment of a students’ governing body, ‘so that they could see democracy in practice’, rather than the phony ‘Basic Democracy’ being implemented by General Ayub Khan. He also took up journalistic work in the organisation’s publication Tasneem, coming to it after a day’s teaching at school. He worked under the veteran Naeem Siddiqui, whom he admired. Amongst the staff was the self-important Kausar Niazi, often the butt of the staff’s practical jokes – the gentleman was later Minister for Religious Affairs in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s first cabinet.

Around this time Saleem Kayani began attending Maulana Islahi’s Arabic language class and dars on the Qur’an. This was characteristic of his independent temperament, because by this time Islahi had become estranged from the Jamaat.  The Maulana would say of his student, Saleem Kayani, ‘We have a gentleman’s agreement – he doesn’t question me on politics and I only teach him the Qur’an’.  It was an association that lasted from 1963 to 1969. Saleem Kayani proposed that the Jamaat too should start a Qur’anic study circle as part of its welfare programme: ‘there was one Jamaat member who considered it a waste of time, but later the same person remarked that the circle attendees were the most hardworking and dedicated at electioneering time’.  Ustadh Saleem also translated works from Arabic to English, including Muhammad Qutb’s Islam the  Misunderstood Religion.

Saleem Kayani emigrated to the United Kingdom in early 1970s, and initially engaged himself in the work of the Muslim Educational Trust and the UK Islamic Mission. During this period he advised a youth committee producing the magazine Zenith and served as UKIM President in 1974, though resigning from this post.  He remained in Britain for the rest of his life, apart from a short assignment examining English translations of the Qur’an in Medina, and a spell working for the American Trust Publications, Indianapolis.  Over the decades, hundreds benefitted from his Qur’anic study circles on both sides of the Atlantic. In London, his dars touched the lives of many:  conducted at the Pakistan Students Hostel, Lowndes Square;  at his own home in Islington, and later at a family home in Willesden Green. He also took up the challenge of translating Tadabbur-e-Qur’an (Pondering the Qur’an), an eight volume tafsir by his teacher Maulana Islahi. At the time of his demise two volumes had been published by the Islamic Book Trust, Kuala Lumpur – Volume One, Tafsir of Surah al-Fatiha and Surah al-Baqarah (2007); Volume Two, Tafsir of Surah Ale’ Imran (2015). For AbdulWahid Hamid, author of Islam, the Natural Way, the former is ‘one of the most profound commentaries available in English’.

Ustadh Kayani was an inspiring and erudite teacher, who would weave into his Qur’anic class aphorisms from Carlyle, excerpts from Tolstoy’s short stories and much Urdu poetry of Iqbal. Among his favourite was this from Mahir ul Qadri –  ik baar khata jo hoti hai, sau baar nadamat hoti hai. He would often recount this hadith to his class: How excellent is the case of a faithful servant — there is good for him in everything and this not the case with anyone except him. If prosperity attends him, he expresses shukr to Allah and that is good for him. If adversity falls on him, he endures it with sabr, and that is good for him.  Saleem Sahib’s life epitomised this hadith.  Islahi also once told him, ‘I am a student – don’t call me a sheikh. Once you are a sheikh you are dead. A student retains a sense of curiosity.’ This remained Saleem Kayani’s style of teaching as well. May God shower His blessings on him.

Jamil Sherif, 21st November 2016

 

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