JAWED ANWAR on 15 January, 2008
The shocking news of the demise of Imam Mohammad Naseem in Houston, Texas, USA on December 27, 2007, stirred my memories. I recalled the morning in 2001 when he was packing to move permanently to
Houston. I was with him in his New York apartment as he packed. It was hard to believe that he was leaving New York at this stage and would never return to the city he loved.
He had left New York several times before, but his love for and his attachment to New York always edged him home to the grand city. This morning was different. The diligent way in which he was preparing to move and his intense mood seemed to confirm that he would not return to New York. I felt that I was interviewing him for Muslims Weekly, New York, for the last time. He perceived my feelings and said, “Why you
are asking all these questions. I am not going to die very soon.” He smiled and said, “However, you can use it as my last interview.”
I met him briefly two or three more times when he visited New York from Houston, and he complained that I had not called him. I did call him a few times, but, as the proverb goes, “Out of sight; out of mind,” and day to day problems kept me from calling him frequently.
I recall Imam Naseem’s first comment about his new experience of living in Houston. In
Urdu he said, “Wohan Be-Car (Kaar) tha—Yehan Be-Bus bhi Hun,” which means, “In New York I was without car; in Houston I am without bus too.
His love for me was just because of his love for Allah, his love for Islam, and his striving in the way of Allah. He clearly admitted, “I love you. I have never seen a newspaper like yours [Muslims Weekly] in my whole life. I like everything –articles, editorials, news, layout, and presentation. Radiance Weekly was my favorite when I was in India. Now, I feel that Muslim is my newspaper.” He was a habitual newspaper reader. He was receiving Radiance Weekly and Dawat from India regularly. He never called my newspaper by its full name. He always called it “Muslim.”
He introduced me to everyone as a “Muslim.” In an ICNA convention, he called Imam Siraj Wahhaj in a crowd and said to him, pointing towards me, “Look! He is the Muslim.” He repeated it three times loudly. (He meant that I was the editor and publisher of the only Muslim newspaper from New York). Imam Siraj Wahhaj looked towards me and, surprised, kept asking, “He is the only Muslim? He is the only Muslim?” The situation was a little embarrassing for me, but Imam Naseem’s style was adorable.
Imam Naseem’s leaving New York was like the news of his demise for me and many others. I was angry with myself for not spending more time trying to convince him not to leave us. I was very sure that I could have convinced him if only I had persuaded him before his final decision. Very few people knew the actual reason for his leaving New York forever. He was a man of dignity. He lived alone in his apartment, never wanting to share in living. However, he felt badly that Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) was paying the rent for the apartment, although he was committed and had given his life for ICNA and Islamic movement. His only income source was the check from social security or
old-age benefit, and he couldn’t afford to pay the higher rent of New York. He got an apartment in Houston, with subsidized rent, and now he was able to pay the rent from his income. Plus his wife was buried in Houston. She died September 19, 1984, in a road accident, and he wanted to be buried next to her.
Imam Naseem longed for youths to visit him and learn from him. Immigrant Muslims, however, were too busy converting every minute into dollars, and local native Muslims were not well aware of him. In Jamaica, New York, there was a large Black Muslim community. Imam Naseem had a unique style of teaching Arabic and Islam. He knew the dynamics of Islamic movement and how to launch it. The community could have benefited a lot from him, but, sadly, that didn’t happen.
This may be an issue of debate. Who was responsible? Imam Naseem, ICNA, or the community? I will say that a thirsty person goes to a well for the drinking water; the well doesn’t go to the thirsty person. However, the fact was that, in Imam Naseem’s case, the well was himself, knocking on every door and offering his knowledge and
Imam Naseem was from a typical Indian Muslim cultural background. He had always taken meals in a big dusterkhan (a dinning sheet spread over the floor and from which family or others eat together). It was impossible for him to take food alone. Therefore, he always needed someone, at least one person, to eat with him. I learned that sometimes he didn’t eat for one or more days if someone didn’t eat with him. It was a unique habit, and I never encountered another person of this peculiarity. I shared his food several times. Most times, we
went to Dunkin’ Donuts, his favorite place, where he could get a coffee of the flavor of his liking. Despite our brotherly affection for one another, I couldn’t spend much time with him due to two reasons:
1. I never had much time due to my involvement in the publishing of the newspaper, and he required much time to discuss and debate;
2. He never allowed me to pay the bill for the food or drink.
I couldn’t force him to allow me to pay, and I didn’t want to burden him in his small income. The paying of the bill of the food to the restaurant is the responsibility of the more elder one; that is part of our culture. I spent my student life in Aligarh Muslim University (1975-1981) and followed and practiced this tradition of junior and senior. If a group of students are going to the cafeteria, the senior most among them must ensure that he has enough money to pay the bill on behalf of all; or, if someone doesn’t have enough money, then he should make sure that someone in the group is senior to him. This is our tradition, and this is our culture. Once, I shocked to see an American Muslim husband and wife taking food from a Halal restaurant and paying separately. It was shocking and unbelievable for me. For Imam Naseem, this scene might have been unbearable.
I will say that Imam Naseem was extremely biased on behalf of women. His loving wife influenced him in such a way that he became very pro-female. He could have married again after his wife’s accidental death. Several friends advised him and several women showed the desire to marry him, but he couldn’t love another woman as he had loved his wife. Sometimes he surprised and shocked his friends by saying such things as, “I was sleeping with a woman last night,” and, “I met a woman last night when I was alone.”He meant that he had dreamed about his wife or had reminisced about her. He was sure that his wife was a woman of Jannah (Heaven). He said that several times he had requested of his wife that when she got to Jannah, she should ask Allah for him as her boy servant of Jannah so that he could stand for her, with a towel on his shoulder, waiting for her orders.
Muslim families came to him to settle their disputes. He became angry every time he listened to the complaints from husbands, but he carefully listened to every word of complaints from wives, and he believed their
words. He always gave Nasihah (good advice) to men on how to treat and behave with women. Women loved to make him judge in their family disputes.
He was a presenter of a TV family show in a Third World Communication in eighties. This media was funded by Pakistani government of that time. Imam Naseem was the discovery of Tahir Khan, a Third World Communication TV
program producer. Tahir Khan once told me the story of his selection for the TV show. He said that he picked Imam Naseem for the family show, not just because of his knowledge and intellectual capabilities, but also for his attractive personality, beautiful eyes, and a literary Lucknawi Urdu. He said that he found his eyes extraordinarily
attractive and was fully convinced that his program would be popular in families.
His dress was Kamees (long shirt), Pajama (Indian Muslim style), and Sherwani (a traditional Indian Muslim long coat) and a cap (Kufee) on his head. He said that he had three-piece English suits in his closet, but he intentionally wears this dress to look different. For him, it was
salesmanship. “I am a salesperson of Islam,” he said. “When company promotes a product and service, they use insignia. It is my Islamic culture insignia,” he argued. When the people he encountered asked something about his dress and appearance, he started talking on the philosophy of the dress and then the message of Islam and the purpose of human beings and this world. He was very clear, articulate and elaborate in his message and could talk
to a layman to high intellectuals in the language of their understanding. He was like a natural, God-gifted, full-time “Daee.”
Whenever I met him, I convinced myself that Dawah was not an act of programmed and planned project. A Muslim should look the part of a Daee. It is a 24 – 7 job. Islamically, you are doing thawab (good deeds) or sins all the times. There is nothing in between. If you are not doing any sin, that means you are doing thawab. Your deeds, your acts, your dress, your style, your behavior, your interaction with others reflect your character, and if you are better than others, then people will be attracted towards you. If you have that kind of magnetic force –as
Imam Naseem had built into his personality– then the people would like to know about you, they will inquire about you, and they will come towards your belief; Islam. It is a leadership quality. There is no
other method of Dawah. Unfortunately, Muslim leaders at large have a repulsive force in their personality and character.
I talked with him one to two hours in the “last interview,” and I recorded every one of his Urdu words;. The interview was never published. I don’t remember why. Perhaps it was too long. It may have been because I never found time to translate his Urdu to English, or because I feared I would be unable to translate the rich, literary and eloquent interview appropriately into the English language. Perhaps subconsciously I wanted to use it as his last interview after his death. Muslims Weekly closed its publication in April 2006, and circumstances developed so that I had to leave New York in October 2006 and then migrate to Toronto, Canada. Since then, I had no contact with Imam Naseem.. After receiving the news of his demise, I searched my cassettes, but did not find the “last
interview.” However, I can explain his views from memory.
He was not happy and satisfied with the Muslim leadership of America; however, he respected everyone and kept hope. He showed his respect in all kinds of leaderships and works being done in Islamic Dawah, political, social, educational, religious, and relief areas. He was sitting next to me in a political session of ICNA Convention and was admiring all the presentations and efforts of different leaders in the political field. I asked him if he thought that any person in our present Muslim leadership had the capability to lead the Muslim Nation of America. He replied with a nod. Then I offered each big and reputed name and asked him, “What you think about him? Is he the best in present stuff? His answer remained a nod. I was a bit annoyed and asked, “Who will lead this orphaned community?” Finally he replied, “You can’t produce a leader from any factory and machinery. It is a natural process. Leadership will come up from the grassroots by a natural process and demand.”
I can say that Imam Naseem had all the qualities of public leadership. He might have been at the wrong place and wrong time and among the wrong people who failed to discover his natural capabilities. I was amazed when I saw him in African American community, which was glad to see him and was shaking hands with him. I saw him in Bangladeshi community showing respect, love and affection for him. I saw him with Arabs, as he was a person from them, and, when he went to Caribbean, they thought that he belonged to them. I saw him in Sunni communities, I saw him in Shia communities, and everyone liked to meet him, hug him. Once, when there was a campaign from a group of sectarian Muslims to declare Shia as a Kafir (denier, not believer), he stood up and condemned those people and their attempts. I had a chance (on his request) to visit with him at Al-Khoi Center. Shia ulema and people stood up to show respect for him.
He was a selfless and dedicated Islamic worker. His love and affection was for all human beings. He treated everyone he met in a same way, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, and nationality. His eyes were focused on the Jannah and on the Day of Judgment. He was trying hard to get every possible avenue to qualify for Jannah. I witness that I have seen very few people like him. He was among few people who can be easily recognized as a winner of Jannah.
One of Imam Naseem’s prime concerns was education. He told me that in the early years of Islam [after the last Khutaba of Muhammad (s.a.w.), the Rasool of Allah and his departure to Allah], Muslims were migrating to different places of the world with their own educational systems. They used to teach their children and other communities’ children with their own systems. Now the situation is reversed. Even the Muslim Schools and so-called Islamic Schools don’t have any (Islamic) Education System. We are building schools but never thought to develop a system, a
curriculum fit for our youth. Among several other factors and pressures, I will say that Imam Naseem’s few words on the Islamic education became a stimuli for me to research the education system, dig deep in our intellectual history and come out with an outline of a new education system for the new world. Insha Allah, if I will be successful in my project and in my endeavor, the credit will also go to him. His most favorite book on education was Fanne Taleem o Tarbiyat (The Art of Education and Training) in Urdu written by (late) Afzal Hussain, ex- secretary general of Jamaat Islami Hindi. Imam Naseem said that if anyone deserved the Noble Prize in the field of education, it was Afzal Hussain.
He mentioned several times about an encounter with a Jew who told Imam Naseem that it is part of Jewish faith that the rise of Jews of the world starts when all the non-Jewish communities of the world would become corrupted, vanished, and destroyed. Considering the Jewish leadership role in WW1, WWII, and current turmoil in the world created by Jewish/Israelist leadership, it was very disturbing for him. It was the matter of great concern that how Shaitan (Satan) successfully misguides a whole group of religious community.
I reached New York from Pakistan (after living 12 years in Karachi) in 1998. Imam Naseem was not available in New York at that time. It was easy for any group of people to convince Imam Naseem of the necessity for them in their centers or towns, and they could escort him to their place, and Imam Naseem could work for them. But sooner or later, he had to come back in his chamber of queen honeybee, the nucleus, in the field of neutrons, New York. In the last years of his life in Houston, when he was out of nucleus, he was depressed, sick, and disturbed.
However, one could say that Houston was his second home after New York.
After his new coming in 1999 from Harrisburg (where he had lived and associated with an Islamic Center. Imam Naseem also lived in Dallas and Indianapolis for a short period of time) I met him as if we had met for the first time as he had forgotten our few moments of meeting in New Delhi. He came several times for Darse Quran in the neighbor net of ICNA at the apartment at 187 Hillside Avenue, which I was sharing with Khalid Waheed at that time. Mian Mushataq of Dawn Travels, who was also living in the same building apartment, was also a great admirer of him, and he also invited us several times to his apartment and arranged his program. It was a general practice that women must participate in his arranged programs. Sisters were sitting in the bedroom while programs were held in the living room of the apartment. In these programs, sisters were asking questions in the written form. In one such program in Mian Mushtaaq’s apartment, he announced me as his natural heir of all his books. His collection of books was rich, and he had a big personal library. I was feeling pride; however I was
not sure. It was hard to succeed and became heir of his books in presence of sisters and ICNA New York’s Sisters Wing. And finally books (the library) belonged to ICNA’s sister wing.
Imam Naseem liked and loved two Urdu poets: Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Hafeez Meerathi. Hafeez Meerathi was his close friend from Meerath, India, and a dedicated Islamic worker associated with Jamaat Islami Hind. Hafeez was a revolutionary poet. His poems ignite a desire in a person to love and strive for the cause of Allah. I remembered Imam Naseem listening to a video of Hafeez Meerathi in the home of Brother Qamar Hussaini at the day of Eid. Friends and relatives of Brother Qamar Hussaini were gathered after Eid prayer. He was listening to Hafeez poems recited by the poet himself, and Imam Naseem was keeping his eyes close.
Born and raised in Punjabi Saudagran (business) family of Lucknow, India, where their ancestors have been living since British period, Imam Naseem was the only member of his family to become the member of Jamaat Islami Hind, an organization (a movement) founded by Syed Abul A’ala Mawdudi in 1940. The purpose of the Jamaah was Iqamat e Deen (establishment of Deen; the way of life of Islam in individual and collective life.). His family was so rich from the generations that in the British Period (as it was quoted by one of his relatives), when
there were only two private cars in Lucknow City, one belonged to British State Governor and one belonged to his family. After becoming a member of Jammah Islami Hind, he changed his lifestyle. Now, he, with his all resources, time, physical and intellectual capability, strived in the way of Allah and into the mission of Iqamah of deen. He learned Arabic language from Nadwahtul uloom Lucknow in his grown age, and on his own and with serious efforts. He traveled to Lahore several times, met with (late) Maulana Syed Mawdudi and stayed in his home. He was Amir of Luchnow unit and member of the Central Shura of Jamaat Islami, Hind.
He was a man of literature and had his own style of writing, particularly in humor and short story. He started a rich Urdu literary journal from Lucknow, named “Nai Naslen” (New Generations). Later the journal office was moved to Aligarh, and Brother Anjum Naeem was taking care of the journal during my stay in Aligarh.
In 1975 Prime Minister of India, (late) Indira Gandhi had imposed emergency in India and arrested all the political and social leaders and activists of the country. The arrest of Imam Naseem Ahmed of several years (emergency released in 1977) was the major blow of his running trading business. He also lost the assets of his business. In
1978, he was invited to attend ICNA annual convention, and at this occasion his friends and the leadership of ICNA asked him to stay here in the USA for Dawah and Tarbiyah work. As he didn’t have any commitment back home, he packed and finally migrated to 1979.
Several friends of mine ask a question: “Do you know anyone who migrated to the USA for any purpose other than dollars?” I can confidentially say, “Yes! His name is Imam Mohammad Naseem.” He also provided a “Fatwa” to those who migrated here only for the intention of earning livelihood: “You have a chance. You can change your intention (Niyyah) now. You will make a new Niyyah, that ‘O Allah! I am now migrating here towards you, for you, and I will work for you.’ This new Niyyah will make you an Immigrant of Islam and Deen, and you will find the same Ajar (reward) as was promised by Allah for Mohajir (immigrant) of Islam.” He was also against those people who were
physically living here but psychologically and spiritually were living in their original (back) home. “Now you migrated here, and Allah will make you accountable for this country, this society and this people and you will not be accountable for those you left behind,” Maulana Imam Nassem decreed the fatwa.
Imam Naseem made Islam easy to understand and practice. He was not Zaahide Khushk (a dry devotee). He had a never-ending smile on his face. He was like a mountain of knowledge in front of me. He was like my father, but whenever he met me, he put me on equal level. He never liked to be called “Imam,” “Sheikh,” or “Maulana.” Once he became mad at me when I called him “Maulana.” He became happy when someone called him “Brother Naseem.” It was hard for me to call an elder person “brother,” but I had no option; any other word used to call him made him mad. In American terminology, he was literally a person “down to earth.” He was more knowledgeable (Aalim) among all of us, but was most humble among us. And this “humbleness” was the proof that he was a real Aalim.
I met him for the first time in 1983 or 1984 in Delhi, where I was living after finishing my education in Aligarh. It was the first time I encountered his magnetic power. If one had a literary taste, knew his ideological background, and had a sense of history and society, one couldn’t stop laughing or smiling at every word and letter he delivered. It was an extremely strange encounter, and I realized that I never met a person like him. In this tour, he mentioned that his only concern in his family life was the search for a groom for his youngest daughter who was disabled with her legs. Khalid Sabir, married, with several children stood up and said, “If you think I can be helpful in this regard, I am ready.” Imam Naseem agreed. Khalid Sabir was lucky. He got one of the brightest girls of the Muslim community of Muslims in America. In my present visit of India and my stay of one day in New Delhi, a common friend of mine and Khalid Sabir told jokingly that Khalid Sabir of today has been known, not by his name, but by his wife’s name as she is very popular in the Muslim community, does social work, teaches Quran, and gives tarbiyah to girls and women.
On the stairs of the Jamaa Masjid, Delhi, at a planned and publicized event, Imam Naseem spoke to a congregation of Muslims. “O Muslims! If today, here, instead of me, ‘Hazrat Maulana’ Dilip Kumar was addressing you, you would find everyone from this population here to listen him, and this is your position.” (Dilip Kumar, original name Yousuf Khan, was the most popular hero of Bollywood films of 50’s and 60’s, and still he was icon of the Indian film world.)
Some of his jokes I listened from him in New York: I went to Pakistan last year and found there was no Muslim there,
according to the reports compiled by Pakistanis,” Imam Naseem said. Wherever I met any group of Muslims, they declared several other groups as Kafir (deniers of the faith and non-Muslims).” Imam Naseem explained that he had written the names of all the groups that other groups pronounced as Kaafir. “At the end, after meeting all the groups and sects, I compiled the report and came to the conclusion there was no Muslim left in Pakistan.”
In a Nikah Ceremony, at ICNA Al-Markaz Masjid in Jamaica, New York, after reciting Khutaba of Nikah, he asked the man for the acceptance. He declared his acceptance of her in his Nikah and pronounced her name as “Sister Flaan.” Imam Naseem became angry. “She is your wife; not your sister,” he shouted.
Our African American brothers and sisters and new Muslims have a habit of calling one another “brother” or “sister” all the time. One will even introduce him- or herself as “I am Brother Flaan” or “I am Sister Flaan.” My friend, a new Muslim and regular contributing writer of Muslims Weekly and now Daily Muslims New York (E-Newspaper: www.DailyMuslims.com), Yousef Drummond, has never failed to write “Brother” with his name. I failed to convince him that “Brother” is not part of his name. I tell him, “I will always call you brother, but please don’t write it with your name.” Similarly, Imam Naseem came to encounter with excessive and wrong placement of “Alhamdulillah (Thanks to God)” and “InshaAllah (God willing)” in speeches and discussions. I give you some examples. A brother said, “When I was a non-Muslim, Alhamdulillah….” One person said, “There is no guarantee of life. You can die at any moment at any time and it may be right now, Insha Allah.” You will find 13 times that “Insha Allah” in the voice mail greeting of Sister Talibah in New York
Once I experienced a miracle associated with Imam Naseem. It was a winter morning; I came to my office as usual but was depressed and shocked; there was not a single dollar in my pocket. I looked towards the roof and remembered the Urdu proverb that means, “If Allah wants to give me something, He can drop money from the roof.” Next hour, I found a small, thick pack wrapped with a rubber band under the jungle of papers on the layout computer table.
It was a couple hundred dollar bills with a small note that said, “This is a small amount of donation for your newspaper with hope that you will accept it.” There was no name written on the paper. It was definitely several months old packet, and I thanked Allah that it had not been cleaned out. This was the style of Imam Naseem. He didn’t get any chance for non-acceptance and avoid hurting the dignity of a person. It seemed that he came to my office sometime and silently left the packet on the desk.
Brother Shamim Siddiqi has written in his condolence note, “When Naseem Bhai was alive, I used to ask him to produce at least a couple of ‘Naseems’ like him before he leaves this world.” I agree that Imam Naseem failed to do so. Unfortunately, Imam Naseem didn’t have any cloning machine. The cloning is possible only to produce similar physical body, but cloning of intellect and character is not possible. There is only one method of producing more Naseems and thousands of Naseems, and the method is “the process” through Imam Naseem had gone through.
What is the Process?
Before a real “Naseem,” he was an ordinary person, a man of Duniya, like anyone in this world. But he came to know the purpose of life and this world. The rich and living literature of Syed Abul Aala Mawdudi changed his life pattern. He became a revived Muslim by reciting a fresh Shahadah to reconfirm his commitment with the full knowledge and understanding what he is committing. Then he started getting knowledge. He started building his character by studying Hadith and Seerah of Rasool of Allah and Companions of Rasool of Allah. He started studying
Arabic and Qur’an from a Madrasah so that he could understand the message and meanings of words of Allah directly from Qur’an. He involved himself in the Jammah (Islamic party) and started striving in the way of Allah collectively. He updated his knowledge and kept studying in a way that he developed his own library. This is the process. It is very simple. Anyone who will go through this process will become Imam Naseem. You can produce unlimited numbers of Imam Naseems with this simple process.
If there is a will, there is a way. Imam Naseem couldn’t change one’s will. He started Arabic class in ICNA Al-Markaz several times with 20+ students and ended in next couple of weeks with one or two regular students. The result? The disappointment of the teacher and end of the class.
But it will not be justified to see his life and achievements of Imam Naseem from the tunnel of ICNA and left his enormous work and impact on the Muslim Ummah of the USA untouched. In the prime of his life in New York, he used to attend and deliver lectures at an average of 90 a month. That means he was attending an average of three programs a day. Of course the busiest days were from Friday to Sunday. Imam Naseem left a great impact in the vibrant and emerging Muslim community of New York and Houston. He believed in the verbal and physical communication with the people, and, as I know, he never tried to write anything during his stay here in the US.
In his last days in New York, I witnessed that he was very busy in all the places in New York, including a weekly Islamic presentation in a TV show of Queens-based Cable TV. He regularly delivered Jumuah Khutaba at the Masjid inside the UN, once a month. He visited several centers and masajid of the city in all the communities, and his presence was everywhere. By interviewing 100+ close people of Imam Naseem, one could write a biography of Imam Naseem that would be a great contribution to the Islamic literature of North America.
Jawed Anwar can be reached at Jawed@DailyMuslims.com