The South African sheikh who preached empathy and self-worth

Sheikh Seraj Hendricks recently passed away from Covid-19, but in his lifetime he was a source of wisdom for many - Muslim and non-Muslim alike

caption: Shaykh Seraj Hassan Hendricks, renowned Muslim scholar of South Africa
Credit: Shafiq Morton
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Last month, a renowned Muslim scholar of South Africa, Sheikh Seraj Hassan Hendricks, was laid to rest a few metres from his father, uncles and grandfather in a Capetonian cemetery.

The grandfather, Sheikh Muhammad Salih Hendricks, was the first of three generations of Hendricks to travel from the southern-most tip of Africa to Makkah, in order to study with sages and scholars of the Islamic tradition. Sheikh Seraj, who died at the age of 64 due to complications arising from a Covid-19 infection, had entered the annals of history.

The port area stands beyond commercial high-rise properties in Cape Town, South Africa, on Thursday, July 23, 2020. South Africa’s surging coronavirus infections and the resumption of rolling blackouts are clouding the outlook for the economy. Photographer: Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg
Sheikh Seraj recently passed away from complications caused by Covid-19 in his hometown of Cape Town, South Africa (pictured). Bloomberg

Sheikh Seraj’s grandfather, Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks, had grown up in a South Africa that had banned slavery only a few decades earlier. His grandson grew up during apartheid, a system Sheikh Seraj Hendricks detested. As a young man, he supported the United Democratic Front, a collective of anti-apartheid groups; and as a student, he was one of the key figures of the famous Purple Rain March in Cape town in 1989. Still in his 20s, and temporarily back home from his studies in the holy city of Makkah, Sheikh Seraj was arrested and imprisoned for a time due to his commitment against injustice.

When he finally returned from more than a decade of study in Makkah under luminaries such as Sayyid Muhammad bin Alawi Al Maliki, Sheikh Seraj gradually became well known and prolific internationally for his erudition and scholarship.

When I first met him more than a decade ago in Cape Town, I was struck by how this gentle scholar welcomed not only the religious but also the irreligious into his mix, and reminded everyone of their self-worth. Whether you were a man or woman, young or old, Muslim or non-Muslim, Sheikh Seraj was a figure of not only great knowledge, but great empathy.

A sharp academic, who took a masters degree from the University of South Africa after returning from Makkah, Sheikh Seraj served during his life as the head of the Muslim Judicial Council’s Fatwa Committee. This often led to him being described as the "Mufti of Cape Town". He was also a lecturer at the Islamic College of Southern Africa and the University of Johannesburg, as well as being listed consecutively in the “Muslim 500”, an annual ranking of influential Muslims published by Jordan's Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, from 2009 to 2020.

Whether you were a man or woman, young or old, Muslim or non-Muslim, Sheikh Seraj was a figure of not only great knowledge, but great empathy

His calling was to be an educator and one of the inheritors of the mantle of Azzawia, the teaching centre that his grandfather had founded in 1920, precisely a century ago. Azzawia’s role and standing in the community meant being non-partisan, but it did not mean being apolitical.

Anyone who listened to Sheikh Seraj’s sermons and classes at Azzawia knew very well his stance against autocracy, authoritarianism and injustice. The young man had become a sheikh – but age hadn’t displaced his principles. At a time when different forces in Muslim communities worldwide try to use religious figures as instruments for partisan political gain, Sheikh Seraj showed another model.

His stubborn commitment to speaking in favour of one’s principles was partly gleaned from Sheikh Seraj’s own upbringing in Cape Town, but also from when he went away to study. Sayyid Muhammad bin Alawi Al Maliki himself was imprisoned by the authorities in Saudi Arabia at the time because of his pledge to uphold mainstream Sunnism that had characterised the Hijaz for so long. That meant the schools of jurisprudence, the different approaches to theology, and Sufism.

Hajj pilgrims symbolically stone the devil in Mina

Hajj pilgrims symbolically stone the devil in Mina

Shaykh Seraj spent more than a decade in Makkah with some of the world’s pre-eminent Islamic scholars of the 20th century, alongside earning a bachelor’s degree from Umm Al Qurra University, before returning to South Africa. He and his brother, the esteemed Sheikh Ahmad Hendricks, became the recognised representatives of Sayyid Muhammad bin Alawi Al Maliki.

Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks was known for providing special classes for women at Azzawia when it was founded in the early 20th century – and Sheikh Seraj continued that tradition of empowerment throughout his time as a sheikh of Azzawia and taught thousands of female students, encouraging men and women equally to reach various levels of expertise.

In this day and age, one often hears the complaint that religious leaders are out of touch, lacking knowledge about the contemporary age on the one hand or used by powerful figures to do their bidding.

There is truth in those criticisms, but there are also examples of principled and ethical engagement. Sheikh Seraj’s depth in his tradition and wide-ranging expertise meant he was, as his close friend and confidante, Shafiq Morton, put it, a man for all people, showing an encyclopaedic knowledge that was rooted in tradition, while completely conversant with the modern age. Sheikh Seraj Hendricks was a religious figure who exemplified wisdom and a concern for the well-being of all, while rejecting the instrumentalisation of religion for parochial aggrandisement. We, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, need many more like him.

Dr H A Hellyer is senior associate fellow of the Royal Institute (RUSI, UK) and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the US