Sayed Mutawalli ad-Darsh, imam: born Kafila, Egypt 26 December 1930; married 1964 (two sons, two daughters); died Cairo 25 September 1997.
British Muslims approach the millennium without the leadership of one of their most loved, respected and capable leaders. Besides being an extremely learned, respected and accessible ulema (scholar), Sayed ad-Darsh was a pioneer, a practical leader who always seemed to attain that fine balance between idealism and pragmatism.
He stood head and shoulders above most of the riff-raff who pass as Muslim leaders in Britain today in his humility, compassion and brand of Islam: an Islam based on tolerance, understanding and relevancy. Ever courteous, he was the Muslim woman's ideal imam: he listened and explained; and he was both patient and firm.
There are over a thousand imams in Britain today, but few will achieve the level of understanding, and the insight into community affairs and issues that he managed. Those who knew him were inspired by his self-effacement and his genuine eagerness to learn more about what makes the community tick (and not tick).
Ad-Darsh came to Britain in December 1971 to take up the post of Imam at the Islamic Cultural Centre, Regent's Park Mosque. Aged only 41, he had however already had an illustrious career which included a two-year stint in Lagos, Nigeria and being head of the foreign and missionary department at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the Islamic world's oldest and most influential university.
A diploma in English language acquired at Dundee University a few years earlier made him better equipped than most of his colleagues to perform his duties. By the time he left the centre in 1980 he had already secured a reputation, particularly among second-generation British Muslims, as a leading 'alim ("scholar") who knew what it was all about.
Ad-Darsh believed in and worked towards establishing a British Muslim community. He was particularly fond of the young, the newly converted and women. In them he saw the challenge of building a new community of believers based on the pristine teachings of the faith. And they loved him for his non-judgmental approach and deep sense of affection.
For ad-Darsh everybody mattered. He never hesitated to reach out and touch the lives of hundreds of people in a meaningful and memorable way. His sense of humour and expression of humanity changed forever the image of an imam as perpetuated in our local mosques.
But the most unique feature of ad-Darsh was the way he treated women and encouraged their spiritual and intellectual development. Women found him always eager to exchange ideas and comprehend their situation before issuing the appropriate fatwas ("edicts"). His work with the An Nisa Women's Society, for instance, exemplified the wisdom, commitment and trail-blazing nature of his work.
Four years ago I approached him to request his participatation in a seminar on sexual abuse within the Muslim commnunity. It was a measure of the intimacy of our relationship that I even dared to broach the subject with a man of his standing in the community. Shaykh ad-Darsh listened visibly shocked at what we had to say. He asked for proof. We gave him some. He asked for more. We gave him more. "Give me time to think about this," he said.
A few days later, sounding distressed, he rang and agreed for the seminar to take place. This was the first of a series of seminars we did with him which dealt with such wide-ranging issues as fostering and adoption, youth and drugs.
Whether it was a wedding or a prize-giving ceremony in our supplementary school ad-Darsh was always there: supporting and caring - like a guardian angel. Among his legacy is a corpus of information which he made available through his columns in several publications and broadcasts, but particularly those published in English in the magazine Q-News.
The scope of the issues he tackled is remarkable, as was the tone and simplicity of the message. But in a community characterised by machismo and the lack of effective communication, Sayed ad-Darsh will be remembered more for his compassion and humanity.He was the unique bridge that brought traditional Islamic sciences to the services of contemporary British Muslims.
- Humera Khan
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