Habib Umar ibn Hafidh’s historic visit to Cape Town
Media interviews can be predictable things. People who are famous for being famous can hardly utter a sentence. Those who are well-known might be worth a few sound bytes; and those who are really famous might, if you’re lucky, reveal something profound.
But interviewing people such as Habib Umar ibn Hafidh, a 39thgeneration descendent of the Prophet Muhammad (s), is another matter entirely. There is no need for what we in the journalistic trade call “hooks”.
Spiritual master, co-founder of Dar ul-Mustafa University, orator, philanthropist and traveller, the 47 year-old Habib Umar is impossible to distil into the columns, or the time-frames, of your standard media interview.
Those who so inspire other human beings, especially through the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad (s) like the Habib, can never do justice to the 20-minute face-to-face encounter. You will get an opinion or two, yes, but you will only capture less than fleeting shadows of the real person.
Perhaps what I’m trying to say is best encapsulated by the Prophetic exemplar himself, Muhammad (s). This was when he commented that he was a “city of knowledge” and that his cousin, our master ‘Ali (ra), was its “gate”.
Habib Umar – one of the illustrious sons of the ancient city of Tarim in the Hadramaut – is a hereditary gatekeeper to this Prophetic “city of knowledge” through the line of Ali’s son, Hussain (ra).
And to understand something of the Habib, you have to go on a guided tour of the enchanting Prophetic city he represents; an enchanting city resplendent with its stations of the heart, its foundation stones built from pure faith and its actions based on sincere and consistent worship.
Indeed, if Rome wasn’t built in a day, how could its streets be navigated by the following sunrise? The journey of the heart towards its Creator takes a lifetime. Its paths cannot be understood via the internet, and nor can its truths be purchased in a chain store.
When I first encountered Habib Umar at his host’s house in Sea Point, I could immediately see that he was the centre of the room. “A station of light” was the only way I could describe it. Sitting on the floor (there was a comfortable settee behind him) he was consulting an electronic notebook.
For a man who’d been on the go from tahajjud (well before dawn) until midnight for several days, he was remarkably unruffled. His white thawb (under which he wore a lungi) was uncreased, and his white turban (folded in Hadramaut style) was immaculate.
If he was tired, he certainly wasn’t showing it. If anything, he seemed to be a part of the cooling Atlantic sea-breeze on that stiflingly hot Cape Town February evening.
Over the next few days I drifted in and out of his spiritual “city”. I remember him one morning discussing the effects of sound, a discussion derived from his recollection of a pious man even talking to, and honouring, his food plate.
“A stone laughs when it’s built in a place of divine remembrance. It weeps when it’s put in a place of wrongdoing,” he said, mentioning that David of the Psalms – Nabi Dawud (as) – had such a musical voice birds stopped in the air, and rivers ceased to flow just to listen to him.
Those were only a few of the inspiring aphorisms that flowed off his refined tongue. But for me, the finest moment of his brief tour was his lecture on mawlud, the celebration of the Prophet’s (s) birth.
Saying that we had been brought together through faith and love, he added that the person who held the banner of these gatherings was (his grand-father) the Prophet Muhammad (s). Circles of dhikr (remembrance) were like the meadows of heaven. And those endowed with noble qualities on the Final Day would be the people who had grazed in such meadows.
Habib Umar went on to talk about nur, or divine light. One of the honorific titles of Muhammad (s) was “seraj munira”, a shining lamp. His cousin Ibn ‘Abbas had commented that when the Prophet (s) was born the entire horizon had lit up.
“It is under this Prophetic light that we tread,” he had commented, much to the delight of the Prophet (s). Habib Umar then said that Muhammad (s) had reported three things about himself:
“I am the result of Abraham’s prayer (for Mercy); I am the glad tidings of ‘Isa, or Jesus, who predicted my coming; and I am the vision which my mother saw on her birth.”
This vision, a light that illuminated the distant castles of Syria from Mecca, was a sign of his mother Aminah’s high station, said Habib Umar. He posed the question: if scholars agreed that Muhammad’s (s) burial place in Medina was the most sacred spot on earth, what about the sanctity of his mother’s womb?
“Fill your hearing, your speech, your sight, your flesh, your hair with this Prophetic light,” he said, “no-one is better for you than the Prophet (s).”
Companions had described the Prophet (s) like the “full-moon”. The Prophetic light of mercy was a force that could not be veiled, or extinguished. So full of light was the Prophet (s) that he did not even have a shadow. And when the planetary lights would glimmer and fade, as foretold in the Qur’an, the lamp of Muhammad (s) would still shine forth.
The source of this light, said Habib Umar, was the faithful heart. Gatherings remembering the Prophet were a consequence of this light. It was passed down from generation to generation, and consequently (as Muslims) we had to pray for all human hearts to be illuminated.