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The Lantern of Cape Town: Tribute to Shaykh Seraj Hendricks

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By Ahmad Deeb

I have learned from Shaykh Seraj Hendricks by his mere presence more than I could ever articulate. Out of all the teachers I have sat with, he was the one that I knew I could go to when I was sad and confused, and I didn’t have to say anything at all, or be told anything, for me to feel better immediately. His classes we used to attend felt like a piece of paradise. I felt home while being around him.

One time I walked into his office and he had World of Warcraft on his computer as he turned from it to face me. I was too afraid to ask him. He just smiled.

I couldn’t believe it. The scholar who spent more than a decade studying in Mecca, a life long learner and one of the foremost students of one of the greatest scholars of the last century, who exuded piety, spiritual light, and love that made it hard to ever leave his side, a man committed to religious principles more than anyone, was into Warcraft.

The psychological effect of that was more powerful than any words he could’ve shared with me that day.

Because that day, I came into his office in anguish about religiosity. Living in Cape Town, I experienced a culture that I found to be uncomfortable in the beginning given my sensibilities as a student—sensibilities formed by a rigid religious understanding so perverted, absent of any wisdom, balance, or compassion. Even though I was on my way out of this ideological commitment before I arrived, I was still scarred.

I asked him: “Shaykh, what is an ideal society?”

Shaykh Seraj had a loving, playful energy whenever he taught. Yet when you were alone with him, he took any question you asked with a level of seriousness as though he himself was asking it. Never did you feel it was an easy or stupid question. In this way, he instilled in me the most essential lesson a student must learn: never be afraid to reason and think.

I explained to him my frustrations about being in Cape Town and seeing things that I felt contradicted my faith and he only listened more empathically, even as I was potentially offending his entire culture and community. He taught me a valuable lesson that day which I will never forget, and informs all of the work I do: focus on timeless principles, not utopian ideals—ones that never actually existed even in the city of the Prophet ‎ﷺ himself. There never was an “ideal Muslim” or “ideal society,” because there is no “ideal world.” Our focus is to navigate this imperfect world through an unfailing commitment to transcendental, timeless principles and helping others do so with kindness and compassion.

And yet if there was ever an ideal community, it was that blessed city, wherein I met its living saint—more than just a scholar, but an exemplary father, husband, champion of women, and a true inheritor of Prophetic wisdom and balance.

Since I arrived at my new post in Toledo, I have witnessed more funerals in one year than I have in my entire life. The first sermon I gave was on the benefits of death meditation.

If there was someone whom I knew for certain was always ready to meet God, it was Shaykh Seraj. This is a heartbreaking day for everyone except him. Because he loved God so deeply, and never showed any signs of fear as he glided through life with such joy, humour, and endless compassion. And God loves to meet those who have longed for that meeting through their every living moment. This was the lantern of Cape Town.

May his light continue to illuminate for generations to come.

Ahmad Deeb is the imam and Director of Religious Affairs at Islamic Center of Greater Toledo.

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