The passing of Rafi Sharif

The passing of Rafi Sharif March 10, 2006


Another dear friend has passed.

Last August, I blogged about the shocking and poignant demise of Marian, a friend and the wife of a close family friend of mine, Rafi Sharif.  (Note: I've since added the text from the Baltimore Sun's beautiful article on the sad occasion to the end of that post.)

It's with a heavy heart that I report Rafi's passing last Thursday, ironically on my birthday.  Inna lillah wa innaa ilayhi rajioon.  To God we belong and to Him we return.

Rafi's health had not been very good since his transplant last year.  Despite debilitating medications and increasing complications, he kept on fighting, though.  I believe it was concern for his 12 year-old daughter Anya, who is now orphaned subhan Allah, that kept him going this long.

A week before his passing, his liver began to fail him and he was rushed to the hospital.  Doctors quickly determined that there was nothing else to be done and that his death was imminent. He quickly slipped into a coma.

I got the news a few days after his hospitalization and went up to Baltimore see him on Wednesday afternoon.  It was a painful sight–though I suppose is also a healthy reminder of the ephemerality of this life–to see my friend, normally a dynamo of activity, enthusiasm and lively conversation, unconscious and breathing fitfully through a tube.

I got word of his passing from one of his sons the next morning.

The janaza (Islamic funeral) was held on Sunday morning in Sykesville, MD.  An open memorial service followed in which an amazingly diverse group of people from all walks of life, faith traditions, and communities gathered to mourn his passing.  The diversity of the gathering provided fleeting glimpses of Rafi's incredibly rich life and background.  Rafi's world was like an onion, with each layer improbably as fascinating and unique as the last.

In addition to the diversity in his own family–his children are all white American Muslims, and his brother is an orthodox Jew (Rafi's family is Jewish)–there were Muslims from several communities and tariqas he'd been associated with over the years, Hindus (his wife was a member of the Guru Maya community), Christians, Jews and others. 

This being Rafi, there were representatives of a number of organizations, as well.  The American Foreign Legion held a moving memorial ceremony.  As did the local Masonic lodge (it turns out that Rafi was a 32nd degree).  A representative of the Boys Scouts of America also paid tribute to Rafi, who was major volunteer and senior executive for the Scouts.

To my great honor, Rafi had requested that I be one of the speakers at his service.

I didn't know where to begin or end, so I tried to kept my comments short.  I explained how he was an old family friend who'd embraced Islam at more or less the same time as my father did in the late 1950s and that my father was heartbroken to hear of Rafi's passing and that he wished he could be there to express his condolences in person. 

I shared my gratitude for having gotten to know him better over the last decade since I moved to the mid-Atlantic area for college and then with my settling in DC, and how his home was always an oasis of peace and joy for me.

I then tried to provide a few examples of the rich life he'd led, his great wisdom and compassion, and his amazing vitality and his infectious love of life.  I explained how visiting him was always an adventure that led to some new treasure. You always left his company pondering some fascinating (and entirely unsuspected) anecdote about his life or a trenchant and enlightening observation about Islam, Sufism, or sprituality in general. 

I also mentioned his vitality and love of life.  An ex-Marine (as is my father, another common point between them), Rafi was always seeking new knowledge and organizing things.  Whenever I or his other friends visited him, he was planning a new project or initiative.  Whether it was his most recent project, investigating the historical links that he believed to exist between the Lithuanian Karaite Jews  from which he was descended and Islamic culture, or his organizing a local chapter of the Star Trek Marine Corps a decade ago when I was in college, he was *always* hard at work on some unexpected and intriguing project.

He embraced Islam in the late 1950s, but back then everything about Islam in America was complicated.  Despite his skin color, he became actively involved in the Moorish Science Temple–the forerunner to the Nation of Islam–and then the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam (i.e., the Qadianis).  In the late 1980s, he left the Qadianis and joined the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement, which contrary to popular belief is very different from the more numerous Qadiani group (Lahori Ahmadis believe in the Finality of Prophethood and are doctrinally "Sunni" on all essential questions of aqida; this is a fact even Maulana Maudoodi acknowledged, though good luck getting the Jamaat to admit that today).  While he didn't like labels and was not of a dogmatic or sectarian bent, I think it's fair to say he died a Lahore Ahmadi Muslim.

Sorry for making you spill your chai. 

There was nothing particularly unorthodox about his beliefs, though.  He'd always worked with mainstream Sunni Muslims (e.g., members of his local Naqshabandi tariqah attended his janazah) and was a lifelong student of Sufism.  While he was probably more ecumenically minded and accepting of other religious traditions than many Muslims–including myself in some ways–his core beliefs were the same as the rest of us.

You see, Rafi embraced Islam lonnnnnnggggggg before Islam and Muslims were on the map in American life.  Long before there were mosques or what we'd call a community today.  In fact, he converted before most Muslims were even thinking of doing organized dawah in America (e.g., the Tablighi Jamaat hadn't arrived in the United Kingdom, much less America, until the late 1950s).  During the 1950s much of the Muslim world was in the throes of various forms of Secularism (e.g., Arab Nationalism under Nasser). 

Back then the little dawah there was in America wasn't be being done by ISNA types (who in many cases, weren't "ISNA types" in the 1950s, anyway).  During that era, a LOT of dawah in the West  was being done by Ahmadis (both Qadiani and Lahori, while simutaneously fighting each other over the question of Prophethood).  For example, a full one-third of the testimonials in the famous "Islam Our Choice" book of conversion stories during the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s that you see all around the world actually referred to the efforts of Lahori Ahmadi missionaries.  That is, before they were censored by mullahs. 

Yes, the dreaded, despised Ahmadis.  There's no getting around that. 

That's how Rafi found Islam.  It's how my father did, as well.   (As chance would have it, turned against Qadianism at about the same time as Rafi, in the late 1980s.) 

The Nation of Islam got its first exposure to Islam through Ahmadis– in Message to a Black Man, Elijah Muhammad mentions debating with an Ahmadi missionary in Chicago whom he ironically viewed as trying to impose Islamic orthodoxy on him — and it continued to rely on them for religious literature and teaching well into the 1970s.  Sceptical?  Go pick up a copy of NOI's The Final Call newspaper (along with a bean pie, of course) and look in its book catalog section.  You'll see that even today they sell Maulana Muhammad Ali's (a Lahore Ahmadi) translation of the Quran.  And it's not just those wacky NOIers:  Even W.D. Muhammad's community has publicly acknowledged its debt to the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement (about 6-7 years ago, they issued a series of commemorative plaques on their community's "pioneers"; along with Malcolm, Elijah Muhammad, Sister Clara Muhammad was "Master Abdullah Gee", a Lahore Ahmadi missionary from Chicago).

[Update:  These days, we all love to invoke the glories of Malcolm X's heyday, but how many of us know that whenever Brother Malcolm or Elijah Muhammad held up a Quran in those days, it was the Lahori translation?  Remember, Yusuf Ali's translation didn't become commonplace until the Saudis started distributing it.  Until then, the most influential translation by a Muslim was that of Maulana Muhammad Ali.  How many of us know that Muhammad Ali (the boxer) was so grateful to the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement that while on a visit to Pakistan in the 1970s he made a large donation to the group?]

Why am I talking about this stuff?  Because the standard Muslim (and especially desi) sectarian hangups and oversimplifications fall apart when you look at Rafi's life (and the experiences of many early African-American Muslims, for that matter).   If you project simple, black & white categories of many contemporary foreign-born American Muslims' onto his life–or, when you really get down to it, American Islam in general–you won't understand a blessed thing.  Also,whereever one's doctrinal sensbilities lay, there's no denying that he was involved in some fascinating developments in American and Muslim life. 

He defied categorization.    I mean, Rafi, a white man of Jewish descent, was a senior leader in the Moorish Science Temple in the 1950s and 1960s.   (See for yourself.  The Wikipedia entry on this group even mentions him by name.  )  Rafi was in the trenches helping to lay the foundations of American Islam long before most us were born (or got off the boat).   For that, he deserves our respect.

And the stories he'd tell! To say that he had led a complicated life is a bit of an understatement. 

He touched so many people from all walks of life and all communities.  As one speaker put it, he truly was a "seeker", and he gave so much to those around him.  May he be rewarded with the highest Jannat.

Please pray for his 12 year-old daughter, Anya, who is now an orphan.

Update (2006-03-09):  Should probably note that I am not endorsing the Moorish Movement or Qadianism.   In the case of the Moors, I don't know enough about them them to have an opinion.   Didn't know they still existed, to be honest.

In the case of Qadianism, I do have strong convictions and reject their beliefs about prophethood and khilifah.  I do not believe in engaging in takfir against them, however, especially given how many Qadianis aren't even fully aware of the Qadiani doctrines.  Nor do I support their persecution in the name of Islamic purity (often by zealots who are in the least position to preach about piety).  Some, probably many, are just normal Muslims who happened to be born on the fringe of the Muslim community.

As for Lahori Ahmadis, like many past scholars (i.e., from before scapegoating Ahmadis became the Pakistani national sport and this subject became so politicized as to make fair debate impossible), I consider them normal Muslims.  Not because I like them, but because they are by traditional criteria.   Interestingly, I've heard a number of prominent American Muslim leaders and thinkers challenge the demonization of the Lahoris in recent years, especially those who know the history of Islam's spread in Europe and America (e.g., Lahori Ahmadis founded the first mosque in the UK (Woking) and in Europe (Berlin)). 

What a lot of us don't realize today, in this cerebral era when everybody is talking about reforming Islam, is there was a time not so long ago when the Lahoris (and, to a lesser extent IMO, the Qadianis, due to their hierarchy and surprisingly rigid gender norms) were, whatever you think of them, among the few Muslim groups in America where you could have serious discussions about ijtihad and reform without fear of being burned at the stake.

An example:  A lot of reform-minded English-speaking Muslims today swear by the Muhammad Asad translation of the Quran, and for good reason, in my opinion.  CAIR's even distributing it now (something unthinkable not too long ago).  Well, the Lahoris have been distributing a comparably, dare I say it, progressive (and, in my opinion, more useful in terms of advocating reform due to its copious footnotes) translation of the Quran by Maulana Muhammad Ali for 90 years. 

Ninety years.   Think about that.  Many mainstream Muslims are only now opening their minds to these questions and allowing serious debate, yet many of these important and long overdue Islamic principles were being advocated by these terrible heretics since before World War I.  It's funny how a lot of the the critics of these supposed kafirs are now embracing many of their ideas (e.g., the Ahmadi interpretation of jihad as being self-defensive was long held up as a sign of them being cowardly colonial stooges–I've even seen mullahs argue that this was a sign that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a homosexual–but lo and behold it's now mainstream, even among some Islamists).

Thankfully, these questions of scholarly reform are no longer verboten in the mainstream Muslim community.  Things have come a long way.  Today, advocating reform, at least in the abstract, is mainstream;  organizations like Zaytuna and Nawawi packing halls with for discussions of Islamic reform;  Muslim groups  hosting discussions of  books like Progressive Muslims: On Gender, Justice and Pluralism; etc etc.

But this intellectual opening in American Islam is a recent development.

This anecdotal evidence, but I think it illustrates how things used to be.  As recently as in  the mid-1980s, a Sunni imam in Boston took my dad aside after juma and asked him in a low voice if he could get him some books by Maulana Muhammad Ali, the Lahoris' greatest scholar and a major contributor to early English-language materials on Islam.  He wanted a copy of the Maulana's monumental, and then out of print, The Religion of Islam, which even even after half a century compares very favorably in my opinion with current English language works on fiqh (at its publication in the late 1930s Alama Muhammad Iqbal praised this book highly, saying it was "almost indispensable to a student of Islam"). 

Unlike today, when you can walk into a Borders have find an amazing range of high quality literature on Islam in English, back then very little of substance had been written in English on Islam, and what little there was sure wasn't being promoted or distributed by the powers that  were in the Muslim community (instead, we were often treated to predictable and reactionary tracts from the Bin Baz's and Bilal Philip's of the world).  So that poor Sunni imam had so few options that he had to resort to the literature of a group that had recently been declared heretics.

For the longest time, the literature promoted by and the range of permissible debate allowed within major American Islamic orgs was suffocatingly narrow.  Think about it:  If even a strict conservative and traditionally trained  scholar like Sh. Nuh Hah Mim Keller could be denied legitimacy by the Salafized establishment for being a "deviant" Sufi, what hope was there for normal Muslims who interested in inherently controversial topics such as  ijtihad, women's rights, and the like? Where could they go to discuss these matters freely?
[Note:  I'm not saying the North American establishment is "Salafized" today, a la the sensationalistic rhetoric of Islamophobes like Stephen Schwartz or Daniel Pipes, who think everybody except Irshad Manji is a Salafi.  I think there  once would have been some truth to such charges vis-a-vis major institutions, but Salafi ideological dominance of Islamic organizations is a thing of the past.  More debate is still needed–e.g., I'd like to see more Shiah-Sunni dialogue–but there's no denying that Islamic organizations are now much more inclusive than in the past.]

Finally, I'm not trying to promote any group.  I'm just pointing out how inconsistent and unfair so much of this prejudice is.  Normally, I avoid discussing this topic for obvious reasons (e.g., the way most Pakistanis froth at the mouth at the merest mention of this topic), but I felt obligated to comment on the elephant of anti-Ahmadi hatred in the room when discussing  Rafi's amazing life.


In the interests of full disclosure, like Rafi, in my younger years–i.e., about a decade ago–I used to be quite active in the Lahori community and used to get into all sorts of debate with Qadianis and mullahs on the Internet (though I was always advocating what is basically a Sunni interpretation of Ahmadiyya and Islam), but my beliefs have evolved over the years.  I am now just a simple Muslim trying to figure things out like everybody else and who is "agnostic" on matters of eschatology (which is what the Ahmadiyya controversy is really about–how ahadith concerning the Last Days are to be interpreted). 

I respect Lahori Ahmadis as Muslims and still agree with them on some issues  (e.g., I don't believe in eternal hell, or that Hazrat Isa was raised bodily into the Heavens–the Arabic is quite open to interpretation here; I don't accept the common literal readings of the ahadith on the Last Days, believing them to be meant figuratively in many cases; none of these interpretations are unique to Ahmadis, though), but I am not an Ahmadi.  I have great respect for Mirza Ghulam Ahmad–as did many of his contemporaries, an inconvenient fact that has been airbrushed out of history by the mullahs hellbent on demonizing him–but I am not convinced he was the Mahdi etc.. 

There are things I agree with Shiahs on, as well, for that matter, but I'm certainly not a Shiah. And the same applies even to Wahhabis.

[BTW, the plot thickened recently whenAl-Azhar endorsed a number of key Lahori publications, such as Maulana Muhammad Ali's The Religion of Islam, Muhammad the Prophet, his translation of the Quran sharif, etc..  I'm sure a lot of people in the Ahmadi persecution business are gnashing their teeth over that development.]

But I will say this much:  Based on the evidence, I don't believe he claimed to be a prophet.   

A lot of people don't realize that there are two readings of MGA's writings on prophethood:  the Lahori and the Qadiani one.  The Lahoris, who split off from the Qadianis in 1914 when their leader claimed MGA  to be a prophet, have always forcefully argued that he never intended to claim prophethood and that language clearly meant to be taken figuratively (and which he said was meant thus) was misinterpreted, sometimes willfully, by his opponents,  a reading that I think explains more of the facts than the conventional Qadiani/Mullah narrative (ironically, on this matter, Qadianis and Mullahs agree 100%) that he subscribed to the Sunni view of prophethood on the question for most of his life and then suddenly realized he was (nauzoobillah)  a prophet in 1909 with the publication of Aik Ghalati ka Izala

Again, I'm not saying I believe he was Mahdi or Messiah.  I'm just noting that I don't accept the prevailing reading of his life (i.e., that he advocated a heretical view of prophethood).  The facts seem far more complicated than that to me.  When you have two competing theories, you must choose one or the other, and after spending much of my life struggling with these questions I find the Lahori arguments on this historical question more convincing.

Also, even if one rejects his claims one is forced to admit that he and his followers have been the victim of an incredibly vicious defamation campaign for decades, and that anti-Ahmadi hysteria has been exploited by the worst elements of many Muslim societies to impose their agenda on those around them.

So there you have it: I'm a Sunni Muslim.  I believe in the Finality of Prophethood.  I'm not an Ahmadi (not that there is a conflict between the preceding traits, at least in the case of the Lahoris).  But I don't do takfir against Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Lahore Ahmadis, or even Qadianis.

While I'm at it I might as well note that many of these anti-Ahmadi crusaders are quite simply vermin–bigoted liars who trample on the principles of Islam to pursue a cowardly, demagoguic vendetta against a powerless, misunderstood, pacifist minority. Such sectarian zealots truly are a fitna within Muslim socieites, and they're steadily destroying Pakistan before our eyes.

I also think that many of these mullahs ought to be sending Ahmadis checks every month, as without the Ahmadi bogey man these redneck losers would be flipping burgers somewhere instead of leading a "movement".  Without Ahmadis to demonize and persecute, most of them would be unknown non-entities.  Quite literally.  Read a bit of their vacuous, conspiracy theory-packed and often barely coherent "literature" to see what I mean.    (I find it intriguing how you rarely see serious scholars involved in anti-Ahmadi polemics.  Real scholars have more important things to do than weave conspiracy theories about some Jewish-Ahmadi-British-Indian-Martian plot against Islam.)

Of course, those who consider hatred of Ahmadis to be part of the Kalimah* will consider my disassociation insufficient.  They'll consider me the religious equivalent of a "Nigger-lover" because I don't play ball with their persecution campaigns.    Which makes sense, as that's exactly the way many of these Ahmadi-bashers think.  I'd say that they talk about Ahmadis just as Klansmen do Jews and Blacks, but the problem is that the anti-Ahmadi rhetoric common in Pakistan and tolerated in many Muslim circles makes those KKK attacks seem restrained and genteel. (When's the last time you heard a Klansman call for a lynching? It's a regular occurence in Pakistan in the case of Ahmadis–Mullahs in Pakistan regularly and these sick calls get acted upon, too.)

In Pakistan today, this is literally true, I'm afraid, as if you want to be legally categorized as a Muslim on your passport or other official documents you must sign a statement categorically declaring all Ahmadis, whether Lahori or Qadiani, kafirs. Otherwise, you, too, are a "kafir."]

There.  I've said something for the record.  Have been meaning to do so for a while, as this question periodically pops up (usually when some hardliner is threatened by something I say and feels the need to discredit me).

Back to our regularly scheduled programming.  Discussing this topic is so draining, as it's pretty much a lose-lose proposition given the ignorance and/or hatred that prevails in much of the community. To "leaders" in the Ahmadi-demonization cottage industry–which wields surprisingly great influence among South Asian Muslims, and whose over-the-top rhetoric is rarely challenged by non-desi Muslims, either–anything nothing short of baying for Ahmadi blood will suffice.

Update (2006-05-14):
Came across this fascinating observation in an article on the history of Islamic activism in America (Khalid Fattah Griggs, "Islamic Party in North America:  A Quiet Storm of Political Activism" in Muslim Minorities in the West:  visible and invisible, Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Jane Smith eds.)

On notable exception to the unofficial maxim that immigrant Muslims refrain from giving Dawah…to African Americans was the heterodox group known as the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam. […] When [Mirza Ghulam] Ahmad died 1908, many of his followers dispersed through the world as missionaries, reaching the east and west coasts of Africa in 1916.

The Ahmadiyyas were prolific publishers of materials on Islam, such as prayer books, and are credited with widely distributing the first English translation of the Qur'an. 
[Unfortunately, the author omits an interesting and important detail.  The translation in question was not a Qadiani publication, but rather that of the Lahori Ahmadi scholar Maulana Muhammad Ali.  Muhammad Ali published the first edition of his translation over a decade before that of Yusuf Ali, and even with its publication Yusuf Ali's translation did not attain comparable prominence until the Saudis began to distribute it
half a century later. And Muhammad Ali's translation has received accolades  for its scholarship from many respected Sunni scholars over the last century, as well–the claim that the Ummah has always been united in rejecting it is patently false historical revisionism. -Svend ] […]

In Daud Salahuddin's opinion, there was "only one process for an African American to become Muslim during the 1940s and 1950s; the Ahmadiyyah Movement.  If you were not an Ahmadiyya, you were nothing.  There was not a Sunni presence to be found in our community (African American).  If you were fortunate enough to be able to find a Muslim prayer book, you had better believe that it was produced by the Ahmadiyyas.  There were very few books on Islam available in English at that time.  Mostly, our Islamic literature consisted of mimeographed pages with blurry ink.  English Qur'ans were few and far between, and were mostly found in the occult or spiritual bookshops." 
[BTW, I think a comparable, albeit less categorical, statement can be made about the prominence of Ahmadis for Western dawah in general (i.e., not just among blacks) during this period.  Just take a look at how many early conversion accounts refer to Ahmadi missionaries and books  (in these cases , Lahoris, btw) in the famous Islam: Our Choice compilation.  For such a miniscule group to be cited in a third of its testimonials tells you something about their prominence in dawah during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.   But such inconvenient facts are airbrushed out of history by many Muslim scholars more interested in demonizing Ahmadis than providing scholarship that is honest and rigorous.   -Svend]

While Daud Salahuddin's observations were not intended to be all-encompassing, they do, nevertheless, capture the tenor of the time concerning the "Islamic" presence existing in close proximity to African Americans, and the dire need for a systematic presentation of Al-Islam to blacks in the United States."

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