Archive for September, 2019

In Memoriam: Amatul Haseeb of Dehli, Karachi and Lahore (c. 1928-2019)

September 7, 2019

Grave of Amatul-Haseeb, Bait-ur-Rehmat cemetery, Lahore, Jumma 6th Muharram 1441, Friday 6th September 2019. Photo (c) Abdullah Qazi

Grave of Amatul-Haseeb, Bait-ur-Rehmat cemetery, Lahore, c. 12th Rabi’ al-Awwal 1441, Sunday 10th November 2019

“Whoever biographs a believer, it is as though he has brought him or her back to life.”
(man arrakha mu’minan fa ka’annama ahyahu) – Imam Sakhawi

[I would extend the above phrase to biographing any person.]


Bismillah.  I write this after helping with the funeral prayers & burial of my mum’s mum (Nani Ammi), Amatul-Haseeb (servant/slave of the Reckoner), of the Ahl-e-Hadees families of Dehli (Delhi): Shah Waliullah of Delhi (Dehli) is the most famous name in our intellectual, scholarly and spiritual lineage.  Her father-in-law was Mawlana Yunus Qureshi, nephew of Mawlana Ahmadullah, student of Sayyid Nadheer Husain of Dehli. She outlived her husband, Mawlana Zubair Qureshi, by approximately 50 years, living as a pious, ascetic widow devoted to God and then to family.

Dada Abba and Nani Ammi

When our Dada Abba or paternal grandfather departed a decade ago, leaving Nani Ammi as our only surviving grandparent, my sister Hafsa observed that Nani Ammi didn’t have the public limelight that Dada Abba had (he had served as a senior Islamic scholar in India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), but that she was an unsung heroine who quietly lived her saintly life.

[A mathematical interlude]

According to the famous hadith, the most special people in the world, in order, are: Mum, Mum, Mum, Dad. Here is some mathematical analysis – I would be grateful for other mathematical insights into this kind of calculation: there is a unity of knowledge, so there should be no problem mixing mathematics and hadith.

If we use simple arithmetic, the relative importance is: Mum 3, Dad 1. Or as fractions converted to percentages:

Mum 75%, Dad 25%

Multiplying to grandparents, we get:

Mum’s Mum: 9 (56%)

Mum’s Dad: 3 (19%)

Dad’s Mum: 3 (19%)

Dad’s Dad: 1 (6%)

TOTAL: 16 (100%)

If we use exponents, what happens?

[Answers on a postcard or in the comments below, please: I don’t have time to do the math(s) right now.]

Nani Ammi the Qur’an-teacher

I have been honoured to accompany my mum on her last two trips to Lahore – to see our Nani Ammi alive for the last time in the Spring, with my brother Mujahid, and now to participate in her funeral and burial.  My sisters Khola and Hafsa visited her last year along with their husbands.

I didn’t know that Nani Ammi had been a Qur’an teacher: she had taught my mum and her three sisters and brother, and completed that career by the time of my earliest memories of her in Karachi: devoted to prayer, reading the Qur’an and domestic duties as a widow with young children. So she is the grandteacher of the hundreds of Mum’s Qur’an students, including myself and my siblings.  She only lost her own mum about 24 years ago, after attending a wedding in the UK.

Karachi: Dehli Colony & North Nazimabad

Dehli Colony in Karachi was literally a small town of people transplanted from Dehli after Partition in 1947: entire families living in one room, clay pots for cooking and storing water, simple sewage systems, house doors that remained open throughout the day guarded by a curtain, and daily life revolving around the five daily prayers at the mosque, with the boys playing cricket and even football between the late afternoon and sunset prayers, when it was much cooler.

In North Nazimabad, one of my abiding memories of her was breaking down the huge blocks of ice that we bought a couple of days a week from the ice-seller: a huge block covered in matting, and wheeled through the streets on a cart, in the days before refrigerators. She would break the ice into small pieces so they could fit into the water cooler using a little chisel, although we as naughty kids would eat most of these ice pieces.  She would also encourage us to observe the five daily prayers in the mosque as far as possible, and to do our daily Qur’an study.  Being woken up for the dawn prayer by the prodding of her bony fingers was tough love!

Visiting the UK

Nani Ammi visited the UK several times, attending most of her grandchildren’s weddings there.  She clearly felt like a fish out of water in the UK.  She also gently rebuked me once for spending too much time in front of the television!

Dehli again, and the comparison of the Partitions of India (1947) & Palestine (1948)

During my year in Pakistan in 2002-3 (as Visiting Associate Professor at NUST, the National University of Sciences & Technology, in Rawalpindi-Islamabad), I was obviously more aware of the history of the region.  I realised that Nani Ammi must have been a teenager or about 20 when partition happened (I’m still trying to confirm her year of birth).  I asked her, “Do you remember Dehli much?”  Her reply astonished me: “I think about Dehli every day! It was such a lovely place and a nice life.” This was after approximately 56 years in exile from Dehli in Karachi!  My yearning for Dehli grew that day, and I often think about the parallels between the Partition of India in 1947 and that of Palestine in 1948.

(Azzam Tamimi once said in a public talk at Cambridge University, when I shared a panel with him in the early 2000s, that he would not stop struggling until “he was able to return to his grandmother’s house in Beersheba” and I wondered whether we Dehlawis or Dehli-origin people would be justified in applying the same logic to our grandmothers’ houses in Dehli.)

The end

Her final, bedridden year has been very tough on all the family.  During our last visits, Dr. Liaquat Ali had been able to help on medical aspects, whilst Shaharuddin applied his photography expertise to take stunning photos of our aged grandmother. During my visit in April, I thought the best thing I could do was to recite her beloved Qur’an to her loudly, because she had become quite hard of hearing.  My brother Hafiz Dr Mujahid was able to help on medical aspects as well as recite the Qur’an to her!

Back in April, I recited from Surah al-Baqarah (The Heifer, 2) to her one day.  We were leaving Lahore on the Friday night, and I had a meeting planned with Prof. Suheyl Umar in the afternoon/evening before our flight to Karachi.  So I resolved to recite Surah al-Kahf (The Cave, 18) to her on the Friday morning before Jumma (Friday congregational) prayers, as per traditional practice. I sat beside her and asked if I could recite the Qur’an to her.  “Yes,” she said, “recite Surah Ya Sin (Y.S., 36).” Traditional Muslim practice is to recite this surah over dying or deceased people.  Freaked out, and not in the mood to recite Surah Ya Sin over my beloved grandmother, I said, “Nani Ammi, I would like to recite Surat-ul-Kahf to you because it is Jumma.”  “Aaj Jumma hai? (Is it Jumma today?)” she asked, because of course she had lost track of time, and deeply regretted not being able to pray according to the natural cycles of day and night.

I replied that yes, it was Jumma, and recited the first few verses (ayat) of Surat-ul-Kahf to her.  I paused to check that she could hear me all right? “I can hear you,” she replied, “but you’re reading it wrong. Recite Surah Ya Sin!” I was now overruled, and duly recited Surah Ya Sin to her.  Her last words to me were, “You recite the Qur’an very well. May God forgive all your sins and bless your wife and children!”  I will obviously treasure those words for the rest of my life.

She breathed her last in the company of her only son, our uncle, on Thursday 5th Muharram 1441 / 5th September 2019.  A few days earlier, Mum had had a vivid dream where Nani Ammi came to hug her goodbye, although Mum couldn’t feel the flesh and bones of her Mum.

When we arrived this morning, Mum embraced the walls of the room where Nani Ammi had spent her final year, the room now being bare after her death, in the way pilgrims embrace the walls of the Ka’bah in Mecca.  The bare room did remind me of the inside of the Ka’bah (I’ve been there aged 11, as a guest of the Saudis, may God guide us and them – for all their faults, they have served the Holy Places of Mecca and Medina well, at least outwardly.) It now has chairs for the guests arriving for condolences.

I reflected that this was appropriate, because the House of God in Mecca is a symbol of the House of God in the heart, and in the Islamic tradition, after God, Mum is number one, being the reflection and manifestation par excellence of Divine Mercy.

Mum later prayed in that room.  For those who understand such realities: on a spiritual level, Mum was praying inside the Ka’bah (trust me: I’ve been there, at least outwardly).

The local mosque imam led her funeral prayer – family wanted me to lead, but I preferred to defer to authority, otherwise the imam becomes redundant if family members always lead the funeral prayer.  The imam offered the prayer in the traditional Hanafi style, with her body outside the mosque on a small verandah, and no women inside the mosque.  Just as we finished, Mum and some aunties and female cousins arrived, so I led them in another funeral prayer, taking the opportunity to follow an Ahl-e-Hadith method based on sound hadiths, for over the past quarter-century, some brothers and sisters in the West have tried to replace salafi straitjackets with medieval-madhhabi straitjackets that are just as bad or even worse. This salafi method allows women at the prayer and inside the mosque, reciting the funeral prayer loudly as well as recitation after the Fatiha, based on an authentic expression of the Sunnah, one amongst many.  The verses I chose were Surat al-Ikhlas (Sincerity, 112), preceded by the last four verses of Surat al-Fajr (Dawn, 89:27-30) that are especially appropriate because they are addressed to the feminine (soul), so the final verses recited over her in prayer were:

O contented soul! 

Return to your Lord, pleasing and pleased with.

Enter amongst My servants:

Yea, enter My Garden!

In the Name of God, Most Merciful, All-Merciful

Say: He [or It] is God, One!

God, the Source of All!

Not giving birth, not being born:

Nothing equal to Him: No-One!


[These verses often form epitaphs over Muslim graves, including that of my wife’s beloved aunt, Mrs. Anjum Manazir Ahsan in the Muslim section of the Saffron Lane cemetery in Leicester, UK.]

Mum had led the washing of her mum’s body, along with two of her sisters. The ambulance had sped Nani Ammi’s to the local mosque for the funeral prayer, with its flashing light and siren.  Now, the men took over and we accompanied Nani Ammi to the graveyard. One of my relatives commented that the noise of the siren was a little disrespectful to the dead, but upon reflection, I thought it was appropriate: after a 90-year-lifetime serving others ahead of herself, it was entirely appropriate now that people of the blessed city of Lahore were making way for her and that she was speeding towards the cemetery, reminding everyone in the way of the inevitable reality of death.  (The speed is from the Islamic tradition of hastening burial.)

We buried her between the late afternoon (‘asr) and sunset (maghrib) prayers at the Bait-ur-Rehmat (House of Mercy) graveyard in Lahore.

[Note to fellow students: I haven’t Arabised this to Bayt al-Rahmah as I would have done in the past: we Indian Muslims with ancestry including Arabs, Persians and Turks, did not overthrow British colonial rule in order to be re-colonised by Arabs! We speak Urdu, Hindi, Bengali and other local languages that have strong Arabic influences but are not pure Arabic, so let’s please stop pretending to be Arabs, especially given the appalling racism faced by our people in parts of the Arab world, though not all. End of rant.]

The skies were clear, and the first-quarter moon shone at its zenith overhead as the sun set and the call to sunset prayer was chanted from the adjacent mosque, indicating the first week of Muharram and the new Islamic year, reckoning time and dates appropriately for her name, Amat-ul-Haseeb (Servant/Slave of the Reckoner).

[An astronomical interlude]

The sun reaches its zenith daily at midday or noon.  The moon’s zenith depends on its phase:

New moon: same as the sun, although invisible.

First quarter: zenith at sunset [as with the timing of Nani Ammi’s burial.  There will be a mystical symbolism to this, but I haven’t been able to reflect on it yet.]

Full moon: zenith at midnight

Last quarter: zenith at sunrise.

The Bait-ur-Rehmat [House of Mercy] cemetery, Lahore

The appropriately-named cemetery is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, with lots of trees, including palm trees, dotted around the graves, providing much shade and coolness.  We know from the science that the bodies of the deceased are literally recycled to life in the trees and plants that grow in the soil. Until today, I had thought that woodland burials, where trees grow out of the graves, were unique to the West, but this is clearly not the case!

I can honestly say that in over 40 years, I cannot recall even a single unkind word from Nani Ammi.

Nani Ammi is survived by her son and four daughters, approximately 20-25 grandchildren and approximately 40 great-grandchildren. May we too be blessed with some of her light, Amin.

A Fitting Poem

And in a nod to some of her blessed great-grandchildren in London: last month our sons bought us an anniversary present.  (I’m old-fashioned and prefer not to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, preferring communal celebrations only such as Eid, although there is of course goodness too in the Western individualism of celebrating birthdays, such as valuing individuals.)  It was the BBC publication, The Nation’s Favourite Poems, edited with an introduction by Griff Rhys-Jones.  The BBC conducted a poll and published the top 100 British people’s poems.  But the editor included a brilliant poem in the introduction that did not make the top 100.  It’s the only one I’ve read so far in the collection, and so it was waiting for Nani Ammi:

Do not stand at my grave and weep:
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

(c) Usama Hasan

Lahore, Pakistan.

7th Muharram 1441 / 7th September 2019 [updated 8/1/41, 8/9/19, 10/11/19 – Remembrance Sunday & the Prophet’s Birthday]

Grave of Amatul-Haseeb before burial, Bait-ur-Rehmat cemetery, Lahore, Jumma 6th Muharram 1441, Friday 6th September 2019. Photo (c) Abdullah Qazi

Brown Hawk over Lahore sunset, taken from the balcony opposite Amatul-Haseeb’s room, 4th April 2019, five months before her departure from this world. Photo: (c) Usama Hasan


Wohaib Hasan [6/9/19]: Her patt [sheets of caramelised nuts] was legendary, but it’s the poverty of Delhi Colony that will always be my recollection of her. The one time Mum came unannounced, there was nothing to eat at home aside from daal chawal [rice & lentils]. But Naani’s mother, sitting on her throne (bed) always in white as everyone else paid their respects, totally a scene from Pakeezah. Jum’ah days were the highlight of the week, we would always have her lamb salan [curry] after the prayers with roti, fresh off her tawa. And she taught us to read the Quran, yes, we learnt from our Mum but she is the one I remember guiding me through the qaida [Qur’anic Arabic primer, and nothing to do with Al-Qaida]. In those early days she wore the white shuttlecock burka to be replaced with the black one as time passed. But, I’ll always remember the rickshaw rides with her, the wind blowing in my face, the scent of Karachi, and her leaning forward as she shouted directions to the driver. But yes, our uncle was her favourite, and her saying his name in that scoldy fashion will be my enduring memory of her.

Hafsa Hasan [7/9/19]: Just as an aside, I did go back to her house in Delhi that you mentioned, well, as close as I could … The lane behind the mosque in Chandni Chowk directly opposite the Red Fort & mosque complex. The houses are all a jumble of famous bazaars now and the atmosphere… if you can imagine at the foot of the greatest Mughal buildings ever built: My one year of studying Mughal history at SOAS made so much sense …

Khola Hasan [7/9/19]: Read her reflections here.