‘The good die first, and they whose hearts are dry as summer dust, burn to the socket.’ (Wordsworth)
Dressed in a Saharanpuri kurta pajama, clad in an Aligarh style sherwani, topped by a five-pointed long hat of an earlier Thana Bawan style, a young man in his mid-thirties, with a scholarly face and spectacles on nose sat on the raised cushion. Two students were sitting on the floor facing him. It was 1994. The teacher was Mufti Abu Zafar, and I was one of the students. Before him was Ibn Hājib’s al-Kāfiya fi al-Naḥw.
He began his explanation of the opening words:
الكلمة لفظ وضع لمعنى مفردًا…
He examined the words in the sentence sufficiently enough to break it down into its various clauses. Then, taking the clauses one at a time, he broke down each clause, and examined more closely the individual words in it and, in the case of nouns, pronouns, adjectives and verbs, their word forms. He explained alternate grammatical possibilities and the implication this had on the various purport of the meanings. All this was done faithfully, efficiently and speedily, coupled with a humorous interaction with the students. This was my first lesson.
As I look back to the time spent with him, I recollect how his presence was spiritually uplifting, and, quite simply, enjoyable. He didn’t teach; he infused. He didn’t bombard us with information; he imbibed a thirst for knowledge, a zeal for learning and a development of character. His lessons forced us to concentrate and focus; to exhaust the use of memory; to analyse, deduce and problem-solve; to draw the powers of attention to detail, of diligence and perseverance, of observation, of imagination, of judgement and of taste.
Many people knew him as a Mufti, and in this regard, they sought his expertise in matters of fiqh. But to me, he was much more. He imbibed me with a love of Arabic literature, grammar and rhetoric; an appreciation of kalam theology, Aristotelian logic and scholastic philosophy.
He taught me various texts, which include:
Mirqāt fī al-Mantiq
Al-Ashbāh wa al-Naẓāir
He saw my passion for the scholastic writing of Qasim Nanotwi and would steer my reading and encourage me to read works of classical kalām and logic. He told me to read the works of Baḥrul Ulūm, especially his commentary of Muhibbullah Bihari’s Sullam; ʿAḍudīn al-īji’s al-Mawāqif with its various commentaries and supra-commentaries. He told me to read and re-read Marghināni’s al-Hidāyah and Kasāni’s al-Badāiʿ wa al-Ṣanāiʿ; to develop further my appreciation of Arabic literature he told me to frequently revisit the Sabʿa Muʿallaqāt and the poetry of Mutanabbi. He was of the opinion that Quran translation should only be taught after one has grasped the appreciation and taste of classical Arabic literature: pre-Islamic, Umayyad and Abbasid styles of writing. He believed that the beauty of the Quranic miracle can only be realised once this has been achieved.
He rarely spoke about himself, but I did manage to quiz him about his formative years, and, at times, he would succumb to my strategic interrogation.
He was of mixed race – his father was from Chittagong (Bangladesh) and his mother from Saharanpur (India). His father lived over a hundred years and was a student, disciple and khalifah of Maulana Asghar Husain – a khalifah of Haji Imdadullah.
Initially, Mufti Abu Zafar himself was spiritually connected to his teacher and the former rector of Deoband, Qari Tayyib sahib. Thereafter, he formed a spiritual alliance with Maulana Abrarul Haq of Hardoi; and finally, he was connected to Maulana Ahmad Shafi of Hathazar in Bangladesh.
He has left an indelible mark upon me, that I now see myself, as a ‘side-effect’ of his teaching, appreciating history, geography, law, religion and culture.
The Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and give him peace, stated that two people who love each other for sake of Allah shall be under His shade. It is this love for him – for Allah’s sake – that I believe will carry me through life and a means of salvation in the hereafter.
‘Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,
Nor bends with the remover to remove.
Oh no! It is an ever-fixed mark
that looks on tempests and is never shaken.’
As I paid my final respects at his funeral, the sky rent asunder. At first it rained, and then, gradually it turned to hail. And despite a few impatient brethren troubled by the rain, the funeral was serene, sombre and tranquil. He is no longer with us, but his memory, students and teaching lives on. May Allah have mercy on his soul.