A long Umar in the path of sacred knowledge
Al-Sayyid Imam ‘Abdullah bin ‘Alawi al-Haddad [Allah be pleased with him] was once asked, ‘O Shaykh, who is a Sufi?’ The Imam pointed to Imam Ahmad bin Zain al-Hibshi [who spent 40 years under Imam al-Haddad] and replied ‘He is a Sufi’.
An ‘Alim, scholar, student and role model, brother Umar Kemp has been a student and muridof the Zawia institute in Walmer Estate for 90 years. Umar entered the Zawia at the age of 6 years old, in the year 1925 and grew up in front of the founder of the institute, Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks. Shaykh Muhammad Salih was born in Swellendam and was recruited by the great grandfather of the late Sayyid Muhammad bin Alawi al-Maliki al-Hasani, Sayyid ‘Abdul Aziz al-Maliki to Makkah at the age of 12 years and remained there for some 18 years. On completion of his studies in Makkah, he left for Zanzibar where he was appointed assistant Judge [Qadi]before departing to the Cape in July 1903. In 1920 he successfully established the Zawiain Walmer estate.
Some 2 years after entering the Zawia, Umar tells us that his father asked Shaykh Muhammad Salih if he could study under him regularly to which the Shaykh replied, “Your journey here will be for your entire life”. Umar’s experience with the Grand Shaykh of the Zawia is a story of wonders. According to an interview I was privileged to conduct, Umar says he spent up to 20 years with the Shaykh. His love and reverence for the people of knowledge, especially his mentor and first Shaykh is awe inspiring. He tells us of how he would aim to carry the Shaykhs shoes and place them on his feet after completion of a lecture. Umar was blessed at a young age to be introduced to the works of Imam al-Shafi’i, Imam al-Ghazali, Imam al-Haddad and a host of traditional texts.
As a student who spent approximately 10 years at the Zawia, I marveled at this man, this true seeker of knowledge who, at 96 years of age, came to class every Monday and Thursday evening with his note book, dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. After 90 years of studies, the humility pours forth as I often hear the echoing of his words, “I am not a Shaykh, I know nothing, I am merely a student of the Shaykhs”.
With the passing of the old Shaykh, Muhammad Salih, Umar found himself with the next generation or scholars, namely, the late Shaykh Mahdi Hendricks, Shaykh Mujahid Hendricks and Shaykh Ebrahim Hendricks [all sons of Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks]. Umar’s deep sense of love and respect towards his new found Shaykhs was not something he had to learn to adapt to as they walked the exact same path as their father, that being the Ghazalian road. Shaykh Mahdi, after being interviewed during the latter part of his life by Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, mentioned that he had just completed his 20threading of the Ihya ‘ulum al-din of Imam al-Ghazali.
Umar drank from these streams of knowledge, all leading to Imam al-Ghazali and from him to the Prophet [peace be upon him].
It is worth noting that Shaykh Muhammad Salih studied with the foremost of scholars including Sayyid Ahmad Dahlan, Sayyid ‘Abbas al-Maliki, Sayyid Bakri Shatta al-Makki and Sayyid Abdurahman al-Hibshi while his sons spent many years with luminaries including Shaykh Bakr Bab Sayl, Shaykh Umar Ba Junaid, Sayyid ‘Abbas al-Maliki and Shaykh Amin Kutbi.
These mentioned scholars are the inheritors of the Prophetic adab and the inheritor in Cape Town is none other than our beloved Umar Kemp. Today, at 96 years of age, he sits with humility in the most dignified manner under the grandsons of the late Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks, namely, Shaykh Seraj and Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks, who are the current Shaykhs at the Zawia. The legacy continues as the current Shaykhs, besides being top graduates from the Umm al-Qura University in Makkah, spent almost a decade with the late Sayyid Muhammd bin Alawi al-Maliki at the Sayyids Zawia in Makkah.
Umar’s love for the ‘ulama and the beloved of Allah [peace be upon him] is brought into practice every year as he has, for over 3 decades, opened the annual Mawlud ceremony at the Zawia. One of most admirable traits in this vessel of scared knowledge is that he never complains about the past. He never speaks in the negative regarding Apartheid, oppression and hatred but rather constantly encourages with goodness, love, clemency and adab.
I asked Cape Town’s Sean Connery aka Shafiq Morton what he thought about brother Umar and he left me with these words, “What I always remember is his gentle courtesy, his good-naturedness, his humility, his firm handshake and his respect for the family. What amazes me is that every Thursday night he sits in class with us, listening quietly to the third generation of Azzawia ‘ulama. He has more decades of learning than I’ve been alive!”
A gentleman, role model and a true seeker of knowledge, Umar kemp is 96 years old and with his phenomenal memory and accurate reports from the previous generations of ‘ulama, we ask Allah to keep him with us for many more years to come Insha-Allah.
By Muhammad Allie Khalfe
Cape Town, South Africa