Zainul Abedin, the scholar who showed world changing fortunes of Muslim minorities

Mir Ayood Ali Khan

“There is one thing I would like you to remember. Protect your izzat (honour) all the time.  We do not have much money. But the one thing we always had is izzat. This is the only thing your parents have earned and cared for.”

This was the nasihat (instruction) given to Syed Zainul Abedin Saheb when he was leaving for the U.S. for higher studies. He was going on a scholarship.

His family was from Delhi. When he finished his education in Delhi, like most of his contemporaries he chose to go to Aligarh Muslim University.

During his days at the AMU, he suffered fall from a horseback. That changed his life. His backbone had fractured.  For months he could not get up or do anything on his own.  No medicine worked. No doctor could come up with a treatment.

The one thing that triggered in him after that fall was strengthening his resolve. It turned into steel, never to bend under pressure. He decided that he would do something extraordinary in life.

After getting tired of the treatment after treatment he resorted to his own ways of remedy.  He used to sit in a bathtub with lukewarm water every day.  After a few days he could feel that the pain has begun to recede. A little later he could stand up on his own.  Still some time later, he began to walk again, though with bent over back. As luck would have it, he had to walk the rest of life with a hunch. He could never stand straight. People thought he had a hunch from his birth and many of them would make nasty remarks. He stopped reacting to the negative comments. The accident could bend his back but not his resolve to become an extraordinary human being. He began to empathise with people who were mistreated by their fellow humans, socio-political situations, systems of governance and the governments as such. Even as he was working on his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania he began showing interest in the situations of Muslims who were living as minorities in numerous countries. In fact, his own country of birth, India, had the largest number of Muslims after Indonesia and Pakistan.

While he was working on a variety of things in the U.S., the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was going through a renaissance, thanks to the discovery of oil in the 1940s.

In Jeddah, there emerged a person Dr Abdullah Omar Naseef who felt that he should gather the best brains from across the world to work on projects that would help the Muslims across the world. It was a big dream.

As he started working on his dream, Dr Naseef gathered around him experts and people with commitment around him for various purposes.

One of the persons he invited to join him was Dr Syed Zainul Abedin, an expert in English literature with additional interest in the conditions of Muslim minorities.

I met for the first time Abedin Saheb, father of well-known Indian-American political activist and writer Huma Abedin, in Jeddah at the end of 1981. I was on my first visit to Jeddah. I was returning after performing Umra (minor pilgrimage) to Makkah.

Huma Abedin

I and my late friend Omar Khalidi had started from Riyadh. Before returning to Riyadh we decided to stop over in Jeddah for a day or two. Omar wanted to meet at least two friends of his father Dr Nejatullah Siddiqui and Dr Syed Zainul Abedin. With their background in social and community works as well as expertise in their respective fields—Islamic Economics and English literature and Muslim Minority Affairs—I became an instant follower without ever revealing what I thought of them.

I joined Saudi Gazette formally at the end of February 1982 as Reporter/Sub-Editor.

Soon after settling down in Jeddah I began to frequenting Zain saheb. When he realised that I was doing well with the Gazette, he began opening up with me on the work he was doing.

At that point of time there was the struggle of Eritreans for a separate State. The people there wanted break free from Ethiopia and become master of their own destiny. That finally happened in May 1993. The first president of that country was Isaias Afwerki whom I interviewed in Asmara on the second or third day of taking office.

There was also the uprising between the Moro Muslims mainly represented by Moro National Liberation Front and the government of the Philippines. The Chairman/President of the MNLF was a frequent visitor to the Kingdom.  I used to meet him often.

During my frequent visits to Zain Saheb, I tried getting into his head on issues that were relatively new to me while he was an expert on them.

I was taken by surprise when one day during the mid-eighties he invited me to his home to discuss something important.  I found him in a somber mood. He said he would be visiting India to take stock of the situation there. The issue of Babri Masjid after the opening of the locks was hotting up. He wanted to know my understanding of the evolving situation in India. He also wanted me to tell him frankly whom all he should meet and what questions could be asked.  He knew that I was keenly following the developments with Babri Mosque as a point of reference. He told me that Atal Bihari Vajpayee was on the top of his list.  I gave him the names of a few senior officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs.

I came away with the feeling that the government of Saudi Arabia was trying to play a role in resolving the crisis that had emerged in the name of Babri Masjid.  I also felt that Dr Abdullah Omar Naseef was behind these peace making moves.  The government of India was willing to cooperate, though absolutely unofficially, with Dr Naseef, hence the visit of Zain Saheb.

He returned happy from that trip and briefed me about whom all he met and what all he discussed.  He had a feeling that the crisis could be resolved amicably.

But it was not to be. The rest is a sour part of modern Indian history.

After his return from India I interviewed Zain saheb formally for Saudi Gazette on various issues with some focus on Babri Masjid initiative. He copied my interview from the Gazette and published it his own Journal of Minority Affairs.

His end came too soon and too sudden.  After a brief illness he passed away in 1993.  He was laid to rest in Jannatul Mualla, the old and highly sought after cemetery in Makkah. About a hundred people had gathered to bid goodbye to the scholar who had shown the Muslims that the conflicts too could be written about without creating acrimony or hatred among the people and the governments.
Personally, I felt that I lost a teacher, a guide, a guru and a murshid.

Mir Ayoob Ali Khan is a seasoned journalist who has worked with the Times of India, Deccan Chronicle and Saudi Gazette.

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