The 300 years of Islam in South Africa have seen the influence of Sheikh Yusuf Macasari dominate the first century with the establishment of Islam on these shores. The next hundred years felt the influence of Tuan Guru who saw to the establishment of the first Masjid and Madresa in SA. And the next century was overwhelmingly dominated by the works and sacrifice of Moulana Cassim Sema, the founder of the first Darul Uloom in SA(possibly the first Darul Uloom teaching through the medium of English in the world), who also had an immense role to play in establishing the work of Tableegh as well as Da’wah among non-Muslims.
Moulana Sema was a visionary, an extraordinarily dedicated man, who served Islam till his last days. This short dedication to this hero of Islam can never do justice to his legacy and I will suffice with but a few facts, for to write of all his work will require many pages.
Moulana Cassim Mohammed Sema was born on 12 May 1920 in Newcastle, KwaZulu Natal. At the age of five he started his Islamic and secular studies, schooling at Oswalds School in Newcastle. Due to Apartheid laws which restricted Indians from academic qualifications, he finished standard six (grade eight). His first Islamic tutor was Moulana Hafiz Shams-al-Din who taught in Newcastle for three years before returning to India. During this time, Moulana learnt to read the Qur’aan as well as Urdu. Another early teacher was Hafiz Ikram-al-Din of India. By the age of nine, Moulana Sema was singled out to recite Qur’aan when guests arrived at the Madresa where he was a student. Moulana Sema began the memorisation of the Qur’aan by Hafiz Amin al-Din Uthmani of India completing seven chapters under him. Among Moulana’s other early teachers were Hajee Abd-al-Sattar, Hafiz Patel and Moulana Ali Ahmed Ansari, a graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband. Under him Moulana memorised another two chapters of the Qur’aan.
By now a young man, Moulana Sema was very punctual with his prayers and showed an intense desire for knowledge. He started teaching younger members of the family. Moulana Mia of the Watervaal Institute was an inspiration to Moulana when he visited Newcastle in 1935 and encouraged the community to study Islam. Moulana Mia advised Moulana Sema to either study medicine or go abroad to become an Aalim. Moulana chose Islam and left for India on 23 October 1935. He enrolled at Jamiah Islamiyah Dhabel, an Islamic institution in Gujarat, India. Moulana entered the Aalim Faadhil course learning Persian, Arabic, Qur’aan and Hadith among a host of other subjects. Among his teachers were Moulana Yusuf Binnori, Moulana Badre Aalam, Moulana Nazim Nadwi and Moulana Amrohi rahimahumullah.
Moulana Sema qualified in September/October 1942 at the age of 22. He decided to return to SA where a teaching post awaited him in Mia’s Farm. Unfortunately, World War II broke out and passenger ships stopped operating due to Japanese attacks. Due to demand, a steamboat called the Tilaawa was arranged to take passengers to Africa. On 23 Novemeber 1942 it left Bombay with 1,000 passengers and 300 crew. En route it was attacked by Japanese torpedoes and sank. Moulana and 124 passengers only survived. They were taken back to Bombay. Moulana was then employed by Majlis-e-Ilmi in Simlak, where he was engaged in academic work on Athaar-al-Sunan by Allamah Nimwi. Moulana spent a year in Simlak preparing his own meals and sometimes led Salaah in the Masjid.
Moulana went to meet the founder of the work of Tableegh, Moulana Ilyaas rahimahullah. (Moulana Sema was said to be the last person in South Africa alive who had seen Moulana Ilyaas personally). Moulana Sema then visited Darul Uloom Deoband. He spent Ramadaan with his teacher of Tajweed and the person by whom he had completed Hifzul Qur’aan in 1941, Moulana Qari Mohammed Yaamin. Moulana met Sheikhul Hadith Moulana Zakariyya rahimahullah in Saharanpur. Moulana Sema left India in 1944 and arrived in SA on 5 February 1944. Moulana Sema was warmly welcomed at Glencoe before he arrived in Newcastle. He was heartbroken that his mother had passed away in 1941 while he was studying. Moulana Sema got several job offers but he accepted the offer from the Wasbank Muslim community. Moulana Sema taught in Wasbank and took two years to formulate a Madreas syllabus, the first in SA for the afternoon Madresa.
Moulana Sema got married on 30 September 1945 to Apa Sakina Bibi. Moulana has four sons and one daughter from this marriage: Imran, Luqman, Zakariyya, Mohammed and Maryam. Apa Sakina passed away in 1998. Moulana Sema then got married in 1998 to Wedadt Breda of Cape Town and a daughter Qudsiyyah was born in 2003.
In 1949, Moulana Sema started propagation work among the Black communities in Msinga Reserve. Over 10 years, 900 people in Msinga reverted to Islam. On 30 October 1960 the first Da’wah Ijtima was held in Wasbank. A Masjid and Madresa was built in the Makhakhane area. Moulana Sema was in the first Tableegh Jamaat with Haji Bhai Padia. In 1961 Moulana Sema went with a Jamaat to Malawi for the first Southern Africa Ijtima. Moulana Sema sahib was instrumental in organising the first SA Ijtima at Ladysmith in 1961. A few months later he went in the first SA Jamaat to go to India for four months. On return, Moulana Sema sahib was arrested in Makhakhane Masjid under Apartheid laws which did not let Indians go into Black areas. Moulana was fined and for ten years he fought for Makhakhane Masjid which the government wanted destroyed. Throughout, Da’wah continued in secret as well as night Madresa classes. Then a Masjid was established in Tugela Ferry which the government also wanted demolished. With the Help of Allah, this Masjid survived and stands till today. Moulana Sema, despite the oppressive laws of Apartheid, regularly preached Islam in Msinga Reserve.
After 23 years of service in Wasbank, Moulana Sema returned to Newcastle in 1968 as Principal of the Madresa and head of the Newcastle Muslim Community. He lectured every Friday in Urdu, and this gradually changed to English as the younger generation grew up. In 1967, the Jamiatul Ulama Natal met to choose a single Madresa syllabus for the Province. Moulana Sema’s syllabus was chosen which he designed while teaching in Wasbank. This was the first time that a well-structured syllabus was produced for the Madresas. Moulana Sema spent a year in the service of the Jamiatul Ulama. He then set up a furniture factory shop in Alcockspruit near Newcastle but this had to close due to new industrial laws. Moulana Sema then spent a few months as Principal and Imam of Glencoe while negotiations for the Darul Uloom land were finalised.
Moulana Sema had tried since 1946 to establish an Islamic institution with boarding facilities. In 1969 the St Dominics Academy (a Roman Catholic Convent laying vacant for 15 years) was bought for R83,000 after immense effort on the path of Moulana Sema to try and get the finance. The Darul Uloom in Newcastle, the first in SA and possibly the first using the English medium in the world, was officially opened on 13 May 1973. Moulana Sema decided to go to India and Pakistan for 40 days Jamaat before starting in the Darul Uloom. He was unable to get a booking so left for Jeddah via London where he met the Jamaat. He then went with them to Pakistan. Moulana Sema sahib met his former lecturer Moulana Yusuf Binnouri and Moulana Sema asked him to devise a syllabus for the Newcastle Darul Uloom. Moulana then went to India and the Tableegh headquarters before visiting Darul Uloom Deoband and returning home. Classes officially began on 9 September 1973 with 9 boarding students. For the first three years Moulana Sema taught alone while his late wife Apa Sakina cooked the student’s food and did their laundry. Moulana Mansoorul Haq was the first foreign teacher to be brought in 1975. This was the first time a teacherwas allowed to come from India since 1950 to teach in local Madresas or be Imam. About 46 teachers have taught in the Darul Uloom over its history including Mufti Abdul Kader Hoosain of Channel Islam. Currently Hifz and a six year Aalim course are offered. Today more than 40% of the students are foreigners from countries like Malawi, Somalia, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Egypt. Students have also come from USA, UK, Canada, Malaysia, Australia, Mauritius and Lebanon. The first Jalsa was held on 4 December 1977. The first batch of students qualified in the 3-year course on offer then. In 1983 the first students qualified in the new 6-year Aalim course. 284 Huffaaz qualified 1975-2005. 373 Aalim students qualified 1983-2005.
This glorious sun that was Moulana Sema set on the 9 June 2007. Moulana left this world, leaving behind a legacy of Islam in SA that is unparalleled. His funeral was attended by almost 4,000 people from all over SA, including senior Ulama and students. Moulana was 87 years old and a measure of his acceptance is that he was still teaching in this, his last year of his life. His wife mentions that he only ever missed three Juma in his life, owing to sickness or some other excuse. A measure of his extreme humility which engendered total loyalty and love for him by his students and colleagues was that he accepted invitations from even the poorest of his students, eating in their humble homes. Without a shadow of doubt Moulana Sema was one of the greatest Ulama of SA, a visionary and the Mujaddid (reformer) of the third century of Islam in SA. He was in some way or the other involved in establishing many of the great movements for the preservation and spread of Islam in SA: The Tableegh Jamaat, the Jamiatul Ulama Natal, madresas, Da’wah to non-Muslims, the Darul Uoom, teaching Hadith and Qur’aan in English, the first translation of the Qur’aan into Zulu, the now famous Tableegh Ijtimas and a myriad other works of Islam. It can be truthfully said that no corner of SA has not felt the warmth of this sun’s rays in some way or the other. May Allah reward Hazrat Moulana Cassim Mohammed Sema on behalf of the Muslims of South Africa and the world. He was a true heir of the Sahaaba and the Prophets dedicating a lifetime to the religion of Islam. May you go well, O Soldier of Islam. Definitely, a sun has set, an era has ended, a chill has crept in, many are the orphans that have lost a father and a friend.