The life and legacy of Hafiz Patel (1926-2016)
Monday, March 7th, 2016
by Riyaz Timol
Hafiz Mohammed Patel, aged 90, died on 18 February 2016. One of Britain’s most influential Muslims, he founded and headed the European branch of the Tablighi Jama’at (TJ), frequently cited as the largest movement of grassroots Muslim renewal in the world, from its headquarters in the West Yorkshire town of Dewsbury. His funeral, held in the playing fields adjacent to the Dewsbury Markaz (centre) complex, attracted thousands of mourners from across the UK and abroad.
Despite its size and ubiquity, Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) remains one of the least known Islamic movements outside the Muslim community. The reasons for this are probably twofold. First it is avowedly apolitical, focussed entirely on reinvigorating grassroots Islamic piety, which makes it a rather innocuous element of the contemporary Islamic landscape. Second, it has a reputation for keeping itself to itself which makes it difficult to access for either fieldwork or journalistic purposes.
I am in the final stages of a PhD examining the British branch of TJ from a sociological perspective. As part of my fieldwork, I was able to meet the aged Hafiz Patel on several occasions and I interviewed many people close to him. Based on the insights thus derived, I share here an overview of his life and consider his legacy for the thousands of British Muslims who today mourn him.
Hafiz Patel (1926-2016): A Biographical Sketch
Hafiz Patel was born in Gujarat, India and memorized the Qur’an at a young age. Following the 1947 partition of India, he relocated to Karachi where he taught the Qur’an and pursued an avid passion for cricket. It was a meeting with Colonel Amirudeen – a charismatic Scottish-Canadian preacher – that touched his life in a definitive way. He convinced him to spend a weekend “in the path of Allah” which was to prove life changing: Patel’s understanding of Islam was transformed and he became charged with a weighty sense of mission that animated him till death. Academic literature records that, during a pilgrimage to Mecca, the young Patel met Shaykh Muhammad Yusuf Kandhalawi, global Amir of TJ and son of its founder, who was “so impressed with his sincerity [in] the cause of Islam that he took him in front of the Ka’aba and there ‘offered supplications to Allah to make him the instrument for winning the whole of Britain to Islam.’”[i] Several respondents told me that Hafiz Patel, later in life, could sometimes be heard saying “I am the fruit of the prayer of Mawlana Yusuf.”
Upon arrival in England, Patel found work – along with many other first-generation migrants – in the factories of the northern mill towns. Meanwhile a small Gujarati Muslim community had formed in Dewsbury who were without an imam or hafiz; they had heard of Patel’s piety and passion for the religion so requested him to live among them to lead the prayers and instruct them in faith. With a dedicated base, Patel devoted himself to preserving essential religious practices among the diasporic South Asian Muslim community and acted as a key conduit for visiting da’wa groups and ulema from the subcontinent. Over the coming decades, a national network of activism gradually developed; construction of the Dewsbury TJ headquarters was completed in 1982 and, soon after, an adjacent seminary opened to train imams on British soil.[ii] The net impact of this was to contribute to the growing institutionalisation of Islam in Britain; the number of mosques, Islamic schools and madrassas mushroomed and five regional TJ headquarters – in Glasgow, Blackburn, Leicester, Birmingham and London – began their operations, each of which, to this day, attracts a minimum of several hundred Muslims to their weekly Thursday night gathering. As a result it might be asserted that while famous early British Muslims, such as Shaykh Abdullah William Henry Quilliam, are credited with introducing Islam to the British Isles, figures such as Hafiz Patel will be remembered for their diligent efforts to establish a nationwide institutional infrastructure – premised upon South Asian reformist paradigms – that allowed the faith to root itself decisively in British soil.
Tablighi Jamaat in Contemporary Britain
The basic praxis of TJ religiosity is quite simple. It involves small groups of itinerant Muslims, temporarily united under an emir, spending fixed periods of time in mosques. The basic objective is ‘self-rectification’ and group members, while out on tour, will also visit Muslims in the vicinity to invite them to the mosque. TJ’s simplicity has allowed it to flourish, quietly and without fanfare, into one of the largest grassroots movements animating the global Muslim umma today;[iii] as several researchers have pointed out, it operates on the interface of the local and the global and I have written elsewhere about the ‘modalities of expansion’ through which it operates in new socio-cultural settings. In Britain, it was Hafiz Patel who embodied for thousands of TJ adepts an emblematic motif of this ‘glocal’ activism; his tireless travel around the world filled, so it is said, over a dozen passports. Within the UK, he also oversaw a crucial process of intergenerational transmission as, from the late 80s, an increasing number of second and third generation British-born Muslims began to appropriate the legacy of his pioneering efforts – a phenomenon that my PhD examines in some detail. Yet the future of British TJ is not entirely clear. While significant segments of British Muslim youth continue to engage with the movement at some level, there are also signs that its unyielding methodology repels many others. The upper echelons of the organisational hierarchy continue to be dominated by first-generation, Urdu-speaking migrants but the rank and file of the movement are now largely British-born. Dr. Farish Noor’s study of TJ in South East Asia indicates that, after several decades, processes of indigenisation set in as TJ sheds a pupa of imported cultural customs to metamorphose into a normative form of local religiosity. It may be that this is the phase we are currently witnessing in the movement’s British context: the relevant chapter of my thesis is entitled ‘Between the Old Guard and the Avant-Garde: TJ as a Movement in Transition.’
‘A Spiritual Giant in an Age of Dwarfs’
Speaking to his followers – both ‘Old Guard’ and ‘Avant-Garde’ – it is clear that Hafiz Patel was a much-loved figure who will be sorely missed. He represented for many thousands of British Muslims a living example of a saintly ideal that most never hope to achieve in their own lives. News of his death led to a flood of tributes and reminiscences from former students and associates all of which expressed deep and heartfelt grief.
In particular, it seems he will be remembered most for several key qualities. First, his life exemplified for his followers the ideals of sincere and selfless devotion in the service of others: “Everything he did,” says one acquaintance, “was for the benefit of the umma and all humanity. He always put his own needs on the backburner.” Second, he was a man of considerable spiritual accomplishment. According to several respondents, Patel functioned as a revered Sufi Shaykh with thousands of disciples in Britain and beyond. He was also renowned for his formidable regime of personal worship, particularly his tearful nightly prayer vigils that could last several hours. Even when wheelchair bound in his final years, I was told, he did not let up. Lastly, Patel represents a paragon of single-minded dedication to a cause and his benevolent persona allowed him to unify disparate factions of British Muslims. In all this, many followers feel he is irreplaceable and his loss is deeply felt. In the words of one mourner who attended his funeral:
“Hafiz Patel was that rare breed of individual who simply cannot be replaced. He was a spiritual giant in an age of dwarfs. You can’t just pluck people of his calibre from trees; they come into being only after tremendous self-sacrifice and mujahada. We’re all impoverished by his loss and I feel orphaned. I pray that Allah protects us all in his absence.”
Patel is survived by his wife, daughter and four sons, one of whom is the principal of the theological seminary at Dewsbury.
About the author: Riyaz Timol is a doctoral candidate at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK and teaches undergraduate Islamic Studies at the University of Manchester.
[i] Sikand, Y. S. 1998. The origins and growth of the Tablighi Jamaat in Britain. Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 9(2), p. 180.
[ii] Ibid, p. 181