Dr Abdussabour Shahin (1928-2010)
While hastily turning the pages of the Kuwaiti magazine Al-Mujtama’ last week, a familiar face stopped me — it was the image of my and millions’ dear teacher Dr Abdussabour Shahin but the news printed along the photograph was shocking: he died on 26 September and was buried in Cairo next day after the funeral prayer at his beloved ‘Amr Ibn Al-’Aas mosque, Egypt's first mosque built after the Islamic conquest. He had delivered Friday sermons in this very mosque for years until stopped by the authorities.
Dr Abdussabour was one of the greatest names in the contemporary Middle East — a teacher, philosopher and linguist. Author of over 70 books, some multi-volume, he was a familiar face on Arabic channels and in Islamic conferences. He was professor of linguistics in Cairo University's Darul Uloom College and taught in a number of Arab universities on deputation. He was elected to the Majlis Shoura, the upper house of Egyptian parliament. But the exceptional honour he received was to be the Imam Jumu'ah of ‘Amr ibn Al-’Aas mosque where great personalities, like Shaikh Muhammad Al-Ghazali, had traditionally delivered the Friday sermon attended by tens of thousands of people who used to travel to that mosque from various corners of Cairo and nearby Giza. He was a master of French language too and translated many books of the Algerian thinker Malek Bennabi as well as the epoch-making book of Abdullah Draz on morals in Islam.
I consider him my real teacher in life. Although I studied in Darul Uloom, but he did not teach me there as he taught in the Arabic department while I was in the department of Islamic history. I had wanted to translate my father's book, ‘Ilm-e Jadeed ka challenge and asked the great ‘alim Shaikh Abdullatif Draz who was a former Vice Chancellor of Al-Azhar and treated me like his son. His suggestion was to go to Dr Abdussabour Shahin as he was the best person for this job. He at once phoned Dr Shahin who, in turn, readily agreed. This was in the early days of 1968. Next, I went to see him with the translation of a few pages of the book. He did not like the translation but liked the content. His disapproval of my translation was repeated again and again and I used to tell him that next day I will bring a better translation. His pet reply was: 'No, it will be the same again'. Then he used to ask me to explain to him reading the original and he himself used to write those lines. Thus, we continued this onerous task for perhaps eight or nine months with barely a page or so completed in a day. I used to go to him every evening by trolley bus all the way from Abbasia to his flat on the Qasr al-’Aini Street — a distance of may be 45 minutes each way, spend two-three hours with him and then return to my hostel by around midnight. Thus the book was completed. He soon went to teach in Kuwait University and took the manuscript with him. Soon, the book was published in best possible way titled Al-Islam Yatahadda which made waves in the Arab world and still continues to do four decades later. It helped thwart the secular and westernisation onslaught and paved the way for Islamic revival in the Middle East.
I soon left Cairo for Libya and from there moved to UK but kept in touch with my teacher who taught me what Arabic is. If I know any amount of Arabic writing, perhaps the best in the Subcontinent, the credit goes to him alone. He was very particular about words and expressions. He was a brave, fearless and highly eloquent Muslim thinker who did not shy away from expressing himself in most difficult situations. I last saw him last year in Makkah during the Dialogue Conference held by King Abdullah. He looked frail, yet attentive and loving as ever. He embraced me, saying "Habibi" – my dear… That was the last time I saw him. May Allah fill his grave with light and award him for his services to Islam and Muslims who will remember him for long.