Obituary: Hafiz Patel (1926-2016) – A Spiritual Giant in an Age of Dwarfs 28 February 2016
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, 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 complex, attracted thousands of mourners from across the UK and abroad.
I am in the final stages of a PhD examining the British branch of the Tablighi Jama’at (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 gleaned I present here a brief biographical sketch of the man as well as a window into what he represented to the thousands of Muslims who today mourn him.
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. The 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. Yet when a foreman threatened to sack him for taking time off to offer his Friday prayers, he retorted with “I sack you” and left for the Midlands. 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 headquarters was completed in 1982 and, soon after, an adjacent seminary opened to train imams on British soil.[ii] In later decades Patel concentrated on consolidating and expanding an international network of Islamic activism touching tens of thousands of lives in the process; his frequent travel around the world filled, so it is said, over a dozen passports. From the late 80s a crucial process of intergenerational transmission commenced in which 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. While famous early British Muslims, such as Shaykh Abdullah William 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 that allowed the faith to root itself decisively in British soil.
Speaking to his followers, it seems he is remembered most for several key qualities. First his life exemplified for them the ideals of sincere and selfless devotion in the service of others: “Everything he did,” says one follower, “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 (struggle). 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.
[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