By Iqbal Jassat – Chairman, Media Review Network

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The Late MF Choonara

Saturday, April 9 marks the day South African Muslims shared their grief as the country’s foremost humanitarian activist was laid to rest at Avalon cemetery, south of Johannesburg.

Mohamed Farid Choonara, a doyen of relief aid work across Africa and pioneer of Islamic Da’wah (outreach) breathed his last following a short spell of illness.

Known to many as MF, his contribution to the development of Islam embraced a multifaceted approach. Having emerged as a youth leader in the early ’70s when he played a crucial part in the formation of the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM), the young lad enthusiastically consolidated MYM branches in most parts of the old Transvaal.  

This period and later years when MF was elected as the Movement’s national director was characterised by frequent clashes with the apartheid state’s security thugs. His position as the voice of Muslim youth included the responsibility of ensuring that state organs of repression didn’t succeed in shutting down MYM’s monthly paper ‘al Qalam’ which was frequently raided and banned.

It was during this period – in the prime of his youth – when MF relocated to Durban with his family and directed a host of national MYM initiatives that snowballed into hugely successful projects. Some of these dot the national landscape of Muslim life such as South African National Zakaah Fund (SANZAF), Islamic Movement Press (Impress), Islamic Dawah Movement (IDM) and the landmark of education & training in Braemar, KZN known universally as As-Salaam.

MF hosted many leading Islamic scholars, academics and activists from different parts of the globe to not only facilitate dynamic engagements but also to overcome alarming levels of stagnation within the social fabric of Muslims in South Africa. Of course his role was part of a collective that placed a great deal of emphasis on capacity building andinvestment in human resources.

It was not surprising therefore that his commitment to humanitarian causes saw him establish one of the leading relief aid organisations – Africa Muslims Agency (AMA) – with tentacles in some of the most remote and impoverished regions in the continent. His name became household amongst the poor in Africa and synonymous with delivery of fresh water as thousands of boreholes & water wells along with modest clinics and mosques began mushrooming here and the rest of the continent.

In the recent past along with the former legendary PAC leader Gora Ebrahim, MF was instrumental in efforts to combat exploitation of Haj pilgrims by securing a partnership with the department of foreign affairs in Nelson Mandela’s administration to implement a regiment of measures resulting in a national entity known as SA Haj & Umrah Council (SAHUC).

While his short life of 62 was indeed lived to the full, – he despised half-measures or shortcuts – his tough standards set new benchmarks in the quality of Muslim activism. It was such disciplined leadership that saw him mobilise the community to oppose an invite by the Mail&Guardian and the Congress of SA Writers (COSAW) to the author of Satanic Verses Salman Rushdie.

It was an epic battle that pitted literary giants like Nadine Gordimer against the MF-led alliance. Stalwarts of the freedom struggle and renowned commentators and journalists such as the late Ameen Akhalwaya were all drawn into this brawl which finally succeeded in having the invite withdrawn! Rushdie was obviously not impressed but the zeal, determination and passion to defend the honour of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as displayed by MF was overwhelming. It must be remembered too that this victory to deny Rushdie pomp and glory in SA was before the now famous fatwa attributed to Iran’s revolutionary leader Imam Khomeini.

MF faced many challenges but persevered patiently to discharge his multiple tasks. His life was characterised with modesty and total faith in Allmighty Allah. His illness too was marked with a serene dignity andcomfort drawn from a close knit family, friends and well wishers.

I was privileged to have been his close friend for almost forty years and gained immensely from his knowledge and experience. MF is survived by his wife Rashida, sons Imran, Hassan & Hussein, daughter Summaya,their spouses and 8 grandchildren.