Immersing oneself in the life and legacy of Shaykh Seraj Hendricks is akin to embarking on a journey through the annals of South Africa’s Islamic heritage. A distinguished scholar, ardent social activist, and committed community servant, Shaykh Hendricks’ life story intertwines with the spiritual, educational, and sociopolitical fabrics of Cape Town’s Muslim community.
Shaykh Seraj was a high school English teacher between 1980 and 1982 in Cape Town before leaving for Saudi Arabia in 1983 to study at Umm al-Qura University in Makka. He spent three years at the Arabic Language Institute studying Arabic and related subjects before being accepted for the BA (Hons) Islamic Law degree. He specialised in Fiqh and Usul al-Fiqh in the Faculty of Shariah and graduated in 1992. Previous to this he spent a number of years studying at the feet of his illustrious uncle, the late Shaykh Mahdi Hendricks (d.1981) – erstwhile Life President of the Muslim Judicial Council and widely regarded as one of the foremost scholars of Islam in South Africa.
This article seeks to delve into various aspects of Shaykh Hendricks’ remarkable journey, reflecting on his upbringing, his educational pursuits, his religious teachings, and his societal contributions. As we navigate through these passages, we gain deeper insights into the far-reaching impact of a life devoted to the service of Islam and humanity.
In Pursuit of Knowledge
Before becoming a renowned figure in Islamic scholarship, Shaykh Seraj Hassan Hendricks started his professional life as an English teacher at a high school in Cape Town. He held this position from 1980 to 1982 before he embarked on a journey to further his Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia. In 1983, he enrolled at Umm al-Qura University in Makka, beginning his path towards becoming a distinguished scholar in the field.
Initially, Shaykh Hendricks spent three years at the Arabic Language Institute, delving into the nuances of the Arabic language and related subjects. Following this, he was accepted into the BA (Hons) Islamic Law degree program. His focus lay primarily in the study of Fiqh and Usul al-Fiqh within the Faculty of Shariah, culminating in his graduation in 1992.
However, his journey in Islamic learning began much earlier, under the guidance of his respected uncle, the late Shaykh Mahdi Hendricks. Shaykh Mahdi, who passed away in 1981, was the Life President of the Muslim Judicial Council and was celebrated as one of South Africa’s leading Islamic scholars. His teachings significantly influenced Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, shaping the scholar that he would eventually become.
From Cape Town to Makkah
During his tenure at Umm al-Qura University, Shaykh Seraj Hendricks was also privileged to be a student of the revered Sayyid Muhammad Alawi al-Maliki. For eight fruitful years in Makkah, Shaykh Seraj, along with his brother Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks, learned under the mentorship of Sayyid al-Maliki, eventually earning a full ijazah (licence) in the religious sciences and several tariqas, most notably the Ba Alawi tariqa. He also received valuable ijazahs from esteemed scholars like the late Sayyid Ahmad Mashur al-Haddad and Sayyid Abd al-Qadir b. Ahmad al-Saqqaf.
Shaykh Seraj’s journey in Islamic thought was deeply rooted in the teachings he received at the Azzawia Institute, a venerable institution founded by his grandfather. His uncle, the late Shaykh Mahdi Hendricks – a former Life President of the Muslim Judicial Council, his father, Imam Hassan Hendricks, and another uncle, Shaykh Mujahid Hendricks, were his mentors in Cape Town. They were prominent figures in the South African Islamic scholarly community and played significant roles in shaping Shaykh Seraj’s understanding of the faith.
Moreover, Shaykh Seraj received a full ijaza in the religious sciences from his primary teacher, the esteemed al-Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawi al-Maliki. Recognized as the muḥaddith of the Hijaz, al-Sayyid al-Maliki was the master of the Ṭarīqa ʿUlamaʿ Makka, the sufi path of the Makkan scholars, further enriching Shaykh Seraj’s education and understanding of Islam.
Leadership Roles and Community Service
Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, a revered scholar, has held numerous influential positions over the years. He was at the helm of the Muslim Judicial Council’s Fatwa Committee, which led to him being commonly referred to as the ‘Mufti of Cape Town’. He served as a lecturer in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) at the Islamic College of Southern Africa (ICOSA), and he lectured in the Study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). His involvement in the financial ethics space saw him join the Stanlib Shariʿa Board, and as the chief arbitrator (Hakim) of the Crescent Observer’s Society, he played a crucial role in the observation of Islamic traditions. His influence and contributions to the global Islamic community were recognized annually from 2009 to 2020 in the Muslim500.
In academia, Shaykh Seraj was appointed as Dean of the Madina Institute in South Africa, a recognized higher learning institution and part of the global Madina Institute seminaries led by Shaykh Dr Muhammad Ninowy. He was also appointed as a professor at the International Peace University of South Africa, holding the Maqasid Chair for Graduate Studies, further testament to his contributions to Islamic scholarship.
Shaykh Seraj Hendricks and the Anti-Apartheid Struggle
Growing up under apartheid, a system he deeply opposed, Shaykh Seraj was not only a scholar but also a fearless social activist. Alongside his religious education, he was actively involved in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, supporting the United Democratic Front—a collective of anti-apartheid groups. Even as a young man, he exhibited a strong sense of justice and dedication to the cause. During his student years, he was a key participant in the renowned Purple Rain March in Cape Town in 1989. Although he was temporarily back home from his studies in the holy city of Makka, he did not hesitate to stand up against the oppressive system. His unwavering commitment to fight against injustice led to his imprisonment for a period. This episode in his life serves as a testament to his resilient spirit and commitment to social justice.
Shaykh Siraj Hendricks’ Teachings and Analogies
Shaykh Siraj’s Friday sermons, or Jumuah khutbahs, were replete with deep insights, gentle guidance, and practical tips for life. He often provided context, grounding his teachings in the character of the Prophet and highlighting the importance of leading a life of Taqwa, or God-consciousness. A familiar analogy he often shared at Azzawia was the image of turning towards the sun, with our shadows trailing behind us. This served as a constant reminder to look ahead, leave our past transgressions behind, and seek forgiveness from the All-Merciful. This was the essence of Shaykh Siraj, a true emissary of the Most-Merciful.
As one of his students asked, “Shaykh, what is an ideal society?”. The Shaykh demonstrated his wisdom and compassion for the other and explained that we should “focus on timeless principles, not utopian ideals—ones that never actually existed even in the city of the Prophet ﷺ himself. There never was an “ideal Muslim” or “ideal society,” because there is no “ideal world.” Our focus is to navigate this imperfect world through an unfailing commitment to transcendental, timeless principles and helping others do so with kindness and compassion.”
Literary Contributions and Spiritual Legacy
Shaykh Seraj Hendricks has contributed significantly to Islamic literature. His enlightening book on the Hajj, titled “A Concise Companion to the Hajj,” is under revision for even more impactful insights. Anticipation is growing for the imminent publication of his MA dissertation, “Tasawwuf (Sufism): Its Role and Impact on the Culture of Cape Islam”. He has also finished an annotated translation of Imam al-Ghazali’s work, Ayyuh al-Walad, which was unveiled in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in October 2009. Co-authored with his brother, respected Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks, and Dr. Hisham Hellyer, “A Sublime Way: the Sufi Path of the Sages of Makka” presents their unique perspective on Sufism. As the chosen khalifa of the late Sayyid Muhammad Alawi al-Maliki, Shaykh Seraj continues the spiritual legacy in South Africa alongside his brother.
Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, a towering figure in the history of Islam in South Africa, truly embodied the essence of service to both community and faith. He embraced the teachings of Islam with unwavering dedication, embodying the teachings of Quran and Sunnah in his daily life. From his profound theological insights to his influential social activism, he helped to shape a vibrant and deeply-rooted Muslim community in Cape Town.
His journey from a humble student of Islamic law to the distinguished positions he held within the Muslim Judicial Council and various educational institutions, stand testament to his dedication and fervour. His relentless commitment to fighting the social injustices of the apartheid regime also illustrates his application of Islamic principles beyond the bounds of the mosque or the madrasa.
Shaykh Hendricks’ transformative teachings, drawn from his intimate understanding of Fiqh and Tasawwuf, resonated with his followers, inspiring them towards a more profound relationship with Allah. His literary contributions further expanded his influence, making his deep insights accessible to audiences beyond his immediate community.
Despite his passing, Shaykh Hendricks’ influence endures. The knowledge he imparted, the wisdom he shared, and the compassion he radiated continue to inspire generations of South Africans. His legacy reminds us of the transformative power of Islam when it is deeply understood and sincerely practiced. In the enduring vitality of the Muslim community in Cape Town, we see the living testament to Shaykh Seraj Hendricks’ extraordinary life and work.