In Memoriam: Sister Khadija Haffajee

In Memoriam: Sister Khadija Haffajee

By Shehnaz Karim, Executive Director - Sanad Collective

I was a little girl when I first heard the name “Sister Khadija Haffajee.”

In those days, there were very few figures who were writing or speaking on what it means to be Muslim in a society that is often inhospitable to faith - or at least its expression.

I remember hearing my father, who was newly exploring his relationship to Islam at the time, speaking of Sister Khadija coming to Vancouver to give a talk. I was too young to attend, but the name and image of a strong woman stayed with me. It was especially rare to have a Muslim woman speaking in public in those days.

You can imagine the sense of honour I felt when this very figure, Sister Khadija, came to the mosque my little community had just established, in a rented space on Montreal Rd in Ottawa.

THE Sister Khadija came to our mosque, not to speak, but just to attend prayers...and the amazing thing is that she stayed. She stayed and became part of our community. (Though on many occasions Aunty Khadija did speak as our elder, and at official occasions as an honoured guest).

I don't think I ever stopped marveling at the presence of Sister Khadija. I always felt awed by the fact that she wanted to be with us.

Part of my amazement was because I knew she was from a time when people who called to God did not establish their own societies and associations and organizations - she was a caller to God who was itinerant - not committed to any one mosque or individual community.

She was also so well-known in Ottawa that she could have gone to any mosque and been welcomed. Yet she chose ours. Our simple, new kid on the block mosque - a mosque that in fact was rejected by many in the larger community for being too out-of-the-box.

Aunty Khadija knew this, and she didn't care. She was no stranger to choosing to be different when she knew it was necessary and that God was with her.

She herself had faced challenges in her work - and today we celebrate how she broke barriers by being amongst the first Muslim women to lead and speak in public in North America, and to teach in public schools in her hijab.

This is where I saw the strength she had as a younger woman manifest before me...nothing naysayers had to say could dissuade her from supporting work for God - no matter who was doing it or what form it took.

I never gave up feeling honoured that the caller to God, pioneer of the North American Muslim community, Sister Khadija Haffajee had chosen the Rhoda Masjid as her spiritual home and that she believed in our work.

She attended every event, and was there every single night of Ramadan, and spoke on our behalf whenever we asked (and when we didn't, too, she went out of her way to speak well of us and share our mission).

If I look back now with fresh eyes, what never ceased to astonish and attract me about Aunty Khadija was her humanity. Though she had held so many positions, roles, and fame in her life, in our mosque, she was happy to be Aunty Khadija, the Rhoda grandmother. And deeper than this, Aunty Khadija was human. She never took herself too seriously.

Aunty Khadija let herself be known in a very real way, and wanted to know others with that same sincerity. She was content to sit at a table in the Lotus Community Corner cafe for hours, drink tea and eat brownies, and listen to us talk, laugh at our jokes, play with our kids, and tell us stories.

There was nothing pretentious about her. She just was.

Last night the Rhoda Institute held a memorial service for Aunty Khadija, on the first anniversary of her departure from this world. A friend of mine was reflecting on who Aunty Khadija is to us and said something that summarizes it all: “Aunty Khadija always made us feel comfortable.”

That line struck me. If that’s not one of the greatest accomplishments of a human being’s life - to make everyone feel comfortable - then I don’t know what is.

I am grateful to have been able to celebrate Aunty Khadija’s life yesterday at the Rhoda Masjid. I am also deeply grateful to God and to Aunty Khadija for having been able to be part of her life while she was here amongst us. Many of those who spoke at the memorial service last night had the privilege of knowing Aunty Khadija for decades, while I only got to know her a few years ago.

Yet, she made me feel like I was one of her favorite people, if not her favorite person. I’m not exactly sure, but I feel that part of that was because she had a special love for me and others in this fledgling community of ours, made up people mostly under 40, struggling to break new ground and find new ways to share Islam. Because sharing Islam was dear to her heart. And because she believed in and supported our vision and approach and wanted to stand by us in it.

And finally, because Aunty Khadija understood something most do not: the struggle that goes on behind the scenes - the late nights, the early mornings, the never-ending work that it takes to build community.

On a more personal level, I felt seen by Aunty Khadija. She would ask me how I was, and really mean it. I would find her squeezing my hand in moments like Eid night, or a critical evening in Ramadan when we were short of funds and struggling to raise them - and I knew she saw me - in a way I did not even allow myself to see myself.

She saw me as a young woman trying. Maybe she saw herself in me. After all, she was one of us - she was a soldier on the same battlefield, and she had spent her life building, striving, calling to God. She knew it wasn't all butterflies and rainbows.

To be held in Aunty Khadija’s regard was unlike any other experience. She was a mother to so many, but I felt that motherhood in a particular way when - without words - she conveyed to me that she understood the particular pain that is involved in nurturing relationships based not on worldly gain but otherworldly aspirations.

I felt she knew exactly what it’s like to keep getting up and trying - even when the odds seem against you. Where in this lonely world can you find someone who has been there and understands that?

For us, for Shaykh Hamdi and myself, Aunty Khadija was that person: that friend, that mother, that comrade, that elder, that wise and loving mentor, that supporter.

And Aunty Khadija never wavered in her support. That is what I still marvel at...she never said a negative word, she always seemed delighted in what we would do - whether it was a class, an Eid celebration, a fundraising campaign, or a night of prayer. I’m not sure anyone can realize how much that means - to have someone who really appreciates the WORK being done...there is really nothing in the world like it.

If I could ask us to be inspired by Aunty Khadija, I would ask for three things:

  1. For those who are doing, may we be humble and hope to accomplish even one tenth of what Aunty Khadija did in her life.
  2. For those who are being, may we seek to be one tenth as true as she was - genuine, unfettered by image or public role, authentic and sincere.
  3. For those who are watching, may we learn to be supportive, uplifting, and forgiving as she was. For, surely, Aunty Khadija saw the imperfections in me and others, and in the work - but she always looked at us with the loving eyes of a mother who sees the effort and keeps pouring love onto the weak spots.

Who will replace Aunty K for our community, for those who call to God, with that generous helping of support, care, and appreciation?

Aunty Khadija, I miss you very much. I pray to see you again. I pray that you are happy with the fountain that is a memorial to you, that now stands in front of the door named after you, at the Rhoda Masjid. You always wanted doors to be open to all, and you strove for that and reminded us of that.

The fountain is on the main road, for the public to use. There are two benches for anyone to come sit on...just as you would have liked. The birds will come drink from the fountain. It’s elegant like you were - always dressed so well and with such gracious manners and eloquence. It’s a fountain that lifts water up - as your love was a fountain that lifted us up. May we honour you always, in word and in deed, and in being real and true and human.

To those still reading: If you would like to be part of the commemoration of Aunty Khadija’s great legacy as a pioneer of sharing Islam in English and as a woman caller to God, please donate to this monument that will serve to keep her memory alive and also bring joy and peace to those who visit.

The fountain itself is a generous donation from a person in our community who had a special connection to Aunty Khadija. It bears a plaque with the following inscription:

In the Name of God, Closer to us than all our relatives,
the Creator of relationships and the One Who nurtures them best
This cascading fountain is dedicated to Sister Khadija Haffajee (1937-2020).
A beloved school teacher, pioneer of the Canadian Muslim community,
co-founder of the first masjid in Ottawa, promoter of the arts for women, and tireless advocate for education and faith knowledge.
She welcomed all and hosted regular gatherings in her home to provide physical and spiritual nourishment over four decades.
To our community, she was both a source of comfort and a source of inspiration.
Gifted with love from her masjid children, grandchildren & friends.
"A life lived with consciousness is destined for the Eternal." - Shaykh Hamdi Ben Aissa
“Death has nothing to do with going away.
The sun sets and the moon sets,
but they’re not gone.
Death for the one who lived their life with consciousness is a wedding with eternity.” -Rumi

Join us in offering homage to a life lived with consciousness: