By Umar Muhammad
In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
To God we belong and unto Him we return.
My father Ali Muhammad, returned to his Lord at the age of 81. He was perfectly healthy with no history of comorbidities, but a sudden heart attack followed by a severe bout of pneumonia, ended his illustrious life.
He is survived by his wife, three children, thirteen grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren.
My father emigrated to Canada in 1974, from Pakistan. The third eldest of seven kids, he was about five years old when he survived the tragic & bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent. Thus struggle and tragedy become ubiquitous to his life’s journey. Like many immigrants at the time, he started with a meager $20 but worked hard and persevered to build a good life for his family.
His hobbies were simple. Besides running, swimming & badminton, he was an avid reader. He had a passion for collecting books, from philosophy, history, religion and even Shakespeare. His National Geographic collections date back to 1952.
He would often gift people books and that’s how many would remember him. One of the last books he gave me before he passed, was called ‘The Ghost Dance’ by James Mooney; It was about American Native tribes living in the 1800’s, using ritualistic dances to motivate their people to fight. Dad was always sympathetic to the struggles of the oppressed, past and present. He visited Palestine in the mid 90’s. He saw firsthand the struggles of Palestinians in the West Bank and saw the construction of the wall that encircles Gaza.
He was hard working and independent. When he came to Canada, as a Chemistry teacher, there was no demand for teaching and they were actually closing down schools. After working in a leather coat factory and climbing his way up to management, he realized he hit a ceiling.
He was advised by the Jewish owner of the company to go back to school. The owner treated my father like a son and even offered to take him to California, where the company was being relocated. My father decided to pursue education over moving to California.
His boss advised him to go into either Electronics or Computer programming. So my father enrolled at Sheridan College, in the 'Electronics Engineering Micro Computer' Option. It was his dream to continue and complete an Electrical Engineering degree at Ryerson Polytech but the demands of family forced him to concede with a diploma. However, he was able to build a good career, eventually landing at Bell Communications, at a time when it was a coveted Government job.
Although tough in nature, he had a soft spot, especially for the most vulnerable. He was constantly helping family members who were struggling and donating to local charitable causes. Despite his material success in Canada, he never let material success feed his hubris.
My father practiced asceticism/zud (in Arabic), while balancing family life and work. From my earliest memories, I don’t ever remember him missing a single prayer, even if he had to pull over to the side of the road. My friends and I would call him the Cal Ripken of prayers. If anyone is familiar with that name, he holds the record for most games played (baseball) without a day off or injury.
In the mid 80’s, with no real mosque in Mississauga, he was with the late Muhammad Qazi, when he purchased a small cabin, called Masjid Al- Farooq (Eglington and Mavis). Almost 37 years later, it would make him so happy to drive by and see Masjid Farooq flourish into a successful mosque and school.
My father was never after ‘position’ as he despised board politics. He would always say, ‘I rather be the mosque sweeper, then a board member'. At Masjid Farooq, as the current Qazi could attest, my father volunteered his weekends to teach kids Quran and basic Arabic.
Like many of our pioneers who established themselves in the 70’s, my father became disillusioned with the mosque politics, but he would still continue to frequent them. In fact, he was given the key to Masjid Al-Falah, in 1998-99. He would open the masjid for morning (fajr) prayer because there was no resident Imam. At the same time, he also started the senior’s badminton club, one of the first in Mississauga.
My father had an immense love for the Quran. Before he started his charity work, he could manage to read an entire Quran in seven days! He accounted for all his time and loathed wasting it in-front of the TV. He was strictly disciplined when it came to diet, consuming one major meal a day. This reinforced his amazing health and gave him the energy to do charity work in his latter days.
Although my father was strict in prayer, he wasn’t overly zealous or puritanical. He was a patron of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of the first Muslim college in India. He would always stress higher education on us and never endorsed this dichotomy between sciences and religion. His mind was sharp and dynamic. Although he majored in Chemistry, he also had Masters in Islamic history.
His Retirement Years
Most people pay taxes their entire lives so they can reap the benefits in their heydays. My father was an IT professional at Bell Telecommunications (later Amdocs), paid taxes for over 40 years, to enjoy the bare minimum. After taking early retirement in 2006, he left the comforts of Canada, to service the poor in Pakistan. He became a regular snowbird, investing his wealth to serve the poor in remote villages.
He enjoyed keeping company of the poor, especially the children. In the village he was helping, he bought all the kids cricket bats, wickets, uniforms and organized an informal league.
While he was constructing the village mosque, instead of taking an uber or taxi from home, he would take a bus. When I asked him why, he would say he wanted to be like the ordinary man with no special privileges. He would always try to model himself after Caliph Umar (Ra) and that’s why he named his only son after him. The Caliph Umar (Ra) was infamous that despite his status, he couldn’t be distinguished from the ordinary man. That he never rested a minute, but was always looking after the welfare of the people.
He always had a glass half full mindset and managed to find a solution to every problem. The village he was building his mosque in had no running water, gas or electricity. Given electricity is expensive in Pakistan, he had solar panels installed on the mosque roof (see pic). He also used the rent from a house he built nearby, to cover the operational costs. He never wanted to depend on others and very few people did he really trust.
After completing the construction of two mosques, my father’s dream project was to build both a free girls academic and vocational school. In 2021, he started the project with the help of a few friends and had completed about 50% (see pics). Unfortunately, he suffered a severe knee injury in September 2023, which put a halt to the work. It took him three months to recover. When he was finally able to continue, he suffered a heart attack that eventually led to his demise.
My father passed away quickly with little pain. He passed away doing good works, as independent as he could be, serving the poor.
I have to be honest - my siblings and I had our disagreements with him and didn’t always see eye to eye on many things. In this instance, we felt he was too old to be doing work of this nature, in a country nefarious for bad healthcare and corruption.
He would take our criticism in stride but would always ask me to come visit and see for myself. He wanted my full moral support, but it didn’t quite materialize, at least in his living years. Personally, I have so much regret because I was able to see with my own eyes the impact of his work, after he had passed. I didn’t get to tell him how proud I was of ALL his work, at such a late stage in life. He would always want me to have a share in its burdens, but I refused. It’s like the lyrics from the Living Years’:
'I know that I'm a prisoner
To all my Father held so dear
I know that I'm a hostage
To all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years'
At my dad’s funeral, I have never seen so many tears. One man who knew him well said he worked like 100 men, with only one vision in mind and that was the ‘Hereafter’.
I’m sorry dad that you couldn’t finish the job of building your school. I’m sorry at almost 82, your health took a turn for the worse. But rest assured, God accepted your sacrifice just like he accepted Abraham’s sacrifice of Ishmael. Your intentions were sincere and through your children, we will find a way to complete your dream
Dad, you were the quintessential definition of selflessness, sacrificing for others your entire life. You knew the risks of taking on so much at your age, in a country where healthcare is inadequate.
Dad, you can finally rest in peace. Your 82 years of trials, tribulation and service, have finally come to an end. It was Muhammad Ali who said – ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.’ You earned that room dad and a place in Jannah with the legacy you built. I know you didn’t want anyone to know but we will tell the world and we will honor your legacy.
May you finally have peace my beloved father. Enjoy the bliss you earned.
May God make your legacy a source of perennial Sadaqah Jariyah / Charity.
May God expand your grave and make it a heaven.
May He truly give you the highest ranks of Jannat- ul- Firdose and make you among…‘and the foremost ˹in faith˺ will be the foremost ˹in Paradise˺. They are the ones nearest ˹to Allah˺ [Quran, 56:10-11].
All praise is due to Allah (swt), who guides whom he Wills.