Not too far away in time a delegation comprising eminent professionals from the field of Islamic Economics and Finance met P Chidambaram. He was the Finance Minister of India at that time. The delegation was trying to impress upon him the relevance and importance of introducing Islamic Finance or parts of it in India. It is reported that Chidambaram after listening to the delegation and reading the papers it had submitted agreed that his ministry would seriously consider the newly growing system in India.
One of the members of the team that had called on Chidambaram was Mohammad Nejatullah Siddiqui, an international award winning Indian expert who had pioneered the idea of Islamic economics in the world.
Chidambaram did not implement the idea, nor did his successors. The file on Islamic finance and banking is lying locked up in the Indian Ministry of Finance. Also, there is no hope that it would be taken up and studied again.
In the meantime, the expert who had introduced the idea of ‘no interest’ Islamic finance has passed away.
Nejatullah Siddiqui Saheb died in St Francisco, Carolina in the US on November 12. Ironically, no major news outlet in India cared to carry the story of his demise. Nor was there any condolence message from the Indian government on his passing away. Perhaps they were unaware of the significance of the contribution of Nejatullah Siddiqui Saheb to the world of economics.
Mirza Nawab, a former senior journalist, living in Saudi Arabia informed Ex-Vice-President M Hamid Ansari, about Nejatullah Siddiqui Saheb’s death. He promptly responded: “I grieve his departure. May Allah bless his soul. He was a friend, a neighbour in Aftab Hostel (Aligarh Muslim University) and a scholar of eminence.”
Another senior former Indian Foreign Service officer Ishrat Aziz, after reading the news of his demise on Siasat.com portal said: “Read your piece on Dr. Nejatullah Siddiqui. Even though he was about 9 years older than me we were classmates in BA. He then went on to do MA in Economics while I joined MA in English Literature. I often met him in Jeddah when I was (stationed) in Riyadh.” Both Aziz and Ansari have served as Indian ambassadors, one followed by the other, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and they were in contact with Siddiqui Saheb.
I phoned Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam of Institute of Objective Studies in New Delhi, to elicit his views about Siddiqui Saheb. He was candid. “Nejatullah Siddiqui Saheb was my teacher at AMU. Later I met him in the Kingdom. People like him are born once in ages. He was a researcher par excellence and brought about new ideas by digging deep into old Islamic literature. He could do that because he had an immensely inquisitive mind. The people of this age have all benefitted from his ideas which he discussed in books and also in person with students and experts alike,” he said.
Meeting the legend
When I first went to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia looking for a job, a friend of mine Omar Khalidi (well-known writer and researcher who passed away about 12 years ago in freak accident in the U.S.) took me to his office at King Abdul Aziz University. He introduced me as a job seeker in the field of journalism. Siddiqui Saheb was a friend of Omar Khalidi’s father. Without asking any other question he took out his name card, turned it back and wrote an introductory note to Mohammad Tariq Ghazi Saheb about me. Tariq Saheb was a senior journalist with the Saudi Gazette. That card of Siddiqui Saheb worked like a magic in getting me a job with the Saudi Gazette.
After that brief and result oriented meeting with Nejatullah Saheb I became a regular visitor to his office and sometimes, his house.
Occasionally, I used to visit him for a story. Islamic economics was a new subject and the King Abdul Aziz University had set up an exclusive department to undertake research on the subject. Nejatullah Saheb was a key member of a small group of academics there.
On some occasions he would patiently listen to my queries and brief me on the developments in the field in detail.
Then there were Indian community affairs where he would be invited to speak. I along with a few other members of one such group that had been formed to discuss the affairs related to India and the Islamic world began inviting him for talks. He had little patience for those late night gatherings. Still, he used to oblige us.
During the 1990s the group organized a five-session series spread over a several weeks to discuss the so-called ‘problem’ areas in Islam that had been put on the cover by the Economist magazine. He readily shared his views on some of the controversial areas published in the journal. Hamid Ansari Saheb also chipped in his perspective on the role of democracy in Islam with historical evidence. He took pains to explain how the Arab society worked cohesively before the arrival of Prophet Mohammad. The sessions were extremely thought provoking. Unfortunately we failed to convert the discussions into a book form.
At one point the Arab News, the leading newspaper in Jeddah devoted an entire page on the works and thoughts of Nejatullah Saheb.
Nejatullah Saheb after leaving the Kingdom became a Fellow at the Center for Near Eastern Studies at the University of California. Still later he was appointed as a visiting scholar at the Islamic Research and Training Institute with the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah.
Nejatullah Saheb was blessed with three boys and two daughters. All of them are settled in the US. His youngest son Sajid married a girl in Hyderabad. Nejatullah saheb hosted Sajid’s reception at a five-star hotel in Hyderabad. He had invited a few of his friends from Hyderabad to that reception.
Some two years ago I went to attend a conference on Dr Mohammad Hamidullah in New Delhi. The conference had been organized by the Institute of Objective Studies. Hamidullah Saheb who is credited with coming up with original work on the life and times of Prophet Mohammad was from Hyderabad. At the inaugural ceremony of the conference I found Nejatullah Saheb sitting with his wife in the first row. On seeing me, he gave broad smile and introduced me to his wife. She gracefully said that she remembered me. My day was made. But that was the last time I saw him. He looked frail.
I will always miss this great scholar who spoke softly, often with a smile, and left behind a treasure trough of knowledge.
Mir Ayoob Ali Khan is seasoned journalist based in Hyderabad