An Awe of Presence

Mr Abdul Samad Nana – Leadership Personified

The passage of life is written on the cobblestones of daily experiences which, together gives you meandering pathways to new horizons however, too few take cognisance of this reality. Living so aimlessly then, we represent the photographer who snaps the action but is never part of the reality only to use the snapshot for an article or a post on the web and suddenly, like a flash the photographer is on a new search. The great reality of the recent past is just an image on a place somewhere randomly catching the attention of a discerning eye. Different is the life of the people in the photo – oblivious of the photographer they live the moment and later they realise they were captured! Captured on camera but more than that, they captivated hearts, minds and souls that created a new passage of life paved with cobblestones of minds that are alive and views that make news. They are the ones who have a presence of awe. Mr.Abdul Samad Nana is one such man – a man with an awe of presence. Lets get into his presence.

Before that presence defines the moment allow me to bolster the point home on the photographer. Do you recall this award winning photograph of the late Kevin Carter? I do. When I used it in a lesson for narrative writing years back, it surely created interesting responses. I always wondered at what point does the photo-journalist cross the line of work and action beyond it? It is startling because, my addiction to watching Nat-Geo Wild gives me the glimpse of the work of such people but, when the coverage is on human beings, we have such a blurred view that human rights and work rules overshadow the moment of truth. The truth of action. In your daily life, don’t be a photographer be more – take the photo, live the reality and change the image because that is in your power. This is what I found in Mr Nana. He never is an onlooker but the one to get involved or make sure something gets done. He would provide the guidance from the back. Regret in not doing a good deed can be fatal and less fatal that the mason who hits his thumb with a hammer to get a stone in place. The finished cobblestone road, never speaks of the injured thumb, it bears the burden of heavy loads and the cobblestone road gives you its best appearance. It has stories to tell.

Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a starving Sudanese child and a vulture in the background

“Life consists of two days, one for you one against you. So when it’s for you don’t be proud or reckless, and when it’s against you be patient, for both days are test for you.” 

― Hazrat Ali Ibn Abu-Talib A.S

The cobblestones that led me to know Mr Abdul Samad Nana goes back to 1980. I started school in 1976 and remember my late father, Ali Bhai Sujee, taking my brother Ebrahim and I to his house in Evaton when he visited him for hours on end. I recall his tall stature, handsome face and a strong physical appearance. The impression that became an indelible imprint was that Mr Nana was someone very important. Important enough that my late dad had to spend hours with him for whatever had to be done. Little did I know, they were cementing life’s cobblestones for people far and wide and today, their legacies are firm roads cobbled with hard and jovial experiences. Mr Nana, still here refining the path in the absence of my late father and recently of Mr.S.E.Ahmed. As the cobblestones meander into new paths, allow me to take you down just a few. If I do get lost, its only that I took you to another road less traveled but, not a path of desolation or untruth, only another path of wisdom. Take the step…read along.

It was September 1983 when the reality of these men struck sparks in the paths of life that was jostling to fit new cobblestones in an already full road, at least as how it appeared. The night was somewhat strange in Evaton and the usual character of my father announcing his meetings to us left us in awe of his busy and fruitful life. I recall so vividly, the beige jersey my late father wore that night that sported matching brown buttons that added that rich class to that jersey. We were sitting in the dining room with the monotous drone of the generator filling the quiet night. My brother Ebrahim went to close the gate and my father left for the meeting in Roshnee. On route he picked up Mr Nana and Uncle Firose Saloojee and on they went to discuss an important social matter with a parent in Roshnee. This meeting amongst many were the foundation of the Muslim schools phenomenon in South Africa. Roshnee Islamic School was one of the first Muslim schools in Gauteng at the time. These intimate moments clasped with compassionate concern for humanity began a road few would ever take. Few would take it because it’s costly. It is when days are against you that you practice patience. Surely, there are more of these kind of days than others that blankets the day into nights.

The still and starry night passed slowly and like all children we awaited the coming home of dad. Alas! the night’s silence was broken with the news that sounded like clashing of stones – my father and his companions were involved in an accident bearing horror in its wake. The news, falling like stones off a cliff rolling down a rocky edge creating an avalanche in its crescendo to the waiting open plains, set the motion of life to change the destiny of men around Ali Bhai Sujee forever. In that tragic accident, the life of Ali Bhai Sujee laid to rest like a peaceful cobblestone in a path of great sacrifice and Abdul Samad Nana and Firose Saloojee became the masons to cobble a path to honour a road their friend was on. In this road, I came along and learned about a man I only knew back then as a great bowler.

The path I start on is that first week which I recall after my late father’s death when Mr Nana came to Evaton Madressah to take over his friend’s work because, I realised then that; this Madressah was a reason among many for his long meetings with my father. It is just incredible to realise how the mind will bring an image from the past and that image speaks volumes. The volumes it speaks is not what happened back then but, the narrative of the present and how it navigates a future. Honestly, I still feel that moment sitting in the class and Mr Nana giving a lesson on a religious subject and I looked at him with awe because I understood him as a man my late father revered. Today, that image informs my current role as Principal of Roshnee Islamic School in that he is still my mentor and I, in the awe of his presence still garner pearls of wisdom and leadership traits to keep me guided. Amazing, yet true, the past is a telling tale of the future. It is as if I am that young man in the presence of him learning and, like that moment of him teaching us in class, there was never a feeling of apprehension. It was, and still is an openness to learn and to accept the hand of guidance in all the forms it took.

Mr Nana’s life as I know it, is full of action and great decisions and decisive action and in many ways, I as a bystander can only comment on how it spurred me on, provide perspective and made me understand Malcom X’s statement in the above picture. Mr Nana stands for justice and fairness and therefore will not fall for anything outside that realm. This reality is best described in incidents that made me live it. A few biographical accounts, like grouting between the stones, connects it all to the real road you would walk on.

In my personal notebook I recorded the following: 16/01/2012 – You don’t have a presence of awe” Mr Nana said to me in the meeting with members of the BOG and the SMT. The first day of school and a good start. The BOG meeting with the SMT was robust and really tough. The defects in my character have been made clear to me – really its is a blessing. Now I have the chance to rectify, refine and progress. You know, Mr Nana is very genuine – he has no agenda. I KNOW SO. I take his advice seriously. Tomorrow, I will come back stronger, if need be with a new suit as well.

Mr Nana informed me that I will be given six months to prove myself and if not, the possibility of being redeployed in the school would be consideration. In my mind I thought of being unemployed. The tone was firm but the tinge of mercy in it and the choice of words made me realise I was listening to a man of wisdom therefore, I spoke.

When I spoke in the meeting saying that I will come back with greater spirit, my eyes met with Mr Nana’s and that one look of satisfaction from him was all I needed. Why? For me that look was one that showed he was looking at me with eyes of admiration because I was facing the brutal facts head on and not cowering. This is what I gathered from many who I spoke to when they were in his presence seeking counsel or taking a problem to him. The mere gaze or few words settled the matter and, the really astounding thing is that he will never ever remind you of your folly or an unsavoury incident accept that he will continue to press on guiding you with compassion and firmness. Firmness because the mason without a firm hand, will never cobble a solid road to bear the weight of troublesome loads.

So what happened after 16/01/2012? There is yet another moment that inculcated a leadership traits within me that still astounds many because it was taught. He taught me the power of taking decisions be it right or wrong because, the essence of leadership is that – making decisions. A leader guides.

The guiding hand did not stop and when taken to task it was always in the privacy of the office and again teaching with real action. The incidents beyond 2012 are countless and the telling tale is that I was learning everyday how to lead, how to read the natures of people and how to be more espy in situations to discern the finer detail. This assisted me to avoid making a mountain out of a molehill of any situation henceforth. The school embarked on a very ambitious project on e-learning in 2014 which culminated into a project plan in 2015. The plan included purchasing tablets for all the pupils in the high school and eventually for the primary school. It was an exciting time but, there were many cynics too who felt this project would fail.

What is failure? That’s the question. Mr Nana taught me that failure is never trying and never taking risks. In the first phase of the project, we got an intranet portal which teachers and pupils would log in and download content or upload content. The android tablets were fine but not the best. The project resulted in a huge problem with the supplier and the system itself. There was discontent and fretfulness which had its rightful place and there was the equally ambitious side that felt the need to press on. The staff and BOG then had a meeting and Mr Nana took the stand. He was open, honest and clear when he said that we have made mistakes along the way but, the project must press on and it must be that lessons will be presented by people from afar to the pupils at the school. Lo! and Behold, COVID-19 ushered that reality so quickly that today Roshnee Islamic School is making great strides.

Strides are taken because there is spring in the step. When you slouch, it indicates lethargy and a goalless life. The point made is that he faced his critics, cynics, supporters and onlookers with openness and presented the facts as they happened. This proved the leadership of the man i.e. take risks aligned to the foresight you have of the future. If that grit did not exist with Mr Nana, pressing us ahead in the realm of all obstacles, today, under the COVID-19 Lockdown conditions, our teachers would not have the confidence, tenacity, adaptability, determination and courage to teach so well online. The mistakes and mishaps of the past were actually learning curves for the present. This type of foresight extended beyond the boundaries of the school to countless interactions with the community.

Amongst the hundreds of personal interactions there was a meeting that was called to establish the current Roshnee Neigbourhood Watch (RNW). Mr Nana addressed the packed hall and when he spoke, there was hushed silence and nodding of heads in acknowledgement of his words. The impetus of the meeting led to a huge fund collection for vehicles and necessary equipment for the praiseworthy system we have today. Again, it was the wisdom of displaying the reality to the people without exaggeration that won the hearts and minds of people across the religious and cultural boundaries. Today, RNW stands on the leadership he established. It is a wonderment to see how, as a qualified advocate, a principal once of Roshnee Islamic School and a businessman, he worked with people of all walks of life. He spoke to people on their terms and level and got the best out of them. The point made is; when a person said, ‘Mr Nana said…’ it was settled and the matter closed. This, yes this is what he tries to establish in every person he interacts with who at some point has to lead. The value of trust.

Trust is what he wanted for me to establish because he knew then and now, will be the cornerstone to a successful person. The presence of awe for me is based on trust. These leadership training sessions don’t take place in air-conditioned offices. Nay! they take place on the outside where sparks fly to make the road for heavy loads. One stone in place at a time, is one more stepping stone for a great event and that is what I learn from every interaction.

Today, I sit in the company of these men who rally around Mr Nana and affirm his leadership and would not take an opposite stance once a decision has been taken is remarkable to be cognisant about. I mean, these men are self standing in their successful businesses and companies and they not emasculated in meetings or interactions. They are bold and of strong views but, they follow. Only to realise that a good follower will make a good leader. This again is what I saw in how Mr Nana leads the Board of Governors and, this quality of obedience is priceless. A leader will and can have the obedience of his followers if he is trusted, loved and admired.

Admiration is deep and intrinsic. There was in incident in the meeting once in the year 2012. The revered late Mr.S.E.Ahmed applied to go perform I’itikaaf in Al-Aqsa. It was a period of three weeks which he applied for. At the time, he was in the Finance Department of the school. At the BOG meeting, we thought that this application would be passed with no issue. However, Mr.Nana declined it. I have mentioned this in the article, The Fabric of Friendships, and I draw on it here because it showed me the courage one needs to lead. Leaders have to take decisions and when it is unpalatable its even more difficult. Mr Nana did not waver from his decision here despite the undercurrents. This teaches us all that if we compromise, it will set a precedent with the staff that will lead to problems. This fortitude is of a high standard and a difficult one to have as a consistent trait. The fitting quotation of Malcom X applies here like a glove because, the easier road of appeasement was avoided. The bigger picture was kept in mind. I am sure, that if one cobblestone did not fit the tight corner it had to be hammered and chiseled until it did fit because; the whole road is the bigger picture. It is not every stone every time that the mason will hammer, chisel and carve. This can be gleaned from the pages written on leadership and management.

The pages can be filled with many incidents on what I have learnt from Mr Nana’s leadership and it has become ingrained in part. Writing about it helps in concretising it. What you don’t commit to memory or writing it will fade into oblivion. The interesting matter to discern was why Mr Nana’s opinion mattered most. In the incident of the Isra & Miraj I found out why. However, let’s reflect on the narration below as a marker to what will follow.

Aisha reported: After the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, was miraculously taken by night to the furthest mosque in Jerusalem, he awoke and told the people about it. Some of them renounced their faith and belief in him. They sought Abu Bakr and they said, “Have you heard that your friend imagined he was taken by night to the sacred house?” Abu Bakr said, “Did he say that?” They said yes. Abu Bakr said, “If he said it, he has spoken the truth.” They said, “Do you believe he went by night to the sacred house and returned before morning?” Abu Bakr said, “Yes. Verily, I believe what is even more astonishing than that. I believe he has received messages from heaven for everything he does.” Sahih according to Al-Bani. For this reason, Abu Bakr was named the Truthful, al-Siddiq.

Upon reflection you will note that Abu Bakr (ra) replied on the strength of trust he had in Nabi Muhammad (s). The fact that Abu Bakr (ra) did not as yet meet Nabi Muhammad (s) but; believed in his (s) message answered in a very fitting and applauding way unparalleled by any person in context. This made me realise that in the character of Mr Nana then, there is a strong adherence to the sunnah therefore, his aura will be embellished by that practice. This in essence establishes an awe of presence. In each meeting or discussion Mr Nana would inevitably crown it with an anecdote from the Seerah. It is impressive when Ulema (religious scholars) would applaud his opinion and encourage his views as well. This is significant and leans to an intelligent presence that people appreciate.

An awe of presence is what the Holy Prophet Muhammad (s) had and still has that will never have a parallel. Never ever! His (s) sunnah is for all to follow, admire, study and practice but, the proximity in action and sincerity will determine greatness of purpose. As the mason will hammer, chisel, file, mesh, mix lime and water, bend on all fours and work to finish road, so to does the person wanting to gain closeness to the Holy Prophet (s) work day in and day out. The difference however is, this person works on the hearts and minds of people where the chisel, hammer, lime and water are words and actions. Like how the arrow leaves the bow of a skilled archer and never misses the target, so too does the character of a leader leave with each word and action.

Teachers like you are not easy to find.

مش من السهل نلاقي مدرسين زيك.
meš men el-sahl nelāʾī modarresīn zayyak.

Stay bless Uncle Abdul Samad Nana friend of Ali Bhai Sujee. Testimony of living this tradition:

Gaining blessing in livelihood, offspring, and good reputation. Al-Bukhari and Muslim reported a hadith in which Anas Ibn Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) said, I heard Allah’s Messenger saying, “Whoever would like his provision in this world to be increased and his life span to be extended let him uphold the ties of kinship”.

Abdullah Sujee


6 thoughts on “An Awe of Presence”

  1. Abdullah your article is brilliant. Your facts are spot on.
    I’m in Awe of your brilliance and leadership.

  2. Mr Abdullah Sujee, an excellent article. Profound, depth and well scripted that captured the essence of this leader that we draw strength and guidance from. May Allah Ta’aala keep Mr Nana’s shadow over us for a long time. Ameen.

  3. Assalaamu Alaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh my dear brother Abdullah

    Ya Rabbi Shukr for allowing me to read such an inspirational work of art.

    SubhanAllah a journey and words which leave me spiraling in awe of the caliber of giants we admire in our midst and yet theirs is a humble portrayal dignified and legendary man who make breathtaking leaps to harness the lives of those they come into contact with and masses that are overwhelmed from afar.

    Alhamdulillah for these beautiful souls which fuel our lives.

    I’m honoured to be a witness of this.

    JazakAllah Hu Khayran my dear brother for sharing this dynamic and profound writing.
    May Allah Azza Wajal grant Mr Nana and the likes the best in dunniyah and Aakhirah. Ameen Ya Rabbal Aalimeen Allahumma Ameen

    Our journey has just begun.

    1. Wslm Shiraz. You have filled an ocean in teacup in how you encapsulated the description of legends. Thank you for the very striking comment.

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