The biography of Shaykh Umar Al-Khatib

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Shaykh Umar Al-Khatib
(excerpts from a newspaper article (Berita Harian) in 1997 and other sources)

Translated by Ainun Harun

His knowledge was as vast as the ocean yet he remained a humble man.

That is how the friends and students – consisting of great scholars including the Mufti Syed Isa Semait, described Shaykh Omar Abdullah Alkhatib, who passed away at dawn, on 22 September 1997.

Perhaps the community, especially the younger generation, is not familiar with this great yet humble figure. This is due to the fact that throughtout his lifetime, he declined any sort of publicity.

“One of his extraordinary talents was his ability to memorize genealogies (ilmu nasab). He was a true alim and because of that, he was very humble. He seldom sought publicity. However, because of his knowledge, he was well-known in Arab Saudi and Yemen. People from afar came to see him to seek knowledge or to attain ijazah (license). This is his uniqueness, ” said one of his students, the Mufti.

SEEKING KNOWLEDGE
His full name is As-Syaikh Umar bin Abdullah bin Ahmad bin Salem Al-Khatib. His lineage traced back to Abbad ibn Bisyr Al-Ausi Al-Ansari, a Companion of the Prophet (saw), whose tomb is at Al-Lisik, Hadramaut. He was born in Tarim, Hadramaut, on Thursday 8 Zulhijah 1326H. When he was young, he was called Alkhamis. His mother, Fetum Binte Hassan bin Ahmad Hassan, came from Dammun.

At nine, he had memorized the whole Al-Quran in just 97 days, and had started seeking knowledge in various branches of religious knowledge from many famous scholars at his hometown. He was loved by his teachers. Among them were Habib ‘Abdallah Ibn ‘Aydarus Ibn ‘Alwi al-’Aydarus, Shaykh Abu Bakr Ibn ‘Abdallah al-Khatib, Shaykh ‘Abd ar-Rahim Ibn ‘Abdallah Ibn Salim al-Khatib, Habib ‘Abd ar-Rahman Ibn ‘Ubaydallah as-Saqqaf, and Habib ‘Alwi Ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahman as-Seri.

Shaykh Umar was a master in several Islamic disciplines. He was also an expert in the Arabic language and loved to memorize Arabic poetry, which he often quoted while teaching his students. He was known for his brilliant mind. He memorized the poems of al-Mutanabbi—the full 3 volumes—in only 3 days.

When he was 27, he was offered the position of Qadhi (judge) of Tarim, but he declined.

He held strongly to the Al-Alawiyah tariqa. Shaykh Umar came to this region for trading in the 1930s. One of his close friends is Habib Syed Muhammad bin Salim Al-Attas.

“He and my father got to know each other while trading in Indonesia. They boarded the same ship to Singapore and stayed here. That was in 1940. They were very close. My father often asked him to be a witness when making correspondence,” said the son of Habib Muhammad, Habib Syed Hassan, in his office at Ba’alwie Mosque.

In Singapore, Shaykh Umar worked as a clerk in a company owned by the Al-Haddad family. Later, he started his own business at Kandahar Street.

ROHA SESSIONS
Syaikh Umar was known as an honest and humble man, always careful in his speech. He was a friendly man, but at first, he did not reveal his knowledge.

“Perhaps one of the reasons was because there were a lot of people older than him and he showed great respect for his elders,” said Habib Hassan, recalling the “roha” sessions (discussions of classical books), held by scholars at his home at Hillside Drive, Serangoon.

“At that time, I was young. But I remember my father, he and a few great scholars such as Al-Habib Alwi bin Thahir Al-Haddad – the mufti of Johor and Shaykh Abdullah bin Shaykh Balfaqih often had discussions,” he continued.

These “roha” sessions were held after the Friday prayers. Often, the teachers from Madrasah Al-Junied would join in. After Habib Alwi and Shaykh Balfaqih passed away, only two great figures were left in the “roha” sessions – Habib Muhammad and Shaykh Umar. Shaykh Umar would take a bus from his office at Kandahar Street (behind Masjid Sultan), at about 11am, every Tuesday. The session would end just before Asar.

Habib Syed Hassan recalled, “One incident I can never forget was when I followed my father to send Shaykh Umar back to his home. Habib Muhammad said to Shaykh Umar, ‘You are alim!” Shaykh Umar replied, “No, you are alim!” And both of them repeated the same thing again and again for about ten times! Each of them regarded the other as more knowledgable. This was the noble character displayed by two great scholars, who wished for his friend to be better and higher in status than himself, in the sight of Allah (swt).

In 1965, Shaykh Umar left for the Holy Lands (Haramain), where he stayed for some time – five years in Madinah followed by five years in Mecca. There, he held a special position, teaching at the 2 great mosques in Mecca and Medina. In Medina, he stayed at Rubat until Shaykh Abdullah ibn Muhammad Basader prepared a house for him. This was where he memorized Maqamat Al-Hariri.

His close friend, Habib Muhammad, passed away on 26 April 1976. Before he passed away, he said that if they wanted to set up “roha” classes, only two people were truly qualified to lead it – Habib Abdul Kadir bin Ahmad Alsagoff and Shaykh Umar.

RETURN
There are many opinions as to why Shaykh Umar came back to Singapore.

One opinion is that he was visited by relatives, friends and students at Masjidil Haram. Among his students was Ustaz Syed Abdillah Al-Jufri who met him in 1974 and Dr Imran Yusof who met him in 1975. Shaykh Umar had one son in Hadramaut and 7 children in Singapore.

Said one community activist, Syed Ali Redha Alsagoff, “I think he loves Singapore and wants to spread knowledge here. And why not? A day before his passport expired, he came back to Singapore.” Under Singapore law, a person who leaves the country for more than ten years will automatically lose his citizenship.

PAYING HIS STUDENTS
At 70, he started leading the “roha” sessions and started religious classes at his home (at Lor Marzuki and later at Jalan Daud), at Abdul Razak Mosque and at the houses of Habib Syed Ali Redha and Habib Ahmad Semait.

“I like debating with him. His views were always one step ahead. His knowledge is vast and his analysis sharp, challenging the minds of those less knowledgable and opening their hearts,” said Habib Ahmad.

Another student said, “I have never met a person like him. In fact, scholars known as professors in this region and in the West, do not posess his unique traits. He’s really a walking institution, equipped with knowledge and noble characteristics.”

Another student, Ustaz Muhammad Iqbal Abdullah, a Punjabi who reverted to Islam in 1981, and followed his classes since 1984, commented, “He was a mirror of Rasulullah’s characteristics. Perhaps due to his wisdom and Allah’s blessings, I was able to master Arabic in just a few years.”

Shaykh Umar was very stern and would scold students who didn’t attend classes for no valid reasons. In fact, he was willing to pay the transportation fees for his students to ensure they continue attending classes. He was regarded as a father to many of his students.

“If you truly intend to seek knowledge, he would help you without expecting anything in return,” said Ustaz Syed Abdillah.

According to Habib Hassan, Shaykh Umar, did not mind learning from his students. “There was an alim who gave a verse or “abiyat” which I recorded. When I went to Shaykh Umar’s house, I mentioned the “abiyat”. Shaykh Umar went into a room, and I thought he was going to take out one of his books. Actually, he went in to take a notebook so that he can record down the “abiyat”.”

HIS LIFE
“Except sleep, all his free time was spent on acts of worship, reading and writing,” said one of his students.

Shaykh Umar was of moderate built, and stood at 1.75m tall. He often wore a 555-brand singlet, white shirt, checked-white cloth (kain), and white kopiah. When he went to the mosque, he would wear a white jubah.

He ate moderately. He loved Arab honey, mutton, yoghurt (tairu) mixed with egg yolk or honey and rice with soup Hadramaut-styled.

“He watched what he ate because he saw food as a antedote through which to gain knowledge and to perform acts of worship,” said one of his students.

His grandson, Shaykh Syed Ismail has followed his footsteps and studied in Tarim under a scholarship from Al-Wehdah. He has graduated and started teaching in Singapore.