By Dr. Vishnu Bisram
Glowing tributes and messages of sympathy were paid to Haji Zakir who recently passed away. He was in 86.
Haji, as he was popularly called, formerly of Canal Number 2, West Bank Demerara, Guyana, was in declining health and died at a nursing home in Queens.
Zakir was a short man in physical stature. But he had a commanding presence and a loud voice. He made a significant and lasting contribution to institutionalizing Islam in NY that few others did.
Zakir was a pioneer of establishing (Guyanese and Trini) Islam in New York living and amongst both national communities who in the early years of migration lived in mid and lower Manhattan before settling in Queens, Bronx, and Brooklyn. He also lived several years in New Jersey where he presided over several Islamic events. He would commute to events in Queens.
Haji was invited to programs and delivered prayers to several functions hosted by American politicians. He was always properly and immaculately dressed in traditional attire at all functions. He led the sermons for every Eid celebration and Koran Sharief for decades.
He was in a way a very special Muslim who got along with everyone regardless of faith and who rejected radical preaching and those who preached or practiced that path (and here are a few Guyanese who support extremism). He reminded Indian Muslims that their ancestors were Hindus. His own maternal grandmother was a Hindu. Some of Zakir’s closest friends were Hindus like Pandit umadatt, Pandit Ramlall, Ramesh Kalicharran, Clyfee Madhu, Bal Naipaul, among others. And some Hindus comforted and cared for him in his final days including Pandit Jass Persaud who took him around to social or religious events and lectures pertaining to Guyana.
As was the norm then, he lived among Trinis and Guyanese in mid and lower Manhattan. He attended Hindu events a held in apartments and Hindus reciprocated attending his Islamic services. As they did in the Caribbean, Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony and assisted each other when they first came to America. He condemned those who attacked people of other faiths pointing out that Indian Muslims were all originally from Hindus fore-parents.
On West Bank Demerara, Haji was a school teacher. And he also taught briefly in Siparia, Trinidad before migrating to New York in 1968 to further his education. Haji, like several other Guyanese, recognized trouble in Guyana right after independence from British rule in 1966. British people he knew predicted trouble in Guyana. So Haji opted for immigration first to Trinidad and then America. This was a period when Guyanese, sensing racism from the Burnham dictatorship, began to look for greener pastures migrating to England and the US to pursue higher education.
Zakir, as a pioneer, paved the way for Islam to be practiced and accepted in the greater NY area. At the heart of his work was his passion for the Koran and his commitment to spreading it. He encouraged Muslims to learn Arabic and Urdu. He paved the way for and trained several Muslims to become Imams or Mulvis. He enjoyed old time classic Bollywood songs, ghazals, Qawalis and Indian movies. Unlike other mulvis, he saw nothing wrong in partaking in entertainment and patronizing Indian cultural variety concerts. He loved his sweets like jalebis, gulab jamun, mitai, Vermicelli, etc. in early years but refrained from them later on.
Not everyone was a fan of his and not everyone had kind words for him especially in later years. But I know of no one who promoted Islam more in America than Haji Zakir. He promoted Islam in America like few did. He appeared on radio and TV programs and for a few years was a regular feature on the Clyfee Madhu radio program during the 1990s.
He dreamed of building a masjid. So he utilized the Clyfee program to publicize raising of funds to build the first original Masjid in New York and perhaps in America. And he sought funds from anyone; several Hindus, including Kali (who contributed thousands of dollars) from the real estate and professional fraternity came forward to contribute to the cause. I also attended and contributed to his fundraisers for the Mosque fund recalling very well that I attended events in Queens and an Eids celebration at a school auditorium in Flushing around 1985. On fundraising for his Masjid during the 1980s, Haji said he couldn’t be more pleased with the support that he received from people of all faiths.
Unlike some other imams, Haji welcomed Hindus in his Masjid and allowed them to deliver greetings for Islamic celebrations. He attended Phagwah celebrations and visited mandirs to give greets on Phagwah, Diwali, Navratri, and other Hindu festivals. Perhaps his closeness with Hindus offended some mulvis.
He pioneered Islamic celebrations since the 1970s in apartments (Clarks Apartments) and hotel rooms. As congregations grew, he rented auditoriums of schools in Manhattan and Queens to host Eid celebrations in the 1980s; I attended a few. He welcomed Muslims and non-Muslims like me. And he delivered personal invitations to many Hindus to patronize his event. I saw pandits at his celebrations. And I saw Zakir at several Hindu events in Richmond Hill, Bronx, and Brooklyn. He never passed me at events. He applauded my writings in service to the Indo-Caribbean community and for my pioneering work in journalism on behalf of Guyanese and Trinis and the Indian diaspora. He would praise me for coverage of his programs in the community newspapers going back to the early 1980s when we first met. He also praised my pioneering work championing the restoration of democracy in Guyana.
Many Hindus also comforted him as he was ailing. He was very close with Pandit Jass Persaud and spent considerable time with him. Jass often provided meals for him and would transport him to social events and lectures on Guyana or to book releases.
For his work, he was honored by the Indo Caribbean Federation. President Ralph Tamesh paid tributes to him. Tamesh noted that there are very few like him who completely dedicated time, talents, and interests to the work of Islam. Jass also said that as a Hindu, he always felt welcomed attending functions at Jama Masjid where Haji presided. Jass said, “he has been a sterling example to his faith”. He commanded respect among community policing units. The police closed roads for his Eid celebrations.
In a conversation, Haji expressed his sadness of the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. He wished for peace between India and Pakistan; he could not understand why brothers were fighting each other and suggested that they look to Indo-Caribbeans who live in harmony regardless of religious background.
At one time, he felt compelled to attend events in support of then President the dictator Desmond Hoyte that led to criticisms from the Indo-Guyanese community. But later, Haji became a strong supporter of Dr. Jagan. He supported free and fair elections. He was saddened by the attempt to rig the March 2 elections. He said the riggers were up to no good and should never be trusted.
Islam in New York prospered under his leadership. Islam has become the fastest growing faith in America because of the pioneering work of religious figures like Zakir.
Haji lived a full life. And I think he has been looking forward with his meeting with the lord. His legacy of his good works has been cemented among generations. He will be sorely missed.