The Elevation of Feminine Virtue: Remembering a Life of Selfless Service and the Loss of a Hidden Paragon

By Bilal Ali Ansari

It is January 3rd, 2023 (10th of Jumada al-Thani, 1444 AH). Mortality’s cloud has obscured a peerless source of compassion and service from our eyes. For seventy-six years, this archetype of feminine virtue illuminated the world with her blazing light. Now a sizable crowd patiently waits under dark skies and a cold, steady rain as her body’s final resting place is prepared. It is shortly after noon, but the sun is hidden behind gray clouds. The mood, like the sky, is deservingly dreary. 

Mawlana Ahsan Syed, waiting amongst a closely huddled mass of men, reminds me in his distinctively gentle tone of the spectacle we witnessed fifteen years ago, when Shaykh al-Hadith Mawlana Muhammad Naeem (or Abba Ji), the father-in-law of the now deceased, had his own funeral. Mawlana Ahsan refers to the scene of hundreds of worshippers clothed in sunnahdress marching towards the cemetery, braving heat and scorching sun, only to be met with torrential rain, moments after the last handful of dirt was placed on his grave. I am reminded of the reflections I composed about that day: taking a lesson from the sky’s furious complaint, witnessing the signs in the heavens, and the sinking reminder to appreciate a worthy soul before they depart from this world.1 

I stare downward at the grave being dug, trying to avoid my thoughts of indescribable loss as much as the pummeling rain. Much as fifteen years ago, I am gripped by the harsh reality that we do not pay attention to blessings until they are snatched from us, perhaps not even then. My graveyard companions are some of best people I know, but their presence barely softens the blow of my loss:

But when the bitter hour is gone,

And the keen throbbing pangs are still,

Oh, sweetest then to couch alone

Upon some silent hill!…

For what to man the gift of breath,

If sorrow be his lot below;

If all the day that ends in death

Be dark with clouds of woe?

– Lewis Carroll2

Abbā Jī’s grave is nearly adjacent to the one being dug up now. It is the grave of his daughter-in-law, Rafat Saleem, my maternal grandmother (nani) through marriage, and arguably the saintliest woman I have ever known. A single plot is left unoccupied between the two. My gaze falls on the recently-deceased’s husband of six decades, Qari Abdullah Saleem, who just shared a tearful recollection of his wife’s extraordinary qualities before the janazah prayer. He spoke of her unparalleled sincerity, tireless service, dutiful worship, and spiritual vision. My gaze is fixed on his face, his loosely tied white turban, long flowing beard, and saddened eyes as he lovingly describes his devout partner of half of a century. Near the end of the brief eulogy, however, his stirring recollection of  Nani having once prayed to be taken from this world before him brings me to tears and I am forced to avert my gaze. He recalls how when he responded to her duʿā with the same prayer, she had offered symbolic proof for why she deserved precedence: on their wedding day so many decades ago, her carriage (doli) had preceded him in the procession by a dozen or so yards. By analogy, she claimed, she deserved to precede him in life’s  ceaseless procession to the grave.

How bittersweet, this victory! 

When the verdict is goodbye,

Both consequences of glum debate

On who’s the first to die.

After the funeral, I revisit the piece I wrote about Abba Ji, titled “When the Skies Wept”, and find motivation to pen some thoughts about my Nani. Both personalities were priceless, rare gems buried in our midst. Both would be done a great injustice if their legacies were forgotten and their extraordinary lives were not recorded in the annals of history. 

Of course, I recognize that there are countless others more deserving – more knowledgeable relatives, more scholarly blood progeny – to document Nani’s life and biography. Nevertheless, my desire is intense that the world should know her, should hear her stories, should remember her, and should never forget her. I realize that the task is tall. I generally struggle to find the right words to describe great people, especially the sentiments they have produced in me. Words can carry thoughts but miserably fail to convey feeling accurately. 

This brief memoir, then, is primarily a reminder for myself and my children. I hope they will cherish and preserve these written words and use them to supplement what may grow into quickly fleeting mental images. Second, I pray that some of these memories may benefit a community that Nani cared so much about, a community that is still so direly in need of accessible commemorations of the exemplars and beau idéals of their time.

Her given name was Rafat, a fitting name that denotes one who is “elevated” or “exalted” in Arabic. She was born on January 3rd, 1947 C.E. (10th of Safar, 1366 A.H.). She was raised by a well-born, cultured father, Khalil al-Rahman Siddiqi, a descendant of the first Caliph Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, may Allah be pleased with him, and a pious, noble woman Masuda Khatun, a lineal daughter of the third Caliph ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan, may Allah be pleased with him. Her paternal grandfather (dada) knew her as Zayb al-Nisa’ (The Ornament of Women), a title she embodied throughout her life.3 

She was one of eleven children: one sister died in childhood, ten lived to adulthood, and seven of whom are still alive. She was the oldest, after her a sister Qaysar (who died many years ago), then Anis al-Rahman (a brother who passed away only five months prior), then her sisters Kishwar and Nighat (the latter who passed away in 2012), then her brothers Khurshid (who lives in Madinah), Rahat, and Jamshid (both brothers who live in Deoband, India), and then the youngest sisters Zinat and Nusrat. I was not fortunate enough to have met her entire family, but those who I did, such as Khurshid Mamu who lived a few blocks from the Prophet’s Masjid (al-masjid al-nabawī) in Madinah and graciously hosted me when I traveled there for ḥajj and ʿumrah trips, always reflected the same kindness and exemplary character that was Nani’s hallmark.

Her father, Khalil al-Rahman Sahib, was a government official in charge of keeping records of the ownership of land and its tilling. His own mother was Hakim al-Ummah Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanwi’s first cousin. Khalil al-Rahman was also the maternal uncle (or mamu) of Mawlana Qari Muhammad Tayyib Sahib (grandson of Hujjat al-Islam Mawlana Qasim Nanotwi), may Allah be pleased with them all. When Qari Tayyib Sahib visited Nani’s father’s home on Eid days, he would be sure to proudly emphasize this familial link. 

Nani’s mother was also from a celebrated family of Deoband. She was from the progeny of Dar al-‘Ulum’s first teacher, Mulla Mahmud Deobandi, about whom it is said that the Dar al-‘Ulum in Deoband began with two Mahmuds studying under a pomegranate tree: Mulla Mahmud Deobandi, the first teacher, and Shaykh al-Hind Mahmud Hasan, the first student. Having observed Nani’s mannerisms over the last fifteen years, I can not say that I find Nani’s connection to these exceptional, celebrated personalities altogether surprising. Her humility, modesty, and unostentatiousness is a vestige of the spiritual and intellectual giants from whose lineage she hails.

My late mother, may Allah have infinite mercy on her, was one of a score of religious ladies in the community who was able to recognize Nani’s nobility from her sublime mannerisms, character, and piety alone. They did not know that she was born into a family of the spiritually and scholarly elite or that she shared the blood of the noblest Companions since she never boasted about her ancestry. It was only after she died that even some of her closest relatives learned of her lineal connections to Mulla Mahmud, Hadrat Hakim al-Ummah Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanwi, and Qari Muhammad Tayyib al-Qasimi (may Allah shower them all with His infinite mercy). 

Nani did not receive a formal Islamic education, but she was surrounded by those who had: her father-in-law, husband, children, grandchildren, etc.… Her father-in-law, Mawlana Muhammad Naeem, had in fact studied at the Dar al-ʿUlum in Deoband, by his own volition, for twenty long years and completed every elective offered therein.4  Nani had married at the tender age of sixteen and motherhood began not long after. She raised many children and grandchildren throughout her life, but six were directly her own: two older daughters, and then four sons. She insisted on their moral and intellectual education, encouraging them to persist in their studies even when it meant being separated from them for many long years. As a result, they all remain engaged in the field of education, specifically the Islamic, sacred sciences. Her older daughter5 administers a girls’ madrasah in Deoband, India and supervises the education of hundreds of young women. Her younger daughter, who holds a degree in the Applied Behavioral Sciences, likewise administers the girls’ madrasah at the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, IL. Her four sons: Qari Abdur Rahman Saleem, Mawlana Ubaidullah Saleem, Mawlana Saad Saleem, and Mawlana Sulaiman Saleem, in order of age, are all engaged full-time in teaching the sacred sciences and community service work. The diversity of their skill sets and involvement in so many ventures in Muslim America are testament to her unshaking belief in the potential prosperity and elevation of the Muslim community.

When her children were young, communal strife in the city of Deoband in the early 80’s forced her husband, Qari Muhammad Abdullah Saleem, to emigrate to the United States. Their four sons were still engaged in their hifz or ‘alimiyyah education there at the time, and their care, upbringing, and the supervision of their education was left entirely in Nani’s hands. Due to the value she placed in their education, Nani committed herself to the remainder of her sons’ schooling and pushed them to excel. The unresolved civil unrest amongst other factors kept her husband away for many years, unable to return to India and provide direct support to his family. In the meantime, Nani bore the burden of balancing her childrens’ education, nursing her terminally ill mother-in-law and sister-in-law, and serving her father-in-law at home. She handled all these responsibilities simultaneously and with such excellence that left no room for complaint.

Yet this was only the beginning of a life spent in the service of others. When she eventually joined her husband and migrated to the United States, a foreign land with a strange language and unfamiliar environment, she was immediately thrust into a new set of responsibilities. First, of course, was the domestic responsibility to her spouse, who was himself busy day and night in community service work, teaching, and various other duties. As a result, Nani largely spent the long days alone at home, away from homeland and family, and without support from either direct or extended family. Her children were still in India completing their studies at the time and she had no family connections in the Chicago-land area where they had settled. Instead of taking the opportunity to rest after years of managing a home alone in India, she occupied herself in serving her husband. 

One day, he approached her with a proposal. Considering the dearth of Quran study programs and hifz schools in the States (huffaz had to imported in Ramadan to lead tarawih in those days), he had established a madrasah for the Chicago-land area. However, due to the logistical challenges in purchasing property for a formal school and a desire to begin the noble work without delay, he had begun madrasah operations in the basement of his home. Several families had expressed interest in full-time hifz education, but the children needed a place to stay during the six-day school week, as well as someone to care for them: to cook their meals, nurse them when sick, and clean up after them. 

Before Nani had arrived in the States, Mawlana Abdullah Saleem had been cooking for the children himself in their Palatine home-madrasah.6 But when Nani arrived from India, he offered her the following proposal: he would continue to cook and clean since it was his own burden to bear, or she could contribute as well and shoulder the burden of the students’ domestic care. He asked that she not be critical in the case of the former, and that she never complain about the burden of work in the case of the latter, as serving madrasah students had to be done solely for the sake of Allah. Nani unhesitatingly agreed.

Of course, the young children living in her home required constant care. For six days of the week, Nani’s daily routine consisted of waking up early in the morning to cook the students and family breakfast. Once breakfast had been served, she busied herself in preparing their lunch and cleaning, and by the time lunch had been served and cleaned up, she would have to begin preparations for dinner right away. Because the food Nani prepared for family did not suit the blander palates of kids growing up in America, Nani had to cook separate meals for the students than she did with her own family, which occupied most of her day. In between all the cooking and cleaning, students would often visit the kitchen upstairs to grab drinks from the fridge, leaving behind a mess of dishes and cups, the cleaning of which was also left on her shoulders. Sunday was the day off for the madrasah kids, but not for Nani. While the students rested at home, the whole day was spent cleaning the house in preparation for the students’ arrival. By the time she finished, it would already be Sunday evening and the students would be trickling back into the home. The wildly intense daily cycle of cooking, feeding, sweeping, scrubbing for family and students would recommence yet again.

Lo, like a candle wrestling with the night

O’er my own self I pour my flooding tears.

I spent my self, that there might be more light,

More loveliness, more joy for other men.

– Muhammad Iqbal7

Eventually, with the gradual arrival of family from India, Nani received help from her children and their spouses. At the same time, their arrival also meant more mouths to feed and more loved ones to worry about, which she did limitlessly. At any one moment, there could have been over a dozen family members living under the same roof as a dozen or so madrasah students. Despite the burden, Nani’s heart held space for them all, and she enjoyed the warmth of family and friends. 

And certainly Allah blessed her with a large, adoring family, all of whom insisted on being with her during her final days: 6 children, 21 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren, in addition to 11 children-in-law and grandchildren-in law.8 Despite the disdain amongst modern Farangis for large families, traditional family structures, and numerous children, it is hard to imagine anyone could dismiss the blessing of being surrounded by three dozen devoted and loving family members from three successive generations at the time of death.

If her devotion to her family was exemplary, then her  intellectual and spiritual pursuits were even more shockingly inspirational, for Nani was as committed to improving herself as she was to service and family. Despite the informality of her early intellectual and spiritual education, or perhaps because of it, she was habitually engaged in reading Islamic literature and various forms of ritual worship. I rarely saw her except that she was busy in salatdhikrtilawah, or some type of study when not serving others. She read whatever was accessible: stories of the prophets, biographies of the ‘ulama, even the Urdu newspapers. She considered her education inadequate due to the informality of her schooling, but her internalization of knowledge in the form of prophetic behavior and mannerisms meant that she was more cultured, refined, and educated than she perhaps ever realized. She could recall Quranic content better than many huffaz; if a hafiz relative struggled to locate a verse or concept in the Quran from memory, she was often effortlessly and immediately able to give reference to its chapter. In utter testament to her curiosity, I found her on several occasions in her later years poring over a grammar book in a humble attempt to pick up a new language. 

She had a dagger-sharp memory, especially when it came to personal histories. Her ability to accurately recall dates and names, even of people long-deceased, was remarkable. Often the names of community members, especially those my age, would come up in conversation and I would try to explain their familial relations to her, only to feel silly when she admitted that she knew the person well and wasn’t in need of a reintroduction. Nani remembered not only the people in question, but the names of their children, spouses, parents, and other significant relatives. I often marveled at how either she was able to recall family trees and lineal connections off the top of her head or they were just on the tip of her tongue, a clear attestation to her Siddiqi roots.9 Her tender, jamali temperament was equally testament to her Siddiqi nature. I can claim, without accusation of hyperbole, that I never saw her upset with anyone except when they violated another person’s rights. Her character was prophetic and emanated from her very core; even her displeasure was selfless.

As a daughter of the most modest of Companions, ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan, may Allah be pleased with him, Nani’s remarkable chasteness was also unsurprising. Guarding her innocent virtue was perpetually at the forefront of her mind. It didn’t matter how many reassurances she was given that no one could see her through the windows, she insisted on erring on the side of caution and shutting the blinds completely. For her, there was no compromise on matters of decency and morality. 

She sat ceremoniously upright with her feet together, never drawing a knee over another or crossing her legs even after long hours of sitting with guests. I was often tempted to lean over, put my feet up, or lie on my back in her presence because of how comfortable she made you feel in her presence, only to resist because of how I never saw her do the same. She was either sitting in respectful form or fetching refreshments for her guests. When she sat with me, she gave me her full attention and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to share. She never interrupted others, even her juniors, and she listened more than she spoke. Listening was her forte. Yet when she spoke, her advice was direct and appropriate. 

She dressed “properly”, with a degree of regal formality that made one think that perhaps she was expecting a guest at any moment. Even in old age she chose to wear relatively formal clothing at home. She would urge my wife to similarly keep a habit of wearing some jewelry in the house. She applied a most pleasant scent, a unique one that I have not been able to yet trace, that inexplicably and unfailingly followed visitors home. Any time my children visited their Bari Nani without me, no matter the length of the visit, I was able to smell the sweet fragrance of her cozy home on them for hours. During covid social distancing days, I once forgot to bring my own prayer mat to Jumu‘ah prayers and so she gifted me her own, insisting that I take it home with me instead of just borrowing it, and I was able to smell the same pleasant odor on it every time I prostrated on it for nearly a year.

Her selflessness and uninhibited generosity remind me of her Companion forebears. Like Abu Bakr and ‘Uthman before her, Nani’s philanthropy was unhesitant and indiscriminate. She gave to others without a second thought. We could not leave her house empty-handed. It didn’t matter how often we visited and for how long. Without fail, we returned home from visits with bags full of snacks, fruits, and meals. She stocked her pantry with foods that she knew her grandchildren and great grandchildren preferred and paid particular attention to their likes and dislikes. On top of that, she was often gifting food that had been specially prepared for her due to her specific dietary needs, of which there were several due to poor health in her later years. Her gluten-free handmade rotis were regular guests of our fridge and some of her low-spice vegetable salans are still in our freezer, along with boxes of dates and water that she had blessed with recitation of the Quran. Her generosity with us was so unreal that I was often ashamed to visit for fear that she would empty out her stock again. Despite being incredibly weak in her final months, she burdened herself to get up and provide us something to eat every time we visited. I once tried to tell her that if she kept insisting on showering these gifts on us it would make it difficult for us to maintain regular visits due to the embarrassment. To no one’s surprise, she simply responded with a warm smile and persisted in her expressions of generosity. If she was ever stubborn, it was in her benevolence and compassionate love. 

Her temperament and character, like her personal preferences, were prophetically moderate. In diet, she ate moderately in amount and in taste. She did not eat spicy food and had little tolerance for heavy peppers. She ate what was both available and tolerable to her, and selflessly insisted that others not go out of their way to cater to her dietary needs, even though she accepted assistance from family when it was provided. If she could not tolerate the food, she simply abstained from eating the meal, or ate very little of it. She ate to sustain herself, not for enjoyment and rarely to her fill, but urged others to eat more even when they had satiated themselves. 

A common expression we used with Nani was the abrupt “nahi Nani…” to her usual insistences. We argued with her about nearly every kindness she displayed. “Nahi Nani, we just ate before we came.” “Nahi Nani, we are comfortable. The temperature is fine”. “Nahi Nani, we already have so much at home. Please keep the food for yourself.” Over the years, I gave up on trying to dissuade her from her regular formalities, such as the refreshments she often presented that were usually reserved for irregular guests. I tried to visit her on Fridays after Jumu‘ah on weeks that I didn’t have to lead the prayer myself. I would visit her before heading out to visit my mother’s grave at the nearby cemetery, which I used as an excuse to make my visits relatively short so as not to burden her. Most recently, I sat with her for several hours, which was unusual because usually some family member or the other would visit in the afternoon. However, this Friday in particular no one interrupted our conversation, so I carried on asking her personal details about her life, her first years after emigrating to the States, stories of some of the pious people she knew, etc… until I realized that if I didn’t head out immediately, I would miss my chance to visit the cemetery, which closes at dusk in the winter months. I wonder now if I had interrupted her daily litanies, of which she had many, since she gave me no impression of being burdened by my visit during those hours. She was as generous with her time as she was with her possessions.

If ever and whenever the thought occurred to us to repay her in kind, we were inevitably humbled by her superior kindness. On one of many occasions, my wife loaded the car with a couple bags of food especially purchased for her grandparents. My wife knew that they would not likely accept the gifts without objection or remuneration. To no one’s surprise, when my wife returned home that evening she came carrying double the amount of food we had gifted them.  They give preference over themselves, even if they too are in poverty. (al-Ḥashr 59:9) Wa yu’thiruna ‘ala anhusihim wa law kana bihim khasasah.

Nani was a remarkably humble, unassuming, genial, and hospitable person. Her humility was borderline self-deprecating. She did not boast of her lineage or family connections. Her own close family members only learned of her connection to the noble scholars after she died. She never spoke of her charitable deeds or hospitality to anyone. Again, much of her philanthropic work, especially with family members, became known only after she passed away. When she traveled to India to visit relatives, she made it a habit to visit near and distant relatives and provide charitable support where it was needed. 

I am certain that any attempt to exhaustively cover Nani’s innumerable noble qualities would fail, and so I must therefore be satisfied, beyond this point, to highlight and reiterate some of her most distinguishing qualities. My wife’s recent reflections on her Nani’s ideals perhaps best capture these virtues, what she may call “her inner essence”. During her final illness, when Nani was admitted into the hospital, my wife shared a keen observation about her while sitting at her bedside and observing Nani’s primary concerns despite the intense pain she must have been enduring at the time. As my wife describes, Nani was entirely focused on three things, even in the hospital. She wrote: 

She’s so concerned about purdah right now too. [She] doesn’t want her head uncovered for even a moment… What embodies Nani is being the ultimate mother figure, ‘ibadah, and purdah. That basically sums her up. 

To contextualize this observation and help readers appreciate the significance of her concern, I must note how incredibly tolerant Nani was of pain. Despite a long bout with cancer, she didn’t start any potent pain medication until her last several days. My mother, may Allah have mercy on her, who suffered from cancer and died in 2010, once described the severity of her pain as one unlike anything I could relate to, because: “any pain you have experienced is irregular or fluctuates, but mine is sharp and piercing, and it doesn’t go away, even in my sleep”. When I sat with Nani, well before her hospitalization, I could often perceive the intensity of her discomfort from the subtle expressions on her face, although she never vocalized it. Amazingly, even during those moments she would only express concern about my own ailments, and I have no doubt that her concern for my health over her own was genuine. Anyone who knew her could attest to her ability to tolerate pain as long as those around her were in comfort.10 

 Epictetus wrote in 90 A.D. that “difficulties are the things that show what men are.” A similar Arabic axiom reads: “In times of hardship the [contents of] men’s mines are revealed.” (‘inda al-shada’id tazhar ma‘adin al-rijal). In Nani’s time of most intense distress, when she would wake from weakness-induced sleep or regain consciousness, her inner reality became brilliantly manifest. Her sole concern was her prayer, her feminine virtue, and other people’s comfort.

Earlier that day, when my wife had texted me about Nani’s concerns, I had asked about her weakening condition, as she had not had nourishment for days and was barely able to stay awake. When she would wake, it was out of concern for her prayers. My wife’s reply was: “She’s praying again, but [I’m not] sure she’s awake. Sometimes she keeps praying until she falls asleep or even does all the movements of salat while sleeping.”  Anyone who knows me well will appreciate how much I enjoy reading the stories of the righteous or how much I like to recall my first hand observations of the many pious people I have met. From my personal observations, I have heard people uttering Allah’s name with every sleeping breath; I’ve heard stories of lovers of the Quran who recited Allah’s Word while under anesthesia; I have known people whose dementia made them forget their children’s names but not the Quran. I must admit that this was the first time that I was able to observe someone trying to offer salats in their sleep, which I believe is altogether implausible unless the concern for duty to Allah emanates from that person’s very core, from every cell in their body. These are people whose entire essence is occupied in the dhikr of Allah. They have merged with the Divine in holy remembrance.

A pious woman in our community, a hidden foundation of feminine righteousness and spirituality herself, related to me recently that when Nani first arrived in the United States, she had seen a dream in which someone told her that “Bhabi enjoys the maqam ‘ahdiyyat”. Not knowing what that meant at the time, she simply let the term “maqam ‘ahdiyyat” linger in her mind. Years later, she came across its definition and explanation in an advanced book of Islamic spirituality. The maqam, or rank, of ‘ahdiyyah (def. relating to the covenant) is reserved for people of the highest level of spiritual achievement. It is the rank of true cognizance of the Unlimited, the Absolute. The one who achieves ʿahdiyyah is someone for whom the Truth has manifested itself.

Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami, in his prosopographical work Dhikr al-Niswa al-Muta‘abbidat al-Sufiyyat, writes about Mu’minah al-Dimashqiyyah, the daughter of Bahlul (the mad ascetic) and one of the most important female gnostics (‘arifat) of her age. She was once asked. “From where did you acquire these spiritual states (ahwal)?” She replied, “By following Allah’s commands according to the sunnah of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, by magnifying the rights of the Muslims, and by rendering service to the righteous and the virtuous.” These were also Nani’s most distinguishing characteristics and the reasons why I do not doubt that she could have achieved the highest of spiritual ranks. 

Her commitment to ‘ibadat alone testified to her taqwa and her adherence to Allah’s commands. Her punctuality with her salat, both the fara’id and nawafil, was well-known to her family. When she prayed, it was a harmonious blend of divine love and devout reverence, a purposeful but peaceful set of movements offered in the private quarters of her home. She was regular in her daily litanies and adhkar: the durudistighfar, and third kalimah. It was rare to see her in even social gatherings except that she had a tasbih in her hand busying herself in dhikr. It was such a common sight that we stopped noticing it, until near the end of her life when her daily litanies increased in significant proportion. During those last years, there was hardly a moment when her fingers and tongue were not constantly engaged in dhikr. In her last days on this earth, her fingers constantly grasped her tasbih and only stopped when she lost consciousness. On my last visit, shortly before she lost consciousness for the last time, I noticed her tasbih slip from her hand. My last memory in the hospital with her was of me gently closing her hand around the tasbih to replace her grip, knowing that as soon as she came back around, she would want to continue reciting the kalimah

The week she passed away, she reviewed the answers to the three questions that everyone is asked by the angels Munkar and Nakir. She went over them again and again with her family like an anxious student reviewing their grammar lessons. In fact, for as long as I knew her, she was preparing for death in some way or the other, and near the end her preparations intensified. I am sure that she was expecting death even before her cancer diagnosis, but even after the diagnosis and poor prognosis, she didn’t seem unprepared to face it. We didn’t notice the signs of her illness worsening by virtue of any complaint of intensified pain. If we had been adequately perceptive, we may have understood that her condition was worsening based on the intensification in her worship, which she nevertheless observed with characteristic calm.

Every night since my wife was old enough to remember, Nani would quietly recite a routine of the panj surah (five chapters)after the ʿisha prayer: Ya Sin, al-Rahman, al-Waqi‘ah, al-Mulk, and al-Muzammil, and then also Ha Mim al-Sajdah. Her grandchildren remember that while others were asleep, she would place her mushaf on a pillow on the floor and complete her recitation under warm closet light so that the childrens’ sleep would not be disturbed. 

She performed tahajjud (the night vigil prayer) throughout her life, and continued this practice until her last few days, during which she only missed it due to debilitating weakness. She was similarly regular with her chasht (ishraq) and awwabin prayers until she became physically incapable of performing them near the end of her life. If she was ever blessed with even relatively nominal good fortune, she made sure to perform salat al-shukr (the prayer of gratitude), and in times of need she was sure to perform the salat al-hajah (the prayer of need). 

Before she passed, she had taken care of all her obligations to Allah and His creation. She left no debts and owed no one. She had no missed prayers to make up or for which to pay a fidyah. All her missed fasts had similarly been expiated (other than those she couldn’t make up due to terminal illness). When her brother passed away earlier this year, she recited the kalimah 25,000 times. For her own illness, she performed a dhikr of 125,000 kalimahs and stated, “I don’t know if anyone will be able to do it for me. I will do it myself.” 

What I find particularly striking about her ‘ibadah is that in fulfilling her duties to Allah, nothing seemed to interfere with how she fulfilled the rights of others. Devout worshippers often struggle to prevent their worship, or other people, from appearing to weigh heavy on them. Their struggle between balancing the rights of man and Allah is evident. With Nani, I was not able to perceive such a struggle. I never felt like I stood in the way of her duties to Allah. 

A final observation about her noble qualities brings us back to that time of great difficulty during her final illness. Due to her specific cancer and the location of the tumor, she was unable to receive nourishment for many days. The resultant weakness caused her to lose consciousness or fall asleep. However, when she regained consciousness, her first enquiry was usually an expression of concern about those around her. She asked if visitors had been offered water or food, if family had eaten, or if one of her great grandchildren who was in the hospital visiting her was being properly looked after. Her motherly instinct was intense and deep-rooted. Her selflessness was instinctual. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Nani’s selflessness was most evident in her service to others. When she was still in India, her mother-in-law was suffering from a brain tumor, from which she eventually died, and required constant care. Nani nursed her throughout her illness, even staying with her in hospitals in Delhi and Amritsar for three months, sleeping next to her bed on the hard concrete floor. She would go out in the big city to collect groceries by herself, cooking meals using the gas stove under the hospital stairs. She became accustomed to sleeping on hard surfaces such that it became uncomfortable for her to sleep on soft surfaces afterward, and my wife recalls that throughout her childhood she remembers that Nani slept on the floor. After her mother-in-law passed away, Nani took charge of nursing one of her sisters-in-law through terminal illness, not once complaining about the burden of having to care for her in-laws. Qari Abdullah Saleem once told me that he believed that his wife and son, Mawlana Saad Saleem, through serving his own parents, had earned all his opportunities of attaining reward. The latter had patiently served his father, Mawlana Na‘im throughout his illness until he eventually passed away in 2007, and his wife had done the same for his mother. Neither had ever complained, he said, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Nani’s sweet temperament, polite dealings, distinguished demeanor, and incomparable patience thus made her loved by all. She gave no reason to anyone, especially in-laws, to complain. She was the ideal in-law to her husband’s parents and sisters, and of course, her own parents and siblings cherished her dearly. Her sons and daughters-in-law thought of her as their own mother. Her elder son-in-law, Mawlana Nadeem al-Wajidi, wrote about her: “In terms of relationship, she was my mother-in-law, but she was truly more than a mother to me.” 

She worried about her sons-in-law and grandsons-in-law like she worried about her own children. If we ever got sick, she called to ask us about our health and left a list of suggested remedies. She would call my wife and recommend a variety of home remedies or supplications and sent damm water whenever possible. I am certain that a continuous chain of du‘as would begin at the moment she heard I was sick and only ceased when she got news that I had recovered. Without fail, if Nani was on the phone with my wife, there was at least one part of the conversation in which she enquired about my health in particular, not to speak about my children and other family members. She would ask about the health of my parents, brothers, sister, and their children, and if she ever discovered that one of them was ill she would pray for them and remember to ask me about their recovery. 

In the beginning of my marriage, I found it pleasantly quirky that whenever my wife and I left Nani’s house, without family she would call us to enquire as to whether we had arrived safely at home . At first, she would call a bit too early and find that we were still on the way, but after a few trips she would be able to better estimate our expected time of arrival and we then started receiving her check-up calls shortly after entering our front door. My mother-in-law and several other relatives testify to having had this same experience for decades; the former still travels an hour one-way to work daily and mentioned that until recently Nani would check in on her to see if she had arrived home safely after returning from work in the evening.

Nani worried so much about others that we suspect that it was the cause for a variety of significant health issues she suffered from in life. For over twenty years, she suffered from digestion issues, because of which she had discontinued eating meat and spicy food. On formal occasions, such as family get-togethers and community weddings, while others enjoyed a wide variety of delightful foods, Nani would suffice with the simplest dishes, often avoiding the formally-prepared meals altogether. When she was diagnosed with cancer, various forms of treatment were suggested, some of which placed many more restrictions on her: no gluten or lactose. 

Her dietary restrictions made me particularly sad, as my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed her cooking. Although she wasn’t particularly fond of the culinary arts, she was an incredible cook. She made simple dishes, but they were tasty. One such dish that my wife and I particularly enjoyed was her tahari, a yellow-rice and potato dish that contains only a handful of ingredients. She cooked, like she ate, out of need and not pleasure. She was efficient with her schedule and didn’t waste time or energy on culinary pleasures. Nevertheless, she spent so much of her life occupied in cooking for family, students, and guests. Nani cooked and catered to people’s preferences so well that, growing up, my wife assumed that she was passionate about cooking. It was later in life that she realized that Nani’s efficiency in relation to preparing and serving food was purely economical. She didn’t care for the pleasures of the tongue, nor for expensive clothing, jewelry, cars, homes, or other material pleasures. If there was anything she was passionate about after taking care of her family, it was her self-improvement and making up for lost time spent away from formal learning.

My wife fondly remembers how as a young girl her grandmother would nurse her when she was sick. She would make her soft-boiled eggs and give them to her with warm milk and honey. For coughs, she warmed up honey with crushed black pepper and fed it to her with a spoon. For fevers, she gave her warm saffron milk. For gut and general dietary health, she prepared ispaghol, a dietary fiber, in a mixture of milk and sugar in just the right amount to make it enjoyable to consume and put one straight to sleep. She occasionally took a spoon of khamira for general health. She was not a reductionist in her home remedies. She preferred natural medicines, the type that is common in yunani or ayurvedic treatments, but wasn’t averse to using allopathic medications as well. She additionally took great care to incorporate spiritual treatments into healing, reading du‘as on oil for hair maintenance and health, and reciting Quran on damm water.  

The pious lady of the community who recognized Nani’s spiritual rank from a dream related to me that she once saw Nani’s calloused hands, which she described as having “holes” in them due to her constantly serving the madrasah children. When she appealed to Nani to show herself more mercy, Nani replied, “How can I let them be on their own for even a minute when someone is bound to end up with a broken nose!” Aunty asked, “Even students of the Qur’an?” Nani replied, “Shaytan attacks students of the Qur’an more than others.”

Nani rigorously maintained her relationships with the circle of ladies she knew in the community. My mother was one of many women in the community who Nani stayed in contact with by phone. Many of the noble ladies made it a habit to perform their Jumu‘ah or Eid prayers nearby so that they could visit her afterward. Despite her physical distance from India, she was also in constant contact with her acquaintances in Deoband. Throughout the week, she would both make and receive so many calls from relatives and in-laws in India and Saudi Arabia, that it was as if she was talking to someone down the road: siblings, in-laws, their children and grandchildren, their in-laws, etc… If she heard that someone was ill, she would enquire into their health and supplicate for their quick recovery. Her concern for others’ health was astonishing. She would remember if I had ever gotten sick or even had a headache weeks later. I can’t recall how many times she would ask me about my recovery from an ailment that I had myself long forgotten about. If she ever learned of a relative in India falling ill, she would be sure to call them regardless of whether they were close relatives or distant in-laws. She was often the first to call for condolences, even with family abroad. When she visited Deoband, she went out of her way to inquire into the condition of her childhood friends, neighbors, and even the workers in the area she knew. If anyone was in financial need, she helped them out without hesitation and listened to their problems. When people came to her for help, they could rest assured that they would not leave her place empty-handed. Several acquaintances in India, while communicating their condolences, complained that now that Nani was gone, they didn’t know how they would be able to take care of their finances.

Unsurprisingly, she had nearly everyone’s numbers memorized. Her memory was remarkable; if she saw a number once she wouldn’t forget it. She remembered not only the person’s name but the names of all their relatives, blood kin, and relatives through marriage: parents, children, grandchildren, uncles, cousins, in-laws, etc… When a name came up in conversation, she was effortlessly able to recall lineages several generations back and knew the names of the family members of the many scholars in Deoband by heart. Often, I thought to document these connections because I don’t believe many of the family relationships are recorded elsewhere, but the opportunity escaped me and I don’t remember most of what she shared. Her knowledge of the womenfolk in Deoband was perhaps most notable, as their histories are often overlooked in written works, as well as her knowledge of how the many scholarly families in Deoband are interlinked through marriage.  

Whatever limited funds she possessed she gave away. She always had some money put away for the poor, and she would request travelers to take some with them if they were visiting the Haramayn to distribute amongst the needy. Her giving didn’t stop even when she passed. Shortly before her demise, she had instructed her family to distribute a sum of money that she had put aside in her home for charity. Even after death, her charitable giving lived on. When we traveled for Hajj or ‘Umrah, where others would give us money to purchase clothes or other personal items for them, the only funds Nani gave us was to distribute to the poor. 

She was equally charitable with her time. A dutiful mother and wife, her schedule was dictated by family: her husband, children, and grandchildren. She ate and rested according to their schedule. In fact, she rested very little, as she was constantly being interrupted by visitors and often didn’t get a chance to lie down during the day. Of course, she always reassured visitors that they had not disturbed her rest, but we suspect that she was often interrupted during visits. If she ever rested during the day, it was in the late afternoon. 

In the evenings, she remained awake for guests for as long as they stayed, preferring their convenience over her own. She did not discriminate between guests, even staying up late for her children who often sat with her late into the night. She patiently waited for everyone to leave before beginning her nightly routine of tilawah and salat, even if it meant starting the routine after midnight. Her husband kept to a strict schedule; Nani compromised her time to accommodate it. Empathetic well-wishers may have viewed her sacrifices as “not taking care of herself”, but I appreciate that this “deficiency” in self-care was just another expression of her selflessness. She saw everyone else’s care as her priority.

Nani’s heavenly gift, which she shared generously with others, was her pure and trusting heart. She noticed the good in others. When a person’s shortcomings were mentioned, even in jest, she redirected the conversation towards the person’s praiseworthy qualities or reinterpreted their flaws as strengths. She was full of compliments. My daughters fondly remember that when they visited Nani, it was her habit to compliment them about their good manners or how nicely they were dressed. She wasn’t blind to people’s faults, but her warm-heartedness encouraged others to talk to her freely without fear of judgment or critique. She was genuinely interested in others and listened intently to what they had to share. When I sat with her, I felt such tenderness and calm in my heart that I genuinely enjoyed any time I could spend with her alone, largely because she never let on that my presence was a burden on her. A single glance at her kind face brought a smile to my own and relieved any pain or fatigue from which I was suffering.

When she passed away, Nani owed no debts, of course, since she never borrowed from others. She was a giver, not a taker. The estate she left behind consisted entirely of everyday household items: some clothing, jewelry, prayer beads, etc… I don’t believe she had a bank account or ever kept enough money to justify opening one. Whatever she received she spent and distributed quickly. She was similarly particular about immediately fulfilling any rights to Allah. Even in her old age and throughout her battle with cancer, she constantly worried about making up missed fasts. As a result, when she passed away, she had no missed prayers or fasts to make up other than those she could not have made up due to terminal illness. 

Dutiful, compassionate, and selfless women like Nani seem rarer and rarer these days. More lamentably, the prophetic and feminine ideals she embodied are no longer honored or considered virtuous. Selflessness has been tragically replaced with feminist solipsism. Empowerment is imagined only in serving the self rather than Allah, His faith, and His creation. Compassion is misconstrued as an impediment in the path of progress, and women are taught to shed their modesty and discard chastity if they wish to be successful. 

As I pen these reflections, my thoughts shift to the weeping willow bonsai tree on my kitchen windowsill, my second attempt (both unsuccessful thus far) at caring for a bonsai. Despite having rooted well and grown several fresh branches, it curiously began to wilt around the day that Nani passed away and is now no more than a dried-up cutting. I have little hope that it will survive the winter and have conceded to the timely symbolism of its seemingly inevitable demise. In many traditions, the willow tree is seen as a symbol of feminine compassion and selflessness. The willow tree’s drooping branches and leaves, which hang low to the ground, are thought to evoke feelings of sorrow and empathy, and are often associated with the idea of sacrifice and the ability to endure suffering. Nani was our willow tree. Her sacrifices for family and community bring back memories of one my childhood favorites, Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”, and its story of contrasting selflessness and selfishness, of the unconditional parental love of a motherly tree for a young boy. The tree loves the boy dearly and expects nothing in return for her love, only wishing for the boy to be happy. It finds its own happiness in the ability to give the boy what he desires: her apples to eat and sell, her leaves and branches to play with, her shade to sit under, her branches to use for wood to make his home and for a boat to sail away on, and her stump for him to rest on in his old age. The only time she is somewhat unhappy is when she offers her wood for him to make a boat, because it will mean that the boy may never come back to her. This lone sacrifice makes her sad. Though the boy loves the tree, he only knows how to take from it; he doesn’t give back or appear to appreciate its sacrifices. The tree, like Nani, is happy despite it all because her key to happiness was the happiness of others. 

Like the willow branch of the dying bonsai before me reminds me of sacrificial giving, it also foreshadows the death of feminine virtue and the rarity of selfless sacrifice. As a child growing up in a town called Willowbrook, I once mentioned to my mother once how ironic it was that there were so few willow trees in the area. Her reply was, “Maybe there were more willow trees here before, or maybe they are special because they are rare.” It is possible that there was a time when God-fearing, noble, and dutiful women like Nani were in more abundance. Now, they seem so much more uncommon in both the Muslim and non-Muslim world. Nani was raised in an uncommon place of piety and learning, Deoband, the city of sages, and in a household of great nobility and civility, yet even amongst such elite she was a rare gem. Her uncommon virtues, which remained largely veiled from the common eye throughout her life, served as the foundation for so much good I see in the world around me. I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to claim that the foundations of the madrasah she served and subsequently all that it produced: hundreds of scholars, huffaz, branch institutions, publications, public programming, the revival of Quran studies, etc… were only possible due to Nani’s sacrifices. While others provided its intellectual sustenance, its spiritual nourishment emanated from her. 

It is said that the most glorious deeds are done without glory. Certainly, this rings true of Nani. No doubt, the many recipients of her favors could fill books with incidents of her service, but no matter how many stories we could share or words we could use to describe what place she holds in our hearts, they would not do her justice or be able to articulate the significance of our loss. 

منه ولا الأقربون ما عَدِموا لم يعلم العالَمون ما فقَدُوا
إن مات ماتت لفقده أُمَمُما فقدُ فرد من الأنام كمَن

The worlds know not what they lost in him,

nor kin, of what they’ve been bereft.

The loss of one man is unlike he who

Augured the demise of nations when they left.

– Safi al-Din al-Hilli11 

We are all destined to depart this temporary abode. For the last twenty years or more, I have been reminded of this harsh reality over and over again. One by one, I have suffered the loss of my elders: my dada (paternal grandfather) in 2000, then my spiritual teacher (Khwaja Khan Muhammad) and mother (Dr. Tallat Anwar Ali) in 2010, then my oldest aunt, dadi(paternal grandmother), nana (maternal grandfather), and nani (maternal grandmother) shortly after. I’ve lost a long list of compassionate and loving teachers, amongst them my intellectual mentor Mawlana ‘Abd al-Halim Chishti and my Arabic teacher Mawlana Shabbir Ahmad Madani, who honored me with tears when we last departed.12 When Nani passed away, a floodgate of repressed grief suddenly burst, and I’ve been forced to reflect on the great void that these figures have left behind. 

Our generation is losing its elders, its spiritual and intellectual exemplars, its compassionate guides, like all generations do. The haunting reality of having to one day step into their roles, despite our tragic deficiencies, is sufficient motivation for me to spend more time capturing their biographies and chronicling their extraordinary qualities for the coming generations. I appreciate that I am incapable of truly representing them. Nevertheless, we are their legacy, and if we cannot embody their values, we must at least demonstrate that we cherish them and appreciate what they stood for. When we are incapable of upholding virtues, we must at least preserve and disseminate the value that those virtues have in our heart. Such is my simple hope with this brief memoir, that by capturing some elements of Nani’s life I can hope to see some of her values preserved for posterity. 

If we are the inevitable replacements of our elders, I wonder what legacy we will leave behind. One day, others will stand over our own graves, reflecting on their loss. What love will we have planted in their hearts, and what virtues will we leave for them to reflect on? Will we even leave behind any noteworthy virtues at all? It is through prophetic wisdom that we know that when Allah desires to lift knowledge and piety from the world, He elevates the people who embody them to His paradisal Gardens. It is my heartfelt prayer that the elevation of these female paragons to their eternal and blissful abode does not forebode the loss of feminine virtue amongst those who they left behind, and that Allah continues their legacy of righteousness and selflessness through those whose love for them is so deep embedded in the heart. Amin.

:قال ملك حفني ناصف ترثي عائشة تيمور

وزِدْ يا دمع لا تكُ في امتناعِفذُبْ يا قلبُ لا تكُ في جمود
فكنز العلم أمسى في ضياعِولا تبخل علىّ وكن جمومًا
كسِرْبٍ في الفلاة بغير راعِسَنبقَى بعد عائشة حَيَارَى
وهل شمسٌ تغيب بلا شعاعِلقد فُقدَت ولم تَفقِد عُلاها
وقد كانت كذلك فى قناعِهي الدُرّ المصونُ ببطن أرض
بأن البحرَ يُدفن فى التّلاعِهي البحرُ الخِضمّ وما سمعنا
وللخيرات كانت خيرَ داعِوكانت للمكارم خير عَون
وفى نشر المعارف طول باعِلها القِدحُ المُعلّى في العَوالي
وخلَّفتِ البكاءَ لكل ناعِفيا شمسَ المحامد غِبتِ عنّا
وقُدوتنا بلا أدنى نزاعِويا خيرَ النِّساء بلا خلاف
وجدّدتِ العُلا بعد انقطاعِلقد أحييتِ ذكرَ نساءِ مصرٍ
محصَّنة كتحصين القلاعوشِدت صُروح طُهرٍ باذخاتٍ

Melt, O heart; do not be frozen!

Burst forth, O tears; resist no more!

Withhold not from me; be profuse!

For knowledge’s treasure has come to ruin.

Bewildered shall we remain after ʿAʾisha,

As a flock without shepherd in a barren land.

She is lost; yet she lost not her high rank,

[Though] the sun together with its rays does vanish.

She is a protected pearl now in earth’s womb,

as she once was behind the face veil.

A vast sea she was, and never have we heard

of a sea that was buried on a mountainside.

She was for noble causes a prodigious aid,

and to good acts, the best inviter.

A principal agent in outstanding deeds,

Her hand was great in spreading knowledge.

O sun of praises, now passed from our sight, 

You left behind but tears for all who mourn.

O best of women without dispute,

Our paragon, without the least of argument!

You revived allusions to the women of Miṣr,

And renewed a loftiness once discontinued.

You erected lofty edifices of purity,

Fortified like the reinforcement of citadels.


  1. I reproduce a portion of those reflections here: “It was not five minutes after Hadrat was laid to rest, as we walked out the gates of the graveyard with an emptiness in our hearts, that Allah sent us a sign of acceptance. The heavens began to weep. The skies rumbled in furious complaint. The horizon darkened in sadness. Within a minute of our exit from the graveyard, a vicious storm unleashed itself on the people of the Earth. Those of us who walked could barely stand in the face of the fierce winds and stinging rain. Most of us were picked up by passersby who saved us from the storm outside. Everybody recognized the sign. It was as if the storm had waited for Hadrat to be laid to rest in his garden before it showered it with the gift of life, before it roared its reprimanding complaint to the people that with this man you have lost more than you can ever know because of your ignorance and neglect. For too long have you disregarded this valuable gem. Now we take him back to us!”
  2. Solitude, by Lewis Carroll.
  3. The righteous women in our community, including my own mother affectionately called her “Bhabi”, and the community in general, including the madrasah students who she served for decades, knew her simply as “Aunty”.
  4. What is particularly curious about his studies was that most of these two decades, he was married and even had children. Perhaps married adults studying the Islamic sciences can find encouragement in his example.
  5. She is mother to Mawlana Yasir Nadeem, who is a highly-trained scholar in Islamic Law and Theology, in addition to holding a doctorate in the field of Hadith Studies.
  6. The madrasah later shifted to Gilberts, IL in the early 90’s and eventually to a separate building in Elgin, IL, from where it expanded into its present multi-building campus, consisting of a masjid building, a dormitory, a gym, a school building, guest rooms, and a tiny, repurposed home next to the masjid where Nani passed the final years of her life.
  7. Rumuz-e-bekhudi, 1918, The Mysteries of Selflessness, Eng. trans. by A.J. Arberry.
  8. The one exception was her older son-in-law, who despite living in India, visited some months earlier and insisted that his wife stay behind in the States to care for her mother, which she did faithfully and diligently for over seven months until Nani’s passing. In total, she thus had 12 children-in-law.
  9. Her illustrious forefather Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, may Allah be pleased with him, was renowned amongst the Quraysh for his knowledge of lineages. He could relate a person’s lineage back a dozen generations and was even knowledgeable of the lineage of horses.
  10. I also know that she had a high tolerance for pain because I have observed a similar resilience in some of her children and grandchildren.
  11. I have chosen to translate the Arabic idiomatically here. The lines are part of a eulogy attributed to Safi al-Din al-Hilli (d. 750 AH).
  12. I struggle to articulate the love that students of the sacred sciences often have for their teachers, more specifically the teachers who I have known; their bond with students is truly like that of kin, if not stronger. My teachers showered me with undeserved attention, kindness, and love.

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