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My conversation with Political Scientist, Professor Muddathir 'Abd al-Rahim


In January, I had the great privilege of speaking with Sudanese Political Scientist, Professor Muddhathir 'Abd al-Rahim. 

Born in 1932, Ad-Damar, Sudan, Mr. 'Abd al-Rahim studied Political Science at the University of Khartoum after which, he won a scholarship to further his studies at the University of Nottingham. This path eventually led him to become a Professor of Political Science and Islamic Studies teaching in universities around the world including; Temple university in Philadelphia USA, Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco, Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, the International University of Africa in Khartoum, Sudan and, the University of Manchester where in 1964 he hosted a speech given by Malcom X, a year before his death.

During his illustrious career, he became the head of the human rights programme at the Islamic University in Malaysia and made significant contributions to the field of human rights overall.

Personally, I feel honoured to have explored so many thought-provoking subjects with such an extraordinary mind. Amongst the topics discussed were; the role art and culture plays in making political change, the works of the incredible Pakistani poet, Allama Iqbal and Mr. Abd al-Rahim's unforgettable meeting with Malcolm X in 1964.

I hope you enjoy.

SM: Can you tell me about your early work including your upbringing?

MAR: I have worked around the world and in many countries. In the US, a few years in England, in Manchester for five or six years. In Sudan of course but then as a result of the instability that's been going on for years, I had to leave. After 23 years in Malaysia, I decided to go back to Sudan. You hear in the news of a lot of violence. My house that I had built, including some nice memorable photographs but also very importantly, some twenty thousand books, were gutted by the violence and that is why I'm back in Malaysia.

SM: So that's something I did want to speak to you about. Was that violence personal to you or the general violence?

MAR: Well, the general violence is actually generated by people supported by one Arab country, the Emirates. That's right and there are some others. I'm sure you've picked up the news.

SM: As a Political scientist, would you say that you were an activist yourself?

MAR: Activist in what sense? Sometimes activism means you are not interested in ideas. I'm very much interested in ideas. Well things like philosophy, generally speaking. For example the works of Bertrand Russell. The works he has written attract me very much and I find very interesting. Anyway, there is no end to knowledge. Different types of knowledge; some artistic, others reflective, philosophical if you like, and so on. 

And maybe if you have read 'Imperialism and Nationalism in the Sudan', you’ll find a few references that are significant in the chapter about the rise of Sudanese nationalism. On what languages in the world today are used by people who want to be educated in anything almost and, also the historical heritage and what we should care for in that heritage and, what we may leave for specialists.

SM: So when you say activism and you are interested in ideas, what would the alternative be? 

MAR: Well, some activists are usually engaged in organising or mobilising, the demonstrations for instance, against the Israelis and what they've been doing in the occupied territories of Palestine. Yes. It's not about doing the reverse, but both of them, you can say are activists.

SM: Right. Okay. And how do you feel about that side of activism from a personal perspective?

MAR: Well, may I turn that question to you?

SM: No, I asked first (laughing).

I do attend protests and personally, I feel it's about sending a message. I believe that it's the voice of the people on the ground. I still believe that it does carry some weight, so that's just my opinion. 

But I'm with you as well. I also strongly believe in ideas and, preserving culture and sharing. I think my passion really is about sharing the beauty and the heritage of these cultures, and talking about what is being lost from a deeper sense. Which is why I'm researching history as part of my work as well, because I don't think you can study culture, heritage, and art without contextualising it and learning the history.

MAR: You’re right. Absolutely right. Yes. May I ask your nationality. You are British or English?

SM: I’m British born but my parents are both from Pakistan.

MAR: Do you know the language used there in Pakistan today?

SM: Yes, I'm fluent in Urdu.

MAR: Are you familiar with people like Iqbal and Shiqwa?

SM: Yes absolutely. Very important figure. I've been to Allama Iqbals tomb in Pakistan. He's also studied in the Middle East I think, as well as Pakistan.

MAR: Oh, yes. He is greatly respected and his works were translated ages ago into Arabic.

SM: Yes. So let me pose that question back to you then about activism. So I've answered from my perspective. What’s yours?

MAR: Well, I think in so far as it means having a point of view about, thinking about issues of importance. Then deciding what is worthy of being pursued and what is not so important.

That kind of preliminary classification is important. Some things are important sometimes not because of the uses of practical application but because of the philosophical or spiritual. Are you interested in classical music, for example, by the way?

SM: I'm not an expert on classical music.

MAR: Do you enjoy Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and so on?

SM: I listen to more Arabic music, if I'm honest. I love the instruments from the Arab world, like the Oud and the Qanun. So I think my passion is more Middle Eastern music.

This is about you. I want to learn about you. Everything that you share is an education for me and I like to keep my mind open to everything, not just be limited to what I feel and think. So tell me more about the classical music.

MAR: Oh, classical music. I'm very much interested in classical music and the theatre. When I’m in London England, I like to go to the theatre. But of course, that doesn’t mean I'm not interested in Arabic or Middle Eastern music. But these are two different things, thank goodness.

SM: Please tell me about your early work. How did your work evolve and were you from an educated background?

MAR: Oh yes. The town in which I was born called Ad Damer about 300 kilometres north of Khartoum has a long history going to ancient times. Nowadays, well the last five hundred or six hundred years especially, it’s known as the centre of Arabic and Islamic studies. But of course, there have been waves and waves of efforts to renew and reorient the focus on this commitment to Arabic language and literature. So the the town is quite rich and open to other influences, but not in an imitative fashion.

SM: Open in what way?

MAR: That we have our own culture. The origins of which we know others can place also and we are proud of that condition, but we of course know we have to live in a world nowadays, which is in many ways quite different from what it used to be before, therefore we have to try to work out a balance as it were.

SM: Can you tell me about your early education? Did you study in Khartoum?

MAR: Yes, first of all I learned the traditional Quranic Arabic then gradually was introduced to English language. When it came to secondary education, pre-university, there was more English. I remember for example, the children’s stories that you read at that level. We had some good English teachers, not only Sudanese teachers who knew English, but also English teachers who specialised in teaching English to Arabic speaking people.

Then at university you cannot study medicine, engineering, astronomy and mathematics, all at the same time. You have to pick one or two. My choices primarily, as I mentioned were social sciences.

After graduation from the University of Khartoum, I won a scholarship which enabled me to go on and study for a Political Science degree in Nottingham. I remember I enjoyed every now and then concerts that came from Barbirolli, the Italian maestro or, German musicians. Yes and sometimes of course other kinds of music. I was not particularly attracted to the culture of pop.

SM: So you got a scholarship. Were you doing a Master's there, or a Doctorate?

MAR: I did a BA Honors and it was first class.

SM: Woo! amazing!

MAR: It was the only first class, actually. 

SM: Of course! 

MAR: In political science. It was partly for this reason that when I came to applying for a post in Manchester University some years later, I could cite as referees, a number of those who’d taught me in Nottingham. There were some other factors also. I had written a few papers that were published in various journals. Professional journals, and that also helped.

That reminds me of activism. Some students came around. At that time I was closer to them in age. They told me that Malcolm X will be coming to England soon, and will be giving two lectures, one in Oxford and another in Manchester. They were inviting me to introduce him. I said, well in principle i'm interested in the kind of issues for which he’s made a name but there are a few aspects of the subject which I need to discuss with him. 

So to see whether, for example, he believes like his mentor Elijah Muhammad that paradise is reserved for people of colour and people who are white, especially if they happen to have blue eyes, are bound to go to hellfire. They agreed that they would make an arrangement for a meeting. Over lunch, I remember it was an Indian meal and in that meeting I explained to him, are you still a sincere disciple of Elijah Muhammad with his ideas, which from my point of view are a distortion Islam and he was very charming and honest.

He said, 

‘I must confess that to this day and throughout my life, I will be grateful to Elijah Muhammad, because before he came to see me in prison (he was in prison for having been involved in drugs and vices of all kinds), I had no idea of Islam, but he gave me a copy of the Quran and I read the Quran’.

He was very bright, by the way and he said that eventually,

‘I am obliged to him. Your people’, he was addressing me, that is why I thought he was very courageous and frank. ‘Yes, the Muslims of the old world, whether they are Asians or African etc, they had not come to tell us what real Islam is. I had to discover that for myself gradually.’

And he even told the famous story about how he was invited to go on Hajj and that he saw Muslims of various colours. He said 'Muslims of darker skin, darker than mine. Others were white and some of these whites had blue eyes.'

We prayed together, we ate together, we slept together, we snored together. He had a sense of humour. Maybe, you know, that he dictated his memoirs which we published just a few months after he passed away. Anyway, after this talk, I said ‘okay, I'll be very happy indeed to introduce you and this is a pleasure’.

By the way, if you have been to Manchester, the largest road used for graduation ceremonies and also for the annual balls was packed full of professors, other teachers, students, guests from outside the university and he proceeded to talk. People were captivated. I must say that I have heard many speakers speak who are extremely eloquent and charming and informative but he definitely was, gifted. He was way above many, whether it was speaking in Arabic or Urdu, Farsi, or in English. And he had a sense of humour also.

There were many photographers from the newspapers and they took many pictures and they asked the audience and that was a bit of a drama. ‘You know, why they're taking so many photos?', Malcolm X said.

‘Because sometimes I’m talking about little things that make me angry and I show my anger. I don't hide that. But they will take that and then publish it in the newspapers you see, the man, the devil himself.' It was a very unforgettable occasion.

Before we were able to leave the room, there were dozens of students, some professors, and the guests from outside who wanted him to give autographs. On a book, football, racket, whatever. Yes, people were charmed by him, absolutely.

I remember walking out after about an hour of this business of autographs. I looked at him, and he was a tall man, six foot plus, very strong physically and very strong personality. I said to him with his big hand in by hand, ‘please take care. Look after yourself. Yes, be careful.’ And he understood exactly what I was thinking of.

So he said, 'well, you know brother, dear brother’, I remember he said, ‘I know that back home we have violence across the board and sooner or later these wicked people will get me but I’m not afraid to meet my lord, my creator.’

So we had a proper goodbye, and then I went back to Sudan. I remember February, March the following year, 65 that was. And then one day, as I was returning home from the university, I remember I had a bicycle in these days. Yes, as soon as I arrived, my wife was preparing lunch and came carrying the radio, mobile radio with the sad news that Malcolm X had indeed been shot. Yes. In one of the places, I think it was New York. I can't remember exactly now.

SM: I think it was New York. I've read his book.

MAR: You read his book?

SM: Yes. I read his book as a teenager actually, so over 25 years ago. And actually, I read all about your meeting with him, and I read that it was a restaurant called the Bombay and it was in 1964. And, he died in 65. I'm a huge Malcolm X fan, if you could call it that.

I did follow his journey from the Nation of Islam and then to more sort of, what's the word, Sunni Islam. And when he went on Hajj. Incredible. But to hear you talk about it is absolutely beautiful, so thank you. 

I don't actually know how old Malcolm X was when he died. He probably was in his thirties, I imagine.

MAR: Thirties, I think. So, You know about his father and his mother? Do you know these white racists at the time would really stopped at nothing. His father was a Christian preacher, like so many today in the coloured community in the U.S, but he was burnt alive by some of these racists. Malcolm X's mother, his father's wife, of course, went mad as a result. Lost her minds sensibilities and was put in an asylum for the rest of her life. So it was a very tough life that he lived, and his parents before.

Apart from all this, in my world: political science, I was interested in people like Plato. Aristotle. At times, the various political thinkers including Karl Marx, Rousseau and even more recently, the remarkable developments which ended the Soviet Union, giving up standing for Marxism. I don't know whether that interests you or not,

SM: It does but I want to ask you about people like Ibn Arabi.

MAR: Well, Ibn Arabi is very interesting for me. A lot different from what we've been talking about in the last ten minutes or so but this is closer to the tradition of the community in Sudan, where I grew up of course, because he was a Muslim. But he was a Muslim of a very interesting perspective on the rest of the world. Not inconsistent with Islam.

Maybe you remember his beautiful lines where he speaks about beauty. Beauty of various kinds always appealing and enriching and refining the human soul. Sometimes you find this kind of beauty in mosques. Sometimes it's in churches. Sometimes you find it in temples other than the three religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

SM: I guess Ibn Arabi would've been more philosophical rather than political, would you say so?

MAR: He was not interested in politics. By the way, what you're saying takes me back to one of the papers I've written about love in the holy Quran. It is in Arabic. I presented it as a member of the The Jordanian Royal Academy, not many years ago but it has become quite popular by itself. In it, I refer to Ibn Arabi, that is why I'm now mentioning it to you.

SM: Yes. You wrote one about Al Ghazali as well. 

MAR: Oh yes indeed. He was a great philosopher. A great, what do you say ethicist. And he wrote a book about philosopher Aristotle. A hundred years later, another Muslim, world famous to this day among Islamists and others who are interested in history, cultural history, indigenous history of Europe is Ibn Rushd, Averroes. 

He wrote a book about the failure, the critique of Al Ghazali’s book, which had been written a hundred years before. Averroes of course, was very important in the context of the Renaissance in Europe, in Muslim Spain and it was Muslim for 800 years. He was very important for the Renaissance generally. Sciences that Muslims developed, mathematics, astronomy, algebra, medicine and to this day, are appreciated by specialists.

I'm sorry, i'm dragging you across paths which may not be of immediate interest.

SM: No, it is of absolute interest. You have no idea. This is like medicine for my soul. 

MAR: You are kind.

SM: No, I'm genuine. This is such an honour. I mean for me, sometimes I feel very alone, particularly in where I'm located. There are not many people you can share with. And so it's an absolute pleasure to speak to you and to be able to share this. Thank you. I've been to Cordoba, the Alhambra palace, various places in Andalusia.  I adore Moorish Spain, and fascinated by what the Islamic world achieved there. That's why I have a love for Ibn Arabi. 

So, Mr. Muddathir, if I was to ask you as a young person today, how do you navigate what is going on now. It's very easy to get derailed. How can you make change in the world and not get derailed?

MAR: Well, of course, it depends on the social context of where you are living and then proceeding from there. I imagine inviting people for more discussions at the beginning is very important and of course, they have to continue talking. Talking is absolutely indispensable. Important that ideas of any kinds are discussed.

SM: Yes but then what do you do with those ideas?

MAR: Well, that is one of the things that you have to agree upon. To be effective in life, you have to act in conjunction with others. You cannot be single handed. You can be a leader in a group but the group is important for social action.

SM: Would you say that you've worked alone most of your life or worked in a group context?

MAR: So far as my life as a professor or university lecturer is concerned, others were always involved and I guess as I was involved in many others lives and that continues to be the case. In fact, about two hours ago before you called, one of my former students from Malaysia that I taught in America, in Philadelphia, in the eighties came to visit me. He wanted me to join hands with him and his colleagues in discussing certain types of ideas.

SM: So what's the future for you? What are you currently working on? Or are you working or just relaxing, which I'm sure you very much deserve.

MAR: Well to be truthful to you now, i’m watching a program on television. While the fifth symphony by Beethoven is being played, I'm following what you are saying and also moved a little bit by what I can hear. And the actions of people and on people's faces.

SM: Amazing. So, what role do you think arts and culture plays in social change?

MAR: Oh, they're very important because they sort of popularise ideas or positions. Political positions for example and make them more real for people, For example, now I can see some of the members of the audience tearful, wiping tears off their eyes. Yes. cheeks. This is not always the best way to express oneself, but, it is such a thing when it happens spontaneously. Don't you think so?

SM: I, a hundred percent agree. I think they are a vital ingredient for wellbeing as well as for the human spirit to express itself. 

This has been beautiful. I want to thank you so much for giving me this time.

So that was my time spent with Mr. Abd al-Rahim. It's not often that we get to cross paths with such people but when we do, they leave such a profound imprint on our hearts and souls.

If you enjoyed this read, pls feel free to share your comments below.

159 views7 comments


Mar 28

I'm Adam,

the history of Mir Abdel Rahm that was very fascinate to me, hopefully, i would like to learning him more about his historical events.

Replying to

Hi Adam, Yes, quite a human being isn't he. I'm glad that you found it fascinating.


Mar 26

I am Alia Abdel - Rahim, Muddethir's grand-daughter and I'm trying to learn more about his life so this was very interesting.

Replying to

Dear Alia, it's Saima here. I'm so pleased that this gave you insight into your grandfathers life. It was a joy speaking with him.


Feb 13

What a fascinating insight, thank you


Feb 12

A remarkable conversation with a remarkable man! Thanks 🙏

Replying to

Yes, absolutely.

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