How It All Began
Fatima Asmal, Arab News
From working in a shop in a remote area of KwaZulu Natal, to debating the famous American reverend, Jimmy Swaggart in the USA — the story of Ahmed Deedat is truly amazing.
Sheikh Ahmed Deedat was born in India on July 1, 1918. Shortly after his birth, his father, Hoosen, moved to South Africa, leaving the infant Ahmed and his mother behind. Hoosen didn’t see Ahmed again until he sent for him nine years later.
As a little boy, Ahmed made his way to Durban, South Africa, on a long and difficult ship voyage. He arrived in the country in August 1927. “I nearly never disembarked,” he remembers. “The ship was one day late, and the authorities wanted to send us all back, but my father insisted on taking me off the ship. When I got off and rode on a tram, I thought my father owned the tram. I saw my father pay the fare — I thought he was paying the wages of one of his employees.”
Ahmed was enrolled at the Anjuman School in central Durban. Not having been exposed to the English language and alphabet before, he learned it within six months, and finished top of his class. However, financial considerations meant that his father soon pulled him out of school, shortly after he completed standard six.
“I wasn’t sad when I had to leave college,” he says. “It was a matter of survival. My father told me to go and work, and I went to work.” And so began the great mission of Ahmed Deedat.
He found himself working in a country store, which was positioned opposite Adam’s Mission, a structure where young missionaries learned to convert others to Christianity. These students would frequent the shop, and preach to Ahmed, using him as a “guinea pig.”
Knowing little more than the Shah’dah, he found it difficult to defend his beliefs: “They would say, ‘You know Muhammad (Sallallahu alayhi wassallam) had so many wives,’ and I would think, ‘I know nothing about that’ and they would say, ‘You know Muhammad (Sallallahu alayhi wassallam) spread his religion at the point of the sword,’ and I would think, ‘I know nothing about that,’” he once related in an interview.
It was while cleaning the shop in which he worked, that he found a book that would change his life forever.
“Izhaar-ul-Haqq,” a religious dialogue between a Muslim imam and a Christian priest, remains in Sheikh Deedat’s personal library today. It was, for him, the first of many books that he would read. After that, he began filling his mind with facts and quotes, compiling his own notebooks, wherein he would record his research.
In 1940, having acquired extensive knowledge of both the Bible, and the Qur’an, he took to the stage for the first time, to deliver a lecture which he called, “Muhammad Sallallahu alayhi wassallam: Messenger of Peace.” He spoke to an audience of under fifteen people at Durban’s Avalon Cinema. His message was clear: There were many contradictions in the Christian Bible and Doctrine, and Muhammad Sallallahu alayhi wassallam was indeed the final Messenger of God. Within a short space of time, the venue became Durban’s City Hall, with audiences of up to 2000, crossing the then rampant, legally enforced racial divides, to listen to him. His talks were usually followed by question and answer sessions, wherein Christians would line up with their Bibles, attempting to refute him. No question was too difficult for him, and he usually silenced them by quoting the Bible from memory.
Some Christians and Hindus felt that he was disrespectful, but many others converted to Islam at his talks, silencing his many Muslim critics, who had previously told him that he was “making enemies.”
Dawah began to dominate his life, and he was soon invited to Cape Town, where he lectured in huge halls, attracting crowds of thirty to forty thousand people. He raised the morale of the Malay people in the Cape, who had been feeling disillusioned and downtrodden by White supremacy.
In 1957, Sheikh Deedat, together with two of his close friends, founded the Islamic Propagation Center (IPC) in Durban. The center printed a variety of books, and organized and offered classes to new Muslims.
Shortly thereafter, a man known as Hajee Kadwa approached him after a lecture delivered in a mosque, and offered to donate 75 acres of land to him, for the propagation of Islam. This was the realization of a lifelong dream for Sheikh Ahmed. He grabbed the opportunity and moved to the South Coast of Natal, with his family, to establish and run the Muslim seminary, As-Salaam. As-Salaam was dedicated to teaching Muslims comparative religion. Students also learned how to pass the teachings of Islam on to others.
In 1973, a shortage of funds, and lack of expertise, forced Sheikh Ahmed Deedat to face the reality that As-Salaam hadn’t turned out as he had expected, and after 17 years of service, he finally asked the trustees to relieve him of his duties there. This opened the doors to the realization of another lifelong dream: “I was relieved when I left As-Salaam, because I wanted to focus more on the IPC. As-Salaam did not let me focus enough on dawah internationally.”
This first opportunity to go abroad arose in 1976, when a good friend, Ebrahim Jadwat, travelled to Riyadh for a conference.
“When I asked the people from Saudi television to interview him, they laughed at me, saying that they had 50 or 60 of the greatest scholars from all over the world, so why should they interview him?” recalls Jadwat. “So I said, ‘Give him two minutes of your time and I’m sure you’ll find something interesting.’ So they humored me and gave him the opportunity to come on television.”
The rest, as they say, is history...
Sheikh Deedat with his entertaining approach, dynamic personality, deep knowledge of Christianity and unique ideas, swept the Arab world off its feet. Going to Riyadh opened up many doors for him, and his dream of printing and distributing the Qur’an and other literature soon become a reality.
In July 1985, Sheikh Deedat agreed to a debate with an American missionary, Prof. Floyd E. Clark, at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The debate attracted Muslim holidaymakers from all over the world, and Sheikh Deedat proved to be an instant hit.
He soon found himself swept up in a whirlwind of tours: Morocco, Kenya, Sweden, Australia, Denmark, and of course, the USA, where he became famous for what is known as the “Great Debate.” Eight thousand people showed up, to watch Sheikh Deedat debate the topic, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” with the American Reverend Jimmy Swaggart, who was the head of a $100 million ministry.
The IPC expanded its activities and its premises, moving to a larger building, and became known as the Islamic Propagation Center International.
On May 3, 1996, Sheikh Ahmed Deedat suffered a stroke, known as “lock in syndrome,” which left him paralyzed from the neck down. It also meant that he was no longer able to speak or swallow. Soon thereafter he was taken to Saudi Arabia on a medical jet, especially flown in by the royal family. He received specialized treatment and care at the King Faisal hospital in Riyadh, where he was taught to communicate by coordinating his eye movements with an alphabetical chart which he memorized.
Sheikh Deedat continued to receive hundreds of letters from all over the world, and his family was inundated with phone calls, inquiring about his health.
— Researched from Al-Majd International’s video documentary, ‘The Story of Ahmed Deedat,’ 2002 . The Ahmed Deedat video and book collection is available from the IPCI in Durban. Call +27 31 3060026, or write to P.O. Box 2439, Durban 4000, South Africa for more information.