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Sheikh Fehmi talked me out of going to war



There's an old Indian folk tale about a conversation between an imam and a parishioner businessman who happens to be a financial benefactor of the imam's religious school (madrassah).

Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam'Imam Sahib, please explain to me why our imams preach such impractical nonsense?'

The imam's students, sporting smaller turbans and shorter beards, grumbled at the parishioner's rudeness. After calming them down, the imam responded to the query.

'It is true. We do talk impractical nonsense. But tell me this. You have two sons, one smart and the other a bit slow. Which would you send to Oxford to study medicine, and which to my madrassah to study religion?'

In many 'ethnic' and 'migrant' Australian Muslim communities, religion isn't a high priority and religious people were regarded as the fish mainstream society rejected. My peers and I in the Urdu-speaking community were taught to read the Qur'an in Arabic, after which we plunged into calculus and Shakespeare. Out of respect, the scripture was placed on the top shelf. Out of indifference, it was rarely taken down.

If we weren't heading off overseas during the summer holidays, we packed our bags for the national Muslim youth camp. For many of us, it was the only time we got to meet Muslim kids outside our parents' ethnic circle. 

My first camp was at the end of year 10 in the Christmas/New Year of 1985/86. It was the first time I discovered the existence of white-skinned Muslims from Turkey, Albania and (what was then) Yugoslavia. Even many of the Lebanese and Syrians had white skin, light brown or red hair and green eyes.

Among the European-looking Muslims was an older gentleman who led the prayers and spoke to us afterwards in crisp English. We knew of him as Sheikh Fehmi or Imam Fehmi. Strangely, his surname was el-Imam, and I wondered whether I should address him as Imam Imam (or even Imam squared!).


"He had seen it all before. He explained to me that the first person to be judged on the Day of Judgment was a martyr who would be sent to hell because his intention was to die for glory and bravado."


Unlike the Indian imams of folktale and Sydney's Indo-Pakistani reality, Fehmi spoke to us about very practical issues. He spoke in fluent English. He didn't need an interpreter. He spoke at our level. And unlike the imported imams at our mosques, who often were here on short-term visas and completely beholden of mosque management committees and/or foreign governments, Fehmi had lived in Melbourne since 1951.

Fehmi taught us at a time when we had no internet and when books on Islam were limited. Politicised religion was all the craze. The Iranians were busy exporting their version of Islamic revolution, sending free books to young Australians while sending young Iranians to their deaths on the battlefield against the Western-backed Saddam Hussein. Saudi Arabia was also exporting free books and training imams to promote its own sectarian vision which, though far more hostile to the West, was welcomed in Western countries like Australia with open arms, an antidote to Iranian radicalism.

In Afghanistan, a coalition of local militias and foreign fighters collectively known as the Mujahideen were receiving support from Western leaders. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of one Afghan mujahideen faction, visited Australia twice and even delivered speeches at the Imam Ali mosque in Lakemba. Conservative politicians and columnists were praising the Mujahideen for bravely taking on those nasty Soviet Communists we were taught to hate.

It was easy to be carried away in all this political religion, to have one's faith shaped by overseas events. I almost did. Some of my contemporaries had headed to the battlefields of Afghanistan, and I wanted to join them. I saw myself bravely fighting and dying at the hands of the Russians. I put my case to Sheikh Fehmi, confident he would support me and perhaps arrange my passage.

But he had seen it all before. He explained to me that the first person to be judged on the Day of Judgment was a martyr who would be sent to hell because his intention was to die for glory and bravado. He told me that it was forbidden to go for armed jihad without parental consent and if one's parents were old and needed support. He told me that the most important jihad was to fight my inner evils and to speak the truth to tyrants.

He then got into the politics, explaining to me that the anti-Communist pro-Mujahideen propaganda I was being fed wasn't all true. He said the Mujahideen factions were fighting among themselves, that many were fighting for tribal and territorial reasons. And he predicted that if the Soviets were defeated, these same factions would fight among themselves.

Of course, I was in a minority. Most kids wanted to know if it was okay to have girlfriends and whether McDonald's cheeseburgers were halal. Fehmi patiently answered all our questions just as he had the questions of generations of Muslim kids since he had established his first religious school in 1957, hardly six years after he first arrived.

Sheikh Fehmi was a realist. He wanted us to be realistic, to build strong alliances and relationships with people across the religious and political spectrum. Most importantly, he wanted us to follow his example by treating Australia as our home. We had just as much right to be here as anyone else. He wanted young Muslims to regard Islam as an Australian faith, regardless as what anyone else thought.

Fehmi Naji El-Imam was the Grand Mufti of Australia from June 2007 to September 2011. He died peacefully on 24 September 2016.


Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, Islam, Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam



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Existing comments

A beautiful eulogy for a highly respected Australian imam.

Ian Fraser | 04 October 2016  

We need more leaders like Sheikh Fehmi,I believe, he supported the building of an Islamic museum in this city which showcases islamic religious art. Its a pity Christian and catholic leadership in Melbourne cant support and showcase and support their religious artists in the same way as the ir Islamic and Jewish counterparts. This kind of leadership is sorely needed and he will be missed.

Rosanne | 04 October 2016  

Sheikh Fehmi came out to Australia as a young, single male migrant. He was an electrician by trade and worked as such for years. The title 'Imam' was conferred as an honorific by his community. Most (all?) of his religious work was nonstipendary. He married an Australian lady and his children were reared as Australian: not 'Lebanese living abroad'. He always supported the decent underlying community values of tolerance and involvement. His work in Melbourne was aided and encouraged by Professor Abdul-Khaliq Kazi - a world renowned Muslim scholar - who was then at Melbourne University. Dr Kazi was also an integrationist. Their equivalents today would be Waleed Aly and Irfan Yusuf. These are quality people and would be whatever they were born as. Like your average Christian cleric - I speak as a former Anglican Church Warden - your average Muslim cleric is FAQ (Fair Average Quality). I don't take much notice of average clerics of any sort because they are often woefully ignorant of Theology and remote from the real world. 'Lay people' - there's no Islamic equivalent because there's no ordination in Islam - need to be wary of some of their stipendiary clerics.

Edward Fido | 05 October 2016  

Great article Irfan about an Islamic leader and teacher of note who clearly earned the respect of many for his realistic views of Islam in Australia. Where or who is there in Australia today an Imam to evoke the same admiration from the present generation by preaching the same realistic approach for Muslims in Australia today? It is exactly what I would like to hear and see to bridge any perceived differences between us, who are all Australians.

Jim | 05 October 2016  

“Sheikh Fehmi .. wanted us to be realistic, to build strong alliances and relationships with people across the religious and political spectrum“. This is a positive and much needed step forward if we are to achieve the harmony required so to really recognise that we are ALL Children of God, responding to His constant and universal call in ways limited by our degree of development and our circumstances. Unfortunately this view is not promoted by most religious leaders, and even actively opposed by many, who seek, either explicitly or implicitly, to present their narrow interpretation as if it is the one and only interpretation of God’s constant and universal call. This is particularly so if religion becomes associated with nationalism, race, politics or culture, all of which act as blinkers, hindering wider appreciation of God’s constant and universal call.

Robert Liddy | 05 October 2016  

There are many similar to Sheikh (Imam) Fehmi amongst the Australian Muslim community, Jim. They are both recognised teaching authorities (no priesthood nor ordination in Islam) the sheikh/imam being a teacher and mentor - not unlike a Rabbi or Reformed Church minister - and ordinary men and women. It's just good, normal, mundane Australian Muslims are like you and I: they make no waves. The Prime Minister was correct: ISIL/Daesh are condemnable religious and moral deviants.

Edward Fido | 05 October 2016  

If only these wonderful words could be broadcast daily from our media, our churches and our pubs. For those who search for truth, this is a gold mine.

Sheelah Egan | 05 October 2016  

I am sad to hear of Sheikh Fehmi"s death. I knew him in the mid seventies in Melbourne when I produced the Arabic language program on 3ZZ. He was a wonderful, wise and humorous Australian whom I have always remembered fondly. Thank you for this article about him and his humane values.

Joan Dugdale | 05 October 2016  

Irfan what a lovely story of a wise man. One hope that this line of passing on any faith will continue.

phil saggers | 08 October 2016  

I am deeply sad to hear of this wonderful and truly great man's death. He was a great Australian and a deep man of faith who garnered respect across all parts of society. I met him when I had arranged a funeral for a Muslim man who had been alcoholic and who I had looked after in his dying. At the burial Sheik Fehmi spoke publicly how our belief system had allowed us to show compassion and look after this man which he had personally really struggled with and how we would be blessed as a result. I am a Catholic priest and to me these are words for a new world which we so badly need, living beyond sectarian prejudices and hostility. Australia is much the poorer without him. Farewell Good Sir and God speed!

David Holdcroft SJ | 09 October 2016  

Just saw this article Irfan. Great eulogy for a terrific Australian.

Jan | 16 November 2016