Sunday June 29 2014

Meet Abdul Muwaya, the head of Shia Muslims in Uganda

Abdul Muwaya during the interview in Buyemba in Iganga District.

Abdul Muwaya during the interview in Buyemba in Iganga District. photos BY Denis EDEMA 

If you are accustomed to the security details of rival muftis Sheikh Shaban Mubajje and Sheikh Zubair Kayongo of the Sunni Muslim sect, you will certainly miss the house.
Though palatial, the house, which is surrounded by trees and a manicured lawn, is not enclosed. There are no rifle-wielding men patrolling the grounds either.

A bespectacled average-sized man emerges, but he is not clad in those flowing embroidered robes that we associate with most Muslim clerics. He is instead wearing a simple beige tunic and matching leather sandals.

“You are most welcome,” he says as he rushes past us to attend to about 100 children seated on mats. We get to learn they are orphans under the care of Ahlul Bait Islamic Foundation. Once a week, he shares lunch with them. This is one such day and he has to ensure every child receives a fair share of the white rice and beef.

He returns and sits on one of the simple chairs on the patio. He is Sheikh Dr Abdul Khadir Muwaya, who most of the village folk calls Daktur as they think that it is one of his names. He believes, a tiger does not proclaim his tigritude. He therefore does not lay markers on his territory or office.

“I don’t see myself as the leader. You can maybe call me a convener,” he says.
He may not see himself as such, but Muwaya is the man recognised as the leader of the Shi’ite Islamic Sect in Uganda, which is quite surprising given that he comes from a line of clerics of the Sunni Muslim sect and was in his formative years tutored by his maternal uncle, the former Mufti of Uganda, Sheikh Ibrahim Saad Luwemba.

On his beliefs
One wonders how he switched sides? Muwaya explains that the problem is that most Muslims are not exposed enough to understand that the difference in the interpretation of the Quran and teachings of Prophet Muhammad.

He says, as Sunni Muslims base some of their teachings on narratives of some of Prophet Muhammad’s companions like Abu Bakr and Umar Ibn Al Khattab, his life and spiritual practices (hadith), the Shi’ites do not. This results in the differences in religious practices in the way in which the two sects go about aspects of religious life pilgrimage, prayer and fasting.

“While the Sunnis say the Prophet taught the people and empowered them to do what they want, even choose their own leaders, the Shi’ites disagreed. They said when the Prophet taught, he also guided on salient issues including who would lead them after he was gone,” he explains.

Matters, he says, were aggravated by the fact that legions of Arabic tribes joined Islam in the Prophet’s last days, bringing with them practices which the Shi’ites disapproved of, insisting on rigid adherence to the teachings of the Prophet.
“I have studied and can differentiate the two. I happen to have studied with the Shi’ite and I have grown up to be one of them,” he says.

Given the animosity between followers of the two sects in most parts of Busoga, one would have expected bad blood to flow between him and his Sunni relatives, but that did not happen. By the time Mufti Sheikh Luwemba passed on, they were still very close.

Among the long list of friends of Muwaya who was born in an impoverished family of 14 children in Kavule Village in Mayuge District in the 1950s, are former Iranian presidents, Ali Khamenei, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjan and Mohammad Khatami. He started his education in Namakoko Islamic Primary School in Namutumba District and then, Machakos Islamic High School and Bilal Muslim Mission in Mombasa.

Thereafter, studied Islamic Philosophy at the Hawza of the Iranian City of Qom before joining the prestigious Imam Khomeini International University for his master’s degree and eventually earned his Doctorate in 1985.

Set out to work
After school, he worked for the Iranian Embassy in Kenya and with the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance where he helped translate some of the speeches and literary works of the then Iranian president and spiritual leader, Ali Hosseini Khamenei.

That, coupled with tours of Iran, inspired him to initiate plans to cause change in Mayuge, the then county in Iganga District. “I realised that I could put Khamenei’s teachings in practice. Besides, unlike many people who go to the Arab World and spend most of their time in the universities, I moved around and interacted with many people. I learnt many things, which I thought would benefit us,” he says.

Long before the qualifications and employment opportunities materialised, he in 1979 started remitting funds, with which the first school building of Tawheed Primary School was constructed. The structure has since been plastered and preserved alongside his first residential house.

He boasts that Tawheed Primary and Secondary Schools started providing free education and providing their pupils and students with meals and uniforms long before the government introduced universal primary education.

However, development work was affected by the politics of the early 1980s. He could not stay in Uganda for more than three days.

Muwaya would never have joined politics, but he was compelled to participate in the Nairobi peace talks. Thanks to his acquaintance with some of the actors and the desire to enjoy an uninhibited stay in Uganda. It was the gun and not the talks that brought in the peace he craved. He returned home to register the Ahlul Bait Islamic Foundation.

Since then, the foundation has constructed more than 24 mosques and 18 primary schools that teach pupils up to Primary Six before they are transferred to Tawheed in Buyemba, 62 Muslim-founded primary education centres, opened up an institute and educated thousands of students right from nursery to university level, some of whom have since gone on to occupy high positions in government.

The foundation, which helped secure funding for the extension of power to Mayuge, has recently sank close to 40 bore holes in the district, provides medical care, running water, training in ICT and employs about 100 people in Mayuge and provides hundreds more with indirect employment.

At a time when everyone is doing everything in his power to access government funding for one project or another, Muwaya, has not used the opportunity. In 1996, he declined the visiting Iran President, Hashemi Rafsanjani to tour his projects.

“When I was informed of the Rafsanjani’s visit, I told the officials in charge that he could only come as a friend, not a state visitor. People could have interpreted the visit to mean that our work was being carried out with funding from the government of Iran or that of Uganda. They gave up,” he explains.

Politically speaking
He will not heed government call on religious leaders not to actively engage in politics. He has of late been pulling the strings in Mayuge and his son, Umar, is the district chairperson.

“The teachings of Islam show you that the Prophet was the leader of our faith, Commander of the Army and master of politics. To put it more correctly, I’m not a politician, but I understand politics. However, the politics I’m talking about is the politics of justice and truthfulness. When you are truthful to your people, you help them with what they need and that is not farfetched from religion,” he says.

At a personal level, he says God has enabled him realise his vision of transforming Mayuge from the backward district known more for the tsetse flies, encroachments on forest reserves, and illegal fishing, into an economic power house in Busoga.

Sunni versus shi’te

Sunni and Shiite or Shia Muslims concur and share most fundamental Islamic beliefs and articles of faith. All were followers of the Prophet Muhammad, but split after his death following a disagreement over how the new leader of the Muslim nation was to be arrived at.

Shi’ites or Shia
The word “Shia” is Arabic for a group of a supportive party of people. They are commonly referred to as the “Shia-t-Ali,” or “the Party of Ali”, also known as followers of “Ahl-al-Bayt” or “People of the Household” (of the Prophet).
They believe that leadership should have stayed within the Prophet’s family. They believed that the Prophet’s cousin or son-in-law should have been the first Caliph of the Islamic nation.
They do not believe in the authority of elected Muslim leaders. They follow a line of Imams who they believe have been ordained by Allah.
They believe that an Imam is sinless by nature and his authority is infallible as it comes directly from God. They often venerate Imams as saints and perform pilgrimages to their tombs and shrines in the hopes of divine intercession.

The word “Sunni” in Arabic comes from a word meaning “one who follows the traditions of the Prophet”.
Sunni Muslims believe in elected Muslim leaders having begun with the election of Prophet Muhammad’s friend and advisor, Abu Bakr, as the first Caliph of the Islamic Nation.
They say there is no basis in Islam for a hereditary privileged class of spiritual leaders, and no basis for the veneration or intercession of saints. Leadership, they say, is not a birth right, but a trust that is earned, which may be given or taken away by the people.

Sunni Muslims make up about 85 per cent of the Muslim population in Uganda.