(31/12/1908 – 22/9/1997)
89 years of age
Syeikh Umar bin Abdullah bin Ahmad bin Salim bin Abdullah bin Abu Bakar Al-Khatib was born in Tarim, Hadramaut, Yemen, on Thursday 31 December 1908 (8 Zulhijjah 1326). His family was well-known for their religious background and he was a descendent of ‘Abaad bin Bish Al-Ausi Al-Ansari, one of the companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), who migrated to Yemen and was buried at Al-Lisik, Hadramaut.
From a young age, he had shown a phenomenal capability to memorise – at the tender age of 9, and in just 97 days, committing to memory the whole of Al-Quran. This exceptional capability to memorise anything remained with him to his old age and was shown when, later in life, he managed to memorize thousands of poems by the well-known poet al-Mutanabbi in three nights.
A mere glance at someone, and that person’s face would be recorded in his memory, to be recalled later when needed. As a result of this photographic memory, he memorized the genealogy of all Hadramis in Yemen, all the way back as the time of the Sahabah. A Yemeni Arab would meet him, and upon knowing a bit of his lineage, Syeikh Umar could recite the rest. This unique capability remained his to the end of his life.
At school in Yemen he was unsurpassed, gaining the admiration of his teachers who numbered more that 70 ulama. Among his famous teachers were Syaikh Abubakar bin Abdullah Alkhatib, Abdur Rahim bin Abdullah bin Salim Alkhatib, Habib Abdur Rahman bin Ubaidillah Assegaf, and Habib Alwi bin Abdur Rahman Alseri. But the teacher best remembered by Syeikh Umar was Habib Abdullah bin ldrus bin Alwi Al-ldrus.
Syeikh Umar mastered several Islamic disciplines such as Tafsir, Qiraat, Tarikh Islam, Arabic Language and Literature and Fiqh. His comprehensive knowledge and understanding of Fiqh was acknowledged by many contemporary ulama, and he became their reference for many complex issues of Fiqh.
Perhaps, as a sign of true genius, Syeikh Umar was also capable of rapid mathematical calculation. He could look at a problem of Faraid and, without pencil and paper, he could give the answer. In his own words, he could calculate faster than a bank teller with a calculator.
In 1935, and due to his phenomenal capability, the scholars in Tarim decided to offer him a position as Qadhi. He was 27 years old and he declined the offer because he felt that there were many elder ulama better than him. And because he was afraid that he would be pressured to take that position from his respected teachers, he decided to move away from Tarim and migrate to Singapore.
In Singapore he started life as a humble clerk at a property company owned by the Al-Haddad family, where he did not reveal his mastery of Islamic knowledge. Then, after having acquired enough savings, he decided to start a company of his own at Kandahar Street. But all this time, he never neglected to attend any religious classes, although his humility restrained him from delivering a class as a teacher. He still felt that other, elder ulama in Singapore were better qualified than him.
In 1948 at the age of 40, he was married into the Al-Khatib family. Nearly twenty years later, in 1967, he decided to go to Mecca and stayed there for 10 years. He was much respected, holding a special chair at Masjidil Haram and Masjid Nabawi but, after much persuasion by Singaporean ulama, he returned to Singapore in 1977 at the age of 69. Only then did he start to teach and lead several religious classes. He taught day and night, almost every day. His students ranged from a simple uneducated Indian beggar, to the Mufti of Singapore. He held discussion groups for the ulama on classical Islamic books. Saturday afternoons were devoted for Fiqh class and Sunday mornings for a halaqah (reading group) of the Ihya Ulumiddin by Imam Al-Ghazali, and the hadith collections of Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. Sunday and Monday nights were for Nahu class and Thursday nights were specially for the ulama of Singapore.
He cared for his students, and had the knack to ask the correct questions about his students’ problems. He could look at his students’ face and could guess accurately what was troubling them. Once a student came late for his class. When he arrived, Syeikh Umar asked him: “Bila mahu kahwin?” (When do you want to get married?). The reason for this unrelated question was because the student stopped his motorcycle to watch two cats copulating.
He was very patient with new students, but would yell at the mistakes made by those who had been attending his classes for more than 10 years. Yet his anger was short-lived. He could quickly cool down and then smile again.
Visiting Muslim scholars made a point to visit him or his classes, especially the Sunday morning halaqah. Some even travelled to Singapore solely for an ijazah from him. All his classes were free. Although he received many donations, he secretly chanelled most of the money he received to hundreds of poor families in his birthplace, Tarim.
In 1992, he was hospitalized. He cancelled all classes and formed a new one: the I’rab of Al-Quran (understanding the Al-Quran through Arabic grammar and literature). It was to be a gargantuan task, to lead his students in the I’rab for the whole Quran.
Five years later, he had managed to reach Juzuk 29, when his illness took a sudden turn for the worse. He could not continue to the last Juzuk and two weeks later he was called upon by Allah.
He passed away on Monday morning, 22 September 1997 (19 Jumadil Awal 1418) at the age of 90. He left behind eight children – three boys and five girls.
(Source: Warita MUIS Sept/Oct 1997; M.Salleh bin A.Hamid; Webmaster)