BY: ISMAEL MUKHTAR
As I was listening to the speeches, reports, and presentations that were made at the New Center fund raising dinner held on Feb 24, 2001, my memory went back to the initial days of the New Center project and the formation of the land committee by the MIA General Body. The mandate of the committee was to purchase a piece of land as a site of the future New Islamic Center. I was fortunate to be a member of this committee along with others like Br. Pervez Siddiqui, Br. Gulam Kibrea, Dr. Mujeeb Al-Rahman, Br. Irshad Farooqi, Dr. Abdulnaser Batuoq, and the late Dr. Riaz Usmani who was the most senior in the community amongst all of us. As the fund raising evening continued, the memories of the initial days of the project and in particular Dr. Usmani’s images kept on flashing through my mind. This prompted me to write this article to share some of my memories of Dr. Usmani and to introduce him to the new members of our community and to our younger generation. When I first arrived in Winnipeg, I saw Dr. Usmani for the first time at the Pioneer mosque on Sunday -at Zuhr (noon) prayer. He was sitting on his wheelchair in the front row. Since then, I saw him every time I came to the mosque from a distance. Typically, he would be sitting very quietly in his wheelchair almost always on the same spot, greeting people with a smile and friendly face. Once during the month of Ramadan, I listened to his speech about fasting in a seminar arranged at the mosque.
He spoke about the rules of fasting in a soft, gentle voice, occasionally smiling, and went on to share his memories of Ramadan when he first came to Winnipeg in the ‘60s. He said in those days, there were very few Muslims and he had to fast and pray by himself. He went on to tell us how things changed later when more foreign students started coming to the University of Manitoba. In particular, he spoke of one student whom he said was instrumental in organizing Jumma (Friday) prayers and other activities. He humbly said as much as he admired that student, he equally blamed himself for not taking the initiative before.
Later on, I came to know this man closely when I became a member of the MIA land committee. I had a chance to work with Dr. Usmani not only in the land committee, but also in the steering committees during MIA General Body meetings. As I came to know Dr. Usmani, I developed a great sense of respect, admiration, regard towards him. I found him to be very friendly, gentle, quiet, respectful, peaceful, and humble man. His face was full of Haya’, smile, and brightness. We met regularly at his home on Victor Lewis Drive. He was the Land committee Treasurer. In meetings he was mostly quiet. He hated arguments, confrontations, raising voice, and too much talk. He listened carefully to every detail of our discussions and arguments, sometimes making comments or asking questions. Seeing the new center in place was his dream[i]. He was extremely happy to see the land being purchased and to issue the cheque for the purchase of the land.
Dr. Usmani was visible in all community events. He was keen in attending and participating in every community gathering and function (seminars, conferences, dinners, picnics, general body meeting etc.) despite his health limitations. His advice was to be always close to the Mosque, and not to stay away from the Mosque, no matter how upset or angry you are. He hosted in his house an Urdu Quranic study circle organized by a respected brother, Ayub Hamid. In early days he used to teach in the weekend Islamic School and was involved in establishing the first mosque in Manitoba, the Pioneer mosque and was a trustee in charge of collecting funds.
Dr. Usmani had a very successful career. He received his Masters degree from Aligarh Muslim University, India, and Ph.D. in Numerical Analysis from the University of British Columbia. He arrived in Winnipeg in June 1967, as a member of Computer Science faculty at the University of Manitoba. He later transferred to the Applied Math's Department U of M. He was well known around the world in his field of research. He produced over 80 papers in his related field and was the author of three books. Dr. Usmani was confined to a wheelchair in 1968 after a surgery of the spine to remove a TB tumor. He spent a year in the Rehabilitation Hospital. Although he was physically disabled, his spirit remained high and he was active up until his last days of life. In 1995 Dr. Usmani went to visit his homeland, India, with his respected wife Mrs. Denise Usmani. Suffering from kidney failure, he became increasingly ill; and passed away in India at the age of 61. He was buried in the village of his birth, Pataunja, U.P. He was survived by three children from his first marriage, a daughter (Anjum), a son (Naiyer) and a second son (Qaiser)…., his wives, his mother, four brothers and two sisters.
Once he was interviewed by Sadia Warsi, a university student, for the MSA newsletter (Vol. 2. No. 6 October 1990) who asked him: What things do you enjoy doing when you have time off your busy schedule? He replied “Reading (history, literature, biography) keeping up with world news (via TV), and visiting friends and relatives whenever possible”. His respected wife Denise, describes him in the following words “I met him when he was recovering from surgery and at that time I was searching for Muslims after I had glanced through Quran. Seeing how much love he had for Islam even after what he went through and the visible strength of faith he possessed, made me feel that this was what I was searching for. We were married four years after I did Shahadda and I remained with him until the day of his death. I miss him and pray for him, he was an inspiration to all ages”. Our respected brother, Dr. Mirghani Sheikheldin describes him in following words “he was a giant man. I have never seen him with a gloomy face, he was always smiling and high spirited”
Given his great qualities, Dr. Usmani was a highly respected and regarded man; he was truly a father of our community. He was a man whom we loved, respected, revered, and looked towards for direction during difficult times. His contributions to the community are many; the New Center* once it is built will be one of them. Remembering good people after their death, making prayer for them, and recognizing their good work is the least that we should do for them. May Allah bless one of the fathers of our community, Dr. Usmani and shower him with His Mercy.
(Reproduced from Manitoba Muslim Magazine, May 2001, with some modification)
[i] The New Centre was completed and officially opened in January 2007.