It’s not about quantity – it’s about quality.
This age-old saying has most likely been said countless times throughout time. But do we still utter these dire words when the quantity is so large we find it difficult to repeat the numbers without looking? That the list is so long we become astounded after the first few points and catch only glimpses of the many numbers that follow?
What is our reaction when these numbers are actually recognised as achievements? Achievements so great that the vast majority of humankind will unfortunately never even dream of completing, let alone attempt.
How, then, will our astounded minds come to terms with the fact that these achievements have not been reached by a country, nation, or any collaborative body, but by one single man? Not a very wealthy, powerful, or famous man, but a simple man. A man whose wealth belonged in his heart and mind, and whose power was his faith with which he was armed to the teeth. A man amongst many others in terms of size and stature, but a giant in terms of achievement. This giant is Abdul Rahman al-Sumait.
Abdul Rahman al-Sumait was born in 1947 in Kuwait. His mother called him a cute child who did extremely well in his studies. As a 5-year-old child, he would wander off after the ‘Asr salah to play, but unlike the other children, he would wander into the desert near his house, armed with a wooden branch he would use to hunt snakes. Despite his young age, the heat of the desert, and the dangerous reptiles known in the area, he walked without care. He allowed his eyes to close and his imagination to wander, dreaming of a place only seen in books and cartoons, adorned with jungles and wild animals and predators that he would fight with his little wooden stick. This land was called Africa. The more he would dream, the bigger his smile, until the sound of the Maghrib adhān would snap him back to reality. He would wear the smile all the way back to the masjid.
Abdul Rahman had a great love for the dīn from a young age, and was very committed to Fajr in jamā’ah in the masjid. He proved that one of the essential ingredients of being a successful Muslim was good companionship, as well as listening to the stories of the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and his great Companions. Al-Sumait was also known for his great love for reading from an early age, so much so that his father would scold him when they returned home from the market and Abdul Rahman would run off to read old newspapers on the floor and delay his father from his task.
Abdul Rahman had also been blessed with a tender heart. An example of this was when, as a teenager, he saw a group of poor workers waiting for a long time for the bus in the boiling heat. Together with a few friends, Abdul Rahman collected some money and bought a cheap and old car. From that day onward, he would drive the workers to their workplace every day, without charge. This is a sizeable achievement for many, even in today’s developed world, but was a mere stepping stone for Abdul Rahman and what was to come from this incredible man.
Naturally, al-Sumait excelled in his studies and progressed onto studying medicine in universities in Iraq, the UK, and Canada. He graduated from the University of Baghdad with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery, followed by a Diploma in Tropical Diseases from the University of Liverpool in 1974. He completed his postgraduate degree from McGill University in Canada, specialising in internal medicine and gastroenterology.
The key activities in different stages of the life of al-Sumait highlight his philanthropic nature, as well as how proud he was of his Muslim identity no matter which part of the world he was in. At university, al-Sumait used the majority of his monthly stipend to purchase Islamic books, which he would distribute in mosques. He also took part in fundraising from fellow Muslim students and paying for the printing and distribution of Islamic pamphlets. He was also a founding member of the Montreal branch of the Muslim Students’ Society from 1974-1976. In addition to his qualifications, he conducted an extensive study on liver cancer whilst training at King’s College Hospital in London from 1979-1980.
Barely in his mid-thirties, al-Sumait was now an expert in his field and decorated with qualifications from some of the world’s most renowned academic institutes. He was able to return home to Kuwait, which was experiencing unprecedented economic prosperity along with its oil rich neighbours in the Gulf. However, as an internationally educated and trained doctor in some of the wealthiest parts of the world, the world lay at his feet.
Behind Every Strong Man
Whilst Abdul Rahman was entitled to pursue a career in his homeland and take advantage of what would have potentially been an easy life, it was his sincere wife Umm Suhaib who convinced him otherwise. Showcasing the important role of a good wife, Umm Suhaib advised Abdul Rahman to leave behind the luxuries of the dunya and focus on the ākhira through the path of da’wah. Her first suggestion was towards Asia in the East, before Allāh guided them to the West and Africa.
Once the da’wah activities had started, Umm Suhaib sold all she had inherited to fund their projects, and together they started on what can only be called the most extraordinary journey ever. A heart-warming glimpse of this amazing woman can be seen when one night, as she and Abdul Rahman sat together in a broken hut in Madagascar, with the years of toil and exhaustion clearly apparent on Umm Suhaib’s face, Abdul Rahman mentioned to his beloved wife how tired she looked and enquired whether she had given up. She replied, “I was thinking, If Allāh allowed us into Jannah, do you think we will be this happy?”
Abdul Rahman’s personal life at a later stage went through a lot of strain. He would often work away in Africa for up to 10 months a year, and upon returning to Kuwait, his young children would not recognise him. The solution to this: take the children with him! The whole family spent summer vacations in Africa where they experienced what seemed like a great adventure, assisting in Abdul Rahman’s ventures. The children had a deep love for Africa, and it became a central point in their lives. This was to such an extent that when the hand of the youngest daughter of Abdul Rahman was asked for in marriage, she accepted upon one condition: that her future husband accompany her to Africa. Alhamdulillāh, he accepted.
Later in life, when Abdul Rahman had grandchildren, he rewarded a granddaughter of his with a ticket to Africa for excelling in her studies. She flew out and stayed there for a few weeks with him, and no less than 27 people took the shahāda through her in that time! Indeed, greatness nurtures greatness.
The Path of the Prophets
Abdul Rahman and his wife had planned to work in Asia, but Allāh in His eternal wisdom directed them to Africa. This was through the request of a noble woman who asked Abdul Rahman to build a masjid for her in Africa. After accepting, Abdul Rahman planned on building the masjid in Malawi and returning to Kuwait as soon as possible. However, upon entering Africa and seeing the conditions of the Muslims there, his heart sank.
A large number of African nations had accepted Islam centuries ago, but they were all in the same plight. Famine and drought had destroyed lands already ravaged by colonial exploitation, and disease was rife. Medicine, healthcare, and even water was difficult to find. Most developed nations had turned a blind eye to all this. Even more disastrous was that Muslims in these nations had very little to no knowledge of Islam. Some did not even know how to perform wudhū’. There was a large amount of bid’ah and shirk taking place, including grave worshipping and asking the righteous people in the past for help.
Abdul Rahman knew at this point that he had two choices: either meet this with hostility, anger, and maybe even violence (which would have been the short path), or venture on the long and difficult road to recovery through patience, which was the road that so many of the Prophets had tread. He chose the path of the Prophets. He gave up his prestigious medical career and easy life, and along with his wife Umm Suhaib, returned to Africa to dedicate their lives to healing the people there – physically, emotionally, mentally, but most importantly, spiritually.
Planting the Seeds
In 1980, al-Sumait started an initiative that eventually became Direct Aid. On his initiative, al-Sumait said that “the aim was to help societies that the world has forgotten and to develop them, so we tried to develop these societies by providing education programs amongst other things”. The organisation provided schools, healthcare centres, wells, and mosques. One of the main seeds they planted was the welfare of orphans. They would nurture these orphans from a young age with the education and support they needed, until they graduated from university, some even with postgraduate Master’s degrees.
One of the main things that Abdul Rahman noticed was that despite the majority of countries with Islam as their main religion having up to a 60% Muslim population, the government and ministers of these countries were mainly Christian. The reason for this was that the average Muslim child barely made it to secondary school, whilst the Christian child had help to progress through to higher education, enrol in a university outside of Africa, and return as a doctor or a politician. What was Abdul Rahman’s solution to this? He founded universities in Tanzania, Zanzibar, and Kenya.
The fruition of sowing these seeds became clear in a short amount of time. After al-Sumait’s death, there was a gathering of foreign ministers in Kuwait, where even the Foreign Minister of Malawi attended. He asked to be taken to the grave of al-Sumait, which he visited according to the Islamic tradition. When asked why he had chosen to come here, he answered that he was one of the orphans that had been sponsored by Abdul Rahman.
Near enough 40 years later, Direct Aid now has 34 offices in 40 African countries.
The Mission of the Missionaries
Abdul Rahman mentioned to a trusted friend of his how, in 1972 whilst he was studying in Britain, he heard of a convention that was taking place in Colorado attended by most heads of nations along with the Pope. Their agenda was Africa and how by the year 2000, the entire continent would follow Christianity. They had taken this task upon themselves and gathered a huge amount of wealth and resources in order to fulfil this mission, along with the full support of the Vatican. His friend narrated that Abdul Rahman did not expand any further into the matter or say what he intended to do – he only returned back to Kuwait.
For the next three decades, Abdul Rahman became a thorn in the Vatican’s side. Whilst Christian missionaries were many and took full advantage of the hunger and poverty in the region by trading bread for Christian conversion, Abdul Rahman provided for whoever was in need, regardless of colour, creed, or race. There were entire villages of Muslims who had given up their religion and accepted Christianity in exchange for food and water. Al-Sumait, on the other hand, insisted that the people learned their own languages, culture, and even songs. He did not want any political interference and remained adamant that there should be no middle man between the aid and the people. He accurately manifested the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and showcased to the world that Islam was the only real solution to any form of racism or bias. Naturally, this caused problems for Abdul Rahman, and there were at least two assassination attempts against his life. Allāh saved His servant so he could continue with this blessed work.
Make It Rain
Abdul Rahman travelled to 34 different countries in Africa, saving people from the struggles of everyday living as well as spreading the word of Allāh. He travelled for many days on his feet, without sufficient food or water, and deteriorating health conditions. He narrates a number of times when he had to brush away excrements in a pond just so he could quench the dryness in his throat. Being a medical expert in tropical diseases, he knew the dangers of the jungle like few others did, but this did not slow him down the slightest.
He narrates how he once had to get to a certain village, so he had to walk through a swamp where the water was almost as high as his mouth. Asked how long he was in this condition, he replied, “For four hours!” All so he could spread the word of Islam.
When he was not travelling by foot, the journeys were not any better. Once, a group of brothers took him from Madina to Khaybar. When they reached, they apologised for tiring him out. He replied, “Exhausted me? We took an hour and a third and the car had AC while the road was good. I used to move from one village to another in Africa in the back of a truck and the vehicle would get knocked from side to side on the unpaved roads for 18 hours before we reached the next village.”
There were many encounters with al-Sumait involving deadly cobras and other snakes in Kenya and Mozambique, but again Allāh saved him.
In another incident, al-Sumait and his group entered a village where the Christian leaders informed them that it had not rained in the area for almost three years. Upon hearing the invitation to Islam, they conditioned Abdul Rahman to pray for rain, and if successful, they would accept Islam. He declined the offer and made excuses to get away from this, but they insisted and said they will be back in a few hours. He narrates: “It’s not about testing Abdul Rahman so they can say Abdul Rahman failed. Rather, it was testing Abdul Rahman’s dīn. I knew what they were doing to me by testing the religion in their simplistic ways, so I prayed more with my tears than my tongue and wept, saying, ‘Oh Allāh, don’t let my sins stop these people from entering your religion’.” By the time the people had returned in a few hours, the heavens had opened and it was pouring down rain like it never had in that region ever before. The people accepted Islam as the religion of truth, and Abdul Rahman “thanked Allāh that He had not let the religion down due to my errors.”
The Great African Sunset
The thirty years in Africa was an adventure few could live to achieve. Al-Sumait escaped the clutches of death on so many occasions despite the many dangers he faced. There were countless death threats, attempted assassinations, and torture at the hands of the Iraqi military service when he was imprisoned twice. Whilst being tortured during his imprisonment in 1970, he stated, “I had no doubt whatsoever that I would not die except at the moment Allāh had ordained for me.” By the mercy of Allāh, he survived many illnesses, hunger, thirst, and sleepless nights. His journey had been a long and solitary mission of getting the Islamic message delivered while trying to alleviate the pain and poverty of some of the most deprived villages and communities on Earth.
Throughout his life, the efforts of al-Sumait in charity work were recognised and acknowledged with several honours, awards, trophies, and certificates, including the highly prestigious King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam. Al-Sumait had written many academic papers and published many books, but this did not change him in the least, and he still remained humble and hungry for more achievements. He even gave the reward money from the prizes he received to the children of Africa.
Despite his older age and many illnesses, Abdul Rahman continued to live in the remote villages of Africa where basic health supplies and clean water were not readily available. He continued his mission of trying to get aid and the message of Islam through to as many areas as possible, despite his doctor’s advice to rest and not travel.
Eventually, he contracted too many illnesses and diseases that led to several heart conditions. This forced him to leave Africa and return to Kuwait to receive dialysis and many other surgeries. When this failed, he was taken to Germany to seek further medical aid, but his condition got worse by the day. He fell into a coma where he could not see or move. Occasionally, he would wake from his coma and ask the same question: “How is the da’wah in Africa, and what is the condition of the orphans?” His concern even at this critical time in his life would seem to have almost overshadowed his achievements: 9,500 orphans supported, 95,000 students financed, 5,700 mosques built, 200 training centres for women established, 860 schools and four universities founded, 102 Islamic centres established, 9,500 wells dug, 51 million masāhif distributed, and seven million people reverting to Islam at his hands, including priests and bishops – yet he was still concerned as if none of these accomplishments mattered.
Once, he woke up from his coma to ask his usual question and was given good news. His association had been given a licence to build the largest Islamic university in Kenya: Umma University. This was a dream that Abdul Rahman had been chasing for many years. Even going through that extremely painful moment of time, his face brightened as he silently thanked Allāh, and a smile broke onto his face. It was the same smile that the little boy in the Kuwaiti desert wore when he dreamed of the jungle he was going to conquer in Africa.
Shaykh Dr Abdul Rahman al-Sumait returned to his Lord on August 15th, 2013, at the age of 66. He is undoubtedly one of the least celebrated du’āt and humanitarian champion in the 21st century. He had no hunger to broadcast or publicise his work, and most of the world failed to recognise him as well. A young Kuwaiti boy wrote in to a well-known journalist complaining that he had been taunted in school by his Christian teacher who stated that Christians had Mother Teresa but that the Muslims did not have any such figure. It is a disaster to think that controversial figures like Mother Teresa are more well known in Muslim households than Dr Abdul Rahman al-Sumait.
There are many lessons that can be learned from the life of this incredible man that Allāh has blessed so many lives with. We ask Allāh to allow us to learn and implement these lessons, and to make Abdul Rahman al-Sumait a companion of the Prophets and the righteous in the highest abodes of Jannah.
Abu Idris is a property surveyor and a student of the Sabeel Development Programme. He has been actively involved in dawah projects in Cardiff where he is based and is interested in youth development projects, football, and Muay Thai.