Obituary: With sheikh’s death, Uganda’s Islam ‘computer’ shuts down


Some of the people who attended Sheik Abdukarim Sentamu’s funeral prayers at Nakasero mosque. The gunning down, on Friday evening, of Sheikh Abdukarim Sebyayi Sentamu deprived the Islamic community of one of the best-informed scholars it has ever had, or will ever have.

In fact, he was so good at Hadith (teachings and practices of the Prophet) that his peers nicknamed him ‘Computer’. And it is just as well that when he met his death, he was returning from teaching the word of Allah. Sentamu died on Friday night, after he was shot twice along William street as he returned from the mosque on the same road. Dr Swaib Semuwemba, one of Sentamu’s fervent admirers, recalls a man with a deep-seated passion for scholarship.

“He would always ask me to bring him a book on my every return to the country,” Semuwemba says.

Born 50 years ago in Kawempe, Sentamu attended Bilal Islamic Primary School in Bwaise and later obtained two scholarships, one from the Islamic University of Madina and another from Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia. The same year, 1982, his bosom buddy, Sheikh Nuh Muzaata, another prominent scholar, also got an offer from Madina.

Because the two were very close (they were born, raised and studied in Bwaise), Sentamu opted to ditch Riyadh for Madina because, according to Muzaata, “he didn’t want to leave me alone”. While Muzaata studied Sharia Law, Sentamu continued to pursue his passion: Hadith, and graduated in 1989. He duly returned to Uganda to practise what he had learnt.

It was about that time that, he, together with other sheikhs, embarked on a crusade to evangelize a strict version of Islam under Jamuiyat Ad-da’wa As-Salafiyya. This group, comprised of mostly youthful Muslims, moved from mosque to mosque teaching radical Islam. They were commonly referred to as Tabliqs, with their trademark of long beards and trousers that hugged just above the ankles or tunics. Imam Idd Kasozi, a former leader of the Uganda Muslim Youth Assembly, recalls the classes Sentamu used to teach in Kazo, Bwaise, where they both lived in the 1990s.

“He was very active in the youth revival. That was my first contact with him. He also used to preach a lot,” he says.

It is through these crusades that Sentamu and Muzaata honed their preaching skills, guided by the late Sheikhs Kizito Zziwa and Edris Lutaaya.

“We spent most of our time in mosques. We never went to clubs,” Muzaata says.

ADF link

One of the youths said to have partaken of Sentamu’s well of wisdom is a man called Jamil Mukulu, now believed to be the leader of the rebel Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Their very close student-teacher relationship would later cause Sentamu a lot of problems. At the time, the Tabliqs had become a force in Uganda, fighting any Islamic leader who did not follow Sharia to the letter.

That is how they stormed the then Uganda Muslim Supreme Council headquarters in Old Kampala in 1998, in a skirmish that left four policemen and a couple of police dogs dead. The government swung into action and arrested many of the Tabliqs, including Sentamu, Sheikh Hassan Kirya and Mustafa Bayiga. On the insistence of the youths led by Imam Kasozi, the suspects were produced in court and later released.

A short while after regaining his freedom, Sentamu decided to leave the country, claiming he was being persecuted by the ADF. But because he was a close confidant of Mukulu, many people believe that Sentamu was a member of the rebel group, which had declared war on President Museveni’s government. Others, however, contest this, saying Sentamu disapproved of the confrontational path his former student was advocating.

“He didn’t like politics then. He never liked politics even when he died,” says Ssemuwemba.

In fact it is Ssemuwemba who encouraged Sentamu to return to Uganda if indeed he was not part of the rebels. He returned and continued from where he had left, teaching and preaching the word of Allah.

“He was an admired sheikh because he practised what he preached. He was very consistent. He was a reader who surrounded himself with books, and he was very reserved, but also very principled,” says Imam Kasozi, adding: “He was a good character. You wouldn’t find a better person. I liked him.”

The same views were shared by his childhood friend Muzaata. “He was a living example of a pious person. He was very calm. He wasn’t so much into business like many of us; he spent most of his time in the mosque reading, teaching or preaching.”

Sentamu was married to one wife and had four children, one of whom witnessed his murder. And with two gunshots fired by a yet unknown person, for yet unknown reasons, Islam’s ‘computer’ in Uganda was shut down, never to be rebooted — unless, perhaps, since he dedicated his entire life to teaching and died in the line of duty, one or some of his students rise to take on the mantle.

About Uganda Muslim Brothers and Sisters

Uganda Muslim Brothers and Sisters (UMBS) was started as a discussion forum in 2010 by a Ugandan Muslim, Abbey Semuwemba, based in the United Kingdom. The main aim at the time was to encourage all Muslims to come together and discuss anything on their minds. It was started with only about 200 members but gradually, however, membership expanded to more than 6000 people in different countries, and so the need arose for formal operational guidelines. UMBS is building itself to become the national umbrella organisation dedicated to the common good, to the betterment of the Muslim community and country. It was formed after several years of wide-ranging consultation and careful planning by a group of Muslims that discussed Islamic affairs online regularly. It intends to bring together all representatives of different Muslim organisations in Uganda to meet up on annual basis to discuss the affairs of Muslims in Uganda. The need to coordinate efforts on wider issues of common concern became apparent in the course of the feud that developed between Muslim leaders after the sale of Muslim properties in Uganda. This created a climate of distrust and non-cooperation between many diverse groups in the country.

One response »

  1. Indeed he loved books, all his knowledge he had he was more than willing to share it. I will remember him when he was in London, he used to phone my husband to go to buy Islamic books. He was a very good sheikh and a humbled man. My Allah have mercy on his soul and give him jannah. He will be solemnly missed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s