Dear sister, brothers and beloved friends
I greet you in peace.
This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult and challenging pieces I have ever had to write, for two main reasons. Firstly, because the death of our brother, leader and friend Yusuf has still not sunk in completely. Though my eyes have skimmed through tremendous numbers of heartfelt memorial messages, newspaper articles and tributes, emails and messages from friends and family, and though my fingers have had to type the first email that informed our committee and broader group of friends that Yusuf was being admitted to hospital, and thereafter sent messages informing people that “Unfortunately, our brother and leader has passed away” and though my voice subsequently had to surface when calling people before he passed on about how things were not looking the best, it still has not yet sunk in.
“Activist and Inspiration: Yusuf Talia dies due to illness” “Activist Yusuf Talia dies after battle with muscular dystrophy” “Yusuf was” (and not is) “Yusuf will always remain an inspiration” “Yusuf lived” (and is not living) - it is all surreal. Suddenly everything has become the past tense, and a once enormous component of our MSA family and brotherhood is now no longer a companion of ours in this world.
The second reason is because it is virtually impossible to try and convey an adequate depiction of who Yusuf was and how he lived his life in just mere words. It cannot be done. The spirit, determination, grace and dignity with which he lived his life and the impact he had needed to be felt, experienced and appreciated to truly understand it. But I will succumb to the poverty of my words in trying to capture and express it, and my appreciation of this spectacular person I was blessed to know.
I met Yusuf for the first time at the IMA 2012 Convention where the MSA Union was hosting breakaway sessions and held its first national meeting since its revival at the end of 2011. I was a second year student at that time, had just become the chairperson of my campus MSA, and found out about the MSA Union and what they were doing through email correspondence with the interim MSA Union committee, which included Yusuf, and some MSA alumni.
I had no prior knowledge of who Yusuf was or what he had accomplished in life – all I was exposed to was a person who spoke inspiringly about unity, purpose and working towards common goals, and who was open and welcoming to someone like myself, who he had not even met, but who shared the a similar vision. I knew immediately that I was speaking to someone who was a true leader who was motivated by a greater cause, yet still remained humble and approachable. Our interaction was, initially very formal, but it was around the time of the MSA National 2012 Camp that was hosted in Durban where we became extremely good friends and began speaking more frequently from realising that we shared common goals, ideals, and thoughts of life and society. He eventually convinced me to run for Vice President at the next MSA Union national elections in January 2013, which I was initially hesitant to do because of being concerned about my relatively younger age and inexperience. But he encouraged me to do look beyond this, and only later did I see how powerful that action was – that Yusuf proved to every person he met, just through the way he lived, that there is no such thing as barriers when you are working for a greater purpose, and that his act of encouraging me to step up to the challenge was just another manifestation of this. I eventually agreed, and made a light-hearted pact that I would do so only if he ran for President again (which he, humbly, only agreed to do so if nobody else wanted to)
Today, I could not be more grateful that we both made those decisions because it was from this that Yusuf transformed from not only being a mentor and leader to me, but a lifelong friend, brother and confidant. There is a unique relationship that develops between those who work within the MSA. It is an unexplained phenomenon to which majority of people in the MSA can attest. There is something about working for a greater, higher purpose together that creates unbreakable bondages between and lifetime friendships – friendships, I believe, that will transcend the barriers of just this world.
Many of us know the multiple organisations, initiatives and projects that Yusuf was involved with. He undoubtedly and consistently made invaluable contributions to numerous campus student societies, civil society and the Muslim community, with the aim of fighting and working for social change and social justice. The world will mourn the loss of this great giant who lived amongst us with so much of dignity and heart for positive change, and his legacy and commitment will continue to inspire his generation, and the future generations.
“The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it. This is a form of hope we call all achieve, and it is the most abiding of all. Hope resides in the meaning of what our lives have been.”
But beneath these accomplishments that everyone knew Yusuf for, lay who Yusuf really was: Yusuf, the person. Neither our failures nor our accomplishments fully convey who we are; it is our character that is the best reflection of the quality and calibre of person that we are. This is the part of Yusuf that I knew, appreciated and will always remember, and this is the part of Yusuf that leaves a huge gap in the hearts of his close friends and family.
We will miss the Yusuf that had an immense insight into the personality of his friends, teammates and colleagues. So many times he would pick up if I was upset, mellow or stressed from the tone of our conversations and would make a simple statement about his observation and then offer support or an ear to listen, or a ‘warm beverage’ which was a joking gesture we had if the one picked up that it was stressful period for the other, especially when we proceeded to take up ridiculously huge MSA projects at the last minute (and would love every bit of the crazy rush to get things done) He knew me so well to the extent that even when I had got proposed, all I had told him was that I had something to tell him, and he thereafter simply and correctly stated exactly what it was and my fiancé’s name.
We will miss the Yusuf whose ego was completely out of the equation in whatever he did – in his relationships with people, in the work he did, in the way he spoke, thought, lived, believed, and even vented. He embodied selfless living, selfless friendship, and selfless leadership – all 3 of which are extreme rarities in today’s times. He greatly valued the act of Shura (mutual consultation) and strongly implemented this principle in all MSA meetings, interactions and decision-making processes.
We will miss the Yusuf who reached the level of walking amongst giants, but remained a humble and approachable soul with absolutely no heir or high opinion of himself. Sometimes I actually had to force him to let me tweet, share or post an article that he was featured in or which covered a story about him. He used to tell me something that will forever remain with me, and which I am committed to taking forward in whatever endeavour I pursue, “The successes of MSA’s are theirs (the committees), the failures are mine”
We will miss the Yusuf who was an absolute gentleman and had an incredible, quiet sense of humour that would literally have us audibly laughing at just a simple comment he would make. When I had gone away for Umrah earlier this year, the amount of MSA activities and events just happened to spontaneously increase and things had become noticeably crazy for the entire committee whilst I was absent. Yusuf promptly messaged me saying, “You know what this feeling is like. You know when the mom goes away. Then the dad must look after the toddler alone for a few days. And the toddler is in the Terrible Twos.” Another time, his brother Waseem had laid out a ramp between the gradient extended between the doorstep and floor so that Yusuf would be able to wheel his wheelchair over it to exit the room. I scurried out of the room in front of him, concerned that he may fall, but he calmly reversed his wheel chair out over the plank and turned it back around smiling and saying, “Don’t stress people. I’m a good driver.” Very often when I would tweet a stream of medical jokes or send him and a few other friends I piece of poetry to read and critique, Yusuf would message saying, “So it’s exam time again, right?” having full knowledge that those were things I would do as a means of passing time in the week of exams.
We will miss the Yusuf whose private and public life were not separate entities. He was not one person at home and with his friends, and a different person in the organisations he worked within. He was consistent and consistently sincere, always focused on making a change, growing, and improving. Islam defines a Mu’min is one who is true and firm in his faith in God, and a Mujahid is one who strives his utmost, with all the means at his disposal, to gain God’s Pleasure. “The Believers are only those who have attained to faith in God and His Messenger, and have left all doubt behind, and who strive hard in God’s cause with their possessions in their lives: it is they, they who are true their word.” (Surah Hujarat, Verse 15) In my humble opinion, Yusuf was a Mujahid, and he dedicated his life to working for something, and the One beyond himself.
We will miss the Yusuf that who proved to us that there is no such thing as barriers when you have your heart and mind set on a greater purpose. Many times I used to wonder what Yusuf’s view of his disability was, and my question was answered when I saw what one of his favourite quotes was, “What is destined will reach you, even if it be underneath two mountains. What is not destined, will not reach you, even if it be between your two lips! Whatever is meant for you will be coming your way, while you are led and directed toward it. As for that which is not meant for you, you will be deflected from it as it is turned aside from you. Go easy on yourself, for the outcome of all affairs is determined by Allah’s decree. If something is meant to go elsewhere, it will never come your way, but if it is yours by destiny, from you it cannot flee. “Umar Ibn Al Khattab (RA). Yusuf viewed his disability as something that Allah had decreed upon him for a reason. It was not given to him as means to hamper him from fulfilling his purpose, but that it was a part of how Allah had created him in order to achieve his purpose. He would invest the time, energy and effort and do what he could, when he could and how he could, and the rest and the outcomes would be determined by Allah.
It’s important to realise that whilst Yusuf has left us, what he lived, worked and dedicated himself to still goes on. The best way to honour someone and their vision is to continue working towards actualising these goals and making it a reality. Yusuf’s hard work, especially with MSA (which is just one of the many vehicles for change) will not have been in vain. Those of us still in the organisations he was a part of need to be committed to allowing his legacy to inspire us to enact positive change and to never stop growing.
His death should not indicate the end of a legacy of change, but his life should be an inspiration to inspire many more legacies of change. People like Yusuf Talia, in both their life and death, need to aspire us to remember the purpose of our existence. Whilst we mourn his death, we should celebrate his life. A life that was lived with the fullest of conviction and a life that fulfilled the purpose for which it was created – it was only for this reason that Allah had chosen for him to return to Him. And may we never be taken by death until we do the same.
I would like to also make special mention of Yusuf’s parents and brother – Fatima, Nazeer and Waseem Talia. Yusuf many times referred to them as his “A-team” and driving force. They are truly 3 of the most amazing people I have met, who unconditionally and endlessly supported and encouraged Yusuf in all that he pursued. May Allah bless them with this strength during this difficult time, and I pray that they are blessed with a special place in Paradise for everything that they have done.
I, unfortunately, did not have the opportunity to say goodbye to Yusuf. It is a fact that pains me, and will pain for a long time. My plane tickets had booked for this coming weekend since last week, as soon as I heard that things had taken a bad turn. I was unable to go down last weekend owing to my paediatrics exams being this week, but Allah alone knows the reasons for me not having the opportunity to see and speak to him one last time before he left this world. He is safely in a special place in Paradise, God Willing. Maybe not being able to say goodbye in this world means that our next Salaam or greeting of peace will be in a place where peace really will be eternal. Allah knows Best.
This is a picture of Yusuf and I at the first MSA Union Induction Programme we hosted in Gauteng for newly elected MSA committees in the region. These verses were part of the portion of the Qur’an that was recited at the beginning of the programme. When I reflect on the meaning of them, I realise that he truly actualised these verses in both his life and death.
Rest in eternal peace, my brother. It was an honour to have served our Deen with you. May you be amongst the company of the Ambiyah (AS). May you have arrived in Eternal Love. May you really be truly at peace and free from any pain of stresses. May your legacy continue to inspire others for generations to come. May your work and vision for society and the world become a reality.
Until we meet again.