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  Book review

Abdul Rahman bin Sheikh Al-Kaff: ‘Amid al-Usra al-Kaffiyah 

Abdul Rahman bin Sheikh Al-Kaff: ‘Amid al-Usra al-Kaffiyah by Ali bin Anis al-Kaff. Arabic. Privately published, Seiyun, Hadhramaut, 2008. Pp. 296. Illus. Appendices. Pb. 

The immense overseas wealth of the al-Kaff family enabled it to play a leading role in the civic and social life ofWadi Hadhramaut during the first half of the last century. For most of this period (1910–1948) Sayyid Abdul Rahman bin Sheikh al-Kaff, the subject of this biographical memoir, was ‘head of the al-Kaff family’ as he is described in the Arabic subtitle of the book. ‘Clan chief ’ would be equally appropriate, for by then ‘the family’ comprised many different branches. 

In Western literature about Hadhramaut, Sayyid Abdul Rahman has been overshadowed by his younger brother, Sayyid Abubakr bin Sheikh (1887–1965), partly because the latter was more directly associated with efforts by the local rulers and the British to bring peace and order to the region in the late 1930s, and partly because Abubakr outlived Abdul Rahman by some 17 years, succeeding him as head of the al-Kaff family on his death in 1948. But the two brothers worked closely together in pursuit of their shared philanthropic and charitable interests, and, as the author suggests, they should be considered as ‘two wings of a single bird’. 

The foundations of the family fortune were laid by their father Sayyid Sheikh in the second half of the 19th century. Born in Tarim in 1839, he made his way to Singapore at the age of twenty, and over the years established what was to become a prosperous business empire based on trade and real estate in Singapore and Java. 

Abdul Rahman was born in Singapore in 1886 and visited his homeland for the first time in 1892, when his father decided to return to Tarim. On Sayyid Sheikh’s death in 1910, Abdul Rahman became head of the family. He had already gone back to Singapore in 1907 to enter the family business, and he was to remain there, apart from an interval of six years (1913– 1919) spent in Tarim, until 1931 when he returned to Hadhramaut for the last time. 

The two brothers inherited not only substantial wealth from their father but also his civic spirit; in 1897, to promote the local economy, he had introduced a silver currency which remained in circulation until 1944. Between the wars the brothers financed extensive programmes of social, economic and cultural development. These included four schools in Tarim and Seiyun providing free education at primary and intermediate levels; a fully equipped and staffed hospital, public libraries in Tarim and Seiyun, and a 300 kilometre paved road linking the coast with the interior. Meanwhile, Sayyid Abdul Rahman was the driving force behind the formation in 1915 of Jam’iyat al-Haqq, an association of Tarim notables which established the town’s first modern school and was to exercise de facto responsibility for civil affairs in Tarim until the 1940s. 

The book is divided into four chapters. The first provides background on the al-Kaff family and on Sayyid Abdul Rahman’s upbringing, education and early travels between Singapore and Hadhramaut, and within South East Asia. The second reviews the family’s charitable works. The third discusses Abdul Rahman’s personality, and includes the text of two of his public speeches. The fourth comprises selections of prose and poetry written by local scholars and literati in praise of Sayyid Abdul Rahman and his benefactions. The book also includes two appendices with many family photographs of Singapore and Tarim, and copies of correspondence which sheds interesting light on Abdul Rahman’s relations with the local rulers, and on the range of charitable and social causes which he supported. The longest document reproduced is Sayyid Sheikh’s will of 1898, and also included is a commentary on this by Abdul Rahman’s scholarly friend and contemporary, Muhammad bin Hashem. A sad blemish is the poor English in which a four page note on Abdul Rahman’s career is expressed at the end of the book. 

This is a hagiography rather than a critical study of Abdul Rahman bin Sheikh’s life and times, and in form and substance it may be regarded as a companion volume to the biographical memoir ofAbubakr bin Sheikh, coauthored by Anis al-Kaff, which was published in 2007. The book’s major virtue is to focus attention on a man strongly motivated by the ideals of his Muslim faith, whose wealth underpinned his desire to reform and rebuild his homeland, and who spent much of it in the service of his community. 

John Shipman