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.
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.