THE STORY OF Moulana Cassim Sema

Moulana Cassim Sema

Moulana Saheb qualified successfully in September / October 1942, at the age of twenty two. He then decided to return home to South Africa. A teaching post at Mia`s Farm already awaited him.

Unfortunately it was during the period of the Second World War, and Japanese forces were heading towards India, and as a result of which, no passenger boats were in operation.

Due to strong requests from passengers, a steamboat called the “Tilawa”, was allocated to transport passengers to various parts of Africa, including SouthAfrica.

On the 23 November 1942, the Tilawa left Bombay harbour with its crew consisting of the cabin crew, three hundred Goanese sailors and one thousand passengers. On departure the captain assured the passengers protection in the event of an attack or any other danger. While on the ship, Moulana Sema Saheb had flashbacks regarding advice that MoulanaYusuf Binnori Saheb hadgiven him, which proved useful on this trip. Moulana Sema Saheb`s ordeal on the”Tilawa”

It was to recite a five times after every Saldh. Also to read Salawdt Tunajjind three hundred and thirty-six times, if the steamer was caught in any dangerous situation. This could either berecited individually or in a group during times of distress and difficulty. Moulana Saheb shared this advice with two friends, one from KalaKacha, and the other from Dabhel, who were with him aboard the Together they recited these prayers.

After five days of relatively peaceful travelling, there was a sudden thud against the ship, causing it to rock violently. The crew members and passengers were in total disarray. There was absolute chaos and panic as they realised that a Japanese submarine had torpedoed the ship. At that moment everyone was concerned for his own safety and the promise by the captain to protect the passengers did not prove true. The crew members and sailors were first to abandon the ship in life jackets and life boats, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves.

Moulana Sema Saheb say that;

“Surah-al-Quraish “Whilst I was asleep, I was awakened by the whistle of the torpedo even before it struck. It was an eerie whistle sound like “weee “. I was so shaken that I completely forgot about my two travel companions and ran for my own safety “.

It was a prior arrangement and instruction that should the ship go into trouble the passengers were to proceed to the second class. Moulana Sema Saheb did so.

Moulana Sema Saheb says; “Then I spotted a lifeboat already being lowered with a few cabin members. I began to climb down in order to get into the boat via the aid of a rope. When I reached halfway down the rope, I saw the boat moving away with only these few cabin crew members on it. I had no alternative but to despondently climb up the rope into the second class which was situated on the deck of the steamer.

Thereafter, I saw another lifeboat being lowered down, so I thought of climbing down again. But unfortunately, it got stuck whilst being lowered down (about halfway down).

Then I saw a third lifeboat which was already down on the water, with just a few passengers and I, with the help of The Almighty and Merciful Allah, managed to climb down into this boat.

After my boarding the boat, more passengers climbed down into the boat until it was filled to capacity. The boat had a capacity of48 people and so did every other lifeboat on the Tilawa.

Once the lifeboat was full, it was decided that we should row away as far as possible from the sinking ship, fearing that the tiny lifeboat may be dragged into the depths of the sea together with the sinking ship.

About this time someone asked “What is the time “. The only person who had a wrist watch was one of my two companions. The time was 1:30 am and to my surprise I noticed that the other companion was on board as well. All this time I did not even think about my two companions “

Moulana Sema Saheb firmly believes that he being saved was due to the recitation of Suratul Al-Quraish five times after every salaat. Moulana Sema Saheb continues his narration saying;

A Chinese astronomer, who was one of the crew members of the Tilawa, gazing at the stars, recommended that we should try and direct our course easterly, in the hope of reaching dry land in a few days time.

Now, at least we had some direction and course of action. The seating positions were adjusted in such a manner that the weight of the passengers was distributed equally on both sides so that the lifeboat does not tilt nor topple. Thereafter it was decided that the passengers take turns in rowing the boat. In this manner we sailed amidst rough seas and mountain-high waves in the hope of survival and reaching dry land.

“After we rowed away a reasonable distance, a second torpedo was launched directly at the already sinking Tilawa. We, from a distance, saw black smoke coming out of the steamer and thereafter, in amatter of a few moments, the ship disappeared into the depths of the sea.

After the steamer disappeared from sight, we lost all hope of going back to the steamer, for it was thought by some of the crew who were onboard our lifeboat that should the steamer not sink, we may be able to return and repair the damage. Then our perilous journey began!

At times, huge waves like mountains lifted the boat high and then flung it back to the surface of the sea. It was very frightening and nerve wrecking. In this manner we sailed for the rest of the night until dawn appeared. During the day the sea was comparatively calm. After sailing for a few hours into the day, we spotted a steamer at a distance which gave us hope in being rescued, but after a little while it disappeared from our sight. We began feeling hungry and thirsty. Some of the crew members of the Tilawa, who were on board broke open a survival box in which we found some thick biscuits, long aluminium containers containing fresh water, an axe and some other items. Small bits of biscuits were distributed amongst us and each was allowed to drink a few sips of fresh water as a life saving measure. I personally, because of my weakness and continuous vomiting, was completely exhausted and was unable to eat the thick biscuits. I was convinced within me, that even if we were to reach land in ten days time, I will not be able to survive. We continued sailing in this manner till sunset without seeing any other steamer nor were there any signs of land. At nightfall, which was our 2 nights on this perilous sea, the waves were even more dangerous & devastating than the

previous night. Most of us were convinced that we may not be able to survive this catastrophic ordeal and perish in the depths of the sea. But, Alhamdulillah, with the mercy of The Almighty Allah, our small boat kept on sailing through the night till the dawn of

Moulana Sema Saheb continues ” the second day appeared bringing us fresh hopes of survival with renewed hopes of being rescued.

Early that morning, well after sunrise, our hopes of survival rose even higher as we spotted another steamer. But unfortunately, a veil of heavy rain acted as a screen between us and the steamer. When the veil disappeared, we sighted the steamer again. It was then decided that we beckon the steamer by waving a cloth in the hope of attracting its attention towards us. We actually used a red shirt of one of the passengers as a flag. This proved successful and the steamer began sailing towards us. It took approximately one hour for the ship to reach us and by 11amor 12 pm, the steamer had reached us and it was the S. S. Birmingham which was a British battle ship returning to the British Isles after spending some time in the Indian Ocean. This Battle Ship lifted all the passengers from our lifeboat and entertained us with black coffee and biscuits.

When the Tilawa was torpedoed, the Captain immediately sent out an SOS message to all boats, battleships and steamers at sea. The S.S. Birmingham was the nearest battleship to the disaster area and it instantly changed its course and came to the rescue of the unfortunate Tilawa`spassengers. There were two seaplanes on this battleship which took turns to fly from the battleship in search of further survivors. Ours was the third boat that was rescued by the S.S. Birmingham. After extensive searches up until nightfall, the S.S. Birmingham was able to pick up a total of TO lifeboats and no more. It was then established that only one hundred and twenty five passengers had survived.

It was then decided to take the passengers hack to Bombay because it did not have sufficient rations for the surviving passengers. Otherwise it would have dropped the passengers at their desired destinations which were, East Africa as well as South Africa. The S.S. Birmingham then sailed on to Bombay.

  • Friday: We Boarded Tilawa
  • Saturday to Tuesday: At Sea on board the Tilawa
  • Tuesday night: Torpedoed
  • Wednesday: At Sea onboard the lifeboat
  • Thursday 11am: Rescued&searched for more passengers
  • Thursday night: Began journey to Bombay
  • Friday sunset: Reached Bombay

In less than 24 hours the S. S. Birmingham touched the Bombay harbour. It was the 1st day of December 1942. This Ship was much faster than the Tilawa as it was a battleship and not a passenger liner. There the A.R.P. (Air Raid Protectors) servicemen entertained the survivors with coffee, tea & biscuits. Each one of the survivors was given a telegram form to fill in a brief message that, “We are safe “, to their dear ones at home and addressing the telegram to their home

address.The Muslim survivors who were but a handful were taken to the Sabu Siddiqui Musafir Khana whilst the Hindustani passengers were taken elsewhere for accommodation.

At the Musafir Khana, each one of us was given a vest and a white calico trouser and provided with meals by a charitable institution for the duration of our stay there. After a few days Moulana Sema Saheb decided to visit his former alma mater.


A colleague of Moulana Sema Saheb, Moulana Qassim Tayib Saheb of Lorenzo Marks (Maputo) who was studying at that time in his old Jami `ah came with some clothes, money & aided Moulana Sema Saheb to travel back to Jdmi `ah Islamiyyah – Dhabel.