Imagine, what would you think of an old man who came out of the green islands surrounded by the waves of Arabian Sea and settled in an unknown and lifeless land of South India with the determination of setting an example of natural farming here? Eventually, he set a great example of success as well. Unbelievable, but the active life of Ali Manikfan is full of such challenging feats!
Seeing the name of Ali Manikfan in the Padma Shri list this year, the two-year-old conversation with him got refreshed. That long and interesting interaction raised a question in my mind: why was society not aware of such an incredible personality and why this ideal spirit of self-learning could not be appreciated? Finally, the unique wisdom of our times got a place in the list.
Two months from now, Mr. Manikfan will attain the age of 83. To summarize his wonderful life in a few words I would say is, the model of self-learning, the model of eco-spirituality, the inventive scientist, the linguist, the treasure of modern science, the oceanographer, the engineer, the astronomer, the agronomist, Alternative Technology & alternative medicine Specialist, Marine Biologist, Fisheries Specialist, Academician etc. This is just a ‘brief’ introduction with an additional note that this genius gentleman is a school dropout!
You might have been thrilled to read this introduction. Be surprised. But the world of possibilities is even wider. Not only informal learning, but out of the box thinkers are crossing the boundaries of un-schooling, de-schooling, self-learning, do-it-yourself, nature schooling and auto-didacticism. Growing up in the narrow valleys of formal education, for many like me, such terms are pure Latin.
My point and above terms would be more coherent, if we meet this amazing person in detail. Let’s meet. Mr. Murad Gandaur Ali Manikfan.
Mr. Manikfan had opened his eyes on a small island of Manikoy in Lakshadweep, far from the world of modern resources. During his early childhood he moved to Kannur (Kerala) for school education. It did not take him long to realize that formal education is just a cumbersome process that suppress one’s abilities. He dropped out and got rid of formal education. And so began the long journey of self-learning!
The Deccan Chronicle, in an article rightly calls him the “Unconventional University of the Universe”. Let us take a look at the different ‘departments’ of this amazing one-man university.
Oceanography and Fisheries:
This is probably the largest department of this one-man university. The small piece of land on which he opened his eyes was surrounded by the sea on all four directions. That is why oceanography has been the first area of interest to him. He considers the coastal life of the islands to be closer to nature. Many years ago, when Dr. S. Jones, a well-known marine biologist, met Mr. Manikfan, he was impressed by his high-level of intellect in marine research. In his book Fishes of the Laccadive Archipelago, while appreciating Manikfan, he mentions that “This young man has been such a great help and encouragement for me in my studies that I am greatly indebted to him”.
Mr. Manikfan then joined the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute of India (CMFRI), the largest and best known organization of the Government of India in the field of marine biology. He served as a field assistant. This was followed by a long series of research on marine life. He has discovered more than 400 species. Looking at his research, Dr. Jones says that Manikfan’s interest in marine biology is unparalleled.
Ali Manikfan found a new fish species while working at CMFRI. Manikfan’s capacity of observation and his deep and wide knowledge about marine life gave this fish Manikfan’s name, Abudefduf manikfani, in order to perpetuate his memory. Leading oceanographer, Dr. S. Z. Qasim (India’s Antarctica expedition leader, Padma Bhushan awardee) had great confidence in Mr. Manikfan’s abilities. For this reason, he handed over many of his projects to Mr. Manikfan which were successfully accomplished. He also presented scholarly papers in leading universities of the country. He has given lectures at many reputed institutes, including Jawaharlal Nehru University. He presented his research on Marine Medicine (Medicine from the Sea) at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa. His research on island formation is interesting. It explains how coral islands are formed, their ability to hold fresh water, how they handle and sustain each drop of water, etc. The Lakshadweep Marine Museum showcases his research in detail. The Man in Million Documentary also exhibits his contributions.
This is the most amazing department of this mobile university. In 1981, the Irish sailor Tim Severin wanted to relive the experience of Sindabad. But it was not possible for him to develop an analogous model of the ship that could actually repeat the experiment. Ali Manikfan accepted the challenge. He arrived in Oman with his team. After a year of hard work, he managed to build the 27-meter-long ship ‘Sohar’. It was a replica of the 12th-century Arab merchant ships. The ship was built without using any metal. It was made of wood and rope. Images of this amazing ship can be found in Tim Severin’s book. The ship set a record by traveling about 10,000 kilometers from Oman to China.
The story of the incredible ship and its voyage has been narrated by Tim Severin in his book, Sindbad Voyage. Sohar has been standing in the museum of Oman for forty years inaudibly narrating the amazing story of its maker.
He also engineered his bike and traveled from Tamil Nadu to Delhi. It is said that this ‘bike’ is better than ordinary petrol vehicles in several ways.
My friend, Mr. Suhail’s companionship with Mr. Manikfan is very old. It is he who helped me reach Mr. Manikfan. In a recent conversation, Mr. Suhail KK shared an interesting incident about his observation. He says that a large shipbuilding company was manufacturing royal yachts. Seeing a seemingly good ship, Mr. Manikfan stopped at a point and called the engineers to point out an invisible flaw. Citing various scientific arguments, he proved that under normal circumstances, it will work fine, but in the case of a storm, it might tilt at a certain degree and suffer. The engineers were surprised. They began their reverse investigation and found that his observation was absolutely correct. They fixed the issue and expressed their gratitude.
Agriculture and Environmental Science:
This is another department of this wonderful university. “We have a précised stability and equilibrium in our environment and it holds the ability to maintain the universal wonders, provided we don’t interfere” he says. Destruction of rivers by dams, devastation of ponds and water bodies by garbage dumps, and spoiling the atmosphere by pollution, etc. are the things that need action rather than mere slogans. He believes in natural agriculture. He took those puzzling steps that have been mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article.
He moved with his daughter and grandchildren to a barren region of Tamil Nadu, hundreds of kilometers from Lakshadweep. He chose a very barren land away from the river and pond near the city of Valioor. According to him, the human self and the environment are not two opposite modules but supportive elements for each other. He built a small hut on this barren place. While living here, he started a new farming experiment on this unknown and lifeless land. He calls his farmland ‘Do Nothing Farm’. His project began with a water harvesting plant. Very soon, the artificial pond started blooming the splendor. His philosophy says that you need not do anything. If man does not interfere then it’s the nature that comes into full action. At first, the blooming artificial pond starts welcoming a flock of birds. As the number of birds increases, seeds are exchanged by their wings. As seeding progresses, several environmental changes silently flourish. These silent changes gradually make the area greener. He made the philosophy of ‘Do Nothing Farm’ come true in 4 years.
He meets his 15-acre farm and home electricity needs with his eco-friendly power plant, which he has exclusively designed, built and installed for his farmland. He explains how a better life can be achieved by relying on the environment without excessive usage of materials.
The Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) introduces Mr. Manikfan on its portal as an organic farming specialist.
It was an interesting experience for me to speak in pure Urdu with a man who lived in islands hundreds of kilometers away from the mainland and thousands of kilometers away from Urdu society. I asked Mr. Manikfan how he learned several languages. He had a simple answer. Just focus on a mother language, and all its derivative languages would be easy to get acquainted with. For example, if you learn Latin, all European languages will be easy for you. If you learn Sanskrit, Indian languages will be yours, and if you learn Arabic, you may surmount the linguistic front of the Middle East. Mr. Manikfan explained the formula very easily. I was wondering if it really is that easy to decode this formula? Today, sitting in the cyber world, we do not find this task so easy. Mr. Manikfan led this front many years ago with the help of just a few resourceful books and a radio. This department of our ‘university’ is rich in terms of quality and quantity. It houses major languages of the three continents. He is a linguist who is fluent in 14 national and international languages (Mahal, English, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Urdu, Arabic, Latin, French, Russian, German, Persian, Sanskrit and Sinhalese). Dr. Devraj, former director of CMFRI (Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute), considers him his mentor because Manikfan taught him French and Russian.
The Astrophysics department of this exciting university is also very interesting and incredible.
Scientific secrets of astronomy, fascinating facts about the organization of stars and planets, complex formulas for the renewal of the lunar calendar, efforts to redesign this calendar, astronomical calculations of the moon, dialogues with Islamic scholars for scientific redesigning of the lunar (Hijri) calendar, constant travels to attend seminars and extensive analyses. These are just some of the major works he is involved with. During our conversation, he explained his thoughts on the lunar calendar in great detail. According to him, we have adopted a wrong practice and are satisfied with it, while the Lord of the Universe has placed very accurate calendars and clocks on our heads in the form of the moon and the sun. Mr. Manikfan explained in detail the lunar curve of the moon with Qur’anic references. But his views on the lunar calendar and the Qibla are strongly objected by many well-known international scholars of Islamic astronomy and crescent science. Dr. Khalid Shaukat, Prof. Omar Afzal and Prof. Muhammad Ilyas, for instance, oppose his views. An interesting conversation can be found on YouTube between Mr. Manikfan and Mr. Suhail regarding Lunar Visibility curve.
Mr. Manikfan not only enjoys a special expertise in geography and astronomy, but also owns challenging theories based on his study. He is a religious scholar. He believes that the direction of the Qiblah beyond the international timeline should also be seriously reviewed. He has arguments to support this theory. According to him, because to the existing practice, there is a strong possibility of back-to-back rows of worshipers at one point of the earth. Meeqat al-Qibla is an important subject of his studies.
Mr. Manikfan is also known for his medical philosophies and discoveries.
At 82, an active life and a brilliant mind like a young man are phenomenal. Eat less is the secret of his healthy life, he says. The truth is that this is also the Islamic principle. Cutting down the daily calories consumption to a required level may turn out to have a profound effect on health. Overeating leads to many diseases. He presented his research on Marine Medicine (Medicine from the Sea) at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa.
He usually avoids allopathic medicine and relies on sea medicine. He believes that the oceans not only provide food but also support medical needs. According to his research, coral reefs and fishes in the marine ecosystem hold tremendous medical benefits. His therapeutic experiences are also very interesting. He explains in detail , how he treated chronic diseases with selected variety of fish.
What we learn:
The self-learning spirit of the 82-year-old man gifts several silent messages to the modern day youth sitting beside the stream of information and technology.
1) The concept of ‘Do Nothing Farm’ is miraculous. He believes that it is not necessary to provide water to large trees and coconut trees. If water is to be provided, he suggests to pour away from the roots. There is wisdom behind this technique. In absence of surrounding water the roots of the tree spread far and wide to explore water and thus establish their own place in the soil. If the roots are far deeper, the tree will be stronger and healthier. Do Nothing Farm harvesting strategy is also a quiet piece of advice for those looking for shortcuts in life, that easy accesses to the resources makes them lethargic and vulnerable, whether trees or humans. In contrast, access to the destination through exploration leads to curiosity and builds strong personality.
2) Regardless of Mr. Manikfan’s thoughts, his self-learning journey and unique experiences are worthy of appreciation. There are several gems and jewels spread across the society, many of them are not even aware of their abilities. The multi-dimensional personality of Mr. Manikfan is a clear sign that abilities and talents are distributed by the Lord with complete justice. Now it is up to the man to value this justice or disregard it.
3) Mr. Suhail narrated an interesting incident of his first meeting with his guru. He was a junior college student and had a special interest in astronomy. He wrote a few questions on a postcard and sent them to Mr. Manikfan. In reply he wrote that your questions are very good and I want to meet you. Soon he came to Kannur to meet a 17-year-old boy. Since then they are in close companionship. He says that Manikfan is the best teacher as well as the best student. He possesses an ever-growing passion for learning and teaching. Amusement and curiosity are part of his personality. Even a teenager can be a good friend of him provided he shares a similar passion. Such a unique thirst for learning and teaching carries several silent messages for both elders and youth.
4) A major source of human knowledge is observation of the environment. The enduring impressions of the coastlines of Lakshadweep and the waves of the ocean taught Mr. Ali Manikfan at an early age. That made him a permanent self-learner. He learned the secret of nature-schooling seventy years ago and has been explaining the practical concept of alternative schooling at universities and institutions through his research papers for the last several decades. He practically introduced a de-schooling model at Waynad (Kerala). Several students joined and practiced his learning model. At an early age, it is very difficult to develop a deep understanding of the environment through bookish knowledge. Such experiments prove that an eight-hour primary schooling practice loaded with books needs a thorough reform.
5) If the school-college certificate is to be perceived the only base of qualification, then Allama Manikfan stands nowhere. His children also stood away from formal schooling but learnt a lot and became skillful teachers. Believe it or not, self-learning is a fact. It can be applied equally to both modern and religious sciences. Although a mentored and monitored learning atmosphere is important but not necessarily for all. Exceptions are essential here. University credentials and madrassa graduations cannot be the universal criteria of the qualification.
6) Mr. Manikfan places the benefit of humanity and the environment on top in his self-learning ambitions. This unique way of looking at the universe earned him the honor of Grassroots Innovation. Our education system looks very weak here. Environment science is certainly taught to us, but in practice we are taught to exploit the material resources that eventually harm the environment. The simple and practical life of Mr. Ali Manikfan teaches us that our practical career should also be environment friendly and beneficial to humanity.
7) Ali Manikfan’s multifaceted abilities are hard to ignore. Fortunately, Mr. Manikfan got well-regarded directors, including Dr. Syed Zahoor Qasim during his career. Otherwise, in a corrupt system only Edmund Hillary is remembered as the champion, Tenzing is normally kept in a place where it is easy to forget him.
The bitter truth is that this exploitation is not a monopoly of few but common across government institutions, corporates, organizations and Madrasas . He who does not know the value of roots has no right to wish for flowers