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Muslims in South Africa Origins, Struggles and Achievements (Part One)

By Dr. Suleman Dangor
Islamic Studies- University of Kwazulu-Natal

 

University of Kwazulu-Natal professor, Dr. Suleman Dangor, delivers an in-depth four-part analysis of the makeup, history, struggle, and achievements of South African Muslims, one of theworld's most distinguished Muslim communities.

There are no reliable statistics on the number of Muslims in South Africa. Estimates range from 500,000 to 1,000,000. Judging from the latest census figures and the concentration of Muslims in the various provinces of South Africa, it can safely be assumed that the majority of this population is made up of Muslims of Malay origin (about 45 percent, resident mainly in the Western Cape) and Indian origin (about 45 percent, resident chiefly in Kwazulu-Natal, Gauteng, and Mpumalanga).

The remainder are Muslims of mainly African origin; very few Muslims of European or Arab origin can be found.

In the 17th century, slaves were brought by the Dutch East India Company to provide labor for the nascent Dutch colony at the Cape (Campbell Collections photo).

South African Muslims do not only represent diverse national origins, but also diverse socio-economic categories. In the 17th century, slaves were brought by the Dutch East India Company from their colonies in East and West Africa, South India, Ceylon, and the Malaysian Archipelago to provide labor for the nascent Dutch colony at the Cape. Since these were areas with high concentrations of Muslims, many of the slaves brought to the Cape were Muslim (Boeseken).

Slaves were kept in abject conditions by the Dutch authorities. They often complained about the unpalatable food they were obliged to consume, lack of warm clothing during the bitter Cape winters, and the severe punishment for minor violations of rules (Wilson andand Thompson). Most slaves were named after the slave traders who purchased and sold them, or after their owner. This explains why the majority of Cape Muslims have distinctly Christian surnames, such as Davids, Da Costa, and Harris.

The leading opponents of Dutch colonization and economic monopoly of the East Indies were exiled to the Cape including the Raja of Tambora, Prince of Ternate, and Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar.

 

Slave labor was augmented by prison labor; several hundred convicts from the Dutch colonies in the East Indies were brought to the Cape to serve out their sentences in the employ of the Dutch authorities (Shell). Among them were several men with profound knowledge of Islam such as Abdullah ibn Qadi Abd al-Salam, popularly known as Tuan Guru, a former prince of the principality of Tidore in the Ternate islands.

He was one of the first prisoners on Robben Island but later became the first imam of the first mosque established at the Cape, as well as the first official teacher at the first official madrasah (Da Costa andand Davids).

Vryezwarten (Free Blacks) is a term that came to be applied to manumitted slaves and convicts who had completed their sentences. It is this group that provided imams and teachers for the earliest mosques and madrasahs respectively. In view of this, many historians, including Davids, credit the Vryezwarten with establishing and consolidating Islam at the Cape (Da Costa andand Davids).

The leading opponents of Dutch colonization and economic monopoly of the East Indies were exiled to the Cape including theRajaof Tambora, Prince of Ternate, and Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar (Boeseken). These exiles were deliberately isolated from their countrymen in order to prevent them from exerting any political influence which might have created difficulties for the Dutch at the Cape as they had done in the East Indies (Jeffreys 89). They were, in fact, the first prisoners on Robben Island.

A group of Boers (Campbell Collections photo).

One political exile who did have some measure of influence wasSheikh Yusuf who was at once a prince, a religious scholar, a mujahid, (freedom fighter) and a sheikh of the Khalwatiyyah Sufi Order. He met with slaves secretly in their lodges and at his own home where he initiated them into his tariqah (Sufi order; Dangor). He is regarded by some historians as the pioneer of Islam in South Africa (Du Plessis). The fact that elements of Khalwatiyyah practices survive to this day indicates that Sheikh Yusuf had an abiding impact on the development of Islam at the Cape.

In the 19th Century, the British brought indentured workers from India to cultivate sugar cane in their newly acquired colony on the coast of Natal (Bhana andand Brain). Muslims constituted a minority (estimated to be 10 percent) of these workers (Kuper). However, Muslims formed the overwhelming majority of Indian traders who decided to migrate from India to South Africa in order to seek their fortunes in the new land (Bhana andand Brain). They were joined by some Muslim traders from Mauritius and East Africa. A small contingent of Pathan Muslims was brought from India by Lord Roberts to fight for the British against the Boers in the Anglo-Boer War (Kuper).

Between 1873 and 1880, the British brought several hundred slaves from East Africa including Zanzibar as indentured laborers to be employed in public works. They had been rescued from ships transporting them to Europe. The majority of these slaves were Muslim and came to be known as the "Zanzibaris," a designation by which they are described to this day. Like the early Cape Muslims, the "Zanzibaris" were influenced to a great extent by African traditional practices in their rites and ceremonies (Oosthuizen).

The discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand area in the early 20th century attracted migrants from Malawi and Mozambique who came to seek employment in the mines. Many of these migrants were Muslims. Hundreds of Malawian Muslims were also recruited to work in the forestry industry and on citrus farms in the Eastern Transvaal (Mahomed 11).

Consolidation and Growth of Islam

Restrictions by the Dutch authorities prevented the Cape Muslims from establishing a mosque or madrasahfor a century-and-a-half (Botha). In this period, the tariqah was the early CapeMuslims' onlylink with Islam. The two major orders were the Khalwatiyyah introduced by Sheikh Yusuf and the Qadiriyyah (Da Costa and Davids). Nonetheless, the expression of Islam in the 17th and 18th centuries in respect of rites of passage, religious rituals, and spiritual exercises was distinctly syncretic.

Restrictions by the Dutch authorities prevented the Cape Muslims from establishing a mosque or madrasah for a century-and-a-half.

 

The first mosque (the Awwal Mosque) was established by Tuan Guru only in 1797 (Davids). He also established the first madrasah where he taught Islam through the Malayu language. By the beginning of the 19th century, Afrikaans had become the lingua francafor the Cape Muslims, who contributed significantly to its development. Not surprisingly, it became the medium of instruction in the madrasah.

The textbooks used in the madrasah, though written in the Arabic script, were in the Afrikaans language. The first book of this genre of literature was Kitab al-Qawl al-Matin by Al-Ishmuni (Selms). Perhaps the most popular is the Bayan ad-Din by Abu Bakr Effendi, a Turkish national sent as a religious guide to the Cape by the Ottoman Sultan at the request of a Cape imam(Da Costa and Davids). However, the most prolific producer of Arabic-Afrikaans literature was Sheikh Ismail Hanif.

The British brought indentured workers from India to cultivate sugar cane in their newly acquired colony on the coast of Natal (Campbell Collections photo).

Over the course of time, many of the earlier forms of expression were completely abandoned, others seldom manifested, and still others appreciably altered. These changes could be attributed primarily to three factors: the role of the imams, the impact of education specifically the establishment of the first madrasah in 1793 and the Mission school in 1913 (Davids 2, Words 28) and influence of Arab institutions on students who went to Makkah and Cairo for their studies (Duff-Gordon).

Islam experienced rapid growth at the Cape in the first two centuries. This growth could be attributed to the following factors:

1) Conversion of slaves for whom Islam provided secure status and district identity.

2) Intermarriage between Cape Muslim men and English women.

3) Adoption of abandoned children by Muslim families.

4) Attendance of Muslim schools by children of other races and faiths (Shell).

5) Attraction to Muslim rites and rituals such as the ratib ("spiritual dance") (Davids).

6) Prohibition on the sale of Christianized slaves. Hence, slave owners indirectly encouraged their slaves to adopt Islam instead of Christianity (Shell). 

Sources

Bhana, S. and J. Brain. Setting Down Roots. Johannesburg, 1990.

Boeseken, A.J. Slaves and Free Blacks at the Cape (1658-1700). Cape Town, 1977.

Boeseken, A.J. Simon van der Stel en sy kinders. Elsies River, 1964.

Botha, C.G. General History and Social Life of the Cape of Good Hope. Cape Town, 1962.

Bradlow, F.R. Cairns, M., ed. The Origins of the Early Cape Muslims. Cape Town, 1978.

Da Costa, Y. and A. Davids. (eds.) Pages from Cape Muslim History. Pietermaritzburg, 1994.

Dangor, Suleman. Sufi Sahib. Durban, 1995.

Dangor, Suleman. "The Expression of Islam in South Africa." Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 17, 1 (1997).

Dangor, S. E. Shaykh Yusuf of Makasar. Durban, 1994.

Davids, A. The Mosques of Bo-Kaap. Cape Town, 1980.

De Kock, V. Those in Bondage. London, 1950.

Duff-Gordon, Lady. Letters From the Cape. Annotated by Dorothea Fairbridge. London, 1927.

Du Plessis, I. D. The Cape Malays. Cape Town, 1947.

Hellman, E. and L. Abrahams, eds. The Handbook of Race Relations in South Africa. Cape Town, 1949.

Jeffreys, K. M. "The Tombs of Constantia." Cape Naturalist, 3 July 1936.

Kuper, H. Indian People in Natal. Pietermaritzburg, 1960.

Mahomed, S. I. "Da`wah among the Blacks in Kangwane." BA Thesis, University of Durban-Westville, n.d.

Millin, S.G. The South Africans. London, 1937.

Oosthuizen, G. C. The Muslim Zanzibaris of South Africa. Durban: 1982.

Seedat, Z.K. "The Zanzibaris in Durban: A Socio-anthropological Study of the Muslim Descendents of the African Freed Slaves Living in the Area of Chatsworth." MA thesis, University of Natal, 1973.

Selms, A. Van. Die Outste boek in Afrikaans: Isjmoeni se Betroubare Woord. Hertzog Annale, 1953.

Shell, R. The Establishment and Spread of Islam From the Beginning of Company Rule to 1838. Cape Town: University of Cape Town, 1974.

Shell, R. From Rites to Rebellion: Islamic Conversion at the Cape 1805 to 1918. Cape Town, 1983.

Walker, E. A. A History of Southern Africa. London, 1962.

Wilson, M. and L. Thompson. (eds.) The Oxford History of South Africa. London, 1969.

**Dr. Suleman Dangor is a professor of Islamic Studies and the Academic Coordinator in the School of Religion and Theology, University of Kwazulu-Natal.

(1) For details see A. Davids, The Words the Slaves made. Cape Town, 1989; Suleman Dangor, "The Expression of Islam in South Africa," Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 17, 1 (1997).

(2) See Dangor "Expression" 145.

(3) This is the view of Du Plessis (see Cape Malays, 21); Davids (see Words, 12, 24); and Shell (see Establishment and Spread of Islam, 35, 50).

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