The Indonesian Connection – Islam in South Africa

 

During my exploration in the beautiful city of Cape Town, I came across a most remarkable tale. It is the story of one man’s perseverance against immense odds and the profound influence he left on a society hundreds of years later.

It is the story of how Islam spread in South Africa, from Cape Town through a man from Indonesia who was jailed in Robben Island (the very same island another great man was jailed for 27 years almost two centuries later – Nelson Mandela) by the Dutch. Globalisation was very much a part of life then as it is now! Robben Island also has now the dubious distinction of having hosted (against their will) of a number of great reformers!

This is the story of how the Auwal Mosque came to be in the Bo-Kaap (the Cape Malay part of Cape Town) and the fascinating tale of a man fondly known by all as Tuan Guru (or Sir Teacher in Malay).

20161112_194513
Auwal Mosque, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town

Tuan Guru or Imam Abdullah Qadhu Abdus Salaam (born 1712)was a man belonging to royalty from the Sultanate of Tidore ( part of the Maluku Islands in Indonesia). Abdullah led the Indonesian resistance against the Dutch invasion in the 1700s until he was finally captured along with a handful of other Indonesian resistance fighters. (It is worth bearing in mind that the Dutch East India Company brought slaves, political exiles and other prisoners from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Ceylon amongst other places to South Africa from the 1700s onwards).

The Dutch made it a point to remove all religious paraphernalia especially the Quran from Abdullah and his men before they were sent into exile to Robben Island. The rationale for this was that by removing Islamic religious material, Abdullah will not be able to propagate Islam in South Africa and in the process curtail his ability to lead a religious resistance against them.

Abdullah was incarcerated in Robben Island from 1780 to 1792. Now, the Dutch were confident that Abdullah’s ability to preach Islam was going to be limited due to the lack of religious materials. However what they failed to understand that merely removing the Quran physically from Abdullah wasn’t going to be sufficient because Imam Abdullah was a hafiz or someone who had committed the entire Quran to memory.

During his time on Robben Island, Imam Abdullah wrote several copies of the Quran entirely from memory, two of which are preserved top this day. One of the handwritten copies is now on display at the Auwal Mosque in Bo-Kaap in Cape Town. Imam Abdullah also wrote a book on Islamic Jurisprudence which became a reference manual for Muslims in South Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Imam Abdullah did not allow his incarceration to fulfill what he felt was his manifest destiny nor quench his zeal to remain free spiritually whilst he was imprisoned.

20161112_191447
One of the remaining copies of the handwritten Quran by Tuan Guru at the Auwal Mosque in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town

When Imam Abdullah was released, he was already 81 but that did not dampen his enthusiasm nor his sense of purpose. He stayed on in Bo-Kaap in Cape Town and started the first madarasah or Islamic School and he taught Islam and Arabic to freed slaves. Over time, he also organised prayers and established the first mosque, the Auwal mosque in 1794

20161112_172358
Tuan Guru (Imam Abdullah) teaching children at his madrasah. An mural in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town

.

It is worth bearing in mind that the practice or indeed the propagation of Islam was deemed a criminal offence until 1804. It was Tuan Guru’s unstinting efforts that led to the establishment of the first mosque in Southern Africa.

20161112_165448
Auwal Mosque (est 1794) in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town
20161112_191512
Interior of Auwal Mosque

Imam Abdullah or Tuan Guru died when he was 95 (in 1807) and left behind the foundations of what is Islam in South Africa today. Tuan Guru remains a testament to the indomitable spirit and will to effect change in a society despite the challenges and opposition to any reforms. This remains inspiring today as it was over two centuries ago.

20161112_171353
Mural depicting the development of Islam in South Africa, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town

The last coup ever in Turkey?

The events of 15th July 2016 in Turkey with the attempted coup could go down in history as one of the most pivotal moments in Turkish history.

On the 16th of July, acting army chief of staff, General Umit Dunar announced that,  “the time of military coups and juntas is over,” and he could well be right.

It is worthwhile understanding the implications of the Turkish events for history has shown that when the Ottomans sneeze, Europe gets a cold and the Middle East falls into a catatonic shock and paralysis.

Modern Turkey has had a history of coups led by the military and often it has been due to the underlying philosophical and ideological conflicts between Kemalism (the secular principles enshrined by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) and Sunni Islamism.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are now back in full control of matters in Turkey following this very serious development in Turkey.

The fate of the former Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood (the ideological partners of the AKP)  who lost power in a coup in Egypt before being sentenced to death must have always weighed heavily on President Erdogan’s mind.

In a very prescient article by Gonul Tul for the Foreign Affairs magazine in May 2016, the risk that the empowering of the military generals by Erdogan to fight Kurdish separatists was raised and the danger that the “President was riding a tiger that is…wilder and more vengeful.”

At the heart of the matter is that the military with its strong Kemalist and secular traditions was always going to be viewed as a threat by the religiously-motivated AKP. However, 14 years of a more religious and conservative rule by the AKP would almost certainly have had the effect of changing the ideological mindset of the Turkish people as well as some of the military. Despite this, the military still refused to let graduates of religious schools enter military academies for fear of diluting the secular principles the modern Turkish state was founded on.

The latest failed coup attempt will no doubt see a mass changes in personnel and policies in the military which will have the impact of shifting some of the ideology underpinning the Turkish military.

In the longer term, the broader question is whether this could see the slow shift and tilt of modern Turkey away from very strict secular traditions towards Sunni Islamic traditions? Could a more Islamic Turkey, centred round more inclusive and tolerant beliefs be a bulwark against the extremist and fanatical Islamic terrorist ideology that is consuming the world in hate and anger?

The present Turkish government (under an Islamic leadership) signed a reconciliation agreement with Israel in June 2016 and seek to work with Israel to bring peace to the region. This is a much welcomed development in  world beset with too much hate and difference.

What happens next in Turkey remains to be seen, but Turkey could well establish some precedence within the Islamic world and be more than a physical bridge between the Muslim and Western worlds but go beyond this and be a spiritual and ideological bridge between both worlds. Watch this space.