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).

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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.

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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

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

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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.

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Auwal Mosque (est 1794) in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town
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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.

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Mural depicting the development of Islam in South Africa, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town
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Of Pianos and Harmony

At the Africa National Congress office in Kliptown

This is Thamba (in the photo next to me), originally from Swaziland but who was born and brought up in Soweto, Johannesburg. I had the pleasure of Thamba’s company as he showed me Soweto and helped me understand the history of South Africa, the impacts of apartheid era on society and on him personally. He went to school with Mandela’s daughter and therefore had the unique experience of having walked with Mandela and been very much a part of the struggle for equality as a young man.

Thamba recounted a very interesting anecdote about Nelson Mandela’s view on social cohesion and the need for harmony between the different races in post-apartheid South Africa. Madiba  (as Mandela is known fondly in his homeland) used the parable of a piano to highlight why everyone needed to march together to achieve progress. He explained that playing the piano with just the white keys or just the black keys, whilst able to produce a tune, will never be as rich as the symphony one can create if one was to use both the black and white keys together. This, he explained, was the route towards a  better and greater society and stressed the need for the white, black and other communities to all work together to achieve social progress. 

A simple message, elegantly put and to very powerful effect!