Voice of the Cape

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Archives needed for Cape Muslim heritage

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As Heritage Month draws to a close, well known Cape Town historian Ebrahim Rhoode has appealed to Muslims to find out about the history of Islam in the Cape. Rhoode, who has done extensive research on Islam’s origins in the Cape, believes we need more archives to understand our Islamic roots. For any researcher in the Cape looking for details on the history of Islam, it’s a challenging case, said Rhoode.

“The saddest thing for Muslims at the Cape is that there are not enough archives around for us to easily access like the churches have. We have here the records of the Dutch Reform church which is now located at Stellenbosch, we even have records of the Methodist church, and all the other churches like the Anglican churches have their records at Wits University,” he said.

“We have people here like the late Dr Achmat Davids who has done yeoman’s service for Islam in the work that he did specifically about Bokaap and about the contribution Muslims made towards the language of Afrikaans. But how many people know this?”

According to a brief history on the Archival Platform, the first Muslims that arrived in the Cape Colony, came as political exiles. Many of them were from noble and honourable families who fought against the colonisation of their lands by the Dutch and the British. They were sent to South Africa as prisoners. The colonisers tried to stop their influence in Indonesia, Malaysia, Africa and India.

The arrival of Imam Abdullah Ibn Qadi Abdus Salaam, known as Tuan Guru, who traced his lineage to the Sultan of Morocco and his ancestry to the Noble Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), heralded a new phase in the history of the first Muslims in South Africa.

Together with Imam Abdullah were two other prisoners, Abdur-Rauf Badr al-Din and Nur-al-Iman, who were also imprisoned on Robben Island. And while on Robben Island, Imam Abdullah (Tuan Guru) who had memorised the Quraan, wrote several copies of the Glorious Quraan from memory. He also authored several books on Islamic jurisprudence while in prison, which he completed in 1781. Tuan Guru was released after 14 years on Robben Island at the age of 82. He passed away at the age of 95.

An interesting fact of note is that the first Mosque in South Africa was built on land donated by a Muslim woman, Saartjie van de Kaap, who was born to slave parents. These early Muslims involved themselves in the social, educational and political life of their communities. They had the wisdom and foresight to establish centres where the focal point of their communities would be social and educational upliftment.

Rhoode said the Dutch did Islam the greatest favour by exiling many Muslim political expats.

“The Dutch became the biggest agents for Islam in that we are at the southern tip of Africa and this was with the coming of more than 200 political exiles including some imams between 1632 and 1795.”

He went on to explain that during the Dutch period the only religion that was given to be practised was that of Christianity.

“During that time the only religion that was permitted was that of the Dutch reform church and that remained so right from 1652 right up to 1780, when they allowed the Lutheran Church which is of the same origin that came in and built a church in Strand Street.”

Rhoode added that a placation was issued as early as 1642 and again it was repeated in 1666 that no other religion would be allowed to practise here at the Cape. If anybody were to defy that rule or decree they risked losing all their property or being flogged in public and even they would have even be put to death.

“Despite this Islam was flourishing at the Cape. This tells us that we had leadership here that loved their deen so much that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for the propagation of Islam. This started way back with the coming of the figure that we all know, Marhoom Shaykh Yusuf Macassari, as well as by another dignitary exiled in the 1780’s, the Tuan Guru Imam Qari Abdul Salaam,” Rhoode stated.

According to Rhoode, there were large numbers of Muslims that came in from, the Indonesian archipelago.

“Marhoom Yusuf of Macassar and Tuan Guru were the most prominent names that we know and I am sure there were many names that we don’t know about that did their service and  played a vital role in spreading Islam at the Cape,” he added.

Rhoode believes there is a need to revitalise the history of the Cape.

“Heritage is things of the past that your forefathers established, your culture, your religion and traditions. Now how can you celebrate this if you don’t know your history? We can only be proud of our heritage if we know the history.  I am grateful that each year we celebrate heritage because each year we have new people coming to the Cape and are not aware of the beautiful Islamic heritage here at the Cape.”

“My message is simple to all communities go ahead and research your history and then write it from your own perspective.” VOC (Najma Bibi Noor Mahomed)


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  1. The Qādirīyyah Sūfī Order in this part of the world is as old as South African Islām. Sayed Maḥmūd, oral history relates, had first brought the Qādirīyyah to Cape Town. It was further clandestinely practised among the slave population and political exiles of the era. Sayed ’Abd Al-Raḥmān Matebi al-Qādirī of Klein Constantia had moved in keeping Islām and adhkār alive at the Cape (May Allāh, the Most Perfect, Be Satisfied with him). The manner in which local Muslims recite the Qādirīyyah dhikrullāh has been styled along the method as practised by Sayed ’Abd Al-Raḥmān Matebi.

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