“Now the Muslims will milk this”, read one comment posted online shortly after news that Cape Judge president John Hlophe had embraced Islam before marriage to a fellow judge on Freedom Day. The story made headlines on the front page of the Sunday Times and Cape Argus and has sparked a flurry of interest from all quarters. Islam and Muslims these days makes for good news fodder. Either that or it was a slow news day.
But whilst the power couple’s unique love story didn’t draw as much attention, it was in fact Hlophe’s conversion two months that got tongues wagging. It certainly drew the sceptics out of the woodworks.
“When religion becomes a convenience to marriage,” wrote another online cynic.
Weeks before the actual nuptials, when the rumours were doing the rounds that he planned to marry judge Gayaat Salie-Samuels, there were already questions around a possible conflict of interest. The first issue that came to the fore was whether Hlophe would give his future wife preferential treatment.
The second claim was that Hlophe was compelled to revert to Islam in order to marry the advocate, who comes from a well known Cape Muslim family.
But Shaykh Riyaad Walls, a fellow revert who performed the nikah and facilitated the Shahada process, describes the sincere way the judge interacted with Islam. The scholar recalls the judge attending the masjid every Wednesday for revert classes, while shelving important judicial or court matters. Despite being highly educated in matters of law, Hlophe is said to be eager to quench his thirst for Islamic knowledge.
“We have seen a lot of cynics saying this is only about marriage and it’s not that of a big story. But it’s not a time to be judgmental…it’s a time to welcome a new Muslim into the faith. It’s now upon on us to engage with them in the brotherly spirit that Islam demands from us,” said media commentator Ebrahim Moosa.
According to Radio Islam producer Farzana Adam, it was encouraging to hear that Hlophe had indeed been open to understanding the “nuances of the faith”.
“Looking at some of the newspapers, it was implied that he was obligated to convert to Islam to marry,” she pointed out.
But what’s the brouhaha around Hlophe, a controversial figure in South African judicial affairs? Should this be given much coverage? “Hundreds of people embrace Islam every day”, was one person’s two-cents.
The reality is that when famous faces enter the fold (or are alleged to), it becomes big news. Remember the fuss around Princess Diana and the persistent rumours around Michael Jackson? Are we in constant search for Muslim icons?
“Muslims get happy when someone accepts Islam, but more so when someone high profile accepts Islam. They feel like they have a sense of ownership about it. But essentially it comes down to a personal choice, and which none of us can be a judge over,” says Adam.
Moosa believes it to be more than just ‘Muslim pride’ but rather about the greater societal consequences.
“If you look at the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and how he prayed for Umar al khattab [the second caliph of Islam] to become Muslim, we see there is great benefit in influential people in society embracing Islam. As a result, Islam gains wider acceptance and it becomes easier to practice,” he says.
Black African judges are held in very high esteem not only amongst their constituencies but across the strata. Mainstream Muslims therefore needed to welcome them into our communities, said interfaith scholar, Shaykh Rafeek Hassen.
“Generally when people embrace Islam, what we find is that they are left out in the cold…they are not accepted by the Muslim community.”
But Moosa believes that celebrations should not be overdone.
“We should see the value of every Muslim as sacred regardless of their statue. But at the same time, this is a good thing. It opens our eyes wider to the possibility of da’wah in South Africa,” he continues.
“We need to share our faith in different circles. This is an opportunity for outreach and understanding. Let’s not lose this moment.” VOC