Cape Town is known to many as the ‘Mother City’. It is from the foot of Table Mountain that Cape Town gave to South Africa its trek Boers and its English pioneers. For the Muslims of South Africa it has an even greater importance – it is where Islam first arrived on the ships of the Dutch East Indian Company. The large majority of those first Muslims were from what is today the Indonesian archipelago, the Malabar coastline, Sri Lanka and East Africa.
Those who came on the ships – the founders of Islam in the Cape – were majority Sunni of the Shafi’i madhab (school of legal thought), and they still are. Many of the great founders of Islam in the Cape, such as Sheikh Yusuf of Makasar, Sayyid Mahmud, Tuan Guru, Tuan Matarah (buried on Robben Island) were mainstream scholars influenced by Sufism.
This factor led to the development of a special Cape Town Sufi culture, one with distinct practices such as the Ratib ul-Haddad, or gadat, Qur’anic recitation after a person’s death, dhikr (devotional) practices, special prayers and the Mawlid un-Nabi. For 350 years the Muslims in Cape Town, via the teachings of their forefathers, have kept Islam in the Cape, a feat by any means as Islam did not survive in the Americas where Muslim slaves were also sent by colonisers.
However, within the last thirty to forty years there has been an influx of different Islamic movements and ideologies to Cape Town, both from within and outside of South Africa. This is due primarily to the opening up of the world in transport and communication for the movement of people. When certain groups of people came to the Cape they brought certain types of ideologies. These ideologies were very often a part of a broader movement.
One that reached Cape Town was the Deobandi movement, a movement that originated from India and came with Indian migrants to Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. This movement is closely connected to another, that of the Tabligh Jama’at, which is, in fact, an offshoot of the Deobandi movement.
The close relationship does not end there, for the Tabligh Jama’at is known to many as a ‘Muslim missionary’ movement. Thus the Deobandi ideology found a ready propagator in the Tabligh Jama’at. It wasn’t long before the Tabligh Jama’at came to Cape Town and the Deobandi ideology spread.
The spread of the Deobandi ideology in Cape Town was not a result of an imposition by the north on the south via the Tabligh Jamaat, it was a result of students in Cape Town who went to Darul Ulooms (Islamic colleges) in Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal. These students brought with them foreign ways of thinking about Islam that were in conflict with some the practices of the Cape Malay Muslims, such as the Mawlid un-Nabi, the birth of the Prophet (pbuh).
Other movements have used the same tactic to further their ideologies in Cape Town. One can look to the Salafist movement, where students are given scholarships to study at the University of Madinah in Saudi Araba, which is the ‘heart’ of Salafi teaching in the world. By the time these students travel back to Cape Town, they carry an ideology of a movement that feels strange and out of place in Cape Town.
Is it an anomaly that Deobandi and Salafi ideologies and practices feel out of place in Cape Town, or is it a part of a subtle yet noticeable trend? Shia’h and Ahmedi ideologies were also resisted (although the situation is slightly different, for these sects are controversial all over the world. However, the principle remains). The cause for resistance is the inertness of a community who doesn’t want to change, especially change that is instigated from outside of the community. This is a factor that is vitally important, and one that is often forgotten by proponents of a movement.
But why do these movements feel so alien? The answer lies not in an inherent badness of an ideology, but rather it relies on history. The founding of Salafism is largely contributed to Muhammd Ibn Wahab. He championed the fight against what he perceived as religious innovation (bid’ah) that was heavily prevalent in the Arabian Peninsula during the 18th century.
Thus the ideology of the Salafi movement developed a certain resolute strictness towards religious innovation.
The Deobandi movement on the other hand originated in the town of Deoband in Northern India during the 19th century, where the ‘Mother’ Darul Uloom resides. The movement that developed was primarily a response to the British occupation of India at the time, which was corrupting Islamic values and morals. Thus its ideology became both revolutionary towards the British (and hence all colonists wherever the movement spread) and revivalist to those who had strayed from Islam.
Although these are only two of the many trends that one finds in Cape Town, their development are telling of a principle which governs movements. The formulation of any movement is through certain historical circumstances and distinct historical processes that are specific to the time and place of its conception.
Thus naturally there is a gap between Cape Islamic ideology and other Islamic ideologies, for Islam in the Cape has been through different historical processes. That is why there develops a tension between the new ideology and the old one. It is impossible to separate the result from the process, and because of this it is difficult to justify imposing an ideology on a people who have no part in its formulation.
Now juxtapose this position to that of the countless Sufi orders (Tariqas) that Cape Town has accepted into their communities. They faced relatively little resistance when compared to the other movements mentioned before. The Sufism brought by the founding Muslim leaders of Cape Town (which were predominantly of the Ba’Alawi Tariqa) created a climate where Sufi movements were, and still are, more acceptable than other movements. Not every movement that developed outside of the Cape was resisted, rather only those movements which had little basis in the existing Cape Muslim community.
Another movement which developed outside of South Africa was the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 as an Egyptian Islamic party. It developed in response to the secularism of the Egyptian state at the time and it attempted to offer an Islamic alternative, thus it was political in its nature. When the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology spread to Cape Town (mostly through literature) it was taken up very quickly by the Cape Muslims as a way to fight Apartheid. Its influence has weakened after the fall of Apartheid, and its sympathisers focus on the Israeli-Palestinian and Egyptian conflicts. The Muslim Brotherhood was initially accepted because its political nature was in line with the political aspirations of the Cape Muslims at the time.
Cape Town has been exposed to many different movements and ideologies. They have been accepted to varying degrees, but the one commonality that they all possess is that they have all changed. They came to Cape Town as ‘pure’ movements, wishing to change the local culture and customs according to their understanding of Islam, but very often they have been forced to morph themselves to be accepted. Scholars or imams cannot reject everything completely, because then they themselves will face complete rejection. Thus one sees a Sheikh who graduated from Deoband, but who celebrates Mawlid. One sees a Salafi who goes to his weekly dhikr.
This point is telling of another quality of the Cape Muslims and that is their open-mindedness. Although there is stiff resistance to movements as they attempt to ‘change’ Cape Town, at least they have the opportunity to try and change Cape Town. The reason for this is the historical lack of religious scholars that defined the Cape Muslim community for many years. Any religious scholar that came from elsewhere would be seen as a contribution to the intellectual Islamic landscape rather than a danger to it.
Of course, this open-mindedness came at a cost – bad influences were readily propagated by many movements. However, this effect is relatively minimal. The open-mindedness of the community meant that stigmas were less readily attached to movements or sects, as they had the opportunity to express themselves fully.
Diversity developed out of this particular open-mindedness, which meant that very often Islam was the one common ground that united the different ethnic and ideological Muslim communities. In their diversity, the Cape Muslims were revolutionary to the masters that ruled them for centuries. Slavery, Apartheid, Secularism, Modernism, all these movements tried and failed to destroy the only thing the Cape Muslims possess – Islam.
The Cape Muslims possess an unquestionable resilience that is unheard of in other Muslim minorities across the world. We should be proud of that. VOC (Salmaan Moronell)