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The Orion scandal – a call for tradition

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THE Muslim Judicial Council-Orion story has, without doubt, become something of a community soap opera. Initially hallmarked by the MJC’s ineptitude in dealing with media, it has devolved into a wider question of organisational accountability.

Why the MJC did not nip the Orion scandal in the bud is a pertinent question: for had it responded with alacrity from the get-go, it’s hardly likely that the organisation would have been publicly embarrassed by Debora Patta on e-TV’s 3rd Degree.

At the heart of the Orion saga is its fraudulent re-labelling of non-halal products as halal. This was exposed on YouTube by two former business partners of Orion who have maintained that CEO Patrick Gaertner owes them money.

In the video we are treated to pork hearts, and kangaroo and water buffalo meat being re-labelled halal. Expired chickens are also given a new shelf life, and milk powder unfit for human consumption is relabelled as being fit for human consumption.

The South African National Halal Authority (SANHA), the Red Meat Industry Forum, the South African Meat Industry Company and the MJC made a successful High Court application against Gaertner.

However, the notion that the MJC Halal Trust might have certified pork products does not hold water. Nor did any Muslim retailer buy the re-certified Orion products.

The Cape-based MJC Halal Trust, that has borne the brunt of public anger since Orion’s duplicity was exposed, says it only certified 18 consignments of imported chickens that were shipped into South Africa by Orion.

Since the furore erupted, the MJC has entered the social media domain, issued a public apology, opened its books, gone on a road-show and instituted an official inquiry into the halal process. According to its audited accounts, the Halal Trust turned over about R8 million in the last financial year.

But as the MJC drags itself off the bottom of a trough, there are bigger questions. Other community organisations such as the Muslim Consumer Forum (painfully mindful of the MJC’s chequered past) have gone on active campaigns against the organisation.

Their criticism (and in some cases strident calls for the MJC to be disbanded) have to tempered with the fact that the MJC is the deep well from which the community has drunk for over six decades.

It’s the equivalent of trying to bulldoze the ANC off the road. Well-embedded institutions hold real power, and the influence of their groupthink should never be under-estimated.

What needs to be understood is that it’s not always necessarily the institutions that are at fault per se, but rather the content of their halls and the collective ethos that they may reflect as a result. Who is to deny that the original notion of establishing an Islamic judiciary in 1945 was not a noble one?

But how then, does one explain the sustained indignation against the MJC – an indignation that extends far beyond its latest crisis? Surely the point is that whatever might be questionable within the MJC is as equally questionable within the community?

Both are related. Who, for example, sustained the divide on the admittedly clumsily handled moon issue of the 80’s and 90’s?

I believe it is only classical tradition that can ultimately address the question, which boils down to the parlous state of most Islamic community institutions that are so riven with conflict, egotism and incompetence today. If anything, the MJC is but a symptom of a far greater social malaise.

With political structures falling short on human ethics everywhere, today it is left to religious ones to pick up the moral slack. In Africa in particular religious leaders enjoy more credibility than the political demagogues.

As a result, its priests and imams enjoy huge responsibilities, sometimes far beyond their capacity. But it is they who have to set the Qur’anic (or Biblical) tone for socio-economic justice, using reasoned discourse and the model of prophetic conduct, whether it be Jesus or Muhammad (SAW).

Very briefly, there are several areas where there needs to be focus, especially in our community, if things are going to improve organisationally in the future.

The first is that organisations have to be motivated by true intentions of sincerity – and that this has to be accompanied with an ethos of inclusivity, an inclusivity that embraces unity in diversity, as opposed to uniformity without diversity.

Or, as one of my teachers has said: “the more you elevate Allah and his Messenger with sincerity, the more you sweeten things around you”.

The second is that the grace of others has to be acknowledged. The hydra of jealousy, or hasad, that customarily surrounds those who are successful in our community, needs to be cast aside for genuine appreciation.

When it comes to the scholars we have to remember it is they who keep us out of the fire by teaching us Qur’an and how to pray, and it is they who marry us and bury us – and at the most elevated level, it is they who should be happy to stand behind when merit actually demands that they should stand in front.

Thirdly, the responsibility of our religious leaders and ourselves to guard our tongues, especially on matters we are ignorant of, is paramount. Belief and Sacred Law is a grave business. All the schools of thought have to be respected, and seriously considered.

Fourthly, it was never the Sunnah – the practice of the Prophet (SAW) – to mention names and to personalise matters on pulpits or public platforms. Rather, the focus should be on issues in the sense that the player must follow the ball, and not the man.

Fifthly, all of us should not be so hasty to assume the mantle of infallible authority through our ignorance. Islam cannot “say” on matters, for to do so is to arrogantly assume divinity itself.

Sixthly, we have completely lost the tradition of transmitted knowledge and the humility that goes with it. With respect: how many of our current ‘ulama, for example, have really sat – or still sit – at the feet of other Shaikhs? This is a learning tradition as old as Islam itself.

Sayyid Habshi, the author of the famous Risalat ul-Jami’ah was an ‘alim in his own right, but he still attended the classes of Imam ‘Abdullah ‘Alawi al-Haddad for forty years. The late Imam Farid Manie was happy to learn from Shaikhs twenty years younger than him; this after having spent several decades at the feet of his mentor, Shaikh Mahdi Hendricks.

Finally, we have to turn to the science of Tasawwuf, not in the sense of sitting on a dreamlike Sufic cloud, but in the practical sense that its primary focus is a reigning in of the nafs, the undesirable human attributes that govern our major senses.

Tasawwuf is all about discipline, and the central question is that if those who lead us – no matter where – can’t discipline themselves, then what hope can the greater community have that it will not be led by the nose?

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