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Tuan Guru: An exploration of the Imam through new narratives

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By Yaseen Kippie

Historians have long been trying to join fragmented accounts of Cape Malay history, but newer narratives are coming to the forefront.  One of these fascinating stories is that of religious scholar Imam Abdallah ibn Qadi Abdus Salam. Also known as Tuan Guru, the scholar was exiled to Cape Town in the 18th century, as a result of the Dutch East Indian Company’s frustration at Sultan Jalaluddin of Tidore’s apparent alliance with opposition English forces.  Tuan Guru was said to be a prince from Tidore in the Trimate islands.

While imprisoned on Robben Island, Imam Abdullah wrote a book on Islamic Jurispudence and several copies of the Holy Quran from memory. His hand written works on Islamic Jurispudence, became the man reference work of the Cape Muslims in the 19th century.

After he was released from his 12 years of imprisonment on Robben Islam, Tuan Guru made Bokaap his home, where he resided in Dorp street. Here he realised the need for the establishment of madraris, and went onto the open the Dorp Street Madrasah in1793.

Princeton University Professor Michael Laffan is one historian furthering the research on Tuan Guru.

“Amazing work was done by Dr Achmat Davids, and everyone needs to start by tracing his notes and going into the archival references that he uncovered. However, there is a need to look at things in a different way,” says Prof Laffan during a recent visit to the Tana Baru cemetery in Bo Kaap.

While perusing a plethora of documents available at the National Archives of South Africa, Prof Laffan, who is at the University of Stellenbosch on a research grant, says the people around Tuan Guru are almost just as important as the Imam himself.

“The Dutch records are not as clear as we would like, but as it stands, in 1780, Tuan Guru, was sentenced in Batavia to leave to Cape Town with three other men: a high-ranking secretary Noro Iman, Qadi Abduraouf and a court scribe Badroedin.”

According to Prof Laffan, Qadi Abduraouf was, at that stage, more important than Tuan Guru, although both being from the family of Sultan Jalaluddin.

Prof Laffan is also not sure if the four men were located on mainland Cape Town or on Robben Island.

“Based on my research, Tuan Guru is off Robben Island by 1781. The four men stayed with Prince Ahmad of Ternate although the Dutch are not sure if they even have Prince Ahmad.”

In 1786, there were forced removals from mainland Cape Town, and Tuan Guru is sent back to Robben Island. This frustrated the Imam.

“Prior to the forced removals, he writes his name as Abdullah Tidore, but after 1786 he describes himself as the Imam al-Madhloom (the oppressed leader) ibn al-Qadi (son of a judge), representing his frustration at Dutch treatment of the Indonesian slaves.”

Eventually, Tuan Guru was able to return to mainland Cape Town and now has garnered a sense of mission at the Cape, according to Prof Laffan.

He also notes a letter, which he learnt from the Rakiep family (descendants of Tuan Guru), that was sent to a certain ‘Prince Ahmad’ by Tuan Guru, whom he says has to be the same Prince Ahmad of Ternate.

“Prince Ternate is now a major figure that also needs to be studied,” says Prof Laffan. VOC


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