“Tuan Guru was a sophisticated and educated human being. He is a legend that must be remembered.”
That’s how VOC presenter, journalist and author Shafiq Morton described the personality of Imam ‘Abdullah bin Qadi ‘Abd al-Salam, affectionately known as Tuan Guru, considered a father figure of Islam in South Africa. Morton has penned a new book on the iconic scholar and political prisoner – demystifying the current narrative of his contribution to South African history.
In an exclusive interview with VOC, Morton said the book had been a passion project started when Mickaeel Collier of Awqaf South Africa commissioned him to write about the life of Tuan Guru. Collier had been inspired by the words of Bo Kaap resident, Hajja Abdeya Da Costa, who has in her possession Tuan Guru’s last will and testament. At age 94, Hajja Abdeya is the oldest living descendant of Tuan Guru.
“It sounded like a very exciting project,” said Morton.
“There was a narrative of Tuan Guru, but it wasn’t very much. It was fragmentary at best and reflected a very short period of his life. There were massive gaps and contradictions and the research I came across was difficult to get by.”
Tuan Guru, which means ‘master teacher’ has always been highly regarded – particularly to Capetonian Muslims. However, not many people know the details of his extraordinary personality.
Hailing from a family of scholars in the Hadhramawt, Tuan Guru’s descendants arrived in the Far East in the 14th century. His ancestor is Sunan Gunung Jati, a saint and founding father of Indonesian Islam, who became the Sultan of Banten and Cirebon in Java during the late 1400s.
It is from Cirebon that Tuan Guru’s grandfather, Habib ‘Umar Rahmat al-Faruq, travelled to the Moluccan chain in 1646 to spread Islam. He settled on the island of Tidore, becoming a member of the Sultan’s royal household.
Tuan Guru was born in 1712. As a member of the royal family, Tuan Guru soon became the focus of the Dutch East India Company, who fearful of rebellion, detained him in Batavia, and finally exiled him to the Cape in 1780. He spent two stints on the now famous Robben Island as a political exile and prisoner.
“He comes from a family of Javanese scholars who originally came from Hadhramaut in Yemen. He comes from a prophetic lineage – he is, in fact, a Sayed,” said Morton.
“His family moved from Hadhramaut to Oman, from Oman into the Indo-Pak subcontinent, to a place called Nasirabad in India, then from India into South-East Asia.”
“One of his ancestors was one of the founders of Islam in Java and he was also the Khalif of two sultanates in Java. Tuan Guru’s forefather married into the royal family of Tidore,” explained Morton.
Essentially, Tuan Guru is therefore a man who had both prophetic and royal lineage.
When asked about how Morton managed to put this story on Tuan Guru together, Morton indicated that it was no easy task.
“I just had to keep on going, asking questions and researching to get hold of this information,” said Morton.
“I was more or less at a dead end…it was a question of putting all the pieces together.”
Much of Morton’s research was based on historical documents from the Cape archives, interviews with descendants in Cape Town and Tidore, academic papers, books and most importantly, Tuan Gurus own, translated writings. Many of the letters were written in the Arabic script in the Melayu dialect, and with the help of Prof Michael Laffan, a Dublin based historian, he was able to decipher the text.
It was a painstaking process, said Morton, and he had to “decolonise” his mind, after having read mostly English and Dutch historical texts over the years.
“When they talk about our people, it’s when we irritated them. Here for the first time, you can really hear the voice of Tuan Guru and for me, that was very moving in writing this book.”
Morton revealed several important contributions by Tuan Guru.
– His most important legacy is that of Quranic tradition, he hand-wrote several copies of the Quran
-He gave slaves of all races, cultures and creeds spiritual comfort
-He created infrastructure in the Muslim community by instating a Qadi, an imam, a khateeb and a bilal
-He formed the first madrassa in Cape Town, which was the first school that slaves and ex-convicts could attend in the Cape colony
-His madrassas were inclusive in an exclusivist colonial society
-His letters were written in the Arabic script in the Melayu dialect
Tuan Guru was innovative in many regards and in fact, created a “rainbow nation” before it was even conceptualised.
“Tuan Guru’s school was the rainbow nation before it was even dreamt of. It was the first non-racial exercise in education in Southern Africa, and the huge irony is, Tuan Guru achieved it at the height of colonialism,” said Morton.
“He created a community from the diaspora, the anxiety, the exile and from the pain of the slave community who really did suffer.”
“Tuan Guru should be granted the Freedom of the City, and that is a specific message to the DA who have no respect for our history.”
Capetonians from across the spectrum filled the Centre of the Book for the launch of the book on Sunday, many from the Rakiep family, who are descendants of Tuan Guru. The event was attended by the ulema, political activists, academics, historians and members of the Muslim community, who also had a chance to share their thoughts on the relevance of Tuan Guru in contemporary society.Morton was lauded for his impeccable work and for bringing to life a scholar who had played a significant role in shaping Islam in South Africa.
In an attempt to draw a link to the struggle of Tuan Guru, there was also a panel discussion on the issue of gentrification and neo-colonisaton in Bo-Kaap, with contributions by Bo-Kaap activist Fawzia Achmat, Shaykh Dawood Terblanche, Maulana Abdul Khaliq Allie and Prof Aslam Fataar. There was a vociferous call by Prof Fataar for the book to be made into a text book for madaris in South Africa and for it be adapted to a children’s book as well.
The book is significant in contemporary times as a refreshing view on history, in light of changing narratives and perspectives, shifting from the typical colonial narratives and accounting for history as reported by the colonised as well.
“We’ve never actually looked at what it was like when Tuan Guru was alive…so what I’ve done is hopefully created a picture of what it was like to be a person, from a non-colonial viewpoint, at the time of Tuan Guru,” said Morton.
“If you don’t know where you come from, how do you know where you’re going?” VOC