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Tuan Yusuf of Macassar, a transnational hero

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While South Africa and Indonesia have only enjoyed formal diplomatic ties since August 1994, the link between the two countries is rooted as far back as 322 years. This bond was harnessed by the unparalleled influence of Shaykh Yusuf of Macassar, who secured the vibrancy of Islam and tassawuf within the Cape. As a general in the Indonesian army, the shaykh trekked to the Cape in his journey that crossed many nations in his opposition of Dutch colonial occupation of his homeland. Today, Shaykh Yusuf is hailed by both Indonesians and South Africans as a hero.

To discuss the shared history of Shaykh Yusuf, this week a delegation of Indonesian scholars joined VOC in studio. The delegation is visiting the Cape to research the historical context of Cape Town Muslims in relation to Muslims in Banten, Indonesia.

Is the history of Shaykh Yusuf preserved?

Researcher in Cape slave history, Mogamat  Kamadien says that since the Dutch records are difficult to read and when comparing the records to the oral history for the Orang Cayen (Men of Repute), it does not correspond.

Given the discrepancies, he notes that the records did not correspond due to the spelling style of the Dutch and the fact that Dutch authorities did not capture all names of those who entered the country as exiles.

“Some were sent here at Panditan, like Tuan Guru, while they were actually exiles. So, we have to distinguish between what the colonial master wrote and what the oral history says,” Kamadien stated.

Kamadien explains that the history of the Shaykh’s life in South Africa remains crucial to capturing the true fabric of the country.

Knowledge of Shaykh Yusuf’s life and family

Interestingly, academic from the Leiden University in the Netherlands Mufti Ali explained that while information about the shaykh in Indonesia ended at his death, he was able to recover new information in the National Archive House in Cape Town, which gave insight into the shaykh’s family.

He said that he discovered that a descendent of the shaykh, who married the sultan of Tambora, was forced to convert to Christianity in the Cape records, a discovery that he asserts had startled him.

The new discovery encouraged Ali to continue researching the life of the shaykh in the Cape, a place he describes as being a treasure trove of answers.

In recent years, there has been speculation that one of the shaykh’s daughters married Pieter Mauritz Retief, a Voortrekker leader, a claim strongly contested by Andre van Rensburg.

“What is important is that there is a connection between Muslims and Shaykh Yusuf. But, also within the Cape coloured community there is a Dr. Timothy Fisher that indicated that he is a descendent,” Kamadien noted.

As an acclaimed individual, links to the shaykh was also claimed by both the Ottomans and Yemenis.

A transnational hero

Ali explained that for Indonesians, Cape Town is particularly special, as it is the burial place of sheikh Yusuf.

As a general who disappeared, reappearing in Jakarta where he was imprisoned at the castle, he then reappeared in Sri Lanka, after which he disappeared again, to arrive in Cape Town.

The shaykh was eventually instructed to relocate to the mouth of the Eerste River at False Bay.

While Shakh Yusuf is renowned for his leadership and spreading Islam, he was also a man of unique intellectual ability, respected by many as a great scholar.

“Much of his work is used by Indonesian scholars and has been translated since it has had great mystical influence among people,” Ali stated.

With its colourful culture, Ali asserts that the customs of the Cape, such as raatibul ghadaad and moulood, are evidence of the scholar’s influence within the region.

“I am really amazed that in terms of infrastructure, Cape Town Muslims are really westernised. But, in terms of Sufi teachings, fiqh and legal jurisprudence, they are retaining the knowledge of shaykh Yusuf,” he added.

While Ali planned for many years to visit the Cape and pay respect to the shaykh, he says that upon visiting Shaykh Yusuf’s grave, he was brought to tears as he recalled the struggles that the shaykh endured.

“Everyone will experience the same, because his aura and charisma extends through the years. I see the legacy of Shaykh Yusuf here [in the Cape] – his teachings are much conserved here in the followers of his followers,” Ali explained.

Kamadien notes that while South Africans have a general understanding of the shaykh’s life in the Cape, it is vital for South Africans to reflect upon and document the scholar’s experiences within Indonesia.

He says that the Shaykh’s life, from his initial years in Indonesia to his arrival in the Cape, echoes the life of many heroic figures within history and set the precedent for future generations of South African struggle heroes.

“President Mandela calls him a son of Africa and I often say that he is a ‘17th century Mandela’. But, I think we should say that Mandela is the ‘21st century Shaykh Yusuf’,” Kamadien quipped.

While Shaykh Yusuf’s life will forever be considered a vital aspect of the Cape’s history, Ali asserts that Indonesian historians have documented more than ten prominent figures who also played vital roles in fighting colonial domination.

Shaykh Yusuf’s status amongst historians was, however, cemented as a unique figure in history when the Indonesian president officially declared him to be a national hero.

Describing the shaykh as the “point of departure”, Ali asserts that his life is benchmark of the beginning of Indonesia’s struggle against colonialism.

“His picture hung in every school in Indonesia and many scholars have claimed him to be a great figured,” Ali stated.


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