History of Muslims in South Africa

There are no reliable statistics on the number of Muslims in South Africa. Estimates range from 500,000 to 1,000,000. Judging from the latest census figures and the concentration of Muslims in the various provinces of South Africa, it can safely be assumed that the majority of this population is made up of Muslims of Malay origin (about 45 percent, resident mainly in the Western Cape) and Indian origin (about 45 percent, resident chiefly in Kwazulu-Natal, Gauteng, and Mpumalanga).

The remainder are Muslims of mainly African origin; very few Muslims of European or Arab origin can be found.

South African Muslims do not only represent diverse national origins, but also diverse socio-economic categories. In the 17th century, slaves were brought by the Dutch East India Company from their colonies in East and West Africa, South India, Ceylon, and the Malaysian Archipelago to provide labor for the nascent Dutch colony at the Cape. Since these were areas with high concentrations of Muslims, many of the slaves brought to the Cape were Muslim (Boeseken).

Slaves were kept in abject conditions by the Dutch authorities. They often complained about the unpalatable food they were obliged to consume, lack of warm clothing during the bitter Cape winters, and the severe punishment for minor violations of rules (Wilson andand Thompson). Most slaves were named after the slave traders who purchased and sold them, or after their owner. This explains why the majority of Cape Muslims have distinctly Christian surnames, such as Davids, Da Costa, and Harris.

The leading opponents of Dutch colonization and economic monopoly of the East Indies were exiled to the Cape including the Raja of Tambora, Prince of Ternate, and Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar.

Slave labor was augmented by prison labor; several hundred convicts from the Dutch colonies in the East Indies were brought to the Cape to serve out their sentences in the employ of the Dutch authorities (Shell). Among them were several men with profound knowledge of Islam such as Abdullah ibn Qadi Abd al-Salam, popularly known as Tuan Guru, a former prince of the principality of Tidore in the Ternate islands.

He was one of the first prisoners on Robben Island but later became the first imam of the first mosque established at the Cape, as well as the first official teacher at the first official madrasah (Da Costa andand Davids).

Vryezwarten (Free Blacks) is a term that came to be applied to manumitted slaves and convicts who had completed their sentences. It is this group that provided imams and teachers for the earliest mosques and madrasahs respectively. In view of this, many historians, including Davids, credit the Vryezwarten with establishing and consolidating Islam at the Cape (Da Costa andand Davids).

The leading opponents of Dutch colonization and economic monopoly of the East Indies were exiled to the Cape including the Raja of Tambora, Prince of Ternate, and Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar (Boeseken). These exiles were deliberately isolated from their countrymen in order to prevent them from exerting any political influence which might have created difficulties for the Dutch at the Cape as they had done in the East Indies (Jeffreys 89). They were, in fact, the first prisoners on Robben Island.

One political exile who did have some measure of influence was Sheikh Yusuf who was at once a prince, a religious scholar, a mujahid, (freedom fighter) and a sheikh of the Khalwatiyyah Sufi Order. He met with slaves secretly in their lodges and at his own home where he initiated them into his tariqah (Sufi order; Dangor). He is regarded by some historians as the pioneer of Islam in South Africa (Du Plessis). The fact that elements of Khalwatiyyah practices survive to this day indicates that Sheikh Yusuf had an abiding impact on the development of Islam at the Cape.

In the 19th Century, the British brought indentured workers from India to cultivate sugar cane in their newly acquired colony on the coast of Natal (Bhana andand Brain). Muslims constituted a minority (estimated to be 10 percent) of these workers (Kuper). However, Muslims formed the overwhelming majority of Indian traders who decided to migrate from India to South Africa in order to seek their fortunes in the new land (Bhana andand Brain). They were joined by some Muslim traders from Mauritius and East Africa. A small contingent of Pathan Muslims was brought from India by Lord Roberts to fight for the British against the Boers in the Anglo-Boer War (Kuper).

Between 1873 and 1880, the British brought several hundred slaves from East Africa — including Zanzibar — as indentured laborers to be employed in public works. They had been rescued from ships transporting them to Europe. The majority of these slaves were Muslim and came to be known as the “Zanzibaris,” a designation by which they are described to this day. Like the early Cape Muslims, the “Zanzibaris” were influenced to a great extent by African traditional practices in their rites and ceremonies (Oosthuizen).

The discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand area in the early 20th century attracted migrants from Malawi and Mozambique who came to seek employment in the mines. Many of these migrants were Muslims. Hundreds of Malawian Muslims were also recruited to work in the forestry industry and on citrus farms in the Eastern Transvaal (Mahomed 11).

Consolidation and Growth of Islam

Restrictions by the Dutch authorities prevented the Cape Muslims from establishing a mosque or madrasah for a century-and-a-half (Botha). In this period, the tariqah was the early Cape Muslims’ only link with Islam. The two major orders were the Khalwatiyyah introduced by Sheikh Yusuf and the Qadiriyyah (Da Costa and Davids). Nonetheless, the expression of Islam in the 17th and 18th centuries — in respect of rites of passage, religious rituals, and spiritual exercises — was distinctly syncretic.(1)

Restrictions by the Dutch authorities prevented the Cape Muslims from establishing a mosque or madrasah for a century-and-a-half.

The first mosque (the Awwal Mosque) was established by Tuan Guru only in 1797 (Davids). He also established the first madrasah where he taught Islam through the Malayu language. By the beginning of the 19th century, Afrikaans had become the lingua franca for the Cape Muslims, who contributed significantly to its development. Not surprisingly, it became the medium of instruction in the madrasah.

The textbooks used in the madrasah, though written in the Arabic script, were in the Afrikaans language. The first book of this genre of literature was Kitab al-Qawl al-Matin by Al-Ishmuni (Selms). Perhaps the most popular is the Bayan ad-Din by Abu Bakr Effendi, a Turkish national sent as a religious guide to the Cape by the Ottoman Sultan at the request of a Cape imam (Da Costa and Davids). However, the most prolific producer of Arabic-Afrikaans literature was Sheikh Ismail Hanif.

Over the course of time, many of the earlier forms of expression were completely abandoned, others seldom manifested, and still others appreciably altered.(2) These changes could be attributed primarily to three factors: the role of the imams,(3) the impact of education — specifically the establishment of the first madrasah in 1793 and the Mission school in 1913 (Davids 2, Words 28) — and influence of Arab institutions on students who went to Makkah and Cairo for their studies (Duff-Gordon).

Islam experienced rapid growth at the Cape in the first two centuries. This growth could be attributed to the following factors:

1) Conversion of slaves for whom Islam provided secure status and district identity.

2) Intermarriage between Cape Muslim men and English women.

3) Adoption of abandoned children by Muslim families.

4) Attendance of Muslim schools by children of other races and faiths (Shell).

5) Attraction to Muslim rites and rituals such as the ratib (“spiritual dance”) (Davids).

6) Prohibition on the sale of Christianized slaves. Hence, slave owners indirectly encouraged their slaves to adopt Islam instead of Christianity

The early Cape Muslims were primarily skilled artisans, such as blacksmiths, bricklayers, boilermakers, carpenters, shoemakers, tailors and valets, servants, et cetera. In the formative years of the Dutch settlement at the Cape, they were considered a threat to the economic welfare of the White ruling class. Consequently, the Cape Town city council charged them exorbitant rents for houses to prevent them from accumulating property (Davids).

The Muslim traders who arrived in Natal were likewise viewed by the British as economic competitors. They, too, made it difficult for Muslims to acquire residential and trading rights. The Natal Indian Congress was originally established to pursue these rights for Indian traders, the majority of who were Muslims. The struggles of traders and artisans have been documented in numerous publications (Arkin).

Nowadays, many Cape Muslims have retained their positions as artisans, while others are employed as factory workers and clerks and some are professionals. In Natal and the former Transvaal, descendents of the former indentured laborers are now factory-workers, clerks, artisans, or professionals. The descendents of traders who traditionally inherited the family business now pursue professional qualifications. This in part has led to the demise of several reputed businesses.

According to the Islamic Council of South Africa, about 20 percent of South African Muslims are engaged in trade and commerce, 40 percent are employed as skilled artisans, 25 percent are semi-skilled workers(1), and 15 percent are professionals or white-collar workers. Though these figures are far from accurate, they give some idea of the distribution of human resources among Muslims.

Many Muslim individuals have been involved in the struggle for justice and human rights, either in their individual capacity or as members of liberation movements or political formations (Omar).

The beginning of Muslim political activity can be traced back to the end of the 19th Century. Achmat Effendi, the son of the famous Abu Bakr Effendi, attempted to gain a parliamentary seat in 1894 but was foiled by conservative Whites (Davids). The South African Moslem Association was founded in 1902 at the Cape by Nematullah Effendi, the son of Abu Bakr Effendi, and the African Peoples’ Organization was founded by Dr. Abdullah Abdul Rahman in 1905 (Saunders). While the former organization represented the interests of Muslims, the latter did not confine itself to Muslim concerns.

Later, many Muslims joined the Non-European Unity Movement and the Teacher’s League of South Africa both of which were established in 1913 and were at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement. Abdul Rahman was the first “person of color” to win a seat in the Cape Town city council in 1904 and the Cape Provincial council in 1915. Rahman championed Colored people’s demands for franchise, their right to work and fair wages, and their right to education (Arkin).

Muslims were not represented in Parliament until the 1970’s when the then National Party government introduced the Tricameral System.

In 1894, the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) was established in Durban primarily to fight for trading and residential rights for Indians. Restrictions on Indian trade and acquisition of land by the Transvaal authorities led to the establishment of the Transvaal Indian Congress. The majority of the Congress members in Natal were Muslim traders, as were its first three presidents: Abdullah Hajee Adam, Abdul Karim Hajee Adam Zaveri, and Cassim Jeewa.

One of the best known NIC stalwarts was Abdulla Ismail Kajee, who had formed part of the delegations to India in 1922 and to the United Nations in 1946 to demand civil rights for South African Indians. Mahatma Gandhi was, incidentally, invited by a Muslim trader, (2)Abu Bakr Amod, to represent him in a civil suit against another Muslim trader. Muslims fully supported Gandhi’s passive resistance campaign that protested against discriminatory practices against Indians. It was for this that Gandhi acquired international fame and honor.

In the Transvaal, two of the most prominent figures of the congress movement were Moulvi Cachalia and Yusuf Dadoo. While the former spent most of his political life in exile in India, Yusuf Dadoo became one of the leading figures in resistance against the White minority rule in South Africa. He was president of the Transvaal Indian Congress, chairman of the Anti-Segregation Council, and chairman of the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council. He, along with Monty Naicker, led the defiance campaign in 1939 that aimed at reversing discriminatory practices against Black South Africans (Calpin). Dadoo and Naicker attended the All-Asia Conference Delhi in 1947 and the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in 1948.

Imam Haron, a stalwart of the liberation struggle, inspired Muslim youth at the Cape to identify with the oppressed majority in South Africa. His death in detention is known throughout the world. The Muslim Judicial Council established in 1945 condemned the Group Areas Act, the Sabotage Bill, and other unjust laws. The Cape Muslim Youth Movement established in 1957 and the Claremont Muslim Youth Association established in 1958 greatly increased the political awareness of Muslim youth.

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