The year 1794 will forever remain inscribed in the collective Cape Muslim memory as the year in which the foundation was securely laid for the survival of Islam in a strange and alien land. Against untold odds of external opposition and probably domestic pessimism as well, the first masjid was erected. Saartjie van De Kaap was its mother donor, Tuan Guru its imam.
If any period deserves to be called the halcyon years of Islam at the Cape, I’d wager that it was that century: the latter half of the 18th, and first half of the 19th century. It was not on account of the size or splendour of the masjid, but the effect it was having on the nascent Cape community.
The Cape was then a layered society in which an upper tier of company officials, businessmen, farmers and soldiers held sway over the lives and property of a downtrodden motley class of indigenous people, imported slaves, free blacks and men who were once antagonists, now in exile.
Into the midst of this crucible stepped the Cape’s earlier bearers of the Mantle of Da’wah: men such as Tuan Sayyid Alawi and Imam Hasanuddin, known as Paay Schaapie or Carel Pilgrim, and their eventual successor, Imam Abdullah, Tuan Guru of Tidore. And what they injected into this community gave it the consciousness to differentiate between the humiliation of their class and the dignity of their souls. They gave them Islam.
Downtrodden they might have been, crestfallen they were not. Because into their midst had come an enlightenment which nourished their souls and restored their human worth. So rapid was the growth of Muslim numbers at the Cape that both Company and Church became deeply and seriously alarmed.
What was the secret ingredient, one may wonder. Wasn’t Islam supposed to be a conquering force that subjugated nations and proselytised with the sword? What sword was being wielded here at the Cape?
The guidance with which Allah sent His Messengers was meant for all layers in human society. But throughout human history we see a certain recurring phenomenon: the special relationship between Revelation and the downtrodden. From Nuh whose people balked, “Why should we believe in you when only the most despicable among us follow you?”, to Musa and the oppressed Israelites against Fir’awn, to Isa and his fishermen and carpenters against the Sanhedrin and Rome, to Muhammad صلى الله عليهم وسلم about whom Heraclius asked, “Who are his followers, the nobility or the weak?” only to be told they were in fact the weak—this same phenomenon was manifesting itself in the most amazing manner at the Cape. And for those halcyon years the Cape had truly become, for Islam and Muslims, a Cape of Good Hope.
Two centuries have passed. At the rate Islam was spreading back then, Muslims ought to have formed a much more substantial chunk of South African society than the 2% on which we pride ourselves but which official statistics refuse to confirm.
So what went wrong?
Consider this. No sooner were we able to build masajid than there began amongst us a never ending cycle of dispute, litigation and breakaway. A dozen masajid in the Bokaap might from one angle appear as a marker of progress. Deeper inspection reveals it to be in fact the cause of the stagnancy and regression through which our growth was stunted at 2%.
Movement is inseparably part of this Ummah. Like the entire universe around it, this Ummah is never static. But movement can be either linear, or lateral. If we are able to avoid or mitigate discord the Ummah moves forward with linear motion. Succumb to discord, though, and our movement is reduced to the frustrating impotence of lateral and internal conflict.
Allah says, “Do not quarrel, lest you may lose heart and your spirit may desert you; but be patient, for Allah is indeed with the patient ones.”
With regard to the painful mistakes of the past we are faced with a choice. We may repeat them, or we may avoid them.
What purpose has history other than to teach us this simple yet profound lesson about avoiding a repeat of the bitter harvest of discord?
Mufti M Taaha Karaan
Mufti of the MJC of SA
Principal of the Darul Uloom Arabia