The Origins of South African Islam and its Present

This is my translation of an article by the columnist Mr. Hakan Albayrak in the Turkish daily Yeni Safak (pronounced Yenny Shuff-uck”, meaning “The New Dawn”). I publish the translation with the author’s permission.

. . .

The reprimand given me by the grand-daughter of Ebu Bekr Efendi

by Hakan Albayrak

Originally published in Turkish on June 28, 2009.

Having arrived on the coast of Cape of Good Hope around the middle of the 17th century and having begun colonizing the South African lands, the Dutch brought there Muslim slaves and political convicts from the Malay archipelago.

The overwhelming majority of today’s Cape Town Muslims, who are said to number around 1 million, are the descendants of those “Malayics”.

I have been in Cape Town for three days.

The Muslim scene that I have seen here is a distinguished one compared to a great many parts of the Islamic world (or even compared to most parts of it).

A choice community that crowds the approximately 250 mosques, large and small, that cares about providing their children with a book-based religious education and that closely follows the intellectual currents and political developments in the Islamic world…

They have reached this point having gone through a long and challenging road.

As the ancestors of Geert Wilders could not tolerate even the “I” of Islam, they had to hide their Islamic faith at the beginning of the road.

In time, they forgot Islam to a great extent.

Because there was hardly anyone among them who knew enough Arabic to understand and explain the Quran and because they had become unable to understand the available books in Malay, the “book-based knowledge” was replaced by hearsay information.

Leaders such as Sheikh Yusuf, Said Alawi, Imam Abdullah ibn Qadi Abdussalaam had blocked the way of corruption with the winds of revival that they generated between the years of 1694 and 1794, but starting from the 1810s the Cape Town version of Islam was filled once more with groundless beliefs by a bizarre “oligarchy of imams”.

Groundless beliefs such as:

You must give your zakaat (the required, yearly Islamic alms) and sacrificial animals to the imams, and they will use these however they wish.

You must hold a banquet for the imam and his friends for 40 days when a relative of yours dies…

If you please the imams, then they will intercede in your favor in the Hereafter…

Later, those Muslims who had just been able to go on pilgrimage (i.e. the Hajj to Mecca) owing to the permission that the British, who had taken Cape Town from the Dutch, gave them began to describe the kind of Islam that they saw there and, moreover, even started to practice it. Then trouble broke out.

A great controversy arose.

The controversy was about to turn into violence.

A group of prudent Muslims then came up with the idea of demanding help from the Caliph of Islam in order to find the right solution.

This idea found general acceptance.

They appealed to the Queen through the British colonial governor and requested that a demand to the Ottoman State for assistance for the purpose of religious guidance be communicated to Istanbul.

The Queen did as requested; Sultan Abdulaziz of the Ottoman State found the demand reasonable and gave Ahmed Jevdet Pasha the instruction to send a scholar to Cape Town.

Ahmed Jevdet Pasha thought that Ebu Bekr Efendi was the fittest for this duty.

Ebu Bekr Efendi arrived in Cape Town on January 13th 1863.

He started out by setting up a madrasa and embarked on works in order to bring up a Muslim generation equipped with book-based knowledge.

The Muslim masses joyfully welcomed his arrival and his quickness to take action without delay, but when some imams who wanted to preserve their power based on groundless beliefs sided against him and started making the propaganda that he was “a deviant, an atheist”, things became intolerable.

Ebu Bekr Efendi and his students were exposed to various kinds of abuse and aggression.

The Cape Town press, which was under British control, also took part in the smear campaign.

Nevertheless Ebu Bekr Efendi did not lose heart.

He set up a mosque in addition to the madrasa.

Everywhere he went and to all the people with whom he spoke, he preached an understanding of Islam that was free from groundless beliefs.

In the meantime, he established a strong love bond between the South African Muslims and the Ottoman State.

On account of that bond, the South African Muslims would later contribute to the construction of the Hijaz Railway around the beginning of the 20th century, they would send help to the Ottoman army which fought at Tripoli in northern Africa in 1912 and would support the “National Struggle” of Turkey at the beginning of the 1920s…

Ebu Bekr Efendi passed away in Cape Town in the year of 1880.

He left a tremendous moral legacy behind him.

Above all, he was a milestone on the way to the revival of Islam at Cape Town.

God have abundant mercy on him.

* * *

On Thursday, I visited Karima Sinclair, who is a grand-daughter of Alaaddin Bey, one of the sons of Ebu Bekr Efendi.

I drank her bitter coffee.

Afterwards, I received her bitter reprimand.

She said:

“You people always come here from Turkey and go back; you keep asking about Ebu Bekr Efendi; you recount his story in your newspapers and TV channels enthusiastically; but you do nothing to protect his memory duly. I have talked to so many of your diplomats and politicians. I told them that either a foundation (waqf) or institute must be established in order to take his moral legacy under protection, and promises have been made to me in this regard. But there has been no action. You are only as great as your actions, my dear brother. If you are not going to do anything, if you will not go beyond talking with me here, let us not bother ourselves in vain. I can no longer endure how you keep failing the first Ottoman who set foot in Cape Town, that great scholar who filled Cape Town with the light of wisdom!”

I told her that I could do nothing apart from writing exactly all that she had just told me… and now I have written.

I hope that somehow it proves useful, God willing.


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