Thursday, March 14, 2019

BOOK OF LETTERS FROM CAPE SLAVE

BOOK OF LETTERS FROM CAPE SLAVE

Book details Muslim scholar Tuan Guru’s life and a glimpse into the lives of the oppressed

LETTERS penned by one of the Cape’s Muslim icons, Tuan Guru, have offered evidence of colonial rule from the perspective of the oppressed.
Usually the colonial narrative, and ultimately South African history, has been informed by writings of those who ruled. But these letters, which have not been made public before, share a different first-hand experience of the Cape in the late 1700s.
Author Tuan Guru was a Muslim scholar who lived in Bo-Kaap.
He was born Abdullah bin Qadi Abd al-Salam in 1712 and was part of the royal family in Tidore, an Indonesian island.
He was popularly known as Tuan Guru, which means Master Teacher.
When Dutch colonisers landed in Tidore they banished members of the royal family, including Tuan Guru (who was 68 at the time), to the Cape when occupying their land.
Local author and journalist Shafiq Morton used the letters as research for
his latest book, From the Spice Islands to Cape Town: the Life and Times of Tuan Guru.
The book details the icon’s life until his death in the Cape at 95 in 1807.
Tuan Guru is buried in the historical Tana Baru cemetery in Bo-Kaap and his descendants still live in Cape Town.
“One family showed me Tuan Guru’s kitaabs (Arabic for books), and in it we found the letters.
“We then had it translated and we were blown away,” said Morton.
“We were able to see the personality of Tuan Guru coming through.
“He was a very patient man and had a very steadfast character.
“He makes his feeling about the Dutch plain. They were his oppressor.
“He wrote duas (prayers) in Arabic and Malay against the Dutch, who would smile when the slaves recited the duas, not knowing the meaning of the words.
“The biggest thing I had to do with this book was to decolonise myself.
“The tragedy in researching history is that even in Indonesia our sources are colonial. It’s all written in Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and English.
“I had to look at those sources and re-interpret them. I had a very lopsided narrative.
“I had to start looking and thinking about what it was like for the slaves.”
Morton said Tuan Guru’s aim was to uplift the slave community’s spirit through faith and education during very tough times.
Tuan Guru, a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad, had spent his life teaching others about Islam.
He had also hand-written the Qur’an at least five times while in the Cape. One of these copies is held at the Auwal Mosque in Bo-Kaap, where he offered Islamic lessons.
“His way of getting back at the colonial authorities was to educate the community. Slave conditions at that time were dire. He had to lift his community out of that.
“He was a social activist who knew if he built up a community that it would be a form of resistance.
“His school started with over 300 pupils in Dorp Street. It was a madressa, (Islamic school) but was open to all.
“The community that he was bringing together came from African countries, India, the local Khoisan and Europeans.
“Every nation on Earth was coming to the Cape and he brought everyone together at his school. This shows you why the Cape Muslim community is so unique. It is a mixture of everybody. You will see faces from everywhere in our mosques.
“Tuan Guru should be given the freedom of the city (Cape Town) for his contribution. He started the (multi-racial) rainbow nation.”
The book’s publisher, Awqaf South Africa, said it is part of its Leaders and Legacies series, which “aims to honour our past and present leaders”.
Awqaf chief executive Zeinoul Cajee said the book series will focus on people who “made the ultimate sacrifice against Dutch and British colonisers and slave masters” as well as anti-apartheid activists.
“When history books are written, they are invariably written from the perspective of the powers that be.
“Their intention is always to portray themselves as superior beings and others as an underclass.
“They drive the idea that their history is important, their heroes are important. They would love the history of the oppressed and underclass to be obliterated, as if they had no history. We need to change that.” From the Spice Islands to Cape Town: the Life and Times of Tuan Guru launches on March 17 at the Centre for the Book in central Cape Town.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Dhairat us-Salihiyya double birthday celebration





THE Ad-Dhairat us-Salihiyya Dhikr Group in Cape Town held an auspicious commemoration of the Prophet Muhammad's birth at Masjid ul-Khair in Mitchells Plain recently. It was also a celebration of the birthday of its Shaykhah and leader, Hajjah Naeema Manie.

A special guest of honour was Shaykh Muhammad ibn Yahya al-Ninowy of the Madinah Institute, who gave a short talk. Also present were the mosque imams, Shaykh Riyad Fataar and Shaykh Zaid Fataar and Hafiz Mahmood Khatib. 

In a touching ceremony, Hajjah Naeema asked Shaykh Ninowy for the traditional baya (oath of allegiance). In response, Shaykh Ninowy said he would not only give Hajjah Naeema his ceremonial  hand, but give her ijaza (permission) in all the Sufi Orders he is permitted to practice.

The moving mawlud was concluded with exquisite birthday cakes given to Hajjah Naeema and Shaykh Ninowy by the members of the Dhikr Group.

Shaykh Ninowy gives his ijaza to Hajjah Naeema.

Masjid ul-Khair's beautiful interior.
 
The crowd stands for the final verses of the salawat, greetings of peace on the Prophet Muhammad [pbuh].

From l-r: Shaykh Zaid Fataar, Shaykh Riyad Fataar, Hafiz Mahmood Khatib and Shaykh Ninowy.

Shaykh Ninowy delivers his talk.

Hajjah Naeema reads the riwayat, the verses of the Barzanji Mawlud, or devotional poem.

A large crowd attended bedecked in white with green scarves..

From l-r: Hafiz Mahmod Khatib, Hajjah Naeema and Shaykh Ninowy.

Cutting the cake.

Friday, February 1, 2019

#Cliftongate, the real legacy of Cape Town's Clifton beach

The pristine sands of Cifton. Courtesy flickr.


#CLIFTONGATE – or whatever one wishes to call it – provided us with our guaranteed year-end dose of racial drama. Every year, it seems, crowds at our beaches set off the nation’s racist trolls. Come Christmas, and like the Grinch, the Penny Sparrows of this world rush out to play.

#Cliftongate occurred on a balmy late December evening when the Secretary General of a prominent political party – the one that doesn’t support Israel – was asked to leave the beach by a private security company, the one that allegedly has links to the Cape underworld.

Exact reasons for this distinctly apartheid-style forced removal are fuzzy. Some reports say that there was an issue with crime, and that for unspecified ‘safety reasons’ the beach had to be cleared by 8 pm. The central question is why this was done by a private company, and exactly on whose authority.

Another political group – say ‘red designer overalls’ – protested a day or so later, as did another grouping, which ritually slaughtered a sheep on the beach in a traditional cleansing ceremony. Matters became Kafkaesque when counter protests centred on animal rights, ignoring the principal issue, human rights.

It underlined that Clifton, originally called Skoenmaker’s Gat (after a 17th century Dutch East Company deserter), is a sign of our post-apartheid disorder of historical ignorance, amnesia and privileged arrogance. An absolute postcard of a beach, Clifton is hugged by the sandstone and granite cliffs of the Twelve Apostles, or the Hoerikwaggo range.   

Clifton’s Riviera profile belies the fact that it was originally where the Goringhaiqua Khoe of Camissa, or Table Bay, gathered shellfish, collected fresh water and sheltered in the caves above Second Beach. This was part of a route via the established Camps Bay and Oudekraal settlements (destroyed by the Dutch in the 1659 Khoe war) to Hout Bay, where the Gorachoqua lived.

The runaway slaves, who rallied around the Sufi masters, Tuan Sayyid Jaffer and Shaykh Nurul Mubeen in the 17th and 18th centuries, would have been informed by the Khoe of this passage to their former Oudekraal pasturage, where its rocky terrain, deep gullies and thick fynbos would have made it difficult for Dutch officials to capture them.

There is little institutional memory of this, other than hundreds of scattered graves on the mountain slopes and the well-known tombs of Tuan Sayyid Jaffer and Shaykh Nurul Mubeen. There are no plaques, or any other attempts at the commemoration, of what Clifton and the whole area once signified.

Today, the coastal strip from Sea Point to Hout Bay enjoys a ‘Peter Stuyvesant’ imprint of wealthy mansions and Top-Billing sunsets, where any sense of history and heritage is as meaningful as the last sipped Campari. 

Historically, then, Clifton is a gloomy narrative of colonial land theft and socio-economic disempowerment, the signature forgotten event being the wrecking of a Portuguese slaver, the Sao Jose Paquette, on its pristine shores on 27 December 1794.

The ship had returned from a slaving expedition in central Mozambique. It had over 400 slaves chained in its hold as it embarked on its four month journey to Brazil. When the Sao Jose rounded the Cape after 24 days, it found itself facing a raging south-east gale. As it beat around the Maiden’s Cove headland, and made for the wind shadow of Clifton, it struck a rock and started to sink.

The Sao Jose was only 100 metres from the shore. But with over 400 slaves cowering in its dank hold, there was a problem. The ship was going down fast. The crew and captain had to hasten to liberate its human cargo. This was not chivalry. It was business. Living slaves were precious capital, dead slaves were not.

By the time the Sao Jose finally sank under the icy Atlantic, there were still 211 people shackled to the bottom of the ship. Two days later, the surviving slaves were sold to the highest bidders under the trees on the Grand Parade.

All of this would have been known to the community of the time. Indeed, the sadness at the treatment of the Mozambican slaves at Skoenmaker’s Gat would have reverberated throughout the underclass of Cape Town.

Indeed, our people would have understood well European flippancy on the value of their lives. The fiscal Denaus, a company agent, had frequently raided their homes. A thoroughly spiteful character, research reveals that he had confiscated a letter from General Craig authorising Tuan Guru to build Cape Town’s first mosque.

The colonial authorities had condoned it, but clearly the Penny Sparrows in the streets of 18th century Cape Town had not, and Tuan Guru would have to perform the Friday prayers in the Chiappini Street quarry as a protest, the mosque only officially opening years later.

#Cliftongate, the saga of the Sao Jose and the gentrification of the Bo Kaap are all related. They are designed to bury our history and our heritage – a socio-economic airbrushing – where the ignorant and moneyed can pleasure themselves to death at our expense.


Monday, December 10, 2018

Cape Town women celebrate Prophet's Birth


 
Hajjah Naeema Manie leads the Ad-Dai'rat us-Salihiyyah Dhikr Group.

THE Ad-Dair’at us-Salihiyyah Dhikr Group celebrated its 15th birthday on its annual commemoration – or mawlud – of the Prophet Muhammad’s blessed birth at the Grassy Park mosque on 8 December.  

Founded by Hajjah Naeema Manie under the auspices of Shaykh Seraj and Ahmad Hendricks of the Azzawia in Cape Town, the group’s name derives from their grandfather, Shaykh Muhammad Salih (1871-1944), who introduced not only Imam al-Ghazali to the Cape in the 1920s, but also the Barzanji Mawlud, which has now been performed at the Azzawia for nearly 100 years.

Imam al-Sayyid Ja‘far bin Hasan ‘Abd al-Karim al-Barzanji al-Husayni (1716-1764), was a Sayyid (Prophetic descendant) of Kurdish extraction, who was a mufti of the Shafi‘i school of legal thought in Madinah. He was an imam and teacher in Masjid an-Nabawi from 1746, and was also an ascetic Sufi, talented linguist and poet.

Imam al-Barzanji compiled two poetic works on the Mawlud. The second, and more popular one which is recited in Cape Town, is entitled ‘Iqd al-Jawhar fi Mawlud al-Nabiy al-Azhar (The Jewelled Necklace of the Resplendent Prophet’s Birth). It describes in exalting accounts – or riwayats – the Prophet’s sublime qualities:

The full moon has risen above us
With his rising all other moons have been eclipsed
The like of your beauty we have never seen – the face of your joy and rapture
You are the sun, you are the full moon
You are light upon light
You are the great elixir of life
You are the flaming lamp of our breasts
O my beloved, O Muhammad
You are the bridegroom of the East and the West…

Shaykh Muhammad Salih, who studied under the luminaries of his time in the Holy City of Makkah for 17 years, was appointed the Qadi – or chief judge – in Zanzibar on his way home circa 1916. It is in Zanzibar that Shaykh Muhammad Salih first heard the Barzanji Mawlud being recited.

He took it to Cape Town where his students developed the unique, melodious style of reciting the mawlud that we hear today. In the early days, there used to be two riwayat ‘teams’, who would read the 18 riwayats in one night – an exacting task.

The Ad-Dair’at us-Salihiyyah Dhikr Group also performs at the Mass Mawlud in Cape Town and other venues,  has a Muharram programme, conducts its weekly dhikr gathering and has outreach programmes in Ramadan.
















Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Kashmir, the beloved motherland

Breathtaking in beauty, but spoiled by geo-politics, the tragic story of modern-day Kashmir.

WHEN the fourth Mughal Emperor, Shahenshah Jahangir or Mirza Nur al-Din Khan (1605-1627), was on his deathbed, one of his courtiers had asked him what was his most ardent desire. His rasping reply had been, “Kashmir, only Kashmir.”

The Mughals had annexed the territory in 1586, and Shahenshah Jahangir had fallen in love with Kashmir, using it to escape the oppressively hot and stuffy summers of his palace in Delhi. Indeed, for any visitor, Kashmir’s traditional hospitality and picture postcard beauty are intoxicating.

“Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast,” Emperor Jahangir is reported to have said after his first visit to Kashmir, “If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”

Fran├žois Bernier (1620-1688), a physician to the Mughals and the first European to enter Kashmir, commented in 1665 that it surpassed in beauty everything that his ‘warmest imagination’ could anticipate. A sixth century Tang Dynasty Chinese source describes Kashmir as being ‘enveloped on all sides like a precious jewel by snowy mountains’, with a valley in the south that serves as a gate to the kingdom.

Buttressed against the Hindu Kush – or the western Himalayas – which soar to nearly 8,000 metres, geographical Kashmir has a northern mountainous zone consisting of the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Himalayas, the rugged Ladakh district to the east and the valley region to the southwest. The Indus River, which flows through Pakistan into the Bay of Bengal, rises from the Siachen glacier in the Karakoram.

Central position


By virtue of its central position in Asia, Kashmir commands a strategic location: it is bordered by Afghanistan to the northwest, the Sinkiung-Uighur region of China to the east, Pakistan to the west and India to the south. It also stands on the centuries’ old Central Asian trade route, and long caravans used to trek annually between the plains of India and the high, snowy reaches of Central Asia.

Kashmir enjoys a rich and variegated history. It is one of the homes of Sanskrit, the oldest-known human language. Sanskrit is regarded as the argot of Hinduism, where it was said to be a means of communication by the Hindu gods, and then used by the ancient Indo-Aryans. Sanskrit was also the written language of the Buddhists, who moved into Kashmir from China.

Kashmir is the only region to have a complete written historical record going back well over 3,000 years, the historian Kalhana recording its dynasties. This led to the 11th century Islamic scholar and geographer, Al-Biruni, to remark that the Indians to the south lacked a sense of history.

Kashmir was known to the Greeks via Alexander the Great. The Roman historian, Ptolemy, mentioned it in his writings. Genghis Khan’s armies swept through in the 12th century, depopulating vast tracts of countryside. Timur, the Turco-Mongol conqueror having razed Delhi to the ground in 1398, contracted boils when he travelled into Kashmir, and had to traverse the Hindu Kush in a palanquin, instead of his horse.

Kashmir, translated from the Sanskrit, means a land dried up of water: ‘ka’ (water) and ‘shimeera’ (to dry up). Tradition says that Kashmir was originally a lake called ‘Satisara’ that was drained by the great saint of ancient India, Kashyap. Interestingly, modern geological science reveals that Kashmir was once a lake.

Kashmir was a Hindu and Buddhist stronghold for centuries until the advent of Islam. The Ummayad general, Imad al-Din Muhammad ibn Qasim, was the first to enter Kashmir in the early 8th century, this after establishing himself in Pakistan’s Sind and Multan districts. The Ummayads made their last attempt to occupy Kashmir during the Caliphate of Hisham (724-53), but failed.

Mahmud of Ghazni, originally from southeast Afghanistan, also made attempts to subjugate Kashmir by force in 1015, and again in 1021, but like the Ummayads, could make no headway. However, by the time of the Ghaznavid invasions, Muslims had permanently settled in Kashmir.

Sufis


It is to the Sufis that the people of Kashmir became attracted to, luminaries such as Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahman, who arrived from Turkistan circa 1324. His shrine is located in Srinagar at a place called ‘Bulbul Lankar’. A local myth about the Shaykh is that he would become so engrossed in prayer that a nightingale (a bulbul) would sit on his head.

In Kashmir, there were six main Sufi Orders: the Qadiriyyah, the Suhrawardiyyah, the Kubrawiyyah, the Naqshbandiyyah, the Nurbakshiyyah and the Rishiyyah. While the first five originated from Iran and Turkistan, the sixth one – the Rishiyyah – was an indigenous development. ‘Rishi’ is originally a Sanskrit word denoting ‘sage’, but understood generically as Sufi.

An important 16th century chronicler, Abul Fadl, wrote that the most respected people in Kashmir were the Rishis. He noted that they followed Shari’ah, and did not denounce other faiths. He added that they ‘did not have the tongue of desire’, and planted fruit-bearing trees so that the public could obtain benefit from them. They abstained from meat in deference to the Hindus, and did not marry.

Among Rishis, the most famous was Shaykh Nur al-Din, affectionately called ‘Nandrishi’. He preached communal harmony, non-violence and tolerance. His shrine – visited by Hindus and Muslims alike – is located in Chrar-e-Sharif, a small town adversely affected by the ongoing conflict. Also a famous poet, Shaykh Nur al-Din once wrote:

We belong to the same parents.
Then why this difference?
Let Hindus and Muslims (together)
Worship God alone.
We came to this world like partners.
We should have shared our joys
And sorrows, together.

Historically, the relationship between the more expansive Sufis and the conservative ‘ulama has not always been cordial. But whereas Sufis were often pushed to the margins, in Kashmir they were dominant. This empowered Shaykh Nur al-Din, for instance, to condemn Mullahs who recited the Qur’an for money, as hypocrites and criminals.

Kashmir would experience Muslim rule from 1339 until 1819, a total of 480 years. The founding Mir Shah dynasty would be followed by the Mughals in 1586, the Afghan Durrani Empire in 1747 and the largely secular Sikh Empire in 1819, who took over Kashmir until its defeat to the British in 1846.


Colonialism


The era of 19th century colonialism would tear Kashmir apart. With its natural beauty and economic promise, Kashmir would become a contested territory, its local inhabitants the biggest victims of a continental power struggle, now between Britain’s colonial stepchildren – India and Pakistan. China would annex a chunk of its eastern flank, Aksai Chin, during the Mao era.

Today, Kashmir is a partitioned state, and the Kashmiris – like the Palestinians, the Kurds and the Rohinghyas – are a partitioned and marginalised people. India controls 43 per cent of its territory, Pakistan 37 per cent and the Republic of China 20 per cent. The population of Jammu (occupied by India) is 12 million, Azad (occupied by Pakistan) four million. Aksai Chin, which is a high altitude desert with acidic soda lakes, is largely unpopulated.

The Indian occupied sector has two capitals, Srinagar (summer) and Jammu (winter), whilst Azad Kashmir has Muzaffarabad as its chief city. The economy of Kashmir is somewhat moribund due to the conflict, though tourism is still its main money spinner, together with agriculture and handicrafts such as carpets and the famous Kashmiri shawls.  

Politically, the ultimate Kashmiri injustice – and the roots of today’s conflict – are to be found in 1846 when Gulab Singh, an influential noble in the court of Ranjit Singh Dogra of Lahore, would buy Kashmir from the British East India Company as a personal fiefdom for 75 lakhs (about R 1.4 million) in the Treaty of Amritsar. It seems to have been a really good ‘deal’ for some 2, 22,236 square kilometres of ‘real estate’, also involving an annual payment of one horse, twelve goat shawls and three Kashmiri scarves.

Muhammad Iqbal, the famous Pakistani poet who was of Kashmiri descent, sadly lamented what he aptly called ‘the sale of Kashmir’:  Their fields, their crops, their stream/ Even the peasant in the vale/ They sold, they sold all / Alas, how cheap was the Sale!

Lieutenant Robert Thorpe, an officer in the British-India army of Kashmiri parentage, wrote in his 80-page book, Cashmeer Misgovernment, that the Treaty of Amritsar was a wanton outrage, a gross injustice and an act of tyrannical oppression. He died in Srinagar in 1868, under suspicious circumstances, and is regarded as the first anti-occupation martyr in Kashmir.


 Protests


Gulab Singh’s accession to power was greeted with massive disquiet, as he was a Hindu regent foisted upon a Muslim majority, with resentment not only building up in Kashmir, but also neighbouring Pakistan. In 1931, the first mass protests began, sparking local resistance and Pakistan calling for Muslim-dominant areas to enjoy autonomous rule.

By 1947, the grandson of Gulab Singh, Mahajarah Hari Singh, could no longer contain the simmering discontent. People in the Jammu Province engaged in the historically forgotten, and deliberately ignored, indigenous Poonch uprising. The Muslim Poonchis of western Jammu liberated large areas from the Maharaj's control, creating what would become Azad Kashmir. In the upheaval there was a spate of inter-religious violence, resulting in the deaths, and possible massacres, of thousands of Muslims. 

On 26 October, Mahajarah Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession. It granted Delhi dominion of Kashmir without the consent of the people, and the Indian army marched into Kashmir, never to leave. The agreement was regarded by India as legal under the provisions of its Independence Act, but as outright fraud by Pakistan leader, Muhammad ‘Ali Jinnah.

In a letter sent to Maharajah Hari Singh on 27 October, the Governor-General of India, Lord Mountbatten accepted the accession, saying, ‘it is my Government's wish that as soon as law and order have been restored …the question of the state’s accession should be settled by a reference to the people.’

That ‘reference’ – despite Indian promises of a plebiscite by Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947 – has never come, and 70 years later, it is still an open question as Kashmir lurches from crisis to crisis, and India and Pakistan from war-to-war, the indigenous civilian population suffering the brunt of systematic state terror. It has taken a heavy toll, with 41,000 people having died due to clashes in the past 27 years alone, at an average of four conflict-related funerals per day.

Resistance against occupation in Kashmir has taken a heavy human  toll. Pic: csspmspk.com
The Indian army, seen as an unwelcome occupying entity, has been fingered in numerous human rights reports. Significantly, no army officer has ever been prosecuted in a civil court for crimes against civilians, or human rights abuse, in Kashmir.

In 1993, Human Rights Watch reported that Indian security forces had assaulted civilians, tortured prisoners, summarily executed detainees and killed civilians in ‘reprisal attacks’.  Resistance fighters had also targeted civilians, but to a far lesser extent than Indian security forces. In fact, an examination of human rights reports shows up a litany of mass killings, massacres, enforced disappearances, suppression of freedoms and rape used as a weapon of intimidation.

This year, the United Nations, in its first ever report on human rights in Indian and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, said that there was an urgent need to address past and ongoing human rights violations. Justice had to be delivered to all people in Kashmir, who for seven decades had suffered in the deadly conflict.

The 49-page report details human rights violations and abuses on both sides of the Line of Control, and highlights a situation of chronic impunity for violations committed by security forces.

“The political dimensions of the dispute between India and Pakistan have long been centre-stage, but this is not a conflict frozen in time. It is a conflict that has robbed millions of their basic human rights, and continues to this day to inflict untold suffering,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein in a damning indictment, rejected by the Indian government.

However, despite the abuses and the killings, Kashmiris carry on with their daily lives. As the blogger, Moazam Iqbal, writes:

In the midst of all this, life goes on. People go to offices, bazaars, on picnics, weddings, schools, banks. People laugh, cry; they get angry, all felt as anyone else (in the world) feels. And yeah, in cricket matches, we support Pakistan. NOT because we are Pakistanis, NOT because we want Kashmir to be part of Pakistan. We just like to see the (Indian) army guys in grief (lol)…

Indeed, tap into the heart of any Kashmiri and the desire for freedom beats proudly in every chest, young or old. To most Kashmiris, India and Pakistan are the same – two ego-driven countries fighting over a piece of land that doesn’t belong to either of them.

Go into the streets of Srinagar, Jammu, Muzaffarabad – or any town or village from the Hindu Kush to the lowest valley – Kashmiris will tell you that in this battle, it is Kashmir and the Kashmiris who have suffered, not India or Pakistan. They want the conflict to end. They want peace and stability, law and order, economic development. And, finally, one thing is made abundantly clear: no one is going anywhere, Kashmir is the beloved motherland.


                                                                                          The article first appeared in the Habibia Mosque Diary 2018-19.

Saudi Arabia: the devil we know, and the one we fear

The house in Madinah where the Prophet's son, Ibrahim, was born to Mariyah al-Qibt (Mariah the Copt). In 1997 it was was a pile of rubble.
WHEN I first visited Saudi Arabia in the 1980s it was like no other place I had ever travelled to. I landed in Jeddah early one January to perform an ‘umrah, the minor pilgrimage.  I was anxious, but starry eyed just as any first timer to the homeland of Islam would be.

I have the fondest memories of my first ‘umrah, but it also educated me about the house of Sa’ud. Outside my hotel in Makkah, which was opposite the Bab ul-Salam gate, I would see the morals police, the mutawwi’un, in action. One day, they forcibly dragged a hapless, squirming pilgrim out of a phone booth during the call for prayer.

The indiscriminate demolition of Makkah and Madinah in the name of progress had just commenced, and there were still lots of the old buildings with their exquisitely carved wooden mashrabiyyah. In Madinah, I could walk a few minutes from my hotel and still find shaded date palm groves.

It was on the ziyarah, the visit to the historical sites of Madinah, that the shocking truth emerged. The sites were in a state of neglect and entry to them was often forbidden by padlocks. In any other country, other than Saudi Arabia, these precious historical places would have been preserved. It was like the pope locking up the Sistine Chapel, or the Orthodox Church allowing the Holy Sepulchre to fall down.

Here, in Saudi Arabia, they were being deliberately allowed to go to dust before being bulldozed into oblivion. Over the next two decades, we would see over 300 sacred sites disappear.

But then, Saudi Arabia is a country named after a family that is only accountable to itself. The abridged history is that in the late 1700s the house of Sa’ud joined forces with a wayward and shunned cleric, ‘Abdullah ibn al-Wahhab, to stamp its tribal authority.

The wily Bedouin chieftain, Ibn Sa’ud, realised that Ibn al-Wahhab’s innovative reduction of Islam to primitive absolutes could be the opiate of his ikhwan, his camel cavalry of half-naked desert brigands. They would go on to conduct massacres across the region in the name of faith, but in reality political ambition.

It was Ibn al-Wahhab, condemned by even his own family, who deemed that honouring historical relics and sites was polytheism, and that they had to be destroyed. Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s dictum was as blunt as a cudgel: you were either for him, or against him – which meant that being an infidel, your blood became permissible. This was a violation of the Qur’anic principle – reflected in Chapters 2 and 109 – of live and let others live.

On my first visit, I was exposed to Saudi society via family ties. It was through them that I learnt there were Hijazis, who unlike the Saudi Najdis, were descendants of the Prophet, the Quraysh and the four Caliphs. They were people who hailed from the western regions, which included Jeddah and the Holy Cities. They were not Saudi, and hated being called so. They would celebrate the Prophet’s birthday (banned by the authorities) in secret.

I remember mentioning the name of the king in a restaurant and being immediately silenced. “Don’t ever do that again!” urged my host. He explained that a neighbour’s son had publically criticised the royals.  He had been detained and had disappeared without trace.

Indeed, as appalling as it may sound, the question arises as to why we should ever be surprised by the fate of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, brutally mudered inside Istanbul Saudi Embassy? Fear and loathing – and enforced disappearance – has been on the Saudi street for decades, at least since the 1980s.

After a second visit to Saudi in 1997, and witnessing further scorched-earth obliterations of our Islamic heritage, I initiated a series of programmes called ‘Notebooks from Makkah and Madinah’ on Voice of the Cape, and then wrote a book of the same name in 2005.

In it, I warned of our fast diminishing heritage and the growing monster of Saudi extremism injecting itself into the Sunni mainstream. It was a very lonely space. No one seemed to care enough, and there were few voices speaking out.

It is my view that we in the Muslim world – greedy for royal handouts since the 1970s and often compromised by them – are chiefly instrumental in our own decay and intellectual demise. Future generations will go on pilgrimage and not find any heritage; nor will they have any sense of our history, or understanding of our rich academic and legal traditions.

But now the dollar donations are drying up, and Saudi Arabia – with its missionary zealots having foisted an Arabised curse called Wahhabism upon us all – has to face its own demons, Al-Qaeda and ISIS blow-back, a youth bulge of 60% and a gathering clamour of domestic discontent.

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, a callow 33 year-old seen as a benign reformer by deluded journalists such as Thomas Friedman, has not proved to be the man of the hour as everybody had hoped for. He has turned out to be a despot, prone to political impulsiveness and brutality, particularly in war-torn Yemen – which has been reduced to mass starvation by his intervention.

For Saudis right now, their future is bleak – and presents a curious Hobson’s choice of two devils:  the one we know, and the one we fear. The one we know is the royal family being able to hold the country together with genuine reform, despite its internal divisions, and albeit with very frayed authority in a country where the centre has to hold.

The second, the one we fear, is what I call the ‘Syria-Libya option’. This will be an uprising met by bloodshed and a failed state scenario, with the central Najdi tribes and jihadi groups turning on each other in a bloody battle for diminishing resources. In the latter scenario, the oil price will most likely rocket to beyond 300 dollars a barrel, and plunge the world deep into economic crisis.

The only positives are that the US, Saudi Arabia’s biggest ally, can no longer afford to look the other way, and that the world – because of the enforced disappearance of a journalist – is finally seeing Saudi Arabia for the pariah state that it has always been. And as calls for Crown Prince Bin Salman’s head grow louder, we can only hold our breaths and hope for the best. 

Also published in Muslim Views, Cape Town.