Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Why Muslims should remember Mandela

© Shafiq Morton
NELSON Rolihlahla Mandela, the colossus, has been laid to rest. That he affected millions of people during his lifetime is beyond debate.

From the ghosts of District Six to the tight alleys of Gaza, I have personally witnessed the electrifying effect that this man has had on the downtrodden. For them, he represented the possibility of the impossible – the hope of justice being served after decades of struggle.

This is something we need to respect and understand beyond the clichés of self-serving public officials and gravy-train surfers who know little about the values that Madiba – or the ANC – once stood for.

But why we should remember Madiba, firstly, is that because as a faithful and loyal servant of Africa’s oldest liberation movement, he was able to rise to individual greatness above its whole – or as Joel Netshitenzhe has said: Mandela was a man of “unique remarkability”.

In fact, it was this “unique remarkability” that was recognised by those near to him in the early 1960’s. The Mandela of 1990, the man who became president, was nurtured within a circle of close comrades. He became the sum of the sacrifice of those who were around him.

Madiba, of course, acknowledged this – although his tributes to Sisulu, Tambo and others were often eclipsed by his own headlines. Secondly, we should remember him because it was his overwhelming liberality of spirit, his endearing humility and his sense of humanity that created this “unique remarkability”.

Unlike the Afrikaner regime the anti-apartheid movement did not regard us as non-people, or declare the Qur’an subversive in the courts. Whilst some Muslims had been quietist, many had been present in struggle circles – from Ahmad Kathrada and Yusuf Dadoo to Amina Cachalia and the Meers.

In fact Goolam Vahed’s seminal book, Muslim Portraits, the Anti-Apartheid Struggle, lists 385 “A-team” Muslim anti-apartheid activists. Not all ANC (the book profiles, for example, activists such as Imam Abdullah Haron, the PAC’s Gora Ebrahim and Qibla’s Ahmad Cassiem) it does chronicle a proud political heritage.

And on Robben Island – where Madiba spent 18 years – the tomb of the Yemeni-born saint Shaikh Abdurahman Matarah (situated on the northern side of the prison) was a constant reminder of the role Muslims at the Cape had played against Dutch colonialism.

In 1989 Madiba wrote a letter to Shaikh Nazeem Mohamed of the MJC courteously expressing his appreciation of the Muslim community’s support for the anti-apartheid struggle. I saw the letter myself, but the Shaikh would not let me touch it.

He also sent a letter to Shaikh Abdul Gamiet Gabier in 1982 in which he spoke about his upbringing. He also expressed admiration of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, as well as Molvi Cachalia and Imam Abdurahman Bassier, then imam at the Boorhaanol mosque in Longmarket Street.

In 1990, after his release, Madiba made several trips to the Cape. He paid homage to Tuan Guru at the Tana Baru, met local leaders and was the main speaker at the 1994 Tricentenary Commemoration.

Perhaps the most auspicious moment for us was his visit to the Awwal mosque in April 1994. There he stated that religious leadership should form the moral backbone of the new South Africa, and in a moment I’ll never forget, knelt on the ground when the Qur’an was recited.

The images of Madiba in a Cape Town mosque were transmitted across the world. Their impact was massive, for here was a non-Muslim head of state honouring Islam. He even got away with scolding US presidents and honouring struggle ties with Gaddafi, Castro and the PLO.

Madiba was a friend to all South Africans, including its Muslims, who today enjoy freedoms that are the envy of the ummah. Those who might want to carp need to remember that Madiba’s legacy is a South Africa without enemies. Only in Mandela country could a US president shake hands with a Castro.

Debate about whether Madiba should be the beneficiary of Muslim tribute – or even prayerful remembrance – is small minded. Scholars are unanimous that to honour another human being is a praiseworthy thing. That is why the Prophet (SAW) stood up out of respect for a Jewish funeral procession, saying that the deceased was a son of Adam.

He (SAW) had no qualms about allowing the early Muslims to seek refuge from the Quraish in the court of the Abyssinian Negus, then a well-known Christian monarch. “Go to him, for he is a just ruler,” were the noble Prophet’s words. Indeed, history shows us that the Negus was as magnanimous as the Prophet (SAW) in understanding truth and fairness.

The Prophet’s (SAW) letter to the monks at St Catherine’s in the Sinai is another example, in which the Prophet (SAW) extended a hand of friendship and a guarantee of protection in an agreement that stands today.

There was also the instance of Safana, the daughter of Hatim at-Ta’i who was Christian, but renowned throughout the Arabian Peninsula for his charity and good works. Safana was captured in a battle, and mentioned her father to the Prophet (SAW). The Prophet’s (SAW) response was that if her father were present, he would have immediately prayed for his mercy.

What we need to take from Madiba with respect to our Islam is that its traditional theology – whilst acknowledging differences – has always been implacably non-racial and expressly merciful to all. We were created into diverse tribes and nations to know each other, not despise one other, extols the Qur’an in Surat ul-Hujarat.

In acquiring a piece of Madiba memory for ourselves we have to appreciate similarly what he meant to others. As Zelda La Grange his former P.A. tweeted: whether you actually met him, or not, is irrelevant. Any relationship with Madiba was one of the heart.

La Grange was essentially saying that with Madiba there would be no exclusivity, which means that as a community we have to remind ourselves of the greater whole to which we belong. What Madiba demonstrated to the world, and what we can’t afford to forget, is that he saw us as equals.


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