Thursday, January 14, 2021

Historical lessons from Spanish Flu’s Black October

Spanish Flu emergency ward, 1918.

COVID 19, a virus with a crown of protein spikes, has been categorised by a number of politically dramatic metaphors that have served little purpose in helping us to understand it. For example, Britain’s Health minister saying we are “in a war against an invisible killer”.

Like George Bush in the war on terror, it is a philological absurdity. We are dealing with a medical question, not an army of invaders in military camouflage. No-one can shoot and kill abstract nouns, let alone a highly infectious virus. In this “war”, the response of world leaders has varied from lockdowns to Donald Trump’s, “I see the disinfectant .” 

Since Covid’s unwelcome appearance, social media conspiracy theorists – the one-eyed fundamentalists of our digital age – have run amok on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, becoming epidemiological professors at a mouse-click, and sowing the seeds of mischief and malfeasance wherever they go. 

Recently, a well-cycled WhatsApp asserted that SAAF helicopters were spraying the virus over Mitchell’s Plain. And even if – a big remote if – if Covid 19 was cooked up in some lab in Wuhan or at a Bilderberg Conference, it is not the point right now. Our priority is not to chase the bolted horse, but to deal with what’s left in the stable. 

For indeed, what can’t be posted away by our WhatsApp naysayers is the shock and grief of South Africans who have lost their loved ones. Their tears cannot be wiped away by David Ickes claiming Fauci is a lizard. What the naysayers can’t ignore either, is the exhaustion and stress of doctors, nurses, paramedics and public officials. Their fatigue cannot be lifted by blaming Bill Gates. 

In South Africa, in less than a year, we have recorded over one million positive cases and over 35, 000 deaths. Globally, we have seen near 100 million positive cases and some two million fatalities. These are sobering figures.

However, if we zoom out for a moment and take a wider perspective by travelling back 100 years to the last major worldwide pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, we can spot some interesting parallels to Covid, and perhaps learn a few historical lessons. 

Described as a strain of the avian H1N1 virus, Spanish Flu was said to be “universally deadly”, infecting 500 million (about a third of the world’s population at the time) and killing up to 50 million (10 per cent of the total) in two years. What is staggering is that more people died from Spanish Flu than all the civilians and combatants in World War One combined. 

Whilst the notion of locating a Patient Zero in any pandemic is difficult, it is believed that the first recorded instance of Spanish Flu was in a Kansas military camp. The movement of over 200, 000 troops during the latter stages of World War One from the US to Europe, and the homecoming of infected soldiers, caused a massive spread of the virus. 

The flu earned the moniker “Spanish Flu” because Spain had remained neutral during the war, and unlike the allied countries, did not have wartime media censorship.

Whilst soldiers travelling from different parts of the world fuelled Spanish Flu, the swift spread of Covid a century later is attributed to our high mobility, air travel shrinking the world, and making it fertile ground for viruses to spread rapidly across oceans and continents. 

When the Spanish Flu broke out, the world was ill-prepared. A great war was ending and for those suffering from Spanish Flu’s blistering fevers, nasal haemorrhaging and fluid filled lungs, few pharmaceutical interventions were available. In 1918, there were no anti-virals, no antibiotics, no mechanical ventilators and no flu vaccines. 

The only clinical medication was aspirin, which did more harm than good – as was reported in the Science Daily of 3 October 2009. This was because 30 grammes of aspirin a day was used, as opposed to a safer daily dose. It caused excessive bleeding and what some scientists believe, pulmonary oedema.

What has been common between Spanish Flu and Covid, so far, has been their mutation (scientifically normal), and their waves of super infection. We are well into a second Covid wave, which has proved some 50 percent more infectious than the first. Spanish Flu dropped off after its first summer, but afterwards it mutated, setting off a deadly second wave.

Social measures taken to mitigate the effects of the Spanish Flu were not dissimilar to Covid today: quarantine, mask wearing, hygiene, lockdowns and a restriction on public gatherings. However, their applications like today, were notedly uneven.  

For instance, the New York Health Commissioner ordered businesses to open and to close at staggered times to avoid overcrowding on the subway, but the city fathers of Philadelphia went on to hold a well-attended Liberty Loan Parade on 28 September. 

In 10 days, there were over 1, 000 dead after an estimated 200, 000 infections. In Saint Louis, Missouri, schools and movie theatres were closed and public gatherings banned. Saint Louis went on to have a peak mortality rate that was only 12 percent of Philadelphia’s. 

South Africa was rated as the fifth hardest hit country with regards to the Spanish Flu (and last year we were ranked in the top ten of total Covid infections). According to local historian Howard Philips, in his book In a Time of Plague, Memories of the “Spanish” flu epidemic of 1918 in South Africa, our Spanish flu spread in two waves. 

The first was via the port of Durban where returning troops and auxiliaries disembarked, spreading it to the rest of Natal and the Witwatersrand.  The second was when two ships, also carrying demobilised troops, docked in Cape Town. 

From September to October 1918, 60 percent of the South African population contracted the virus, killing upwards of 200,000 nationwide in six weeks. Philips, using eyewitness accounts, writes that by 7 October the virus had engulfed Cape Town, with dead bodies lying uncovered on pavements from Sea Point into the CBD. An eyewitness, Stan Stone, remembered: 

“It was like a city of the dead, yes – it was awesome (horrible), it was quiet, you’d never hear a horse-and-cart, very, very, few motor cars, and, you know, you’d miss the horses’ hoofs going round and the rumbling of the wheels on these gravel roads. It was really, really bad, very bad…” 

That October, an infamous black south-easter – a chilly, spring wind that brings in dark clouds and squalls of horizontal of rain – raged through the streets of Cape Town. The worst affected in the city, in what came to be known as “Black October”, were the poor – especially its non-white citizens. Nontombi Mawu reported from Ndabeni:

“Somebody coming from somewhere fell dead in the street, but I know that in the houses there were 20 or 30 in one house. And in the morning when you come there early everybody’s dead. During the time … there were no dogs barking, there were no fowls crowing, no trains running, everything was at a standstill. Everything was quiet.”

Not unlike Covid, the Spanish Flu had a “longer version”, characterised by strange symptoms. An account by Edith Goring says that after the flu, apart from a general weakness that endured for weeks on end, it was also was very difficult to remember any simple thing, even for five minutes: 

“People whose temperature was very high for days on end, lost all their hair, two or three months later. Fortunately, it grew again.” 

Phillips notes that one of the outcomes of the flu was nearly one million children being orphaned nationwide, Cape Town experiencing a big increase in street children. Other social factors that arose were quackery (no WhatsApp then), witch hunts and religious fervour, leading to “prophets” and even the establishment of the Zionist church.

Reading through Phillip’s work, and the comments of those affected by the Spanish Flu, it indicates there are critical issues that will have to be addressed beyond the immediate urgencies. This is because most of the survivors of the Spanish Flu appeared to have displayed classic signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – depression , hopelessness and despair. 

Anna Heimbold remembers that after the flu had departed there was “a cloud, a dreadful depression over one all the time”. Popema Mhlungu talks of people just crying.

Some survivors spoke of associations that haunted them for the rest of their days, such as the smell of the fever. Many did not want to remember what had happened.

And as our government moves towards its ambitious programme of vaccinating 40 million people in 2021, healing will definitely not just be in the double jab of a syringe. We will be a broken nation, not only ravaged by the deadly aftermath of the disease and its socio-economic devastation, but by societal PTSD.

Despite the bleakness  now, there is a light in the dark vortex. Had it not been for modern medical science, the death rate from Covid would have been much higher. Vaccines were developed in record time – less than 12 months – when previously two years for vaccine development was the conventional minimum.

At the end of the bumpy Covid journey, many challenges will have to be faced: children without parents, hunger, homelessness, public health, employment, psychological trauma and the realisation that compassion, and not capitalism, will help solve our problems. 

The fact is, that like the Spanish Flu, Covid 19 will leave us. For in 1919, Ted Jones woke up one day and noticed that a white cloth had settled on Table Mountain. The south easter was blowing, but this time – thankfully – it was carrying away the cursed germs.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Seeking a port in a storm: my thoughts on Covid

Rebuilding from Covid's most grievous moments. Copyright Shafiq Morton.

AS someone who has worked in media for 45 years, I have learnt several important lessons. One: life is never predictable. Two: as human beings we have feet of clay, so governments will never be perfect. And three: in the face of adversity, we can be truly heroic, or lamentably corrupt.

These times have certainly brought out the best and the worst in us – the latter being conspiracy-pundits claiming that Covid 19 has been caused by the minions of the Digital World Order, and that we in the media are driving a secret agenda.  

Fueled by YouTube clowns such as Alex Jones, WhatsApp professors, instant Google doctors, conspiratorial trolls and cut-and-paste preachers, the social media world has proved to be as toxic and as viral as Covid itself.

Then there has been the saga of a “mufti alliance” trying to undermine the edicts of the MJC and UUCSA. Apart from deeming us all kafir, their chief contribution to Covid was to embarrass us in the High Court. Claiming (via proxies) that the lockdown was discriminatory, their lawyers bizarrely used secular instruments to try to justify the religious – or was it the other way round?

Admittedly, the lockdowns have been inconsistent at times. But at least we’ve had a government that has tried to save our lives – this juxtaposed against the populist denialism of people such as Trump and Bolsonaro, who have condemned thousands in the Americas to untimely deaths.

Unfortunately, we’ve had our very own Trumps and Bolsonaros. They have cited blind tawakkul as the ultimate panacea to Covid without the prerequisite camel tethering, or applications of intellect. One particular dolt, in a widely distributed WhatsApp posting, even pronounced that he did not wear a mask as his coughing was “not contagious”.

“Everything is due to Allah,” he said, in true Kharijite fashion. And if stricken by Covid, he was confident he would die a martyr – despite his lack of social distancing, his refusal to wear a mask and the potential of him becoming a “super spreader”.

On the other end of the spectrum, a rasping Covid patient, intimately familiar with the ravages of the virus, gave me some simple advice: Shafiq, just keep Covid out of your house! Beware, once it enters your home, you can’t get it out! Indeed, an innocent family function attended by less than 20 – but two of them Covid careless – had seen 10 people positive in less than 48 hours.

I know social distancing is an anathema to us. But life is the supreme motif of the Shari’ah, and if our scholars deem that absenteeism from the mosque or large gatherings in the time of a plague can save lives, then we do it.

Of course, the best in us has been the overwhelming generosity and personal sacrifice of so many people, quietly and unconditionally serving fellow South Africans, be they NGO officials, imams, mosque committees, businesses or individuals. Together with our heroic health workers these people are our backbone, not the reactionary muftis refusing to wear masks.

In the light of all this, I think we can all agree that there is no-one amongst us who has not been affected by Covid. According to Muslim Stats SA in early January, over 1, 500 of us had already fallen to the virus.

For us survivors, insha-Allah, many challenges face us as we deal with the detritus of what is left behind. For us going into an uncertain future, it can no longer be a world for the selfish. It has to be a world for the compassionate.

Neither capitalism (nor our decrepit political parties) will be able to resolve the issues of ongoing rich-poor divides, the socio-economic consequences of Covid and the consistently despoiled environment. What we need is a social contract transcending conventional power relationships, something to systematically transform the post Covid world.

As Muslims, I believe we have the means to play a significant role. But there are many lessons to be learnt first. In his book on European Islam, Travelling Home, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad points to tanfir, the repelling of souls by our repugnant behaviour.

He points out that the paradigmatic word for Islam is “Mercy”, and then asks how many times have we allowed our world view to be governed by excessive anger and fear? If our soul is misshapen by these attributes it will only manifest the unapproachable and extremist ones via stress, discord and ill-controlled desires.

“Nothing is more subversive and obstructive of God’s cause than offering an ugly manifestation of the self and claiming it to be Islamic,” he says.

Tirmidhi reminds us: “Allah loves the beautiful”, and the supreme qualifier is that Islam is of beauty – morally, physically and spiritually. Authentic Muslims love beauty and are people of beauty.

Through this beauty comes the characteristic of wasatiyya, the middle-reasonable way, which must not be confused with capitulation to questionable matters. And through wasatiyya we see the values of hilm, a Prophetic softness again not a weakness – that embodies compassion for the underdog without arrogance, or any sense of ego.

With the means of the heart – and our hearts have to be in “right place” – we can proceed to the Islamic instruments designed to imbue society with equilibrium, and which could significantly reduce poverty post-Covid.  

We might have heard it before, yes, but there can be no more a critical juncture right now than for the long-term benefits of Zakah and Waqf to be realised. The World Bank, for instance, announced in 2016 that the potential reach of Zakah is a trillion dollars per annum.

If this could be invested in the poorest every 12 months without political corruption, it would not take long to reduce the Gini-Co-efficient. Zakah, a pillar of Islam and an act of worship, is linked to another vital mechanism, the Waqf.

Based on a sustainable investment for the benefit of others in the name of Allah, the Awqaf were so efficient in the Ottoman era that the Caliph in Istanbul had no municipal accounts – everything from water supplies, to schools, to mosques and roads to street lamps were run by self-sustaining Awqaf Trusts.

We could argue that the ideal was reached when there were Awqaf even for the stray cats of the city and for the man “who leaned against the pillar in the mosque”.

And this is where the good, reinforced by our beauty of outlook and hilm, should surely emerge…imagine the day when there could be Awqaf dedicated to the homeless in our cities, the hungry, the orphans and our schools with a continuous stream of Zakah transforming the lives of the most vulnerable.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Shaykh Seraj Hendricks: tribute to a dear friend

THIS is the one obituary I have never wanted to write, that of Shaykh Seraj Hendricks al-Marhum, my closest friend, my teacher and my confidante. I was three years older than him, and I was supposed to pass on before him – but as we always say, Allah knows best.

We became close friends 31 years ago. The Shaykh, then just in his post-Afro-bell-bottom days, was studying to be an ‘alim at Umm ul-Qura’ University in Makkah and sitting at the feet of the great sage, Sayyid Muhammad ‘Alawi al-Maliki. I was a long-haired surfer, photojournalist, magazine editor and eclectic activist.

I was introduced to him by my late wife, Nur, who was his first cousin, and who had grown up in the Azzawia in Walmer Estate, Cape Town, with him. She was his first cousin. He was the nephew of my late father-in-law, Shaykh Ebrahim Hendricks.

Nur always referred to her cousin as “Serajie”, and later as “die Shegh” (the Shaykh).
She would blow into the room and ask him: “hoevaar die Shegh?” (How is the Shaykh?) And he would laugh, and say, “niggie, djy is altyd stout, maar gee my ‘n soentjie.” (My dear cousin, you are always naughty, but come and greet me).

I met Shaykh Seraj for the first time, in the late 1980s, after he had come back to Cape Town for the annual summer recess. In those days, he was staying in Salt River at the house of his late father-in-law, Boeta “Rashiedjie” Abrahams, one of the Azzawia’s imams.

People must have thought us an odd couple. Here was a Shaykh-to-be, imbued with Fiqh and Tasawwuf reflecting a classical tradition, and a salt-stained nobody filled with the stuff of nonsense. But we seemed to click, and I certainly met my match in debate, something we would do for hours on end.

Shaykh Seraj was the one person who had read more books than me. And as his intellectual inferior, I have to confess I was always amazed at how effortlessly, he could bat my philosophical googlies away. He would stylishly out-quote me, and like Brian Lara in his prime, dispatch my argument to the ropes.

Whilst a passion for Deen was our rallying point, our love of literature, the arts and the esoteric was our academic playground. I would come in with ideas about UFOs, he would counter with theories on jinn; I would come in with words of Omar Khayyam and he would quote me Shakespeare or Imam Ghazali.

We were both obsessive about history, and he actively supported my writings on Makkah, Palestine and Tuan Guru – as he supported so many others in their creative endeavours over the years.

As a friend, I tried many times to get the Shaykh to surf, as he tried to get me into computer gaming (one of his recreational passions). He got me as far as admiring the graphics of Warcraft, and I got him as far as fish and chips.

Over the years, we found ourselves sharing many projects and experiences: the United Democratic Front anti-apartheid movement, Voice of the Cape, Dome Publications, the Islamic Unity Conference in Washington, the Imam Ghazali Conference in Cape Town, the soap operas of Muslim Personal Law, the politics of the lunar calendar, TV productions and the hosting of international guests.

However, ours was a friendship that could never be a selfish, or exclusive one. He was an important public figure, a community leader – and he had to be a man for all people at all times.

And although I was in the public eye too (for more frivolous reasons), I could see from a bird’s eye view that people really looked up to him. In three decades, I never saw him giving anything less than 100 per cent in whatever he did.

As media colleague, Mahmood Sanglay, so aptly puts it: “…he always displayed compassion, humility and a genuine recognition of the humanity of the other.”

In other words, his warmth of welcome would transcend the artificial, stilted social mores usually associated with figures of status. He would foreground his own weaknesses in showing himself to others in a rare combination of humble heart and superior intellect.

What I so admired about my dear friend was this bigheartedness. He would so often interrupt his own lectures to acknowledge those sitting in front of him, and lavishly praise their qualities before his.

If the Shaykh had a weakness, it was his inability to say “no” and his inborn innocence about the goodness of human nature. He loved people unconditionally, but there were admittedly times when the demands would become too much, and it would seriously affect his health.

I harbour strong feelings about the “commoditisation”, or exploitation, of scholars such as Shaykh Seraj. I would see this happening at the hands of agenda driven people, and express my concerns, but the Shaykh – despite the inevitable knocks – had too many good thoughts to ever listen to me, a cynical journalist.

As I write, still numb at his passing, I realise just how much I will miss my dearest friend. I will miss the tea we would have after the Tuesday classes, the random discussions we would have from Terrabytes to Tawhid – and of course – the banter at the Friday lunch table.

It reminds me that our friendship was about laughter, aspiration, hope and good things. It was about our families, about the future, the things we still had to do.

What I console myself with is that the name “Seraj” means a “lamp”. My dear friend, Shaykh Seraj, was a lamp – not only just for me – but unselfishly for the thousands of people whose hearts he so lovingly touched.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Rohingya, the world’s most persecuted minority

WHEN Islam first arrived in this ancient region, called “Burma” under the British and “Myanmar” after 1989, is difficult to determine. With China to the north, India and Bangladesh to the northwest and Thailand to the east and south, Myanmar faces west into the Andaman Sea.

The name “Burma” is a British colonial construct for a country that was plundered for its natural wealth. British rule lasted from 1824 to 1948, from the Anglo-Burmese Wars to the creation of Burma as a province of British India, to the establishment of an independently administered colony, and then finally, to independence in 1948.

The locals called their country “myanma naing ngan”, the lexical source of the name Myanmar. The British imperial tongue stumbled over these words and adopted Burma, naming the country Burma in honour of the Burmans, the dominant ethnic group.

From the earliest times, Myanmar was known to seafarers from Persia, Arabia, India, China and Indonesia. It was renowned for its rubies, sapphire, jade, teak and rice. It was also part of the overland silk route from India to China. The earliest archaeological evidence suggests civilisations existed in Myanmar as early as 11,000 BCE.

It is along these sea routes and overland passes that not only trade, but culture and faith travelled. The old Arakan Kingdom, which is our focus, hugs the western coastline as a long finger of land, abutting Bangladesh in the northwest. The region is divided from Burma by a range of mountains, the Arakan Yomas.

The people of Arakan are known as Rakhine, or Rohingya, with Arakan annexed to British India in 1826. Researchers say the name “Rohingya” (as well as “Rakhine”) is probably derived from “Rohingyahang”, an ancient name for Arakan.

The Rohingya hail from the Rakhine State, Arakan, which in pre-colonial times was a distinct region, sometimes one kingdom and sometimes several kingdoms. They were either ruled by Buddhist potentates, Hindu kings, Muslim Sultans, or hybrid Muslim-Buddhist courts.

Complex history

The history of the region is complex, convoluted and very often layered with multi-ethnic and multi-faith narratives. The Rohingya are an intimate part of this diverse tapestry, a colourful human tapestry in Myanmar which has 135 different ethnic groups in a population of about 55 million.

Some sources claim that the first Muslim in Myanmar was Muhammad ibn Hanafiyya, a son of Sayyidina ‘Ali, one of the Righteous Caliphs who ruled after the demise of the Prophet.

According to legends he converted a cannibal queen, Kaiyapuri, to Islam and married her.
The most enduring narrative is that from the 8th century onwards, Muslim seafarers settled along the coast, marrying into local communities. This thesis coincides with how Islam arrived in the China Seas, spreading to northern Sumatra and mainland China.

To the maritime Arabs and Persians, the coastal regions of Arakan en route to the Malacca Straits, would have been well known.

Other sources maintain that the very first Muslims to be mentioned in the Myanmar chronicles, the Maha Rajaweng, were the two sons of an Arab merchant, Byat Wi and Byat Ta, in 1050 CE. The second mention in the chronicles is Yaman Khan, or Rahman Khan, from the days of King Sawlu (1077-1088), who succeeded his father Anawrahta to the throne. Anawrahta, the first king of Myanmar, introduced Theravada Buddhism.

It propagated four noble truths: that existence itself was suffering; that suffering had a cause in earthly attachment; that there was a cessation of this suffering by striving; and that there was a path to success by achieving nirvana, or cosmic harmony.

Anawrahta’s capital on the Irrawaddy River became a prominent city of pagodas and temples. Interestingly, Anawrahta appointed a Muslim-Arab scholar as a royal teacher to his son, Prince Sawlu. When Prince Sawlu became king, he appointed the son of his teacher as well as his childhood friend, Yaman Khan, as governor of the city of Pegu.

This cultural intimacy between Buddhism and Islam from the earliest days is something forgotten in the contemporary xenophobic narrative of the Rohingya, which has been marred by the ultra-nationalism of the current Myanmar state; a sugar-coated junta which claims the Rohingya belong to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Ironically, it is this very same junta that makes a Freudian slip when one of its official publications, Sasana Ronwas Htunzepho, published in 1997 says, “Islam spread and was deeply rooted in Arakan (the Rakhine Rohingyan state) since the 8th century from where it further spread into the interior of Burma.”

An example of this is the old city of Mrauk U, which literally means “monkey’s egg”. It is a sleepy town today, but for 355 years, was the seat of the Arakan Empire where Portuguese, Dutch and French traders rubbed shoulders with the literati of Bengal and Indian Mughal princes. It was part of the Bengal sultanate from 1430-1531.

At its peak, Mrauk U controlled half of Bangladesh, Arakan and the western part of lower Myanmar. Buddhist pagodas, Hindu temples and mosques were built as the city grew. In fact, the golden city of Mrauk U became known in Europe as a centre of oriental splendour.

Buddhist rulers style themselves after the Sultans

Historians note that the Buddhist rulers, who took power after 1531, styled themselves after the Sultans, even giving themselves Islamic titles such as “Shah”, and hiring Muslim civil servants. They adopted the conical Sufi hats of Isfahan and Delhi. They also minted coins inscribing the kalimah in Persian and Arabic calligraphy.

The Mandalay academic, Dr Ko Ko Gyi, says, “This was because they (the Arakanese kings) not only wished to be thought of as sultans in their own rights, but also because there were Muslims in ever larger numbers among their subjects.”

Indeed, there were large scale conversions of Buddhists to Islam from the 15th to 18th centuries, with the Mughals taking over Arakan in 1665. Later, when the Dutch were ordered by the Mughals to quit Arakan, they were afraid of leaving behind the children they’d had with local women, horrified at the idea of them becoming Muslim.

Once a sovereign and independent entity, and geographically and historically cut off from the rest of the country, these facts explain the distinctly separate development of Arakan in terms of its Muslim population. This until the Burmese king, Bodaw Paya, conquered and looted it on 28th December 1784, taking its regent and 20,000 captives.

Thousands of Arakanese Muslims and Buddhists were put to death. 30, 000 Burmese soldiers destroyed mosques, temples, shrines, seminaries and libraries. The fall of the Mrauk-U Empire was a mortal blow to the Muslims, for everything Islamic in it was razed to the ground.

In 1790, Hiram Cox, a British diplomat sent to assist Arakan, or Rohingya, refugees established the town of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. This is where many Rohingya still live today, and where there is the biggest Rohingyan refugee camp in the world with nearly one million inhabitants.

Bodaw Paya’s disruption would seal the modern-day fate of Arakan and shape Myanmar’s jaundiced perceptions of the Muslim minority. Michael Symes, the British representative at Bodaw Paya’s court, described him as “a child in his ideas, a tyrant in his principles, and a madman in his actions”.

Bodaw Paya was an extremist Buddhist who had proclaimed himself a messianic figure. He even persecuted other Buddhist sects, deeming the Buddhist sins of drinking, smoking opium and killing animals punishable by death. His reign was so oppressive that in 1794 the people of Arakan rose up against him.

When Bodaw Paya sent an army to crush the revolt, thousands of refugees fled from Arakan into British territory. Conditions on the Arakan border became so unsettled that in 1795 the British had to send a representative to negotiate with Bodaw Paya. By 1826, the British had annexed Arakan to colonial Burma.

1942 Burmese nationalists slaughter Muslims and Buddhists

In 1942, during the Second World War, Japan invaded Myanmar. As the British retreated, Burmese nationalists attacked Muslim and Buddhist communities in Arakan whom they thought had benefited from British colonial rule. 40,000 Rohingya and 20,000 Arakan Buddhists were slaughtered

Britain liberated Myanmar from Japanese occupation with the help of Burmese nationalists and Rohingya fighters in 1945. The British recognised the Rohingya Muslims as a distinct racial group, and promised them autonomy in North Arakan. However, the British didn’t fulfil their promise.

In 1948 tensions increased between the government of newly independent Burma and the Rohingya, many of whom wanted Arakan to join Pakistan. The government retaliated by ostracizing the Rohingya, including the removal of Rohingyan civil servants from their posts.

Prior to 1962, and the socialist era, the government tried to appease Rohingyan aspirations of autonomy with limited Arakan nationhood. This came against a background of armed resistance led by the Mujahid movement and the former Qawali singer, Jafar Kawal.

After the military coup of March 1962, the military regime led by General Ne Win, cancelled plans to grant Arakan statehood. In February 1963, the regime nationalised all commercial enterprises. In Arakan, most of the business establishments were in the hands of the Rohingya Muslims.

If that wasn’t enough, in 1964 Rohingyan welfare organisations were banned. In 1965, the military regime banned the Rohingyan language from the airwaves. In 1974, the Peoples’ Congress ratified Arakan as the Rakhine State. It was now controlled by a Buddhist majority with the Rohingya marginalised.

The discrimination against the Rohingya is best explained by the military junta systematically – and cynically – stoking the fears of the demise of Buddhism (89% of the population compared to Muslims being 4%), and the break-up of the nation due to Islamic insurgency. This was done to cultivate loyalty in a population resentful of unpopular junta policies. 

The narrative that Myanmar needs to protect Buddhism from Islam is a cheap and tawdry nationalism that has persisted for over a century. And as with so many dictatorships, 911 would prove to be a boon for Myanmar’s junta, which in the name of fighting “Islamic terror” could justify its human rights abuses.

Operation King Dragon 1978

The fact is that by the 1970s the Rohingya, the straw dogs of Burmese nationalism, had already become victims of state-sponsored terror. During “Operation King Dragon” in 1978, military forces targeted the Rohingya, and were accused of mass detentions, rape, and the burning of villages. 300,000 people fled to nearby Bangladesh.

In 1982, the Rohingya were denied citizenship under the Myanmar Nationality Law. The junta’s apartheid was entrenched by imposing severe restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice and freedom of movement.

In 1991, another targeted campaign, “Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation,” ostensibly directed at squashing the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, pushed another 200,000 people out of the country. These pogroms, now acknowledged as genocide, were to happen again (post 911) in 2012, 2015, 2016, and would come to an ugly head in 2017.

Space precludes a detailed examination of the horrors of the consistent Myanmar pogroms, but on 25 August 2017 a group of young men from a small resistance movement, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked a military barracks with knives and home-made bombs. In the attack, they killed 12 security force officials.

International think tanks have alleged that ARSA has Saudi roots, but its spokesman told the Asia Times in 2017 that it had no so-called jihadi links, and was a bona fide resistance movement.

Response to the attacks was regarded by the UN as grossly disproportionate to the actual security threats posed. Nearly 300 villages were razed to the ground. This violence, set off by the military, was accompanied by mass killings, rapes and torture. An estimated 3,000 Rohingya perished, which caused a migration of 700,000 people.

In a 2018 report, the UN cited six senior military figures for possible genocide, naming commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. The UN, which has always been circumspect about using the word “genocide”, used it in its report.

Since the 2000s there have been two key personalities complicit in the Rohingya genocide. The first is an extremist Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who on the cover of Time Magazine of 1 July 2013, was described as “The Face of Buddhist Terror”.

He is a member of the 969 group, an ultra-nationalist movement opposed to what it sees as Islam’s unwelcome expansion in Buddhist Myanmar. Banned on Facebook, Wirathu is a leader of the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, commonly known by its Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha.

The Baghdadi of Buddhism, Wirathu has coloured his preaching by stoking up Islamaphobic hate. For Wirathu it is the simple equation of Rohingya swartgevaar, of a Saudi-backed Bangladeshi insurgency, whose sole purpose is to destroy Buddhism and establish a caliphate.

In January 2015, he publicly called UN envoy Yanghee Lee a “bitch” and a “whore” and invited her to offer her “arse to the kalars” (a derogatory term for Rohingya).  Of Muslims, he once said, “You cannot sleep next to a mad dog…”

Aung San Suu Kyi

He also called Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s political leader, a “prostitute”. He has also accused her political party, the National League for Democracy, of secretly supporting a Muslim agenda. He has also said if Myanmar officials are brought to book he will be holding a gun, something totally against Theravada Buddhism.

The state has slapped him on the wrist, even suggesting sedition charges be laid against him for insulting Aung San Suu Kyi, but he remains at large with the monastic authorities also seemingly unable to curb him.

The most disappointing figure by far is Aung San Suu Kyi, the former human rights activist and peace advocate, who whilst under house arrest in Rangoon, received the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

Once idolised by millions around the globe, she has proved to be hugely remiss and beholden to the junta on the Rohingya question since her election victory of 2015. Her fall from grace has been spectacular. By August last year, she had been stripped of no less than seven international awards.

As Myanmar’s leading public figure, she has an angered and infuriated the international community on her reluctance to seriously acknowledge the crisis, which sees the Rohingya as the most persecuted minority on earth. Sadly, most of the world’s leaders – eyeing prime jade and teak – have been unforgivably and equally mute as her on Myanmar’s genocide pogrom, the worst since the Nazi Holocaust of World War II.

The article first appeared in the Habibia Diary 2020.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Azzawia Mawlud : feeling happy for the Prophet is faith

IT is strange that the late Mufti Bin Baz’s fatwa forbidding the celebration of the mawlud is seen by some as the only edict on the matter. This is strange because there are literally hundreds of legal opinions that differ with him on the permissibility of remembering the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.

Yet, bizarrely, Bin Baz’s solitary view is often seen as Islam itself.

These were the words of Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks, an imam at the Azzawia mosque in Cape Town, where mawlud was first observed on its premises in 1920 by his grand-father, Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks. Shaykh Muhammad Salih, who passed on in 1945, introduced the Barzanji mawlud, which he brought from Zanzibar, where he spent a year as its chief Qadi, or judge, in 1903. 

To feel happiness at the birth of the Prophet, said Shaykh Ahmad, was a part of Shari’ah, or Sacred Law. It was endorsed by Ibn Taymiyya, who affirmed that people celebrated the mawlud out of joy for the Prophet. Joy at the birth of Muhammad (pbuh) was, therefore, permissible.

He added that this was borne out by the experience of one of the Prophet’s uncles, Abu Lahab. In a validated tradition, it is recorded that Abu Lahab – who became one of the Prophet’s worst enemies – is granted temporary respite from the flames of hell due to his celebrating his nephew’s birth, which he did by freeing a slave girl, Thuwaybah.

We are not given to insulting people, stated Shaykh Ahmad, but based on this single Hadith alone, one would have to doubt the faith of anyone who was not happy about the birth of the blessed Prophet (pbuh).

This was further corroborated by the Messenger of God informing his Companions he fasted every Monday. Why? Because Monday was the day he was born. This is clear proof that the Prophet (pbuh) celebrated his own birthday.

That was the underlying principle: the Prophet (pbuh) celebrated his birthday. How could there be any other interpretation? This could not mean that remembering birthdays was forbidden.

Leading from this, continued the Shaykh, was an accepted notion that the Prophet’s voluntary fasting commemorating his birthday could be replaced by other praiseworthy devotion – such as sadaqah (voluntary charity), salawat (citation of blessings on the Prophet) and dhikr (remembering God) – without contravening the Shari’ah.

Furthermore, due to the Prophet fasting throughout the year, there was the explicit social benefit that mawlud could be commemorated at any time, from the month of  Muharram right through to Dhul Hijjah, and not just be confined to Rabi ul-Awwal, the month of his noble birth.

Quoting the famous scholar, Imam Hajr al-Asqalani, Shaykh Ahmad said that the Prophet (pbuh) also commemorated historical events. For example, the fast of the Jews on Ashura, in remembrance of their liberation from the Pharaoh, inspired the Prophet to recommend that Muslims fast during the first ten days of Muharram, which marks the beginning of lunar New Year.

As for those who patronisingly accuse us of mimicking Jewish or Christian customs: we fully respect their festivities, but the truth is that we act on our own principles and beliefs, he said.

Shaykh Ahmad continued that the Holy Qur’an has ordered us to be happy with Allah’s Mercies, with the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – the first light of His Creation being the first one created by God and the last one sent by God.

As the Qur’an states, “(O Muhammad)…have we not sent you except as a Mercy to the all the Worlds”. Surely this was proof enough to celebrate his existence?

In another instance, Allah calls the Prophet a prophet of “deep caring and mercy” in the most praiseworthy language possible, in terms not used for any other prophet, at the end of Surat ul-Tawbah (the Chapter of Repentance and Return).

Therefore, it is highly recommended to show happiness at the life of the Prophet.

Shaykh Ahmad stated that Surat ul-Hujjarat, an excellent chapter on outlining noble human conduct, also ordered us to honour the Prophet (pbuh). For instance, we are told: “Do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet…”

Then there was the verse exhorting us to perform salawat, the constant citation of peace and blessings upon the Prophet, as practiced by the Angels.

Shaykh Ahmad went on to say that naysayers would often evoke the idea that because the Prophet did not practice something in his lifetime, it would not be permissible after his lifetime. This was a fallacious argument, and not one accepted by any credible faqih, or legal scholar.

Besides, if this principle were to be applied, on one level we would still be riding donkeys and praying in mosques without loudspeakers. On another, we would not be able to practice the tarawih prayers during Ramadan, for instance, regarded by Sayyidina ‘Umar, as a “bida’h hasanah”, an acceptable innovation in Islam.

Nor for that matter, would we be reading the current version of the Qur’an, its sections gathered together after the Prophet’s earthly demise.

Furthermore, the notion that if the Prophet left off something it became forbidden, was as equally fallacious as the idea that if he didn’t practice something in his life it became unlawful. Shaykh Ahmad recalled the incident when the Prophet refused to eat roasted lizard. When quizzed by his Companions, he replied that he didn’t eat it because it wasn’t to his taste, not because it was haram.

Shaykh Ahmad said that the practice of the mawlud was regarded as a bida’h, yes, but a bida’h hasanah. It was a permissible practice for whom the innovator of a “new Sunnah” would get a due reward from the Divine for its benefits to others.

So what do we do on the mawlud?  We make salawat, the citation of peace and blessings upon the Prophet, said Shaykh Ahmad, adding that salawat was an integral to forgiveness and invocation, and that the Prophet himself had said that a person who did not make salawat was a spiritual miser.

All the mawlud kitabs reminded us of the Prophet; they reminded us in soaring verses about his life and his qualities. So how could they be haram?

We should imbue the values of the Prophet (pbuh) by getting as close to him as possible by remembering his qualities, his life, his miracles and his mercies. This should inspire us to strive to do our best for mankind; to do this without anger, arrogance or aggression, but by being humble and compassionate.

For this reason, every component of the mawlud is Deen, the practice of our faith. What protects us from the fitnah, the great mischief, of our times is our love and link to the Prophet (pbuh). We should make the salawat repeatedly until the very essence of the most merciful of mankind takes root in our souls, said Shaykh Ahmad.

Preparing for the mawlud.

Perfuming the Zawiyya with buhur.

King Protea for the best of mankind.

Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks addresses the occasion.

Listening attentively.
Reciting verses on the Prophet (pbuh).

Photos copyright Shafiq Morton