Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Faith of Interfaith

Muslims and Christians worked together against Apartheid.
Bishop Desmond Tutu and Shaikh Nazeem Mohamed, 1989.

THE other day a listener rebuked me on the station’s SMS line for expressing disgust that a local nashid group had been pulled off stage at a festival in Gauteng, in spite of the group having a contract from a Muslim impresario to perform at the event.

Apparently it was the old chestnut of music being forbidden, and some Mother Grundy’s raising enough of a ruckus to intimidate the event organisers into cancelling the performance.

However, the SMS message bearer had tackled me on another matter: didn’t I know, he said in the way of conspiracy, that these people (the nashid group) encouraged inter-faith marriages?  Didn’t I know that I was associating with haraam?

I must admit that I was perturbed, not about the personal criticism, but rather the gross insensitivity of the comment. The nashid group’s vocalist’s wife – a classical musician of international renown – has a Christian name, and I felt that the SMS was in extraordinary bad taste.

I can vouch for this person’s integrity and could only assume that the message bearer had, for some reason, been too angry to reason with himself. Had he realised, that as he had hammered out his SMS, how harsh and hostile his words were?

I feel I have to rebuke my detractor, not only on the issue of his rank bad manners, but on the fact that I’ve seen the nashid group’s subtle arrangements soften many hearts towards Allah – many more than those who scream haraam in SMS’s.  

One just has to wonder when we’ll fully realise the impact of such outbursts; unconsidered statements that ignore the vast body of Islamic studies on the issues concerned. It’s precisely this narrow-mindedness  that gives fruit to Islamophobic stereotype.

Part of the SMS correspondent’s beef could also have been that the nashid group has performed on interfaith platforms, another issue that gets up the noses of our ghetto Orientalists. For them interfaith is a necessary evil at best, and a crisis of unbelief at worst.

I always think it’s a great pity that our contemporary ills of ignorance and fundamentalism have blinded us to the inclusive – as opposed to exclusive – compassion of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), and the fact that he is, as Qur’an says, “a mercy for all …”.   

This is further reinforced by the Qur’anic verses that are preceded by: “O mankind!” This imperative is a Merciful God talking to all of humanity, a human collective that He loves. His concern is for everybody, for all living beings.

And this is why I would venture that Islam is logically a faith of interfaith. Jibril, the Messenger Angel, carried the message of the Divine Pen to a prophet called Muhammad (SAW) for all peoples, for all beings and for all times. 

In fact, the historical evidence is so overwhelming that Islam is a Deen – a way of being that acknowledges the cross-pollination of Adam, Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Jesus (as)  – that to deny it would be foolish.

Those who so loudly disparage interfaith need to remind find themselves, that on serious investigation, they will find themselves from the DNA of those who embraced Islam from other cultures and beliefs.

Madinah, the city to which the Prophet (SAW) migrated to escape Quraish oppression in Makkah, became the classical locus of faith drawing numbers into Islam from interfaith. For if people of other faiths had not embraced the Deen at the at the hands of the Prophet (SAW), there would have been no Islam.

Even before then, interfaith interaction had come into play. A group of Muslims had fled to Abyssinia where a Christian king, the Negus, had sheltered them. And the great Sayyidina ‘Umar, destined to be a Caliph, had been a polytheist when he’d set out to confront the Prophet (SAW).

If there’d been no interfaith tolerance in Madinah the Prophet (SAW) would not have attracted giants of Islam such as Suhail the Roman (a polytheist), Salman al-Farsi (a Persian Zoroastrian) and Ka’b al-Ahbar (an Arab Jew).

Even Islam’s concept of communal endowment, or waqf, has its origins in interfaith association. The Rabbi Mukhairiq from the Tha’alaba tribe, who fought with the Muslims at Uhud, made the Prophet (SAW) his heir. He died in battle and his property was made waqf.

Tamim ad-Dari, who as a Christian on his way to Madinah sold his camel to buy seven lamps for the mosque, was granted the lands of Hebron. Ad-Dari, who became Muslim, was only one of a handful of scholars (together with Imam Abu Hanifah) who could recite the 114 chapters of the Qur’an in one prayer cycle.

The point is that the Prophet (SAW) never spurned anyone who sought his company, dining at the tables of Christians and Jews, meeting their delegations and discussing important matters with them. A pillar in Madinah’s mosque, the Pillar of the Delegates, even commemorates this.

The Prophet (SAW) also married women of other faiths. How many of us remember that the Prophet’s (SAW) wife, Safiyyah, was a Jewess and that his son Ibrahim was born to Maria the Copt?

This supports the injunction that Muslim men can marry women of the Torah and Gospel. Arguing the greater sanctity of previous eras to oppose this, as some do, is baseless nonsense.

Of course, there will be those who will argue that the Qur’an warns about association and describes, in detail, the categories of those who try to subvert belief. But that is not to understand the specificity (khass) of those verses, which deal expressly with those who are antagonistic.

That is why Islam was the first civilisation to develop legislation dealing with the rights of those minorities under rule its rule. These people, the dhimmi, would enjoy the rights to worship, the rights to property and the rights to be self-governed on matters such as marriage and inheritance.

But to decry and debase those who are friendly to us, as my SMS critic has done through his misguided anger, is to deny our very own humanity. Those not hostile to Islam, as the Prophet (SAW) showed throughout his life, have to enjoy dignity and honour.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

On the Wings of an Angel

The horizons to which Jibril's wings stretched on the night of the Revelation.

JABL NUR – the Mount of Light on which the Rasullulah (SAW) received his first Revelation on 27 Ramadan – is a sweaty climb for the modern pilgrim. For the hardy Arabs of the pre-Islamic Hijaz, it was a gentle walk.

Before Islam, Ramadan was not a holy month. But it was when the Quraish would practice tahannuth, a spiritual retreat. The Makkan patriarch, Abdul Muttalib, used to practice tahannuth. It is presumed that his grandson, Muhammad (SAW), learnt it from him.

Climbing this noble mountain in the early dawn light there is a breathless silence that blankets the landscape. It’s this awe-inspiring emptiness that was the grist for Islam’s first words.

As one stands on Jabl Nur’s topmost peak, the grand design becomes apparent. Below, the Cave of Hira – where the Prophet (SAW) would seclude himself – seems to have been the result of the mountain praying:

“O Allah, one day I will host a great Prophet. Please Allah; allow my rocks to crack open and shelter him.”

So merciful was this “natural” occurrence that one rock fell to provide a bench, upon which the Prophet (SAW) must have sat.

As the vista lightens, and the sun rises over Makkah’s wrinkled peaks and valleys, the enormity of the first Revelation takes shape. One can see from horizon to horizon, and it’s to these horizons that Jibril’s wings extended when he showed himself to the Prophet (SAW).

It’s a truly enchanting moment, when the pilgrim – rewarded for his effort – feels as if he’s sitting on the wings of an Angel.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dr Ya'qub Jaffer - a Tribute

Dr Jaffer (left). Photo: 'Adil Bradlow.

WE all knew him as “Doctor” but he was a Shaikh of the Qadiriyyah Sufi Order in a written chain (which I have in my possession) extending from Madinah to India.

I first met “Doctor” Ya’qub Jaffer of Claremont in the turbulent 1980’s when I embraced Islam at the hands of Imam Sepp, the imam of Al-Jamia’ in Stegmann Road.

I was introduced to him by journalist colleague, ‘Adil Bradlow. Doctor Jaffer took us “wild kids” under his wings, and welcomed us into the fold of his family. In an era of great turmoil he became a spiritual beacon, especially when the security police tried to detain me in 1985.

A soft-spoken man of great serenity, I can still remember having to lean over to listen to Doctor Jaffer whenever he talked. In the 27 years I knew him I never heard him raise his voice.

He was the living epitome of a Sufi. Absolutely humble and self-demeaning, he actively reflected tasawwuf’s values of peace, devotion and adherence to Shari’ah. He was always praying, reading Qur’an, fasting or making dhikr. Even in company he would slip away to his prayer room.

He taught me through example just how important things such as good conduct, or adab, were. He worked, with great patience and gentle humour, at my abundant and obvious weaknesses. He taught us how to make dhikr (chant the names of Allah), and when family tragedy struck, showed us what sabr (forbearance) was.

There are so many things I remember about him. He used to love telling us the story of Nabi Musa (AS) and Al-Khidr from Surat al-Kahf. I can recall him telling me about his experiences of making tawaf around the Ka’bah in the rain – regarded as a great blessing.

Doctor Jaffer was a master of understatement, and with a simple gesture could say a lot of things. I remember his son, Goolam, telling me that one day he was driving his father, who was passing the time by reading Qur’an.

The radio came on and I was narrating an episode of the series, Notebooks from Makkah and Madinah. The reading ended with the verses from Surat ul-Waqi’ah. Doctor Jaffer’s response was to catch Goolam’s eye and to point at his Qur’an – and to communicate without saying a single word that he’d been reading the exact same verses!

Perhaps the most profound thing I learnt from Doctor Jaffer was that even in dire straits, Islam was about life, and about hope. One day he quoted: “inna ma’l yusran, (verily with very difficulty there is relief…”
“A Muslim can never lose,” he explained.

Oppressors could crush as many people as they wanted, but they wouldn’t ever be able to crush the soul. Those who killed, tortured and maimed Muslims would have their souls crushed in the grave, whilst those persecuted would enjoy eternal bliss.

As a teacher of the Deen, the Doctor – behind his gentleness – was strict. Every word had to be in place. I will never forget his imaginative advice about the shadda – the double consonant – in the word “Muhammad”.

“Say the double m in the Rasullulah’s name (SAW) as if it’s a kiss,” he said, “in that way you’ll always remember to love the Prophet (SAW).”

In my life I’ve been privileged to sit under the feet of numerous scholars, but I will always remember – and honour – Doctor Jaffer as my first master. I can hear his fatherly words as if it was yesterday, and I pray for him to be granted the heavenly mansion that he so rightly deserves.

Dr Ya'qub Jaffer passed away earlier this year.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ashley Kriel 25 years on: will SA youth rise up?

Anton Frans funeral, 1989. Another Cape Flats hero.
Pic Shafiq Morton
THE other day I was asked in a radio interview whether South African youth, frustrated by lack of opportunity and the politics of party privilege, would ever rise up against authority like the generations of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

It was an interesting question, asked against the background of the 25th anniversary of the killing of the iconic Cape Flats anti-apartheid activist, Ashley Kriel, in 1987 by a security policeman.

There was no easy answer, I replied. Youth is a big question. 50% of the world’s population today is under 25, and in South Africa that figure is just over 40%. South Africa was little different to other African countries, where the highest unemployment statistics were between those of 20-35-years of age.

I was asked whether this would not lead to a festering sense of malcontent amongst young South Africans?

Again I replied that there was no simple answer. A recent study by the Gordon Institute of Business Science in June this year had revealed that 74% of Grade 11 and 12 learners felt our country was a good place to have a career.

Interestingly, the same figure in the sample (over 2,000) believed that business had more power than government, but that improvements in the country would come mostly through the state. The survey revealed great optimism amongst our youth and that they understood well the dynamics of South African society.

This applied equally to the generation of Ashley Kriel, I added.  In spite of apartheid’s masters doing their best to dumb down social awareness, the youth of the 70’s and 80’s had not been fooled. They had been as overwhelmingly optimistic and focused about toppling PW Botha’s government, as the class of 2012 was about getting a job.

But for young South Africans today, things such as the State of Emergency are the fireside yarns of their grandparents – a pre-digital era of black-and-white pictures, long hair and Casspirs in smoky townships.

Our youth know that apartheid was bad, but as the struggle generation I think we have to accept that history has moved on. The young political lens of the 2000’s is not quite the same as ours. An IDASA study, for example, reveals that our youth are more driven by civil society and cause awareness, than that of a party.

Young South Africans of the 2000’s still face serious social issues, but they have changed shape. Indeed, for them the struggle does continue, and they have picked up the baton: but now the struggle is against AIDS, drug addiction and crime; it continues for jobs, for education and for security.

Of course, this does not diminish in any way the memory of people like Ashley Kriel. They gave their lives at a very turbulent time in our history. And if it hadn’t been for the courage and commitment of our Ashley Kriel’s, we would not have gone to the polls in 1994.

Youth Day on June 16 quite rightly celebrates the contribution of youth to the South African struggle. What we must not forget is that Africa’s most powerful military force of the day was confronted in the 1970’s and 1980’s by unarmed young people.

It was the youth who re-energised the political movements in exile after 1976 and 1985. And one can only wonder what great things could have happened to young leaders such as Steve Biko, Ahmed Timol and Mathew Goniwe, had they not been murdered by their interrogators.

Ashley Kriel was only 20 years old when he died at the hands of Warrant Officer Benzien in Athlone. A member of the military wing of the ANC, the Umkhonto we-Sizwe, he came from a poor family. It is no doubt that this informed his aspirations, as it did so many like him.

But back to the original question about today’s youth: I commented that if South African youth were to rise up against their elders, the dissidents would most likely come from the ranks of those most affected by the burning, unresolved issues of the day.

It would certainly not be the Malema’s, street-wise but already tainted by entitlement, and nor would it be the Mazibuko’s, well-meant but marked with privilege.  No, it would be the Ashley Kriel’s, the Andries Tatane’s and the forgotten poor.

Of course, no-one is touting the idea that a youth uprising is imminent in this country.  But I do think if the question has been asked, we must be attentive.  

Policy “wars” on abstract nouns such as “poverty”, “crime”, “education” and “joblessness” are well-intended. But intention alone without meaningful  engagement doesn’t enter you into university, get you a job, find you start-up funding for your small business or buy you a house.

Possessing precocious survival talents, the young under-class of South Africa know that we have been better at collecting taxes than spending them on the poor. They know that our much-vaunted transition has been unevenly successful, and that without skills, affirmative action is meaningless.

Young South Africans – such as Ashley Kriel who left the country for military training during the struggle – might have been motivated by a burning desire for social justice, but they also realised that to contend with the apartheid system, you had to have skills.

This was something realised on the chalky soil of Robben Island. Had struggle icons such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada simply vegetated while in prison, instead of educating themselves, it is an open question whether we would have had the South Africa we have today.

The prospect of a youth revolution may not be on the horizon, but in post-apartheid South Africa it is imperative we give chance to the young – a chance based on merit and guided by wisdom, and not by political elitism.  

I know that people who died for the cause, such as Ashley Kriel, would not want to have it any other way. Our adult fear of the seemingly impossible must not rob the optimistic young mind of the imminently possible.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Essence of Ramadan: Learning

FOR the 40-year old son of Abdullah, a member of the noble Quraish tribe, his annual month-long retreat in a mountain cave outside the city of Mecca had been a puzzling one.

During his meditative sojourn on this lonely desert peak he’d heard voices saying: “peace upon you, O Exalted One.”

Now it was even more confusing. It was the middle of the night, and a man – who’d appeared from nowhere – had gripped him in an overwhelming embrace and told him to “recite”.  

His protestations that he was illiterate had been ignored. The man had just gripped him more tightly, and repeated: “Recite!”

On the third time the man had said: “Recite in the name of Your Lord who created you; who created mankind …who taught man that which he knew not.”

Frightened, and thinking that a jinn – a ghostly being – had bewitched him, the son of Abdullah had fled from the cave. He was half-way down the mountain when a voice had cried out from above: “You are the messenger of God, and I am Gabriel.”

The son of Abdullah, who was none other than Muhammad, had then seen a magnificent being. Whichever way he looked, Gabriel’s presence had filled the sky.

Now terrified, he ran home. He sought the comfort of his wife, Khadijah, asking her to cover him with a blanket. Only when the intensity of his awe had abated, was he able to tell her of the events.

After comforting her husband, Khadijah approached Waraqah, the son of Nawfal. Waraqah, her cousin, was a Christian scholar whom she hoped would be able to interpret what had happened.

Waraqah’s response was to proclaim Muhammad a prophet, a son of Ishmael whose coming had been predicted in the holy books. “By him in whose hand is the soul of Waraqah…verily, Muhammad is the prophet…” he’d told Khadijah.

This happened in 610 CE during the month of Ramadan, a time when the pre-Islamic Ishmaelite tribes of Arabia would practice tahannuth, or seclusion. Muhammad’s experience with Gabriel had occurred on the 27th night.

For the Arabian prophet, a man of medium stature, handsome features and black, shoulder-length hair, reassurance would come with the second revelation. The first had been entitled Recite, and now the second one would be called The Pen.

“By the pen, and that which is written by it, you are not a madman,” Gabriel would inform Muhammad.

Islam would be revealed to Muhammad via Gabriel for the next 23 years. Fasting in Ramadan would be introduced as one of the five pillars of faith. Muslims would have to abstain from food, drink and marital conjugality from dawn until sunset.

Ramadan was destined to induce moderation, but for the seeker there were also spiritual dimensions. This would be discovering, in the last ten days through extra devotion, the esoteric “Night of Power”, a night with a reward “worth more than a thousand months”.

Prophet Muhammad told his followers that the Ramadan was a month so special that even the devil was restrained for the month. Ramadan also signified a time of compassion, a time when each Muslim – experiencing the hunger pangs of the downtrodden – would have to pay a fitrah, a special charity, to the poor.

As Islam’s holiest month when Mercy is said to descend to earth, Ramadan primarily commemorates the revelation of Qur’an. Its verses – which have not been altered in any way since their original revelation – are recited on a nightly basis in Ramadan throughout the Islamic world.  

With Ramadan celebrating the Qur’an it is, most significantly, an injunction to human literacy. This is because its first revelation, “recite”, has a wide import in classical Arabic. “Recite” here means repeating words, but repeating them with full knowledge and awareness of exactly what they mean.

The revelation of the The Pen reinforced this invocation to knowledge. According to Muhammad, the Divine Pen had been writing its acquaintance of God’s Creation since the beginning of time, and God wanted mankind to know Him through the Pen.

Islamic scholars have commented that this is why one of the most mentioned terms in the Qur’an is “knowledge”, and why Muhammad once told his companions to seek knowledge, “even unto China”.

For Islam’s early forbears Ramadan was not only a time of intense introspection, but a period spent reading the Qur’an in search of knowledge. Fasting was regarded as a unique form of worship due it being non-visible.

For scholars such as Imam Ghazali, a genius polymath of the 12th century, fasting was equivalent to one-fourth of belief. The Prophet also reported that Ramadan bestowed unseen rewards upon the community.

For each day of fasting, he said, 600,000 souls would be released from hell, and on the Night of Power the amount of souls released until then would be released in one night.  And on the day of celebration after Ramadan, ‘Eid ul-Fitrah, the amount of souls released from perdition during the whole month would be released in 24 hours.

The Prophet Muhammad added that fasting was an intimate act between God and the person involved, and that its reward – known only to God – “would not be by measure”. So if a person fasted with all their senses for the month, or at least with good intention to learn from the experience, the reward would certainly be Paradise.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Green Point Park, Cape Town

The stadium looms in the background.

The Mouille point Lighthouse gate.
The park links with the sea and the city.

Succulent flowering.

Daisies a blaze of winter colour.
Seagull lift off.