Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Halal of Hilal – South Africa’s secret moon sighting debacle

© Shafiq Morton
One of the most established traditions in the South African Muslim community has been the sighting of the new crescent to herald the Islamic lunar months. This is a tradition that was born over 350 years ago in Cape Town.

Sixty-seven years ago this community function was formalised with the founding of the Crescent Observer’s Society (COS) and the election of a Hakim, a qualified scholar to act as its legal arbiter.

The principle of sighting the new crescent with the naked eye (ruya in Arabic) is an act in conformity with Shari’ah, or Sacred Law. So is the ruling (the hukm) of the COS Hakim whether the moon has been sighted or not, and whether a new Islamic month will commence.

In this context the hukm is a juridicial ruling as opposed to a fatwa, which is a juridicial opinion.                                         

For more than six decades the COS has faithfully served the community. Each month its observers have gone to Three Anchor Bay, Signal Hill, Soetwater near Kommetjie and Stellenbosch to observe the crescent in the Western Cape region.

Today the observation footprint has expanded to South Africa’s major centres. KwaZulu Natal, Kimberly, the Eastern Cape and Gauteng go out to sight the crescent in conjunction with the COS.

For decades, the sighting of the crescent has been strictly governed by national consensus. If during the winter months the Cape was occluded, and the crescent visible in the north, sightings from the north would be taken into consideration by the Hakim. The same would apply in the summer months, when the chances of the rest of the country being clouded over were high.

In addition, all parties working with the COS had agreed that in order to avoid chaos, 10.30 pm in summer and 9.30 pm in winter would be the cut-off times for moon-sighting testimonies.

Whilst minority communities in Great Britain and the United States have been stricken with bitter conflict on hilal matters, South Africa has – until very recently – been a shining exception.

However, this was tested earlier this year when the United Ulama Council of South Africa (UUCSA) was accused of undermining the integrity of the COS and in so doing, threatening to divide the community.

This led from events on the 29th Rabi ul-Awwal (February 11) when the COS reported that the crescent had not been visible in the sky, and that the lunar month would extend to a final 30th day.

It was an interesting scenario – if not a minor anomaly – because the crescent was 34 hours old (an observable age) with a viewing time of 29 minutes. The problem was that the moon had an extremely low trajectory – its position was in the light orange of the sunset, as opposed to the deeper-coloured higher layer.

Consequently, COS observers did not see the crescent anywhere in the country. After hearing nation-wide testimony from certified witnesses, the Hakim ruled that the following day would be the 30th Rabi ul-Awwal. This would mean that the next month, Rabi ul-Thani, would begin on the 13th February.

As for the past 1,000 or so months the COS has viewed the crescent, the decision was unanimously accepted. The judgement was broadcast over the airwaves of the Muslim radio stations.

Five days later, Islamic broadcasters received a press release on the letterhead of UUCSA on behalf of its Hilal Committee. The statement said that the hukm of the COS Hakim had been abrogated, and that the calendar now had to be reversed. Rabi ul-Thani had started on the 12th February and not the 13th.

According to the UUCSA official, a maulana in the north had seen the crescent on the night of 29th Rabi ul-Awwal, but had only reported it three days later. I discovered that the maulana (not identified by UUCSA) hailed from a community in Venda.

I also found out that UUCSA’s ‘Hilal Committee’ was a somewhat vacuous entity of undetermined members. Investigation also revealed that this decision had been unilateral, conducted without consultation, and agreed to by two officials from UUCSA – one from the Gauteng Jami’at and one from the Cape-based Muslim Judicial Council.  

According to MJC sources even its President had not been informed, only learning about the calendar reversal via other means.

The COS responded by sending a letter to UUCSA in which it accused UUCSA of failing to consult with it on the matter, and having ignored decades of protocol and procedure. It also said that UUCSA had flagrantly violated the agreement of cut-off times for crescent-sighting testimonies.

In its brief COS said that the shart – or foundational condition of any ruling – preceded everything else in basic Islamic jurisprudence, specifically if it complements the tenets of Shari’ah.  In other words, UUCSA had no legal Islamic right to mandatorily reverse the original Shari’ decision.

The only exception, said the COS, would be a re-deliberation on the matter by a consensual majority and full consultation with all role players – something that had clearly not occurred.

The COS had also posed the question of what would have happened had UUCSA made its decision during important dates such as Ramadan, and speculated on the pandemonium that could have ensued.

Shortly after the letter was sent, the COS was asked to attend a meeting at the MJC offices in Cape Town. This meeting was postponed. It has remained postponed ever since, begging the serious question of which tail is wagging which dog in the netherworld of scholarly politics.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Real men brush their teeth

© Shafiq Morton
Discourse with fundamentalists of any ilk can be frustrating. Perhaps that’s why the great 12th century scholar, Imam al-Ghazali, wrote that engaging with those unable to listen was like competing with the braying of an ass.

He suggested that it was a waste of time – those who didn’t know that they didn’t know were beyond help. I can only agree with him. When you can only listen to the sound of your own voice, it’s difficult to hear others.
I had this kind of experience the other day in cyberspace when trying to explain that Muslims were not pathological wife beaters. The main protagonist was an evangelical, born-again pastor.

I do not mean to demean Christianity. But I do think we have to be honest: there are extremes in all faiths on this earth, and we always have to guard against the centre being judged by its fringes.

That is where the fallacy comes from that Muslims are wife bashers – from the patriarchal fringes of Islamic extremism. Wife-beating is an old chestnut, triumphally presented by ignorant Islamophobes to the world as a theological absolute.

“You beat your wives, your Prophet allows wife-bashing,” your Qur’an says it,” the pastor would crow, referring to Surat un-Nisaa (the Chapter of the Women) and its famous verse 34 – which we will examine later.

In the tradition of true-blue fundamentalism, his was a literalist reading, and no amount of argument could convince him otherwise. He entertained no room for nuance, metaphor or qualifiers of meaning – such as Prophetic Traditions or other Qur’anic verses.

When I told him that the Qur’an could only be interpreted through its core language, Arabic, he would say he could understand the Qur’an perfectly in English! Why would he have to study Arabic? And so it went. I was an apologist. I felt Mullah Nasruddin had a better chance of persuading Chuck Norris to wear a turban.

But it did get me to thinking.  Violence against women is endemic in South Africa. Our community is not exempt from it. Who can forget the ‘Gadaffi’ killing in Mitchell’s Plain, for example?

Cultural aberrations aside, can Muslim men lift their hands against their wives? What is verse 34 in Surat un-Nisaa verse 34 really saying?

To answer we have to first examine what I would call the ‘qualifiers’, other Qur’anic verses and Prophetic Traditions dealing with the treatment of women. I’m not a Qur’anic scholar, but it doesn’t take much to realise that the Holy Book is a complex tapestry of many threads of meaning.

For example, when we are told that Ibrahim (as) is a ‘hanifan musliman’ (a sound monotheist) we immediately understand this because of other verses extolling his virtues. In fact, the Qur’an itself – which is the Creator’s voice – says that it has many paths.

But back to Surat un-Nisaa, verse 34, which says that should a wife indulge in disloyalty and misconduct, a husband should first admonish her. Failing that, he should withdraw from the marital bed, and failing that – the last resort – he should ‘beat’ her (lightly).

Taken out of context, as they are here, these verses appear bleakly patriarchal.  But if we add context – Surat ul-Baqarah saying in verse 228 that men and women enjoy rights over each other – the picture begins to change dramatically.

If one considers that this is a statement made in the 7th century, it is ground-breaking – for just before the Prophetic era, the Quraish were burying their newly-born daughters alive in the graveyard.  

In Surat un-Nisaa one quickly observes that preceding verse 34, issues such as who can marry, dowries, fair treatment of slaves and self-restraint are revealed. Verse 34 opens with men ‘standing firmly with’ or being the ‘protectors’ of women. This is hardly a chauvinistic discourse.

The second half of verse 34 deals with a worst case scenario of marital discord, and even then, verse 35 exhorts serious reconciliation before any kind of parting.  If one adds Hadith to the context, the books of Bukhari and Muslim reveal overwhelmingly that the Prophet (SAW) ordered that women be treated kindly.

So how do we reconcile ourselves to verse 34 that uses the word ‘wa-dribuhunna’, which literally means, ‘beat them’? A look in any serious Arabic lexicon will reveal that the root word ‘daraba’ has a primary meaning followed by a myriad of other secondary meanings such as ‘shun’ and ‘separate from’.

In fact, there are over 50 different applications – and meanings – attributed to this one word. Like all Arabic verbs they are given context by their prepositions. But herein lies a problem. In the Qur’an there is no preposition.

Evidence points towards the Prophetic generation comprehending verse 34 as ‘beat’ or ‘strike’. However, their tafsir (or exegesis) reflects the softness and subtlety of the Prophet’s (SAW) character – something forgotten in our hard age.

Imam Hasan al-Basri, one of the greatest early scholars, echoes Hadith that – if forced to – one should tap one’s spouse very lightly with a miswak, or toothbrush. Furthermore, no harm could be done or marks left.

Other scholars assert that the miswak could only be picked up with a Qur’an under each armpit! And according to some reports, Imam Shafi’i (ra) was even against the lifting of a miswak.

So why the word ‘beat’? Of course, Allah knows best, but surely the emphasis here is on the very seriousness of marital discord? And, naturally, what our evangelical pastor – and the modern Shari’ah-ists ­– have profoundly failed to understand is that ‘beat’ in this Qur’anic verse is wholly symbolic.

For without its symbolic aspects to emphasise the very seriousness of marital conflict, verse 34 would contradict Prophetic Tradition and Qur’an, which enjoins gender justice. 

Yusuf ‘Ali in his Qur’anic translation bases a lot of his interpretations on classical texts. His bracketed meanings frequently point to traditional commentary from Al-Jalalain to Imam al- Ghazali (ra). For why would he  write in verse 34 ‘beat (lightly)?’

I think the answer is clear. Our Prophet (SAW) did not condone wife-beating, and nor did he ever smile upon domestic violence. Real men use miswaks for cleaning their teeth.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Israel’s apartheid label is not a fabrication

© Shafiq Morton
The Cape Argus op-ed ‘Israel’s apartheid label is a slanderous fabrication’ by South African Zionist Federation chairman, Ben Levitas, is in urgent need of an unemotive response.

His shrill notion that the Israeli Apartheid Week (which creates awareness about Israeli apartheid) is a ‘sinister’ event is laughable. His piece, characterised by sweeping statement, is not only a case of semantic subterfuge, but a neat sidestep of the facts surrounding the issue.

His mantra that Israel is stigmatised because of a difference to its neighbours, and that those objecting to Israeli policies want to deny Israelis human rights, is rhetorical mirage.  Surely the whole point of the IAW is to bring Israel back to an awareness of human rights?

What Mr Levitas defends so passionately is a utopian Zionist notion of Israel; this without ever being specific about what he is defending it against. At best, he can infer that what has happened in Israel is not like South African apartheid.

This is, of course, true. Israel is not South Africa. And whilst as South Africans we are painfully conscious of Israeli discriminatory practices against Palestinians, it has to be remembered that in terms of international law, apartheid enjoys a generic definition.

This process began in the UN in 1973 when apartheid was declared a crime against humanity with a scope that went beyond South Africa. This was further re-inforced by the additional protocol to the Geneva Convention of 1977 designating apartheid as a war crime.

The Rome Statutes of 2002 enabled the International Criminal Court to have jurisdiction over apartheid crimes, although it cannot prosecute retrospectively beyond its inception date.

Generically, apartheid has been defined as ‘any inhumane act committed for the purpose of maintaining domination’ by one racial group over any other racial group through systematic oppression. It’s as simple as that, its clauses categorising what has been described above.

What Mr Levitas so conveniently forgets to mention is that the very foundational principle of the modern Zionist state he defends was based on exclusive Jewish ethnicity. He also fails to recall that the Zionist project was from its outset a secular response to events in Europe and Russia.

There is absolutely nothing sacred about the formation of modern Israel. It is well-known that the founding father of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, harboured no religious impulses. He even refused to circumcise his son, and the rabbis of Jerusalem declared him an infidel when he visited Palestine.

Furthermore, Max Nordau – co-founder of the World Zionist Organisation – even declared the Torah ‘repulsive’, saying that Herzl’s Der Judenstat would replace it. This saw the rabbis of Europe condemning Zionism, saying an ethnic Jewish state in Palestine would even rob Judaism of its messianic expectancy.

It is a fact that Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, wanted Jewish political domination at any cost – giving birth to the notorious Plan Dalet (hatched in Tel Aviv’s  Red Building in March 1948) that expressly mooted the forced removal of non-Jews from towns and villages.

It is also fact that, according to UN figures, two-thirds of the indigenous Palestinian population were violently exiled. It is a fact too that the UN Partition Decision of 1947 was ignored and that before 1948 – and the declaration of the Jewish state – over 50% of Palestinians had already been displaced.

The Israeli political scientist, Prof Ilan Pappe, has openly used the term ‘ethnic cleansing’. But whatever way one looks at it, an inhumane act – generically apartheid – was committed by political Zionists to give one particular group domination over another. This is how Israel came to be – at the expense of nearly a million Palestinians.

Since 1948, Israeli exclusivity – defended by the moral exceptionalism of its allies in Europe and the US – has been the norm. Even in 1948 Israel, Arabs have always found themselves to be second-class citizens. With less job opportunities than Jewish-Israelis their annual earnings are well below the national average.

There are no ‘Jews only’ signs stencilled on to park benches, granted, but I challenge Mr Levitas to see what would happen if an Arab from Umm ul-Fahm were to try and lease an apartment in Tel Aviv, or to apply for a job in the civil service.

Then Mr Levitas needs to visit the Knesset building to see how many discriminatory laws have been passed against Israeli-Arabs in the past five years (over 40), and whether the Negev Arabs can farm on their ancestral land (they can’t).

I defy Mr Levitas to personally visit the West Bank, dramatically shrunken in size by the apartheid wall. Towns are surrounded by 8 metre barriers, and whilst about 400,000 settlers water their lawns with water poached from Palestinian aquifers, Arab farmers watch their orchards die – this after the uprooting of over 500,00 olive trees. Is this not discrimination?

In Hebron Arabs face the Kafka-esque scenario of an occupation within an occupation – about 600 belligerent, fundamentalist European settlers squatting illegally in the historic town. In Gaza, nearly two million people fester in the world’s largest outdoor prison, the misery induced by Israel who has besieged the territory. I would like anyone to try and endure a humid Gaza summer, characterised by Israeli water cuts.

I challenge Mr Levitas to drive around Israel, away from the neo-European suburbia of Tel Aviv and Haifa, and to see that even on the roads segregation is practised against Palestinian drivers.

Mr Levitas needs to realise that by calling Israel tolerantly ‘multi-ethnic’, he is indulging in camouflage. Whilst amongst Jewish-Israelis there is meant be a subsuming of cultural identity for a greater Israeli one, the reality is totally different. For even within Israeli society there is widespread discrimination, the black-skinned African Falashas last in the social pecking order.

Pointing to neighbouring Arab territories, as Mr Levitas does ad nauseam, serves no purpose in the debate of whether Israel is guilty of apartheid. The path to harmony, human rights, safety and security is through positive engagement, and not maintenance of the status quo.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cape Town to get Human Rights Centre and Palestinian Museum

© Shafiq Morton
Dreams can be born in interesting places. For Dr Anwah Nagia, anti-apartheid activist, businessman and philanthropist, it all started in a Trafalgar High School classroom in central Cape Town in 1976.

For young, disenfranchised South Africans 1976 was the heady year of Soweto, an iconic moment that sparked a new chapter in South African history. Hendrik Verwoed, apartheid’s chief architect, never saw the Soweto uprising – he’d been stabbed to death in 1966 by Loius Tsafendas, a deranged parliamentary messenger.

Balthazar Johannes Vorster, a bellicose party hack with a Nazi background, had been appointed Prime Minister in Verwoed’s place. Having overseen the Rivonia Trial as Justice Minister which convicted Nelson Mandela, Vorster had slammed the constitutional door on any semblance of non-white parliamentary representation by 1968.

It was on his watch that the notorious Terrorism Act was given life. It was on his watch that leaders such as Steve Biko of the Black Consciousness Movement, and activists such as Ahmed Timol and Imam Abdullah Haroon, were murdered by his security police henchmen.

It was on Vorster’s watch too, and that of Community Affairs Minister PW Botha, that bulldozers had moved in to destroy the cosmopolitan heart of Cape Town. Called District Six, it had been decreed a “white area” under a draconian law called the Group Areas Act.

This meant that under the Act its inhabitants were to be summarily removed, forcibly if need be, and re-located to the Cape Flats in racially demarcated ghettoes more than 20 kilometres from the city centre.

Nagia remembers those days well, and says that the saddest – and most defining – moments of his life were witnessing the stress of his classmates being called home because their houses were being demolished.

“Seeing the effects of forced removals on my friends disturbed me,” he says. “We saw District Six disappearing before our eyes. We saw it going from being a colourful inner city neighbourhood to bare earth.”

As a member of the New Unity Movement, Nagia says that his political education was informed by the dictum that the South African struggle was fundamentally an anti-colonialist narrative.

“It’s sad that people thought the South African story was just an anti-apartheid one when in reality, a class struggle was its core. In 1994 we got rid of apartheid, but 18 years later we still face a class struggle.”

So why then build a human rights centre, the Al-Kaaf Human Rights Centre, in Cape Town with a Palestinian museum at its heart?  

 Nagia explains:

 “In 1948 the Afrikaner Nationalists, the apartheid masters, were voted into power by the minority white electorate. This is also the same year that the state of Israel was born. The issue of forced removals enjoys resonance in Palestine and here in South Africa, where we have an institutional memory of it.

“Furthermore, in the past six decades most peoples have managed to achieve some post-colonial autonomy, except for Palestine, which remains the world’s last major apartheid project.”

Nagia said that a focus on Palestine would not mean the Human Rights Centre would ignore other issues. After all, the aspiration for social justice was universal. The centre would always remind the public of other unresolved struggles.

“We have to speak everywhere to the contradictions of race and class dispossession and a ‘common enemy’ – once communism and now Islam – and how this has been spun into a valid-seeming construct by countries like Israel and the US.”

Nagia explained that in the past two years his dream of a human rights centre had taken firm root because of what he saw happening around him.

“South Africa has come out of a protracted struggle. We have a constitution that still hasn’t reached out to the majority…we don’t see practical delivery at the frontiers of poverty and ignorance. So I thought whilst doing something for Palestine, why not use this centre to focus on local and international issues affecting South Africans too?

“What was important was that we built a physical institution, and not something transitional. We needed to give permanent resonance through structure and space.”

Nagia revealed that establishing the centre had not been without challenge.  Finding a suitable venue was the first, but eventually after much searching, he’d been able to purchase an old warehouse on the edge of District Six.

“I’m not saying the events were related, but it burnt down on the weekend of the Russell Tribunal in Cape Town. That set me back months. The structure of the old building had been undermined by the blaze.”

Showing the plans of the 2,000 square metre multi-story centre, Nagia said that it would use specially imported Jerusalem limestone. On the roof there would be an inter-faith prayer room overlooking a garden of remembrance. The Palestinian museum would be on one of its floors.

The Centre would be a fusion of Palestinian and South African styles with Ramallah architect, Zuhair Ali, and Cape Town’s Roger Joshua responsible for its final design. The Palestine Museum director Dr Anis Daraghma, a qualified engineer, had been the central figure in its structural blueprint. Nagia said that the Al-Kaaf Human Rights Centre had several unique characteristics.

“There is no Palestinian museum anywhere in the world, there is no human rights centre of this kind in South Africa, and we’ll have the first local public-access private library stocked with over 100, 000 volumes, including Ottoman records of Palestine from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

In addition, we’ll have a free medical clinic for senior citizens, a free legal advice clinic and literary programmes for Maths and English.”

Nagia explained that the Al Kaaf Human Rights Centre would be an interactive space with a small lecture theatre, a hall holding about 200 people, public reading rooms, a coffee shop and a book store. On a quarterly basis the Centre would host lectures by major figures on topical and challenging questions.

He said that he hoped the Al-Kaaf Human Rights Centre would be catalyst for fighting the discourse of inhumanity through understanding and education.

“Today we face either socialism or barbarism. The struggle for justice is universal and we can’t afford to not confront the truths around us,” he said.