Monday, March 31, 2014

Remembering the Tricentenary: 20 years on

© Shafiq Morton

IN April, we will mark the 20th anniversary of the Tricentenary Commemorations of Islam in South Africa. They were held in Cape Town over the Easter week-end, a mere two weeks before the country’s first democratic elections on 27 April.

It was an event of epic proportions that attracted worldwide media coverage, most of it curious, about a Muslim community at the tip of Africa.

It was designed to acknowledge the 300th anniversary of the arrival of Shaikh Yusuf of Makasar – a princely Sufi scholar, mujahid and political exile whose defiance of the colonial Dutch in Java only came to an end when his daughter was taken hostage by a malevolent Dutch commander.

Regarded as a living saint and the ‘Taj al-Khalwatiyyah’ – the crown of the Khalwatiyyah Sufi Order – Shaikh Yusuf had studied in the Hijaz and Yemen. He was accorded the honour of lecturing in the precincts of the Ka’bah, and was known in Makkah as the ‘Java Shaikh’.

After his capture, the Dutch were unsure of what to do with him. He was taken to Sri Lanka where his popular presence became an embarrassment. He was then put on a ship, the Voetboog, and sent to the Cape of Good Hope, arriving in April 1694.

En route, the ship ran out of fresh water, a huge disaster for all those on board. But Shaikh Yusuf had dipped his heel in the sea and told the sailors to draw the water, which was then found to be drinkable.

Whilst other great figures and political exiles – such as Sayyid Mahmoud of Constantia – had landed in the Cape well before him, Shaikh Yusuf’s international stature made him the patriarch of South African Islam.

For historian Dr Achmat Davids, there was too much in the moment of 1994 to be ignored. It was a proud moment, yes, but as a pioneer of research into local history, he knew that the South African Muslim community had to develop an institutional memory.

He proposed the idea of a commemoration and it soon mushroomed into a committee drawing in ‘ulama, educators, academics, professionals and a host of public figures, all of them representing a wide range of organisations and interests.

Only a few groups, such as the IUC and Qibla, spurned the idea of the commemoration, and today the Tricentenary still remains, historically, the most representative project the community has ever undertaken.

Dr Achmat Davids was voted as the chairman of the Tricentenary Committee, which set up offices in the Boorhaanol Centre in the Bo-Kaap. He became the pivot around which  everything revolved. I sometimes wonder whether the pressures of the event contributed to his ill health, and his passing in 1998

As one who worked as the Tricentenary’s media officer, I have to be the first to admit that it wasn’t easy, and that we had a lot to learn. But in spite of its tidal wave of challenges, many contributed nobly, admirably and generously to the iconic success that the Tricentenary became.

To mention all the names would be difficult. So I’m sure Dr Achmat Davids would be happy with me saying that the Tricentenary was ultimately owned by the community. Everybody had a stake in the Tricentenary.

Looking back over two decades I’m astounded at what was achieved. Everything was executed in slightly less than six months on a shoestring. Today it would not be possible to pull off such an event.

Dr Achmat Davids wanted the Commemoration to be a strong social statement:  of belief, of art, of culture and of custom. And that’s exactly what it became. But not only that – for the Tricentenary broke fresh ground on a number of fronts and gained access to institutions that had formerly been white preserves.

Firstly, the National Gallery agreed to host a major exhibition of photography and artwork that was shown to national acclaim. Secondly, the City Council agreed to mount special Tricentenary lights in Adderley Street.

Thirdly, a book Pages from Cape Muslim History was produced by a mainstream publisher. Fourthly, the Castle opened its doors to allow a cultural, musical and artefact display featuring live musicians, tailors, blacksmiths and dressmakers.

There was deep historical significance too when committee members attending a meeting at the Castle, performed maghrib – the post sunset prayer – on its lawns. This marked the first time ever that Muslims, chained in the Castle’s dungeons in the 17th and 18th centuries, had prayed as liberated citizens in its precincts. 

The single most unifying factor in the Commemoration, though, was the Chain of Barakah, or Chain of Blessing. This used the Qur’an as its focus and a team, dressed in white, carried a special Qur’an to mosques, madrasahs, private homes and institutions as part of a special reading to advertise the event.

The Chain of Barakah started in late February at the Bo-Kaap Awwal Mosque, the first mosque in South Africa, and ended at the tomb of Shaikh Yusuf over the Easter Weekend. A special niche was constructed in the building to house the Qur’an, which is today – unfortunately – not there.

The triumph of the Tricentenary was, without doubt, a march through the streets of Cape Town. It remains to this day the biggest ever march in the city, surpassing the one of September 1989 during the State of Emergency. For on that fateful Easter Saturday, over 100, 000 people dressed in white walked from District Six into town.

Nelson Mandela, less than a fortnight from becoming president, then addressed the crowd at the Good Hope Centre – an event attended by dignitaries such as ambassadors, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the President of the OIC and a young Najib Tun Razak, destined to become Malaysia’s Prime Minister.

Sadly, when the Tricentenary finally came to an end, a project that should have developed into a vehicle of research, education and upliftment died as well. With budgets depleted, staff burnt out and other issues already distracting the community, a golden opportunity slipped through our fingers.


Monday, March 24, 2014

You and your vote: to go big or small?

LOOKING back at file images of the iconic 1994 elections there are some profound things that strike one. Firstly, there is joy – all the faces are happy, shining with hope. And secondly, the majority of those ululating at the pre-election rallies are the poor.

Fast forward 20 years and the poor are still in the streets, except that this time it’s a new generation, and the young faces have contorted into anger, and the dancing has been around burning barricades.

Ostensibly, the question is a lack of ‘service delivery’, especially to impoverished communities and far flung municipalities. In truth the issue is far deeper, for those at the barricades are the economically disenfranchised.

South Africa may have indeed closed many gaps since 1994 in terms of human rights, the supply of running water, electricity, housing, health, job equity and economic growth, but for those at the bottom of the ladder it just hasn’t been enough.

Some analysts claim the problem is not resources, but the capacity to use them. For example, we are told of municipalities where executive officials (often appointed due to cronyism) have proved incapable of reading balance sheets.

Others maintain that politics is about perception, and that what most South Africans have witnessed since 1994 has been rampant materialism at the hands of new elites.  And then there is the spectre of corruption in the public and private sector.

Many will argue that this unhealthy climate of immorality has been engendered by our very own president; himself surrounded by nepotism and personal scandals such as illegitimate children and Nkandla. Zuma’s irresolute presidency costs the country nearly R300 a minute.

South Africans have also had to witness a systematic erosion of democracy via political attacks on the judiciary, assaults on Chapter Nine institutions such as the Public Protector and the promulgation of the Protection of State Information Bill, a Stalinist step backwards into the darkness.

This is what is experienced by most South Africans as the language of power; it is a language that drowns out the good work done by certain government departments and certain hardworking ministers who do really care. And that is the pity, for South Africa has travelled a long road since 1994.

For all of the above reasons, the elections of May 2014 are going to be critical in deciding the trajectory of the country. Do we go bleating over the cliff, or do we dig our heels in the sand and say enough?

The fault line in our democracy is that in South Africa we only vote for parties. We do not vote for MP’s as in the Westminster system, nor do we vote for the president as in the US. In South Africa whoever wins the most party votes get the highest proportion of seats in parliament and elects the president.

That is why the Dina Pule’s of this world, crooked politicians who should be banished forever from public life, can pop up again in a party list and not lose their seats. That is why Zuma, who would probably lose a public presidential vote tomorrow, will survive to live another day inside the tri-partite alliance.

Let it be said that whilst pre-election tri-partite alliance infighting and trade union shenanigans have attracted the most media attention, opposition parties have had their marriages and divorces too.

But not is all bad. On the positive side, smaller parties that would not traditionally win a seat in a winner-takes-all constituency set-up, can still find their way into parliament on the number of votes cast across the country.

This guarantees that minorities are not extinguished on the national stage, one of the pre-conditions of the post apartheid peace process.

The other thing about small parties is that one is voting more for a known candidate, more for a recognisable face. Unlike in the bigger, faceless parties where those on the lists are often anonymous, you can see what you are going to get.

However, there is debate about the future of smaller parties. If one looks at the voting figures, most have shed supporters since 1999, and if trends continue, many will disappear by 2019. New ones still have to face the ballots, but it is expected that the freshly-birthed left-wing – red berets and all – will ride a wave of tri-partite discontent into parliament.

Other small parties, particularly the religious and black consciousness ones, will scoot around hoping to pick up enough votes. In our community the good news is that the obscurantist prelates up north have finally realised that they’re in South Africa.

But what the small parties do offer in contrast to the bigger ones is mobility, and in places where the ruling party could find itself embattled, they become the stuff of which vital coalitions are made.

So, for those poised to vote there are a number of options – and contradictions – within the existing framework.

Firstly, does one go the sunshine route on the biggest party? Does one vote for it on sentiment? But then it could mean supporting  a corruption-tainted president and his cronies. Can the party be separated from the Zulu mafia? Can the party’s good guys deliver in spite of the bad guys?

Secondly, the second biggest party has managed to keep the streets clean in the Western Cape and tweet the most, but is thoroughly confused on the Middle East. What does one vote for here? And what about its neo-liberal (seen as anti-poor) policies balanced against the perception of stable local governance?

Thirdly, there are the small parties. Does one go with the academic lady in the headgear who divorced the second biggest party? Who’s in there from the BC? Does one go the religious identity route?

At the end of it all, however, ours is a democracy that will only mature through civic vigilance on civil liberties and by honouring its freedoms. One of the best ways is voting – and whilst democracy is not perfect, it’s the best we have.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On praiseworthy differences, the insecurity of having to be absolute

SOME time ago, after a rather fruitless discussion about innovation in Islam, I tweeted:  ‘the intellectual insecurity of having to be absolute is absolute insecurity’.

My feeling about those of the absolutist persuasion (and I’m not necessarily referring to the above) is that when posed with possible alternatives to a hypothesis, the dogmatic extremist will always think that because it’s unfamiliar, he is being presented with something outside of Islam.

You confront an argument that proclaims absolute truth without any prospect of accommodation. When one persists with an alternative view, the absolutist gets really annoyed. There has to be a winner and he is already the winner. How dare you challenge the gospel of his whims!

So when the discourse reveals that there will not be a clear winner, you find that upper-case cyber-shouting and personal attacks creep in. These angry attacks, resplendent with typos, reveal a human weakness that demeans the debate. The central issue becomes clouded in waves of emotional invective.

However, it must be said that absolutism is maddening. Absolutism is so blinded by its own light that it cannot see the sun of discourse filtering through the curtains. It does not comprehend the shade of grey. It stubbornly refuses to accept that there are different views –  that every human heart beats to a different tune.

To this effect Imam Shafi’i, one of the greatest legal minds in history, would always say that he was right with the possibility of being wrong, and that the person engaging with him was wrong with the possibility of being right. He did this hoping that the person would obtain the true understanding of Allah, regardless of his own view.

To be sure, the noble conduct of our pious forbears teaches us a lot in the etiquette of difference and disagreement.

Bearing in mind that their academic disputes would have been as vehement as ours in their day, the restraint and respect shown to each other – as they probably bit their tongues – is a monument to the tolerant legacy of the Prophet (SAW): that a variety of opinion is indeed a blessing.

One of the Righteous Caliphs, Sayyidina ‘Umar, disagreed with a Companion on an issue of Sacred Law. And yet when that Companion would pass by, Sayyidina ‘Umar would remark: “there goes a fountain of knowledge!”

Sayyidah A’ishah, the wife of the Prophet (SAW) and one of the greatest narrators of Hadith, differed with Ibn ‘Abbas on whether the Prophet (SAW) actually saw the Divine during the Mi’raj, the spiritual journey to the Holy Throne.

There was no intellectual resolution to this, and history records that the two agreed to differ without losing their mutual respect. Significantly, no sectarian animosity has been passed down the generations because of Ibn ‘Abbas’ view that the Rasullulah saw Jibril against the view of A’isha that he saw Allah.

The Mauritanian scholar, Shaikh Abdullah bin Bayah, recalls a Tradition where Ubay ibn Ka’ab, one of the first Qur’anic reciters, heard a Companion reciting the Qur’an in a style he’d never heard before. He goes to the Prophet (SAW) who listens to the men and declares that they are both right.

Sayyidina ‘Umar, a man capable of great outrage on what he saw as deviation from the Deen, also heard a Companion reciting something different to the way he’d been taught by the noble Prophet (SAW). Again, the Prophet (SAW) listened to them and declared that both men were right.

Sayyidina ‘Ali, the fourth Righteous Caliph, was the very model of restraint, self-possession and insight when he dealt with the troublesome Khawarij – the earliest extremists who seceded from mainstream Islam.

Caliph ‘Ali could so easily have dismissed them with a wave of the sword and sent them into the wilderness, but he didn’t. He treated them gently, convincing half of them to return to the middle path of the Ahlus Sunnah.

Another issue of khilaf, or difference, amongst the early Companions was whether the dead could hear the living. After the battle of Badr the Prophet (SAW) had told his Companions that the slain Quraish lying on the battlefield could hear his voice as well as them.

Some thought that this referred to the Quraish on that occasion only, and others felt that it applied to all the dead on all occasions. There was never a central consensus to the question and the Sahaba agreed to differ in what Shaikh bin Bayah calls a ‘khilaf hamid’, a praiseworthy difference.

This concept of ‘praiseworthy’ differences was practised by the four great legal imams, Imam Malik, Abu Hanifah, Imam Shafi’i and Imam Hanbal. Each one had differences with the other, but they were couched in terms of such respect and decorum that there was never discord.

And following on this tradition, even the scholars within the schools of thought took different approaches – Imam Muzini and Nawawi amongst the Shafi’is and Abu Yusuf and Imam Muhammad amongst the Hanafis.

In fact, so few of us realise today that Fiqh (the application of Shari’ah) has never been, and is not, a homogenous body of simple ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’. Sometimes there are not clear answers! But the dynamism of Fiqh, and its amazing capacity to adapt to each epoch it exists in, reflects a vibrancy that would have died centuries ago had it been couched in unbendable, absolutist terms.

For Shaikh bin Bayah, differences of opinion are for conviviality, for cordiality and for brotherhood rather than enmity, aggression and intolerance. The whole of Creation is an example of diversity – the colours and the shades mentioned in the Qur’an, the various kinds of fruit, the variegated races of people, the stars, the mountains.

For him it’s better to learn the differences of the ‘ulama and to expand one’s breast in their knowledge than to be narrowed by ignorance; that by knowing their scope one would actually obtain a broader outlook on things. In other words, for the wise, varied opinion and intellectual openness has always been a good thing, always reflecting a positive outcome.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Lebanon war photo essay

IN 2006 I went to Lebanon during the 34 day summer war when Israel bombed the country's infrastructure in an attempt to wipe out Hezbollah. Politically, it's a long story - no space here. However, it was a dirty conflict that put Lebanon back decades and caused major recriminations inside Israel.

Most of these pictures, which I only rediscovered recently whilst writing a book, were never published. When I got home nobody seemed interested.

Looking back now, I realise that my pics reveal who exactly war hurts the most. What I have is pieces of peoples lives, their neighbourhoods abandoned, drinks still in a fridge, appartments sliced open, refugees in Beirut's public parks and total destruction.
Photos © Shafiq Morton