Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Wembley echoes: a tribute to Hajji Abdullah Gangraker

Courtesy Wembley
MUCH has been said, and written, about the passing of Hajji Abdullah Eshack Gangreker, an iconic benefactor and philanthropist of the Cape Town community. 

He was a man of rare vision and a stickler for quality, which was reflected in the well-known Wembley brand.

From humble beginnings in Belgravia Road, he rose through hard work and tireless perseverance to head a successful business that grew from a green-grocer into a butchery, a bakery, a travel agent and, of course, the Wembley Roadhouse – and so much more.

However, there is one vital element of his massive contribution to the community that I feel has been overlooked – his annual calendar, something he took great pride in and that he produced for over 25 years, distributing it free.  

I do not say this because I had the privilege of working with Mr Gangraker – and later his daughter, Sumaya – on the calendar project for 22 years, but because it gave me the opportunity to witness its impact and to experience first-hand, why Gangraker became the man that he was.

It was his close friend, Dr Abdul Wahhab Barday, who approached me in 1994 at the time of the Tricentenary of Islam at the Cape about shooting a calendar for Wembley. “We’re thinking of doing an aerial view of Shaikh Yusuf’s karamat,” said the irrepressible doctor.

On discussing the project with Mr Gangraker, I soon discovered that he was a gracious, but focused client – and, most importantly, one who trusted me. As someone who hates mediocrity, I think we spoke the same language, but what struck me most was his openness to innovation.

If hanging from the open door of a helicopter was what it was going to take, that was what we were going to do.

Helicopter shot for the Robben Island Wembley calendar.
Photo Shafiq Morton
But my tribute is not just about the calendar, something that he developed into a unique marketing tool. No, it’s more about the relationship that I enjoyed with him over the years, and what I learnt sitting in his office whilst we discussed the calendar.  

“Shafiq-bhai excellence should be a habit,” he once told me, “quality is a promise to your customer on all fronts…your goods, your service and your people.”

He told me this whilst cutting a peach and eating it, not because he was hungry, but because a customer had complained about his peaches. He was personally checking. I’m happy to say that the peach passed the test.

Whilst the production of the calendar was an exacting creative process involving lots of team work, he was always thankful at the end. And he would always say so. He would write to every person to thank them for their contribution, no matter how small.

What I learnt most from Mr Gangraker was his ethos. He would emphasise that neatness and cleanliness were the most affordable things. Dreams, however, were expensive – but worth it – in terms of the necessary sacrifices to make them come true.

One day someone passed a negative remark about Mr X, one of his competitors. His reply was immediate: “Don’t talk about Mr X like that; he is entitled to his riziq. Allah provides for everybody.”

Mr Gangraker wanted his calendars to inform people about the Muslim world, and he was passionate about it. He would say that knowledge in life would empower a person to act better in life.

Like many successful businessmen that I’ve had the honour of meeting, he would say that without faith there was nothing, no focus. “Faith defines you,” he’d say. Work for him was a passion, a mission; it was not just about the money. It was about doing our best in the sight of God.

“Shafiq-bhai, I’ve made mistakes; it’s our faith that puts the light in the darkness of those times. Faith creates a sense of gratitude that keeps us humble, centred in the dunya.”

As he wrote in his biography, Wembley Echoes: “…my friends, we live but once. We shall not pass this way again. We only have one life to live and how we choose to do it, is up to us. Often what we do now lives on long after we are gone. These are the echoes we leave behind…”

As I filed past his body on a cold Sunday afternoon with thousands of mourners, I could finally hear the echoes: those he’d secretly helped, the representatives of the organisations he’d sponsored, community leaders, imams, the poor, the grieving faces of friends and, most poignantly, the tears of a family who’d had to share their father with so many.

Shaikh Yusuf karamat from the air, Wembley calendar 1994.
Photo Shafiq Morton

Monday, June 27, 2016

Green Point Park revisited

THE GREEN POINT PARK is essentially a re-engineered seasonal wetland where the residents of Sea Point used to gather for regattas in the late 19th century. Filled in by 1898, it was re-excavated during construction of the Cape Town stadium in 2010 when the golf course and the Green Point Common playing fields were re-aligned. The wetland is fed by streams from the Table Mountain escarpment. Now a beautiful urban green lung, the fynbos garden starts to bloom in early winter with a myriad of subtle colour and textures. 

Photos Copyright Shafiq Morton

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The greatest threat to Israel today, Israel itself

Bethlehem house fired on by Israeli troops in 2002.
The family inside  was not part of any conflict.
Copyright Shafiq Morton
WHILE the world seems to go mad with bloodthirsty extremism, and our leaders grow dodgier by the day, one of the modern era’s most lingering constitutional questions – the actual existence of Palestine – has almost slipped off the radar.

With pompous louts like Trump parroting witless sound bites, the Orlando killings, Ashin Wirathu’s Rohingyan racism, ISIS, Syria, Yemen, Boko Haram and the Eternal President from North Korea blowing off nuclear steam, it is sometimes difficult to stay focused.

And whilst our chat rooms buzz, Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition of the crazy has been marching inexorably towards its endgame, the ethnic cleansing of historical Palestine and the creation of a greater, or Erez, Israel – the pure nation secure from outside threat.

For Netanyahu and his ilk, whose fathers supported Vladimir Jabotinsky (and his credo of an Iron Wall permanently dividing Arabs and Jews) the fact that racial division will never create security is lost on them. For Netanyahu, Palestinians are simply an existential annoyance.  

In almost three decades of reporting on the Palestinian situation, I have never seen things as bad as they are today. Leaderless, balkanised, totally besieged and victimised by a systemic apartheid that has become infinitely worse than the South African version, a disaffected and disempowered Palestinian youth has even taken to random attacks on Jews in Israel’s troubled streets.

All too sadly, Israel’s leadership – and the rest of our sleazy political elite in world capitals – are either incapable, or unwilling, to see the signs. Ominously, the third intifadah – which is happening right now – is characterised by abject despair in which the participants feel they have nothing left to lose.

Attacks, such as those recently in Tel Aviv, are not suicide missions orchestrated by Hamas, Islamic Jihad – or even the PLO. They are self-originated, independent acts of out-and-out nihilism. There can be no justification for the targeting of civilians, ever, but the question needs to be asked:  why have things become what they are?

And whilst some may have eschatological explanations as to what has been happening in Israel, the reality is still a secular one. So let it be said for the umpteenth time, political Zionism is the question here, not Judaism.

But there are, however, some serious questions that have to be asked with regards to scripture – as secularist Israeli politicians have always cynically exploited the Christian Zionist movement to justify the apartheid status quo in Israel, the late Gerry Falwell being gifted a jet by Menachim Begin for his loyalty
The wall, dividing people, but not
creating security.
Copyright Shafiq Morton

But the blunt point is that nowhere in the holy books is there a prediction of a third Jewish return the way it has played out in the 21st century. The children of Abraham were not only from Isaac, but also from Ishmael, and refusing to contemplate a shared destiny in Israel and Palestine is sociological and theological insanity.

In fact, the modern apartheid “Jewish state” – which is ironically not governed by sacred law – is a contradiction of terms. It’s like Saudi Arabia taking over Texas, kicking out the Baptists and then declaring an Islamic state without the Shari’ah.

Modern Israel, if one wants to take the scriptural paradigm further, is also a betrayal of Talmudic tradition. In the Three Great Oaths taken after the Babylonian exile, the undertaking was that Jews would not descend upon the holy land by force, that they would not rise up against host governments and that they would not hasten the coming of the Messiah with their sin.

Political Zionism has totally removed Messianic expectation from Judaism. Few remember that at the beginning of the 20th century, European Rabbis regarded Zionism as a heresy.

Then, of course, we have to recall that political Zionism was originally a “gentile project”, not a Jewish one. It was popularised in 1853 by the British evangelist and colonialist, Lord Shaftesbury, who declared that there was a “country without a nation” for a “nation without a country”.

Lord Shaftesbury was ably supported by Cape Town born Lord Oliphant, who wrote the Land of Gilead, an apocalyptic blueprint for Jewish settlement in Palestine. This was followed by an Anglican priest in Vienna, William Hechler, who penned The Restoration of the Jews to Palestine in 1894, predating Theodore Herzl’s Der Judenstat by two years.

The only Jewish thinker to ponder on a Jewish state amidst an overwhelming Christian revivalist urge was Moses Hess. An atheist and mentor to Karl Marx, who foresaw the Nazi era, he called for a purely socialist model. His works were only read after his death in 1875, influencing people like Herzl.

Space precludes further discussion on the rise of political Zionism after the Russian pogroms, the Balfour Declaration, the Arab uprising, Sykes-Picot  and Nazism, as well as the UN Partition Decision of 1947. But it should be clear – just from the above – that the existence of Israel, based on extremist religious impulse, Holocaust guilt, secularism and Arab apartheid, raises serious constitutional quandaries.

In honestly searching for a peaceful solution (which is an anathema to blinded hawks like Netanyahu) no-one is advocating the removal of Jews from Palestine – no. Nobody is saying that they must be chased into the sea – again, no. God, no.

But what has been denied are the real facts – the real yearning by Palestinians for a just and equitable solution to the Palestinian problem, one that is based on real fairness, one that doesn’t pander to Zionist brinkmanship and the dissembling hasbara of terror, and one that accommodates Arabs and Jews within an internationally sanctioned state.

Under Netanyahu and his coalition of gun-toting settlers, end-timers, corrupt opportunists, mavericks and cronies, Israel has reached a tipping point – where it will go to, nobody knows yet –  and I would say that the greatest threat to Israel today is not Iran, the BDS movement or the Arab world, but Israel itself.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Ramadan, a time of contemplation and giving

Ramadan should be the time when every South African Muslim thinks not only about his fellow Muslim, but his less fortunate fellow compatriot as well.
Ramadan is heralded by the sighting of the crescent.
Photo Shafiq Morton
RAMADAN, as most of us know, is the holiest month on the Muslim calendar. Heralded by the sighting of the crescent – and concluded by the sighting of a crescent – Ramadan (the ninth month of the lunar year) is meant to be a month of fasting and contemplation.
Ramadan is derived from the Arabic word “ramada” which means to “scorch” or to “burn away”. It commemorates the first revelation of the Qur’an on a Meccan mountaintop to a 40-year old Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel.
The idea of the month-long fast is that the undesirable elements of the human character are burnt away by the act of fasting. The fast occurs daily from just before dawn to just after sunset. In this time, the person fasting may not eat, drink or indulge in sex.
The fast in Ramadan, called “siyam” or “saum” in Arabic, is one of the five pillars of Islam and an obligatory act for adults, but not for children – or those suffering from diabetes or chronic health complaints. In this case, where a person’s health may be compromised in any way, the scholars deem fasting is forbidden.
On the spiritual level, the person is encouraged to fast with the senses as well – reading Qur’an, refraining from backbiting, avoiding bad things and withdrawing from unnecessary conflict. Indeed, it is a time of purification and personal rejuvenation.
On the physical level, doctors have discovered that fasting is beneficial for the body; it increases insulin sensitivity, rests the kidneys, cleanses the digestive system and even boosts brain function.
Fasting requires considerable self-discipline. Islamic scholars, such as the 11th century intellectual Imam al-Ghazali, say there are three types of people fasting. The first is angry at being hungry. He is on an involuntary hunger strike. And as Ghazali says: these people should rather eat as they are wasting their time.
The second person may fall prey to weaknesses (like all of us) from time to time, but because of sincerity and good intention will reap the rewards of the fast, which are known only to God. The third person, totally focused in every sense, enjoys the status of being a true believer and secures infinite heavenly recompense.
Ramadan is surrounded by rich metaphor. The Prophet Muhammad once said that in the first part of the month God bestowed mercy; that in the second part God descended with forgiveness and that in the third part, the person fasting was emancipated from the fire.
Another prophetic tradition says that the devils are chained up and the doors of Paradise opened, and that on each night people are released from hell – with the amount of those released throughout Ramadan being emancipated on its last night.
But primarily, Ramadan is seen and experienced as the month of the Qur’an, a book revealed over a twenty-three year period to the Prophet Muhammad. Unchanged in content since its original revelation, it is interesting to note that the first verse revealed to the Prophet doesn’t exhort prayer or ritual, but rather that the human being should “read” in the name of his Lord.
In other words, the first message of the Qur’an is a far, far cry from the insane stridency of Al-Qaeda, ISIS – or other such craven jihadists – who so incorrectly understand rule by the sword and reductionist drivel as a divine injunction.
In fact, the primary communication from Gabriel to Muhammad – remembering that the first Qur’anic word “iqra” has an embracing meaning – was that people should be literate by their senses. It meant that they should be able to read, and that they should use their intellects in understanding the world around them.
An analysis of the language of the Qur’an is fascinating in this aspect, as it shows that one of the three most mentioned words in the Holy Book is “knowledge”, knowledge related to the intellectual process, and knowledge related to the two other most mentioned Qur’anic words, social justice and God.
These are also the values of Ramadan, a time during which the person fasting can briefly feel the hunger pangs of the poor. The compulsory charity that seals the fast, the “fitrah”, embodies this. According to the Cape-based Muslim Judicial Council, every fasting person will have to pay R36, or give another underprivileged person the equivalent of two kilos of rice.
Those unable to fast due to health reasons, pay a “fidya”, a compensation of R 9 a day – or if one is a pensioner or not by the means, one will pay what one can reasonably afford, even if it is a few rand for the whole month.
The idea of the Ramadan charity is a symbolic reminder of our own vulnerability – at the time of breaking the fast, we cannot deny any traveller, visitor or passer by the benefits of our table. In Muslim capitals, great blessing is seen in feeding others. In places such as Cairo there will be pavement feasts spread with dates, rice and water.
Fitrah is only regarded as a bare minimum. Prophetic traditions report that Muhammad was at his most generous during Ramadan, and many Muslims around the world will follow his noble example.
In South Africa, where we face overwhelming poverty – in most instances less than a few blocks from our own homes – an extra responsibility rests on our shoulders. How can we sleep at night when 12 million South Africans, many of them children, go to bed on empty stomachs?
Hidden hunger, which knaws insidiously at the fabric of society, is one of our biggest socio-economic challenges. For that reason Ramadan should be the time when every South African Muslim, thinks not only about his fellow Muslim, but also his less fortunate fellow compatriot.
For if we have read the Holy Book we would see that it declares Muhammad was sent to mankind, not just as mercy to one particular group, but as a mercy to all of creation. This premise is profoundly reflected in the Chapter of the Prophets. Therefore, a Muslim is enjoined to treat every single human being with non-judgemental compassion. There can never be apartheid in giving charity.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Ramadan thoughts: when you hear khilaf be a zebra

Photo Shafiq Morton
WE live in a varied and sometimes confusing environment of contrasts, conflicts and conundrums. Avalanched by cyber information, as opposed to real knowledge, we are buffeted by so many forces it often becomes difficult to anchor oneself in the world.

For Muslims, as refugees encountering new cultures, as individuals within minorities, as communities suffering from regional conflict or as peoples facing Islamophobia, extremism, poor education, cruel oligarchs and socio-economic challenges, life is not easy.

This is perhaps why a train of thought has developed amongst certain Muslims, which says: “I don’t need this. Why should I have to deal with this khilaf, all this disagreement? I don’t need Sufi, Sunni, Salafi, Wahhabi, Ash’ari, Maturidi or even madh-hab.  Surely, all that I need is just the Qur’an and the Sunnah?”

Whilst, in a sense, this is an understandable sentiment, romantic literalism – and the idea that Islam should be so conveniently homogenous – is hardly an adequate response to modernity. It begs the question: why take a leap backwards?

Of course, it is true that one of the greatest tribulations confronting modern Muslims is our inability to tolerate each other. However, I would suggest that Qur’anic and Prophetic reductionism, leads us to a sharply narrowed perspective – something that has so blighted Saudi Arabia, for example.

We are better than that, the Qur’an actively enjoining a “balanced way” in Surat ul-Baqarah and Surat ul-Maida warning about “excess” in faith. Then we have Surat ul-Hujjarat talking about us being created as tribes and nations to know ourselves.

Without a scholarly application of Islamic science, and with the discarding of analogical thought and reasoning (which underlies fiqh, the execution of Sacred Law) there will only be chaos, the kind that has ensued in the ISIS “caliphate”, which is totally devoid of the respect for life that should reflect the Shari’ah.

What we have to do to make sense of things is to understand the very nature of disagreement. Firstly, one gets absolutism – basically the outright rejection of an idea, whether it is valid or not. This is based on anger and arrogance which pleases the ego; it is often manifested by compounded ignorance (where people don’t know that they don’t know) or the incapacity to cope with anything different.  

The above can’t be called disagreement in the true sense of the word – because the whimsical ego immediately shuts off another view, which could expose an alternate, even more enriching understanding.

Secondly, you get ikhtilaf, which means to take a courteous, but informed position on something that might contradict somebody else. A historical disservice has been the air-brushing of ikhtilaf. Of course, our predecessors had qualities superior to ours, but they were still human and still had human foibles, fallacies and, yes, they had major disagreements.

Nor did the Muslim pioneers live in homogenous bubbles of reflection and peace; for instance, Abu Hanifah’s nightly worship was disturbed by a drunken cobbler. This is a famous story where Abu Hanifah rescued his neighbour from jail to become a great scholar.

The most celebrated example indicating Islam’s wideness in embracing differences of opinion is seen in the Hadith of the Companions travelling on a diplomatic mission to the Jewish tribe of the Bani Quraydha, and being instructed to make the ‘Asr prayer upon arrival.

When constricts of time became apparent, one group – saying the Prophet [SAW] had told then to hurry to the Bani Quraydha – prayed en-route. The other group, taking the Prophet’s words literally, waited until they reached their destination.

Upon their return, the Prophet [SAW] indicated that no group was in the wrong, stating that “differences of opinion in my ummah are indeed a blessing”. And whilst there are some quibbles on the authenticity of this particular statement, it has become famous enough on the tongues of the scholars to be accepted as a truism.

The modern scholar, Dr Taha Jabir al-Alwani, has written in his book on The Ethics of Disagreement in Islam that differences of opinion are an inherent feature of human nature. That is why the jurists don’t agree unanimously on the legal gradations of preferable, optional and permissible.

And whilst there are no differences on Islam’s pillars, the blessing is that the four legal schools of thought, the madha-hib, allow for diversity. Also, the Prophet [SAW] has passed on, and we take guidance from the mujtahidin, people described in Hadith as the “heirs of the prophets” in the sense that they confirm the Shari’ah.

There should be no problems here. The honour that the early jurists had for each other is instrumental in us understanding what is called adab ul-ikhtilaf, or the ethics of disagreement.

Imam Shafi’i, for instance, refused out of respect to perform the qunut – an invocation in the dawn prayer – when he was in Baghdad, the city of Abu Hanifah. Abu Hanifah regarded the Fajr qunut, which Imam Shafi’i deemed a Sunnah, as an abrogated practice.

Whilst fiqh – a man-made corpus – is resplendent with variation (dare one say healthy disputations?) there is total consensus that its bedrock, the Shari’ah, is about public welfare. And where there is no explicit liturgical guidance, one has to accept that there is some divine wisdom at play, and that many laws based on reasoning, or ijtihad, can change with time.  

It is thoroughly reprehensible, says Dr al-Wani, for a Muslim to invoke shirk, bida’h or unbelief on someone disagreeing with him. One should rather seek justification for the one who differs with him – or to embody the ethos of Imam Shafi’i, by acknowledging that one is right with the possibility of being wrong, and that your antagonist is wrong with the possibility of being right.

Indeed, as an unknown – but wise – scholar once said:  “learn the differences of the ‘ulama and allow your breast to expand”. Or to localise the thought, be a zebra at the same water hole as the elephant, the giraffe and the warthog. The source of nourishment is exactly the same, but those drinking are totally different.