Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Kashmir, the beloved motherland

Breathtaking in beauty, but spoiled by geo-politics, the tragic story of modern-day Kashmir.

WHEN the fourth Mughal Emperor, Shahenshah Jahangir or Mirza Nur al-Din Khan (1605-1627), was on his deathbed, one of his courtiers had asked him what was his most ardent desire. His rasping reply had been, “Kashmir, only Kashmir.”

The Mughals had annexed the territory in 1586, and Shahenshah Jahangir had fallen in love with Kashmir, using it to escape the oppressively hot and stuffy summers of his palace in Delhi. Indeed, for any visitor, Kashmir’s traditional hospitality and picture postcard beauty are intoxicating.

“Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast,” Emperor Jahangir is reported to have said after his first visit to Kashmir, “If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”

Fran├žois Bernier (1620-1688), a physician to the Mughals and the first European to enter Kashmir, commented in 1665 that it surpassed in beauty everything that his ‘warmest imagination’ could anticipate. A sixth century Tang Dynasty Chinese source describes Kashmir as being ‘enveloped on all sides like a precious jewel by snowy mountains’, with a valley in the south that serves as a gate to the kingdom.

Buttressed against the Hindu Kush – or the western Himalayas – which soar to nearly 8,000 metres, geographical Kashmir has a northern mountainous zone consisting of the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Himalayas, the rugged Ladakh district to the east and the valley region to the southwest. The Indus River, which flows through Pakistan into the Bay of Bengal, rises from the Siachen glacier in the Karakoram.

Central position

By virtue of its central position in Asia, Kashmir commands a strategic location: it is bordered by Afghanistan to the northwest, the Sinkiung-Uighur region of China to the east, Pakistan to the west and India to the south. It also stands on the centuries’ old Central Asian trade route, and long caravans used to trek annually between the plains of India and the high, snowy reaches of Central Asia.

Kashmir enjoys a rich and variegated history. It is one of the homes of Sanskrit, the oldest-known human language. Sanskrit is regarded as the argot of Hinduism, where it was said to be a means of communication by the Hindu gods, and then used by the ancient Indo-Aryans. Sanskrit was also the written language of the Buddhists, who moved into Kashmir from China.

Kashmir is the only region to have a complete written historical record going back well over 3,000 years, the historian Kalhana recording its dynasties. This led to the 11th century Islamic scholar and geographer, Al-Biruni, to remark that the Indians to the south lacked a sense of history.

Kashmir was known to the Greeks via Alexander the Great. The Roman historian, Ptolemy, mentioned it in his writings. Genghis Khan’s armies swept through in the 12th century, depopulating vast tracts of countryside. Timur, the Turco-Mongol conqueror having razed Delhi to the ground in 1398, contracted boils when he travelled into Kashmir, and had to traverse the Hindu Kush in a palanquin, instead of his horse.

Kashmir, translated from the Sanskrit, means a land dried up of water: ‘ka’ (water) and ‘shimeera’ (to dry up). Tradition says that Kashmir was originally a lake called ‘Satisara’ that was drained by the great saint of ancient India, Kashyap. Interestingly, modern geological science reveals that Kashmir was once a lake.

In a letter sent to Maharajah Hari Singh on 27 October, the Governor-General of India, Lord Mountbatten accepted the accession, saying, ‘it is my Government's wish that as soon as law and order have been restored …the question of the state’s accession should be settled by a reference to the people.’

That ‘reference’ – despite Indian promises of a plebiscite by Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947 – has never come, and 70 years later, it is still an open question as Kashmir lurches from crisis to crisis, and India and Pakistan from war-to-war, the indigenous civilian population suffering the brunt of systematic state terror. It has taken a heavy toll, with 41,000 people having died due to clashes in the past 27 years alone, at an average of four conflict-related funerals per day.

Resistance against occupation in Kashmir has taken a heavy human  toll. Pic: csspmspk.com
The Indian army, seen as an unwelcome occupying entity, has been fingered in numerous human rights reports. Significantly, no army officer has ever been prosecuted in a civil court for crimes against civilians, or human rights abuse, in Kashmir.

In 1993, Human Rights Watch reported that Indian security forces had assaulted civilians, tortured prisoners, summarily executed detainees and killed civilians in ‘reprisal attacks’.  Resistance fighters had also targeted civilians, but to a far lesser extent than Indian security forces. In fact, an examination of human rights reports shows up a litany of mass killings, massacres, enforced disappearances, suppression of freedoms and rape used as a weapon of intimidation.

This year, the United Nations, in its first ever report on human rights in Indian and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, said that there was an urgent need to address past and ongoing human rights violations. Justice had to be delivered to all people in Kashmir, who for seven decades had suffered in the deadly conflict.

The 49-page report details human rights violations and abuses on both sides of the Line of Control, and highlights a situation of chronic impunity for violations committed by security forces.

“The political dimensions of the dispute between India and Pakistan have long been centre-stage, but this is not a conflict frozen in time. It is a conflict that has robbed millions of their basic human rights, and continues to this day to inflict untold suffering,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein in a damning indictment, rejected by the Indian government.

However, despite the abuses and the killings, Kashmiris carry on with their daily lives. As the blogger, Moazam Iqbal, writes:

In the midst of all this, life goes on. People go to offices, bazaars, on picnics, weddings, schools, banks. People laugh, cry; they get angry, all felt as anyone else (in the world) feels. And yeah, in cricket matches, we support Pakistan. NOT because we are Pakistanis, NOT because we want Kashmir to be part of Pakistan. We just like to see the (Indian) army guys in grief (lol)…

Kashmir was a Hindu and Buddhist stronghold for centuries until the advent of Islam. The Ummayad general, Imad al-Din Muhammad ibn Qasim, was the first to enter Kashmir in the early 8th century, this after establishing himself in Pakistan’s Sind and Multan districts. The Ummayads made their last attempt to occupy Kashmir during the Caliphate of Hisham (724-53), but failed.

Mahmud of Ghazni, originally from southeast Afghanistan, also made attempts to subjugate Kashmir by force in 1015, and again in 1021, but like the Ummayads, could make no headway. However, by the time of the Ghaznavid invasions, Muslims had permanently settled in Kashmir.


It is to the Sufis that the people of Kashmir became attracted to, luminaries such as Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahman, who arrived from Turkistan circa 1324. His shrine is located in Srinagar at a place called ‘Bulbul Lankar’. A local myth about the Shaykh is that he would become so engrossed in prayer that a nightingale (a bulbul) would sit on his head.

In Kashmir, there were six main Sufi Orders: the Qadiriyyah, the Suhrawardiyyah, the Kubrawiyyah, the Naqshbandiyyah, the Nurbakshiyyah and the Rishiyyah. While the first five originated from Iran and Turkistan, the sixth one – the Rishiyyah – was an indigenous development. ‘Rishi’ is originally a Sanskrit word denoting ‘sage’, but understood generically as Sufi.

An important 16th century chronicler, Abul Fadl, wrote that the most respected people in Kashmir were the Rishis. He noted that they followed Shari’ah, and did not denounce other faiths. He added that they ‘did not have the tongue of desire’, and planted fruit-bearing trees so that the public could obtain benefit from them. They abstained from meat in deference to the Hindus, and did not marry.

Among Rishis, the most famous was Shaykh Nur al-Din, affectionately called ‘Nandrishi’. He preached communal harmony, non-violence and tolerance. His shrine – visited by Hindus and Muslims alike – is located in Chrar-e-Sharif, a small town adversely affected by the ongoing conflict. Also a famous poet, Shaykh Nur al-Din once wrote:

We belong to the same parents.
Then why this difference?
Let Hindus and Muslims (together)
Worship God alone.
We came to this world like partners.
We should have shared our joys
And sorrows, together.

Historically, the relationship between the more expansive Sufis and the conservative ‘ulama has not always been cordial. But whereas Sufis were often pushed to the margins, in Kashmir they were dominant. This empowered Shaykh Nur al-Din, for instance, to condemn Mullahs who recited the Qur’an for money, as hypocrites and criminals.

Kashmir would experience Muslim rule from 1339 until 1819, a total of 480 years. The founding Mir Shah dynasty would be followed by the Mughals in 1586, the Afghan Durrani Empire in 1747 and the largely secular Sikh Empire in 1819, who took over Kashmir until its defeat to the British in 1846.


The era of 19th century colonialism would tear Kashmir apart. With its natural beauty and economic promise, Kashmir would become a contested territory, its local inhabitants the biggest victims of a continental power struggle, now between Britain’s colonial stepchildren – India and Pakistan. China would annex a chunk of its eastern flank, Aksai Chin, during the Mao era.

Today, Kashmir is a partitioned state, and the Kashmiris – like the Palestinians, the Kurds and the Rohinghyas – are a partitioned and marginalised people. India controls 43 per cent of its territory, Pakistan 37 per cent and the Republic of China 20 per cent. The population of Jammu (occupied by India) is 12 million, Azad (occupied by Pakistan) four million. Aksai Chin, which is a high altitude desert with acidic soda lakes, is largely unpopulated.

The Indian occupied sector has two capitals, Srinagar (summer) and Jammu (winter), whilst Azad Kashmir has Muzaffarabad as its chief city. The economy of Kashmir is somewhat moribund due to the conflict, though tourism is still its main money spinner, together with agriculture and handicrafts such as carpets and the famous Kashmiri shawls.  

Politically, the ultimate Kashmiri injustice – and the roots of today’s conflict – are to be found in 1846 when Gulab Singh, an influential noble in the court of Ranjit Singh Dogra of Lahore, would buy Kashmir from the British East India Company as a personal fiefdom for 75 lakhs (about R 1.4 million) in the Treaty of Amritsar. It seems to have been a really good ‘deal’ for some 2, 22,236 square kilometres of ‘real estate’, also involving an annual payment of one horse, twelve goat shawls and three Kashmiri scarves.

Muhammad Iqbal, the famous Pakistani poet who was of Kashmiri descent, sadly lamented what he aptly called ‘the sale of Kashmir’:  Their fields, their crops, their stream/ Even the peasant in the vale/ They sold, they sold all / Alas, how cheap was the Sale!

Lieutenant Robert Thorpe, an officer in the British-India army of Kashmiri parentage, wrote in his 80-page book, Cashmeer Misgovernment, that the Treaty of Amritsar was a wanton outrage, a gross injustice and an act of tyrannical oppression. He died in Srinagar in 1868, under suspicious circumstances, and is regarded as the first anti-occupation martyr in Kashmir.


Gulab Singh’s accession to power was greeted with massive disquiet, as he was a Hindu regent foisted upon a Muslim majority, with resentment not only building up in Kashmir, but also neighbouring Pakistan. In 1931, the first mass protests began, sparking local resistance and Pakistan calling for Muslim-dominant areas to enjoy autonomous rule.

By 1947, the grandson of Gulab Singh, Mahajarah Hari Singh, could no longer contain the simmering discontent. People in the Jammu Province engaged in the historically forgotten, and deliberately ignored, indigenous Poonch uprising. The Muslim Poonchis of western Jammu liberated large areas from the Maharaj's control, creating what would become Azad Kashmir. In the upheaval there was a spate of inter-religious violence, resulting in the deaths, and possible massacres, of thousands of Muslims. 

On 26 October, Mahajarah Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession. It granted Delhi dominion of Kashmir without the consent of the people, and the Indian army marched into Kashmir, never to leave. The agreement was regarded by India as legal under the provisions of its Independence Act, but as outright fraud by Pakistan leader, Muhammad ‘Ali Jinnah.

Indeed, tap into the heart of any Kashmiri and the desire for freedom beats proudly in every chest, young or old. To most Kashmiris, India and Pakistan are the same – two ego-driven countries fighting over a piece of land that doesn’t belong to either of them.

Go into the streets of Srinagar, Jammu, Muzaffarabad – or any town or village from the Hindu Kush to the lowest valley – Kashmiris will tell you that in this battle, it is Kashmir and the Kashmiris who have suffered, not India or Pakistan. They want the conflict to end. They want peace and stability, law and order, economic development. And, finally, one thing is made abundantly clear: no one is going anywhere, Kashmir is the beloved motherland.

                                                                                          The article first appeared in the Habibia Mosque Diary 2018-19.

Saudi Arabia: the devil we know, and the one we fear

The house in Madinah where the Prophet's son, Ibrahim, was born to Mariyah al-Qibt (Mariah the Copt). In 1997 it was was a pile of rubble.
WHEN I first visited Saudi Arabia in the 1980s it was like no other place I had ever travelled to. I landed in Jeddah early one January to perform an ‘umrah, the minor pilgrimage.  I was anxious, but starry eyed just as any first timer to the homeland of Islam would be.

I have the fondest memories of my first ‘umrah, but it also educated me about the house of Sa’ud. Outside my hotel in Makkah, which was opposite the Bab ul-Salam gate, I would see the morals police, the mutawwi’un, in action. One day, they forcibly dragged a hapless, squirming pilgrim out of a phone booth during the call for prayer.

The indiscriminate demolition of Makkah and Madinah in the name of progress had just commenced, and there were still lots of the old buildings with their exquisitely carved wooden mashrabiyyah. In Madinah, I could walk a few minutes from my hotel and still find shaded date palm groves.

It was on the ziyarah, the visit to the historical sites of Madinah, that the shocking truth emerged. The sites were in a state of neglect and entry to them was often forbidden by padlocks. In any other country, other than Saudi Arabia, these precious historical places would have been preserved. It was like the pope locking up the Sistine Chapel, or the Orthodox Church allowing the Holy Sepulchre to fall down.

Here, in Saudi Arabia, they were being deliberately allowed to go to dust before being bulldozed into oblivion. Over the next two decades, we would see over 300 sacred sites disappear.

But then, Saudi Arabia is a country named after a family that is only accountable to itself. The abridged history is that in the late 1700s the house of Sa’ud joined forces with a wayward and shunned cleric, ‘Abdullah ibn al-Wahhab, to stamp its tribal authority.

The wily Bedouin chieftain, Ibn Sa’ud, realised that Ibn al-Wahhab’s innovative reduction of Islam to primitive absolutes could be the opiate of his ikhwan, his camel cavalry of half-naked desert brigands. They would go on to conduct massacres across the region in the name of faith, but in reality political ambition.

It was Ibn al-Wahhab, condemned by even his own family, who deemed that honouring historical relics and sites was polytheism, and that they had to be destroyed. Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s dictum was as blunt as a cudgel: you were either for him, or against him – which meant that being an infidel, your blood became permissible. This was a violation of the Qur’anic principle – reflected in Chapters 2 and 109 – of live and let others live.

On my first visit, I was exposed to Saudi society via family ties. It was through them that I learnt there were Hijazis, who unlike the Saudi Najdis, were descendants of the Prophet, the Quraysh and the four Caliphs. They were people who hailed from the western regions, which included Jeddah and the Holy Cities. They were not Saudi, and hated being called so. They would celebrate the Prophet’s birthday (banned by the authorities) in secret.

I remember mentioning the name of the king in a restaurant and being immediately silenced. “Don’t ever do that again!” urged my host. He explained that a neighbour’s son had publically criticised the royals.  He had been detained and had disappeared without trace.

Indeed, as appalling as it may sound, the question arises as to why we should ever be surprised by the fate of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, brutally mudered inside Istanbul Saudi Embassy? Fear and loathing – and enforced disappearance – has been on the Saudi street for decades, at least since the 1980s.

After a second visit to Saudi in 1997, and witnessing further scorched-earth obliterations of our Islamic heritage, I initiated a series of programmes called ‘Notebooks from Makkah and Madinah’ on Voice of the Cape, and then wrote a book of the same name in 2005.

In it, I warned of our fast diminishing heritage and the growing monster of Saudi extremism injecting itself into the Sunni mainstream. It was a very lonely space. No one seemed to care enough, and there were few voices speaking out.

It is my view that we in the Muslim world – greedy for royal handouts since the 1970s and often compromised by them – are chiefly instrumental in our own decay and intellectual demise. Future generations will go on pilgrimage and not find any heritage; nor will they have any sense of our history, or understanding of our rich academic and legal traditions.

But now the dollar donations are drying up, and Saudi Arabia – with its missionary zealots having foisted an Arabised curse called Wahhabism upon us all – has to face its own demons, Al-Qaeda and ISIS blow-back, a youth bulge of 60% and a gathering clamour of domestic discontent.

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, a callow 33 year-old seen as a benign reformer by deluded journalists such as Thomas Friedman, has not proved to be the man of the hour as everybody had hoped for. He has turned out to be a despot, prone to political impulsiveness and brutality, particularly in war-torn Yemen – which has been reduced to mass starvation by his intervention.

For Saudis right now, their future is bleak – and presents a curious Hobson’s choice of two devils:  the one we know, and the one we fear. The one we know is the royal family being able to hold the country together with genuine reform, despite its internal divisions, and albeit with very frayed authority in a country where the centre has to hold.

The second, the one we fear, is what I call the ‘Syria-Libya option’. This will be an uprising met by bloodshed and a failed state scenario, with the central Najdi tribes and jihadi groups turning on each other in a bloody battle for diminishing resources. In the latter scenario, the oil price will most likely rocket to beyond 300 dollars a barrel, and plunge the world deep into economic crisis.

The only positives are that the US, Saudi Arabia’s biggest ally, can no longer afford to look the other way, and that the world – because of the enforced disappearance of a journalist – is finally seeing Saudi Arabia for the pariah state that it has always been. And as calls for Crown Prince Bin Salman’s head grow louder, we can only hold our breaths and hope for the best. 

Also published in Muslim Views, Cape Town.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Celebrating Riverside: the Caravan of Love

Riverside mosque, on the banks of the Umgeni in Durban, first built by Sufi Saheb in 1895. 

TODAY we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Group Areas Act at Riverside, "The Rise, the Fall and the Resurrection of the Habibia Soofie Darbaar". The Group Areas Act was a particularly hateful aspect of apartheid legislation that displaced and divided millions of South Africans.

Riverside, on the banks of the Umgeni River outside Durban, was chosen by Hajji Shah Goolam Mohamed Soofie Siddiqui – or Sufi Saheb – in 1895 to be a spiritual oasis for a people in need of solace. From here, Sufi Saheb would bless the community with eleven mosques, 13 schools and an orphanage.

Sufi Saheb, as we all know, arrived here from Hyderabad on the inspired orders of his Shaykh, Hazrat Khwaja Habib ‘Ali [ra].

On a personal note, Riverside has always been a place of calm and consolation – especially when I stayed in Durban in 1986 after the 1985 uprisings. The legacy of Sufi Saheb is a great one, a living one – alhamdullilah – which makes me equally humbled to be in his presence, and in your presence.

In today’s talk I have decided to take a historical approach to explain in context why we are here today, and what lessons the Group Areas Act teaches us about ourselves in our challenging world. My talk is entitled the “Caravan of Love”.


AS WITH all stories, we start with ‘one upon a time’, for once upon a time – before Donald Trump – we were a mobile species migrating freely across oceans, land-bridges and continents.

We were migrating for many reasons: because of changes in climate; in search of better grazing for our herds; to avoid famine and to avoid poverty. And, naturally, we were migrating to escape oppression; and of course, being human, some of us were migrating in search of wealth and power. 

Colonialism – the godfather of apartheid – was also a migration, but it was the practice of acquiring control over another territory, occupying it with foreign settlers, and then exploiting it economically at the expense of the locals. Israel is the best surviving example.

The motivating factor for the colonial expansion of Europe, which mutated into apartheid in South Africa, was the extraction of minerals and resources that Europe did not have, such as gold, oil, spices, iron-ore, diamonds and cotton.  

Therefore, the exploration of the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French and the British – from the 15th century onwards – was a race for goods, raw materials and wealth. This would lead to the European Industrial Revolution, urbanisation, mass production and the French Revolution of the late 1700s.


The New World explorers, ironically often guided by Muslim navigators, saw themselves as racially, religiously and economically superior. This Orientalism can be traced back to a series of edicts issued by the Vatican from 1452 until 1508. 

In 1452, the Pope authorised Portugal to attack, conquer, and to subjugate Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ wherever they could be found. In 1508 it sanctioned the Spanish to do exactly the same.

The hard facts of history (we are not being anti-Catholic) tell us there was a determined drive into what Prince Henry the Navigator called the ‘Arab Sea’. The Pope’s keen interest was based on the Vatican wanting to retain its political grip on Europe. The Pope, the ‘supreme leader’, was being seriously challenged by Protestant breakaways and the Ottoman Empire.

What I have briefly described here provides us with the early historical context of our eventual South African experience. Southeast Asia, India, North America, South America, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East and Africa would be all subjected to European expansionism.  

To this effect, the Portuguese reached the Cape in 1488. The Portuguese met Khoi resistance and wisely stayed away, but the Dutch East India Company landed in 1652 to use the Cape as a replenishment station for its fleets.

The Dutch might have been Calvinist and anti-Catholic, but they did, however, share the same cultural chauvinism as the Catholic conquistadors. The British took over from the Dutch at the Cape in 1806.

Out of this – and I am simplifying things greatly – arose a group of discontented Dutch settlers. They spoke a form of Dutch borrowed from the streets called Afrikaans. The British presence at the Cape made the Dutch settlers feel marginalised. This would spark the Great Trek of the 1830s.

As a result, large ox-wagon trains pushed into the South African hinterland in an exodus said to have Biblical proportions. The reality was land seizure and bloody conflict with local houses such as the amaXhosa, the amaTshatshu, the amaPondo and the amaZulu. In South Africa, like Palestine, there was no land without a people for a people without a land. Nonetheless, this did not prevent the Afrikaners from establishing Boer Republics in the Free State and Transvaal.

Afrikaner as a 'chosen people'

Stephen du Toit, a founding member of the secret Afrikaner Broederbond, penned the idea in the Afrikaner Patriot of 1876 that the Afrikaner was a distinct nation – or ‘volk’. It had a fatherland, South Africa, and its own language, Afrikaans. The Afrikaner was a chosen people. The destiny of the volk, he said, was to rule South Africa.

The Boer republics lived peaceably alongside the British until 1867 and the disruptive discovery of diamonds and gold. The first Boer War was waged in the Transvaal Republic in 1880, and the second nation-wide one from 1899 to 1902. It saw the Afrikaner crushed by the ‘scorched earth’ policies of Earl Kitchener, who razed Boer properties to the ground and established ‘concentration camps’ for surviving women and children.

Some 25,000 men were exiled to St Helena island, and over 25,000 (mainly children) would perish in the South African camps. Up to 100,000 blacks would also be interned, with an equally alarming number of fatalities. Time, unfortunately, does not allow us to explore this aspect of our history further.

As evidenced, the Afrikaners suffered deeply, experiencing great poverty after the war. But the dream of the volk did not die. The atrocities of the Boer War gave Afrikaner Nationalism impetus, as did Hitler’s rule of anti-Jewish terror spur Nationalist Zionism, two neo-colonial projects that were both given life in 1948.

Barry Hertzog led the Afrikaner National Party in the 1915 and 1920 elections under the Trump-like slogan, ‘South Africa first’ – for which we have to read ‘white first’. In the 1924 elections, he defeated the South African Party led by General Jan Smuts.  

In 1934, the United Party was formed by a merger of Prime Minister Hertzog’s National Party with the South African Party of General Smuts. In 1939 things came to head when Hertzog refused to commit South Africa to Britain's war effort against Nazi Germany, and resigned.

In 1948, after the Second World War, the National Party wrested power again at the ballot box. It immediately embarked on an ‘Afrikanerisation’ process of economic empowerment. It saw the birth of the Reddingsdaad Fund and the creation of SANTAM and the Volkskas Bank, now known as ABSA.

In the meantime, there had been other developments – particularly in KwaZulu Natal. For between 1860 and 1911, over 150, 000 contracted labourers from India had arrived in Natal to work in the cane fields, this after the local peoples had proved resistant to the idea.

No context given

I feel that there has been insufficient interrogation as to why these Indian labourers would be prepared to work in a distant land. It baffles me that no context has ever been given as to why Indian workers would actually agree to come to South Africa.

British economist, Angus Maddison, tells us that in the early 1700s India had been the richest country on earth, providing 27 per cent of global income (compared to Europe’s 23 per cent). After colonialism, this percentage slipped to three per cent. From being one of the richest countries, India went to being one of the poorest.

What hit India hardest during the Raj era of ‘state capture’ was a series of famines. In 1769, the Bengal famine wiped out 10 million, one-third of its population. The Chalisa famine of 1782, which affected the regions of Punjab, Delhi and Kashmir, experienced 11 million fatalities.

In 1792, the Madras, or ‘Skull’ famine, wiped out 11 million in Gujerat and Hyderabad. The Agra famine of 1837 decimated nearly a million, and the Eastern Rajputana one in 1860, two million.

What these human tragedies tell us is that by the time Indian labourers set sail for Durban, already over 33 million of their countrymen had perished – a social catastrophe bigger in scale than the current Syrian, Rohingyan, Uighur or Yemeni crises. These famines would wipe out nearly 20 per cent of the total population, with famines in India resulting in more than 60 million deaths up until the early 20th century.

So I believe the migration to South Africa by the Indian community came on the back of man-induced famine. Ironically, this was not caused by a shortage of food, but by racial arrogance and bad governance.

Florence Nightingale and Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen, assert that the famines in the British era were due to the undemocratic nature of the Empire, and its inability, or unwillingness, to provide infrastructure to transport food.

White resentment

But things would be challenging in South Africa too. Growing white resentment at Indian presence and economic activity, something that had begun as early as 1885, resulted in the passing of the Asiatic Land Tenure Act of 1946. Indians had not been affected by the 1913 Land Act, which had restricted black South African land ownership, and destroyed its middle class.

The Asiatic Land Tenure Act denied the right to purchase property in areas controlled by whites. Furthermore, Indians were only allowed to lease land in these controlled areas for trading purposes. The act, as we all know, came to be called the ‘Ghetto Act’, a precursor to its bigger brother, the Group Areas Act.

The Group Areas Act was promulgated on 9 July 1950 and it became the geographical driver of apartheid. It divided up cities and towns into racially segregated suburbs and townships. Places such as Sophiatown, Cato Manor and District Six became icons of community memory.

It is difficult to know exactly how many South Africans were affected by forced removals. Some estimated figures are three to four million, but these numbers can never measure the amount of suffering, psychological trauma and social devastation that went with it – and still haunts us today in the violence and anger we see in poorer areas.  


And of course, we cannot forget the Bantustans. They were legislated in 1951. Bantustans saw over 80% of the population confined to 13% of the land. The Group Areas Act became a writhing Medusa’s head, an ‘Afro’ of hissing legal snakes. From 1952 to 1984 the Act was changed, or amended, a staggering 18 times.

A paper delivered by GM Naicker at the Natal Indian Congress of 1956 provides us with salient details of forced removals in Durban. Indians were to be dispossessed of 4,608 acres of land and 3,873 dwellings. Nearly 58,000 Indians and 81,000 Africans would be affected in urban areas, and 7,000 outside the city.

Briardene, Prospect Hall and Riverside are also mentioned in the paper. 6,000 Indians and 5,000 blacks had to be moved off 480 acres and out of 400 dwellings.

The heart-breaking news that Riverside, like so many established communities, would have to move would have been shattering. I struggle to find words to describe it. The image of the Moghul-style gateway to Riverside lying in ruins is a hugely poignant image. To lose your home is the most devastating blow any human can suffer. I remember my first visit to Riverside being tinged with a sadness that seemed to rise up from the soil.

The Riverside gateway. Bulldozed in 1968. Resurrected in 2010 with some of its original pieces.
I can only imagine the hard work that must have gone into preserving the memory of Sufi Saheb during those troubled years, when we had a government that wanted to bulldoze our very souls into the ground. Our prayers are with all those who never allowed the legacy of a great man to be forgotten.

Finally, I want to take us to modern times, the era of instant material gratification, social media bigotry, Facebook racism, religious extremism, fake news, massive geo-political upheaval and widespread economic stress.

Indeed, things may look bad, but there is still a lot to look forward to. My Shaykh, the late Sayyid Muhammad ‘Alawi al-Maliki, once told us – that despite the bad things in the world – there were good things too. We are not a people of pessimism, he would always say. We are a people of hope. I know that Sufi Saheb would agree with this.

As a Muslim community in South Africa, I feel that we have a glass that is half full, as opposed to being half empty. Firstly, take a look around you. We were not in Bosnia’s killing fields during the 90s. We are not in genocidal Burma. We are not in a Uighur camp. We are not in Gaza, Syria, Yemen or Libya. Nor are we fighting terrorist stereotypes in the right-wing democracies of US and Europe.

Today we are free to have a social function here today. I am free to give a speech. The imam is free to pray. Nobody will shoot us, teargas us or ask us to disperse.

We enjoy more freedom and more recognition than any other community 

I have travelled in the Muslim world, as well as to some of these democracies. I can assure you that in South Africa – as 4% of the national population – we enjoy more freedom and more constitutional recognition than any other community I know. But there is a price we have to pay. It is called active citizenship.

The late Maulana Igshan Hendricks, former head of the Cape Muslim Judicial Council, was a great believer in what he called the ‘fiqh of citizenship’, the relation of a Muslim to a non-Muslim state. Ebrahim Rasool, former US ambassador, has spoken about us living in a ‘Dar ul-Shahadah’, a place where we can practice our faith without interference.

Their views are supported by the famous Mardin Fatwa of the 13th century scholar, Ibn Taimiyya, which fully condones the principle of Muslim minorities living under friendly rulers.

However, our freedoms are granted to us on the condition that we honour them. It means we have to respect other beliefs and dignify other races. We have to keep our public leaders accountable. We have to look after the poor. We have to house the homeless. These are all things that apartheid, and the Group Areas Act, tried to take away from us: our humanity, our tolerance and our freedom to think.

In fact, the maqasid – the purposes of the Shari’ah – show us exactly how to be citizens. Shari’ah, or Sacred Law, was never instituted to punish people (which so many mistakenly believe), but rather – as Imam Jawzi and so many others have said – as a relief, or a mercy. For that reason, the maqasid are: the sanctity of life, the sanctity of faith, the sanctity of family, the sanctity of wealth, the sanctity of the intellect and the sanctity of the human character.   

This is Shari’ah, this is citizenship – not the cutting of limbs, the burning of mosques, the bombing of shopping centres, or calling others kafir and demeaning other peoples because they are different to us.

What we have to understand is that in South Africa, democracy is not the end point, or the end game. It the mere starting point on a continuum of human growth, economic 
empowerment and education. It is understanding our diversity as a strength. It is not being divided and ruled. It is creating a society underpinned by inclusivity. For it to succeed, South African democracy has to be a work in progress. We need to understand that.

Ghettoised identities

To guarantee our freedoms, we have to move away from our ghettoised identities, for they were imposed upon us by colonial and apartheid masters – we did not choose them. We did not choose to be called Malay, Indian, Coloured, white or black. South Africa is the very place where we shouldn’t have to indulge in this crude minority or majority discourse.

What I mean by this is that we are South Africans, first and foremost – black or white, Jew, Hindu, Christian or Muslim. We are able to say that we are South Africans first because we have a Constitution that guarantees our identity. We do not share the insecurities of other communities around the globe. Therefore, we do not need our sectarian identities to define us.

I believe that Hazrat Badsha Peer – who spread faith to those in the street – and Sufi Saheb – who built institutions – would agree with us today, 50 years after the horrors of the Group Areas Act at Riverside. These were men, great Sufis, who did not see the straightness of our hair, the colour of our skin or our social position. These were men more concerned about the state of our hearts. And their love for us all was an unconditional love.

I think love is a good departure point, because it was love that apartheid tried to deny us. We are all from Adam [as], and his prophetic light has passed through the DNA of all humanity to the Prophet Muhammad [SAW], a mercy to all peoples and to all things. For as the distinguished Andalusian Sufi, Ibn al-‘Arabi, has said:

 My heart is open to every form: it is a pasture for the gazelles, and
             a cloister for Christian monks, a temple for idols, the Ka’bah of the
             pilgrim, the tables of the Torah, and the books of the Qur’an. I practice
the religion of Love; in whatsoever direction His caravans advance, the
religion of Love shall be my religion and my faith.

The graves of Sufi Saheb and his beloved mother.
The maqam, or burial place of Sufi Saheb, Durban, South Africa.

Riverside today.

All photos © Shafiq Morton 2018.

Review: remembering Allah, but being told not to

IT is a damning indictment on the state of things when Shaykh Yusuf da Costa notes in his introduction to The Remembrance of Allah Almighty, a translation of Imam al-Mundhiri’s work on the subject, that dhikr has become a dying tradition due to Wahhabi acolytes in our midst condemning congregational dhikrs.

His view is more than anecdotal. For his observation is based on outreach into South Africa’s cities and towns over the last decade. This gutting of communal tradition has toxic side-effects, like the lure of drugs and gangsterism – and as in the apparent case of Verulam – homage to the Islamic State.

In this work, which has a useful commentary by Mustapha Muhammad Amarah, the reader is shown the textual proofs for the value of remembering Allah, as well of some of the more celebrated dhikrs themselves.

Imam al-Hafiz ‘Abd al-‘Alim al-Mundhiri was a 12th century master of Prophetic tradition. This makes The Remembrance of Allah Almighty a weighty contribution, now accessible in English.

It is a soothing read – and a highly recommended text for our local imams – that offers us cool waters of hope and consolation. From its first pages, we are presented various traditions on the merits of dhikr, directly from the lips of the Prophet [SAW]. Ibn Mundhiri, for example, quotes Ibn Jabir reporting that the Prophet [SAW] had once said:

“A human being does not commit a deed that could save him more from punishment than the remembrance of Allah Almighty.” It was asked (by the Companions): “Not even fighting in the way of Allah?” To which the Prophet [SAW] replied: “Not fighting in the way of Allah, even if one hits with one’s sword until it breaks up.”

After establishing the merits of dhikr, the author takes us to the tahlil, ‘la ilaha illallah’ (there is no God except Allah), a simple proclamation easy to recite, but loaded with reward and benefit. Ibn Mundhiri quotes an overwhelming amount of sources on this subject, but a Hadith concerning the Prophet Nuh [as] stands out.

According the Prophet [SAW], Nabi Nuh had told his sons to recite the tahlil, saying that its utterance (with sincerity) would have massive import, so much so that if it were to be placed on the scale of the heavens and the earth, it would outweigh them. Further traditions talk of the tahlil providing relief, and the promise of Paradise.

The author also introduces the reader to various dhikrs – all known to us – that are recommended to be recited at certain times of the day. What stands out in the text is that Ibn Mundhiri does not overload us with long works. Every brief dhikr that he recommends finds an equivalent in validated sources.

For example, the author spends some time elucidating on the merits of simply reciting ‘la hawla wala quwwata illah billah’ (there is no Power except from Allah). We are told, via tradition, that it is the door, the treasure – and in one case –one of the trees of Paradise.
“(Create) the vegetation of Paradise for its water is sweet and its soil is rich, so create many of its plants,” the Prophet [SAW] tells his Companions about the qualities of ‘la hawla wala quwwata illah billah’.

Ibn Mundhiri elucidates the merits of the istighfar, the process of humbling oneself and asking for forgiveness. Again, his treatment of the topic is accessible, understandable and clearly set out. In the commentary, we are informed that istighfar is an ointment; it stops Iblis in his tracks, it offers solace, and it removes the rust of the heart.

Ibn Mundhiri provides plenty Qur’anic evidence of the blessings of dhikr, and some of its rewarding characteristics. For instance, he quotes the verse from Surah Talaq: “For those who fear Allah, He prepares a way out, and He provides for him from (sources) he never could imagine…”

This verse was revealed after one of the Companion’s sons, ‘Awf, had been captured and the Prophet [SAW] had told him to recite ‘la hawla wala quwwata illah billah’. The revelation had come after ‘Awf had been able to free himself and escape with a herd of camels.

The book concludes with a section featuring the futuwwa of numerous scholars endorsing the act of communal dhikr, as well as the performing of dhikr aloud in congregation. The proofs in support of it are overwhelming, from all schools of thought and all persuasions.

The book concludes with a section by Shaykh Gibril Haddad, which explains the permissibility of uttering the word ‘Allah’ on its own, something criticised by the reductionists as bid’ah. His final words, which conclude the translation of Ibn Mundhiri’s work, are symptomatic of exactly why The Remembrance of Allah Almighty has been presented to us:

“The time of Al-Qiyamah (the Last Days) is approaching now. Hundreds of signs have appeared and one of them is that people leave the glorification of God. And sufferings rain down upon them. Then they ask for treatment by drugs. All illnesses go away by glorifying the Lord. Through your love for the Lord you will reach health, pleasure and happiness, here and hereafter.”

The Remembrance of Allah Almighty is a welcome and timely addition to our literature of understanding Allah, and is a must for your bookshelf.

Available at Timbuktu Bookshops,Cape Town. 
Or call 27-74-859854