Thursday, March 14, 2019



Book details Muslim scholar Tuan Guru’s life and a glimpse into the lives of the oppressed

LETTERS penned by one of the Cape’s Muslim icons, Tuan Guru, have offered evidence of colonial rule from the perspective of the oppressed.

Usually the colonial narrative, and ultimately South African history, has been informed by writings of those who ruled. But these letters, which have not been made public before, share a different first-hand experience of the Cape in the late 1700s.

Author Tuan Guru was a Muslim scholar who lived in Bo-Kaap.

He was born Abdullah bin Qadi Abd al-Salam in 1712 and was part of the royal family in Tidore, an Indonesian island.

He was popularly known as Tuan Guru, which means Master Teacher.

When Dutch colonisers landed in Tidore they banished members of the royal family, including Tuan Guru (who was 68 at the time), to the Cape when occupying their land.

Local author and journalist Shafiq Morton used the letters as research for his latest book, From the Spice Islands to Cape Town: the Life and Times of Tuan Guru.

The book details the icon’s life until his death in the Cape at 95 in 1807.

Tuan Guru is buried in the historical Tana Baru cemetery in Bo-Kaap and his descendants still live in Cape Town.

“One family showed me Tuan Guru’s kitaabs (Arabic for books), and in it we found the letters.
“We then had it translated and we were blown away,” said Morton.

“We were able to see the personality of Tuan Guru coming through.

“He was a very patient man and had a very steadfast character.

“He makes his feeling about the Dutch plain. They were his oppressor.

“He wrote duas (prayers) in Arabic and Malay against the Dutch, who would smile when the slaves recited the duas, not knowing the meaning of the words.

“The biggest thing I had to do with this book was to decolonise myself.

“The tragedy in researching history is that even in Indonesia our sources are colonial. It’s all written in Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and English.

“I had to look at those sources and re-interpret them. I had a very lopsided narrative.

“I had to start looking and thinking about what it was like for the slaves.”

Morton said Tuan Guru’s aim was to uplift the slave community’s spirit through faith and education during very tough times.

Tuan Guru, a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad, had spent his life teaching others about Islam.

He had also hand-written the Qur’an at least five times while in the Cape. One of these copies is held at the Auwal Mosque in Bo-Kaap, where he offered Islamic lessons.

“His way of getting back at the colonial authorities was to educate the community. Slave conditions at that time were dire. He had to lift his community out of that.

“He was a social activist who knew if he built up a community that it would be a form of resistance.

“His school started with over 300 pupils in Dorp Street. It was a madressa, (Islamic school) but was open to all.

“The community that he was bringing together came from African countries, India, the local Khoisan and Europeans.

“Every nation on Earth was coming to the Cape and he brought everyone together at his school. This shows you why the Cape Muslim community is so unique. It is a mixture of everybody. You will see faces from everywhere in our mosques.

“Tuan Guru should be given the freedom of the city (Cape Town) for his contribution. He started the (multi-racial) rainbow nation.”

The book’s publisher, Awqaf South Africa, said it is part of its Leaders and Legacies series, which “aims to honour our past and present leaders”.

Awqaf chief executive Zeinoul Cajee said the book series will focus on people who “made the ultimate sacrifice against Dutch and British colonisers and slave masters” as well as anti-apartheid activists.

“When history books are written, they are invariably written from the perspective of the powers that be.

“Their intention is always to portray themselves as superior beings and others as an underclass.

“They drive the idea that their history is important, their heroes are important. They would love the history of the oppressed and underclass to be obliterated, as if they had no history. We need to change that.” From the Spice Islands to Cape Town: the Life and Times of Tuan Guru launches on March 17 at the Centre for the Book in central Cape Town.

1 comment:

  1. Assalamu Alaykum Sidi Shafiq, may Allah bless you. this brings tears to my eyes as a person who grew up in awe of Tuan Guru. Every solah made at the masjid since a little boy made me wonder where Tuan Guru's favourite place to solah was. Some older folk had their ideas and legends about TuAn Guru , but I just admired the one thing that was left at the masjid which we could touch. This was his tongkat or staff used for Jumuah khutbahs. I touched it just knowing that he touched it. I was sad the day the beautiful mimbar was carried away from the Owal masjid and I believe that we should get it back returned to the Owal. A new one can be donated to the masjid where it was taken to.