Being a Muslim in South Africa

This is a view from a layman, an average Muslim, who was born and raised in South Africa. This is not the view of an academic, or a scholar, nor someone that holds any other identifiable titles as a Muslim, other than being one of the masses.

Given the generalisations about Islam in South Africa, I thought it prudent to share some real life experiences and observations about living here as a Muslim.

Islam was introduced into South Africa over 300 years ago by a Malaysian political prisoner that was banished to South Africa from his own country. He is commonly known as Sheikh Yusuf. He was largely responsible for establishing unity amongst the other Muslim prisoners or slaves that were brought to South Africa under the auspices of the Dutch colonisers back then. I’m not a history boffin, so suffice to say that this is largely accepted as the beginnings of Islam in this part of the world, in Cape Town to be specific.

Muslims from India were also amongst the indentured labourers brought to South Africa by the British colonialists. They subsequently established the biggest Indian community outside of India which is in Durban, on the South African east coast. A thriving and very active Muslim community exists there these days. So from the two opposite ends of the country, the Shafi’ee madhab was entrenched in the lives of the Muslim community in Cape Town with a strong Malaysian culture, while the Hanafi madhab was entrenched in Durban with a strong Indian culture. 

From these two areas, Islam spread throughout South Africa with mosques and communities existing in every major city and most rural areas as well. Offshoots of these communities have dabbled in Sufism and have largely focused on establishing community services and charity organisations. Many large and very beneficial organisations that provide and facilitate burial services, orphanages, mosques, madrasahs and other essential services stem from the Sufi groups. However, there is also an active engagement across all communities of all madhaib throughout South Africa that play an active role in establishing such structures and support systems for Muslims in their communities.

The overall culture in South Africa is largely conservative with a strong focus on individual piety in the Indian communities, with a more overt community-focused culture in the Malay communities. Limited success has been noted in the spread of Islam to the indigenous black communities in South Africa, with this largely being blamed on the same conservative and insular nature that was engendered in the Muslim communities as a result of apartheid. One of the benefits, but also curses of apartheid was that it strengthened communities of similar racial backgrounds, but in so doing, also led to very little efforts focused on inviting other race groups to Islam. Hence the relatively stagnant pace at which Islam has grown in the country over the last few decades.

There is a significant interest being shown by other race groups in Islam these days, with reverts becoming more common than ever before. However, the Indian and Malay sub-cultures often isolates reverts from the rest of the Muslim communities when it comes to social events, but not when it comes to integration in the mosques. It’s a strange mix that takes some getting used to. Not that I’m condoning it in any way.

Generally, there is no shortage of bid’ah and bickering in many parts of various communities as is existent in Muslim communities throughout the world. But there is also a concerted effort by many to break the silence and the dogmatic following of tradition in the way Islam is practised here. Politically, Muslims enjoy freedom of religion and are able to practise Islam openly. The sight of women in hijab and niqab in shopping malls and public spaces throughout the country is not a rare sight at all.

The Tableeghi Jamaat is active predominantly in the Indian community, and have their own mixed bag of successes and failures regarding the ideas and principles that they seem to propagate. But I guess this is true about many groups and not just them. Overall, for a Muslim, South Africa is generally a very tolerant place to live, and the Muslim culture is mostly embraced, except by some of the old school predominantly white Christian communities that still hold onto the ideals of the apartheid era. This can be seen in the hurdles and obstacles that need to be cleared before mosques can be established in predominantly white neighbourhoods, and even more so in the resistance that we get in requesting permission to recite the adhaan out loud. But the Muslim communities have been able to overcome many of these obstacles, even though at times it takes up to 8 or 10 years to get permission to have a piece of land rezoned for the building of a mosque. So our struggles in this space mirror those of Muslim communities in other western countries as well.

There is a high prevalence of men, women and children that have memorised the Qur’an. There are also many established institutions that offer formal studies in Islamic subjects, mostly aligned with the Hanafi madhab in the form of Darul Ulooms. There is room for much improvement, as is always the case, but overall, Alhamdulillah, being a Muslim in South Africa is not as trying as being a Muslim in most other non-Muslim countries around the world.

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