The Holy Circle

In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful, Most Goodness

In 1934, K.M. Jeffreys, the editor of The Cape Naturalist, a local magazine, wrote an article in the magazine called The Malay Tombs of the Holy Circle. He wrote that there are a number of:
“old Malay tombs that make up the Holy Circle which stretches from Robben Island to the Kramat of Sheikh Joseph on the Macassar Downs...


Starting at the old cemetery on the slopes of Signal Hill, just above the quarry in Strand Street, where two saintly men were buried many years ago, the circle continues to two graves on the top of Signal Hill ... Hence it goes to a grave, much revered situated above Oude Kraal beyond Camps Bay, and sweeps around the mountain to a Kramat at Constantia, on the Tokai Road. From there (the circle continues to) the Kramat of Sheikh Joseph of Faure, on the farm Zandvliet. The circle is completed by an old tomb on Robben Island.”

It appears that the term Holy Circle was formulated by Jeffreys, and that the term did not have local Muslim origins. There are a number of graves of Awliya-Allah within the "circle" and also a number outside the "circle". In fact, it is very difficult to refer to the geographical arrangement of these graves as being circular in any sense of the term. What has, however, happened over the years is that the Holy Circle has been given certain very special spiritual and other qualities by members of the local Muslim community. It is said, for example, that no natural disasters occur within the “circle”. This is not true. During my own lifetime, I have experienced major storms, fires, an earthquake and a tornado that had occurred within the "circle". It is said that the "circle" protects the Cape Peninsula but nobody ever says from what. It cannot be from social disasters because the Cape Peninsula has experienced major social misfortunes over the years. Perhaps we should leave the myths and unfounded claims alone and come to the historical and spiritual significance of the large number of Awliya-Allah who lies buried in the Western Cape.

With the exception of the shrines and graves in the cemetery in Observatory and the Habibia complex in Athlone, all the others are to be found on the lower slopes of mountains, especially near to streams and isolated areas, and, in the case of one, on Robben Island. There are a number of reasons for this geographical distribution of the
graves of these saintly people, and I do not think that this arrangement has anything to do with a "circle":

(a)    The first was the banishment by the Dutch of political prisoners from its Asian colonies to isolated parts of the Cape Colony during its occupation of the Cape (1652-1795). In 1667, for example, the first political prisoners arrived at the Cape. Their fate is outlined on a plaque in one corner of the shrine of Tuan Mahmud in Constantia:    "On the 24 January 1667 the ship, Polsbroek, left Batavia and arrived here 13 May following with three political prisoners in chains; Malays from the west coast of Sumatra who were banished to the Cape until further orders, on the understanding that they would eventually be released. They were rulers, 'Orang Cayer', men of wealth and influence. Great care had to be taken that they were not left at large as they were likely to do injury to the Company. Two were sent to the Company's forests and one to Robben Island." The two who were sent to the Company's forests were Tuans Abdurahman and Mahmud. The other one, Tuan Matarin, was sent to the Island. It appears that all three held prominent positions in the Qadiriyyah Sufi Order.

The most well known political exile was Shaykh Yusuf. He arrived at the Cape in 1694 on the Voetboeg, and was banished to the farm Zandvliet at Faure where his shrine is to be found. Although Tuan Yusuf belonged to a number of orders, his spiritual practices came mainly from the Khalwatiyyah Order. The 7, 40 and 100 nights that are held after a person's death, come from this order, and are still practiced at the Cape today.

In 1774 Tuan Sayyid Alawi arrived. He had been sentenced to life-imprisonment. His shrine is in the Tana Baru. Tuan Sayyid, of course, was of the Alawiyyah Sufi Order, as his name indicates. Close to his shrine is that of another "criminal", Tuan Guru (Imam Abdullah ibn Qadi Abdus Salam) who belonged to the Shatiriyyah Sufi Order. Both tuans had spent long periods on the Island.

(b)    Then also the slaves were not allowed to bury their dead in the normal burial grounds. This, together with the fact that the first grants of land for cemeteries were only made in 1796 and 1805, compelled these people to bury their dead away from the urbanized areas on the isolated parts of the lower slopes of the mountains in their immediate vicinity.

(c)    In addition, the Public Health Act No 4 was passed in 1883 closing all cemeteries in the municipal area of Cape Town consequent to the smallpox epidemics, which broke out in 1858 and 1882. The Muslim community rejected the stipulation of this Act, and also refused to bury at Maitland. The result was the 1886 Cemetery Riot against the Act. Oral tradition has it that many burials then took place surreptitiously on the lower slopes of the immediate mountain ranges.

(d)    There was also the practice of members of sufi orders to go into “retreat” periodically in order to indulge in spiritual exercises in isolation. Thus both Shaykh Muhammad Hasan who is buried on Signal Hill and Shaykh Abdul Qadir who is buried in Deer Park have the words “al-Qadiri” inscribed after their names. This means that they were most probably shaykhs of the Qadiriyyah Sufi Order. On the mountainside of Oudekraal are the graves of Tuans Ja' far and Nurul Mubin, and on Signal Hill the grave of Tuan Hasan.

Almost without exception, these individuals have come down in our history as being Awliya of Allah (persons to whom Allah Almighty has granted friendship). Many of them, such as Tuans Yusuf and Guru, were scholars of Islam, and all of them, it appears, were in one or other sufi order. Possibly the main question that arises is:
What was the contribution to Islam at the Cape of the Awliya who lie buried all over the Western Cape and not only in the Cape Peninsula? To understand their contribution, one has to understand that the "hearts" of these individuals, here and in the rest of the world, are the major, if not the sole, "custodians" of the resources of the remembrance of Allah; and they safeguard such remembrance for distribution to the "hearts" of others. In this way Allah is remembered. And they strive in their approach to Him with acts of remembrance until He loves them, is satisfied with them, and remembers them. And it is through His remembrance of them, that they are remembered by others. In a Holy Tradition, the following words were spoken about such people by Allah to His Messenger (s.a.w.s.):

Truly My Awliya of my obedient servants, and those whom I love of My creation; they are remembered by My remembrance and I am remembered by their remembrance.
[Narrated by Al-Hakim and Abu Na’im on the authority of Amir ibn aI-Mamu'.]

It is perhaps this reason that caused Islam to survive at the Cape while it died at about the same time amongst the millions of Muslims that were shipped to the America during the Atlantic slave trade. These Awliya had made use of those teachings in Islam to transform personalities, and to develop spirituality to a level at which they fell into one of the categories mentioned in the tradition. Islam has within it a massive reservoir of religious energy in the form of a vast array of practices from
which one can draw for personal transformation. They came to teach, through the sufi orders they belonged to, means of accessing those practices, and use them as means of approach to Allah Subhanah. And so, because of their work at the level of "hearts", Islam survived. What were some of the more tangible contributions that they had made in this regard?

(a)    Many of these Awliya were involved in the establishment of religious structures at the Cape, and within these structures Muslims came together to conduct their religious and social affairs.  These structures include the organizational structures of the sufi orders within which Muslims placed themselves under the spiritual guidance of the Awliya in charge of these orders, and they also received basic teachings of Islam. These orders were important vehicles for the preservation of religious teachings and social cohesion. (Mawlana Abdul-Latif of the College, for example, established the Chisti Order in Athlone, which became an important social magnet for the people living in the immediate environment). In the same way the Awliya were instrumental in the establishment of house mosques (called langars) and madrassahs. Later special mosques and public madrassahs were built. The Awwal Mosque, for example, in Dorp Street and its madrassah were built under the guidance of Tuan Guru.

(b)    Some of the Awliya wrote the Qur'an from memory (such as Tuan Guru) and others started to provide the literature for educational purposes at the Cape. Again we have to mention Tuan Guru, Tuan Yusuf and Mawlana Abul-Latif of the College. The writings of many of these luminaries provided important educational tools for Islamic education.

(c)    By their personal conduct especially with regard to their religious behaviour, these Awliya provided important models for others to imitate, and so they exhibited in a smaller way the model set by Nabi Muhammad (s.a.w.s.) in Makkah and Madina. These Awliya have come down in our history as deeply religious individuals to whom God and God's Work came first. It is this attitude that encouraged other Muslims to attach themselves with greater degree to their religion.  Of course, the mureeds wanted to be like their shaykhs.

(d)    Within the religious space provided by the sufi orders and congregational religious services in mosques and madrassahs, the slaves, in a sense, had their
own individual personal privacy. The slave owners could not enter that space. The space was a religious one possessed by the slaves in his communion with God. And so in a sense when they participated in their dhikrs and prayers they were “free”. This “freedom” provided for these people a hope in God that they might not have had before. As a consequence, there must have developed in the community at this time a greater attachment to God through activities within their private religious spaces. Once outside this space, they were again under the hegemony of the slave owners.

The Awliyah at the Cape left us with a major heritage, an Islam operating within religious structures, which added immeasurably to the survival of the religion. It is doubtful whether Islam would have survived were these structures not in place. This is their great miracle. They were largely instrumental in the preservation of the religion. They need no other stories or myths. What they had done was of such major importance that today we can practice our religion, in a sense, freely. Perhaps now we can understand the Prophetic Tradition quoted earlier.

And Allah knows best!

Professor Yusuf Da Costa

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