Part 1: Islam in S.A.

At a time when the Muslim Ummah of South Africa are welcoming their 350th year of the Islamic era, when they are unfolding their religious, intellectual, cultural, economic and political potentialities and are rejecting the materially orientated agnostic civilization and calling the world of Islam, once again, to the unadulterated and pristine pure Islam (Al-Auda Ilal Islam), when the history, welfare and the current affairs of the Muslim minorities of the world became one of the primary concerns of the resurgent and renascent world of Islam, this presentation is to acknowledge the momentous contribution to the history of the Muslim minorities  in South Africa during the past 350 years.

Alhumdoelillah! Freedom has finally come to our country - South Africa. Let us therefore, as Muslims, ponder upon the great sacrifices, the Fithnah and the blatant racism and the untold hardships and the brutal oppression and suppression that the early pioneers of Islam had to endure over three hundred and fifty years ago for the establishment of the Glorious Din of Almighty Allah Rabbul Ala'meen in South Africa. It is due to their love for Almighty Allah Subhanahu Wata'ala and their unselfish sacrifices that we today, who profess to be followers of Al-Islam continue to enjoy the fruits of their undying love and dedication for the Din of Haqq, the Din of Truth.

The social history of Islam presented through the study of the Masaajid during the thirteenth century of Islam (Nineteenth century A.D.) and how the Masaajid played the capital role in the consolidation of Islam and served as the first rallying point for the dissemination of Islam in South Africa. This brief presentation revives the blessed memories of the founders of Islamic culture and civilization in this country.

Muslim history was at the lowest point and it was transformed into a resurgent era when the Muslims surmounted their early difficulties and were emancipated from slavery to independence, from poverty to abundance of economic strength and from meagre resources to enormous reserves of bounties of life and how they, through Divine Blessings, got everything from nothing and how, too, they became capable of expressing their explicit involvement in the contemporary resurgence of religion and culture.

Islam, reached the Cape of Good Hope virtually at the beginning of the white settlement when Jan van Riebeeck arrived here on April 6th, 1652. He brought a few servants along, although it is not certain whether there were also Muslims servants in the group. Historically it is certain that the Muslims reached the Cape around 1654 when the Dutch East India Company decided to use it as a penal settlement for political prisoners. Thus the slaves, political exiles and convicts were brought to the Cape from India, especially Bengal, Coromandel and the Malabar Cost, and from Indonesia, especially the Celebes and Java and later Macassar to the Cape and over 50% of the slaves came from India.


The Indian slaves formed the embryo of the Cape Muslim Community. They were reinforced by the slaves from Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), Indonesia, and Arabia. Islam was, therefore, transplanted from India and Indonesia. But the latter hardly played the leading role in the establishment and development of Islam at the Cape. The first recorded arrival of the Muslims who were known as the Mardyckers (the word implies freedom), is registered as 1652; they were brought from Amboyna in the southern Mollucca Islands for the protection of the colony and for serving as a labour force.


According to the Placaat (1642) which governed the Cape as a part of the Indian Empire, the Muslims were prohibited to practice Islam in public or preach Islam among the heathens or Christians or convert them to Islam. The attitude of the Dutch towards Islam and the Muslims needs to be examined. The Dutch, after the establishment of Batavia and the conquests of the Moluccas, Macassar, Bantam and the Mataram became a powerful force in the Indonesian Archipelago.


This alarmed the Indonesian rulers who immediately sought to strengthen their ties with the Muslim rulers of India and Saudi Arabia through Achin, the strong Muslim Sultanate which had successfully resisted the Dutch in Malaya. The struggle then took the form of a Jihad which led to the rapid spread of Islam in the Archipelago from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century as the island people became more eager to resist the growing Dutch Empire. The strongest resistance, however, came from those areas where Islam was well established.


These strong Muslim Sultanates were either left alone or conquered in lengthy and costly wars. The conquered Muslim leaders were also the most eager to revolt against the Dutch and their vassals. Many of them were banished to the Cape. The Dutch in view of this Indonesian experience were weary of the spread of Islam in their territorial possessions and legislated to control the Muslims. This is borne out by a set of laws called the Statutes of India which, as mentioned earlier, came to govern the Cape as part of the Indian Empire.  The Calvinistic attitude of the Dutch becomes apparent in these statutes as the following clause indicates:


"That within the Town of Batavia no other religion should be exercised, instructed or propagated in private or public, than the reformed Protestant Church - as doctrined in the public churches of the United Provinces and that should any other held or kept, either Christian, heathen or Moor (Islam) all the property of such (keeper) should be forfeited and he be put in Irons, or banished out of (the) Country or punished corporally or with death, according to the circumstances of the case."


The restrictions on the religious practices of the Mardyckers, the Statutes of India, and the policy of isolating political exiles of rank from the local people severely affected the development of Islam and it was claimed that the slaves would hardly have had the courage to remain Muslim had other co-religionist not come to them from abroad. The great influx of easterners commenced in 1667. In that year according to historian Theal, the Eastern Batavian Empire became the chief source for the procurement of slaves for the Cape colonists. The year 1667 also saw the arrival of the first political exiles banished to the Cape. A tomb for these political exiles was erected on "Islam Hill" in Constantia and on a plaque at this tomb the following transcription appears:


"On January 24th, 1667, the ship Polsbroek left Batavia and arrived here on May 13th following with three political prisoners in chains. Malays of the West Coast of Sumatra, who were banished to the Cape until further orders to the understanding that they would eventually be released. They were rulers "Orang Cayen", 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 forest and one to Robben Island."


This description in terms of the records of the Cape Archives appears to be correct. It illustrates, however, the beginning of the policy of isolating influential political exiles from the slave population. This ruthless policy persisted throughout Dutch East India Company rule of the Cape of Good Hope. The Orang Cayen or political exiles, therefore, hardly had any influence on the establishment and spread of Islam at the Cape. This becomes clearer from 1681 onwards when the Cape became an official place of confinement of Muslim political exiles, among whom were princes of Ternate. These Ternate princes had taken up arms against the Dutch East India Company and were treated as prisoners of war, with them were some Macassarians. They were also housed in the stables of the Castle of Good Hope.


Probably the best known of the Orang Cayen is Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar. The real name of the Sheikh is Abidin Tadia Tjoessoep. He was born in Macassar in 1626 and was of noble birth, being on his mother's side a nephew of King Bisei of Goa. He undertook a Pilgrimage to Makkah in 1644 and upon his return married the daughter of the Sultan Ageng of Bantam in whose household he became an Imaam.  A revolution, headed by Pangerang Hadji, Sultan Ageng's son, broke out in Bantam in 1680. This revolution was probably engineered by the Dutch. Sultan Ageng was deposed and retired to his country estate. Nevertheless, by 1683 he had rallied enough support and besieged Pangerang Hadji in his fortress at Soeroesoeang and forced him to appeal to the Dutch at Batavia for assistance.


The Dutch welcomed this opportunity to crush the Bantam power once and for all. Sultan Ageng was defeated but managed to escape with a party of 5,000 of which 1,300 were armed. Among them was Tjoessoep - Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar and the two sons of the Sultan, Poerbaija and Kiedoel. This force continued their resistance against the Dutch for quite some time. Many of them died from starvation rather than surrender to the Dutch, and it was not long before Sultan Ageng himself was captured. Tjoessoep and Poerbaija again escaped and continued their resistance. In September 1683, after a fierce battle, in which Tjoessoep was wounded, he again managed  to escape and fled to Cheribon intending to embark from there for Macassar. They were overtaken by Lieutenant Eijgel and completely routed. Tjoessoep, again wounded, escaped and sought refuge in a little native village.


He lived there in complete destitution, fearing that he would be betrayed. His group was by then reduced to twenty-four, mainly priests, and four women. He was eventually persuaded in 1684 to surrender on a promise of pardon. The Dutch never fulfilled their promise and he was incarcerated in the Castle at Batavia. At Batavia the Dutch suspected that he would attempt to escape and in September 1684 he was transferred under guard to the Castle in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). While he was detained in Ceylon requests from the King of Goa were received for his release, on the grounds that his holy presence and religious guidance were needed. Tjoessoep, by then was regarded as a "Kramat" - saint - for his noble resistance against the Dutch.


The request from the King of Goa was refused, and the Dutch fearing that attempts would be made to rescue him, transferred Tjoessoep to the Cape of Good Hope in 1694. When he arrived at the Cape, on the Voetboeg, he was royally welcomed by Governor Simon van der Stel. His Indonesian background necessitated that he and his forty-nine followers be settled away from Cape Town. They were housed on the farm Sandvlei, near the mouth of the Eerste River, in the general area now called Macassar. He received a small allowance and the Cape authorities were responsible for the maintenance and support of his party.


The settlement at Sandvlei soon became a sanctuary for fugitive slaves. It was here that the very first cohesive Muslim Community in South Africa was established. Another important political exile who came to the Cape was the Rajah of Tambora. [Abdul Basi Sultania]. Tambora  was originally part of the Majaphit Kingdom of Java but had fallen under the control of the Maccassarian Sultanates. With the defeat of Goa it came under Dutch control. Abdul Basi Sultania arrived in the Cape in 1697, sentenced as a convict in chains for rebelling against King Dompo and having the Queen murdered. At the Cape he was housed in the stable of the Castle.


But Tjoessoep [Sheikh Yusuf] intervened on his behalf and he was subsequently housed at Vergelegen in the District of Stellenbosch. While there, he wrote the Qur'an from memory as a gift to Governor Simon van der Stel. This Qur'an, the first hand written in South Africa, probably never left Vergelegen. The Rajah's influence in the establishment and the spread of Islam at the Cape, like the other Orang Cayen, was thus limited. The policy of isolating the influential political exiles though primarily designed as a measure of safety for the colonialists, effectively prevented them from establishing Islam or influencing its spread at the Cape of Good Hope.


The credit therefore for the establishment of Islam here at the tip of Africa and throughout the length and breath of South Africa belongs to the slaves. The great leap that inspired these Mujahids' to advance was their deep love for Islam. The deep abyss of hatred directed towards them by their colonial masters lifted it to lofty heights of moral refinement witnessed during those very early difficult days of our Islamic history. It was made possible only after many years of dedication, struggle and preparation and a thorough moral orientation of those great heroes who exemplified and embodied this great miracle in their persons as well as their whole conduct of life.


1699 - The Death of Sheikh Yusuf:


The life of the Muslim community which was established at the settlement at Sandvlei was of short duration, for shortly after the death of Tjoessoep on May 23rd 1699, almost the entire community was shipped to Indonesia on the barges De Liefde and De Spiegel. Only two of his followers and his daughter remained behind. As far as Sheikh Yusuf's widows, children, friends and servants were concerned, only those below the age of five/six were permitted to go back.


One of Sheikh Yusuf's daughters, Zytia Sara Marouff, who had married the King of Tambora at the Cape, remained behind, and two of the Sheik's followers requested the Cape authorities for permission to stay at the Cape. The tomb of Sheik Yusuf is situated at Zandvleit, Faure, in the Cape. Tjoessoep is referred to as the founder of Islam in South Africa. He was certainly not the first Muslim in the Cape, for when he arrived there were already Muslim political exiles and dispersed Muslim slave communities. His influence was limited to those people around his Sandvlei settlement.


To be continued - Insha'Allah


Was Salamualaykum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuhu.


Abdul Hamid Lachporia

Toronto. Canada.

July/August  2004.



(1) "The Mosques of Bo-Kaap"

A social history of Islam at the Cape 1980

by Achmat Davids

Director of Social Services

Muslim Assembly (Cape).


(2) "History of Muslims in South Africa"

A Chronology 1993.

by Ebrahim Mahomed Mahida


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