In 1905 Albert Einstein wrote three groundbreaking papers in science, including one on his famous theory of relativity.
This theory initiated a scientific revolution that challenged atheistic trends in science and provided Western humanity, in particular, with a newer and humbler way of looking at the universe. In South Africa, the Anglo-Boer war had just come to an end but the colonization or repression of non-Europeans was a shared characteristic of both British and Afrikaner. Non-Europeans still suffered the yoke of oppression, even if the degree of brutality varied. But brutality it still was.
Maulana Shah Abdul Latif (R.A) also instituted a revolution in 1905 - a spiritual revolution. It was a revolution that was directed at hearts- in particular, the hearts of those who were suffering the arrogance and abusive policies of the colonialists. From the colonialist perspective, non-Europeans were inherently inferior and were made to feel non-people. Their religions, languages, ways of living, manners and genetic pool were viewed as backward.
And indeed many non-Europeans felt powerless and suffered inferiority complexes. For Muslims at the Cape, it was left to revered Muslim personalities such as Shaykh Yusuf (R.A.), Tuan Guru (R.A) and Maulana Abdul Latif (R.A), amongst others, who shattered the illusion of European superiority and restituted their humanity and dignity. They had realized in themselves, and taught to others, that true power was in the Hands of Allah and that superiority or inferiority, one's worth or worthlessness, was solely to be judged in terms of one's knowledge of, and obedience to, Allah. Nothing else- be it race, status, wealth or worldly power- mattered.
To this end Maulana Abdul Latif (R.A.), following the lead of Soofie Saheb (R.A.), instituted various spiritual practices at Habibia that were to become a characteristic feature of the mosque. These practices included the commemoration of Moulood un-Nabi, various Urs Shariefs and Ashura as well programmes on "big nights".
Moulood- un-Nabi (The Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him)
Like all Sufi masters, Soofie Saheb (R.A) and Maulana Abdul Latief (R.A) were acutely aware that the vibrant love of the Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him, was the cornerstone of spiritual reawakening. This love had to express itself in scrupulous adherence to the Sunnah and in being conscious of the Nabi's, Allah’s Peace and Blessings be upon him, exalted rank with Allah- a rank by which Allah has made him a continuing source of spiritual nourishment for the Ummah. Indeed, the Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him, is the fountainhead of all Islamic spirituality, being the sole avenue by which closeness to Allah is obtained.
In the Holy Quran Allah commands the Holy Prophet to say: "Say: If you love Allah, follow me- Allah will love you and forgive you your sins”[3:31].
The purpose of the annual celebration of Moulood at Habibia- like at almost countless other places in the Islamic world- was nothing else but to awaken and maintain this love of the Prophet and his noble Sunnah and thus become closer to Allah. The customs, recitations and languages in which this celebration is held differ from place to place, but this uniformity of purpose stays the same.
The Habibia Moulood is initiated by the recital of the Khatmul Quran and a dhikr. Naats, which are melodic and deeply stirring Urdu poems that honour the Holy Prophet are always a popular part of the Moulood. Arabic, English and Xhosa renditions of such poetry are also on the increase, probably as a result of the changing ethnic character of South African Muslim communities. The famous Barzanji Sharief, an Arabic ode describing the birth of the Holy Prophet - and which was written by Sayyid Jafar Barzanji of Iraq- is also recited. Lectures by the ulamah on the occasion of Moulood strive to inform and educate the audience on the significance of the celebration. The sending of salaam upon the Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon, conclude the proceedings. After the proceedings, one and all are invited to partake of the food which is served- food imbued with the "barakah" [blessings] of the occasion. It is interesting to note, though, that Habibia's Moulood is a mixture of both Indo-Pak and Cape Muslim traditions. This can be seen in the combination of different types of salawaat and "lagooes" (tunes). Habibia has also adapted the unique Cape Muslim practice of "Rampies-Sny" (the cutting of leaves by women while they honour the Holy Prophet), and it has become a very important part of the Habibia Moulood. Such accommodation and adaptation to local practices was in fact a crucial part of the legacy of Shah Abdul Latif (R.A.), who actively sought to build a Muslim brotherhood and sisterhood at the Cape based purely on love for Islam and the good, wherever it was to be found.
An Urs commemorates the anniversary of a waliullah [Friend of Allah]'s passing away. This passing away is in reality the waliullah's passing on to the presence of the Almighty- the very Allah to whom their lives were devoted. It is thus a joyous occasion for now the lover and the Beloved are reunited. In fact, the word "Urs" literally means wedding, which signifies this union. Sometimes the word "wisaal" or "arrival" is also employed for this commemoration of the saint's passing away, indicating the lover's "arrival" at the Beloved.
The Urs of five saints are particularly celebrated by Habibia, namely, Sayyidina Shaykh Abdulqadir Jilani (R.A), Khwaja Muinnuddin Chisti (R.A), Khwaja Habib Ali Shah Chisti (R.A), Soofie Saheb (R.A) and Maulana Abdul Latief (R.A).
Sayyidina Shaykh Abdulqadir Jilani (R.A.), the great saint of Baghdad, is of course the most famous saint of the Islamic world- his fame extending across the length and breadth of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. In the Indo-Pak region, where the Qadiri tariqah is also very strong, he is popularly known as Ghaus ul Azam [The Great Help] and it is generally acknowledged that he is the greatest saint in Islam after the Companions. It is due to this exceptional honour and esteem in which he is held that his Urs is even commemorated by those whose affiliation is not necessarily with the Qadiri order- such as Habibiyah.
Habibiyah's affiliation is, in fact, to the Chisti order and it is for this reason they celebrate with special emotion the Urs of Khawaja Muinnudin Chisti (R.A), the main inspiration of the Habibia complex, who is the much beloved and revered founder of the Chisti order in India - the largest tariqah in that region. Khwaja Muinniddin Chisti is popularly known as Khwaja Gharib un Nawaz (Patron of the poor). His teachings emphasised humility, love of all human beings and God, and constant service to humanity. In fact, when Khaja Gharib un Nawaz took his leave for the next world, there was the following inscription written in Arabic on his forehead: “This is the beloved of Allah and he died in the love of Allah.” These are the teachings that all Chisti masters have been careful to inculcate- teachings thoroughly reflected in the lives of Khwaja Habib Ali Shah (R.A.), and his South African khalifas, Soofie Saheb (R.A.) and Maulana Abdul Latief (R.A.).
The Urs programme is very much patterned along the Moulood one. However, in the Urs one normally finds in addition to the standard dhikr, other forms of dhikr specifically associated with these great Sufi masters. Thus at the Urs of Sayyidina Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani (R.A) the "Ghwaryin Sharif" is normally recited, while at the Urs of Khwaja Muinnudin Chisti it is the "Khatme Khwajagaan". One also finds that in addition to the naats, "manqabats"- or poetry that praises the saints- is also recited at the occasion of Urs.
In reality, the Urs commemorations are extensions of Moulood. These great personalities drank at the fountain of Prophetic spirituality by inculcating the true spirit of the Sunnah. They are lights emanating from that Light of Madinah that have spread to all parts of the Muslim world. It is natural for people to have a special affinity to the major saint of their particular tariqah, or to saints from their own regions or from the lands of their forefathers- saints who taught them Islam in the language and culture they know best. Thus many Central Asians are attached to Sayyidina Shaykh Bahauddin Naqshband (R.A), many Egyptians to Sidi Ahmad Badawi (R.A), many Cape Muslims to Shaykh Yusuf of Macassaar and so on. But in reality this is an attachment to the Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him, through whose Sunnah we are connected to Allah.
The Shariah basis for these practices
In usul ul fiqh [Islamic Jurisprudence] there is a principle that "The origin of all things is permissibility unless otherwise directed by the Shariah.” So while the celebration of Moulood and Urs in the form that we know today may not have been present in Prophetic period, it is nevertheless permitted because there is nothing in these practices that contravene the dictates of the Shariah. So at the very least it is permitted in terms of this principle- a principle established by the Quran and hadith.
But one can easily argue that it is more than just permitted. It is clear from ahadith that the Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him, honoured his own birthday by describing the miracles that occurred at the time of his birth. He also honoured the Companions- all Friends of Allah of the highest order- who gave their life in the service of Allah. In this sense the commemoration of Moulood and Urs, in fact, constitutes part of the Sunnah.
Furthermore, if we break down the constituent parts of Moulood and Urs their essence is nothing more than dhikr (Remembrance of Allah), Salawaat (Salutations upon the Holy Prophet) and nasiha (religious advice by the 'ulama spurring people to hold on to the Sharia). There can, of course, be no objection to these three activities which constitute the core essence of Moulood and Urs- indeed, engagement in such activities are highly recommended for the individual.
The key here is not to get sidetracked by sticky theological issues which do not constitute the core of the commemorations. Unfortunately, at times both supporters and detractors of these practices have been sidetracked by these issues. The core of the commemorations, as described above, is clearly non-problematic - and, indeed, recommended- from the Shariah perspective.
It is also important to understand that Shariah rulings are applied with wisdom, and are deeply sensitive to the contexts and temperaments of people to whom it is being applied. A ruling passed in one context may not necessarily be applied in the same manner in another context. Scholars such as Shaykh Yusuf, Tuan Guru and Soofie Saheb, being men of the Sharia and men of wisdom, were well aware of their constituencies and did not simply apply their teachings blindly, insensitive to the temperaments, customs and difficulties of the people who reverentially looked up to them. Their aim was to bring people to the Shariah but in a manner that did not alienate them from Islam. Thus Soofie Saheb (R.A.) permitted a fairly elaborate commemoration of Ashura- the martyrdom of Imam Husain (R.A)- as his constituency at that time felt an emotional need for this type of commemoration. At the same time Soofie Saheb predicted that the need for commemorating Ashura in such a form would in future dissipate as the needs of the community changed- a fact which is now evident. Thus there is now a far less elaborate commemoration of Ashura at Habibia than there was in the past. Something similar may be said with regard to the "big nights" when Habibia is famously packed to capacity. These nights (Laylatul Miraj, Laylatul Nisfi Sha'ban (or Rua) and Laylatul Qadr) are indeed holy and filled with barakah from the Shariah perspective. While strictly speaking it is not necessary to gather in a group to celebrate them, such gatherings better promote the required respect for the night, reinvigorate the love of dhikr and the need to follow the Shariah, and builds a spirit of community- all of which are elements required by the Shariah.
We have said that Moulood and Urs are unquestionably permitted, and indeed recommended. But one may go a step further: given that unlike the Sahaba and pious predecessors we do not live the Prophetic example every breathing moment, we are indeed more in need of such activities in order to reawaken in us the love of Allah and His Prophet, and to continually remind us of what our life's aim should be. In other words, such practices appear to be required for the social well-being of the Muslim community, especially in the period of degeneration. It appears that this is why our very wise forbears insisted on maintaining these traditions.
The future of these practices
Personalities like Maulana Abdul Latif (R.A) restored the humanity and dignity of physically and psychologically oppressed Muslims at the Cape by providing them with a living connection to the Holy Prophet SAW via practices such as Moulood and Urs. Religion was made to feel alive, and so was the reality of Allah's ultimate control of events and closeness to the true believer- and that true worth was not judged by what one achieved in this world but by one's conduct for the next. Knowing and feeling such truths demolished the aura of supposed European invincibility.
These practices then were transforming and not simply static or cultural. They created a spiritual revolution within the individual. They were not simply practiced for the sake of being practiced.
However, it is unfortunately true that in many parts of the Muslim world where these practices were carried out, they have tended to become static or cultural. After the initial revolution of a founder, a "comfort-zone" is established and they become ritualized. More significantly, the urbanisation of Muslim societies creates a sense of dislocation, as people become cut off from their original communities, and direct, frequent contact with the spirit of these practices is often lost.
Due to the continued presence of learning and genuine piety of its Imams, Habibia's practices have been prevented from becoming merely cultural. But the continued urbanization and social stratification is inevitable and affects all institutions, no matter how firm their basis. People do lose contact with the spirit of the practices. At Habibia it is clear that the practices are not as well attended as in the past.
What can Habibia and other affected institutions do about this? In one sense: nothing. Society is rapidly changing. People who before may have attended these practices for the sake of identity and belonging may now feel they have the economic means to find that identity and belonging somewhere else. It is a sign of the times and inevitable that people are not going to hold on to these practices as before.
But this obviously does not mean that one sits back and accept matters as a fait accompli. Our forbears took into account the temperaments and modes of living of their constituency and made sure that their practices adapted to that. We similarly have to take into account the temperaments and manners of the current generation and make sure that the present performance of spiritual practices adjust accordingly.
For instance, we clearly live in the "Information Age" where the emphasis is on access to data and the need for that data to be made available. This "Age" is not superior to other "Ages"- for example, the rural age which emphasised the rhythms of the seasons and contemplation. But, for better or worse, the "Information Age" is the reality of our times. What this would translate into in terms of spiritual practices is that the chief emphasis in such commemorations would now be on the lecture component of the programme - that is, communicating the reasons for the commemoration, the reasons for the various things done, the values and lessons it imparts, the history of those commemorated, dealing with the public's questions etc. This is, of course, done to a certain extent but needs to be far more pronounced and interactive.
Another important institution to look at in this regard- if these practices are to achieve what they originally intended- is that of bay'ah (becoming a disciple of an authorized and qualified spiritual guide.) True bay'ah brings about a spiritual revolution within the individual and allows such a disciple to partake in the reality of such practices. In the absence of bay'ah at the place where the practices are held, the very least is to ensure that there are constant, sustained knowledge activities available there, in terms of teaching and learning the Shariah, so that such practices are viewed in their true perspective.