Commenting on the most recent book on the history of Islam at the Cape published locally, PROFESSOR ASLAM FATAAR calls for ‘respectful and constructive conversation on the various versions of stories and perspectives’.
WE recently witnessed an increase in the publication of texts by community members on aspects of the history of Islam at the Cape. These publications are inspiring and trendsetting. They highlight the fruit of the authors’ many hours of research, meticulous attention to facts and detail, and the arduous writing that goes into producing texts.
Two books by journalist Shafiq Morton on Tuan Guru (2018) and Abu-Bakr Effendi (2022), and two books, in 2022, by retired teacher Fuad Magiet on the Al-Azhar Masjid and the Zeenatul Islam Masjid (Kanamia Mosque, Muir Street) in District Six provide interesting perspectives and insight into community formation dynamics.
A recent book was published by Najma Moosa, senior professor of Law at the University of the Western Cape, on some of the children of Shaykh Yusuf. In the November 2022 edition of Muslim Views a review article was inadvertently attributed to me. I did not write this article.
I offer here a couple of comments on Professor Moosa’s book.
Additionally, I offer a few remarks on the need to develop a respectful and constructive conversation on the various versions of stories and perspectives provided by authors. Territorialism should be avoided.
The title of Moosa’s book is The mystery of the apostasy of Shaykh Yusuf of Makassar’s alleged grandchildren: The children of the Rajah of Tambora published by Shaikh Shahid Esau and printed by KamPress.
Arriving in 1694, Shaykh Yusuf is regarded as the founding father of the Muslim community at the Cape.
The book is meticulously researched. The evidence base is extensive. Professor Moosa accessed a wide range of primary and secondary sources across three continents.
The book has a single concern: to offer an alternative view on whether Shaykh Yusuf’s grandchildren converted to Christianity. The author concludes that this was not the case.
The book reads a bit like an extended court case presentation: one line of argument supporting the author’s conclusions. It is a pedestrian read, yet the details, when wading through them, are interesting, sometimes quite revealing. Some of the writing is idiosyncratic: the book refers to itself as a treatise.
I am aware of at least two alternative accounts of the story of Shaykh Yusuf’s children by Cape historian Ebrahim Salie and Mansell G Upham, respectively. I suggest that these versions should be prominently published in the public domain. This would promote respectful and inclusive debate.
Better still, bringing these authors together in a round-table type conversation would illustrate the importance of disputatious yet respectful dialogue about the Muslim past, so necessary in today’s times.
Such an endeavour would exemplify the multiple perspectives that make up historical understanding, marking out various research processes. It would illustrate the various methodological orientations and concerns that inform an author’s work.
The article erroneously published under my name in the Muslim Views inadvertently gave the impression that I uncritically favour one interpretation to the exclusion of others. I do not. I favour a multi-perspectival approach to history. The debate is whether there are better, more plausible accounts, yet I appreciate multiple historical viewpoints.
I paid attention to the details of Professor Moosa’s book. I appreciated her skill and tenacity in chasing this story, especially given that not much has been written about the history of the Cape Muslim community.
Professor Moosa offered a well-researched book. The presentations and conclusions are contestable, which is par for the course in historical writing. I applaud her attempt at filling a lacuna in Cape Muslim historiography.
The books by Morton, Moosa and Magiet are important local histories. Filling in the gaps, they contest popular understandings of community dynamics. These texts are relatively removed from broader debates in historiographical theory and comparable historical work elsewhere.
As I recently argued in an article published in the Journal for Islamic Studies (2021), a second set of historical writing has also emerged recently. Saarah Jappie’s doctoral thesis (2018) offers an analysis of Shaykh Yusuf’s transoceanic connections, and her articles on the community’s handwritten kitabs or religious texts focus on aspects of its literacy culture.
Gabeba Baderoon offers a remarkable book, Regarding Muslims: from Slavery to Post-Apartheid (2014).
Jappie and Baderoon opened newer interpretations of the Muslim presence at the Cape. They paid close attention to the limits and possibilities of the colonial archive. They provide accounts of Muslim quotidian life, popular culture, visual art, cuisine, jokes, and bodily practices.
Published by academic publishers and subjected to rigorous blind peer review, these works help us turn the historiographical corner. It provides a window onto greater critical self-awareness of ordinary folk’s complexity, creativity, and travails. It disrupts what has hitherto been a dominant focus on the masculine space of the mosque, madrasah, imam and Sufi shaykh.
The history of ordinary women and men and their community-making in the context of a range of societal processes are brought into view through this exciting focus. Many younger academics and doctoral students are developing complex and engaging accounts of the Cape Muslim story. We would do well as a community to invest in these scholars’ research and publication work and bring their perspectives to the centre stage of the community.
We are indeed in a period of exciting scholarly ferment. We look forward to critical historical and sociological accounts that continue to provide us with insight into Cape Muslim community formation dynamics and the community’s ongoing contributions to their complex social worlds.
Aslam Fataar is Research and Development Professor in Higher Education Transformation, attached to the Department of Education Policy Studies, Stellenbosch University.