Muslim Views


Shaikh Yusuf of Macassar: the early years

Shaikh Yusuf of Macassar: the early years
February 15, 2019
February 15, 2019 February 15, 2019


SHAIKH Yusuf of Macassar is undoubtedly regarded as one of the most prominent figures in South African Muslim history, and in particular, is seen as a major inspiration for the ­establishment and continued flourishing of Islam in Cape Town.

One of his titles is ‘Al-Makassari’, that is, ‘of Macassar’. There is a Macassar region in South Sulawesi, an island in central Indonesia. It was there that Shaikh Yusuf was born in 1626. And there is a Macassar on the outskirts of Cape Town, named in his honour, where he passed away, in 1699.

Between these dates, Shaikh Yusuf lived a very eventful life. From a young age, he showed a propensity for studying Islam, and sat assiduously at the feet of local teachers in South Sulawesi. Among them were Sayyid Ba Alawi ibn Abdullah and Shaikh Jalaluddin Aidid under whom he studied subjects such as Arabic, Islamic law (fiqh), Islamic theology (aqidah) and spirituality or Sufism (tasawwuf).

We need to pause here. Islam was typically taught in Indonesia by teachers who followed the Ashari school of Islamic theology which, along with the Maturidi school, form the two branches of the Ahl Sunnah wal Jamaah (The People of the Sunnah and Congregation, or Sunnis).

In Islamic law, they adhered in particular to the Shaafii madhhab, which remains the dominant school of law in Indonesia. But perhaps, most importantly, Islam, in its historical unfolding in Indonesia, was suffused with Sufism.

Those who brought Islam, and those who taught it, were almost invariably members and leaders of Sufi orders who integrated their teaching of aqidah and fiqh with Sufi practices.

For example, Shaikh Yusuf’s early teacher mentioned above, Shaikh Jalaluddin Aidid, was also responsible for the establishment of a Sufi method known as ‘Tarekat Bahr al Nur’ (The Path of the Ocean of Divine Light), a school which continues in Indonesia to this day.

In general, to be a Muslim in 17th century Indonesia was to be almost automatically connected to Sufism, and Shaikh Yusuf was no exception in this regard.

In 1644, Shaikh Yusuf went to Banten (in present day Java) to continue his studies. He came into contact with its royal court and, notably, became friends with the sultan’s son, the future Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa.

The court sent Shaikh Yusuf on a delegation to Gujarat, India, to meet with the famous scholar, Shaikh Nuruddin Raniri, to resolve some religious questions. Shaikh Raniri had been to Indonesia before, namely to the island of Acheh, where he had attained great acclaim as a prolific scholar and Sufi master.

Although he had returned to his native Gujarat, he still retained an immense influence in Indonesia. Shaikh Yusuf spent about two years in Gujarat and not only did he have the privilege of studying under Shaikh Raniri, he also studied under Shaikh Raniri’s own spiritual teacher, Sayyid Abu Hafs Ba Shaiban.

Most significantly, he was inducted by Shaikh Raniri into the Qadiri order, the first of five orders in which he was given spiritual authority.

From Gujarat, he sailed to Yemen in 1649 where he further pursued his studies and was inducted into two orders: the Naqshbandi order, by Shaikh Abdul Baqi al-Mizjaji, and into the Ba Alawi order by Shaikh Ali al-Zabidi.

Shaikh Mizjaji was a follower of the famous Sufi, Shaikh ibn Arabi, who was notable for his perspective that emphasised witnessing the workings of Allah through all things in creation. This perspective was to considerably influence Shaikh Yusuf’s approach to the way he saw reality, including the various life situations in which he found himself. So, for example, when he was exiled to the island of Ceylon by the Dutch late in his life, he wrote that he found himself on Ceylon through the decree and wisdom of the Almighty!

It should also be noted that the philosophy of Shaikh ibn Arabi was very commonly taught in this period, and was championed by many prominent ulama. One such champion was Shaikh Ibrahim Kurani, Shaikh Yusuf’s main teacher in the Hijaz (Makkah and Madinah), which was the region to which he next travelled, in 1654.

Shaikh Yusuf initially spent about four years in the Hijaz, studying under its many teachers, and was inducted by Shaikh Kurani into the Shattarriyah Sufi order. But, despite his induction into all these orders, Shaikh Yusuf’s name was to become associated with one in particular: the Khalwati tariqah.

In about 1658, he travelled to Damascus where he was initiated into this order by the imam of the Ibn Arabi mosque, Shaikh Abu Barakat Ayyub al-Khalwati. This shaikh was to become Shaikh Yusuf’s main spiritual guide, and Shaikh Yusuf reverentially refers to him as ‘Ashari’, ‘Shafi’ and ‘Khalwati’ thus reaffirming Sufism’s connection to orthodoxy and vice versa.

Shaikh Yusuf himself had achieved considerable spiritual renown by that time and when he was inducted into the order, he was given the title ‘Taj ul Khalwatiyyah’ (‘Crown of the Khalwatiyyah order’).

He travelled back to the Hijaz in 1661 where, not only did he further continue his teachings but was taught in its holy precincts as well.

He returned to Indonesia in 1667, now an acclaimed teacher and Sufi. His friend, Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa, requested him to become the court scholar to Banten, a post which he accepted.

But Shaikh Yusuf’s return also coincided with increasing Dutch expansion into Indonesia. Sultan Ageng, together with Shaikh Yusuf, resisted this expansion and eventually Banten was attacked. Shaikh Yusuf, alongside 4 000 followers, put up considerable resistance but was eventually captured and exiled to Ceylon, in 1684.

In Ceylon, he continued his spiritual and scholarly activities, writing a number of his Sufi texts while in captivity.

But the Dutch were fearful of his considerable influence in the broader Indian Ocean region and he was finally exiled, with 49 of his followers, to the then remote outpost, ironically called the Cape of Good Hope, in 1694, where he was to breathe his last in this world.

Dr Rafudeen is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and Arabic at University of South Africa (Unisa).

This article was published in the October 2018 edition of Muslim Views.

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