The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims – Review

11 January 2012, 5:22 am

Achmat Davids, The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims (From 1815 to 1915), eds. Hein Willemse and Suleman E. Dangor, Protea Book House, 2011, ISBN 978-1-86919-236-5

Since the 1950s, linguists working on the history of Afrikaans have known that the earliest written and printed Afrikaans documents – a language recognisably distinct from Dutch – were written in “Arabic-Afrikaans” in the 1800s. That is, Arabic script was used to “spell out” and produce the sounds of the language that was then developing in the colony known as the Cape. The most well-known of these is Bayān al-Dīn (loosely, “Exposition of the Faith”) by the Kurdish scholar, Abubakr Effendi, who apparently came to SA, via complicated Ottoman allegiances to the British Empire, to teach Islam to the Muslims at the Cape. While Bayān al-Dīn was completed in 1869 and published in then Constantinople in 1877, Effendi makes reference to an earlier work of the same kind. For a foreigner to move here and learn how to write in this form must mean that there was an already established tradition of such writing, as Achmat Davids indeed claims.

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Ramadan: not fasting but feasting

9 November 2010, 7:57 am


When a northerly wind blows, and the roads are quiet and the atmospherics right, I can hear the athaan (call to prayer) from one of the mosques down the road in Salt River. And sometimes I can hear more than one. Out of sync with each other, two calls to prayer can produce either an eerie echo or, if the pitch of both are similar, a harmony. Having grown up Muslim, there is something about the drawn out Arabic phrases, something about its familiarity, that casts me, at once, into spells of nostalgia and melancholia. But hearing the call can also be estranging. In Paarl, where I grew up, the two mosques in use during most of my childhood and teenage years were the mosques of the old Muslim neighbourhood before the Group Areas Act. No Muslims lived in earshot of the mosques anymore, and I didn’t grow up hearing the call to prayer from my house. I heard it when I was at or inside the mosque.

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Stars of Stone

27 October 2010, 12:41 pm

Going through some folders of old poetry, looking to find salvageable lines from binned poems, and thinking about how Afghanistan, Islam, and the murderous barbarism of ‘honour killings’ have been constantly in the news over the past few months (and years, especially since 2003), I thought I’d put up ‘Stars of Stone’, a poem drafted in 1996 after I had read a report of an honour killing in Afghanistan:

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8 June 2010, 7:07 pm

The following is the slightly longer English version of a piece that appeared originally in Afrikaans in Rapport, 6 June 2010. Note that the sub-editors of the Afrikaans version changed my original ‘vergelyking’ to ‘teenstelling’ in my parenthetical reference to the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners)

Next to ‘hotnot’, ‘gam’* and ‘kaffer’, the epithet that hurt me most as a child was ‘kerrienaat’ (‘curry-arse’). It conflated religion and stereotyped dietary habits (Muslims eat curry every day) into a label that instantly undermined one’s authority and sense of self when playground rivalries turned nasty. It could win any argument by dismissing the rival as a ‘kerrienaat’.

As with ‘hotnot’ or ‘kaffer’, or any such words of vilification, the word’s power over its target comes from unequal social relationships and the history of real and cultural abuse that underlies such unequal relationships (Compare the declamations by the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners over the stereotypes of the ‘Afrikaner’ during the Eerste Taalbeweging).** ‘Kerrienaat’ was a powerful label because of the unequal relationships between a largely Christian world (no matter how secularised) and a minority Muslim community fragmented and further embattled following especially the Group Areas Act, which forced a close-knit community apart and into dispersed neighbourhoods. The dominant way of looking at the world was (is) essentially Christian or secularised Christianity, and this dominance allowed that world to define and misrepresent the non-Christian with impunity.

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Dagga- Part Four

13 December 2008, 10:07 am

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

I did start smoking dagga. Details evade me, but the first time would have been on that large veld where die dam was, the farmhouse now abandoned. It would have been at some point during the last three years of high school, with Bokkie, Hare and MC, who had all already tried dope a few times.

By Std. 9 or 10, an obligatory drinking culture had developed among many of our peers, some of them friends. At an older friend’s flat or in Orleans Park with friends who were already at university, and who thus had bursary money to burn and were of legal age, some of my friends drank away their weekends. ‘n Kis biere, ‘n bottel hardehout (hard tack). Four people. One evening’s drinking. Or these were friends from school who were now already at university (I failed Std 8 in 1981 and thus had old class mates a year ahead of me). I didn’t drink. While I may have been intrigued by alcohol (advertising, or from seeing an uncle from my mother’s side lean on a fence on a hot day, a chilled can of Black Label in hand), as a good Muslim boy I stayed away from it, having developed the appropriate distaste towards it and its consumers. Even had I had the interest, I would not have been able to disappear from home for two days, which was needed for my drinking friends, ‘sleeping over’ at an older, independent friend, drinking, passing out, sobering up. Read the rest of this entry »

The muezzin and I

4 December 2008, 4:28 pm

The following are two excerpts from “The Muezzin and I”, forthcoming in a collection of essays, Kitaab of the World: Writing Islam in South Africa, edited by Gabeba Baderoon and Louise Green.

The piece is written in the form of an autobiographical lexicon and entries range from the earnest to the quirky. It has no pretensions towards the encyclopedic and is based rather on the fragmentary, the idiosyncratic, the half-assimilated and half-understood. Some are purely autobiographical, others are about versions (South African, Paarl’s, my father’s) of the Islamic.


The male voice in Islam finds its apotheosis in the muezzin (mu’atthin, also bilal) – the person who performs the call to prayer and who interacts in a loose call-and-response format with the imam during Friday’s sermon – or in recognised recitors who have turned recitation from the Quran into an art form by following a set of rules both aesthetic and spiritual, and known as Tajwid. One such legend was Abdul Basit (1927-1988), an Egyptian who had apparently memorised the Quran by age ten. Basit made recordings of his work commercially available, and he garnered a huge following, pulling large crowds at recitals. Video recordings of his work may now even be found on the web.

While there were several muezzins in my hometown, one of them had a sublime voice which could draw tears from the men in mosque. He was a lanky, gentle, and unassuming man, often dressed in a light blue robe, which complemented eyes that were either light grey or light blue. Quiet, and a loner not typically drawn to stand and chat and joke in groups outside the mosque after evening prayers in Ramadan, he had the manner of an ascetic. Read the rest of this entry »

Dagga – Part Two

2 December 2008, 4:18 pm

Part One

Chewing a handful of raw peanuts now, I find only the faintest smell, and not quite of dagga. Perhaps the peanuts are stale.

The first time I tasted raw peanuts was when I was four. My family were on a road trip that took us along the east coast up to Durban, from there to Johannesburg and then back through the Karoo to Paarl. In Durban we stayed for a few weeks with family friends, a Hindu household that had bought new pots and stocked their fridge with Halaal meat; and a wife, mother and cook who was very happy to indulge my four-year old’s love of curry, a dish not frequently cooked in our own household. But perhaps they also indulged my taste for curry for the benefit of collective comedy. At four years old (and until I was twelve or so), my tongue struggled to find the English middle-ground between a rhotic R and palatal L, so curry and rootie, my favourite dish, became cully and loottie. One of my childhood nicknames was Cully-and-loottie, much to my growing irritation a few years later, when I cussed and threw a knife at another family friend for persisting in teasing me with this. Adults delighted in asking me what I wanted for lunch or supper. In Durban, I was asked this for breakfast too. Cully. Durban was a magical place where one could get curry for breakfast as well.

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From the left sphere

13 February 2008, 7:24 pm

Just a little flag following some left discoveries. I can’t remember what I was searching for, but found some interesting sites, overwhelming in their depth and breadth. If you like your left to be left, these are for you:

1. The Unrepentant Marxist also known as Louis Proyect, a computer programmer with an activist background, and a mega-blog of insistent left analysis of almost everything under the sun: politics, academia, literature, film, and so on. Follow links to the Marxism Mailing List that he moderates.

2. Monthly Review, and old favourite when I was still ‘institutionally affiliated’, its contents are free online. If you are a wealthy leftist, do donate.

3. Socialist Register, an annual of left analysis, and another old favourite. Some of the articles are free, like this brand spanking new one on Islam by that old codger, Aijaz Ahmad, “Islam, Islamisms and the West” (pdf).

4. Swans, more than ten years old, and an admirable project: no advertising, free knowledge and left analysis. Their latest is a special edition on Simone de Beauvoir.

Ziauddin Sardar, Desperately Seeking Paradise

25 November 2005, 5:39 pm

Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim, Granta Books, 2004/2005

[Published in the Mail&Guardian, 25 November 2005]

BORN IN 1951 in Pakistan and raised in London, Ziauddin Sardar is a prolific 21st century universal man. His Google hits amount to thousands, referring the googler not only to Sardar’s own writing, but to writing about him. His own topics range from information technology to scientific futures, from literary reviews to Islam.

As columnist, he is interpreter and critic of Islam to the West, while understanding the role of colonialism in the decline of Islamic culture. In short, his project is to show and emphasize a strain of scepticism in Islam. This provokes the ire of both American patriots and less sceptical Muslims. To the former, he is an apologist for Islam; to the latter, a traitor (there are some scary blogs out there).

Desperately Seeking Paradise continues this project, tracing the writer’s journey from his youth as a Muslim student activist in the 1970s to his role in various Muslim think-tanks. From his hurtful breaks with dogmatic former comrades to reconciliation with them post-9/11. Throughout, Sardar traces the history of humanism and scepticism in Islam, using it as antidote to various forms of bigotry he encounters as he himself searches for some Islamic movement or think-tank in which he can play a role.

And the book is a hoot, cultural criticism as comedy. Frequently, Sardar is approached by a pair of characters who either want to ‘help’ him find ‘true’ Islam, or who seek his help in matters religious or political. Having identified himself as a seeker (‘Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave’ is an oft-quoted saying of the Prophet Muhammad), Sardar readily falls in tow with whomever knocks on his door.

Sooner or later, though, he discovers his companions to be absolutist and unforgiving in religion. The comedy is created by the way in which Sardar caricatures these characters and his conversations with them, throwing the naïve simplicity of their belief into sharp relief. Sometimes, this verges on uncomfortable stereotype, and one wonders about Sardar’s less explicit motives. But he redeems himself by his own, witty self-effacements.

Desperately Seeking Paradise is a must read for the way in which its extended argument against absolutism is interwoven with a history of scepticism in Islam. It also contains a wealth of information around the history of interpretation of the Koran, early Islamic jurisprudence, literature and culture and so on. So, for instance, the book explains how Shariah (Islamic Law) started out as jurisprudence in action, as a method of interpretation after the prophet’s death. But it is the interpretations of ‘eighth century, classical jurists’ themselves that then become codified as Shariah, making their historical interpretations an unchanging Law.

And, underneath the comedy and scepticism and frustration at absolutism, the book is also a paean to the history of Islam. This is evident in the chapter on Sardar’s time in Mecca, establishing the Hajj Research Centre. The aim was to study human movement during the pilgrimage and to use such analysis in town-planning so that Mecca could be developed without losing its history. At some point Sardar reenacts the pilgrimage on foot, and the reader encounters the voice of a sceptic filled with the passion of a believer. The voice of someone who understands the importance of history and culture and ritual, who understands the spirit of Islam and believes in it far more passionately than any of his dogmatic opponents.

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