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Islam in South Africa: Muslims’ Contribution to the South African Transition process


Jul 12, 2013
South Africa
South Africa
Islam in South Africa: Muslims’ Contribution to the South African Transition process and the Challenges of Contextual Readings of Islam
Ursula Günther
July 19, 2018

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Islam in South Africa: Muslims’ Contribution to the South African Transition process and the Challenges of Contextual Readings of Islam
African Muslim Man Making Traditional Praying To God While Wearing A Traditional Cap Dishdasha

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Islam in South Africa is characterised by an exceptional diversity that can be compared to that of the Muslim world in general. Despite their relatively insignificant number, the Muslim population of approximatively 550.000 inhabitants (i.e. 1.36 % of the entire population) (Haferburg 2000: 33, referring to the 1996 Census Database)[1], one of the smallest minorities in South Africa, is an integral and visible part of the society. This is especially true in the urban areas in the Western Cape, Natal and Transvaal. One might tend to explain this as being a post-apartheid phenomenon since numerous ministerial offices on the one hand, and significant positions and professions on the other were held by Muslims. The contrary is true, even since the 19th century many Muslim institutions like mosques, qur’anic schools, modern Muslim schools and colleges have been established in the Western Cape, Natal and Transvaal thus contributing to the integration into society.

The diversity and heterogeneity of Islam originate in the history of migration. During different periods various ethnicities – all adherents of Islam – immigrated to the most southern part of Africa either by force or voluntarily. They shaped the readings of Islam in the country. The different phases of migration correspond to the regional concentration of Muslims with Indonesian or Malay origin and cultural background in the Western Cape and Muslims with Indian or Indo-Pakistani origins and culture in Natal and Transvaal. Despite increasing mobility this concentration is obvious even nowadays. Islam in Natal and Transvaal reflects Indian and Indo-Pakistani features and Islam in the Western Cape corresponds to a cultural synthesis combining elements of south-east-Asian Islam with elements of both the indigenous and African culture.
A prerequisite of the analyses of Islam in South Africa, especially its recent development after the political opening and changes, is the closer examination of the country’s very specific context characterised by the ideology of apartheid on the one hand and by the comparatively peaceful transition process on the other. One should consider this particular context to be the essential factor for the redefinition of Muslim identity. The recent trends concerning South Africa’s Muslim communities can not be understood without taking into account how the socio-political events during the last two decades of apartheid had an effect on discourses and several ideological shifts within Muslim organisations. These shifts laid the foundation of a contextual understanding of Islam and a Muslim identity profoundly embedded in the South African context.
Ironically the ideology of apartheid contributed to the reinforcement of the differences amongst the various groups and simultaneously gave the impulse to changes and paradigm shifts. The latter were initiated particularly from the mid-1970s on with the crisis and gradual decline of the political system. Muslims then entered the political arena offering an Islamic motivated resistance to apartheid.
This essay consists of three parts: the first one outlines the historical background of Muslim migration to southern Africa, the second concentrates on the period from the mid 1970s to the late 1980s, i.e. the beginning of the negotiation process, illustrating trends and developments during the apartheid regime and the impact of the ideological shifts among Muslim organisations on the struggle against apartheid. The third part gives insights in post-apartheid challenges for the Muslim communities referring to the controversial debates on the implementation of Muslim Personal Law (MPL) and the precondition for its coming into effect, i.e. its being brought in line with the demands of the Bill of Rights.
Historical background for Muslim migration to southern Africa
In 1658 the first Muslims arrived in the Cape. They were slaves and political exiles from the islands of Indonesia and Malaysia, Bengal, the Malabar Coast and Madagascar. Amongst them were exiled leaders of the resistance against the Dutch colonisers (Tayob 1996: 730f. and Moosa 1995: 130ff.).[2] Some of these dissidents, such as Tuan Guru of Tidore (Imam ‘Abdallah Qadi ‘Abd as-Salam, 1712-1807) and sheikh Yusuf of Macassar (‘Abidin Tadia Tjoessoep of Macassar, 1629-1699) were religious scholars and played a decisive role with regard to the spiritual foundations of the emerging Muslim communities in the Cape. Both are part of the South African Muslim imagination and are regarded as the symbols of resistance against oppression.[3]
Almost 200 years later, in 1860, Indian plantation workers, independent merchants and traders from Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and Gujarat arrived in Natal and Transvaal, the northern and eastern parts of South Africa. A third group came from the northern parts of Africa, mainly Malawi and Zanzibar. However, not only migration contributed to the growing of the Muslim communities, Islam turned out to be an attractive religion for the already established Malay population. Therefore the 19th century witnessed a considerable amount of conversions to Islam.
In this context it is interesting to mention that among the black majority of the South African population the number of Muslims is relatively modest – and this despite conversions.[4] During the late 1970s and early 1980s a number of the black youth embraced Islam convinced that Islam as a non-white, non-Christian and non-oppressive religion with a clear statement on the equality of all human beings could be adopted as an ideology with the potential to resist apartheid. This might encourage the idea of an increasing number of black Muslims in South Africa. However, the proportion of them compared to the rest is insignificant.
The different historical and geographical roots explain the still existing demographic phenomenon of settlement – despite an increasing mobility during the last two decades: Muslims with Malay or Indonesian background and culture predominantly live in the Cape Province and those with Indian background and culture in Natal and Transvaal. Due to these differences the Muslim minority in South Africa is divided into several communities belonging to various ethnicities, language groups and social classes.
At first glanceو the nature of the differences between the communities of the Western Cape and those of Natal and Transvaal seem to be cultural, ethnic and linguistic. However, on closer examination we find considerable differences with regard to questions of theology and religious practices. Both the cultural background and the historically rooted different social statuses shaped and still shape the corresponding religious institutions, rituals and symbols.
300 years of coexistence of the Muslim communities in the Western Cape with other communities − both religious and cultural ones − led to the creation of a unique culture with a particular cultural flexibility. The common language Afrikaans strengthened the sense of belonging. The communities in the Cape Province were also called “Cape Malays”, a term going back to an ethnical classification of the British in the early 19th century that underwent an extension of meaning since it corresponded in the course of the years to an exclusive identity.
With regard to the communities of Indian or Indo-Pakistani origin a fusion with elements of pre-existing local cultures never took place. On the contrary, cultural particularism prevented processes of acculturation. In comparison to the communities of the Western Cape Indo-Pakistani communities were culturally rigid while fostering conservative positions, regarding the relations to non-Muslim communities on the one hand and the variety of competing approaches to Islam existing in India that came through migration to South Africa.[5]
Reinforcement of already existing differences by apartheid
The different cultural and ethnic backgrounds served as a basis for the “racial classification” of the apartheid ideology: Muslims with Indonesian or Malay origins were classified as “coloureds” or “Cape Malays” in contrast to those with Indian or Indo-Pakistani origins who were classified as “Indians” or “Asians”. On top of the social pyramid were “whites”, followed by “Indians” or “Asians”, enjoying numerous privileges in comparison with the “coloured” population whose status was in turn superior to that of the “blacks”.[6] Unlike the latter “coloured” and “Indians/Asians” had access to good education and therefore to socially respected professions such as medicine, law and business. Religious practices were not affected by apartheid.
Apartheid not only segregated groups artificially but established a specific hierarchy among the different “racial” groups which either created separate cultural entities or fostered already existing cultural differences and made them permanent. In addition to the regional, cultural and linguistic differences that discouraged any exchange between the communities different approaches concerning religious practices and theology rather contributed to deepening the rifts than to overcoming them. “Cape Malays” were considered to be peaceful and loyal. This position is very much linked to the cultural background of the Muslims in the Cape, denoted as “Malayism”. Besides religious parochialism and the unquestioned acceptance of white dominance “Malayism” “[…] not sets them apart, but also above the other people of colour in their common environment. And though they were subjected to the same forces of oppression they were made to believe that they were the “elite of the coloured” people. This exclusivity and false superiority made it difficult for them to fuse with the other sections of the oppressed, and to develop a common united struggle against oppression (Davids 1985: 6).”[7]
The South African scholar and former activist in the struggle against apartheid Farid Esack is even sharper. His description of South Africa’s Muslim communities makes no difference between “coloured” or “Indian” Muslims with regard to their socio-political attitude under apartheid, on the contrary, he stresses that they have a lot in common: “This small community of Muslims has survived against tremendous odds. Their survival as a distinct religious and cultural community may be attributed to a sense of exclusivity, even superiority vis-à-vis non-Muslims. This sense of religio-cultural superiority, together with economic considerations, have often led to Muslim identification with the other “superior group” – the ruling class. The struggle for acceptability to the ruling class and the imperatives of survival as a distinct religious community made them amenable to frequent military co-option by the ruling military-political structures (Esack 1992: 167).”[8]
In summary despite several differences the established orthodoxy, i.e. the ‘ulama’ of all communities – and this is true for the Cape Province, Natal or Transvaal – shared a conservative political attitude with little willingness for change, and a considerable loyalty to the government in power. Therefore they were responsive to cooption. Most of the ‘ulama’ were members of the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) which was established in 1945 in order to create a judicial umbrella body with the task to guarantee the religious principles of Islam. The MJC claimed and still claims to be the guardian of the Islamic doctrine and its values and therefore to speak for the entire Muslim community aiming to unite them.
Needless to say, there was no need for the Muslim communities to change the status quo nor to initiate resistance against the system, even more so because religious practice was not restricted. Almost the entire ‘ulama’ took a very conservative stand, and it is not exaggerated to describe them as being complacent, silent, even a-political with regard to the political landscape, especially in the course of the 1960s and 1970s.[9]
Apartheid the unintentional catalyst for the awakening of a political consciousness
The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a general trend towards an increasing political consciousness and therefore a constantly growing resistance movement against apartheid, especially after the Soweto uprisings of 1976 and the aggravation of the political and economic crisis of the apartheid system. This also affected the Muslim communities and the organisations that had been established during the 1970s or had emerged as off-shoots and transformations of already existing organisations that reshaped their aims and perspectives.
The process of the country-wide societal transformation – the origins going back to the 1970s – is reflected in the evolution that took place within the Muslim organisations and the resulting strategies of resistance expressed by a significant change of discourses. Organisations that had been established for purely religio-cultural reasons suddenly articulated religio-political positions and became engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle. Eventually resistance among the Muslim population was no longer only the affair of a few individuals or small groups but spread over the organisations established in the 1970s and even led to the founding of new organisations with an explicit anti-apartheid commitment.
The reasons why Muslim organisations entered into the political arena that late and developed beside their already existing religio-cultural program a political strategy were manifold: on the one hand they feared the increasing repressions of the regime. Another decisive factor was the monopoly of the established ‘ulama’ who tried to dissuade Muslims from getting politically involved in combination with the absence of an alternative leadership that would be able to establish a progressive counterpart to the ‘ulama’.[10]
Therefore the prerequisite of the process of politicisation of the Muslim organisations was a process of emancipation. Without this Muslim resistance in South Africa would not have been possible. In view of the “silent Ulema” (Lubbe 1986: 28)[11] it was necessary for Muslim groups and organisations to establish a counterpart to the ‘ulama’s dominance and their monopoly of interpretation in order to promote a different cultural, social and political engagement. The first attempts already took place in the 1950s with the creation of study circles in Natal and the Western Cape aiming at making the Qur’an and other texts accessible for all believers while providing translations. Unfortunately this initiative did not produce new religious scholars. With Imam Haron’s death in 1969 these first attempts of emancipation came to an end.[12]
The vacuum concerning a new leadership elite fostered the ‘ulama’s position that was called into question only in the course of the 1970s. As long as the major challenge for the young organisations consisted in developing a counterpart to orthodoxy, respective the guardians of orthodoxy, it is evident that questioning the socio-political situation or even taking a political stand against the government was difficult. The situation changed with the return of several students with titles of religious scholars from India or Pakistan, like e.g. Ebrahim Moosa or Farid Esack who became key figures for Muslim resistance, since they filled the vacuum with regard to the new religious leadership in the relatively young organisations.[13] These theologians were held in high esteem both within and outside their organisation since they now were part of the ‘ulama’ although expressing a different vision of a Muslim identity than their conservative counterparts.
The process of emancipation of the established religious leadership seemed to lay the foundation that was necessary to examine the possibility and the nature of a cultural, social and political commitment for Muslims within the broader South African context. The coincidence of such internal development with the unfolding struggle in general and the social crisis of the 1980s created a climate where practical action and political commitment became absolutely imperative.
Three socio-political events – one on the international and two on the national level – played a central role with regard to the politicisation of the Muslim organisations: the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 and the implementation of the tri-cameral parliament in 1983 with elections of 1984 and the subsequent formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a nation-wide umbrella body for both religious and secular groups and organisations engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle. This parliament provided three separate houses for whites, “coloureds” and “Indians”, the black population was entirely excluded. Muslims – being classified either as “Indians” or as “coloured” according to apartheid ideology – were obliged to take a decision, i.e. either to participate in the elections or to boycott them. However, boycotting the tri-cameral parliament was not necessarily equivalent with affiliation to the UDF. The topic of whether or not to ally with other opposition groups and to pursue a purely Islamic fight created a lot of controversies and deepened the fragmentations within the Muslim organisations.
Although the Islamic revolution was a milestone for the young organisations its influence consists more in giving an impulse for Islamic resurgence and the awakening of the Islamic heritage than in pushing towards a South African equivalent. The organisations adopted the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jama’ati Islami, discussed Sayyid Qutb’s and Abu al-A’la Maududi’s translated texts in the weekly qur’anic classes and studies groups but without a link to the political or social context of South Africa.
The Muslim organisations
The motives of the first emerging organizations such as the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM), a mass-movement with national support, founded in 1970, and the Muslim Students Association (MSA),[14] founded in 1974, and their self-concept was – particularly in the formative period – to establish a progressive counterpart to the traditional and conservative ‘ulama’. Most of the latter were members of the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), established in 1945.
In the course of the events in the mid 1980s and the growing resistance against apartheid the MYM abandoned its apolitical position and got more and more involved in the struggle. The main objective of the formative years to “Islamise” society was replaced by a contextual vision of Islam that now focused on the socio-political reality of oppression and resistance. The organisation developed a strategy of “positive neutrality” enabling the members to join resistance activities without being engaged in a particular political organisation or ideology (Tayob 1995: 169).[15] This rather pragmatic than political strategy aimed at fostering the cohesion within the organisation in order to avoid the loss of members to other Muslim organizations or secular movements. However, a closer examination – and this includes the interviews I conducted during my fieldwork with members of the MYM – brings to light that this strategy served the purpose to create room for the members’ different political positions. Besides supporters of the ANC, PAC, the Black Conscious Movement or the Unity Movement in the Cape Province there were members declaring their apolitical position and their rejection of any political involvement. These internal differences and the declared need for contextualization as initiated by the MYM General Assembly 1987 deepened the fractions within the organisation.[16]
The discourse of alliances with non-Muslim liberation movements was crucial. This issue brought to light the religious and political divisions on the one hand and the diversity among the Muslim organisations on the other. The question of whether or not to ally with others cannot be separated from the dilemma of the sustainability of Islamic values and goals within the struggle when confronted with secular movements.[17] “Coming at a time of heightening political awareness and activity locally, it was inevitable that tensions would follow between those fundamentalists [adopting the model of the Iranian revolution, U.G.] and other Muslims prepared to work with non-Muslims. The discourse among Muslims was no longer one of collaboration or resistance but rather about the nature of that resistance and how best the ideological objectives of Islam could be furthered within such resistance (Esack 1992: 170).[18]
Nevertheless the issue of a clear political commitment and therefore the affiliation with the wider resistance movement was not resolved with the strategy of “positive neutrality”, on the contrary, in 1984 a group of members, like e.g. Farid Esack, Ebrahim Rasool and Gassan Solomon, insisted on a political stand, split from the MYM and founded the Call of Islam. The members of this organisation were convinced that “For us it is not a question of taking friendship of non-Muslims. People are suffering. We are part of that people who are suffering and together we are going to get our freedom (Esack 1989: 56)”[19].
Qibla, founded in 1980, is another example for an organization with an obvious political objective. Unlike Call of Islam that can be regarded as an off-shoot of the MYM is not an off-shoot of a former organization despite the fact that it recruited a lot of members from both the MYM and the MSA. These members were not prepared to follow the ideological shift from Islamism to contextualism that the MYM and the MSA underwent. According to their ideological orientation young people joined either Qibla which proclaimed a purely Islamist ideology or Call of Islam which stood for contextual ideology with a radical flavor in that it affiliated to non-Muslim secular liberation organizations and movements. Qibla is a radical, even militant Islamist organisation, the model of the Iranian revolution and the ideology of a theocratic state were the objectives for the struggle against apartheid. Therefore Qibla rejected any affiliation with non-Muslim organisations.
It was certainly not by coincidence that simultaneously with the necessity of an ideological shift within the MYM two other Muslim organizations were founded.
In summary, the MYM’s process of several ideological shifts mirrors a general trend of the Muslim discourse. This process had three major phases: an Islamic one, i.e. Islam was perceived and propagated as a way of life – the Islamist or fundamentalist one, – and the contextualized one, i.e. taking into consideration the particular socio-political context of South Africa. Qibla and Call of Islam can be considered as different expression of these ideological changes, i.e. they represent the two edges of the scale of Muslim resistance.[20]
Post-apartheid challenges: the controversy concerning the implementation of Muslim Personal Law
The political liberation raises new questions with regard to the identity of South African Muslims.[21] The unifying elements in the course of the common struggle do not persist any longer. On the contrary, the relative unanimity during the last two decades of apartheid was not sustainable enough to continue in a different socio-political context. On the one hand many of the former active organisations nowadays rather are paper tigers than contributors to societal debate, on the other hand numerous leaders standing for a progressive and contextualised reading of Islam left either the organisations and took other responsibilities or left the country.[22] Furthermore one has to take into consideration that progressive theology is quite a recent phenomenon in South Africa that came into existence mainly as a reaction to the context of apartheid. This explains why rather conservative groups and organisations like the ‘ulama’ umbrella bodies Muslim Judicial Council in the Western Cape, Jami’at ul-Ulema Natal and Jami’at ul-Ulema Transvaal could regain considerable influence. Post-apartheid South Africa confronts the Muslim communities with new challenges described by Farid Esack referring to Firoze Cachalia as follows: “Firoze Cachalia is correct when he says that while Muslims have been engaged in the liberation struggle, they have also been “involved in a discreet struggle for the preservation and assertion of the Muslim identity”, an identity which emphasizes the integrity and validity of Islamic concepts (Esack 1992: 190 referring to Cachalia 1991: 9).”[23]
The debates with regard to the implementation of Muslim Personal Law (MPL) mirror the tensions and the differences among the Muslim communities and organisations. Simultaneously the process linked to these debates and the outcome will give insights both into the possibilities and the limitations of a contextual Islam. Prerequisite for the implementation of MPL is the compatibility between MPL legislation and the Bill of Rights. The right to equality is probably the most crucial clause in the constitution, protecting against any form of discrimination on grounds of race, gender, sex, religion and culture.[24] The constitution provides for the legal recognition of MPL under the condition that it is in line with other provisions of the constitution. Farid Esack, at that time member of the Commission for Gender Equality, formulated the predicament as follows: the need to acknowledge an “unchangeable” constitution which is one of the most progressive world-wide taking into consideration simultaneously MPL which is based on “unchangeable” sacred text.[25] In other words: a submission on MPL will pass in parliament only when it is in line with the Bill of Rights.
Although there is consensus among Muslim organisations that MPL needs to be recognised, there is dissent as to which aspects of it should be enacted and who will be the agents of law within the Muslim community. The first attempt to legalise MPL was in 1987, suggested by the apartheid regime. Although the Muslim organisations were claiming the recognition of their law system, many of them were reluctant with regard to this initiative. The ‘ulama’ bodies Muslim Judicial Council, Jamiat ul-Ulama of Natal and Jamiat ul-‘Ulama Transvaal uncritically accepted the proposition whereas the organisations engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle like MYM, MSA and Call of Islam expressed massive protest reproaching the government for coopting “orthodoxy” and legitimizing the system. With the transition process it became evident that the problem of recognition of MPL needed to be resolved since Muslim families, women and children were legally unprotected – because under apartheid their law system was not recognized. The already existing controversies among the different Muslim organisations necessitated a consultation process that would include the general Muslim public.
The process started with the presentation of three concepts trying to compensate for the tensions between the constitutional pillar of equality with regard to the rights of citizens, of religious freedom and the Muslims’ right to organise their families according to religious rights: firstly legal unity, secondly legal integration and thirdly legal pluralism (Cachalia 1991: 31ff.).[26] The first concept intends that a marriage concluded according to Islamic Law is under jurisdiction of civil law. The second concept provides that aspects of religious law will enter secular law and undergo certain standardizations. Therefore we need numerous relatively identical elements in both law systems. With regard to significant differences, like polygamy and repudiation, two concepts meant only for men, as well as the law of inheritance that favours the male heir particular solutions must be found in order to achieve the aim of legal unity. The third concept pleads for an equal coexistence of different law systems. However, conflicts concerning the clause on equality, particularly gender equality and religious freedom will occur automatically. Eventually the second concept, i.e. legal integration was favoured.
Already in the course of the negotiation process Muslim organisations lobbied political parties and made submissions to the multiparty Conference for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) to include the recognition of MPL into the new constitution.[27] As a result the ANC government introduced the Muslim Personal Law Board in 1994, whose members were six ‘ulama’ bodies, the MYM and Call of Islam. The deep divisions among conservative and progressive members of the board and the inability to come to a consensus led to its dissolution one year after its inception. The crucial issue was the contextual vision of Islam, in other words religious law that is sacrosanct from a conservative perspective must be adapted to the constitution that as unchangeable as religious law seems to be. The conservative wings pleaded for a removal of the clause of religious freedom. This means that religious law is superior to secular law. The progressive wing pleaded for reforming religious law in order to adapt it to the Bill of Rights.
In 1997 South Africa’s new constitution came into force. Since 1998 Muslim marriages were legally recognised, other aspects of MPL still needed to be clarified. Therefore the South African law commission created a committee for MPL. Like its predecessor it was attacked by progressive, feminist, gender-sensitive groups and organisations. Nevertheless after three years of work the committee presented a proposal. However, it delivered more questions than it provided answers. In order to include the broader Muslim public the law commission appealed for delivering proposals. Both Muslim, governmental as non-governmental organisations initiated a nation-wide consultation process while offering workshops for different communities, women groups etc. in order to deliver and exchange information as well to investigate the needs of the population. The impact on women was of particular importance for numerous initiatives.[28]
The engagement of the Commission on Gender Equality with regard to the implementation of MPL deserves particular attention. The commission focused on the impact of this law on women as well as on possible discrepancies with the clause on equality. Simultaneously it aimed at integrating women in the decision-making process. The critique resulting in the investigation and experiences in the workshops mirror the tensions observed in the different proposals. Furthermore several points were taken up in the proposal the Commission of Law handed in in parliament. Although the Commission on Gender Equality was very much in favour of the recognition of Muslim marriages the members expressed a deep concern with regard to the implementation of such a law system fostering already existing inequality, favouring male dominance over women and providing a legal ground for widespread gender discrimination.[29] The main results of the consultation process can be summarized as follows:
  • The ‘ulama’ are gender-blind
  • Women’s every-day life is not taken into consideration, on the contrary it is marginalised
  • One can not presume unanimity within the Muslim communities
  • Women are suffering from the actual system of MPL
  • The gender-perspective does not play any role
  • There is great lack of knowledge
Therefore the Commission on Gender Equality stated: “The Commission is expressly opposed to the establishment of any such system. We believe it will entrench existing inequalities, perpetuate male dominance and provide legitimacy to current discriminatory practices (Seedat 2000: 17).”
They suggested the recognition of Muslim marriages. Divorce, issues of inheritance, maintenance and guardianship must be treated by civil law courts. Such a position corresponds to a slap in the ‘ulama’s face.
The debates concerning the implementation of MPL are a difficult process that has not come to an end yet, in other words: the decision whether or not to implement MPL in South Africa has been postponed.


The role of Muslim organisations in the struggle against apartheid and the transition process was multi-faceted. The socio-political context shaped the evolution of a contextual vision of Muslim engagement. Contextualisation offered the chance to politically engage in the struggle while keeping a Muslim identity and bringing together at least some of the partly divided Muslim groups in order to fight for a better South Africa. This led to a specific reading of Islam. Numerous South African Muslims redefined their religious and cultural commitment according to the particular context they live in. Contextualisation offers the chance to create a multiple identity, referring to a specific religious and/or cultural commitment while simultaneously participating in the “rainbow-nation”.
Taking into consideration that progressive theology providing the theoretical ground for contextualisation is a very recent phenomenon in South Africa and particularly linked to the socio-political context of apartheid it should not be surprising that with the political transformation and the societal and social uncertainties conservative and traditional forces, i.e. the established ‘ulama’ are resurging. Even more so, because they enjoy a certain social consolidation for historical reasons and had established a solid infrastructure in contrast to their progressive counterpart.
What is striking: they also enjoy considerable support from the government, e.g. concerning the issue of the implementation of Muslim Personal Law, despite massive protest. The ANC preferred to cooperate with conservative groups and ‘ulama’ bodies than with the new elite of political leaders and thinkers.
The power struggle within the Muslim community continues. Questions like who is the legitimate representative of South Africa’s Muslims in dealing with state institutions and who are the legitimate experts and agents of Islamic law and practices are still waiting to be answered.
With regard to South Africa’s Muslims, Talbi’s words prove to be well-founded.
Ursula Günther is a researcher at the University of Hamburg, faculty of education, psychology and human movement (religious education).

[1] Haferburg, Christoph. How many Muslims are in South Africa? In: Centre for Contemporary Islam, Annual Review of Islam in South Africa, Issue No.3, December 2000: 33−34.
[2] Tayob, Abdulkader. South Africa, Islam in. In: Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Edition. 1996, Leiden, London, 1960 -, Vol. 9: 730-731. Moosa, Ebrahim. Islam in South Africa. In: Prozesky, Martin/de Gruchy, John (eds.). Living Faith in South Africa, 1995, Cape Town: 129-154.
[3] For more details with regard to the role of Muslim dissidents in the context of consolidating Muslim resistance and the construction of a historical continuity of resistance see Günther, Ursula. The Memory of Imam Haron in Consolidating Muslim Resistance in the Apartheid Struggle. in: Mitchell, Gordon/Mullen, Eve (eds.). Religion and the Political Transformation in a Changing South Africa. 2002, Münster, et al.: 89-119.
[4] It is beyond the scope of this article to go into detail concerning the reasons for this phenomenon. Probably it is due to the ideology of apartheid in combination with the policy of intimidation as well as the cooption of the Muslim population on the one hand. On the other hand there are several indications that the hierarchical perception of South Africa’s population was wide spread among Muslims. This is particularly important in the context of the concept of Malayism. See also Günther 2002, op. cit., Davids, Achmat. Politics and the Muslims of Cape Town: A Historical Survey. In: Saunders, Christopher (et al.) (eds.). Studies in the History of Cape Town. Vol. 4. 1981, Cape Town: 47-79 as well as Davids, Achmat. From Complacency to Activism. The Changing Political Mood of the Cape Muslims from 1940-1985. 5th Workshop on the History of Cape Town, 6-7 December 1985. UCT History Department.
[5] For further details with regard to the different approaches see Günther, Ursula. “Lesarten des Islam in Südafrika − Herausforderungen im Kontext des sozio-politischen Umbruchprozesses von Apartheid zur Demokratie”. In: Afrika Spectrum, 37 (2002) 2: 159−174.
[6] Although it seems to be problematic to use the apartheid-terms “coloured, Indian, black” and “white” it is important to mention that they have not been substituted by other terms, on the contrary South Africans appropriated them while changing the racist connotations. Especially the term “coloured” underwent significant changes of meaning. This was mentioned in several interviews I conducted with Muslims in Cape Town.
[7] Davids, Achmat. From Complacency to Activism. The Changing Political Mood of the Cape Muslims from 1940−1985. 5th Workshop on the History of Cape Town, 6−7 December 1985. UCT History Department.
[8] Esack, Farid. Liberation, Human Rights, Gender and Islamic Law: The South African Case. in: Vogt, R. T. / Lindholm, T. (eds.). Human Rights and Modern Application of Islamic Law. 1992, Oslo, National Institute of Human Rights: 163-199.
[9] The reactions concerning the death in detention of the activist Imam Haron in 1969 are but one example for the complacent attitude of the ‘ulama’ and their influence on the community. For further details see Günther, Ursula 2002 op. cit.
[10] In this regard the ‘ulama’ in Natal and Transvaal deserve particular attention since they had more influence within the communities than their counterparts in the Western Cape.
[11] Lubbe, Gerrie. Christians, Muslims and Liberation in South Africa. In: Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 56, September 1986: 24-33.
[12] For more details with regard to Imam Haron and his political commitment see Günther, Ursula 2002, op. cit.
[13] See the interview I conducted 2 August 2000 with Ebrahim Moosa in Cape Town and those with Farid Esack, conducted 4 and 7 July 2000 in Cape Town.
[14] Since the Muslim Students Organisation has almost the same religious and political orientation as the MYM, I will concentrate on the latter.
[15] Tayob, Abdulkader. Islamic Resurgence in South Africa. The Muslim Youth Movement. 1995, Cape Town.
[16] For further details see the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa General Assembly, Kimberly 1987.
[17] For further details see Tayob, Abdulkader. Muslims’ Discourse on Alliance against Apartheid. In: Journal for the Study of Religion, Vol.3, September 1990, No. 2: 31-47.
[18] Esack, Farid, 1992, op. cit.
[19] Esack, Farid. But Moosa Went to Fir-aun! A Compilation of Questions and Answers about the Role of Muslims in the South African Struggle for Liberation. Call of Islam Publication. 1989, Cape Town.
[20] See also Günther, Ursula/Niehaus Inga. Islam, Politics, and Gender during the Struggle in South Africa. In: Chidester, David et al. Religion, Politics, and Identity in a Changing South Africa. 2004, Münster et al.: 103-124.
[21] The controversy concerning MPL is but one example for a post-apartheid phenomenon. For further examples like the emergence of the vigilant group Pagad (People against Gangsterism and Drugs) challenging the new state structures or the creation of Muslim radio stations that mirror the conflicts between conservative and progressive Muslim organisations see Günther, Ursula/Niehaus, Inga. Islam in South Africa. The Muslims’ Contribution in the Struggle against Apartheid and the Process of Democratisation. In: Bierschenk, Thomas/Staudt, Georg (eds.). Islam in Africa. 2002, Münster et al.: 69-90.
[22] The progressive scholars and activists Ebrahim Moosa and Farid Esack may illustrate this phenomenon. Moosa, one of the leading theologians of the MYM left the country after several bomb threats coming from reactionary circles. Farid Esack, one of the leading figures of Call of Islam who developed an Islamic theology of liberation first worked in the Commission for Gender Equality, withdrew both from politics and from the organisation.
[23] Esack, Farid 1992, op. cit. and Cachalia, Firoze. Legal Pluralism and Constitutional Change in South Africa: The Special Case of Muslim Family Law. 1991, Johannesburg.
[24] See Republic of South Africa, 1996, Constitution.
[25] Farid Esack in his introduction to the workshop on Islamic marriages and related matters, organised by the Commission of Gender Equality 12 July 2000 in Cape Town. This workshop took place in the course of the national consultation process organised by the Commission of Gender Equality. For further details see Seedat, Fatima. Determining the Application of a System of Muslim Personal Law in South Africa. In: Annual Review of Islam in South Africa, No. 3, Dec. 2000: 11-18.
[26] See also Cachalia, Firoze. Legal Pluralism and Constitutional Change in South Africa: The Special Case of Muslim Family Law. 1991 a, Johannesburg as well as Cachalia, Firoz (sic). The Future of Muslim Family Law in South Africa. 1991 b, Johannesburg.
[27] For more details with regard to the negotiation process and the constitution-making see Ebrahim, Hassen. The Soul of the Nation: Constitution-Making in South Africa. 1998, Cape Town.
[28] See also South African Law Commission. 2000. Islamic Mariages and Related Matters. Issue Paper 15 (Project 59): http://www.law.wits.ac.za/salc/issue/issue.html (last check: 15-3-2005)
[29] For further details see Seedat 2000, op.cit.
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Jan 24, 2021
Islam is definitely growing in South Africa. a couple of cricketers and their wives became Muslim in the past few months. one of the side effects of corona lockdowns is people have had the time to read and study religion, which has helped bring new reverts to Islam.

Sifar zero

Jul 27, 2020
South Africa
Islam is definitely growing in South Africa. a couple of cricketers and their wives became Muslim in the past few months. one of the side effects of corona lockdowns is people have had the time to read and study religion, which has helped bring new reverts to Islam.
Not just cricket its everywhere my dad and uncle own a grocery store there and 100% of the things there are halal.


Jul 12, 2013
South Africa
South Africa
Not just cricket its everywhere my dad and uncle own a grocery store there and 100% of the things there are halal.
Absolutely, Most food has been halal since 60s'. most people are not aware

MJC has done tremendous work since early 1900's.


Jul 12, 2013
South Africa
South Africa
Denel, pls dont answer if it offends you, but are you muslim?
Actually I am not; i have grown up with muslims. In this part of the world it is a different story - we fought together against aparthied, we got buried together as well - same graveyards.

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