Comment and Analysis

The revolution threatening to divide SA's Muslims

Fatima Asmal-Motala

Some Muslims in South Africa have begun taking on tradition. And that is where things are getting heated with divisions bubbling to the surface.

Muslims link the fasting month to the concept of mercy, believing that the self-restraint that comes with depriving the body of food and drink bodes well for an improved relationship with one’s self, God and humankind.

But it was last Ramadan that I found myself at the centre of a storm in which some Muslims directed anything but mercy at me. It was just after I had presented a programme on a Durban radio station aimed at investigating why there was such a vast difference of opinion among local ulama (Islamic scholars) about whether women should be allowed to participate in the Eid prayer.

Not long after, Mufti AK Hoosen, a well-known personality in the community, pronounced me a jaahil, an ignoramus, on his popular programme on Channel Islam International. He said people of my “ilk” belonged to the party of Satan. My BlackBerry lit up with Facebook notifications from his followers who wanted to congratulate me on getting what I deserved.

I was likened to a “Zionist defending the undefendable” and the word “modernist” was constantly thrown at me—words that were particularly cutting precisely because they insinuated that I was adding something that had no basis to the religion and disregarded the religious texts in the process.

There was a time, more than a decade ago, when nobody would have dreamed of categorising me in such a way. I was a 21-year-old newspaper intern who became acquainted with a madrasah, or Islamic educational institute, for females while I was researching a story about women who veiled their faces.


Fatima Asmal-Motala, who sparked outrage in the Muslim community for her views on contemporary Islam. (Caren Firouz, Reuters and Ammar Awad, Reuters)

Not long after being told by the students there that it was compulsory for a woman to cover her face and forbidden for her to work in a mixed-gender environment, I walked out of my job at a mainstream KwaZulu-Natal newspaper, donning a face veil the very next day and joining the madrasah, much to the disappointment of my parents, who had encouraged me to pursue my career aspirations. I also began publishing a magazine in which I preached, among other things, that females should not attend university.

My experience is not unlike that of Hanifa Osman, a 32-year-old chartered accountant from Durban. I first met Osman at the madrasah, where she was a student enrolled in a course for post-matriculants.

But while I was being socialised into a particular ideology, she had already begun to question it. Osman had what she calls a religious epiphany at the age of 13 while reading an English translation of a chapter of the Qur’an.

“I adopted the understanding of Islam I absorbed around me, which tended to focus on women: dressing, [their] role in life and do’s and don’ts, mainly the don’ts. I abandoned TV, movies, socialising, going to malls, shopping and anything not involving Islam,” she said.

Osman became distracted from her studies and started attending lecture programmes at the madrasah, much to the horror of her parents. “We are a moderate family, very much focused on being financially independent and educated, and here I was declaring education for women as being haram (forbidden).”

After school she enrolled at the madrasah, but finished the year feeling disillusioned.

“I was disappointed that the focus was not on the Qur’an, which is what drew me to Allah in the first place. Also, there was little mention about the character and manners of the Prophet Muhammad and its implementation in our lives. Much focus was given to poetry in Urdu—a language I don’t understand or like.”

By the time I reconnected with Osman, about a decade later, my madrasah days were firmly behind me, too. The evolutionary process for me had started with a book by Bilal Philips, a Salafi Islamic scholar, whose emphasis on authenticity and the eradication of practices not established from the teachings of the Prophet attracted me.

I proudly proclaimed myself to be a Salafi—someone who was practising Islam as it was practised by the first three generations of Muslims—but fast learned through my interactions on the internet and a visit to Egypt and England that the ideology was by no means a monolithic one. Views about issues such as the role of women in society, jihad and political participation varied from scholar to scholar. Intolerance was not uncommon.

I felt particularly disillusioned when, after spending two years doing the necessary groundwork to launch a branch of a Salafi educational institute in South Africa, the overseas founder told my colleague and me that, as women, we should take a back seat and enlist the assistance of men to serve at the forefront of its activities.

So I shed the Salafi label and became more interested in exploring the role South African Muslims can play in eradicating racism, inequality and oppression rather than breaking my head over issues about which there will always be differences of opinion.

I try to share these perspectives through the Institute for Learning and Motivation South Africa, an organisation I direct that is aimed at arranging programmes for Muslims who are trying to make sense of how to apply Islam to a contemporary context.


Ismail Kamdar of the Islamic Online University, has arrived at a ‘more open-minded yet orthodox understanding of Islam.’ (Rogan Ward, M&G)

It was here that I first met Ismail Kamdar from Durban, who works as a tutor for the internet-based Islamic Online University. As a teenager Kamdar enrolled at a madrasah for males and spent most of his adolescent years studying to become an aalim or Islamic scholar.

“I was very much grounded in my way of thinking, believing whatever I was taught was correct and we shouldn’t question our teachers and they had to be right,” he said. This changed during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in 2004.

“I was exposed to different Muslims and their practices, as well as books by ulama who differed vastly with what I had been taught. My initial reaction was shock and horror that the majority of Muslims in the world were so deviant. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that perhaps I am wrong and the rest of the world could be right.

This led me to explore outside the ideology I was raised on and thus began my long journey towards what I regard as a more open-minded yet orthodox understanding of Islam.”

Kamdar previously labelled himself a Salafi, but no longer does. “This term has become associated with many extremist groups over the past 20 years and as a result it has become associated with factionalism, narrow-mindedness, harshness and being judgmental.” The label had severe repercussions for him—he was fired from the Islamic school at which he taught after a group of local ulama pressured his employers to get rid of him. Still, Kamdar refuses to generalise. “I have many friends who hold many different understandings of Islam, including ulama. A few intolerant individuals usually are in the spotlight and they cast a negative reflection on everybody else.”

Being in the spotlight usually entails having access to Facebook. Or, if you are more fortunate, having control of a media platform that makes it possible for the wider dissemination of views, as is the case with Mufti Hoosen, who called the 25-year-old University of Johannesburg Islamic studies lecturer Safiyyah Surtee and her friends “Western apologists” and “modernists” when they embarked on a campaign to educate women about the Prophet’s view that they should attend the Eid prayer.

Offensive though these terms may be, they are mild in comparison to “dumb lady”, “stupid aunt” and “dumb creature”, which is what Surtee’s fellow campaigner, Quraysha Ismail Sooliman, had to contend with from a Port Elizabeth-based aalim, Maulana AS Desai, in his monthly publication The Majlis. Desai is widely considered to be the harshest critic of “nonconformists” and has developed a reputation of being a lone ranger of sorts, even known to lash out at fellow ulama who hold contradictory views.

When I sent him an email last month asking why he resorted to using derogatory language, his response was: “In the English language, after an exhaustive search of the dictionary, we failed to discover another term for a spade. We thus conclude that a spade must be called a spade - a moron a moron and a devil a devil. Of course, if you have managed to locate another word to exactly describe a spade, do not hesitate to apprise and educate us, for we believe in the principle of learning from the cradle to the grave.”

He also suggested that I reflect on a statement he attributed to Faatimah, the daughter of the Prophet, in which she was reported to have said that it was best for a woman not to look at men and them not to look at her. “Should you spare a few moments to meditate on the ontological treasure delivered by the Queen of Jannat (Paradise), her message to Muslim womankind, then undoubtedly you will gain in sagacity and wish to retreat into a cave of concealment which will put you on to the path of divine proximity as opposed to your current path of Satanism.”


Safiyyah Surtee has been labelled a ‘Western apologist’ for campaigning for Muslim women to be allowed to attend the Eid prayer. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Such intolerance may indeed be confined to a few individuals like Hoosen and Desai, but the fact is that they have thousands of followers who take up their causes on social networking platforms—some of whom I unsuccessfully tried to interview—as Surtee also found out.

“I thought I would just go on Facebook and tell women they could attend the Eid prayer. I didn’t know this amounted to putting myself out there for a lot of backlash and criticism,” she said. “The debates started, people started attacking me and calling me names, telling me I’m off the straight path, I’m a modernist and a feminist, a rebel who wants to stir up trouble. ‘Everything was fine, why do you want to come and cause all this trouble and divide the community,’ they said.”

Surtee, who grew up in Mayfair where she had never set foot in the main mosque, only began questioning tradition as a university student when she travelled to the Middle East with her husband. There she saw women at mosques and she was allowed to go in and pray behind the men.

She began to investigate critically the various points of view she had subscribed to while growing up, prompting her involvement in a weekly Qur’anic study session in which she and a group of like-minded women discuss the relevance of the text to their lives. “There is definitely a shift of sorts taking place within the community—a lot of young people are becoming more interested and involved in issues like gender or politics and shifting away from mainstream dialogue,” she said.

Maulana Ebrahim Bham, a senior figure in the Johannesburg-based Council of Muslim Theologians, said such a shift was to be expected.

“In any religion or society one will always find different approaches and thought—it is part of the evolution of human society. The same holds true with Islam and Muslims,” he told me in an email. “Given the massive changes in the world today, it is impossible that there will not be changes in the way Muslim individuals and societies respond. It is not necessary to refer to this as revolution.”

Bham does not agree with name calling but says there will always be different strands of thinking in any community. But, he added, “it does not necessarily mean that there is division in the broader community”.

Indeed, there were differences of opinion in the Muslim community even in the period following the death of the Prophet. But I have yet to come across an incident in which any of his companions called another satanic—or anything even remotely close.

Defining the divisions and what they mean
Muslims agree on seven fundamental Islamic beliefs, namely one God, the Angels, the Messengers, the books, the Day of Judgment, predestination and life after death. They also agree on the five pillars of fasting, pilgrimage, prayer, charity and the testament of faith.

They differ in regard to specific issues, as opposed to more general ones. Based on these differences, four main groups can be identified in a South African context.

Deobandis: Originating in India with the establishment of a darululoom (an educational institute offering Islamic studies) for males in the late 19th century, Deobandis can be found mainly in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Graduates of darul-ulooms, called aalims or Islamic scholars, consider the interpretation of religious texts to be their exclusive domain and emphasise gender segregation, self-reformation and strict adherence to one’s madhhab (established methodologies of extracting laws from the Qur’an and hadeeth—teachings of the Prophet Muhammad—by early Muslim scholars such as Imam Abu Haneefah and Imam Shafi’ee).

Barelwis: Barelwis, who also trace their origins to India, believe the Prophet is present in many places at the same time and celebrate his birthday fervently.

They also ask “saints” among the deceased to intercede with God on their behalf. Both Deobandis and Salafis condemn these practices, terming them “polytheistic”.

Salafis: Salafis are by no means monolithic and scholars hold opposing views on various issues such as the role and dress of women, political participation and integration. Emphasis is placed on authenticating the sayings of the Prophet, to which preference is given over madhhabs, hence the Salafi-Deobandi tension.

Progressives: Progressive Muslims are generally defined as a group that seeks to reinterpret the traditional texts. Some interpret certain verses allegorically or do not even consider them. However, although this definition may apply (particularly among some Muslim academics), Deobandis may even label a woman who attends a congregational prayer a “progressive” or “modernist.”

These days few Muslims are familiar with these terms or willing to label themselves accordingly.

Myths and Muslims
MYTH: Muslims worship a “moon God”.
FACT: Muslims worship Allah, an unseen being whom they hold to be the creator of everything. They do not worship a physical representation of him, including photographs, statues or illustrations.

MYTH: Muslims worship Muhammad.
FACT: Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last prophet of Allah. Consequently, they are guided by the Qur’an, which they believe was revealed to him by Allah, as well as by Muhammad’s teachings (hadith and sunnah) in their lives.

MYTH: Muhammad is the only prophet Muslims believe in.
FACT: Muslims believe in Jesus, Joseph, Moses, Jacob, Isaac, Ishmael, Solomon, David and numerous other prophets, many of whom are mentioned in the Qur’an.

MYTH: Islam is an Indian religion.
FACT: Many South African Muslims are Indian in origin. However, the world over, Muslims belong to different racial groups. It is also important to note that Hinduism and Islam are not the same religion, a common mistake made by some of the local media.

MYTH: Muslim women are forced to adopt the Islamic dress code by their husbands.
FACT: This might sometimes be the case but, according to the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet, Muslim females are required to adopt the dress code when they attain puberty in obedience to Allah, not to the men in their lives.

Fatima Asmal-Motala is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. Her directorial debut, Muslim Identity, was recently broadcast on SABC’s Issues of Faith and will be screened at the Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival in Doha this month

  • The translation of Arabic words is not literal, but merely indicates how the word is understood in a specific context



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