/ 27 March 2024

The Islamic roots of Afrikaans

Muslim Clergy Gather To Sight The Moon At The Sea Point Promenade In South Africa
Afrikaans in black and white: Many South African Muslims (above) speak – and worship in – Afrikaans. (Photo by Brenton Geach/Gallo Images via Getty Images)
God Edition

The imam put his foot in it. It was in 1985 in the Boorhaanol mosque in Bo-Kaap and he delivered his sermon in English. It immediately drew bitter recrimination as the older congregants of this mosque, one of Cape Town’s oldest (it was built in 1844), were livid. 

They were used to the languages of their mosque being Arabic and Afrikaans. They prayed and recited in Arabic, but the sermons were in Afrikaans. By switching to English that day, the imam broke a tradition older than 150 years.

It was a story often told by the late Achmat Davids, the leading authority on South African Muslim culture and history, as well acknowledged expert on the genesis of Afrikaans. It also tells the story of the long and often ignored, or at best unknown, story of the language’s other past.

In the introduction of The Arabic-Afrikaans Writing Tradition 1815-1915, academic, author and, during apartheid, black Afrikaans activist Hein Willemse recalls how this incident led Davids to uncover the history of Afrikaans’s other past.

After the imam was forced back to the old ways, Davids was asked to research the relationship between the mosque, the Bo-Kaap and Afrikaans. 

It culminated in The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims, which was finally published in 2011, three years after Davids’ death. 

This path-breaking work put lie to the myth created under apartheid by Afrikaner nationalists that Afrikaans was a white language only. The just-published The Arabic-Afrikaans Writing Tradition is an updated and re-edited version of that study.

“It’s a book about the acculturation of people at the Cape,” Willemse tells me in an interview last week. 

“It is also a book about the history of writing, of the development of Afrikaans among people who were slaves and Muslim.

“And then the innovations that they brought about using Cape Dutch (early Afrikaans) and using Arabic script to write down their most sacred texts and practices and the way they use it in common interaction, political speeches and shopping lists and love letters and so forth.”

The most important part of the uncovered history of Afrikaans is this discovery that the very first writing of the language was in Arabic. The book, says Willemse, is “also a major contribution to the history, and the variety of the various histories of Afrikaans.

“It tells us the story that there’s not only one version of Afrikaans but there are also multiple versions of the use of Afrikaans and its development.

“And the most important part of it is that it gives us an insight into the way in which people in the 19th century used Islamic education to further their own well-being in the country and their own sense of a religious community in the country.”

Dr Achmat Davids
chmat Davids, an authority on South African Muslim culture and history, wrote a history of Afrikaans among Cape Muslims that was published in 2011.

In retrospect, the imam can be cut some slack. The contentious English sermon in the mosque was delivered during serious upheaval against apartheid. It was also a time of anglicisation in the Bo-Kaap and other coloured areas, especially among young people, as it became a sign of upward mobility. 

Furthermore, less than a decade earlier, the National Party government had imposed Afrikaans as the language of instruction in black schools. That led to the Soweto uprising in 1976, as Afrikaans was seen as the language of the oppressor. 

But, as Willemse writes, “As with all slogans or stereotypes, the characterisation was flawed, capturing only one facet of the complex history of the development of the Afrikaans language.”

This held especially true among black Afrikaans speakers, such as the older congregants of the Boorhaanol mosque, who “had a more nuanced understanding of their community and their language”, Willemse writes in the introduction. “For them Afrikaans was not a symbol of recent political policies, it was deeply rooted in their community.”

Afrikaans’s roots in the Muslim community go really deep. By the 1840s, Cape Dutch, the precursor of Afrikaans, in itself a creolised language of Dutch, Malay, Portuguese, Indonesian and indigenous Khoekhoe and San languages spoken by peasants and the urban proletariat, took over as the language of Cape Town mosques, Willemse tells me in the interview. 

“The mosque is a central place of education, for community, for the development of education itself.”

That explains why the first written Afrikaans was in Arabic script and closely associated with Islam. 

Davids estimates in his book that, around the mid-1840s, learners in religious schools started writing their lessons in Afrikaans using Arabic script in their madrasah note books or “koplesboeke” (head lesson books).

A further important development was the arrival in the Cape in 1862 of the Muslim scholar from the Ottoman Empire, Shaykh Abu Bakr Effendi al Amjadi. 

He learned Afrikaans and by 1869 had produced the first manuscript of Bayan ud-Din — translated as “an explanation of the religion” — in which the ritual practices of Islam were explained to adherents. It was then printed in Constantinople, what is now Istanbul, Türkiye.

“That became the first published Afrikaans text,” Willemse tells me. “The language was written in a serious manner, with a serious purpose.

“Because Bayan ud-Din was published overseas and it came back as a written text, suddenly people realised, ‘Oh, this is the way that you write a word,’ or ‘This is the way that you write this particular phrase.’

Arabic Afrikaans Hr

“And suddenly there was an element of standardisation of Afrikaans in the Arabic script. And that happened for the first time.”

Abu Bakr and other literate imams of the time started adapting their Arabic script to reproduce their communities’ Afrikaans pronunciation accurately, observed Davids.

This is not a history taught in schools during the apartheid days — the Afrikaner nationalists told us it started with the Eerste Taalbeweging (first language movement) between 1874 and 1890 (if this was a race, Arabic-Afrikaans clearly won). 

I remember the sepia-tinted pictures of those white taal fathers: a bunch of dour dominees. The textbook writers told us that Afrikaans was a European language, ignoring the creolised nature of its roots.

It became political with the formation of Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners (GRA, or society of true Afrikaners) in 1875, which was to foster a nationalism among white Cape Dutch speakers. They published a newspaper called De Patriot and used it to fan an early form of apartheid, propagating a separate Afrikaner volk with its own pure language.

“And Afrikaner nationalism is essentially a language nationalism,” Willemse expands in our interview. “It centres around using language as a communal identity marker.”

There was a second such taalbeweging (language movement) at the turn of the 20th century under the auspices of zealous Afrikaner academics. Their aim was a “re-Dutch-ification” of Afrikaans, says Willemse — to “purify” the language by making Dutch its cornerstone. 

“These academics said, ‘We need Dutch to give us some guidance as to how to write this language.’ So, this sense of ‘purity’ was linked to Dutch.”

It led to Afrikaans becoming an official language in 1925. A taal commission was established to regulate the writing traditions and expressions of Afrikaans through its Woordelys en Spelreëls (vocabulary list and spelling rules).

Willemse and I have a chuckle about how “hoogdrawend” (grandiloquent) the Afrikaner petty bourgeoisie were in their pompous pronunciation of Afrikaans — they spoke the way they wrote, over-enunciating words which made them sound very formal and oh-so grand. 

There was also a hunting down of Anglicisms. “If you remember your schooling years, every second sentence was corrected by the teacher because it consisted of Anglicisms,” Willemse reminds me.

It was all dead serious. Nothing more so than from the pulpits of the Afrikaner churches, especially after the Bible got translated into Afrikaans in 1933 — a milestone in the language’s development. 

During the height of apartheid the NG Kerk was known as “the National Party at prayer”, using the language as a tool of their tribalism.

What role did the churches play in the rise of Afrikaner nationalism?

“Oh, I think they were the prime part — the church itself played a major role. We must just remember that the dominees were the intellectuals of their time. And they were the primary cultural workers, so to speak — they were implementing a nationalism, were formulating a nationalism, they played a major role.”

These days, the traditional Afrikaans churches are in steep decline — it started with the end of apartheid when the Afrikaner nationalists relinquished power. 

But it hasn’t affected the number of South Africans who speak Afrikaans — nearly seven million as a mother tongue and about 10.3 million as a second language. It needs little reminding that Afrikaans is no longer the domain of white people.

I ask Willemse if Afrikaans is a white or a black language today.

“Well, 60% of Afrikaans speakers are not white, you know, so I think that’s the answer.”