Shaykh Nur ul-Mubeen, Oudekraal, a beneficiary of our first charity? Image © Shafiq Morton
IT is my considered view that the institutions of Fitrah, Zakah and Sadaqah have existed in the Cape for longer than we realise. And if my hunch proves correct, we could say that Islamic charity of some sort has been practiced at the Cape for over 350 years.
This would mean that SANZAF, established in 1974, only formalised what had already been in existence. Of course, as an institution SANZAF has done much good work to increase the Zakah base, to educate the community and to uplift thousands of needy people.
Going through historical accounts of life during the early days of the Cape Colony, first as a Dutch East India Company outpost and then as a British colony, I do not find any direct mentions of Zakah or Sadaqah. In other words, given all the details of life at the Cape, we don’t – at first glance – see any charity in action.
Apart from the early historians observing things through a patronising Orientalist lens, and not having access to the inner social workings of the slave or Muslim community, it should not be a surprise. However, if one looks for the right things through a Muslim lens, it becomes more obvious that in spite of poverty, the first Muslims at the Cape must have either practised charity, or been its beneficiaries.
Islam at the Cape was held together because the early community, unlike in Brazil or the United States, had spiritual centres of focus and learning via the exiled Sufi Shaykhs from Indonesia.
And whilst things such as fiqh – the application of Sacred Law – would not be a strong point (the Statutes of India banned any religious practice except the Dutch Reformed one) the community would have been united in faith. Secretive communal exercises such as the Ratib ul-Haddad and visiting the tombs of the Awliya (or saints), would have been critical assembly points, especially as the Jumu’ah could not be performed.
The Sufi Shaykhs would have been the focus of solace for the slaves and vryeburghers (Free Blacks) who first landed as labourers and farmers in 1658. Sayyid Mahmud and Shaykh Abdurahman, who arrived from Sumatra in 1667, were kept away from the city as exiles in Constantia, but this did not prevent escaped slaves from finding their way to these wise men in the forests.
Early archival records indicate that slaves running away to hide in the mountains, or stowing away on ships, was a headache for the authorities, and resulted in some harsh punishments for those who were caught.
The arrival of Shaykh Yusuf in 1694 supports this idea. An internationally renowned Javanese scholar who’d lectured in the Makkah haram, his Zandvliet home – 30 kilometres from the city centre in the bush – was widely acknowledged as a rallying point for escapees and those seeking succour. There is complete scholarly consensus on this.
I have often wondered whether we appreciate enough the fact that so many of our karamats are situated in the surrounding mountains close to streams. This is because these Shaykhs had established communities far from the prying eyes of Dutch East India officials. At Oudekraal, for example – where Tuan Sayyid Ja’fr is buried – I have identified at least 30 grave sites.
To carry deceased bodies from the city in those days as far as Oudekraal would have been daunting, if not impossible. The only conclusion can be that there were secret Muslim communities living on the slopes of the Twelve Apostles and that they buried their dead there.
This hypothesis was developed by Adil Bradlow in his research on the Cape, as well as the late Dr Achmat Davids and Shaykh Yusuf da Costa, who has written extensively on our early history. Whether one agrees with Sufism is not the point. If it hadn’t been for the pioneering efforts of these Shuyukh, Islam would have shrivelled on the bough like it did in Brazil and the US.
When the public practice of Islam was prohibited it was these intrepid men and women who carried the light of iman from the city to the bush, and when Islam could be openly practiced at the Cape, from the bush back to the city.
It is a beautiful story, except for one thing. How did these people sustain themselves? At places like Oudekraal there would have been plenty of fish, but what about clothing, cooking utensils or other such supplies?
Reports indicate that these communities would have had contact with the outside world via woodcutters or herdsmen. These people would have secretly smuggled goods to those hiding on the mountain. It begs the question: surely these refugees would have been the earliest beneficiaries of Islamic social charity at the Cape?
The most empowered participants would have been the vryeburghers, Free Black Muslims, who though restricted in many ways, could own slaves and private property. It is my view that they were the first practitioners of Sadaqah, or even Zakah, in Cape Town.
Today, I think we need to ponder on the fruits of their generosity, as humble as it may have been. For had these people not supported our early scholars over 350 years ago, none of us would be around today.