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An oak tree falls: SANZAF pioneer Shaykh Yusuf da Costa passes on
- Written by Shafiq Morton
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ONE of the co-founders of SANZAF, Shaykh Yusuf da Costa, passed on last week after a long illness. He was aged 83. An educator of renown, a wise leader, a political activist, a da’ee, a respected scholar, an author, a keen historian and a towering human being, he has left a huge gap in our community.
Born in 1935 in Salt River, he matriculated from Trafalgar High School in 1952 and enrolled at Hewatt Teacher’s Training College. He first taught classes at the Salt River Muslim School in Kipling Street, later transferring to Livingstone High in Claremont after completing a Bachelor’s degree in History and Geography.
A member the Non-European Unity Movement, he was cut from the same political cloth as Dullah Omar, South Africa’s first post-apartheid Justice Minister. But when it came to faith, he was uncompromising on its centrality, insisting that Livingstone learners be allowed to attend jumu’ah.
Whilst teaching, Shaykh da Costa studied Arabic and the Islamic sciences and went on to earn a doctorate in the field of Geography. He became the principal of Crestway Senior Secondary in Retreat in 1967. Crestway was the first ‘coloured’ school to offer Xhosa as a subject.
In 1987, he joined the Faculty of Education at the University of the Western Cape, where he became Associate Professor and Head of Didactics until his retirement in 1996. A stalwart of Islamic education, he served as rector of the now defunct Islamic College of South Africa (ICOSA), before moving on the International Peace College (IPSA).
A measure of his integrity is revealed by former colleague, Dr Auwais Rafudeen, who tells the story of salary negotiations in a financially testing time for the college. Aware of this, Shaykh Yusuf – worth infinitely more than what IPSA could offer – said he would accept whatever remuneration it could afford. After payday, he would then donate his salary back to the institution.
His interest in Geography and History imbued him with a unique skill to understand our history, about which he was passionate. Together with Dr Achmat Davids and Prof Suleman Dangor, he penned the iconic Pages from Cape Muslim History in 1994, and conducted ground-breaking research on a host of historical topics.
In 2000, Shaykh Yusuf became a khalifah of the Naqshbandi Muhammadi, building mosques, educating imams and bringing Islam to thousands of people in the townships
Decades earlier, his compassion for the poor – and interest in Zakah as an agent of change – had been piqued by the fact that it was being dubbed the ‘forgotten pillar’ of Islam, despite it being a vehicle for poverty alleviation. During apartheid, he saw the need for the community to have access to welfare, at a time when Muslims were regarded as unworthy second-class citizens.
In 1975, together with Shaykh Faaiq Gamildien, he founded the South African National Zakah Fund (SANZAF). Today, SANZAF has become an iconic institution, offering relief and uplifting – with dignity – hundreds of thousands of people.
Claremont Main Road Mosque imam, Dr Rashied Omar, writes that Shaykh Yusuf’s “sterling work among the poor resonated with his inspirational and radical views” on the third pillar of Islam. In his Preface to an English translation of the renowned Arabic text, Fiqh al-Sunnah on Zakah by Sayyid Sabiq, Shaykh Yusuf penned the following:
“Zakah is essentially a means devised to solve the problem of poverty, and it involves taking from the rich of their property for re-distribution among the poor, and the doing of this until such time as ‘the wealth ceases to circulate between the wealthy’.
Zakah is therefore a means of bringing about socio-economic change and development; and by taking from the rich it ensures a more equitable distribution of the wealth of a country and so helps to bring about the end of the exploitation of man by man.”
Towards the end of his life, Shaykh Yusuf said that it was through the Basmallah that Allah introduced us to His two most important Names, Al-Rahman and Al-Rahim. Both these Names embraced mercy, and in his senior years he found these names were a major anchor for what he did as a Muslim.
Always to the point, always compassionate, always humble and always God-fearing, Shaykh Yusuf da Costa’s passing is like that of an oak tree falling in the forest. We will all miss his presence greatly. May Allah, the Merciful, grant him Jannah, ameen.
 Translator’s Preface to Zakah: The Third Pillar of Islam by Sayyid Sabiq. Translated by Yusuf da Costa and published by the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa, 1994.