Who am I? Where do I come from? In two sentences, I am a South African Muslim male from an impoverished working class background who was reared in a gang-infested area by a single parent. Many of our neighbours were Christians and the debt collectors – of which there were always many – were invariably Jewish.


Who am I? Where do I come from? In two sentences, I am a South African Muslim male from an impoverished working class background who was reared in a gang-infested area by a single parent. Many of our neighbours were Christians and the debt collectors – of which there were always many – were invariably Jewish.

In just two sentences – well, slightly long ones – you have the whole of my world; all my fears and prejudices, my dreams and hopes, my joys and my anguish. What does my world have to with the subject I am meant to be discussing? Well, it would have been rather uncomplicated – and for some more acceptable – if I were able to say “this is Islam and that is the reality of prejudice and this is how Islam addresses the question of the social, religious and political dimensions of prejudice”. Whatever Islam is, and whatever it has to say to the question, it will say so – today and here at least – through me. And I will say what I say through the lenses of my life. I may overcome my history but I cannot escape it.

I can use Islam and its text, the Qur’an, to re-enforce all my prejudices, to shed them or to re-work them, as Goldziher says ’ it could be said about the Qur’an, … everyone searches for his view in the Holy Book’ (cited in Sawaaf, 142). During the Battle of Siffin, the opponents of Ali Ibn Abi Talib (May Allah be pleased with him), the Prophet Muhammad’s nephew, demanded that the dispute be resolved by resorting to the Qur’an as an arbitrator. Ali’s dilemma is reflective of that facing many a Muslim committed to the Qur’an:

When Mu-awiyah invited me to the Qur’an for a decision I could not turn my face away from the Book of Allah. The Mighty and Glorious Allah declared that ’if you dispute about anything refer it to Allah and His Apostle (Q. 4:59) (However,) this is the Qur’an, written in straight lines, between two boards (of its binding). It does not speak with a tongue; it needs interpreters and interpreters are people. (p.248)

’Interpreters are people’ who carry all the inescapable baggage of the human condition. Every generation carries its own and every individual his/her own. Our reading of the Qur’an or of our religious heritage is thus marked by the nature of our baggage, our frustrations and aspirations.

Truth, whatever else it may be, is also a human construction. We also make truth much as we like to believe that it is solely an eternal and self pre-existing reality beyond history. Modernity has accelerated the ’awareness that our minds are not tabula rasa, furnished with facts entirely imported through cognitive or spiritual senses, nor (imported by) the authority of religio-intellectual traditions’ (Aitken 1991, 1). The seemingly inescapable legacy of our theistic beliefs and our ongoing – often inexplicable – commitment to them, compel us to find new ways of describing the way pre-existing reality – Allah – may address today’s world. This world is of course made, and being made, by people who are not today whom they were yesterday. It is also a world desperate for justice and wholeness.

More than in many other societies, we in South Africa and some of you from Palestine-Israel understand the consequences of living with competing realities and, consequently, rival justices. The task of arbitrating between competing and incompatible rationalities and justices, as Alisdair NawaatIntyre points out, is exceptionally difficult because we cannot pose a point of view which is non-contingent or independent of one particular conception of rationality or justice. (NawaatIntyre 1988)

The South African engagement with the Qur’an in recent years has suggested that it is possible to have perfectly orthodox understandings of what the Qur’an is about and yet use these texts in rather perverse ways such as justifying racism. (cf. Musa 1989) We are confronted with a plethora of urgent questions: What is an ’authentic’ appreciation of the Islamic message today? What constitutes and informs ’authenticity’? How legitimate is it to produce meaning – as distinct from extracting meaning – from Qur’anic texts? These are some hermeneutical questions which underpin any Islamic investigation of the subject of prejudice and its relationship to our religious heritage. (cf Esack, 1991 and Le Roux 1989 & 1990)

Does an acknowledgement of the complexities of ’the task of arbitrating between competing and incompatible rationalities and justices’ mean that one does not have any convictions? Oh no! I certainly do have convictions; I hold them passionately and have suffered for them. However, I can no longer walk over others in the deep rooted belief that only mine matter. While I can and, indeed, do derive inspiration from my faith and from the Qur’an I can no longer disregard the pluralistic nature of the world wherein we live. I have to find a yardstick to measure the correctness or incorrectness, the justice or injustice of my prejudices and predilections. I can no longer appeal to that which is exclusive to my community. Nor can I appeal exclusively to what is my perception of what my religious heritage is all about. The gap between belief and reality, and between competing realities and beliefs within my own community is too obvious for me to do that.

But that’s not Islam!

Let me tell you a long story which illustrates the gap between our beliefs and our realities.

The oppression of the Harijans in India is something widely known to most of us. The curse of untouchability has for centuries been a blot on the conscience of India. “It is rooted in Hinduism”, we Muslims say. “We have none of this racism and exploitation in Islam.” That may well be the case, but how does one explain my story?

In the Punjab region of Undivided India a fairly common phenomenon among the Harijans was conversion to Christianity; a hopeful escape from the indignities of the caste system and the hope of possible favour from their new co-religionists – the British ruling class. Many of these Punjabis were sweepers; “they belonged to the sweeper community”, as one would say on the sub-continent. Now, of course, vertical social mobility in this area is extremely slow and, for generations, it may even be non-existent. Sweepers would thus remain sweepers – the personification of dirt on the sub-continent – and so would their children – Christian or no Christian. Undivided India became the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and what happened to these Punjabi Christians in Pakistan? They were treated by Muslims in exactly the same manner as they had been treated for centuries by the upper caste Hindus. The Muslims – especially in the more remote rural areas – routinely deny them drinking water, permission to eat in roadside cafes etc. When the Muslims are asked why they force the (Punjabi) Christians to walk miles for water, they respond by saying that these people are Christian.

Now some of us who come from the sub-continent may find this difficult to believe, may even be tempted to dismiss it as anti-Muslim propaganda.

I would suggest that we go a bit gently on the dismissals. For too long have too many privileged whites in South Africa denied our pain, for too long have they insisted that all our suffering is a myth of communist propaganda. For too long have too many fear-ridden Zionists denied the pain of the Palestinian people, for too long have they insisted that the Intifadah is the work of a handful of anti-Semitic terrorist. (I know that here I have made some not-too-subtle connections between the South African story and the Palestinian-Israeli one. I do so in the full awareness that it pains and even angers some who are here today.)

To return to the Pakistani story – and I do not do so casually …

Now the Punjabi Christians, the sweeper community, are dark skinned and speak Punjabi and some Urdu. There is, however, another Christian community in Pakistan, the Goans. They are of Portuguese-Indian descent, speak English and are usually fair skinned. The Goans are esteemed guests at Muslim functions and are highly sought after as secretaries, air stewards and business partners. When the guilty Muslims are asked about this rather obvious contradiction, they stare at you as if you are Salman Rushdi’s first cousin.

In the village of Padre Jo Goth in the province of Sindh this endless anxiety and humiliation over drinking water was also the lot of the local Punjabi Christians until the good old Ecumenical Church Council of Germany (EKD) intervened. The Germans decided to fund the boring and construction of wells for their fellow Christians. What wonderful Christian charity! That is, until the wells were completed and the Christians denied the ’unclean and unsaved’ Hindus access to their wells!

I have little doubt that these Muslims did not act the way they did because they were Muslims, nor did those Christians act the way they did because they were Christians. The point is that their prejudices – correctly or not – are, for them at least, sustained by their respective religions. Many of us will hasten to say that this has nothing to do with our religions. Perhaps such disclaimers should be a bit less swift. Listen to Sheikh Kishk in Egypt, Ahmad Deedat in South Africa, Jimmy Swaggart in the USA and the followers of Rabbi Kahane in Jerusalem; see how many of our co-religionists are swayed by them. These people are as much an intrinsic part of our heritage, they draw as much from our wells as you and I. We may denounce them, attempt to compensate for their ignorance, and even pray that they die of piles and infested with the fleas of ten thousand camels; we cannot, however, disown them.

Often our prejudices about the other is a way of holding on what we perceive as ’the known’. Many Muslims feel that Deedat’s multitude of anti-Christian, Jewish and Hindu video tapes have told us all that there is to be told about ’the other’ and we are comfortable with that. There are times when questions about the importance of correct dogma surface; about the importance of labels to a God whom we believe sees beyond labels and looks at the hearts of people. Instead of pursuing these questions we hasten back and seek refuge in ’the known’; order another of those Deedat tapes.

’The known’ is a powerful shield against what we perceive to be – and indeed often is – a hostile world; it enables us to survive, or, at least, this is how we feel. Look at the tremors of uncertainty among the neo-Nazis in South Africa as ’the known’ is collapsing all around them. They are facing a hostile world and we are grateful for this hostility. Clearly not all forms of accommodating ’the known’ are acceptable, neither are all hostilities unacceptable. For us, people committed to the noblest in our religious heritages though, the question is not merely one of the survival of our own. Today our survival depends on the survival of the other as much as the survival of the human race depends on the survival of the eco system. We have gone beyond ’no man is an island unto himself’ to ’no entity is an island unto itself’.

The question, in fact, goes beyond survival, because mere survival is more often a form of slow death. In the garden of humanity, we may say, whatever is not growing is, in fact, busy dying.

From the known to the unknown, from Alif to Ba

Let me tell you a story of my journey from the comfortable but suffocating ’known’ into the pain of the unknown and back into the ignorance of ’the known’.

Like all Muslim children, I too, was sent off to madrassah (religious school) at an early age. In a completely unproductive butterfly dance I moved from one madrassah to another, until, at the age of twelve, I came across Boeta Samoudien. My previous madrassah saw me already being able to ’read’ the short chapters at the back of the Qur’an. I presumed that I would continue with my new teacher where I had left off. I read with confidence until Boeta Samoudien asked me to point with my finger where I was reading. The boys behind me started giggling and he put a primer in front of me and asked me to start from the beginning, the alphabet.

Now there few things as fragile as the ego of a twelve year old. Despite my offended ego, I managed to ’read’, believing that I’d quickly disprove the mocking laughter which was challenging my competence.

I could not read. The primer in front of me was a new one – one that I had never seen before and all the letters of the Arabic alphabet were jumbled up. With the always available assistance of another student I had become conditioned to memorizing my lessons. Now, without a recognition of the letters in the usual pattern, I was caught out.

Twelve years old, having already started with the short chapters at the back of the Qur’an, it was discovered that I couldn’t recognize an Alif from a Ba!

With humiliating discomfort I agreed to purchase the new primer, but couldn’t get myself to go back the next day. Upon being asked why I was not keen on the new madrasssah, I told my late mother (May Allah have mercy on her soul) about the new primer. She then consulted her cousin, Aunty Salamah who was also a madrassah teacher. Aunty Salamah concurred that this modern primer was wicked and probably one of the ways in which the Ahmadi/Qadiani sect wanted to subvert Islam.

I was saved by my mother and Aunty Salamah to continue my dying in ignorance.

I had a ’known’. It was my way of learning the Qur’an; I knew how to wait for someone to make me rehearse my few lines, I knew how to parrot those lines off without being able to recognize the letters of the alphabet It was a process that I had been conditioned to over the years. I was dying, but it was preferable to the agony of heading for the unknown starting off all over from the beginning in a new primer. Oh, how often do we not choose death over life!

In ’Man’s Search For Meaning’ Victor Frankel writes poignantly about his fellow prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. He tells how some of those prisoners who yearned so desperately for their freedom, had been held captive for so long that, when they were eventually released, they walked into the sunlight, blinked nervously and then silently walked back into the familiar darkness of the prisons to which they had been accustomed for such a long time.

John Powell, a Jesuit, comments on this unnerving encounter with the light in ’Why I am Afraid to Tell You Who I am’:

This is the visualized, if somewhat dramatic, dilemma that all of us experience at some time in our lives and in the process of becoming persons. Most of us make only a weak response to the

invitation of encounter with others and because we feel uncomfortable in our world, expose our nakedness as persons. (p 51)

Because we refuse to risk a full life of knowledge of the other we die behind our fears and prejudices – dragging slow and uncomfortable steps, we nevertheless feel that we are moving. We forget that all motion is not movement, as I ’moved from alif to Surah Fatihah, a meaningless motion deeper into ignorance of who we, and those around us, really are.

Survival and the Clan

Survival and the clan are elevated to absolutes in our fear and ignorance. The commitment to the clan and, the invariable corollary, demonizing of the other acquire a greater value than truth and our beliefs

I remember a rather painful encounter of this commitment to the clan at the expense of the truth at the 1986 annual Summer School of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (CSIC) in Birmingham, where I am now based. A Muslim and a Christian speaker shared the platform for a seminar on religious minorities. The Muslim speaker dealt with the encounter of Muslims with Christianity in the United Kingdom while the Christian spoke on their experiences in Pakistan. Having lived there for about eight years, Pakistan is certainly a subject with which I regard myself as familiar. The Christian speaker gave a rather gentle and somewhat diluted account of the social oppression experienced by Pakistani Christians. She failed – or refused – to talk about the horrendous tales of dehumanization that the Christians are subjected to there.

As many of you are probably aware, inter-faith dialogue is a rather fragile affair and many feel unable to utter raw truths in these fora. We still feel far more comfortable in our own faith circles, with what Riffat Hassan describes as an ’inauthentic dialogue based on abbreviations.’ (p 31)

The Muslims present – with a few exceptions – took umbrage at the Christian speaker who – in the behind-the-scenes words of the Muslim speaker – ’is being regularly planted at seminars like these to discredit Islam’. Another Muslim participant asked the Christian speaker “if a Muslim could become the Pope since you are so keen on Christians becoming Ministers and mayors in Muslim Pakistan?” At that point I rose and pointed out that the Christian speaker did not suggest that the Pope should become the Imam of Makkah, but only wanted to know why a Christian cannot become a mayor in a Pakistani city in the same way that a Muslim may become – and, indeed, was at that time – a mayor in a British city.

Until then I had the privilege of leading the two evening prayers. I had, however, broken ranks and was immediately transformed into a religious leper. Immediately after the prayers the Muslims rushed into some corner to discuss my ’treacherous behaviour’ and I was left to receive some hollow pats on the back for ’courage’ from the Christian participants. When I asked another imam who was also present about the Muslim response to my intervention, he replied: “You are correct in your argument, but you should not have presented it in front of these (non-Muslim) people.”

For the first time it occurred to me that many a Muslim may actually be committing shirk (heresy/associationism) by elevating the community above his/her commitment to be a “witness-bearer to justice for Allah – though this may be against yourselves” (Q. 5:135). The injunctions of Allah to “not conceal evidence, for whosoever does this has a sinful heart” (Q, 2:142) and not to “cover the truth with falsehood while you know” (Q. 2:283) are often of little consequence.

The underlying assumption in this defensive posturing is that the other is ’the enemy’ and that we are here to, firstly, defend ourselves and, secondly, to – hopefully – also win some over to our side.

It is, of course, not difficult to perceive of ’the other’ as the enemy. We are not mere individuals but carry our histories with us as I said in the beginning. Muslims are still living through centuries of misrepresentation of Islam, the collusion between colonialism and so-called objective scholarship to reduce Islam and the Qur’an to a figment of a sensuous pretender’s imagination. There is also our own experience as part of the colonized world exploited by the West who regard its culture as normative and all else as aberrations and kinky.

For Muslims this experience of colonialism and all its underlying assumptions of the superiority of Western cultural and religious norms are not mere baggages of history. Today so many in the West object to Muslim women wearing scarves in their schools while it never occurred to these Westerners to wear loin cloths when they came to Africa. This battle continues and many of the powers-that-be have correctly identified Islam as the enemy. Given the material based values, the absence of any political morality and the chauvinistic jingoism of triumphalist capitalism, I would have been disappointed if Islam was not viewed as an enemy by these powers.

It is, however, the fear of Islam of ordinary men and women which troubles me. Their prejudices and fears, too, are usually based on the unknown. When it is based on ’the known’ then it is a ’known’ processed by their mass-media which is owned and controlled by the powerful.

(While the dispossessed have their own fears and prejudices, the powerful in the West have the economic and military power to transform fear and prejudices into potent weapons for destruction and ’defense’. This remains a significant issue and should not be obscured as we examine the question of prejudice and examine ways of overcoming it.)

The Muslims are Coming!

I have no desire to jump on to the ’blame-it-all-on-the-media’ bandwagon. The truth is that there numerous ordinary sensitive and intensely humane people – Muslims and non-Muslims – who are deeply troubled by much of what is happening in the world of Islam. We may accuse the West of distorting Muslim events but we certainly supply those events. We do burn books, we do denounce democracy, we do threaten authors, we do deny women the right to drive their own cars – forget about their own lives, and we do deny people the right to drink from our wells. Certainly, not all of us, but how loud are we to denounce these events or utterings when they occur and how frequently do we not choose silence in order not to supply even more food for ’our enemies’?

How much of this fear of Muslims and Islam by ordinary and decent non-Muslims are well-founded? Much of this fear is focussed on a growing tide of what is described as ’Muslim fundamentalism’. This is not the occasion to go into the various local and international factors responsible for this phenomenon or the inappropriateness of applying a term rooted in Christian theological developments to Islam and Muslim. (Cf. Esack, 1991, 212).

However one wants to describe it, there is a phenomenon in the world of Islam akin to what other religions experience and describes as ’fundamentalism’. It is a phenomenon which many do find threatening. This is a fear which is shared by numerous sensitive, open and deeply committed Muslims – especially women – throughout the Muslim world.

Whatever its origins, much of fundamentalism is characterized by racism and misogyny. The former in Muslim fundamentalism is particular marked by an intense hatred of the Jews and casually ascribes all the ills of the world – ranging from the depletion of the ozone layer to constipation – to Jewish conspiracies. Many Musslims will protest ’how can a Muslim hate Jews or women, given that Islam is a universalist religion which acknowledges the Jews as ’People of the Book’ and that Islam has elevated women’? As I said in the beginning, ’interpreters are people’. The problem is not so much Islam as it is Muslims who, presumably, have to give shape to its principles. There is little in our attitudes towards ’the other’ – especially Jews and women – to indicate that we are serious about the universality and justice of Islam. The point is not how well Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) treated women and what rights they have ’under’ Islam. Nor is the point how badly Jews were treated in non-Muslim lands centuries decades ago and how comparatively well they were treated in Muslim lands. The point is what do we make of justice for women today, what do we believe of Jews today.

I am implacably opposed to fundamentalism for two reasons:

Firstly all forms of absolutism invariably has to narrow its base; If they come for Jews today, tomorrow they will come for ’heretical’ Muslims; if the come for women today, they will come for beardless Muslim males tomorrow. Tolerance, ambiguity and plurality are not qualities one can decide to withhold from all save your own; when you deny them to others then, inevitably, you end up denying them to your own.

Secondly, you cannot deny the worth of ’the other’, walk over another people and not have your own worth diminished. A man cannot continue to oppress a woman and not himself emerge from that oppression a lesser person. Witness the psychological devastation that white racism has caused in South Africa to numerous whites in the growing amount of Afrikaners who kill their entire families; witness the way many Jews have been dehumanized by their cruelty towards the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

I have earlier on alluded to another form of fundamentalism and wish to draw your attention to it as I move towards concluding. Muslim fundamentalism is little different from the post-communist triumphalism which we are experiencing in the West today. For free-market triumphalists there is only one path to salvation, others must be converted or enslaved, eligibility to the world community is based on acceptance of their values; all else is tolerated for as long as it remains confined to the lunatic fringes. When it does become a cohesive force capable of challenging the dominant religion then the fanatics move in with a vengeance. We have seen Grenada, Chile and Nicaragua. They have displayed every bit of contempt for democracy as the fundamentalists in Algeria. As for respecting international law, the United States of America is yet to pay the fine imposed on it by the International Court of Justice for the illegal mining of the harbour of Managua.

Are there no enemies out there?

Yes there are; there is an us-versus-them. The South African crucible, however, has forced me to re-arrange my perceptions of friends and enemies. I will tell one final story before concluding .

It was in August 1984 when we heard that the army was planning to seal the township of Guguletu off as a prelude to creating mayhem in the area. Nineteen religious leaders were arrested while defying a ban on entry into the black township. What happened after we were taken to the cells at the Wynberg Magistrate’s Court marks that day as particularly significant for the South African inter-religious experience. Guarded by twelve uniformed policemen, the nineteen of us – united in our – quest for a just society but belonging to different religious groups, discovered our common commitment to and need of Allah. Allan Boesak began by reading scripture, Lionell Louw led the group in singing, Imam Hassan prayed and I delivered the sermon. Then the group rose and sang the national anthem – Nkosi Sikelela i Afrika (God Bless Africa). We discovered each other: Diverse in faiths, but comrades in the struggle. Nineteen small people waiting in a cold cell for a magistrate.

At one point during the service, Imam Hassan jocularly whispered a profound dilemma of faith; ’Maulana’, he said. ’I would ten times prefer having Boesak as Abu Bakr in my cave rather than Maulana So and so. (His reference was to a prominent pro-apartheid Muslim cleric The cave allusion is to the Flight of Muhammad (Peace be upon him) to Madinah. Abu Bakr (May Allah be Pleased with him) accompanied the Prophet (Peace be upon him) and they sought refuge in cave upon being pursued by the Quraish of Makkah.)

Imam Hassan’s explicit choice was for a non-Muslim as his keeper if that person shares a common struggle with him. A fairly innocuous statement in that context but, nevertheless, profound in its theological implications. Who is my brother and sister? Who is my enemy? Fine, Allah does say ’indeed the believers are partners’ (Q.49:10) but who is a believer?

There are times when rushing for another Deedat video does not put one out of my pain of recognizing the integrity of ’the other’. Sadly these times are usually born in the sharing of suffering and seldom come to those who have sufficient food for the next three months stocked in their deep freezers.

When we starved in the ghettoes of South Africa and my mother’s only source of financial support ’until Friday’ was Mrs Lewis, a Christian neighbour on the one hand and when her son says ’away with exploitation’ a Muslim cop comes to arrest him… on the other, who is my partner and who is my opponent? How can I hold Mrs Lewis hostage to the crimes of a Christian government who uprooted us from our home or who set their police dogs on to me when I defied their right to deny all of God’s beaches to all God’s people.

This refusal to engage in the blanket rubbishing of a people does not preclude an openness which also implies a just evaluation of their historical roles. If such an evaluation of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Marxism or whatever, leads to a scathing denunciation of the roles that their adherents played then let it be. However, as a Muslim and a person committed to dialogue, I do not believe in carrying the baggage of recrimination and bitterness from one life-period into another, but I do believe very strongly that peace is predicted upon justice, and a just evaluation of the past is necessary for establishing peace in the present and the future. (Hassan, 131)

This is equally applicable to an evaluation of our collective heritage. We need to see it for what it truly is. It is not a sign of a mature commitment to our faith to rubbish historical or present day accounts of our insults to and injury to others. Our legacy consists of both our faiths and the way its adherents lived – or refused to live – it. A refusal to acknowledge the dark corners in our heritage in a candid manner is not a sign of faith; rather it reflects the opposite.

A vague and sentimental sense of attachment to the clan is not going to see us through the turbulent future of a world threatened by the gradual re-emergence of Nazism, environmental devastation, a triumphalist New World Order based on the economic exploitation of the Two-Third World, a world where women continue to just survive on the margins of dignity.

There are many ways of dying.

There is, however, only one way to live; through discovering what the other is really about and what we have in common in the struggle to recreate a world of justice, a world of dignity for all the inhabitants of the earth.

And Allah knows better


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