South Africa’s Muslims and Mandela: Brothers In Arms

Community News


Muslims Played a Central Role Alongside Nelson Mandela In the Struggle Against Apartheid





[This article is based on a lecture delivered by Dr. Altaf Hussain at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society following the death of Nelson Mandela – TML]

In South Africa  today, there are over 500 mosques, 408 educational institutes, colleges, Muslim private schools, religious instruction centers, and colleges of Islamic Sciences. Many universities offer Arabic and Islamic Studies as part of their academic curriculum. Muslims are involved in every profession and field of endeavor, and played a significant role in the anti-apartheid struggle and in the post-apartheid government of South Africa, according to Surayyah Dadoo a resercher in Pretoria, South Africa.

Getting ‘on the ground updates’ from the Muslim community in South Africa, Dr. Altaf Hussain spoke to the ADAMS community about the death of Nelson Mandela and the history of Muslims in South Africa using words of prominent Muslims in South African tradition: Maulana Ebrahim Bham, a historian and Ebrahim Rasool, South African ambassador to U.S., as well as quotes from Nelson Mandela.

Even in his death, Mandela was held in high esteem by the Muslim community, with whom he was so intimate. CNN coverage of Mandela’s passing showed Muslim men outside his family home paying tribute to Madiba (Mandela’s tribal name).

“During the apartheid years, Muslims rose to the call to unite in struggle against oppression. Here in this area of Johannesburg, we witnessed resistance to the Group Areas Act, which will live in the annals of history,” President Mandela when he came out of prison, on a visit to the Muslim community in Johannesburg. Hussain showed a black and white photo of Mandela joining with Muslim leaders in dua.

Muslims came to South Africa as slaves from Indonesia, and indentured laborers from India. Just like in U.S. History African slaves werestripped of their affliation with Islam, in the same way South African slaves were also Dutch made it a matter of imprisonment and execution for the practice of Islam, according to Ebrahim Rasool.

The first masjid was given in a trust by a Muslim woman, named Saartjie van de Kaap. These early Muslims involved themselves in the social, educational and political life of their communities. They had the wisdom and foresight to establish centres where the focal point of their communities would be social and educational upliftment, notes Bham

Ebrahim Bham has written extensively about the history of Muslim in South Africa. During the apartheid, the Muslims were known as organizers as they would tap into the congregation after Jumuah. During the darkest days of apartheid, Muslims played a role in protest politics with an impact far greater than their numbers would suggest, writes Bham.

He writes about the sacrifices of Imam Abdullah Haroon. Robben island, was a prison before Mandela was imprisoned there.  Imam Abdullah (Tuan Guru)  and Nur al Iman who were already imprisoned on Robben Island in the late 1700s. While on Robben Island, Imam Abdullah who had memorized the Quran, wrote several copies of the Glorious Quran from memory. He also authored several books on Islam. He was released after 14 years on Robben Island at the age of 82, and passed away at 94. Some Muslims like Imam Abdullah Haroon, Ahmed Timol were killed by the apartheid security police.

Robben Island holds a shrine to a Muslim named Shaykh Matura, which Mandela referred to in his speeches. [Note: shrines to dead or living human beings are not sanctioned by the teachings and example of Prophet Muhammad Sallallahu ‘alyhi wa sallam – TML]

When President Mandela was struggling, he had association with Muslims; he was with Muslims in prison and when he came out he was with Muslims. Ahmed Kathrada spent 20 years with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island.

After the release of President Mandela, Muslims organized and held a huge gathering. At the conference, 750 delegates from across South Africa representing every shade of Muslim opinion and every facet of institution, that had been hard won in the dark days of oppression, came together in Cape Town. They were ahead of Muslims in America.

People questioned Mandela once he became the President; what you say to us, will you say to the public?  Mandela when he was in prison, and when he was in power he stood by the Muslim community. “The Muslims community is an important section of our population it's leaders too numerous to be mentioned have for decades been in the forefront of the freedom struggle the combination of the spirit of patriotism and religion had made their contribution to the progress of their country almost peerless. Millions of South Africans of different backgrounds and languages hold the community in high esteem.”- Nelson Mandela.

‘Our country can proudly claim Muslims as brothers and sisters compatriots, freedom fighters and leaders revered by our nation they have written there on the roll of honor with blood sweat and tears.” Nelson Mandela used to come to speak to Muslim congregations in their places of meetings, not from far away.

Drawing parallels, Hussain mentioned General Colin Powell's appearance on T.V. when President Obama was running for office. A man asked if Obama was a Muslim and Powell replied saying “so what?” He also talked about the sacrifice of Salmaan Khan, the New York city first responder. President Mandela never forgot that the Muslims stayed with him while he was prison for 27 years; they went to prison with him.

When he became President, people asked Mandela what his cabinet was going to be like? Would it reflect the needs and demographics of country. Nelson Mandela was humble. He didn't go after his enemies or the ones who put him in prison. He said that Muslims would be in his cabinet, his first education minister was Muslim. It was his way of saying he was perfectly fine with Muslims, said Hussain.

When Jewish immigrants arrived and were discriminated against, em the African Americans welcomed them, “you are coming from a struggle join us.”  Lessons that American Muslims immigrants can learn from their struggles are when we arrived in 1965 we headed straight to the suburbs. We benefited from the civil rights movement but never took part. The South African Muslims have been a part of the struggle all along. Hussain urged Muslims to join struggles for justice wherever they may be.