Hope springs eternal in the human breast
Man never is, but always to be blest…
SO writes Alexander Pope, the famous 18th century poet, in his poem An Essay on Man. In these few poignant lines, he successfully encapsulates the human condition, as we understand it in Islam. Indeed, Pope may not have been a Muslim, but who can deny that he has not touched the universal truth?
For surely, without hope there cannot be life, and without life, there cannot be knowledge of God’s Mercy?
The scholars teach us that our souls have to present themselves to our Creator in a fluid state, in a state hovering between fear and hope – between al-khawf and al-raja’. To understand this better, it is like a scale. We tip towards hope through our fear – which in this case is much broader than the English meaning, for khawf has elements of awe and humility, as well as possessing an element of sabr, or forbearance.
In other words, we approach our Most Merciful Creator in a condition of fear with the hope that he will grant us His Grace.
Our scholars remind us that hope, and a good opinion of Allah Almighty, is the key to success. There is a verse in the Holy Qur’an that encourages hope in Allah, and even reproaches pessimism. The Qur’an prompts us:
O, my servants! (Those of you) who have acted extravagantly against your own souls, do not despair of Allah’s mercy… [39:53].
On his deathbed, the Prophet – peace rest on him – whispered to his Companions that none of us should pass on, except that we should hope for the good from Allah. The blessed Prophet’s optimism is bolstered by the Qur’an explaining itself further in the above verse, in emphatic terms:
For Allah forgives all sins (yaghfiru thunuba jami’an). He is the Forgiver, the Merciful… [39:53].
There is a sublime unconditionality here, for Allah – the Truthful – does not lie. Every single believer has a chance of redemption. Of course, as we have already said, we have to understand that it will depend upon our approach to Allah, the Hearer.
A Hadith Qudsi – an explanation related directly to the blessed Prophet from the Divine Throne – tells us that Allah, the Highest, is to his slave what his slave thinks of him. If we see a merciful God full of hope, that is what He becomes. In fact, classical scholars frown upon Allah being seen as wrathful.
The well-known Hadith, that Allah’s Mercy always precedes his wrath, is the supportive maxim.
Allah’s Mercy, and Hope, is reflected in a moving account related by ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab when captives were brought to the Prophet after a battle. There was a woman amongst them whose breasts were full of milk. She saw a crying infant in the midst of the captives and took it to her bosom.
The Prophet – peace on him – asked the Companions if this woman would ever throw the child into the fire. When the Companions said no, the Prophet said that Allah, the Exalted, was more merciful to His slave than this woman.
To this effect, I can remember a well-known Sufi Shaykh on my travels in the US always repeating: “remember Allah’s Mercy Oceans, my beloveds, remember Allah’s Mercy Oceans.”
Not once did he ever resort to hellfire preaching, or disaster mongering. Because he exuded so much hope and light, I saw countless people from all walks of life – from the Bronx to the United Nations – becoming Muslim at his hands. Unlike us, he never judged anybody.
For charity and Zakah, the giving and the taking, there is much to learn from the above.
For the downtrodden person, who benefits from Zakah, it is their God-given right to receive with grace and to benefit with grace. It is the result of their du’ah – of prayers offered in the spirit of hope that there will be relief, and that Allah – the Compassionate – will not test a person beyond their endurance.
For the giver of Zakah, there is the element of khawf and the element of hope, that the cleansing of wealth in obedience to the Sacred Law will tip the scales, and that Allah – the Supremely Gracious – will accept this small gesture.
It was the spirit of 'kanala' that saw over 120 mosques built by the community in three hundred years.
Photo copyright Shafiq Morton.
THE Cape Muslim community has not always been a wealthy, let alone middle class sector of our society. With its origins via educated, but impoverished political exiles, artisanal Mardykers (free blacks), former ‘bandietin’ and slaves, it was an underclass at the time of the abolishment of slavery in 1834.
However, the community did have several things in its favour – that despite its petty conflicts – would keep it together. The communal camaraderie that is born out of decades of oppression does create an inborn resilience, and a sense of resourcefulness, that can become an unstoppable social force.
Then, of course, there is Deen – proudly carried in the hearts of our forefathers from generation to generation, via its Hadrami-influenced Indian and Indonesian roots, Shaykh Yusuf of Makasar, Tuan Guru, Shaykh Abu Bakr Effendi and Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks all instrumental in this.
However, the abolition of slavery – as many historians have pointed out – did not end the discrimination and racism of the authorities, or citizens, of Cape Town. Life was still a testing challenge in a city renowned for its bawdy taverns, smallpox outbreaks, streetwalkers and lack of sewage disposal.
In the early 19th century, there was no such thing as ‘affirmative action’ to bolster the job market for the disenfranchised. The status-quo of ‘them and us’ had remained, with the poor confined to the edges of the town, their now cheap labour required to sew, chop, plaster, sweep, wash, build and cook for the masters and madams of the colony.
As the city expanded, due to the sweat of our grandfathers and grandmothers, these skills would become the glue that held the collective together. For in the community, a tradition of sharing one’s expertise became a way of life. If a plumber’s wall cracked, his neighbour – the builder – would repair it. If his pipes burst, the plumber would fix them, this all done for no cost.
The late Dr Achmat Davids, the doyenne of our local historians from the Bo-Kaap, told me many years ago that this was the root of ‘kanala’ (the Malayu word for ‘please’), where we would exchange – or offer – our skills or resources without recompense. This would become the bedrock of Cape Town charity, where the poorest found a way to work together to survive via the ‘kanala joppie’.
The ‘kanala joppie’ might have been born out of necessity, but it was a very noble custom. For where Zakah was impossible, as no one earned enough to pay it, the community could still reduce the effects of poverty by working together, and pooling its means.
In this way, houses were built; cars were repaired; pots of food were cooked for the high nights; and in three hundred years, over 120 mosques were constructed – something that amazed Tuan Najib Razak, current Malaysian prime minister, when he visited Cape Town in 1994. He simply could not believe that a community could have achieved so much without outside help.
It was only when our hard working parents sent us to universities that Zakah – the pillar of cleansing disposable wealth – would come into focus. As we slowly climbed the social ladder to the middle classes as doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants and teachers, surplus income became available.
To this effect, SANZAF was founded in 1974. In fact, over the past four decades one can track the economic progress of the community via SANZAF’s growth. SANZAF’s expansion, I believe, has been completely exponential to this.
However, this growth would not have been possible had our parents and grandparents not shared this Ubuntu-like spirit of ‘kanala’. I do not think it is co-incidental our community’s well-known generosity is founded in this historical ‘kanala’. Of course, there have been abuses, but the gains have always far outweighed the losses.
This is perhaps why SANZAF, representing a minority of 4 million amongst 55 million people, has been able to punch so above its weight – something widely recognised offshore in places such as the oil rich Gulf. For if it hadn’t been for the big-heartedness of our slave-born Cape ancestors, we would not be where we are today.
A FEW relaxing days spent in the picturesque countryside of the Western Cape got me to thinking about our biggest current crisis, a crippling drought that could see Cape Town and its environs becoming the first major centre in the world to run out of water by April 2018.
The powder-dry vistas, in which most of the vegetation has turned a lifeless grey, were a sobering reminder of the value of water. Even more sobering was the sight of informal settlements, most without running water, already grovelling in the dust blown up by summer’s witheringly hot Berg winds.
Many of these people, having been forced to leave farms, or who have lost seasonal work due to the drought, would be the worst affected if, Allah forbid, the dams run dry and the taps are turned off.
However, this blog is not about the criminally poor planning by our brain-boiled local authorities – who were warned decades ago about the looming crisis. No, rather it is about the value of humanity, charity and understanding on issues of water, so essential to life on this planet.
If anything, the drought has encouraged me to comprehend the significance of so many things. For instance, I’d always been amazed that the Prophet [saw] had been able to perform wudu, the ablution for prayer, with a cup of water. In 2018 in Cape Town, I now realise just how insightful this action was.
For us, wudu with a cupful of water is a reality – and by the way – easy once you get the hang of it. I can remember in Niger, during a famine caused by a drought, taking wudu water from a small kettle. In the sandy Sahel, just south of the Sahara, I was taught that water can’t ever be taken for granted.
The value of water has also forced me to think about the first recorded instances of Islamic charity, which centered on water in a region where its weight was worth gold. This was when Sayyidina ‘Uthman, a wealthy Companion, bought a well from a Jewess who was charging money for its waters, and made it into a public facility – the first waqf in Madinah.
It is not widely known that Sayyidina ‘Uthman’s generosity prompted the woman to embrace Islam. Another question arising out of Sayyidina ‘Uthman creating a public trust out of his well is that the privatisation of water sources (embraced by so many municipal administrations today) is an abominable practice, as it weighs heavily against the poor.
Water shortages might not seem to have much to do with actual Zakah, but the way things are going, humanitarian organisations – such as SANZAF – are most certainly going to be burdened by its consequences. Surely it is just a matter of time before the monthly food parcels, which give such solace to our under privileged, will have to include bottled water as well?
Already, I have been witness to the poor in under-privileged areas – already cut off by the city authorities – resorting to stealing water, so desperate are they to survive.
That water is a precious resource – only about 4% of our water on earth is fresh – goes without saying. Potable water has always been at a premium, especially in water-stressed places such as South Africa, where historically we experience regular dry periods or climatic cycles, made even more unpredictable and extreme by human triggered climate change.
There is such a profound message in this: we can drown in the oceans, which cover 70% of the surface of our planet, but we can’t drink a drop without gagging. Nor can we irrigate crops with seawater as its high salt content kills off terrestrial plant life. It is ironic that the oceans, which surround us and feed us, are an integral part of the eco system that manufactures rain.
The products of our soil, refreshed and nourished by what falls from moisture-laden clouds, are our wealth – a divine inheritance, as it were. The Qur’an has told us this, but with the proviso that we have to respect the bounties of the One who created them. The institution of Zakah, which cleanses wealth, is also a reminder for us to respect our wealth, from where it came and who ultimately granted it to us.
THE ‘festive season’ – which is held over the Christmas-New Year period – may be Christian in ethos, but it is celebrated by all as a holiday, as it is the chief vacation period for South Africans.
Traditionally, Christmas is seen as a time of family togetherness, good cheer and generosity. It was the author Charles Dickens who invented Scrooge – a mean and miserly character, who saw no happiness in anything, least of all, giving at Christmas. Today the word “Scrooge” epitomises the very archetype of stinginess.
As Muslims, we respect Christmas, and the point of my article is not to plunge into debate about it. My departure here is that Christmas is a festivity in which kindness is encouraged. The other great monotheistic faith, Judaism, has the institution of tzedakah, or charity, which – not unlike Zakah – is regarded as a social obligation.
In the same vein, our two holy days (the two ‘Eids) encourage exactly the same things – via the fitrah or fidya, the compulsory charities of ‘Eid ul-Fitrah, and the sacrifice of ‘Eid ul-Adha, where the meat is distributed to the under privileged. Arguably, so does the mawlud – the commemoration of the birth of our beloved Prophet Muhammad [saw] – when people are given food after its rituals.
It is quite evident then, that notions of wealth purification via giving to the poor have been with us as humankind for a very long time. In Islam, it has been fully codified for us and made easy. We have different kinds of charity (sadaqah, lillah) and Zakah, a legal pillar of worship – a potent instrument of poverty eradication.
However, for Zakah to succeed as an institution it is my belief that it has to be underpinned by a culture of giving. This spirit of giving is what acts as the glue that keeps communities together, and makes Zakah such a natural step-up from the spontaneities of sadaqah, or voluntary charity.
In Cape Town, we have had this spirit for over 350 years. It is reflected in our Javanese heritage. In Java, it is called slametan, a communal feast offered after a social event symbolising the unity of those participating in it. Scholars such as Clifford Geertz have said the slametan became the core ritual of Javanese faith practice.
A slametan, says Geertz referring to Java, can be given to celebrate almost any occurrence, including births, deaths, engagements, marriages, events on the Islamic calendar, moving to a new house, and so forth. Depending on the intention, the mood and emphasis of the event may vary, but the principle would always be the same.
Locally, the slametan has followed the Javanese tradition closely. In the days of 17th century slavery at the Cape, a gadat (dhikr session), a mawlud or a doepmal (name giving ceremony) would be followed by a meal, or sweetmeats. Rich and poor would mix freely during the meal, the poor receiving charity devoid of social discrimination, or loss of personal dignity.
The intention of the host would be reflected in the word slametan, derived from the Arabic salam (peace), which hinged around the idea that the generosity of the host would ensure him peace with his Creator. In this, nothing is wasted too, the celebrants leaving with parcels of food, or barakats, as we call them at the Cape.
It is heart warming to see that so little has changed over the centuries in terms of this gallant tradition, which is the building block of successful communal life. We can safely say that the spirit of slametan is still alive and well in Cape Town, South Africa.
The positives are just so many: people gathering together for a common good; a poor person taking food back to their hungry family; children being acculturated with a noble tradition; those well off making sadaqah of their gifts, and even non-Muslims leaving the gathering with good thoughts about Islam.
Or, as our anti-apartheid struggle heroes might proclaim in 2018: “long live, slametan, long live!”
THE annual SANZAF 5 Pillars Quiz, which involves the participation of selected madrasahs in underprivileged areas in the Western Cape, took place on 9 December at Masjid ul-Mubarak in Delft. Delft, which is in the northern suburbs on the Cape Flats 25 kms from the Cape Town city centre, may be close to the leafy towns of Kuils River and Stellenbosch, but leafy it is not.
It is poor, suffers from 50 per cent unemployment, crime and gangs, and is sandy, windswept and architecturally soulless, though the people are warm and welcoming. Delft is also home to Blikkiesdorp, known as ‘Tin Can Town’.
Blikkiesdorp is what the City Council calls a TRA, a euphemistic abbreviation for ‘Temporary Relocation Area’, which is in reality an unprotected urban Gulag of badly constructed corrugated iron shacks – hot and sandy in summer, and cold and muddy in winter.
It is to Blikkiesdorp that many of the victims of gentrification in the city have been relocated, often against their will, but with no other choice. For many residents, ‘temporary relocation’ has become a permanent limbo – of anger, hopelessness and social deprivation.
One of the six madrasahs competing at the quiz was the Blikkiesdorp madrasah under the guiding hand Maulana Razaan Sydow. The children may not have won on the day, but their mere presence was a triumph of recognition, an acknowledgement that even under the most difficult of conditions, children are learning.
The point is that madrasah education is under-rated, especially in terms of the social values it imbues in young learners after school hours, the time when social problems manifest themselves in terms of hunger, boredom and lack of facilities, and when the attraction of the gangs becomes an omnipresent allurement.
Sadly, today the madrasah is a poorly neglected institution – what with children in more affluent neighbourhoods finding their schools making strenuous demands on their time, and those in less affluent areas, falling prey to socio-economic abandonment. On each side of the scale, the education of Deen is sacrificed.
It is for this reason that the madrasah teachers of the Cape need to be saluted for their selfless contribution and perseverance. It is a tough job, satisfying yes, but still tough, because most madrasahs are under-funded. This is a massive blight on our community, which seems to have forgotten that learning has to progress from the cradle.
Yet in spite of this, the madrasah teachers, the mu’alims and mu’alimahs, soldier on – preventing countless young people from losing their values in a jungle of social despair. And here, it is not just a question of ‘alif, ba, ta, tha’ or even learning the six pillars of faith, it is the question of Deen providing a moral anchor, a compass in a wayward and confusing world.
For me, the 5 Pillars Quiz has never really been about the winners, but more about the occasion. It is when the children enjoy a day of fun – and challenges. Standing in front of a microphone, and answering questions in front of an audience based on the famous 5 Pillars Quiz game, can be daunting.
The 2017 quiz was won by a bright young student, Nafeesah van der Schyff, from Masjid ul-Badr, extension 23 in Belhar. In the final round of 21 questions, she romped away from the rest of the field, dominating the buzzer. Zuhair Charles, also from Masjid ul-Badr, came second with Layla Jansen of Madrasatul Sagheera in third place.
Nafeesah won R1, 000 in cash with second place getting R 700 and third R 500. The winners were also given a 5 Pillars Quiz game. Each competitor was given a certificate as recognition of participation, which is the focus of the event. SANZAF also donated R5, 000 to the winning madrasah, which evoked tears of joy at the end of an uplifting and informative quiz.