These are the remarks at the Opening Dinner of the 3rd International Congress on Islamic Civilisation in Southern Africa, by Ebrahim Patel, Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, on 16 September 2022.
Assalaamu-alaikum wa raghmatullahi-wabarakaatu
Distinguished scholars and visitors from across the world, Ambassadors, Members of Parliament, members of the ulema, and representatives of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture.
Dear brothers, sisters and friends
Tramakassie for the invitation to be with you tonight.
I am really happy that the 3rd International Congress on “Islamic Civilisation In Southern Africa” is being held at this venue and that we can all be here together in person.
I compliment the organisers for pulling together an impressive programme. I have seen the sessions planned for the next two days, and I wish I had the opportunity to be with you to learn from the outcome of your research, discussion and writings.
The broad framing of the Congress is on Islamic civilisation in southern Africa: on history, the contemporary state and on future perspectives.
So let’s start with history: why indeed do humans study history and why should we study our history, and who is the “we”?
In 1377, a north African historian and writer Ibn Khaldun attempted a history of the world as he knew it, laying the foundations of a more rigorous framework that covered history, sociology and economics.
In his introductory volume, titled Al-Muqaddimah, he says
“History is a discipline widely cultivated among nations and races. It is eagerly sought after. The men in the street, the ordinary people, aspire to know it. Kings and leaders vie for it.
Both the learned and the ignorant are able to understand it. For on the surface history is no more than information about political events, dynasties, and occurrences of the remote past, elegantly presented and spiced with proverbs.
It serves to entertain large, crowded gatherings and brings to us an understanding of human affairs. (It shows) how changing conditions affected (human affairs), how certain dynasties came to occupy an ever wider space in the world, and how they settled the earth until they heard the call and their time was up.
The inner meaning of history, on the other hand, involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, a subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events. (History,) therefore, is firmly rooted in philosophy.”
Ibn Khaldun, by the way, has the unusual distinction of being quoted by Ronald Reagan for his work that prefigured the Laffer Curve, an economic theory about the declining returns of high taxation that was formalised 600 years after Ibn Khaldun had set out its basic proposition.
So who tells our history?
There is a proverb that if lions had historians, the tale of the hunt would be very different. I therefore welcome the growing number of scholars who are doing work, unearthing facts and details, and offering new perspectives, many drawn from the community that have been written about, from pioneers like the late Achmat Davids to Yusuf Da Costa and Shafiq Morton, and the growing body of PhD dissertations; and also the work of foreign scholars like Halim Gencoglu and others.
EH Carr, the British historian in the 20th century asked the question, What is History, in a series of lectures delivered at Cambridge University in 1961 and he said:
“My first answer, therefore to the question’ What is history?’ is that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.
The study of history is not simply a collection of past events produced to satisfy curiosity or to pay homage to great individuals.
Nor is it a catalogue of rulers or famous people. Instead, it is an attempt to understand our world, our times, ourselves and our future by studying the development of societies over time and to gain insight into choices we make as societies.
Yes, history and identity have a complex relationship; and while identity is not definable only by lineage and ancestry, we are also, in part, our history.
And for the community I address today, it is about the intersection of identity as Muslims and as Africans from the south.
And so we claim not just part but all of our history.
What, then is our history in southern Africa?
It is a history that has been shaped by the migration and restless movement of people that has characterised the Bani Adam1 for tens and hundreds of thousands of years.
There is evidence of human habitat more than 100 000 years ago in the caves of the Cape; and indeed of much earlier periods in the caves of Sterkfontein in Gauteng; and the archaeological record shows the movement of these restless children of Adam out of Africa to populate all
1 Children of Adam
parts of the world, from deserts, to frozen lands, from islands to large land masses; and from river and ocean settlements to valleys and mountainous areas.
The movement of the abantu, another great migration from west Africa and from the great lakes districts across the continent, shaped the development of the Nguni people and our present reality and societies.
In the age of Islam in Africa, trade became a key way in which ideas and goods were exchanged.
That history includes the traders from Yemen and Oman and Persians who settled and intermarried with locals in Sofala a thousand years ago, which later became the southernmost part of the Islamic sultanate of Kilwa that brought Islam to today’s Mozambique.
That story includes the trade links between the eastern seaboard trading communities with Malawi.
You will know of the evidence of the trade relationship between the Mapungubwe civilisation of southern Africa in present-day Limpopo with the Islamic civilisations of the iSwahili coast almost 1 000 years ago.
And because I am from the Cape, allow me the indulgence of putting my historical lens on this little piece of the African continent, which, while it does not encompass all of the histories of Muslim Civilisation in the region, certainly covers some of the richest.
That history was shaped by the European voyages of discovery and conquest that led to the colonial settlement in the Cape and the occupation of the Asian spice lands, and also the history of the resistance of the people of the islands of what is modern Indonesia – from whence some of those who resisted the Dutch, were sent as political prisoners or exiles to the Cape. This spanned the century and a half and included many persons, from the prisoner reportedly brought to the Cape in 1654 to the exile of Sheikh Yusuf in 1694 and the imprisonment on Robben Island of Abdullah ibn Qadi Abdussalam (Tuan Guru) in 1780.
It is also the history of working people – those who were captured from east Africa, Indonesia, the Malabar coast and west Africa, wrenched from their families and brought to the Cape. They worked the fields and the homes of the settlers as slaves from the first years of the Dutch settlement and they shaped the cuisine and the architecture and the clothing and the colour and texture of the people of the Cape. That history includes their fight for identity and the resistance by enslaved people in the Cape from Indonesia and other parts of dar al-Islam.
It is the story of the woodcutters who were taught by Sheikh Yusuf in Macassar; and the story those who escaped slavery and ran into the mountains of the Cape; some, as oral tradition goes, led by the awliyaa who strengthened their courage with “azimats” or amulets.
They include the Muslim soldiers who fought the British in 1806 in the hope of securing the right to a masjid and full freedom to practice their religion. And when the fight against slavery was won, that history includes the experiences of the workers and artisans of the colony who were the daughters and sons of enslaved people and political exiles.
It includes the history of the struggle from the 1870s to defend the right to use the burial grounds of their fore mothers and fathers and the story of Abdol Burns.
In the urban industrial period, it was the story of the tailors who went on strike in 1917 in the Cape to fight for better wages; and the trade unions in the clothing and building industries in the 20th century and the political organisations led by those who come from the loins of the ummah.
We can read that history in the language, in the birth-certificate of Afrikaans forged in the kitchens and in the slave quarters and later after 1834 in the homes of the descendants of enslaved people. It is that language that the Ottoman scholar Abubaker Effendi used to write the Bayanuddeen, using Arabic script attuned to the vocabulary, grammar and rhythm of the streets of Cape Town. We can hear it in the jazz sounds of Abdullah Ibrahim and the poetry of Don Mattera, through whose veins
run Khoi, Xhosa, Tswana and Italian blood and who found solace and peace in the same faith of Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi2, companion of the Nabi Muhammad SAW.
We can find that history too in the wave of indentured labourers who came from the Indian subcontinent to the sugar-plantations of the British colony of Natal from the 1860s; and the traders who followed, selling goods in the colony and later from the shops of the new metropolis of Johannesburg, adding to the vibrancy of Sophiatown before it was torn down due to the Group Areas Act. And the Zanzibaris who too came as indentured labourers by ship and prayed in a wood and iron structure.
We can find that story in the migrants in our time escaping poverty or persecution or looking for opportunity who come from other lands in Africa, from Somalia, Nigeria, Cote D’ivoire and Morocco reared in the faith of Islam and settling in South Africa.
And we can find that history among those who bow in prayer in Gugulethu and at jumuah read the Quran in Arabic and at night read the translation in the isiXhosa version of the Qur’an.
We can find that history in the light-skinned patriots whose forbears came from Europe who have embraced the religion; and others who have fought side by side with or built lives with Muslims.
We can find that history in the liberation movement that fought for our freedom, in the courage of Imam Haroon, in the years of struggle and exile of Yusuf Dadoo, in the young Yasmin Dangor who became the deputy Secretary General of the African National Congress and who we honour tonight as Jessie Duarte.
And also in the story of those who have shaped our country’s jurisprudence like Ismail Mahomed, the country’s first Chief Justice appointed by President Mandela, and the Muslim businessman who provided the groceries that sustained our current Chief Justice, Ray Zondo and his family while he was studying for his law degree.
2 Bilal was the first Muslim of direct African descent
You will find the history in the members of Cabinet, from the new democracy’s first Justice Minister Dulla Omar to the current foreign affairs Minister Naledi Pandor; and in many parliamentarians, including Mandla Mandela. So the history of the amaXhosa warriors against colonialism is also our history.
It is found in the work of the da’wah groups, of sadaqa work, of Awqaf; and because work is charity too, in the work of the woman who sews your shirt or your dress.
So this community is not a distinct, “minority” group made up only of those who love boeber3 and daltjies – although the boeber-lovers are part of us and I count myself as part of them. Nor is it a group of expatriates, away from their fatherland temporarily.
It is a community not of permanent visitors or tourists who come from elsewhere and are somewhere as outsiders looking in, but it is instead a community made up of insiders shaping their contemporary society, part of the rich tapestry that makes up Southern Africa.
The history of Muslim civilisation in South Africa is an integral part of the story of South Africa.
It is a wide community embracing diversity.
And telling our story is about another part of identity: do we become those who conquered us, indistinguishable from that culture and intellectual tradition, knowing only that culture and its story about us – indeed serving that culture and its global aims – or do we carve a path of development that meets our needs, confident in our skin, inferior to none, yet working with all.
This is particularly relevant in the African story – Africa as our common birthland.
3 Boeber is a sweet milk and sago drink, often consumed during Ramadaan; while daltjies are deep-fried chilly- bite snacks
Consider Africa’s place in the world today. Africa accounts for
– 17% of the world’s population,
– yet only 3% of global output measured by GDP and
– less than 1% of global steel and car production.
Africa’s trade with the world is still largely in the primary sector of the economy, minerals we dig and fruit we grow and oil we tap, with much of the complex value-addition that we call industrialisation taking place elsewhere in the world, using African raw materials as feedstock; leaving Africans in the position conforming to the biblical description of hewers of wood and drawers of water… This is the cruel legacy of colonialism, that a continent blessed with riches has to confront.
History is not destiny. Our destiny is to change that legacy.
Memory is the weapon, says Don Mattera, in his autobiography.
And inspired by memory, and the reality of poverty and inequality and the injunction to fight for social justice and seeing the opportunity for economic growth and job creation and social development, we use the skills we have been given to shape our future.
Muslims are active in creating wealth and driving social development in South Africa – as workers in factories, as managers in firms, as investors in companies, as specialists in medical care, as teachers of young people – and their efforts and successes must be celebrated more actively.
Businesses run by Muslim entrepreneurs are active as manufacturers: in the food, pharmaceutical, car component, steel-making, clothing and footwear sectors among others.
They run businesses that trade, that are in digital technologies, in banking, they are in the humour business.
If agency means we must act to change our own future story, then I want to cite a few examples of what we are doing.
We have recently concluded a number of operational modalities for a new free trade agreement that will cover the African continent. It will knit together the economies of 54 countries, with a population of more than 1.2 billion people through facilitating increased trade among the countries. It is a major opportunity for increased investment and industrial output.
We have passed into law changes to the Competition Act to open up the South African market for those communities that have been historically disadvantaged by apartheid, and curbing the power of the large monopolies and dominant firms in the economy.
We have launched an industrial support scheme to help shift the economy to a greener growth path, so that we protect and nurture the earth that is our living space and at the same time, create economic opportunities for production of electric vehicles, low-carbon manufacturing and components for renewable energy.
The capital that can be harnessed in the community to open up new businesses can be a source of growth and job creation and I look forward to working with local businesses on these opportunities.
Our scholars can help with telling our story; and telling it in ways that give hope and optimism.
History is about optimism. The history and injunctions of your deen is about optimism.
Though the world has gone through the worst pandemic since 1918 causing a sharper global recession than any time since world war two; and though the recent war in Ukraine has spiked fuel and food prices across all nations; and though we have immense challenges, our history has shown the capacity to overcome and to build.
In challenging times, we can bring optimism, that belief that the future can be better and that we need to act now to make it better.
And so, a community that shaped a language and helped build a nation, a community of fighters and workers and manufacturers will I know step forward in these times that need more service in the public interest.
I conclude with the words of Guillermo Del Toro, a Mexican filmmaker who spoke about optimism in a very moving way. He said:
Optimism is the hard choice, the brave choice… these days, the safest way for someone to appear intelligent is being skeptical.
History and fable have both proven that nothing is ever entirely lost. David can take Goliath.. Bravery can topple the powerful. These facts are often seen as exceptional, but they are not. Every day, we all become the balance of our choices – choices between love and fear, belief or despair. No hope is ever too small.
Optimism is not uncool; it is daring, rebellious and vital. Look around you now and decide between the two.
I wish you inshaAllah a very good Congress.