365 Years of South African Islam From Slave Origins to Living Beyond Contradiction

By Shafiq Morton

Islam in South Africa, which has endured for 360 years, is primarily the result of Dutch interest in the Far East – the corporate ambition of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (the VOC), or the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602 by a coterie of Dutch merchants.

In April 1652, Jan van Rieebeck, a 53 year-old company bureaucrat, arrived at the Cape of Good Hope from Batavia (modern-day Jakarta). His mission: to establish a way station for VOC ships rounding Africa.

Distant from Europe and the Far East, the Cape also became a place of political exile for those who had resisted the corporate-colonial VOC. Apart from thousands of slaves who arrived at the Cape, 182 princes, emirs, advisors and imams were banished from the Indonesian archipelago from 1667 to 1793 [1]. Only a few ever returned.

On 24 January 1667, the Polsbroek carrying the first exiles left Batavia and docked at the Cape in May 1668; on board were three of the Orang Cayen, or Indonesian nobility, in chains. They had been captured after the defeat at Soeroesang in Sumatra. According to local records, Tuan Abdurahman Matebe Shah, the last of the Malaccan Sultans, was one of the three.[2]

One of the men (unidentified) died on Robben Island, where 56 of the Orang Cayen would eventually be confined. The two others, Tuan[3] Matebe Shah and Tuan Mahmud al-Qaderi, were sent to the “company forests” of Constantia.

Oral traditions relate that Tuan Abdurahman Matebe Shah and Tuan Mahmud, a spiritual adviser to the Sultan, befriended the slave population at Constantia—establishing the first known Muslim community in South Africa—teaching them near a stream, where they took their ablutions, meditated and said their prayers.[4]

In 1658, the first “free” group of Muslims, the Amboyna Mardykers, arrived in the Cape to provide labour, and to bolster VOC numbers against the indigenous Khoi pastoralists, justifiably resistant to enslavement. The Statute of India prohibited the Mardykers from openly practising Islam.[5]

The Mardykers, seen as company mercenaries, have left few historical footprints. On the other hand, “free blacks” – freed slaves – would provide covert support to the runaway slave communities – some of whom would coalesce around Sufi teachers hiding in the forests and mountains around Cape Town.[6]

In 1694, a spiritual giant, Shaykh Yusuf, arrived. Born in Makasar in 1626, he was a maternal nephew of the ruler of Goa, Sultan Alauddin. In 1644, Shaykh Yusuf left for Hajj, and remained in the Middle East to study. Regarded as the crown of the Khalwatiyyah Sufi Order, Shaykh Yusuf was called the “Jawi Shaykh” in Makkah.[7]

When he returned after 20 years, the VOC had over-run Makasar. Shaykh Yusuf entered the court of Sultan Ageng in Bantam as a Qadi. Dutch forces attacked Bantam in 1683, and Shaykh Yusuf was forced flee into the jungle. He was detained in 1684, and banished to Sri Lanka.

Regarded as a living saint, the King of Goa petitioned for Shaykh Yusuf’s release. Fearing his influence, the VOC banished Shaykh Yusuf to the Cape. Shaykh Yusuf’s writings, of which there are over 20 extant manuscripts, reveal an Ibn ‘Arabi influence.[8]

Of interest is that while Shaykh Yusuf is hailed as a great mujahid, none of his works discuss jihad, or express resentment against his persecutors. He passed on in 1699, and his remains were taken back to the Far East. His iconic shrine, a domed mausoleum, was built in 1927.

That the rump of South African Islam arose from slave origins at the Cape is well established. However, the make-up of the community is clouded by a “Malay” nomenclature, which is only correct in the sense that “Malay” indicates Muslim identity – mainly due to Malayu being a slave lingua franca.

This is supported by Yusuf da Costa, in a chapter from the Pages of Cape Muslim History[9], which indicates that from 1652-1818 the largest group of slaves (36.40%) came from India, specifically the Malabar, Coromandel and Bengali coastal regions. The second biggest group originated from the East Indies (31.47%) and the third (26.65%) from Africa (chiefly Madagascar and East Africa).

In 1780, four men from the Mollucan island of Tidore were sent to the Cape, not as exiles, but as state prisoners. One was Imam ‘Abdullah ibn Qadi ‘Abdus Salam.[10] Their crime? Conspiring with the English against the Dutch.

Imam ‘Abdullah, known as Tuan Guru and who called himself “mazlum” (the oppressed one), was sent to Robben Island where he inscribed the Qur’an from memory and penned the Ma’rifat al-Islami, a handwritten 600 page compendium on Asharite theology. In 1793, Tuan Guru—now on the mainland—applied to build a mosque, which was turned down. However, he did establish a madrasah in the warehouse of a freed slave, Coridon of Ceylon.

The madrasah, open to all, was popular. There was no other education for slaves and free blacks. This caused the Earl of Caledon, the Governor of the Cape, to remark that if the people were left uneducated they would fall ‘prey’ to the ‘Mohammedan priests’ who already had 375 children in their school.

By 1797, Tuan Guru was able to establish a mosque. He passed away aged 95 in 1807. According to Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, Tuan Guru had been a follower of the Ba ‘Alawi tradition, carried from Hadramaut to Indonesia, and then to South Africa.[11]

Coridon of Ceylon’s daughter, Saartjie (Sarah) van der Kaap, then created the first waqf in South Africa when she specified in her will in 1847 that the mosque in her husband’s warehouse should remain so “for as long as Islam” remained at the Cape, and should never be sold or mortgaged.[12]

After 1798, Islam became the fastest growing faith in the colony.[13] By 1832, there were 12 madaris offering not only Islamic subjects, but also English, Dutch and accounts.[14] By 1842, one-third of Cape Town’s population was Muslim (over 6,000). With the abolition of slavery in 1834, the Cape Muslims became the city’s artisans and servants, their influence seen in its cuisine, its tailoring, its furniture and its buildings.

By the mid-1800s, the community was bedevilled by doctrinal and mosque related disputes. A parliamentarian, P.E. De Roubaix, negotiated for an independent religious scholar to be sent to the Cape in conjunction with community leadership. At the behest of Queen Victoria, the Ottomans sent Shaikh Abu Bakr Effendi to Cape Town in 1862.[15]

Unfortunately, the colonial authorities did not know that Effendi was Hanafi and the Cape Shafi’i. Nonetheless, Tuan Guru’s grandsons became his first students. Shaikh Effendi, who passed away in 1880, wrote the 354-page Afrikaans-Arabic Bayan ad-Din in 1877, which was published as gift by the Turkish Government to the Muslims of Cape Town.

By the mid-19th century, Islam had moved outside the Cape Colony. In 1860, indentured Indian labourers arrived in Durban. In 1869, the first “passenger Indians”, who had paid their way, followed. In 1872, Hajji Aboobaker Ahmed Jhaveri set up the first Indian store in the country. In 1873, Zanzibari sugar cane workers arrived, and in 1875, the first Memon trader, Aboobaker Amod, opened his doors in West Street, Durban.[16]

In 1895, another great South African luminary, Shah Ghulam Muhammad Chisti – or Sufi Sahib – landed in Durban from Ratnagiri (near Mumbai). He founded the Riverside centre on the banks of the picturesque Umgeni River. In 15 years, he built 12 masajid across the province. He passed away in 1911.[17]

The rise of the mining industry in the late 19th century saw a migration of South Africans, including Muslims, to Kimberley and Johannesburg. However, the jobs were menial, and it soon became evident that Muslims, like the blacks, were not equal citizens—with white fear of Indian merchants leading to restrictions of Indian movement.

Space precludes detailed examination of the post-World War I decades of Prime Minister, General Jan Christiaan Smuts, until his loss to the Afrikaner Nationalist Party (NP) of DF Malan in 1948, which heralded a transition from colonialism to apartheid—and the final erosion of black rights.

Fired by anti-British sentiment, the NP was focused solely on white Afrikaner privilege. The Group Areas Act, or forced removals, shifted thousands of black South Africans to state allocated ghettos or Bantustans. Muslims, who were classified “Indian” or “Malay”, were not spared.

The community’s response to apartheid was either sullen submission, or fierce resistance. Many South Africans died in protests, political executions and state-stirred “third-force” conflicts. Detention without trial claimed five Muslims, including Imam Abdullah Haron in 1969 and Ahmed Timol in 1971, both killed by their torturers.

Thousands of South African Muslims resisted apartheid, joining civic associations, trade unions and organisations such as the New Unity Movement, the SA Indian Congress, the Federation of South African women as well as the African National Congress (ANC) or the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

Goolam Vahed’s book, Muslim Portraits, the Anti-Apartheid Struggle,[18] runs into 400 pages and 360 major personalities, including Ahmed Kathrada – who spent 26 years in prison with Nelson Mandela – and women activists such as Amina Cachalia and Fatima Meer.

The youth-driven protests of 1976 and 1985 saw the emergence of the Muslim Youth Movement and its offshoot, the Call of Islam. The Call of Islam and the Cape based MJC (Muslim Judicial Council founded in 1946) allied themselves to the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front in the 1980s.

Qiblah, founded in 1979, took a hard-line stance like the right-wing Afrikaner Weerstands Beweging (AWB), spurning the CODESA peace talks of 1990. Today, Qiblah is inactive. The Deobandi-influenced Jami’at ul-‘Ulama (founded 1923), which is Hanafi orientated and based in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng, remained quietist, with the activist Molvi Ismail Cachalia (d. 2003) the exception.

The unbanning of the anti-apartheid movement and the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990, ushered in a new era. Activist Abdullah Omar became the country’s first post-apartheid Justice Minister.

Nelson Mandela, who wrote a letter of appreciation to the Muslim community, visited it in April 1994 when he called on the Awwal Mosque founded by Tuan Guru. In a moving moment, he rose from his chair and knelt on the ground upon hearing the Qur’an. Mandela attended the 300th anniversary of Shaykh Yusuf in South Africa, saluting him as a “source of inspiration”.

In 22 years of democracy, South African Muslims—4% of 55 million people—have punched above their weight. They are well represented in Cabinet, in local government, in city municipalities, in academia, in the arts, in sport, in the media and in the economy. Of the iconic Ahmad Deedat, Mandela would narrate—with a chuckle—that in the Middle East the preacher was more famous than he was.

Since 1994, the community has been strengthened by thousands of refugees, economic migrants and academics from Africa and the Middle East. The conversion to Islam of High Court Judge, Justice John Hlope, and amaXhosa Chief Mandla Mandela – the grandson of Nelson Mandela – have been well publicised.

In July 2016, the Zulu Royal House officially acknowledged Islam[19] due to certain members of the Mkhize family, the nucleus of the Royal House, having been Muslim for more than 50 years. Islam has also been on the rise in the country’s black townships from Cape Town to Johannesburg, presenting new challenges in a society marked by a high Gini-coefficient.

Political scientist Dr Hisham Hellyer[20], who has visited South Africa several times, has written in The National that the enduring history of the South African Muslim community serves to protect it against suggestions of being alien or disloyal, as is the case with other minorities.

But beyond that, he said, there is a legacy of political activism. While many from the religious establishment did acquiesce to apartheid, many individuals did not, and they formed coalitions to fight institutionalised racism. When apartheid finally fell, Muslim South Africans had already—organically—derived social capital, which they converted into political capital.

In a democratic South Africa, this Muslim community is treated as an integral part of society. There are no doubts or suspicions in that regard. What is more, the Muslim community itself would have it no other way. However, their sense of South African patriotism does not result in an unnatural type of assimilation either. They belong to South Africa and they see no contradiction between that belonging and their own specificities as Muslims.


Shafiq Morton is a veteran photo-journalist, and presenter of the DriveTime programme on Radio Voice of the Cape. He is also the author of “Notebooks from Makkah and Madinah”.



1. Robert Shell (ed.), From Diaspora to diorama: The Slave Lodge in Cape Town, p. 451 (Cape Town: Ancestry 24, 2006-2007 CD- ROM).

2. Cape Mazaar Society, p. 26, Guide to the Karamats of the Western Cape, 2010.

3. The appellation “Tuan” means “master teacher”.

4. Cape Mazaar Society, p. 23, Guide to the Karamats of the Western Cape, 2010.

5. Ebrahim Mahida, History of Muslims in South Africa: a Chronology, p. 1, Arabic Study Circle, Durban 2003.

6. Muhammad ‘Adil Bradlow, Imperialism, State Formation and the Establishment of a Muslim Community at the Cape of Good Hope, 1770-1840: A Study in Urban Resistance, Chapter Two, MA thesis, University of Cape Town, 1988.

7. Abu Hamid, Syekh Yusuf Makassar: `Alim, Sufi, Author, and Hero: Indonesia, PhD thesis, Hasanuddin University, 1994.

8. Suleiman Dangor, translation of the Essence of Secrets (Zubdah al-Asrar), p. 24, Pages from Cape Muslim History, Shuter and Shooter, Pietermaritzburg 1994.

Seraj Hendricks, Tasawwuf and Sufism: its role and impact on the culture of Cape Islam, p. 2, MA thesis, UNISA 2005.

9. Yusuf da Costa, The Early Cape Muslims, Victims of European Colonising activities in Asia and Africa, p. 2, Pages from Cape Muslim History, Shuter and Shooter, Pietermaritzburg 1994.

10. Achmat Davids, The History of the Tana Baru, p. 40, Committee for the Preservation of the Tana Baru, Cape Town 1985.

11. Seraj Hendricks, Tasawwuf and Sufism: its role and impact on the culture of Cape Islam, p. 234, MA thesis, UNISA 2005.

12. Achmat Davids, The Mosques of the Bo Kaap, p. 90, Institute of Arabic and Islamic Research, Cape Town 1980.

13. Alan Mountain, An Unsung Heritage, Perspectives on Slavery, p. 83, David Phillips, Cape Town 2004. See also: A Boeseken, Slaves and Free Blacks at the Cape 1658-1700, Tafelberg, Cape Town 1977.

14. Achmat Davids, Alternative Education, p. 51, Pages from Cape Muslim History, Shuter and Shooter, Pietermaritzburg 1994.

15. Achmat Davids, The Mosques of the Bo Kaap, p. 52, Institute of Arabic and Islamic Research, Cape Town 1980.

16. SA History online, Indians in South Africa, 21 March 2011.

http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/indian-south-africa. Accessed 9/9/17.

17. Yunus Saib, Sufi Sahib’s contribution to early history of Islam in South Africa, unpublished MA thesis, University of Durban-Westville, 1993.

18. Goolam Vahed, Muslim Portraits, the Anti-Apartheid Struggle, Madiba Publishers, Durban 2012.

19. Tasneem Adams, Zulu King to officially recognise Islam, Voice of the Cape, 15 July 2016. http://www.vocfm.co.za/zulu-king-to-officially-recognise-islam/. Accessed 9/9/17.

20. Hisham Hellyer, South Africa’s Muslims are an example to all, The National, 28 May 2015. https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/south-africa-s-muslims-are-an-example-to-all-1.119365. Accessed 9/9/17.