In a Corner of South Africa, Muslim Tradition Has Outlasted Slavery and Apartheid

For three generations, a family of Islamic scholars has inspired a Cape Town community

In a Corner of South Africa, Muslim Tradition Has Outlasted Slavery and Apartheid
South African Muslims gather to perform Eid al-Fitr prayer at the Quds Mosque in Cape Town, South Africa on May 14, 2021 / Xabiso Mkhabela / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In 1871, Muhammad Salih Hendricks, the patriarch of a dynasty of Islamic scholars, was born in the Western Cape of South Africa. It was only a few decades earlier that slavery had been banned in the Cape Colony, where the bulk of the Muslim population, the “Cape Malay” community, descended from slaves and political exiles who had been forcibly brought there by the Dutch East India Company. Some of the more famous of them were Indonesian Muslim sages and scholars, like Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar and Tuan Guru, who, according to some South African historians, infused the community with Sufism, long practiced in Southeast Asia, as in the rest of the Muslim world. By the time Hendricks was born, the Muslim community of Cape Town had a diverse ethnic heritage that included believers with roots in Southeast Asia and South Asia as well as converts among Indigenous Africans and European settlers.

Unlike other slaveholding societies like in Brazil and the United States, where the slaves’ Islamic practices were stamped out, scholars managed to pass on traditional Sufism to Muslims in Cape Town, ensuring the religion’s continuation there.

Today the work of Hendricks and his progeny influences tens of thousands of Muslims worldwide.

Deeply connected to that tradition is the institution of the Mawlid, typically celebrated most during the lunar month we’ve just entered, Rabi’ al-Awwal, or the “First Spring.” Many Muslim scholars estimate it’s the month when the Prophet Muhammad was born. The marking of his birth, the Mawlid, has been a staple of Muslim cultures for more than a millennium, and over the coming weeks, Muslims from Dhaka to Dakar, from Cairo to Karachi, from Sarajevo to Jakarta, will stage numerous events as well as public holidays to rejoice in the occasion. And, indeed, in minority communities as well, Muslims will note the event — from Washington, D.C., in the United States, to Cape Town in South Africa.

The legacy of the Hendricks family is illustrative of how Islam manifests in such an indigenous, and completely orthodox, fashion, in a Muslim minority community that has been beset by so many challenges. My research is mostly focused in international affairs; but after writing a book on Muslim European communities, I developed an interest in demographic Muslim minorities elsewhere. Curious to understand this minority’s history further, I visited Cape Town many times and met many in the community that Hendricks founded.

At age 16, the young Hendricks encountered a Meccan traveler and trader, Abdal Aziz al-Maliki, who was visiting Cape Town, and persuaded Hendricks to study in the holy city to undertake serious training in the Islamic scholarly sciences. Mecca was a very different place then as compared with today; at the dawn of the 20th century, it was still under Ottoman sovereignty, and mainstream Sunni Islam was still very much in effect as the norm in the holy city, unlike what took place not long thereafter with the Wahhabi takeover. Hendricks would remain in Mecca for about 15 years, training at the hands of some of the more noted names in Islamic scholarship of his time, including Abbas al-Maliki (who acted as his guardian, and who was the main preacher of the mosque of Mecca), as well as Umar Ba Junayd and Husayn al-Hibshi, both of whom would become the official chief jurisprudent (grand mufti) of the traditional Sunni rite of Shafi law — one of four extant legal rites in the Sunni tradition — in Mecca.

Eventually, a much older Sheikh Muhammad Salih Hendricks would return to Cape Town, after a short stint as a judge (qadi) in Zanzibar in East Africa, where he would reorganize the island’s celebrations of the Mawlid – which, in itself, shows the importance of that institution of marking the Prophet’s birthday.

Indeed, the celebration of the birth of the Prophet has been a common and unifying feature of Muslim societies for hundreds of years, and the early Prophetic community is documented as having marked the event, if not necessarily on a precise date. But as common as the celebration of the Prophet’s birth is, the differences in how that celebration plays out in different cultures bears out what American Muslim scholar Umar Abd-Allah describes as a clear river (the religion of Islam) that reflects the colors of a bedrock (Indigenous cultures) as the former flows over the latter. Of course, many religious traditions seek to incorporate elements of Indigenous culture — in this regard, Islamic history shows a concerted effort to do so as part of its own internal intellectual tradition.

In Zanzibar, as in so many other places, the marking of the Prophet’s birth is a deeply significant event and is arguably in itself a sign of stability of a Muslim community in its environs, as an event that is organized communally and usually with local flavors.

It’s worth noting that when Hendricks left Mecca, this was the type of normative Islamic interpretation that was widespread there. One cannot say that was quite the case following the Wahhabi takeover, as that doctrine, while in theory does not object to the marking of the birth of the Prophet, is in practice very often opposed to the actual manifestations of it.

Following his return to Cape Town, Hendricks founded Azzawia, a religious center that served as a focal point for the teaching of Islam, but also the site of religious functions, including the five daily canonical prayers, the Friday congregational prayer, and the Mawlid. The Mawlid in this regard was the largest function of the year, because it was not one function at all. It was three.

In my research, I found that Hendricks dedicated specific educational classes for women in Azzawia, which was controversial to those in the community at the time who did not support female education. But he also instituted the “women’s Mawlid” as well as the “mixed Mawlid.” The “women’s Mawlid” was a huge event conducted in the beautifully decorated great hall of Azzawia, where women would gather in their best clothes and would listen to a class about the virtues of the Prophet. In the “mixed Mawlid,” where men would be in one section of the center and women in another, songs about the Prophet were sung, followed by a short discourse about the Prophet himself. Later on, a grandson, Haazim Hendricks, would institute another tradition — the “Children’s Mawlid,” a move to bring the younger generation into the community through this special occasion. The children would form a circle under the dome and recite the odes to the Prophet, after ceremoniously walking to that point in the grand hall.

Those songs continue to be ways in which these communities pass on knowledge about their religion. In content, the songs are based on traditional religious texts, including points of the Prophetic biography, as well as commonly accepted theology. But often, in contrast to these unifying aspects, there are differences in how they are sung, even when they are in the same language.

The Ode of the Cloak, Qasidat al-Burda, by the Berber-Egyptian sage Imam al-Busiri, is one of the more famous ones. In the 13th century, al-Busiri was an adept of the Shadhuli order of Sufis. His poem to this day is widely read across the Muslim world. In Cape Town and throughout the world, another commonly read poem, Mawlid al-Barzanji, is by Ja’far al-Barzanji, a Medina native and jurist of Kurdish origin from the 18th century.

But in Cape Town, the tune and the method of the recitations are uniquely South African. Mawlid al-Barzanji is heard in Yemen, in Malaysia, in Australia; in each place, however, the melody is different, even though the words are the same. The same is very much so in Cape Town.

I remember that the first time I heard a recording of it, I was struck by how distinctively the Arabic words were chanted: in long, captivating tenors, a sign of how deeply rooted Islam was (and still is) in this community. Cape Town had created a unique and indigenous religious expression of commitment to Islamic teachings.

Richard Builliet, a Columbia University academic, has written of the intriguing uniqueness of Muslim communities on “the edge,” as it were, referring to Muslim minority communities far from the proverbial heartlands of Islam in the Arab world — and in my own research over the years, I’ve found some evidence to support that notion. Cape Town was home to one such community. It’s perhaps ironic that such a beautiful exhibition of culture came about in a community that had been befallen by slavery, exploitation and apartheid before finally witnessing the beginning of democracy in 1995, with the election of the onetime resistance leader Nelson Mandela as president.

The community of Azzawia remains. It marked the centenary of the founding of the building only last year and continues to thrive. Four of Hendricks’ sons would themselves travel to Mecca, with the intention of returning to serve that same community; two of his grandsons would do the same. With each generation, the continuation of the Mawlid would continue, alongside the teaching of traditional Islamic jurisprudence and theology.

But the place where those generations went to study did not stay the same. The Ottomans lost Mecca, and Abdul Aziz al-Saud captured the city a few years after the first Hendricks had departed. When Hendricks’ sons came to follow in their father’s footsteps, al-Saud had already stamped the imprint of a new Wahhabi religious establishment on Mecca, which eschewed not only the Mawlid but various other points of traditional Sunni Muslim scholarship.

Nevertheless, the Wahhabi religious establishment could not displace hundreds of years of tradition and study, particularly as applied to the Hendricks family, which had established a close relationship with the well-known Maliki family. Three generations studied with successive generations of the same Maliki family, and while others who studied in what became Saudi Arabia would later engage in intra-Muslim culture wars against the Mawlid and various aspects of Sufism, that was not the case for the Hendricks family — or, indeed, the vast majority of Capetonians — who kept the cherished old tradition of Mawlid alive.

But beyond that context of internal Muslim dynamics, Capetonian Muslims existed in the wider South African reality. From 1948 onward, that included apartheid.

The racial injustice deeply disturbed members of Azzawia. Hendricks’ grandson, the late Seraj Hendricks, a scholar and spiritual guide of Azzawia’s community, narrated how his father and two of his uncles were offered white identity under apartheid, as the regime at the time was trying to get communities on its side. The Hendricks family scholars refused to be co-opted, particularly Sheikh Ebrahim Hendricks of the second generation, who went on something of a campaign against apartheid in those early days, eventually resulting in his passport being confiscated.

The Hendricks scholars were not unique in their activist streak. The famed Libyan resistance leader, Umar al-Mukhtar, who fought the fascist Italian occupation of Libya, was an adept in the Sanusi order of Sufis; Imam Shamil, the guerrilla warrior against the Russian campaign in Chechnya, was a spiritual guide in the Naqshabandi order; the aforementioned Imam al-Busiri was a disciple in the Shadhuli order, whose eponymous founder, Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhuli, fought King Louis in one of the Crusader wars that came to Egypt. For all of them, the institution of the Mawlid was not remotely controversial. If anything, not marking it would have been.

A cat walks across roof of Azzawia, in the shadow of Table Mountain in Cape Town / Credit: Shafiq Morton

As the Hendricks generations continued, so did the developments of South African politics and society. Of the four Hendricks sons who went to Mecca to continue in their father’s path — Ahmad, Mahdi, Ebrahim, and Mujahid — three returned to Cape Town (Ahmad died in Mecca). Azzawia later saw the formal legalization of apartheid in South Africa, and while prioritizing its role as a pillar of education, which applied the age-old spiritual heritage of Mecca to South Africa, it was clear there was a spirit of resistance embedded within the institution. Azzawia resisted the urge — unlike many other communities — to be involved in partisan politics. As an institution, Azzawia was meant to be a neutral space, apolitical in many ways, so that it would be a welcome, safe haven for all who might come to it, including members who were politically active against apartheid.

That second generation of Hendricks scholars deepened and widened Azzawia’s influence on the community in the Cape. From a core group of a few families that had supported and backed Hendricks grew a community that enveloped hundreds and then thousands in the Western Cape. It wasn’t an easy time. Apartheid was the formalization of white supremacy, and while many members of the white population did embrace Islam and become part of Azzawia’s community — not without many difficulties due to their “cultural apostasy” — Muslims in the Cape were generally people of color, under a system that weaved together various types of bigotry, including against Islam and Muslims. And so that difficulty remained, at least for as long as apartheid did.

But so did the struggle against it. The African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912, predated the creation of apartheid as a formal policy — but it became the primary vehicle of opposition to the state’s racialist policies. And within that struggle, there were many members of the Muslim South African community who were deeply involved. Different groups were formed; and there were also deeply iconic and significant figures, such as Abdullah Haroon, who founded “Call of Islam.”

Haroon, like the Hendricks family, also studied for a time in Mecca under the guidance of many of the same teachers, including a scholar of the Maliki family, imbibing that same spiritually rooted and normative Sunni approach to religion. A figure who became famous not only in South Africa but beyond it, Haroon was an anti-apartheid activist through and through, one who engaged with the Coloured People’s Congress, the Non-European Unity Movement and the Teacher’s League, among other organizations. He was also a religious leader engaged in interfaith relations and women’s empowerment. And he was an internationalist figure, responsible for the distribution of millions of South African rands’ worth of assistance to political detainees through the International Defence and Aid Fund.

Haroon’s spiritually rooted tradition included the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday. On May 28, 1969, he was arrested by the South African state as he prepared to attend Mawlid celebrations. Haroon’s family never saw him again. During the 123 days that Haroon was in prison, he was tortured with batons, electric shocks and needles stuck into his spine. He died of a heart attack four months after his arrest, no doubt because of the trauma he experienced. During his funeral, the first earthquake to hit Cape Town in 160 years occurred, measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale. The symbolism of this seismic event was not lost on the reported 30,000 people in attendance for the funeral procession.

Within the political opposition against apartheid, many Muslims engaged in the United Democratic Front, linked to the ANC. Some of those went on to become important figures in wider South African politics, such as Ebrahim Rasool, who held senior positions in the UDF and the ANC, and later became premier of the Western Cape as well as South Africa’s ambassador to the U.S. A new generation began to develop, the one that would see the end of apartheid and the birth of a new South African political reality. Sheikh Mujahid Hendricks, the last of Hendricks’ sons that was a scholar at Azzawia lived to see that, but passed away soon after. His two nephews, now Sheikh Seraj and Sheikh Ahmad after their many years of study in Mecca, took over the mantle as Azzawia scholars.

By the time two of Hendricks’ grandsons set off for their sojourn of study in Mecca to carry on the family tradition, apartheid in South Africa and the Cape was already causing huge damage to the country’s reputation, and the international campaign against it was resulting in boycotts and sanctions. Azzawia had weathered well throughout the apartheid era, and even though some members of its congregation were involved in the United Democratic Front, Azzawia maintained its position as a nonpartisan educational institution. In the 1980s, that didn’t stop a young Seraj Hendricks, a student at the time, from engaging in activism against the apartheid regime, leading to his imprisonment for a while, though he was able to return to Mecca to complete his studies.

That kind of resistance was a part of his own tradition. Seraj and Ahmad Hendricks’ main teacher in Mecca at the time, Muhammad bin Alawi al-Maliki, was himself imprisoned by the Saudi authorities for his commitment to upholding the normative Sunnism that had pervaded Mecca and the wider Muslim world long before the Wahhabi authorities had taken control of the city. Al-Maliki, like his father and grandfather before him – both of whom had taught previous generations of Hendricks – was among the most famous Muslim scholars of his age, despite the pressure that had been building at the hands of the Saudi religious authorities over the previous few decades.

That promulgation of Saudi-supported religious interpretations was felt not only in Saudi Arabia. The efforts went global, and wherever they were focused, there was a marked target in their sights, including in South Africa, where Mawlid came to be in the crosshairs. In South Africa, it would come down to the likes of Azzawia scholars, including, later on, the third generation of Hendricks, to defend the institution of the Mawlid as congruent with Islamic thought. The upholding of that kind of normative Sunnism received something of a boost when al-Maliki, known worldwide in the heartlands of the Islamic world, would visit his close students, the Hendricks grandsons, who had become scholars in their own right, in Cape Town. The resulting visits and events would galvanize the Capetonian Muslim community and reinforce the link between it and the wider Muslim world, after many years of restrictions and isolation under apartheid.

That third generation of Hendricks, Seraj and Ahmad, would spend the following quarter century in service of their community — in teaching, in community leadership and, as was typical, in the continued holding of the Mawlids that their grandfather had instituted and their uncles had continued. As much as the tradition was a live one, those who held it aloft eventually passed on; Hendricks; his sons Ahmad, Mahdi, Ebrahim, and Mujahid; and a year ago, his grandson Seraj, after battling a serious illness. But Ahmad remains; and the next generation is already being prepared.

The Mawlids that continue in the COVID-19 era go online for those members of Azzawia’s community who continue to mark the birth of the Prophet; and they prepare to return to the center of Azzawia when possible. To their credit, the pandemic might have showcased the leadership of Azzawia at its best; while others doubted the seriousness of the pandemic, the scholars and spiritual guides of Azzawia moved quickly to safeguard their community and introduce bold and wide restrictions — which they enforced through the usual communal ways of coaxing individuals to adhere to the norms of the whole — until the public health situation improved.

And so, 150 years since the first Hendricks scholar was born, Azzawia continues to stand, secure in its attachment to a traditional, vibrant and spiritual connection to religion. Its scholars maintain the elaborate etiquette that distinguishes it, and it remains a center that foreign dignitaries insist on visiting, in the shadow of the overpowering “Table Mountain” that overlooks Cape Town. And in the post-pandemic world, when the doors are finally flung open again — one imagines in the not distant future — there is no doubt that another Mawlid celebration will bring the place to life in its own special way once more.

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