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Contextualizing Shiah-Sunni Relations in South Africa in the light of the Verulam Mosque attacks of 10 May 2018 – Dr MAE (Ashraf) Dockrat

September 2, 2018

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Contextualizing Shiah-Sunni Relations in South Africa in the light of the Verulam Mosque attacks of 10 May 2018

By Dr MAE (Ashraf) Dockrat

University of Johannesburg

Volume 6 (2018), Number 14 (September 2018)

Muslims arrived on South African in five waves. There is evidence that some arrived as sailors and hands on the first ships of the Dutch and Portuguese colonialists. Indonesian-Javanese political prisoners who refused to be yoked by the colonialists came as political prisoners and the mosques and their graves at the Cape are evidence to this. There was a subsequent influx of indentured laborers to Durban/Natal in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. They provided the work force on the sugar-cane plantations there. A fourth wave of mainly Gujerati traders came as paid passengers on ships and settled in the then Natal and Transvaal. Up to this point these diverse ethnic groups were all Sunni Muslims and were affiliated with Sunni theological bodies. The trader communities did include a negligible amount of a couple of Shiah Ismaili Khojas. With the collapse of apartheid, the mid 90’s saw a fifth wave of settlers in South Africa. These were people from a range of countries with the bulk of them from the Indian Subcontinent. Up to this time the Muslim population were and remain predominantly Sunni.

In the 1970’s the isolated apartheid state was ever keener to establish contacts with international partners. Iran, under the Pahlavi Shah had a very good relationship with the RSA government of the day. The Centre for Islamic Studies, under the chairmanship of Professor Cobus Naude at the Broederbond established Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) facilitated for better understanding of Muslims and the politics of the Middle-East. The Centre would publish a newsletter “Midde-Ooste in die Nuus” (Middle East in the News) regularly. This was a very important source of information for the State’s foreign affairs and international relations departments. As relationships with Iran warmed, the Iranian government made economic alliances where petrol and SASOL oil-from-coal technology was shared. The Republic of South Africa was also guaranteed a good supply of crude oil. Cultural exchanges were also facilitated through the Embassy of Iran in Pretoria. The local South African Muslim community, many of whom had welcomed Ayatollah Khoemeini’s 1979 Iranian Revolution, were taken on 7-10 day visits to Iran. Meanwhile, the religious leaders of the Sunni majority had soon after the 1979 revolution began a campaign to warn its congregants of “Shiah Meance” and “Shiah Threat”. This is evident from the publications of the main Sunni theological bodies of the time. For them the cleric’s coup was no more than a “mirage in Iran” and they cautioned against the gaping theological differences through widespread pamphlets and booklets which were published on behalf of the “Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamah” (People of the Sunnah and the Prophet’s Companions). The Shiah, it was pointed out, did not look at the Prophet’s Companions with the veneration that they deserved and saw the first three Caliphs who succeeded him as usurpers of the hereditary right of Ali, the son in law and cousin of the Prophet (hence ahl al-bayt, the People of the Prophetic Household).

Travelogues of the time with titles such as,“9 Days in Iran”, by MS Banoo (1983) and a similar publication, “Towards Understanding Iran Today”, by Fatima Meer reflect opposite sides of the spectrum in the South African Muslim community. Banoo, the conservative theologian, was critical of the newly founded Iranian state whereas Meer expressed her delight by what she had seen on her travels. The MYM (Muslim Youth Movement), a more liberal Muslim grouping who had come under the influence of Maulana Maududi (d.1979), a Pakistani revivalist scholar, were evidently quite excited with the prospect of a Muslim state in Iran. The new Iranian dispensation of velayet-e-faqih (the leadership of the jurist-consult) and the widespread reform appealed to their sensibilities. This is reflected in their euphoria at the time.

The Jamiatul Ulama Transvaal (Council of Muslim Theologians) printed books countering what they perceived to be a serious threat to the belief system of their congregants. This then is the root of the Sunni-Shiah conflict in South Africa.

In 1995 Hojjatol islam Mohammed Sharif Mahdavi was appointed as the Iranian ambassador to South Africa. He actively participated on public platforms and perhaps due to his training clearly displayed a proselytizing zeal. Another important shiah cleric Imam Maulana Aftab Haider served as a missionary and established a center to cater for the religious needs of the Shiah community. Haider and his group not only saw to the pastoral needs of his community but also began actively propagating Shia Islam amongst the mostly lower class black and middle class Indian communities. In the mid-1990’s South Africa opened its doors to foreign nationals. Pakistani, Ithna Ashari (Twelver) Shiahs entered the Muslim community. They strengthened the public profile of the religion with their Karbala festivals and established Imam baras for their worship. Local Indian Muslims maintain their own expression of Shiasm and became more active on social media platforms. At about this time an Iraqi Sufi Shiah, Shaykh Fadlallah Heiri made South Africa his home. His preaching appealed to the affluent Indian business community and he established the Rasooli Centre in Pretoria. It is clear that distinctions based on class and origin prevail in the Shiah community.

The Ahlus Sunnah ulama (theologians) realized the growing threat from the Shiah and organisations of various persuasions were formed. The most vocal of these being the Ahlus Sunnah Defence League (ADL). The debate of excommunication (takfir) is what distinguishes some anti-Shiah lobby groups from others. Some,such as the Port Elizabeth based Maulana AS Desai in his periodical publication, The Majlis, adamantly insist that all Ithna Ashari Shiah are kafir (non-believers) while others, including the ADL, hold that only those who blatantly deny some of the core tenants of the dogma are not in the pale of Islam. Nevertheless they see all Shiah as threats. Shiah polemic has also been equally vitriolic especially in their slander against the Prophet’s wife Aisha and the first three caliphs. Souring relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran on the international scene means that local groups on both sides of the divide have enough theological arguments to buttress their positions. The Shiah and the Sunni camp accuse one another of hate speech.

Against this background South Africans were shocked when on 10 May 2018 there was a bloody attack on the Shia Imam Hussain mosque in Verulam, north of Durban. While all theological bodies condemned the dastardly act the local Tribune tabloid of 13 May quoted the head of the Shiahs in South Africa, Haideras saying that the attack “came in the wake of hate speech against the Shia community that has continued for years, and escalated to unparalleled levels recently.” The newspaper reported that: “The attack in which an imam had his throat slit and two others were stabbed repeatedly was allegedly the work of men who had been surveying the mosque with the intention of killing its religious leaders.”

For some months before this, Imam Rashied Omar of the Claremont Main Road Mosque proposed that South African Muslims bind themselves to a document called the“Cape Accord”. This document, meant to encourage peace and unity and eradicate extremism and based on the Amman Accord, was signed in Cape Town by some Islamic leaders. Included in this accord is a section which appealed to communities “to be tolerant of the differences between Muslims and not escalate intra-faith hostilities”. The recent Sunni-Shiah violence made this accord all the more relevant for those who have championed that it should be ratified. However the Cape Accord has not been welcomed by all, and differing opinions about it have caused further divisions. After a number of key signatories withdrew their support many now see it as a dismal failure.

That the Verulam mosque attack is a turning point in the future of Sunni-Shiah relationships in the community is questionable.  What seems to be the case is that it marks just another event in a long standing battle.

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