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The South African Black Muslim Conference 2019: Prospects and Problems – Mawlana Dr. MAE (Ashraf) Dockrat

May 10, 2019

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The South African Black Muslim Conference 2019: Prospects and Problems

By Mawlana Dr. MAE (Ashraf) Dockrat

University of Johannesburg

Volume 7 (2019), Number 8 (May 2019)

The South African Black Muslim Conference (SABMC) held from 19-21 April 2019 was organised by the Gauteng Muslim Shura Council. The conference was aimed at, amongst other, establish Black Muslim think tanks. When first announced, the idea stirred up debate in the South African community, who in recent years, has experienced growing tensions between the Indian and Black Muslim groupings.

Touted as being a “Blacks only” event, it raised the eyebrows of those who felt that this went against the tenets of the religion itself. The absence of Black Muslims in leadership positions in Muslim organisations, the fact that Mosques and community structures in predominantly Black neighbourhoods are run by Indian communities and some of the racist attitudes of their co-religionists have seen the establishment of independent shurah (consultative councils) such as the Gauteng Muslim Shura Council, the Tshwane Muslim Shura, the Soweto Muslim Shura and others. These councils are composed of theologians and non-theologians and unlike the traditional Muslim organisations are open to female membership as well. In its composition, the councils are varied in terms of the theological persuasions of its members and closely reflect the various influences the convert community has experienced over the last few decades. Class differences also play a role with the emergent middle class professional taking up significant leadership positions within these new organisations. Religious education varies with some Deobandi trained ulama and other more informally trained scholars who are looked up to for guidance.

Making a case for a Black Muslims Conference Thandile Kona, President of the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa, writes in the tabloid Al-Qalam (February  2019): “In the South African context, Black Muslims have been on the receiving end of exploitation, paternalism, toxic charity that breeds dependence, patronising attitudes and in some cases, outright racism. These have left deep seated psychological damage in the families and communities of black Muslims. There was also some measure of ambivalence and deference to the established Indian and Malay Muslim communities that coloured the relationships. This was with the hope that the rest of the community would assist the indigenous communities in the establishment of Islam across apartheid-created communal borders. This has proven not to be the case; instead we have seen our communities turned into battlegrounds for hegemony of one charity organisation over another or of some kind of vested interest over others. Admittedly, Black Muslims also have to shoulder some of the blame, but that’s a topic for another article.”  The author also explains that the “Blacks only” event is not racist because the concept document for the conference calls for an event that will attract “all the Muslims who have an interest in developing Islam amongst the Black Muslims.”

In a recent article “The Coming of Age of the Black Muslims of South Africa: The way Forward”(Media Review Network, Apr 30 2019) the Zimbabwean academic Dr Mustafa B Mheta reports on and shares some of his impressions of the SABMC. Mheta argues that the theme “Shaping Mzansi Muslim Discourse” provided an opportunity for the presenters and participants to deal with pertinent problems that affect the Black Muslims and offer solutions to deal with these. He points out that the presenters were “a very competent team from diverse professional backgrounds. From Lawyers, Engineers, Accountants, Ulama (Islamic Scholars), Politicians, Activists, Businessmen, Poets and Academics.” Racial slurs were absent and “Black people gathered believed over the years, they have not been treated as equals by the Indian Muslims. “Many of the Black Muslim leaders who spoke at the conference emphasized the fact that the conference was not meant to outdo the Indian Muslims, but to build a Black Muslim society in South Africa that can begin to do things on its own. Many emphasized that there should be no animosity towards any group of Muslims, we are all brothers and sisters in Islam.”

“Black Muslims and Educational Challenges”, and the challenge of balancing cultural traditional practices into Islamic praxis was debated. Identity featured as an important theme throughout. Professor Sulaiman Dangor in his article titled “The South African Black Muslim Conference: Points for Reflection (Muslim Views May 2019) provides a detailed summary of the discussions that took place at the conference.

In my own assessment to say that this was the first Black Muslim Conference is not factually correct. Under the Auspices of the African Muslim Union there was a similar conference held in the 1990’s in Durban. The Indian theologian Mawlana Rafiek Shah was invited as a guest speaker and Professor Sulaiman Dangor who attended the conference reported on the event in the Muslim Views at the time.

While the “coming of age” metaphor is a good one, there remain some growing pains. For one, the established Muslim community is determined to continue with their religious activities on their own terms in the predominantly Black areas. They make no bones of the fact that they have not had much success in bringing locals to work in administrative positions in these organisations. The calls made at the SABMC will want to see organisations and Mosque committees in townships and rural areas that are run by Black Muslims. This poses a tremendous challenge for their emerging leadership and the young adult will have to prove him/herself. They will have to provide bursaries and other much needed support to their own if they want to break free from what they see as the shackles of dependency.

Who speaks on behalf of South African Muslims is also an issue. Is it the established theological bodies or the new men and women on the block? This tussle has already played out where the King of Morrocco recognises the Amir of the Gauteng Shura as the representative of South African Muslims on his Council of African Ulama. Furthermore, just as internal dissent has plagued established Muslim organisations, so too the Black Muslim movement is not free from its own woes.

At time of publication, the Conference report and resolutions have not yet been published. Whoever said that the coming of age is not without both its prospects and problems?

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