Many African Muslims in the country are living in abject poverty and feel abandoned. Their plight is documented in a book to be released soon, writes Ismail Suder
Durban community leader and author, Ismail Omar, has questioned South African funding organizations that collect money for victims of foreign conflicts, such as in Syria, but ignore the plight of poor African Muslims in township ‘backyards” who live and pray in shanties.
Omar, a former politician and lawyer, is on a mission to bridge the huge chasms that exists between Indian and African Muslims in South Africa. In his book entitled, Islam: Oligarchies and Ummatis – One Ummah, One Vision (soon to be published), Omar says it is a travesty that huge zakat funds are collected for charitable projects in distant lands when our “fellow ummatis” in African townships feel abandoned by mainstream Muslims. He said there was an urgent need for the ummah to make serious attempts to mend the divide and embrace our African brothers and sisters in the townships – if for the only reason that it is the Islamic thing to do.
Omar told Al Qalam that he and those who support this view are not afraid to speak the truth on a thorny issue that usually gets swept under the carpet.
“This is about our shortcomings. Many elders are aware of it, but do not speak of openly, either because they feel powerless to do anything to change course or because they fear stigmatization”. There was a serious disconnect between Indian and African Muslims which goes against Islamic principles of justice and fairness.
In his manuscript, he wrote: “How many of our Syria experts have been to Gugulethu or Sebokeng or Inanda? Omar asked.
“We have Syria desks and media desks and welfare desks within institutional silos, each perhaps sending reconnaissance trips to Syria and other trouble spots in the Muslim world. But there is no Sebokeng desk, or Inanda desk, or Soweto desk!”
“If I was a Hazrat, I would not permit another single trip overseas until we put our own house in order, but then I am not. I would actually say it is impermissible to spend fortunes on luring zakat funds for far away projects in glossy brochures and in-house newspapers, slide presentation and all, when we have not even done our township rounds ensuring the provision of dates to all musallees in the twilight zone”.
Omar has done extensive research on the plight of African Muslims in the townships of Inanda and as far afield as Soweto. He has held numerous meetings with African Muslims who feel completely abandoned by Indian Muslims – and he is on a mission to change that, despite opposition from some quarters.
He writes: “Does Islam not speak of charity at home, beginning with the family and then the neighbour and the relative? Will the Ulema of conscience remain silent or will they stand up and be counted in the face of an unjust order? To me, silence in this scenario is no longer an option. It is condoning the injustices. To promote the cause of a far away people at the expense of your own is by any definition an injustice. And Allah detests injustice!”
During the past Ramadhan, Omar went on a township tour of Muslim communities. During one visit in Inanda, he was distressed to find a rickety corrugated madrassa cum jamaat khana for 36 children, including orphans. He was told that on the first day of Iftar, they did not have money to buy dates, so they broke their fast with water. “I felt a deep sense of discomfort, for this was not in Syria or Cambodia or Lebanon or Bosnia – it was right here in the sprawling Durban suburb of Inanda – in my city!”
Omar also finds a contradiction in our Jamaats that go around to all corners of the world but bypass the plight and problems in our own townships. He said he has heard of incidents where many township Muslims who felt abandoned by the community, turned to Christianity because the pastors were there in their hour of need. He said “while we are sending Jamaats to distant shores concerned about Islam elsewhere, the pastors are taking Islam from the believers from under our noses.”
In one instance some 100 people in a rural area of Tongaat took the Shahadah after being addressed by two alims. “The sad part, he says, is that after a few years only five have remained Muslim. The rest were left to their fate and so became apostate. We hear of reversions but not the apostasy of instant Muslims.
“We have also spawned a number of system abusers, Muslims who have learnt the rules of the system and abuse it for personal gain. With a Muslim generosity that is large but undirected in a free for all, it is not surprising at all, he said. Our hamper brigades have spawned scores of instant hijabees too, cloak and khurta Muslims only for the day. Unknown to and undermining the Muslims within the townships”.
“Our oligarcial institutions have not bothered to embrace our black ulema in their exclusive institutions. No wonder a Hafezul Quran with from Darul Uloom Newcastle is a ‘proud’ Christian priest today. No wonder many of our township Muslim women insist on marrying non-Muslims. No wonder our black ulema talk of marching to the Jamiatul Ulema offices in Mayfair demanding its disbandment for double standards,” Omar states. He said the level of denial was appalling. “Our Jamiats should be the beacons of guidance and learning, not targets of anger for exclusivity and alienation.”
Omar said the Muslim community can no longer sweep these challenges under the carpet. “They have to be addressed, for we cannot have a two ummah path in this country. “We can in the richness of our diversity, only have one ummah, one vision. There is no other choice.”