Imagining Islam from the perspective of the ‘wretched of the earth’

By Aslam Fataar

This khutba offers an Islamic perspective in response to the call for decolonisation made by students at our country’s universities.

Decolonisation calls for awareness of complex contradictions in our country, and directs our attention to the demands of the poor for dignified living.

It points up the on going the legacy of colonialism and coloniality, and the humiliation that accompanies living in a world of colonial symbols, languages, images, texts, knowledge and practices.

I ask the following questions: What is a decolonial Islamic approach, and how could such an approach empower marginalised communities to establish productive and viable lives?

A decolonial approach places the downtrodden at the centre of its imagination, not the interests of elites and the powerful.

It acknowledges the struggles of slave girls who were forced to work in the master’s kitchen, and the labouring men and women who worked on farms and built Cape Town’s infrastructure, and were subjected to abuse, torture, and sexual violence.

A decolonial Islamic approach focuses on the everyday practices of these men and women who went about establishing viable lives on the edges of the colonial city; who built educational, social welfare and religious practices and institutions despite severe limitations.

Muslims in Cape Town adopted religious and spiritual practices that secured their survival and adaptation.

Imbued with a spirit of resistance, they vigorously practiced their Sufi liturgies to strengthen their spiritual selves.

They adopted complex literacy practices as can be seen by their kitaabs and handwritten texts in the jawi Arabic script, passed on generationally, giving rise, to the first written Afrikaans as it was spoken among Cape Town’s slave communities.

Their khalifa / ratieb displays based on bodily piercing accompanied by rhythmic dhikr chanting performances, regarded today by many as a bid’ah (innovation), were aimed at showing strength and confusing the colonial order.

Their cultural practices such as the mawlid celebrations in remembrance of the Prophet Muhammad’s (s) birthday, name giving ceremonies, and various rites of passage related activities have been the cornerstone of Muslim community life.

The colonial order placed them in positions of wretchedness and subordination, and yet they employed their own rituals, literacies, knowledges and practices to establish viable, yet largely unacknowledged lives.

Colonial oppression finds an analogy in the Qur’an’s depiction of Pharoah’s oppression of his people. Allah declares in surah Qasas:

Behold, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and divided its people into castes. One group of them he deemed utterly low; he would slaughter their sons and spare (only) their women: for, behold, he was one of those who spread corruption [on earth].(Q28:V4).

Pharoah visited violence and death on those he deemed as from the lower echelons of society. He killed their male children for fear that they would rebel, and he visited untold tyranny on them.

But Allah promises in the next verse that the oppressed shall be liberated from Pharoah’s tyranny and inherit the earth. Allah, the sublime declares:

But it was Our will to bestow Our favour upon those [very people] who were deemed [so] utterly low in the land, and to make them forerunners in faith. and to make them heirs, (Q28, V5)

It is these and other verses of the Quran, and supported by the history and practices that constituted Muhammad’s prophetic message, that established Islam’s ethical vision: the downtrodden, the weak and oppressed at the heart of Islam.

Social justice is what ought to be, at the centre of our practices, as the Qur’an declares in Surah Ma’idah (Q5, V8); “Be just: this is closest to being God-conscious”.

Prophet Muhammad’s (s) message emphasised fairness and socially just lives, which threatened to upend the power and privilege of various elites. The early Makkan Muslims were met with hostility and persecution.

The Qur’an’s emphasis on justice and fairness is crystal clear: it zooms in on the power relations that sustain poverty and inequality, and it seeks to dismantle these in favour of a fair, just and inclusive dispensation.

We have to apply these ethical dimensions to contemporary life. Bringing the figure of the oppressed or wretched of the earth into full view is a necessary condition for our politics and practices.

We have to ask who oppressed, weak and marginalised in our societies are. And, we have to work hard to recognize the complexity of the lives of the downtrodden.

Marginality is a majority experience in Cape Town, but marginal people remains largely hidden from view, from the language of politicians, and from the incredibly exclusionary economic structures of society.

The plight of the poor, weak, and differently abled remains hidden from view. They live wretched lives out of sight, yet fully present, yet, we do not see them.

I offer you two examples about how exclusionary discourse work among us in the city of Cape Town.

First, Cape Town has a vibrant carnival culture. Around the celebration of the New Year, and in commemoration of the freedom of slaves in 1834, the Christmas choirs, minstrels, and Malay choirs take to the streets, dressed in carnival regalia, singing and marching through the streets of Cape Town.

The carnivals are an expression of joy and exuberance, and a symbolic take over of the city. It has been a feature of Cape Town life for almost two centuries, making a renewed comeback during the last 15 years, as more and more youngers become involved in the carnival.

The participating groups are organised all over Cape Town’s poorer townships, in areas with enormous developmental and social welfare challenges, where schooling has largely broken down, and where increases in school drop-out rates in lower grades are the order of the day.

What the minstrel and Malay choir culture does is that it provides a creative outlet for young people, where they learn to socialise among themselves, build friendships and express themselves.

It is these and other cultural markers that allow our communities to retain a sense of cohesiveness, in the absence of collapsing infrastructures.
This is a case of the wretched of the earth, who, left without support, going on to invent community cultural practices to buffer their desperate lives.

It is, however, no exaggeration to say that many elites among us frown upon these displays of bodily exuberance. There is a trope of respectability and distinction especially among the upper classes that is marked by disdain of the carnivals.

However, such a condescending perspective is borne of a larger marginalization, which is that the lives of the wretched are never brought into view as worthy of dignity, via good housing, education and health.

We may indeed quote from the Qur’an that Allah has dignified the lives of all humans, but disdainful dismissal of the poor and their lives serves to distance those respectability – chasing elites from the struggles of the poor.

This attitude segues into a middle class dominated politics that prevents the city from making social justice commitments to poor people who simply become voting fodder for the interests of the powerful who live in other parts of the city.

The second example, has a long progeny in Cape Town, it is what I call the ‘community to prison complex’. It involves children from broken families, often living off welfare, and going to school intermittently, entering the criminal justice system, and basically moving in and out of prison during their childhood and young adult life.

They operate inside the illicit economy, selling drugs, and getting involved in petty crimes. They are sucked into prison gangs from which it is almost impossible to escape.

The rise in incarceration of boys and girls during the last decade has been earth shattering. This is attributed to the exponential increase in the use of Tik (methamphetamine), brought on by collapsed family life, the lure of the criminal economy, the use of bodies for easy money.

And, according to reports, Pollsmoor prison looks like ‘Makkah in Ramadan’, in reference to the skyrocketing number of incarcerated Muslim males and females.

So, even just by looking at basic development statistics, it is clear that the majority of Cape Town citizens are experiencing wretched lives.

But, coming to understand the practices of people will reveal the complexity of their lives.

It would reveal that the impact of collapsed infrastructure such as health, social welfare and education are abiding features of life and that hunger and lack of food security are majority experiences in Cape Town.

And, while one might say that criminal behaviour represents personal and family failing to police the boundaries of children’s behaviour, this is not where the problem lies.

Elite political interests are quick to moralise about causes, attributing blame onto individuals and people, which, again, as in the case of their attitude to the carnivals, is a tactic that justifies them ‘looking away’, preventing them from making social justice commitments.

This is precisely the type of behaviour that Allah calls out in Surah Ma’un (The small kindnesses), when Allah declares,

HAST THOU ever considered [the kind of person] who gives the lie to all moral law?

Behold, it is this [kind of person] that pushes the orphan away,

And feels no urge to feed the needy.

Woe, then, unto those praying ones whose hearts from their prayer are remote
Those who want only to be seen and praised,

And, withal, deny all assistance [to their fellow-men]!

This surah powerfully underscores the duplicitousness involved in leading an active outer religious life, while denying Islam’s moral higher commitments.

The Qur’an condemns such duplicitousness, especially of those who employ tactics of deception and sharp turns of phrase that prevent them from imagining practices that would turn wretched lives into just lives.

The call of this khutba is to place the ‘wretched of the earth’, in all it fulsome humanness, into the centre of our religious imagination, and to go on to establish big small and commitments and practices to build socially just lives for all in this city.

This is an edited version of a Khutba presented at Claremont Main Road Mosque recently by Professor Aslam Fataar, Department of Education Policy Studies, Stellenbosch University.

Advertise with Al Qalam

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *