Ismail Manjra, a noted Islamic activist of his time, passed away recently, aged 82. Shamil Jeppie, Associate Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town, pays tribute to a man he calls a ”gentleman.”
In the early 1950s it was still hard to find ordinary Muslims in Durban – men and women without long training at a religious seminary in South Asia – who could actively engage in informed discussion and debate about any aspect of Islam, such as its history or sources.
Islam was not a subject to think about but largely a kind of communal custom and a set of inherited traditions. Things would slowly begin to change when some young men decided that they should learn the Arabic language because that is the language of the sources of their religion. This was something of a break from the tradition that appeared to privilege knowledge of Indian vernaculars and especially Urdu. At the same time they would begin to read the Quran in English translation and invite learned men who could speak about Islam in terms that made it relevant to the contemporary context. This was the Arabic Study Circle, established in Durban in 1950. It began modestly as a study and reading group, and hosting lecturers on a whole range of topics; but they grew more ambitious.
By the 1970s they were multifaceted in their range of activities which included a highly successful speech contest for youth. Until recently they were still granting bursaries to university students. Without this group knowledge of Islam would remain the monopoly of traditionally trained men, often brought straight out of South Asian villages without knowledge of South Africa or its languages, including English. I wrote about their activities and context in a small work called Language, Identity and Modernity. My work was limited by the fact they their library and therefore archive went up in flames sometime in the 1980s. Nonetheless, I recorded many hours of interviews with surviving members. And one member in particular, Ismail Manjra, set-up the whole thing for me but never once sought to influence my research in any direction; at no stage did he act the censor. The terms of the book’s title were themes that encapsulated the work of this group. The Circle also enabled the birth and growth of a series of other groupings in Durban and countrywide. I would even venture to say that if there had been no Circle, then there would be no Women’s Cultural Group, and no Muslim Youth Movement, no Arabic and Islamic Studies at the then University of Durban-Westville. It genuinely represents a break in the twentieth century history of Muslims in this country.
The name of its founder, Dr Daoud Mall, is intimately connected with it. But there were many other eager men who joined in the activities of this organization and most of them have now passed on. One of the last remaining gentlemen – and they were indeed gentlemen in the very best sense of the term and down to the immaculate way most of them dressed – passed away on July 22. He is Ismail Manjra, who was a clothing retailer in his day job, but was a tireless participant in all the activities of the organization throughout his life; and he was a firm believer in reading and reading widely. His first line of reading was Islamic studies but his library held works of in many areas of the humanities. And he never tired of talking and inquiring about what was new or recent in the bookshops.
In Islamic studies his first passion was to understand the Quran and he read it extensively and made it a life-long commitment to read and re-read and reflect on chapters, passages and vocabulary with friends, young and old. His open-minded approach is reflected in his preference for the translation of Muhammad Asad of which he once imported hundreds of copies into the country. In matters of knowledge, one never felt an elder in conversation, but an equal keen on learning and conversation. He was also a genuine gentleman in his bearing and immaculate attire everyday. While Ismail Manjra and his Circle cohort were disparaged by their conservative detractors as “modernists” (and at times even besmirched with worse epithets) these men knew their mosques. Ismail Manjra sought to pray in a mosque for every prayer, five times daily right until his very last days.
Ismail Manjra was born in 1935 in a village in Gujurat, and at the age of 11, came with his family to Durban. He soon became self-employed. He studied towards an Arts degree through Unisa and joined the Liberal Party of Alan Paton early in its history before the repression of the 1960s. But his main efforts were invested in making intellectual pursuits about Islamic civilization an inherent part of the activities of young Muslims. What the members of the Circle did would today be called activism, and it was an activism that demanded and insisted on continual learning. Their whole emphasis was on reading, discussion and debate, and in this, Ismail Manjra was an outstanding example since he signed up with the Circle a year or so after its founding. He was a founding member of the Muslim Youth Movement in the 1970s and later the Islamic Forum in the 1990s, the South African National Zakat Fund, was active in Darul Yatama wal masakin, a local orphanage, and in his neighbourhood associations in Reservoir Hills.
Ismail Manjra is survived by his wife of 59 years, Ayesha, five children – Ahmed, Junaid, Shu’aib, Zaid and Fatima – and 16 grandchildren and four great grandchildren