‘Islam Celebrates Cultural Diversity’

Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar

September is National Heritage Month. On the 24 September, as responsible South African citizens we will join our fellow compatriots in commemorating Heritage Day.

Heritage Day is a National Holiday on which South Africans across the spectrum are encouraged to celebrate the diversity of their beliefs, traditions and cultural heritages. Muslims have only two religious celebratory holidays, namely, that of ‘Id al-Fitr and ‘Id al-Adha. Heritage Day is not a religious holiday but the idea of celebrating diverse cultures and traditions resonates well with the teachings of Islam. For example, Allah, the Sublime, enjoins Muslims in the Glorious Qur’an in surah-al-Hujarat, chapter 49, verse 13 to recognize, affirm and to consciously seek to get to know people of other cultures:

O Humankind! We created you into male and female,

and fashioned you into distinct peoples and tribes that you may recognize (and cooperate) with one another (not that you may despise each other).

Truly, the most highly regarded of you in the sight of God, is the one with the best conduct. And God is all-Knowing, and is all-Aware of all things (Q49:13)

The above verse enjoins human beings to celebrate gender, cultural, and other forms of human diversity through ta’aruf – recognition and affirmation of each other through intimate knowledge, and not mere toleration. The Qur’anic concept of ta’aruf is an alternative vision to that of racism, xenophobia or bigotry and represents one of the basic core teachings of Islam. Through this verse the Qur’an teaches that differences among humankind are not incidental and negative, but rather that human diversity represents a God-willed, basic factor of human existence.

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Furthermore, Allah in the Glorious Qur’an proclaims, in Surah al-Rum, chapter 30, verse 22, that human diversity is a sign of the existence of Allah (ayat-Allah) and should thus be celebrated and embraced:

And of the wondrous signs of Allah is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variations and diversity in your languages and in the pigmentation or colours of your skins; For in this there are messages for those who think and reflect (Q30:22)

The above Qur’anic verse encourages us to celebrate people of different languages and skin pigmentations. In doing so, believers affirm signs of the existence of Allah. One may also interpret the above verses to mean that all kinds of xenophobia and racism are tantamount to a denial of the wondrous signs of Allah and the marvel of His Creation.

Fostering Inclusive Muslim Cultural Traditions and Practices

Post-apartheid South Africa has generated social conditions that present all communities with new challenges. One of the specific challenges facing the South African Muslim community is the rapidly changing demography of Muslims in South Africa. The steady spread and growth of Islam in black townships and the large influx of African Muslims from other parts of the continent, has significantly shifted the demography of Muslims in South Africa over the past two decades. Already in 2010, Goolam Vahed & Shamil Jeppie made the bold claim that over the next two decades Black African Muslims are expected to constitute the largest segment of the Muslim population in South Africa. Hence, the challenge facing us today is to embrace the reality of our changing demography and to fashion an inclusive South African Muslim culture that reflects not only our Eastern historical roots but also our African context.

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This new reality requires a shift in mindset from an inward-looking disposition that seeks to preserve culture such that it becomes fossilized, to a disposition that is embracing of cultural transformation and growth. It is my considered view that the first step towards fashioning inclusive cultural traditions and practices, is for us to move beyond seeing Black Muslims as merely recipients of need or only contexts for d`awah and conversion.

In this regard al-Shahid Imam Abdullah Haron serves as an exemplary model. He was one of the first Muslim leaders to regularly frequent Black townships such as Langa, Nyanga and Gugulethu. For Imam Haron the primary motivation for his interactions with these communities was to show solidarity with fellow oppressed compatriots. In doing so, he sought to break down racial and cultural barriers that kept communities apart during the Apartheid era, and stubbornly persists today. The legacy and heritage that Imam Haron has bequeathed us is rich and socially relevant. Insha-Allah, in this month of September we shall also be commemorating the 52nd year since the martyrdom of Imam Haron in an Apartheid police prison cell.

On 27 September 1969, the apartheid security forces claimed that Imam Abdullah Haron had died as a result of a fall from a flight of stairs at the Maitland police station. A subsequent autopsy report revealed 28 bruises on the Imam’s body, mostly on his legs. His stomach was empty and his seventh rib was broken. Imam Haron had been tortured to death after being held for 123 days in an apartheid police cell under the Terrorism Act of 1967.

A quarter of a century after the onset of democratic rule in South Africa, it is appalling that the Haron family still haven’t made headway in their plea for justice. It is a huge travesty, not only for the Haron family, but for all the freedom-loving souls who were murdered while in apartheid detention, and whose families continue to cry out for justice.

Let us use this Heritage Month to reiterate our call for the re-opening of a judicial inquest into the cause of the death of Imam Haron in an apartheid prison in 1969. Let us use this Heritage Month to renew our commitment to fashion inclusive South African Muslim cultural traditions and practices and to witness to an Islam beyond racism.

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