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Islam in South Africa:
Mosques, Imams, and Sermons

Tauob, Abdulkader.
Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.
ISBN: 0-8130-1651-7

     Contradictory, as it may seem, Islam in South Africa is not a definitive statement of how Islam was and continues to be practiced in that part of the world, but, rather, a fascinating study of two Muslim communities, one in Cape Town the other in the Transvaal, tracing their development from colonial times on, to show how, in claiming a place in Apartheid South Africa, they each projected a distinctive interpretation of their faith. The unusual nature of Islams existence in the region results in a constant acommodation of theoretical Islam which is projected as reprehensible innovation/bid`a or necessary progressiveness depending on the religious and political disposition of those concerned. Abdulkader Tayob's interpretation of the discourse which ensues in terms of the essential symbols of Islam: viz. the mosque, imam and sermon is vibrant not only because he has been a participant in that discourse, but also because as an academician conversant in the field of Islamic studies he has a firm grasp of what is relevant and meaningful.
     It is on the Khutba that Tayob focuses to establish his interpretation of Islam in South Africa. For him, the sermon is not an isolated event which narrowly pertains to the relgious beliefs of the community, but, rather, an act which cannot be separated from the leaders who produce it or the Mosques within which it is produced. According to him religious corpus and historical contexts both create possibilities and impose limits on the sermon. Mosques and leaders are explained as both products and creators of religious discourse; and the sermon/khutba becomes a prism reflecting the idiosyncratic faith and vision of the Imam who presents it, and of the community to which it is delivered ; as well as of the community's history and the detailed configurations of its authority, power and prerogatives.
     The khutba or sermon in Islam is precisely defined, however, in terms of place and content: it is delivered only on very specific occasions, namely, the Friday jum`a prayer, the two festivals of Ramadan and Hajj, and on other rare occasions such as when an eclipse occurs or during a harsh drought. The sermon delivered on Fridays is perhaps more special in that it precedes the noon prayer, which significantly, consists of two prostrations instead of the usual four. The sermon is delivered in two parts, the first part made distinct from the second by the sitting down of the khatib or preacher, in between. Historically, the sermon combines religious, social, and political elements including praise of the ruler as protector of Islam. Obligatory aspects of the khutba are [according to the Encyclopaedia of Islam]: the hamdala, salat on the Prophet, admonitions to piety, and recitation of a part of the Quran preferably in the first part of the Khutba if not in both. The compulsory prayer/du`a on behalf of the faithful usually takes place during the second part of the Khutba. The number of persons required for a valid jum`a must be present, i.e. forty for those who belong to the Shafi`i School, an unspecified number according to the School of Hanafi. While the congregation is required to be silent during the sermon, the speaker is advised to be brief: ten to twenty minutes is the usual amount of time alloted to a khutba.
     Tayob is clearly in a position to provide the comparative study of the sermons/khutba located in two key [sunni] mosque traditions --the Claremont Main Road Mosque and the Brits Mosque--both intimately connected to him: the first in Cape Town--"my religious and intellectual home, where I feel most comfortable"--the second in the Transvaal--"where I was born and raised". The Cape community which was essentially Shafi`i in its orientation, owned a mosque which was situated in what was later to become the white-man's land. But though the community that built it was moved out of the mosque region, the building continued to be maintained as a mosque, which now catered to a largely university attending community, more youthful, and certainly less beholden to "tradition." The Imam who "led" his congregation into anti-aparthied protestations, occasionally invited persons of other faiths to address the congregation, permitted women to be part of the assembly--and even allowed a woman to present a pre-sermon lecture at jum`a. In contrast the Brits mosque, catered largely to a people who had immigrated from India, stayed passive and withdrawn in the wake of anti-pluralistic apartheid, and refused participation to the believing women of the community. Even the very architecture of the mosque indicated a subscription to hierarchy which was epitomized in its insistance that the friday noon-prayer sermon be enunciated in Arabic, the language of the Quran no doubt, but nevertheless one that only a small elite could possibly understand.
      To exemplify his theory that the sermon illustrates the disposition of the Mosque and congregation concerned, Tayob chooses to describe and analyse sermons given by the various Imams of the two Mosques. The Brits Mosque, for instance, had chosen to expound on the story of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son, because God had asked it of him. One of the themes emphasised is taqwa or obedience. Toyob elaborates on the congruence that exists between the emphasis on obedience and the passive attitude of that community to apartheid. The people of Brits instead of resisting those in power had believed in turning to prayer and supplication. The attitude of Claremont Mosque, on the otherhand, is reflected in the sermon based on Qur'ân 11:113 which rejected association with injustice, and a later sermon on Qur'ân 4:95-96 which opposed those who stayed at home, un-protesting--al-qâidûn. The surmons justified their opposition to aparthied.
     But Tayob's analysis in fact goes much further. Given the significance of the place of Qur'ân citation within the sermon, and the way it is used in the Mosques of South Africa--words of Qur'ân interspersed with words of explanation from the speaker, to produce a statement that is meaningful in the given context--Tayob recognizes what emerges as "Re-citation" of Quran. For him this "re-citation" is really a continuation of the communication between God and man. If such an approach should appear too fanciful and unreal, let me hasten to explain that, for Tayob revelation is not an "ahistorical, primordial intrusion into the world" but, in fact, arose out of an existing situation; just as, during the lifetime of the Prophet, revelation had sometimes (and here he turns to al-Suyûti) "reflected and confirmed the experiences of the companions [of the Prophet].
      What is so arresting about Tayob's explanation, however, is the Shi`istic vocabulary he uses to justify his interpretation. Citing M. Ayoub (who explains the role of the Imam in Shi`ism) he states: "The Imams did not possess revelation (wahy)" but they "were nonetheless muhdathûn (muhaddathûn ?), that is people spoken to by angels." "After the Prophet, they were the 'speaking' (tiq) Qur'ân, while the Qur'ân after the death of Muhammad remains the 'silent' (sâmit) Qur'ân." Given the history of hostility that has existed between the Shi`i and Sunni sects of Islam, one cannot help but gasp at the daring with which he equates the role of the very down to earth Sunni leader to the infallible figure of the Shi`ites. And yet the description is so apt! If Tayob, perhaps influenced by his friends at Clairmont Mosque, is endeavoring to suggest the possibility of a more respectful tolerance between the Shi`i and Sunni communities, one can only applaud his vision.
     Islam in Africa: Mosques, Imams, and Sermons is carefully thought out and well written, and would be a valuable addition to every Islamic Library.

Reviewed by Rizwi Faizer
Date: August 1999.

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