A Lesser-known Ottoman Muslim Heritage in South Africa

Every year Heritage Day gives us all a chance to reflect about where we come from and how we fit in to the Rainbow nation. As a Muslim with Indian origins, my culture does not let me forget who I am. It’s in our food and our clothes and in our hearts and strong family ties.

In the South African context though, we are Muslim first and there is a strong historical anchor spanning more than 300 years, which is by no means old. What we lack in age or depth of South Africanism, we most definitely make up for, in interesting or eventful historical facts.  Stories of Malaysian and Indonesian freedom fighters shipped in by the Dutch as punishment or Indentured Indian workforce transplanted by the British Empire, are well known and documented. We can identify proudly with this heritage. In my opinion, though heritage is strong in communities that struggle to survive. As these same communities become more affluent and self-sustaining, the stories are lost and forgotten. We lose the need to use these stories to remind us of who we are and why we should be proud of how far we have come. Sadly, the next generation may be oblivious of their roots.

Allow me to give an example of a somewhat obscure historical fact in our Muslim Heritage here in South Africa. A fact that I came to know late in my life and largely through a series of unrelated events.

The grave of Sayyid Abu Bakr Effendi – Source: http://trdergisi.com

Cape Town is well known for its Mazaars, the Mother City is encircled by a number of burial sites or graves of Muslim personage of saintly stature. Whether you believe in this or not, is irrelevant right now. We can, I think, all agree that these graves are of pious Muslims spanning 300 years, and that these personalities must have done something right to have weathered the storm of history and still be reverently remembered. In particular, there is Tana Baru Cemetery, at the top of the Bo-Kaap near Signal Hill. This is possibly one of the oldest Muslim Cemeteries in South Africa.

The arrival of Aby Bakr Effendi in Cape Town – Source: iol.com

It is here that Abu Bakr Effendi was laid to rest in 1880. Effendi was a Jurist (a Qadi) from Turkey who was sent to Cape Town at the behest of Queen Victoria to the then Ottoman Sultan Abdul Aziz, to send someone to teach Islam in the Cape of Good Hope. Effendi, a Sayyid by descent can trace his lineage to Nabi Muhammed (SAW). He established the first Hanafi Madressa in Cape Town which was predominantly of the Shafi School of thought at the time. He learnt Afrikaans in a matter of months and compiled and published the Bayyan al Deen, published in Arabic Afrikaans “ Uiteensetting van die godsdiens” the first Hanafi text of Islamic Law covering topics of prayer, fasting, Halaal slaughtering and tax amongst others.

In 1869, he gained notoriety after ruling rock lobster (crayfish) and snoek as haram in line with Hanafi Law. At the time these were a staple food source in the area. The red Fez which was well-known attire of Muslim men in Cape Town was introduced by him and he reinstated the Hijab for women.

The Ottoman Marching Band – Source: www.hurriyetdailynews.com

More recently, the Tana Baru has been under threat of being rezoned for commercial and residential use. A committee of concerned owners and influential Muslim businessmen have been quietly in the background trying to save this space as a Heritage site. Rumour has it that a consortium of Turkish origin has offered to buy the land and develop a Garden of Remembrance, most likely in an effort to safeguard the future of the last resting place of this Turkish Scholar.

In recent years there has been a number of Turkish schools that have mushroomed in South Africa, Star College, Nizamiye and Yunus Emre Enstitusu is to name but a few. Not to mention the many restaurants and Turkish owned businesses. This being a food blog, it would be wrong of me not to mention some of my favourite eating places, like Istanbul Kebab, Eatstanbul, Galata and Saray.

A recent visit to Buyuk Chamilja Farm run by another Turkish organization UICT is a good example of the kind of investment that the Turkish community is making in South Africa. This olive and fig farm is a fantastic child-friendly venue for a day in the sun with lots of activities for the kids and good food and an atmosphere to unwind and enjoy the weekend. The behind the scenes work done here to feed a number of orphanages and madressas run by UICT is truly amazing.

So the next time you are enjoying your favourite Turkish cuisine, spare a quick thought for Shaik Abu Bakr Effendi who spent 18 years in Cape Town 140 years ago and left a mark on our religion, our heritage, our South Africa. 

By Zulfikar Umar


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