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Jihad as a Form of Struggle in the Resistance to Apartheid in South Africa

By Na’eem Jeenah

Although Muslims form about 2 per cent of the South African population, the community and its individuals played significant roles in South African society for the past 350 years. By the middle of the 20th century, as resistance to apartheid intensified, a number of Muslims were in prominent positions in various resistance organisations. Hardly any of them suggested that Islam had played a role in developing their political consciousness. Indeed, many had been forced by the community to make a choice: either be part of the Muslim community or be involved in politics; both were not possible. In particular, there was a strong discourse within the Muslim community labelling political involvement – especially of the anti-apartheid variety – as “kufr politics” (the politics of disbelief).

The trend of Muslims having to distance themselves from or leave Islam in order to oppose apartheid began to change in the 1950s, a decade that might be regarded as the beginning in South Africa of what we now call “political Islam”. The Claremont Muslim Youth Association and the Cape Muslim Youth Movement – both established in the late 1950s – launched a declaration in 1961 known as the “Call of Islam”.  As Tamara Sonn pointed out in her essay, “Muslims in South Africa”:

“While Muslims had protested interference with their religious practice in earlier years, this call for Islamic resistance was unique in a number of ways. First, unlike earlier protests, the new resistance was not against specific rulings, but was aimed against an entire system deemed essentially unjust. Second, and more significantly, the injustices being suffered were not those suffered by Muslims alone, but by all victims of oppression, regardless of religious affiliation.”

It was a significant development that struggling for the rights of all people – including non-Muslims – was regarded as an Islamic duty. A driving force behind the new movement, and leader of the Claremont Muslim Youth Association, was Imam Abdullah Haron, the imam of Masjid al-Jamia, or Stegman Road Mosque, in Claremont. Although linked to the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), Haron saw his politics as being founded on and inspired and guided by Islam. His association’s newsletter, Islamic Mirror, carried political articles by leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, among others Sayyid Qutb. Haron’s murder in detention by security police in 1969 was a milestone in Islamic resistance in South Africa.

Soon after Haron’s murder, the Muslim community witnessed the establishment of two Muslim organisations that would significantly influence the development of anti-apartheid Islam: the Muslim Students Association (MSA), formed in 1969 in Cape Town and launched nationally in 1974, and the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM), formed in 1970.

The MSA remained politically inactive for almost the entire first decade of its existence – even through national student uprisings in 1976. The MYM, initially a religio-social organisation, changed its orientation in 1977 when it was inspired by foreign Islamist movements such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, and began referring to itself as an “Islamic movement”. Armed with a new ideology, the MYM insisted that Islam was a “comprehensive way of life” and that politics was an important component of Islamic belief and practice (almost as important as spirituality). Although the MYM began describing the apartheid state as “satanic” and compared it to the regime of the Pharaoh during the Jewish exodus from Egypt, it did not immediately involve itself in anti-apartheid activity until the national student uprisings of the 1980s. With the influx of politically conscious students into the MSA and the MYM, both organisations were dragged into anti-apartheid political activity by their younger and more radical members. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was also a source of inspiration.

While admiration for Iran soon waned for most MSA and MYM members, the revolution inspired the formation of Qibla, a more radical Muslim organisation, in 1981. Qibla was founded by Achmad Cassiem, a former schoolteacher who, by then, had spent 10 years in the infamous Robben Island prison for PAC-related activities. He had attended a national MYM “Islamic Training Programme” in 1977 and had left disillusioned because of the MYM’s unwillingness to engage in armed struggle. Many early members of Qibla were recruited from the MSA. Taking its lead from the Iranian Revolution, Qibla’s main slogan – even after South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 – was “One solution, Islamic revolution”.

Qibla regarded South African Muslims as having the solution to apartheid’s injustices. Their understanding of Islam was a normative description of the Muslim community. Qibla thus asserted:

“Islam declares war on racism and racialism. This is more than a mere battle of words. As proof we offer Muslims as the only truly consolidated anti-racist force in the country. This has been historically maintained for 300 years because it is an ideological unit and not a nationality, tribe and race or class.”

The organisation expressed a strong dislike for any alternative other than Islam. Some of its strongest vitriol was reserved, for example, for The Call of Islam, because of the latter’s affiliation to the ANC’s internal wing, the United Democratic Front (UDF). Nevertheless, and despite its uncompromising position on Islamic revolution, Qibla was closely aligned to the PAC and, to a lesser extent, the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in the form of Azapo. The PAC’s Tehran office was staffed in the 1980s by Qibla members; Cassiem was often invited to address PAC meetings after the latter was unbanned in 1990; political prisoners from Robben Island claimed Cassiem had been part of the Africanist group on the Island; Qibla leader Yusuf Patel was active in the BCM; and another senior Qibla member, Hassan Ghila, was part of the original group that left the ANC to form the PAC. Qibla also sometimes used the PAC salute, used the name “Azania” to refer to South Africa and employed Africanist slogans in its meetings. Apart from the development of a small cadre of Muslim anti-apartheid activists, Qibla also had a programme of armed struggle. A number of its members left South Africa for military training (often in PAC camps) and, upon their return, undertook sabotage operations against the state.

The MSA/MYM alliance, The Call of Islam, and Qibla were the main Muslim groups involved in the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s, all claiming Islam, the Qur’an, or the life of the Prophet Muhammad as their inspiration. A fifth organisation was a small Shia group in Cape Town called al-Jihad, headed by former MK soldier Ismail Joubert, who was given the nickname Tatamkhulu Afrika – the Great Father of Africa – in the MK camps.

Apart from armed action, these organisations were involved through the 1980s and 1990s in mass mobilisation within Muslim and non-Muslim communities, building campaigns (often together with other organisations such as the UDF, BCM and PAC) and strengthening mass movements in the country. Muslim involvement in the struggle reached its height in the mid-1980s and was especially visible in the Western Cape, where Muslim political funerals mobilised Muslims and non-Muslims alike, “Allahu Akbar” became a nationalist slogan shouted by Muslim and non-Muslim activists, and the Palestinian keffiyeh and other paraphernalia of these Muslim organisations were banned. A number of Muslim activists from these organisations were detained, while others went underground for periods of time.

Anti-apartheid struggle – jihad and shahada (martyrdom)

These organisations regarded activities against the apartheid system and state as a jihad. At the height of negotiations with the apartheid government in 1992, Achmad Cassiem articulated the position thus:

“There should be an intensification of revolutionary violence to counter and stamp out the other forms of violence. Muslims have contributed in the ideological sense the concept of Jihad which means that they exert themselves to the utmost in order to attain a just social order and therefore would have no truck with compromise with the enemy. For them every day is a good day to die – to achieve martyrdom is to achieve a victory. We are not talking at all of suspending the armed struggle … because that is prescribed in the Quran.”

In explaining Qibla’s ideology in Quest for Unity, Cassiem wrote: “The essence of Jihad is sacrifice and it is necessary because a revolutionary is not merely an exponent of revolutionary rhetoric but one who attacks what is oppressive and exploitative in order to destroy and eradicate it.”

The terms jihad and shahada were also used extensively in the speeches and publications of The Call of Islam, MSA and MYM, which regarded their commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle as a religious obligation. MYM and MSA meetings were usually characterised by the shouting of the Muslim Brotherhood slogans “al-jihad sabilu-na” (jihad is our path) and “al-mawt fi sabil Allah asma amani-na” (death in the path of God is the highest of our aspirations). It was clear that these slogans – especially for younger members of these organisations – referred to the anti-apartheid struggle. Jurisprudential niceties about jihad that classical Islamic scholars have detailed and debated – such as the question of who has the power to declare a jihad or what the conditions might be for it – were irrelevant to these Islamist anti-apartheid activists. Irrelevant too was any notion that jihad might be a struggle waged on behalf of Muslims.

Since jihad had been redefined to include the anti-apartheid struggle, it was logical that the notion of shahada would also be redefined since shuhada (martyrs) are generally regarded as those who are killed in the course of jihad. Imam Haron, for many Muslim activists, epitomised martyrdom in the cause of the anti-apartheid struggle. Yet he and other Muslims killed in the struggle were not the only ones to whom the epithet al-shahid (the martyr) was applied. By the 1980s, it was also used in reference to non-Muslim martyrs, such as Black Consciousness leader Stephen Bantu Biko. Throughout the 1980s, organisations such as Qibla and the MSA often commemorated September as “Martyrs’ Month” and remembered the deaths of Haron, Biko and Ikhwan ideologue Sayyid Qutb simultaneously.

While the particular coinage and usage of these terms can be attributed to these organisations, they also attained wider currency – sometimes beyond the Muslim community. The “renaming” of a street in Cape Town to “Jihad Street” during the 1985 uprisings was one indication of this.

Other forms of South African jihad

As apartheid approached its last days and as use of the term “jihad” for the anti-apartheid struggle gained wide currency, MYM and Call of Islam activists extended the term to refer to other social justice struggles as well. For example, Rashied Omar, a former MYM president, coined the term “gender jihad” in 1995 to refer to the struggle of Muslims for women’s rights and equality. The term was popularised within South Africa by yet another MYM activist, Shamima Shaikh, head of the organisation’s Gender Desk, from 1993, and it subsequently became a popular term among Islamic feminists around the world (especially after its global popularisation by Amina Wadud). On other occasions, “jihad” was also used in the context of racism (“jihad against racism”) and South Africa’s socio-economic woes (“jihad for reconstruction and development” and “jihad against poverty”).

The South African anti-apartheid struggle saw the terms jihad and shahada being redefined by Muslims activists in a way that subverted the more rigid definitions of Muslim jurists and, at the same time, ensured that both terms earned acceptance and respectability that is unusual in the contemporary context. For South African Muslim anti-apartheid activists (and some non-Muslim activists too), jihad and shahada are about struggling for justice and fairness – irrespective of whether the strugglers or the beneficiaries are Muslim or not.


muzmin_coverresizedThis article features in a special, Arabic-only edition of the Chronic, published in June 2015 as “Muzmin”. The issue, which examines the division of “North” and “sub-Saharan” Africa and Ali Mazrui’s concept of “Afrabia”, was designed in collaboration with Studio Safar (Beirut) and presented at the 12th edition of Sharjah Biennial.

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