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The Muezzin and I

By Rustum Kozain


One night at a local hangout in my neighbourhood, I joke to Adamu, a musician I occasionally bump into, that I am leaving early to go and do battle with my demons. It’s only half a joke. He laughs and asks how many demons I face nightly. Thousands, I say.

Whenever we now meet on the streets of the neighbourhood, he asks me how my battles go. I cannot tell him that they do not go well, and that out of the many, the one I cannot conquer is the big daddy of them all: Paralysis.


The Battle of Badr (624 C.E.) may be considered as the founding battle of the Islamic state.

The Muslims vanquished the Meccan Quraish, threefold in number, thus gaining control of that city and, by extension, Arabia.

As a child I listened to stories by returned pilgrims who had visited the site of the battle. They swore that by reciting a specific prayer at the site, they could hear the clash of swords and cries of men from that distant battle.


Chased by the Quraish, his own family whose hegemony in Mecca he was challenging, Muhammad reportedly hid in a cave. His pursuers investigated the cave and found a spiderweb spun across its mouth. No one could be hiding in the cave, they thought, otherwise the web would have been broken. Thus a spider in a cave saved Muhammad and thus I was taught not to harm spiders.

How does the child resist the pull of such literary stories?


Properly ‘dukun’, it has origins in pre-Islamic shamanism in the Indonesian Archipelago.
Sitting around our kitchen table, listening to after-dinner doekoem stories, the image of the doekoem that came to my child’s mind was invariably that of a woman. She was middle-aged, lived alone in a backroom, and cooked and ate alone. Generally kind to children, she practised the not always dark, but nevertheless arcane arts of doekoem. A witch figure of fascination and fear in most oral traditions.


Eid-ul-Fitr is the first day of Shawwaal, the tenth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, and it marks the end of Ramadan. In the Western Cape, Eid is also known as Labarang, which is also the name of a town in Indonesia and a common surname there.

Tweede Labarang, Eid-ul-Adghaa, follows Eid-ul-Fitr by two months and a bit, ten days into Dhul-Hijja, the month of Hajj. It commemorates the day on which Abraham was supposed to have sacrificed his first-born son.

In mosque during and after morning prayers that celebrate this day, I first saw adult men cry freely. It is said that they, fathers of sons, cry in relief at God’s mercy for eventually requiring an animal sacrifice.


Despite being teased at school for being a kerrienaat (curry-arse), we ate curry once a week, if at all. Most of our food was South African bredies, but without the full flavour and spiciness often tasted in my Muslim friends’ houses. And my mother’s Sunday roasts were straight out of her parents’ Anglican and anglophile homes. Complimenting her on her roast chicken, Muslim guests would often include: ‘it would be even nicer with some masala.’

Garaam/ Haraam

All that is forbidden, from behaviour to diet. Pork is garaam. Beef, lamb, goat is garaam if not slaughtered by a Muslim and according to custom. Road kill is thus garaam. Anything that intoxicates the mind –. alcohol, drugs –.is garaam

Garaam transgression is common. The taboo cannot help but create enticement. It is a truism that Muslim youth in South Africa readily smoke marijuana and use other drugs, but hesitate with alcohol. Even if they have progressed to alcohol, there is one prohibition they will almost never transgress: pork.

Perhaps it relates to the nature of the substance. The intangible form of marijuana ingestion (smoke) does not remind the transgressor of their transgression. Alcohol is more tangible and urine, sweat and breath constantly remind the transgressor of the very bodily nature of the transgression. Ingesting the flesh of a prohibited animal is where most draw the line.


The last of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is for many a rebirth. Many return from the Hajj more devout, more pious.

As a child, I was enthralled by their stories of Mecca and Medina, the legendary cities of Islam that one grew to romanticise through learning Islamic history in madrassah. The stories held me because of the teller’s own astonishment at what he or she witnessed. On the ninth day of Dhul-Hijja, the month of Hajj, pilgrims in their thousands congregate on the plain below Mount Arafat, where Muhammad is said to have given his last sermon. Everyone is in a white, unseamed robe (everyone is equal before their God), hands stretched to the sky, and imploring God: Labbayk Allahumma Labbayk (I am here, oh Lord, I am here.) In telling this story, the returning Hujajj never failed to be transported by what they had witnessed, inhabiting in the telling what could only be a state of grace.


The verses of Surat Al-Alaq (The Clot) are said to be the first revealed to Muhammad. Its first line reads: ‘Read (Iqra), in the name of your lord, who created you from a clot of blood, who teaches by the pen.’

In the legend of this revelation, Gabriel appears to Muhammad and commands: ‘Iqra.’ Being illiterate, Muhammad protests that he cannot read. Then Gabriel commands him: ‘Read, in the name of your lord…’ And Muhammad reads.

The legend may be apocryphal, but I remember that story, which places reading and the written word so centrally in Islam, fondly.


Plural: Jamarat. The Devil. During the Hajj, pilgrims ritually stone the devil by flinging pebbles at three pillars. This re-enacts Abraham’s rebuking of the devil when the latter tempted him to disobey God.

This is one of the dangerous parts of the Hajj as pilgrims are overwhelmed by their fervour to get at the devil and stampedes are the likely result. Despite the solemnity of the ritual, pilgrims often have hilarious stories to tell about the scrabble to get enough pebbles, the jostling, missing and thus having to find more pebbles…

Part of the fervour must be that stoning the devil is symbolic of an inner struggle as well, wrestling to repudiate one’s own demons.


Arabic for ‘steward’. This is what we called the person who instructed us in madrassah.

At some point in primary school, we got a new khalifa, who was from Cape Town and did his utmost to be a strict teacher; strictness, it seemed, was a requirement for righteousness and faith. Because he had a big, long nose, we called him Pinocchio among ourselves.

He was a sadistic tyrant and did much to develop in me an antipathy towards authority figures, especially religious ones. One day he slapped my brother, who was then 11 or
12, with the back of his hand. My father was furious and went to confront him.

I do not remember the immediate outcome of the confrontation. Eventually, he and my father became friends. I was good at the history of Islam and I think it was mainly through his suggestion that my father hoped I would one day become a khalifa.


Lailatul Mi’raj

Night of Ascension. On this night, Gabriel appeared to Muhammad with a winged horse, Buraq. On this horse, Muhammad travelled first to Jerusalem, and then from there ascended into the heavens. Before the ascension, Gabriel opened Muhammad’s chest and washed his heart.

Muezzin/ Mu’atthin

The male voice in Islam finds its apotheosis in the muezzin – the person who performs the call to prayer and who interacts in a loose call-and-response format with the imam during Friday’s sermon – or in recognised recitors who have turned recitation from the Quran into an art form by following a set of rules both aesthetic and spiritual, and known as Tajwid. One such legend was Abdul Basit (1927-1988), an Egyptian who had apparently memorised the Quran by age ten. Basit made recordings of his work commercially available, and he garnered a huge following, pulling large crowds at recitals. Video recordings of his work may now even be found on the web.

While there were several muezzins in my hometown, one of them had a sublime voice which could draw tears from the men in mosque. He was a lanky, gentle, and unassuming man, often dressed in a light blue robe, which complimented eyes that were either light grey or light blue. Quiet, and a loner not typically drawn to stand and chat and joke in groups outside the mosque after evening prayers in Ramadan, he had the manner – looking at him now in retrospect – of an ascetic.

Often as he left mosque and drove off, the adults would lower their voices in scattered, badly veiled remarks about his predilection for young rent boys and/or prostitutes. My father, ready always to deliver indirect sermons without any contextual prompting to my brother and me, might drive past him, nod in greeting at a traffic light, then say, simply and sans transition, to himself but audible enough to my brother and I, and without judgemental malice and more in puzzlement: Why does he do such wrong? Does he have no shame? Young boys!

Could it be that the muezzin’s shame – if it should be called that – found an ascetic expression on the minaret, imploring with remorse his god to guard him from desire, and in this remorseful beseeching finding the grace of his aesthetic, granting peace to him and his human listeners?


My father hated nicknames. He was small and was often called ‘Gamatjie’, a common nickname in South Africa and also associated with the ‘Gamatjie and Abdoltjie’ jokes about two stereotypical buffoons. My father hated these jokes too, an aversion that rubbed off on me. I imagine that the diminutive ‘Gamatjie’ added to a sense of humiliation for a man who, like millions of others, suffered the daily emasculations of Apartheid in his workplace.

But nicknames in the Muslim community signal an informal, familial set of relations and Muslim names are abbreviated all the time: Laymie (Sulaiman), Mylie (Ismael), Gakkie (Is-haaq), Tima (Fatima), Maanie (Abduraghmaan). Because of this informality, the two Mylies are distinguished from each other by what they do – Mylie Mechanic vs Mylie Messelaar. Or the two Laymies by what they look like: Laymie Ore vs Laymie Dikkop. The range of nicknames run the gamut of, well, nicknames.

Names, nevertheless, are important. A common understanding is that one should live up to one’s name. Customarily then, parents give their children an Arabic name which has a semantic meaning. My mother’s name, Jamielah, means ‘beautiful’; my brother’s name, Abdul-Kader, means ‘slave of God’.

My own name is Farsi, not Arabic. It has no semantic meaning – I have no meaning to live up to.


This satellite has both a centripetal and centrifugal orbit; it is drawn inwards as it is flung outwards.


More mirth from returning pilgrims in the sometimes banal observation that Arabic does not have a letter ‘P’.


Qibla (the right direction) is the direction in which the Kaaba in Mecca lies. Muslims face qibla when praying and are buried facing qibla. Originally, qibla was Al-Quds, Jerusalem, but it was changed to Mecca during the time of Muhammad.

Qibla was also a small, radical liberation organisation that allied itself with the Pan Africanist Congress during the 1980s. Inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran, it sought to bring radical Islamic values to the anti-Apartheid struggle. Its leaders were imprisoned for sending operatives to Libya for training. It did not enjoy the mass popularity of the Call of Islam, which was allied to the United Democratic Front/ANC movement.


I was 10 or 11, she was in my class, but a year older. Dark hair, big dark eyes. Her name was Ragmah, that ‘g’ a soft velar fricative, sounding exactly right for the meaning of her name: mercy, grace. Ragmah, like soft rain.


Old Nic. The Devil. Satan. Also, Iblis. Or, rather, Iblis is the big daddy, while Shaitaan is a generic term for all evil entities. Iblis is a jinn who, because of his devotion to God, was made equal to angels, then refused God’s order that all angels bow before Adam. Lucifer, then.

Jinn, my father told me, are made from the white of flames; other sources indicate that jinn are made from ‘smokeless fire’.There are good jinn and there are bad jinn. They all wander the earth, and doekoems may be approached and implored to seek the services of bad jinn or to exorcise them.


The takbeer is best known in South Africa (through Muslim activism against Apartheid) as the chanting of the Arabic phrase for God is great – Allahu Akbar.

There is another meaning to takbeer – a short prayer that is chanted repeatedly, especially after Ramadan. During Ramadan, the dead are unchained and wander the earth, visiting the living, who welcome this as a blessing. Reciting the takbeer then is a grave error – it will force the unchained dead back to their graves.

Once the new moon that signals the end of Ramadan has been sighted, this takbeer is given free reign. Walking into a mosque on the night before Eid and on the morning of Eid itself, with this chant ringing in one’s ears, there is a palpable sense of lightness and relief that fasting is at an end.

As a child, I wondered at the idea that words could have this power. If I had to mouth half the prayer, would the dead start their return but stop halfway? Would they return to wandering, or linger halfway to the grave until the new moon?


One of Muhammad’s revered companions and third khalifa, reigning from 644 to 656 CE; the last caliph of a united Islamic world. He tried much to retain such unity, including canonising the Quran, recognising that variant copies could lead to division. Under his rule, the empire expanded, but his reforms intensified the imperial momentum towards profiteering. And it is after his assassination that the Sunni-Shiite schism became more than theological. Ur-Sunni and ur-Shiite sat around the same camp fires, but after Uthmaan their differences evolved into a political dispute about leadership succession. In short, the Sunnis believed leadership should go to the elected, the Shiites thought the elect. The Shiites were, literally, followers of Ali (Shiat Ali = followers of Ali), cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, and they believed that the House of Islam should belong to the latter’s descendants.

The story of the early successions is byzantine. There is no written record of the first century of Islam and oral transmission makes the story susceptible to myriad variation and mythmaking. A written record of this early succession battle appears in the mid-700s, but in the context of another succession battle and thus open to further ideological manipulation. From our vantage point, it is a maze of intrigue, even if portrayed in broad strokes.

Furthermore, these early successions after Muhammad involve members of the same tribe and family vying over access to the resources of an expanding empire. What has been said by whom must be taken in the context of such politicking. There is the potential for everybody to be suspicious of everyone else’s motives. And what, also, are the motives of those who retell the tale? Which version do they tell? How completely?

Eventually, the fundamental schism between Sunni and Shiite Islam starts resting on tautologies, as the political and theological are fused, and interpretations are coaxed along switchbacks and labyrinths – the political using the theological, the theological using the political. As Uthmaan’s administrators started profiteering off captured lands, dissent arose among ordinary subjects. The followers of Ali would see injustice in Uthmaan’s rule, and see this injustice as reason to believe that Ali was the rightful heir to the office of caliph.

As I return to a childhood memory in revisiting these stories, I feel as if struck, paralysed, by a mnemonic schism. In childhood, this intrigue was absent; the narrative came from the khalifa as a well-formed whole; no cracks, no shards, no intrigue and fractioning of the inner circle. No reference to what was at stake: empire, wealth, power.

Then again, what young child might understand the economic imperatives of empire?

And what long, complicated line of shards and splinters, of memory and person, emotion and psychology, brings the individual to gathering others’ ancient shards and splinters? Or what great demon but that of Paralysis is a hulk made of shards and splinters which, when it wants to move, when it wants to lift an arm that bristles with sharp points or move a rusted hand as if to write, emits only metallic squeaks; a rusty hulk of a Jamarah that struggles to move now in a dark, nightly space somewhere I can only call the back of my head?

Vineyards Rugby Club 

It is ironic that the rugby club in Paarl populated and supported mostly by Muslims is named after something which, in the Boland, is emblematic for wine – which is garaam. But The Vineyards (in Afrikaans colloquial pronounced ‘winjaats’) of my childhood inspired in others passions equal to blind faith.

If you were Muslim and interested in rugby, you supported Vineyards; if not Muslim, you supported People’s Rugby or Rangers or Violets or Gardens. There were and are exceptions, of course, but in general Vineyards vs Anyone Else was Muslims vs Christians. On the field and in the stands, these passions frequently flared into violence among and between players and supporters. Inevitably, these clashes assumed the proportions of what now, in other contexts, is infamously known as a ‘clash of civilisations’.


No Capetonian, it seems, has ever heard of Walagie, although the man who gave me that nickname as a child was a Capetonian. Walagie is for me a figure as much part of the landscape of legend in the Western Cape as Van Hunks and the Devil smoking it up on Table Mountain.
Walagie had an appetite of legendary proportions – he could pack it in. Long after everyone had finished their supper and were now well entranced by doekoem stories around the table, Walagie would still be eating.


A plant that needs little water.


A brief ideological victory came to Paarl Muslims one Ramadan in the form of S—, a Jewish teen who had apparently found in Islam whatever it was that he was seeking. I do not know the background to his conversion to Islam, but S— was quickly taken in by the ‘community’. His ideological use value was obvious: here was a Jewish person who turned to Islam and who was treated as, simply, a Muslim.
Nights after mosque S— would be found bantering with other youth on the stoep or on the pavement outside the mosque. In mannerism and behaviour, and in discourse and lingo, he almost immediately resembled the Muslim boys. He knew all the elder’s nicknames, from Boeta Soppie to Boeta Mietie, and he also knew the ruts along which repeated jokes about some of the characters ran.
I wondered about his other life, his Jewish life. Surely his parents must wonder where he is? What does he tell them? Nothing? Vague answers that signal adolescent rebellion? His apparent freedom of movement indicated that they must have accepted whatever response he muttered. What broad-minded parents!
It is unlikely that his conversion could have remained a secret. Almost all Muslims knew about S—. The town was small and many people worked, in often intimate relationships, in shops and businesses owned by white Paarl, Jewish and otherwise. The story surely must have done the rounds. Perhaps S— told his parents that he had become Muslim?
Inevitably, the whispers started. He was a Zionist spy, and yes, most people made no distinction between S— being Jewish and Zionist politics. Factions developed. Some elders still shook his hand after mosque with the same warmth and generosity of spirit; some became cold, but not in a crass, explicit way.
My father had a different theory: ‘Have you noticed how he, S—, always ended up being invited to those families who had teenage daughters?’


All sex not sanctioned by marriage – is garaam. In the letter of the law, Islam represses sexuality.

Yet, sensuality remains strong in Islam. Even if the houris promised to martyrs might be a mistranslation – are they virgins or white grapes? – the promise of paradise itself is sensual. It cannot be otherwise; the desert inspires such sensual fantasy.

In the fertile Western Cape of South Africa, where my lived experience of Islam obtains, sensuality finds its expression in food, among other things. No matter what or how little is in the cupboard, it can be rustled up into good food. And when there is more than a little in the cupboard, tables may sag under multiple dishes. Not all Muslims are good cooks, as the South African stereotype might suggest; and not all dinner tables suggest a sublimated sexuality. But food – eating – is a physical endeavour that in Muslim homes I have known can transgress the Islamic ideal of modesty and become a place where the Muslim body revels in its pleasure. Such pleasures I too have known.

This is an extract from an article whose final and definitive form, the Version of Record, was published in Social Dynamics, 22 October 2012, © Taylor & Francis, available online at:


broadsheet coverAn illustrated version of this lexicon also appears in the Chronic (July 2014).

The edition gives focus to graphic stories and blends illustrations, photography, written analysis, infographics, interviews, letters and more to speak of everyday complexities in the Africa in which we live. Contributors include Binyawanga Wainaina, Native Maqari and Biyi Bandele, Fungai Machirori,  J.D.Okhai Ojeikere, Paula Akugizibwe, Lesego Rampolokeng and Mafika Gwala.

To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop, or get copies from your nearest dealer.

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