Ramadaan – Historical reflections

Ramadaan and Cape Muslim culture: some historical reflections


MUSLIMS first arrived at the Cape more than 300 years ago. Though they were mostly slaves and political exiles brought by the Dutch from South East Asia, India as well as parts of Africa, they firmly established the ­practice of Islam at the Cape.

The traditions that the Muslims brought from their native lands, as well as the traditions they developed at the Cape, tremendously enriched the manner in which they practised the religion. Many of these traditions are connected to Ramadaan. In this article we reflect on the way these traditions played themselves out in a specific period of Cape Muslim history, namely the early- to mid-twentieth century. The traditions actually commenced with the consciousness of doing good deeds. Before every Ramadaan, parents would remind their children to abstain from lying and to engage in good deeds like performing salaah on time and reciting the Qur’an. Young children were encouraged to pwasa (fast) half days.

The night of Miarajie (Mi’raj) as it was known, a few weeks before Ramadaan, was the night when no good Muslim stayed away from the masjid if he could possibly help it. Special illuminations were prepared in honour of the occasion and several mosques were visited by correspondents who reported on this auspicious occasion. The mosques were brilliantly lit up by electric lights and handsomely decorated with bunches of various coloured paper flowers – an art in which the Cape Muslims excelled. After the lectures, du’ahs were made by the shaikhs, to which the congregants would all vocally respond, ‘Ameen! Ameen! Ameen!’ Thereafter, they would embrace each other and shake hands, signifying intense love and brotherhood. The night of Roewa (nishfi-Sha’baan) as it was known, was another auspicious occasion when the Muslims would flock to the mosques. After the Maghrib salaah, as is still the case at many mosques, surah Yasin would be recited thrice, the shaikhs/ imams making du’ah invoking Allah’s Blessings and Mercy after the completion of each of the three recitals. With the advent of Ramadaan, thousands of ‘wireless’ sets in Muslim homes would be tuned in to the Arabic broadcasting stations in Cairo, Rome and Morocco. Those who possessed short-wave radios found the Arabic transmissions very informative and spiritually enriching. For the benefit of Muslims (at the Cape), the Cape Standard newspaper published the time-slots of the various Arabic programmes such as recital of Qur’an, Arabic lessons and news. Qur’anic recitals were conveniently broadcast before the time of Jumu’ah.

In 1936, Muslims gathered on the Foreshore and at Three Anchor Bay to sight the new moon with the naked eye. This legacy of communal activity, bringing Muslims together annually to sight the moon, and other activities were influenced by the pioneers who had brought Islam to the Cape. In mosques in every part of the peninsula, the shaikhs and imams would inform their congregations when the pwasa would commence. The only contact at the time was the Cape Standard, the phone line of which was the busiest. This phone received a continuous stream of enquiries while on another phone a reporter called all the numbers on the long list that had been compiled from the earlier enquiries. The decision to celebrate Labarang (Eid) the following day, or to pwasa another day was made by the crescent observers in conjunction with the shaikhs and imams at those points. Imam Sa’idien Dollie of the Long Street Masjid, Cape Town, thanked the Cape Standard for arranging and informing those who enquired about the sighting of the moon. Boeta Boetjie Doltjie, who was the ‘look-out’ for the Long Street Masjid for 27 years, was acknowledged for heading his group at Three Anchor Bay. In the Bo-Kaap and in District Six it was clear when it was pwasa. Several men would be seen wearing fezzes and women were never without their doekies (scarves). The men made a special effort to perform the daily salaahs at mosque. Children were usually accompanied by their fathers.

Our mothers were occupied with preparing daltjies, samoosas, pancakes or pampoen koekies (pumpkin fritters). The young children would take these edibles to the neighbours before boeka tyd (iftaar). This culture of sharing amongst neighbours was also practised (at times) during the year. This practice derived from the days of slavery at the Cape. It was customary for slaves to send small parcels of food to fellow slaves who for some reason or other were unable to attend feasts. This custom, also known as barakat, became absorbed into the social structure of the Cape Muslims. Those who went to the masjid to boeka (break their fast) and to perform Maghrib took cookies and soup with them. Soup was a daily, almost compulsory, dish for every household.

As there were no sound systems at the mosques at the time, those who did not attend the masjid, especially the children, would stand in the street to view the lights that would be switched on when it was boeka time – these lights were attached to the minarets of the mosques. The moment the lights went on, the children would run to their houses shouting, ‘wagtoe!’ ‘wagtoe!’ (waqt).Thereafter every one was silent as they broke their fasts, traditionally with a date. Approximately half-an-hour before Isha’, the bilals (muadhdhins) would go to the mosques, climbing on ladders to reach the minarets to recite the moenaayats. Basically, the contents of the moenaayats were praises of Allah, making supplications and ending with the salutations of the Prophet (SAW). Sections of the moenaayats would be shared amongst three or four bilals. Awwal Masjid in Dorp Street, Cape Town, had outstanding bilals like Boeta Armien Osman, Imam Gasant’s son and others who were staunch members of moulood jamaahs. At Ellesmere Street Masjid, during the month of Ramadaan, Imam Abubakr Simon trained 40 bilals, the head bilal being Imam Salie David. At Al-Azhar Masjid, amongst other bilals, were Amien (Tippererie) Isaacs, Boeta Kokie, Boeta Vissie and Boeta Kader who had powerful voices. Some of these bilals were members of the Hollandse Tieme (Malay choirs). The shaikhs/imams led the tarawih salaahs, reciting short surahs or reciting surah Al-Rahman in the 20 raka’ats. The poejjies, general adhkaar in various forms, and closing du’ahs were led and read by the bilals and others who had the most melodious and powerful voices. They used to sit in the front row dressed in white thawbs and turbans.

It was customary to consult a tailor and dressmaker as early as possible to order a suit/ dress for Labarang (Eid) day. Several families would approach their tailors before the month of Ramadaan. Shifment Suit Lengths, situated in District Six, was the popular shop which stocked imported suit lengths. Mostly Muslims purchased suit lengths from this shop. On several occasions those who handed in their cloths too late to the tailor, would have to wait till Labarang morning or even after Labarang to collect their suits. The dressmakers were more reliable than the tailors. The dresses were mainly for the ladies who went around saying slamat to their neighbours and family members on Labarang afternoons. On Labarang mornings, all the Muslim males went to the masjid dressed in suits and red fezzes. The shaikhs used to wear maroon fezzes and the professional people black fezzes. These fezzes were available at Albert Stores and Wayniks, in District Six. The Muslim suppliers of fezzes were Shaikh Tape Jassiem of Leeuwen Street, Bo-Kaap, and Imam Shadley who lived in Aspeling Street, District Six. Persons who had performed Hajj wore a fez with a tassel attached.

The evening of the 15th day of Ramadaan was special for those who had fasted the first 15 days. They were known as people who were ‘op die berg’. After the tarawih salaah, boeber was served at the mosques. Every family also made boeber for this particular night. After Taraweeh salaah, boeber was also sold at boeber houses at two pence a glass. There, friends would assemble and, if it were a Friday or Saturday, would stay up until sower (sahur) and then go to the masjid for Fajr. The 27th night of Ramadaan (Lailatul-Qadr) was known as the night of ‘kerse opsteek’. Coloured lights and candles were lit at the mosques. All the mosques in the Cape were filled to capacity. After the Taraweeh salaah, the shaikh or imam of the mosque would give a talk on the significance of Lailatul-Qadr. It was the only night of Ramadaan when a lecture was given. At several mosques, cake parcels (barakatte) were distributed to the jamaahs. After Maghrib, all electric lights were switched off at home and candles were lit in every room. At this stage, the houses were already painted, the furniture polished and new oiliklotte (linos) laid in rooms. According to several people, the significance of ‘kerse opsteek’ was to commemorate when ‘the light (nur) of the Qur’an was sent into this world of darkness’. This tradition of the Cape Muslims during the month of Ramadaan was unique in the history of South Africa. It was a tradition that was very much inculcated in the Cape Muslim. The consciousness/ practice of love, brotherhood, unity and sharing which is very much to do with aqidah, was the norm in those days. The word bid’ah was hardly heard of in those days. Perhaps there are areas of those traditions that we can aspire to in order to make the necessary changes in our lives.

Dr Mogamat Hoosain Ebrahim is Head of Student Records and lecturer in Religious History at International Peace College South Africa [IPSA].

This article was first published in the print edition of Muslim Views, 29 July 2011


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