Ramadan at the South African Cape (part I)

Zakatul-fitr: parcels for the poor © Armien Cassiem

Zakatul-fitr: parcels for the poor © Armien Cassiem

Also in South Africa, fasting in the month of Ramadan is a fundamental part of being Muslim. Along with testifying the Oneness of Allah, Prayer, Charity and Hajj, it forms part of the ‘Five Pillars of Islam’. Ramadan allows the believer to contemplate one’s relationship with Allah Almighty, to rid oneself of all the bad habits that one has accumulated during the past 11 months of the year, and try even harder to achieve nearness and satisfaction of Allah Almighty by being kind and charitable to our fellow brethren and obedient to our parents.

Delivering groceries to the poor is one of the Ramadan activities I take part in for some years now, in support of the Zahah Fund in South Africa, perhaps the oldest of its kind in the ‘modern world’. Private parcels stuffed with groceries are delivered by volunteers like me every year. We rotate what places we visit. And each year we are struck with the human face of poverty, despair and humility. The fact that we acknowledge them by bringing groceries brings them to tears.

The Muslim community in Cape Town dates back to the 1650s when Muslim slaves and political prisoners from South East Asia (present day Indonesia and its surroundings) were brought in chains to the Cape by the (then Dutch) East Indian Company. These Muslims became the nucleus of the Muslim community at the Cape. As such, the local Muslim community became historically known as the Cape Malays. A rather ambiguous term which has lost both its linguistic and geographical (intended) meaning. These Muslims were the first ones to speak the Afrikaans language, an offshoot form of the Dutch language, mixed with Malay words at the Cape. In Cape Town, Muslims have a strong sense of being Muslim. The Apartheid Group Areas Act of 1950 caused residential segregation of Muslims to be forcibly relocated to newly established racially segregated areas. These segregated areas gave rise to new communities. As a result, Muslims, who in Cape Town are in majority coloured (mixed race), live close to each other in proximity to newly built mosques and madrasas (‘Slamse skoole’, Muslim schools).

As a kid growing up in Cape Town, I attended ‘Slamse-skool’; Muslim classes offered in the afternoons after regular school by the khalifah (or mu’allim, teacher). Here we were taught ‘kop les’ (basic fiqh, juridic legislation), how to ‘bacha’ (tajweed, rules concerning Koran recitation), perform ‘abdas’ (wudu, the ritual cleaning) and ‘soembaing’ (salah, prayer). The term ‘kop-les’ was used in reference to rote learning that was used to memorize the du’as (pledge prayers) and niyyahs (intentions). The other terms were all either Malay words, or derivatives thereof, owing to the Cape Muslim community’s ancestral heritage. These terms stuck with me all these years, and I still tenaciously cling to them. They are part of my identity and what I was taught growing up. Both globalization and the Arabisation of Islam over especially the last few decades has sadly witnessed the erosion of these typically ‘Kaapse Slamse’ terms and slowly give way to more and more Arabic terms.

Zakatul-fitr: delivering privately funded groceries-stuffed parcels to the poor © Armien Cassiem

Zakatul-fitr: delivering privately funded groceries-stuffed parcels to the poor © Armien Cassiem

The Muslim community in Cape Town, due to apartheid and its remote location at the southern tip of Africa, is very traditional in how it interprets matters relating to Islam. In spite of modern day scientific calculations to determine the start of the new lunar month, Muslims here prefer the prophetic tradition of the physical sighting of the moon to signal the beginning of the new lunar calendar. The group responsible for this rather burdened responsibility is known as the ‘maan kykers’. Every month they gather at Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town to witness the sighting of the moon that will signal the start of the new lunar calendar.

I remember when long before the Internet and today’s methods of sophisticated communication, we would either phone of await a phone call from relatives to confirm if the moon had been sighted to signal both the beginning and end of Ramadan. Like most kids, to feel a sense of solidarity with my parents and older siblings, I started to ‘pwaasa’ (fast) from an early age. To make things easy, like many kids growing up, I started to ‘pwaasa’ half a day. This could well be a Cape Town, dare I say bid’ah (innovation), as nowhere else have I encountered this practice. As a kid, one was offered the luxury of having breakfast before leaving for school and to break one’s fast when one gets home in the afternoon, thus, half day. This luxury was extended to joining the family at the ‘boeka’ (iftaar) table for ‘boeka’.

Part of the responsibilities of being a kid in Cape Town during the Ramadan, is taking away ‘cakies’ to the neighbours; a practice which I will address in my next blog. To be continued, inshallah!

Nuhaa and Amaanullah Gool delivering 'cakies' in Ramadan in Cape © Armien Cassiem

Nuhaa and Amaanullah Gool delivering ‘cakies’ in Ramadan in Cape Town © Armien Cassiem

During this Ramadan a few people blog about how they experience this holy month. You can find the other texts here.