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The Politics Of The Other: Being A Black Muslim In South Africa

“Wherever you go, there will always be the politics of the other, whether you are in an Islamic space or whether you are amongst the Africans,” said the Soweto-based Imam and newly elected Al Jama’ah Councillor Abu Bakr Thapelo Amad in a Facebook Live interview with The Daily Vox on Thursday. Amad was speaking on his experience of racism within the Muslim community.

Amad said as a black African Muslim, he was perceived by his community as someone who follows an Indian religion.

“I grew up as a Muslim. As a young black African I found myself always questioning my Islam particularly when I was in a space among my African peers. They would always question, why are you following this religion?” he said.

“At the school I went to, it wasn’t an Islamic school but an African school, I was the only one fasting in the entire school. People were astonished everytime they came across me. When I told them my name is Abu Bakr they would ask are from Nigeria or are you an Indian [even] as much as I looked like them,” Amad said.

However, at the same time, Amad said he was forced to validate his Islam with Indian Muslims.

“When I meet Indian Muslims and I am wearing the kurta (upper robe-like garment) they ask me are you Muslim? Can you recite the Kalima (affirmation of belief)? Do you know Surah Fatiha (opening chapter of the Qur’aan)? When did you become a Muslim? It’s patronising,” Amad said.

Amad said the two identities often conflicted and led him to question himself.

“When you are amongst the Muslims you will always be perceived as the other and when you are with your indigenous counterparts you’re still perceived as the other because you will be forming the minority within the minority. It’s quite problematic and even patronising to be growing in that particular space because you’re always questioning if you’re in the right space, if you’re doing the right thing, making the right decisions,” he said.

Amad said in an interview with Muslim Views in February 2017 that the food parcels and biryani that Indian Muslims give as zakaat (obligatory religious charity) to black people in the townships during the fasting month is superficial. About this, Amad said: “ Certain people are giving zakaat out of goodwill, we can’t dismiss that. But if they are doing it to transform the community, their intervention goes to drain. The food hamper is part of zakaat the money given to transform communities”.

But it cannot transform communities if it only comes once a year, Amad said. “We need to create self-reliance. It’s a question of willingness: are we as a community willing to transform each other?”

Amad said his aim is “not to attack ethnicity” but to unite the Muslim community to fight the commonly identified enemies of poverty, inequality, and any other opposition to justice.

“There will never be growth in Islam otherwise,” he said.

You can watch the full interview below.

Featured image by Fatima Moosa
1 Comment
  1. Conflict says

    Religion will always have this awkward problem of being so deeply rooted in one specific culture / ethnic group solely based on where the religion was formed that there will always be an isolationist element.

    We all know how Christianity was a useful tool of colonialism and destroying African culture, and (although this won’t get much love on this rather biased site) Islam also has a similar Arab Imperialistic nature to it. From the subtle (the encouraged changing your name to Arabic upon conversion, discarding your mother tongue to greet and pray in Arabic, literally facing Arabia to worship), to the rather awkward history of the Arab Slave trade when the all loving God somehow thought better to regulate than abolish.

    What Amad is describing is the difficult reality of trying to apply flawed man-made dogma as the word of God to one’s identity, and it will never be possible to wash away the conflicting nature of what all religion is : conquest.

    “I have to stress that I was traveling in the non-Arab Muslim world. Islam began as an Arab religion; it spread as an Arab empire. In Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia—the countries of my itinerary—I was traveling, therefore, among people who had been converted to what was an alien faith. I was traveling among people who had to make a double adjustment—an adjustment to the European empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and an earlier adjustment to the Arab faith. You might almost say that I was among people who had been doubly colonized, doubly removed from themselves.”
    V. S. Naipaul

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