"Some Religion He Must Have": Slaves, Sufism, and Conversion to Islam at the Cape
John Edwin Mason
Department of History
University of Virginia
Do not quote or cite without author's permission
SERSAS Fall Conference, Savannah, GA
October 15-16, 1999
George Champion came to Africa to save souls. He heard and answered a call to leave his comfortable New England home and preach the good news in "the land of the ill-fated African." But after a winter's voyage across the Atlantic and three months ashore at the Cape of Good Hope, he had little to show for his efforts. War between the Xhosa and the colony on the eastern frontier prevented the young American from carrying the gospel to "a tribe who have never heard it," the Zulu, far to the north and east. Champion had thus spent the first months of 1835 puttering about the colony, studying Dutch, visiting mission stations, and preaching occasionally in chapels and on the Cape Town wharf to a "motley collection" of slaves, coolies,(1) honest tars, and respectable gentlemen. Providence seemed to be putting him to the test. He longed to escape Cape Town's drunkenness, sensuality, and "disregard of religious restraints" and plant the seed in Zululand.(2)
His patience wearing thin, Champion went for stroll through Cape Town one evening in April 1835 and found himself "in the midst of the heathen!" In fact he had stumbled across a Muslim religious rite. He was not in a charitable mood when he described in his journal what he had seen.
Woe is me...! I was walking in the streets tonight, & hearing a confused noise of singing, beating of drums &c.[,] I directed my steps to a one-storey house whence it proceeded. It was a ceremony of some Mahometans. I saw thro' the window 12 or 15 men seated around a small room, drumming & singing in a state of great excitement, while one of the number half naked was performing a variety of eccentric movements, throwing himself int' every possible position, & at the same time catching a chain which he threw into the air. At times the noise would wax louder & louder, & the dancer (or priest) would become so furious in his gestures & features that I could easily imagine him a demon incarnate. This religion of the false prophet is increasing in Cape town [sic] the number of its votaries, in the opinion of all.(3)
Champion was one of many white Christian visitors and residents at the Cape who witnessed and recorded Islamic ceremonies which baffled and frightened them. The size and prominence of the Cape Town Muslim community distressed them at least as much as its exotic rituals, especially since the imams(4) were attracting converts much more rapidly than were Christian missionaries. After growing slowly during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the community numbered less 1,000 in 1800, but grew to 3,000 by 1820 and to 6,400 by 1840, at which point Muslims accounted for about half the city's coloured(5) population and a third of total.(6) Like many others, Champion tried to account for Islam's success. The reasons, he thought, were practical, not spiritual. Most converts, he noted, were slaves.(7) Local whites--who considered "white" and "Christian" to be synonyms and believed that slaves, whose ancestry was Asian and African, were "an inferior class of beings"--adamantly opposed admitting slaves into Christian fellowship and refused them "the rites of a Christian [i.e., proper] burial." In contrast Muslims--whom whites regarded as "black," though many were free--welcomed slaves into the fold, treated them with kindness, and offered them the dignity of a proper funeral.(8) Champion's reasoning resonated with that of other white observers.(9) Class and color prejudice, they said, prevented most whites from recruiting or accepting slave converts. Muslims took advantage of the Christians' bigotry and the slaves' vulnerability. The Muslim community embraced those whom Christians scorned. In sum the motives for conversion were secular rather than sacred.
Nineteenth-century accounts of Islamic conversion at the Cape anticipate, in their essentials, the recent, more nuanced work of the late Achmat Davids, for many years the doyen of Cape Muslim historiography, and Robert Shell.(10) For them, too, conversion was a secular phenomenon rather than a spiritual one. Davids and Shell correctly point to the very real pragmatic concerns that drew converts to Islam. Their arguments take us a good way toward understanding conversion to Islam in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Cape. Conversion cannot be understood outside of the context of slavery and the racism that accompanied it. Most converts were indeed slaves or free people, such as Prize Negroes,(11) whose legal and social status approximated slavery. At the Cape as in other slaveholding societies, slavery (and the near slavery of Prize Negroes) was much more than a system of forced labor. Slaves were outsiders--rightless, exploited, degraded, and dominated first and foremost through violence. Respectable colonial society, which was by definition "white," meant to keep it that way. Orlando Patterson calls the slaves' condition "social death." He argues that in law and civic life, slaves were nonpersons: "He or she was socially dead as a legal entity (a person with independent capacities or rights or powers) and as a civic being (a recognized member of the sociopolitical order)."(12) Slavery was a "secular excommunication,"(13) often supported, as at the Cape, by religious exclusion. But this is only half the story.
Patterson argues that precisely because slaves were degraded they were "all the more infused with the yearning for dignity." Because of their isolation and liminality, they were "acutely sensitive to the realities of community."(14) Nearly all slaves dreamed of becoming once again "legitimate members of society," of being "socially born again."(15) Slaves may have been socially dead, but they desperately sought social life.(16) At the Cape, slaves and other oppressed people found life in Islam. They became legitimate members of Muslim society, if not members of legitimate society. Marginalized by settler society, they were at the center of the Muslim community.
Secular considerations such as these were certainly part of what brought converts to Islam. But arguments which stress the pragmatic ignore evidence that conversion had as much to do with the sacred as with the profane--evidence which includes the ceremony which caught Champion's eye on that evening in 1835. What Champion saw, and crudely described, was the ratiep,(17) a rite from within the Islamic mystical tradition of sufism. The ratiep--which was widely practiced by Cape Muslims and frequently recorded by outsiders--enabled adepts to transcend the mundane world of the flesh and directly experience an alternative, superior, spiritual reality. The ratiep brought believers into communion with God.
The ratiep and other expressions of sufi mysticism were a vital part of Islamic practice in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Cape Town and must be incorporated into a fully satisfying explanation of Muslim conversion. That George Champion, the Christian missionary, did not do so is forgivable; for him Islam, the religion of the false prophet, could not have any connection to genuine spirituality. Scholarship should be more broadminded. Nothing that was merely pragmatic and mundane could heal souls that slavery had broken.
Converts themselves seem to have seen their quest as a religious one. One close observer of the Cape met a slave who said of his conversion to Islam that "some religion he must have, and he is not allowed [by his master] to turn Christian."(18) Barnabas Shaw, a Methodist missionary, quoted two Muslim converts who saw things in much the same way: "we were left," they said, "to seek a faith for ourselves."(19) In the midst of systematic degradation, these converts and many others, rediscovered a sense of wholeness and dignity that was grounded in the unimpeachable authority of the almighty God.(20) If slavery was social death, conversion was social and spiritual resurrection.
Origins and Growth of the Muslim Community
In April 1994 tens of thousands of Muslims gathered in the heart of central Cape Town to mark the 300th anniversary of Islam's presence in South Africa. The event celebrated the arrival in 1694 of Shaykh(21) Yusuf al-Taj al-Khalwati al-Maqasari (more commonly, Shaykh Yusuf of Macassar), the scholar, statesman and sufi mystic whom most Cape Muslims regard as the founder of their community. Exiled to the Cape because of his role in leading opposition to Dutch expansion in the Indonesian archipelago, Shaykh Yusuf and his large retinue were the most visible early Muslim community south of the Limpopo. To this day Yusuf is venerated as a saint, and his kramat [tomb] thirty miles beyond Cape Town has been a place of pilgrimage since at least the end of the eighteenth century.(22) The shaykh and his party were not, in fact, the first Muslims to come to South Africa; he owes his place in the popular imagination to his fierce resistance to the Dutch, his religious writing (much of which is still extent), his piety, and his reputation as a healer and miracle worker. The symbolism is also appropriate. Yusuf's story embodies the community's history of exile and dispossession.
The men (and the few women) who planted Islam in South Africa were laborers, exiles, bandieten [convicts], and slaves that the Dutch East India Company [VOC(24)] brought to the Cape in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first sizable group of Muslims to arrive at the Cape were Mardyckers from Amboyna in the southern Moluccas, who landed in 1658, only six years after the creation of the VOC "refreshment station" at Table Bay in 1652. Their role, as the VOC conceived it, was to defend the settlement from attacks by local Khoikhoi and hunter-gatherers and to perform heavy labor. Although the company registered the Mardyckers as slaves,(25) it explicitly granted limited religious freedom. At the Cape as elsewhere in the VOC's possessions, the statutes of Batavia allowed the private--never public--practice of Islam, while prohibiting proselytizing.(26) Official attitudes toward Islam were thus in place virtually from the beginning and did not change until the end of the eighteenth century. Islam was tolerated--never encouraged, never seriously repressed.(27)
Little is known about the religious activities of the Mardyckers, and their influence on the religious history of the Cape seems to have been minimal. For Muhammed 'Adil Bradlow the arrival in 1667 of three exiled sufi shaykhs, the Orang Cayen [men of power], marks the true beginning of Cape Muslim history. Conventionally this history falls into "two more or less discrete periods." During the first, the years between the late seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries, small Muslim communities coalesced around sufi shaykhs, such as the Orang Cayen and Yusuf. A second, more public period began with the opening of the first madrasah [school] and mosque at the end of the eighteenth century.(28)
The Orang Cayen were among the over 1,000 political prisoners exiled to the Cape by the VOC in its ongoing efforts to crush anti-colonial resistance in the Indonesian archipelago. The company immediately sent two the Orang Cayen, both of whom were sufi shayks, to the company's forest in Constantia hills(29) in a effort to isolate them from slaves and Muslim free blacks. Yusuf arrived three decades later accompanied by a party of nearly fifty, including wives, children, servants, slaves, and several imams. The VOC sent the exiles to Zandvleit, a farm even further removed from Cape Town than was Constantia, again in an attempt to isolate them from potential converts. Bradlow contends that the effort to isolate Yusuf and the Constantia exiles failed.(30)
Out of the sight of the Dutch, if never completely out of Dutch minds, the shaykhs quietly attracted followers from among the slaves and free blacks, instructed them in the tenets and practices of sufism, and initiated them into their respective sufi tariqa [literally, path or way; conventionally, order or brotherhood], thereby laying the foundations of Islam at the Cape. Bradlow argues that before these men died they ensured the survival of their tariqa, and of Cape Islam, by investing others with khalifah, the authority to initiate new members. In this way, "several tariqas came to be established at the Cape, each with [its] own network of shaykhs and murids [initiated members of the tariqa]."(31) Hence during the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth centuries, there were several Muslim communities at the Cape--small, secretive, isolated, and organized around the practices of sufi mysticism.
Bradlow's account initially received a cool response. One writer called it "interesting and imaginative," but "no more than hypothetical."(32) The problem, as Bradlow himself admits, is one of sources.(33) Early Cape Muslims produced no written documents that survive.(34) In building his argument, Bradlow relied largely on the oral traditions of the Cape Muslim community and on the presence in the immediate vicinity of Cape Town of several kramats, the tombs of shaykhs and imams who have come to be regarded as saints. The oral traditions he collected trace the local origins of particular tariqa to one or another of the exiled shaykhs. Kramats on and near the Cape peninsula have been associated with particular shaykhs and imams for nearly 300 years in some cases and have long been places of pilgrimage for local Muslims, who come to venerate the saints and to be healed or blessed.(35) In addition he was able to draw on Suleman Essop Dangor's 1982 biography of Shaykh Yusuf, which discusses his membership in the Khalwatiyyah, a tariqa, and provides translations of some of his devotional writing.(36) Thus Bradlow had seemingly hung his argument on the slender threads of memory and circumstance. But these threads are not as weak as they might appear, and his argument has recently been echoed by other scholars.
In a unpublished manuscript, Achmat Davids accepts the contention that the Constantia exiles established a tariqa, the Qadriyyah, at the Cape. He goes on to argue that Qadriyyah doctrines decisively shaped the beliefs and practices of the Cape Muslim community.(37) Elsewhere he links two of the most distinctive Cape Muslim ceremonies, the rampie-sny, which celebrates the Prophet's birthday, and the ratiep to sufi practices. He argues that the ritual observed and described by the Swedish traveler Carl Peter Thunberg in 1772 was a rampie-sny, a rare piece of evidence linking the days of the early shaykhs to the more thoroughly documented period that began at the end of the century.(38)
Yusuf da Costa also accepts the role of the Constantia shaykhs in the planting of the Qadriyyah in the colony. He believes as well that there "can be little doubt" that Shaykh Yusuf "continued to practice [in exile at Zandvleit]... the religious rites and ceremonies associated with his order," the Khalwatiyyah, including the initiation of members. He argues that Yusuf's tariqa influenced Muslim burial rituals, as reported by a traveler in 1797 and as practiced in the Western Cape up to the present day. By the end of the nineteenth century, he writes, several tariqa had been established, and their practices had become "part of the Islamic fabric at the Cape."(39)
Thus an emerging consensus suggests that sufism has been present from virtually the beginning of Cape Islam and that it has strongly influenced the development of local practices and beliefs. It is probably best to claim no more than this; too little can be known with certainty and too much must be supposed. Muhamed Auwais Rafudeen, for instance, has recently concluded that accounts of Shaykh Yusuf's exile, which often claim that Zandvleit became a refuge for runaway slaves and spiritual home to a multitude of converts, are ridden with unsubstantiated claims.(40) Despite these limitations, sufism's presence and importance has been firmly established. The relationship between sufism and conversion, however, has not. This is regrettable because it may be the best way to bring the converts' spiritual striving into the picture, if not for the first poorly documented period, then for the second.
The second period of Cape Muslim history begins as early as the 1770s, when, as Bradlow writes, "one begins to witness a shift in emphasis towards more overt, unified forms of organization."(41) This part of Bradlow's argument conforms to the earlier conclusions of Davids and Shell.(42) Substantial growth in the size and cohesiveness of the Cape Muslim community began in the late eighteenth century and continued into the nineteenth. The Dutch colonial government's growing toleration of more open Islamic worship was one of the critical factors which contributed to this process. The Dutch certainly did not welcome public Islam, but neither did they try to destroy it. By the 1770s Muslims regularly held services in private Cape Town homes; officials did not move to stop them. Indeed we know of these practices in part because a European traveler to the Cape described the ceremonies in his published and widely circulated narrative.(43) By the 1790s, Muslims were holding open-air Friday services a quarry just beyond the Cape Town limits, unmolested by the authorities.(44) Finally, authorities did not interfere when local Muslims opened a madrasah in 1793 and the first South African mosque sometime between 1795 and 1804.(45)
Of course factors internal to the Muslim community were as important as external ones in initiating and sustaining the community's growth in size and self-consciousness. Most importantly, newly opened schools and mosques laid the institutional foundation for sustained growth and consolidation. Both Davids and Bradlow see the release from prison in 1793 of Tuan Guru, an exile from the Ternate Islands and an extraordinarily learned Muslim scholar, as a key event in the reconfiguration of the community. Tuan Guru was instrumental in the creation of both the first madrasah and the first mosque at the Cape. Beyond that, he seems to have been the figure who reconciled the earlier tariqa-centered Islam of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the mosque-centered religious practice of the nineteenth and twentieth.
This reconciliation was possible, Bradlow contends, because Tuan Guru was thoroughly educated in Islamic law and, at the same time, well versed in sufi traditions.(46) Davids would agree, noting that Tuan Guru's manuscript, "Ma'rifah al-Islam wa al-Iman" [Manifestations of Islam and Faith], composed while he was imprisoned on Robben Island, combines a discourse in Islamic law with an acknowledgement of his intellectual indebtedness to Muhammed Yusuf ibn al-Sunusi, a leading sufi philosopher.(47) Davids argues that the "Ma'rifah" was the founding text of the Cape Muslim community because it created an ideological framework within which slaves and free blacks, many of whom were slaveowners,(48) could "function together [in a religious body] without threatening their respective stations in life." Tuan Guru, a slaveowner himself,(49) offered slaves the possibility of upward mobility within the Muslim community and "a fair degree of protection from... harsh treatment" by their Muslim owners, while avoiding any condemnation of slavery as a moral wrong.(50)
Increasing official toleration,(51) a coherent ideology, and a growing institutional infrastructure laid the basis for extremely rapid growth in the number of Muslims In Cape Town between 1800 and the de facto emancipation of the slaves in 1838. By the end of 1824 there were two large mosques in the city and five smaller ones.(52) In the same year, the community supported three of four madaris, the largest enrolling 491 children and adults; by 1832, the madaris numbered twelve.(53) The important research of Robert Shell makes it clear that the growth of the Muslim population more than kept pace with the development of the community's infrastructure. Although Shell is probably too trusting of his evidence for the size of the population, at least until the census of 1842,(54) it is certain that the increases in the numbers of Muslims in the colony were spectacular. From under 1,000 in 1800, the colony's Muslim community grew to 7,500 in 1842, with 6,500 in Cape Town alone. Most of this growth was through conversion, not natural increase or immigration.(55)
Conversion and the Search for Community
Having established remarkable extent to which Islam attracted converts in the early to mid-nineteenth century, Shell turns his attention to discovering why it was able to do so. He explicitly rejects the possibility that spiritual concerns and what he calls "cognitive factors" have anything to do with conversion in this period. The grounds for conversion were "quite mundane and practical." Converts came to Islam in an effort to overcome their "economic marginality" and "racial exclusion," to achieve a higher social status, to find a community with which to identify and by which to be embraced, to prepare to marry a Muslim spouse, and to be eligible for the solemn rites given the Muslim dead. Muslims, says Shell, offered "a cradle-to-the-grave range of social services." Converts came, finally, because the Muslim's claim that they welcomed all regardless of color, status, or ancestry was authentic, in great contrast to racial exclusivity of most local Christians. Virtually all of the converts were Prize Negroes or slaves. Shell also notes that they were "overwhelmingly male" during the period of slavery and emancipation.(56)
Shell has undoubtedly identified some of the most important grounds for conversion. The Prize Negroes of the Cape had only recently been stolen from their homes and thrust into a brutally alien environment. They, especially, were kinless outsiders. So too, as Orlando Patterson has shown, were the slaves. Slaves and Prize Negroes surely sought membership in a community distinct from that of their masters both to establish a degree of cultural autonomy and to diminish their social marginality. It is also true that a considerable degree of upward mobility was possible within the community of Muslims, even for slaves. Several Cape Town imams were freedmen, and Achmat van Bengal was still a slave at the time he was appointed assistant imam of the Dorp Street mosque.(57) It was not only in the Muslim community that a convert's status could improve; many whites held Muslims in higher regard than other blacks, largely because they abstained from alcohol. Likewise Muslim ceremonies to mark the stages of life--birth, marriage, death--would certainly have been attractive to those whose progress through life was otherwise unnoticed.(58) All of these are important considerations and must have been part of what led men and women to convert. Still, none of this advances us much beyond William Elliot's 1829 discussion of conversion to Islam at the Cape.(59)
Elliot was a Protestant missionary and, as was the case with George Champion, his professional integrity may have obliged him to discount the spiritual aspects of conversion to what he would have seen as a false religion. Nevertheless, he knew the Muslim community well, and his account of Islamic conversion is quite elegant, as far as it goes. He conceded that the "pomp and circumstance" of Muslim ceremonies did attract some converts. But the principal reason for conversion was "totally unconnected with religion." Slaves, he thought, converted in an effort to negate the essence of slavery itself. Anticipating the best twentieth-century analyses of slavery, Elliot wrote that slaves were "not recognized as a member[s] of society," no matter how kindly they might be treated by their owners. They remained "base fragment[s], detached from the family of man." Conversion to Christianity brought little relief. A Christian slave
may indeed be admitted into a Christian church, and may partake of the privileges of Christian communion. ...but excepting when he is within the walls of the church, he is scarcely more a member of society than when he was an untaught heathen. There is a wide difference in colonial estimation between a Christian slave and a Christian man.
In stark contrast, a slave who converted to Islam became
a real, not nominal member of an extensive society. ...It is not in the mosque alone that he feels himself a social being; in every house inhabited by a Musselman he finds a home and a brother.(60)
Here is a superb description of social death and (at least partial) resurrection. But it is incomplete. Elliot the missionary and Shell the scholar both reject compelling evidence that spiritual concerns brought many converts to Islam and that the rebirth of the socially dead at the Cape had something to do with God.
Conversion and the Search for Meaning
Nearly a decade ago, Richard Elphick lamented the marginalization of religion within South African historiography and called on historians and other scholars to study "the thought and actions of religious people--their doctrines, rituals, spiritual experiences, individual and corporate mentalities--... with the utmost seriousness and... empathy."(61) While we have full and convincing analyses of the "mundane and practical" grounds for conversion to Islam at the Cape, none assigns a role to faith. Conversion has been analyzed as if God had nothing to do with it. The analyses are not so much wrong as they are partial.
Emefie Ikenga-Metuh, among others, has insisted that any account of conversion must be multi-causal rather than monocausal.(62) Robert Hefner adds that conversion is a matter of "faith and affiliation." It implies "the at least nominal acceptance of religious actions or beliefs deemed more fitting, useful, or true" and "the acceptance of a new locus of self-identification, a new, though not necessarily exclusive, reference point for one's identity."(63) Yet historians of Islam at the Cape have had a tendency, as Richard Eaton has put it, to "see any religion as a dependent variable of some non-religious agency, in particular an assumed desire for social improvement or prestige."(64)
But faith, Karen Armstrong reminds us, is a fundamental part of human existence. People, she writes, began "to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human." Faith has allowed men and women to express "the wonder and mystery that seem always to have been an essential component of the human experience of the beautiful yet terrifying world."(65) Few worlds were more terrifying than that of the slaves, Prize Negroes, and free blacks of the Cape, and religion was an important part their lives. Commenting many years ago on American slavery, Paul Radin wrote that slavery "was bound to leave the victims with a sense of degradation and sin...." Consequently, slaves adapted, recreated, and invented religions in which they found "cleansing and its concomitant rebirth...."(66) Conversion was not like applying for membership in a social club and cannot be understood as an exercise in pure pragmatism. Like the slaves of the Old South, Muslim converts in South Africa longed "to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering that flesh is heir to."(67)
Shell ties his dismissal of spiritual motives for conversion to an attack on Robin Horton's influential thesis on religious conversion in Africa. Twenty-five years ago, Horton drew on examples of religious conversion to monotheistic religions in small-scale African societies to argue that conversion from polytheistic beliefs to monotheism was likely to occur when previously isolated societies were brought into contact with a much wider world, for instance, through incorporation into an empire. Prior to the establishment of wider contacts, the social life of people in a small-scale society was largely confined within the boundaries of their "microcosm." In their religious practices, they paid considerable attention to lesser spirits, the underpinners of the microcosm, and very little to a supreme being. When the boundaries of the microcosm began collapse and the "macrocosm" began to impinge strongly on everyday life, people experienced a crisis of the spirit. The practices and beliefs associated with the lesser spirits could not explain or help people to control events that accompanied incorporation into the macrocosm. They began to pay less attention to the spirits and more to the supreme being, a god who transcended local boundaries and affiliations. As Horton puts it, people "groped toward a more elaborate definition of the supreme being and a more developed cult of this being" in an attempt to cope with the larger world of which they were now a part. This process, in his estimation, opened the door to both Christianity and Islam.(68)
Horton has come in for his share of criticism over the years. Research has shown that the crises that accompany incorporation into a macrocosm are not always catalysts for conversion and that religions oriented toward the microcosm sometimes "dig in, reorganize, and survive." Hefner argues that Horton, nevertheless, "quite properly draws our attention to how incorporation into a larger social order acts as a catalyst for conversion [to monotheism] and the reformulation of indigenous religion."(69) Elizabeth Elbourne, who has studied conversion to Christianity among the South African Khoisan in the early nineteenth century, accepts the premise that societies and individuals "in a state of profound crisis... are more prone to seek new [spiritual] explanations and meaning systems that are stable" people and communities.(70)
Shell will have none of this. He claims not only that monotheism was "not clearly understood" by Muslim converts at the Cape, but that conversion was "accelerated by magical practices and syncretistic mysticism quite unrelated to monotheism."(71) Quite the contrary. The madaris ensured that the converts' understanding of monotheism was surprisingly sophisticated. And it is precisely "magic" and "mysticism" that provide us with some of the best evidence of the intensity with which converts worshipped their (sole and unitary) God. Their devotion gives us insight into the spiritual concerns that drew men and women to Islam.
It would be hard to find a cohort of enslaved and oppressed converts better educated in the tenets of their religion than the Muslim converts of the Cape. As we have seen, the first madrasah opened in 1793; three decades later, there were several, the largest enrolling nearly 500 students. What lessons did the imams teach? "[T]o look up to God for all good, and to fear Him," said one. He taught his pupils "to read and write Arabic[,]" "to observ[e] the facts prescribed by the Koran, [to attend] the service of the mosques, and [to make] their wives and children conform to these rites...."(72) Davids is able to expand on these remarks. The "Ma'rifah" of Tuan Guru was at the heart of the curriculum. His grounding in Ash'arite theology led Tuan Guru to stress the "rational unity of God," and his exposure to the thought of al-Sunusi's sufism allowed him to borrow a Sufi liturgy that "proved the most popular and convenient part of the manuscript for rote learning...." The liturgy became the "twintagh siefaats," twenty attributes that are a necessary to God and the twenty that are impossible for him. Student notebooks dating from the first decade of the nineteenth century and containing transcriptions of this liturgy still exist in private collections in Cape Town.(73) Muslim converts at the Cape were well drilled in the fundamentals of Islamic monotheism.
The magic and mysticism of the Cape Muslims cannot be separated from their monotheistic spirituality, that is, from Islam. "Malay(74) magic," especially the power to heal, drew converts to the community--as the hope of being healed has drawn so many people to religion in so many different times and places.(75) "Malay Doctors" appear frequently in the street directories of early nineteenth-century Cape Town, and a belief in the power of learned Muslims to cure (and to curse) was shared by many in the colony, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.(76) Tuan Guru's "Ma'rifah" contains a number of prescriptions for spiritual remedies. Were these doctors and prescriptions somehow un-Islamic? Hardly. The prescriptions were normally composed of two elements, the earthly and the spiritual. Passages from the Quran were to be recited while physical remedies, often containing herbs, were administered.(77) This "Malay magic" of the Cape, was simply called "Islamic medicine" elsewhere.(78)
About 300 hadiths [traditions relating the deeds of the Prophet Muhammed] deal with medicine and related topics. Sufi shaykhs are especially associated with healing. Sufis believe that shaykhs are inspired by the Prophet, and therefore expect them to dispense medicine and medical advise. Ismail Abdulla notes that in West Africa and the Magreb, where sufi orders flourish, the shaykh has become an important part of "the medical experience of... Islamic peoples...."(79) The same is true elsewhere in the Muslim world. The converts' desire to have access to Islamic healing is part of what draws them to the Muslim community. But far from being unrelated to monotheistic spirituality, this pragmatic desire to be cured cannot be separated from God, from whom the power to cure derives, and from the converts' faith in that God.
The Muslim practice at the Cape about which Shell is the most skeptical is the ratiep. He acknowledges that this rite brought converts into the fold, but he maintains that it was both syncretic and unrelated to monotheism. It was, he says, drawing on the authority of I.D. du Plessis,(80) "originally a Hindu dance from Bali."(81) Davids agrees that the ratiep was one of the "strategies" that shaykhs and imams employed in order to attract converts.(82) He admits, however, that while it drew on "animistic ritual practices," it contained elements of Islamic spirituality.(83) But there is another possibility, as Bradlow insists. It is possible that the ratiep, at least initially, was an utterly orthodox expression of sufi practice and belief.(84)
Although the ratiep was central to Islamic practice at the Cape for two centuries, we learn about particular performances only when something went horribly wrong or when white writers happened to observe them. Most of what must have been hundreds of ceremonies probably passed privately and without incident. Because some did not it is the best documented expression of nineteenth-century Islamic spirituality in the Cape Colony. The ratiep has had a checkered career. Whites have largely viewed the it as a quaint and peculiar ceremony of colorful, but outlandish folk; in 1854 some called unsuccessfully on the government to suppress it, complaining that the noise disturbed the peace of the city.(85) Even among the some of the Cape imams, it fell into increasing disfavor as the nineteenth century progressed,(86) perhaps because, as some suggested, it had become mere entertainment devoid of religious significance.(87) But Champion, for instance, witnessed the ratiep by chance; he stumbled across what seems to have been a private religious ceremony, not a performance designed to amuse curiosity seekers. And there is no reason to believe that the men whose 1813 performance led to the death of one and the imprisonment of another were not every bit as sincere as they were unlucky or perhaps incompetent.
The first written account of the ratiep dates from 1813, when Griep, a free black from Mozambique, faced trial on charges of having caused the death of another free black, Abdul Zagie, during a ceremony at the home of the free black Hammat of Macassar. Griep admitted that he had been at fault. One evening at about midnight, he said, he and several other men had "performed the... Callifat.(88) While rotating the tip of a sword on the stomach of a supine Zagie, he had intoned "some mystic prayers." Unfortunately "the entrails of said Abdul Zagie projected through his Belly, whereupon [Griep] sewed up the Wound, continually repeating his prayers." Griep's fervent prayers were to no avail; Zagie died within the hour. The court condemned Griep to labor in irons on the public works for three years.(89) Despite the dreadful consequences, nothing about Zagie's death suggests that this was anything other than a rite gone wrong.
Other accounts come from the pens of white observers. George Champion, blinded and deafened by his prejudices, heard only "a confused noise of singing, beating of drums" and saw nothing more than men dancing with chains and "performing a variety of eccentric movements" when he stumbled across a ratiep.(90) Alfred Cole, who attended a mid-nineteenth-century ratiep, shared similar biases, as he freely admitted: the "comic parts" of the ceremony struck him "so forcibly... that the grandeur of the occasion was quite lost." His description, however, remains valuable for its detail.
It was evening, and I was conducted into a large room.... Candles were stuck in silver sconces, fastened to the walls in profusion.... Round the room were several old Malays(91), squatting on mats, dressed in gala costume. In the centre of the room a quantity of perfume was burning. Three or four younger Malays kept marching round the room, and they and the old gentlemen kept up a sort of grunting, whining chorus... [and I] was afterwards informed that they were chanting sentences from the Koran. Suddenly the young gentlemen began to throw themselves about in gladiatorial attitudes, singing faster than ever. Thereupon the old gentlemen shouted louder. Then the young men stripped off their shirts.... [They] danced, and jumped, and shouted, till they left little pools of sudorific exhalations on the floor. Then a boy came shouting awfully. ...at the same moment two of the young men seized the boy, and plunged a sharp instrument like a meat-skewer through his tongue--at least so it appeared.... ...the boy looked quite happy and contented with his tongue on a skewer....
[Then] one of the young men took a dagger and plunged it into the fleshy part of his side... then walked round and showed himself. There were a few drops of blood apparently flowing from the wound.... Another man thrust a skewer through his cheek, and came and showed himself also. Then some red-hot chains were brought in, and thrown over an iron beam, when another of the Malays seized them with his bare hands, and kept drawing them fast over the beams. All the while... the Malays kept up their hideous shrieking of the Koran sentences.... The noise, the sight, the weapons, and the red-hot chains, together, formed a scene bordering on the diabolical; except that there was such evident jugglery in the whole affair....(92)
Cole's was not the only such account. In 1861, an anonymous contributor to the Cape Monthly Magazine reported on a ratiep involving over fifty men. Once again the observer had a hard time taking the ceremony seriously. An "old priest," he wrote, "scattered a few grains of incense on a brazier... [and] began to recite a few verses of the Koran in a sort of high-pitched tremulous chant." After prayers, invocations, and hymns accompanied by the beating of tambourines, one of the participants, "while in a slow dancing step," plunged daggers into his stomach without apparent injury. The atmosphere grew frenzied. At one point twenty men were "circling slowly round and round, throwing themselves in the most extravagant attitudes, plunging... their long keen daggers through the heart and lungs." At the end of the ceremony, the old priest obsequiously approached the writer, promising even greater feats. With that, he wrote, the "awful, mystical ceremony dwindl[ed] into a mere sleight-of-hand...."(93)
Was the ratiep mere jugglery, a slight of hand? Perhaps by the mid-nineteenth century it sometimes was. But let us then go back to the early nineteenth century, to a time before anyone claimed that the ratiep was anything other than a sincere, if bizarre, religious ritual, back to a time when a Muslim visitor to the Cape praised the "many pious good" Muslims he met and said nothing about unworthy or un-Islamic ceremonies and beliefs.(94) If we, unlike so many observers, take the ratiep seriously, it can tell us quite a bit about the spiritual longings that brought slave converts to Islam. It allowed them to challenge the social death of slavery in tangible and intangible ways all of which owed their efficacy to faith. To understand how it was that the ratiep negated aspects of social death at the same time that it expressed profound devotion to God, we will need to know a little more about sufism.
Sufism, "the guardian of the path of inwardness," is the form in which Islamic spirituality has most often "revealed itself in... history."(95) Its roots lie in the Prophet Muhammed's "powerful mystic experiences briefly described... in the Qur'an."(96) Like mystical movements in Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, "the Sufi path is a... discipline of mind and body whose goal is to directly experience ultimate reality."(97) Sufis believe that only in this way can men and women attain a true knowledge of God, knowledge beyond rational thought and human perception. The sufi ideal is a "state of annihilation," "the systematic destruction of the ego [leading] to a sense of absorption in a larger, ineffable reality."(98) This state allows the adept to know "the One who is God in His absolute Reality beyond all manifestations and determinations, the One to whom the Quran refers as Allah."(99)
Sufis, like the mystics of other religions, insist that "the mystical journey can only be undertaken under the guidance of an expert... [who can] guide the novice past perilous places...."(100) Hence the shaykh, the spiritual master, is an "indispensable element" within sufism, gathering disciples around him for instruction and initiation.(101) Sufis have adopted a number of disciplines to help the initiate attain a true knowledge of God. Fasting, silence, celibacy, and the rhythmic chanting of prayers and God's attributes [the dhikr] have been among the most common. Some tariqa use music, song, and dance in an effort to trigger ecstatic states. Sufi rituals should not be seen, however, as "things which... automatically induce the ecstasy of seeing God face to face, but.. [as] ways of freeing the soul from the distractions of the world."(102)
The ceremonies of one of the oldest tariqa, the Rifa'iyyah, often involve dancing, the chanting of the dhikr, and, at the moment of ecstasy, falling "upon objects such as serpents or knives...."(103) These rituals have been associated with the Rifa'iyyah wherever it is found, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.(104) In the Indonesian archipelago, one of the most distinctive Rifa'iyyah rituals is known as the rapa'i; in Malaysia it is called the dubbus, from the Arabic word for an iron awl. During the rapa'i members of the tariqa pierce their bodies with swords, knives, and iron awls. The point of rite is to demonstrate the power of God, which allows "the adept to come out of the ceremony without his body showing any evidence of having been harmed."(105)
There are, of course, clear parallels between Rifa'iyyah rituals and the ratiep. They have been part of Islamic practice on the Indonesian islands from the time Islam first arrived in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They were, that is, part of the religious world in which the exiled shaykhs of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Cape came to maturity. Yusuf da Costa writes that it is "highly probable" that the ratiep has its roots in the practices of sufi tariqa, though he ties it to the Alawiyyah, not the Rifa'iyyah.(106) Whatever its provenance, in the early nineteenth century the ratiep was an important expression of Muslims' faith and a genuine attempt to attain truer knowledge of God.
Like all religious ritual, the ratiep expressed meanings that was beyond words, meanings that were multiple, and elusive. It satisfied the sufi imperative to lead believers toward an experiential knowledge of God. At the same time it would also have been especially attractive to non-literate or semi-literate slave, Prize Negro, and free black converts who struggled to find meaning in the words of the Quran.
At one level the ceremonies such as the ratiep demonstrated the power of God to protect the believer from physical peril. This doubtless drew slaves and Prize Negroes to the rite. The very essence of slavery (and of the indentured status of Prize Negroes) was the slave's "total loss of control over his person and his personality."(107) Slaveowners expressed their domination of their slaves in large part through the slaves' bodies. It was the body that the owner bought and sold, the body that the owner put to work, the body that the owner flogged. The ratiep provided slaves with a sphere in which their owner's claim to and power of their bodies could be challenged.(108) The believers' triumph over fire and steel made this quite plain. So, too, did the cures of the "Malay doctors." Through the ratiep, through the healing power of Islamic medicine, and with God on their side, slave and Prize Negro converts reclaimed their bodies and demonstrated their mastery over them. That is, their faith in their single and unitary God helped them to reclaim themselves.
Slaves and slaveowners also contested the very nature of reality. On another level of meaning, the ratiep proved the superiority of the sacred realm of Islam over the secular realm of slavery. The ratiep embodied and enacted an alternative worldview, an alternative reality that starkly contradicted the ideologies and practices of slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy. It allowed slave converts to demonstrate that the world of the spirit was a higher order of reality than the mundane and pragmatic world, the world of daggers, red-hot chains, and slaveowners' whips. It reinforced the message of the imams; they explicitly taught slave and Prize Negro converts that though their bodies were enslaved, their souls were free.(109) It validated Islam's claims of embodying a superior "cosmology and... moral order in a world of duplicity."(110)
If one of the meanings of resistance is a self-conscious attempt to defy the authority of the hegemonic order, then performance of the ratiep emerges as an act of resistance as does conversion itself. Islam provided enslaved and oppressed converts with a way of understanding the secular world, of judging it, and of living with a measure of dignity within it. The ratiep in particular led converts toward a deeper and more powerful truth than the truth of slavery. Through ritual God entered their spirits to reconstruct souls that slavery and white supremacy were determined to destroy. The message of slavery was the degradation of social death; God's message was social life. To the heart of the believer, the violence and frenzy of the ratiep brought the quiet of inner peace.
The more we learn about the role sufism played in the growth and consolidation of Islam at the Cape, the more probable it seems that we must revise our understanding of the grounds for and meaning of conversion. Of course converts came for mundane reasons. (There is nothing new in this. In nineteenth-century China, for instance, such converts were called "rice bowl Christians"). Conversion granted converts full and legitimate membership in a human community. No longer rightless, kinless outsiders, within the Cape Muslim community those who had been broken were made whole. But there was more to it than that. The spirit moved the converts as well. It strengthened them, healed them, and taught them that though their owners can claim their bodies they cannot claim their souls. It is time for historians of Islam in the Cape Colony to join Joao Jose Reis, the Brazilian historian of slavery in Bahia, in saying that the exiled, the persecuted, and the enslaved "flocked to Islam" in search of many things, most importantly spiritual comfort, solidarity, and hope.(111)
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First Online Edition: 12 October 1999
Last Revised: 22 October 1999