In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful
BEGINNINGS & ENDINGS
29 December 2017
“Those who, when afflicted with calamity, say:
‘Verily from God we come, and to God we are returning!’” (2:156)
In the great journey of any earthly life there are only two fixed points, the origin and the destination. In moments of great tragedy or loss these are the two fixed points we invoke to give comfort and meaning. We invoke it with finality – God has claimed that being! We evoke it with resignation – what can you do about it? And we invoke it with gratitude – the being has fulfilled its task.
Yet, for those left behind, this reminder should evoke a warning that is contained in the present continuous tense – “we are returning” – so that we understand that every step of life is a return, a step closer to the destination, a step closer to death, a step in preparation for the next phase of life, and a step closer to accounting for life.
In the last two weeks, my family and I have had to face this refrain, not with the ears of the giver, but of the receiver, having had to prepare my father for the great transition of his own being. If we could, we would have wanted to hold on to him a bit longer so that his preparation for his transition could be more perfect. And yet we understood his need for peace, which ultimately did not come through healing, but through deliverance. So now we are resigned to a Forgiving Creator to manage the blemishes and imperfections of his life. We take comfort in the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi who says in the Mathnawi:
“If your aspiration bears you to Heaven, ‘tis no wonder:
Do not regard your weakness, regard your aspiration;
For this aspiration is God’s pledge lodged within you,
For every seeker deserves what he seeks!”
Exactly a year ago, we returned from the United States of America as a family who had spent the preceding six years away from South Africa. Over that period we had found concentric circles of communities that have given us nothing but acceptance and warmth: South Africans living there; university communities; literary groups, the Adams Mosque complex; the North American Muslim community; the progressive political community; and so many others. All of them wondered why we would return to South Africa at a moment of great global turmoil. Our response was constant: we needed to be in South Africa to be part of 3 transitions that were occurring between the origin and the destination of life.
The one transition – that of my father – had announced itself seven years ago with the arrival of cancer, but in this year he allowed us to make memories with him so that he and all of us could accept his transition, and have provision for it. Our decision to be part of the last year’s memories was the decision of those who visited from time to time and saw changes over months rather than have the vantage of constant presence, where the changes could be unnoticed.
Transitions are the way of God. In chapter 3 (Surah A li Imraan), verse 27, God teaches us to pray that we may recognise a world of constant transitions:
“You bring the night from the day and You bring the day from the night; You bring life from what is dead, and You bring death from what is living.
And You provide sustenance to whom You will without keeping an account.”
So change is with us constantly. Change manifests God’s sovereignty over all that exists. The history of life is a history of ever shifting phenomena: shifts in empires and sovereignties; shifts in the preeminence of religious communities; as well as shifts in the preeminence of knowledge communities. Thus, in the verse preceding the one previously cited, the preceding verse teaches us pray:
“Oh God! Lord of all sovereignty!
You share sovereignty with whom you want, and you remove sovereignty from whom you want.
You honour whom you want, and you disgrace whom you want.
In your hand is only good and you have power over all.”
Transitions are a constant, but can be positive or negative and their direction requires constant vigilance, constant nurturing, constant intervention, and constant effort.
Using the notion learnt from Professor Guy d’ Maupassant who described the Eiffel Tower as the ugliest building in the world, and when challenged by his students who exclaimed: “But Professor, you eat in it every day!” replied: “Yes, but when I’m in it, I don’t see it!” He taught us the difference between proximity and distance. When you are in it, you may not see it.
I speak now of the second transition, the transition within the Cape Town Muslim community. For me, this transition also reached its point of animation in December 2017 with the opening of Cape Town’s first Shia mosque. Unlike the transition with my father that had announced itself, the state and disposition of the Cape Town Muslim community is increasingly creeping upon us, surprising us, normalising itself upon us, and drawing us into a growing network of conspiracies. But because we are in it, we may not be unduly alarmed by it. If we notice it, we may carve out comfortable spaces to defy it.
Again, in our case, whenever we returned to South Africa, there was always something new to alarm us: the growing number of veiled women or those swaddled in black, as opposed to the moral hijab or the designer modesty that used to define us; the celebrity infatuation with exotic muftis and preachers, who utilise our culture and humour to seduce us to their austere and intolerant interpretations of Islam; or the snippets on the radio that prevents the grieving wife from greeting her deceased husband or instructs the living wife towards subservience to the males in her domain; or the suggestion that saying Merry Christmas is an act of shirk.
Some pronounce a sharia devoid of the Divine. They sprout the words of our beloved Prophet without the compassionate character and personality from which those words emanated. They invoke the Quran as a book of judgement and punishment, rather than a book of guidance and growth. Their university degrees prove their knowledge exam was passed, but they fail the test for knowledge set by God who described the knowledgeable as “people of knowledge, standing on justice!”
All of this happens at a time when the global Muslim community, fragmented and tormented, fratricidal within and assaulted from without, when this Ummah looks to this tiny community in Cape Town for guidance, for a model, for proof that life is livable as a Muslim in conditions of peaceful coexistence, where you can simultaneously be different from, and the same with, others who share your space. They look to how we previously made transitions from the Accursed Abode to the Shared, Peaceful and Mutually Affirming Abode that we became after 1994.
The World for All Foundation uses as its motif the baobab tree. It is the African tree of conviviality, consultation and reconciliation – all trademarks of South Africa’s own transition from apartheid to democracy; all values so deeply needed in a world so deeply divided. But the World for All Foundation also consciously holds up the baobab tree as an example of how this species, truly majestic in its unique shape and form, makes its own unique transition from life to death imperceptibly: it rots and decays from the inside out, until suddenly it is seen as a mere heap of waste where once stood something majestic.
We cannot allow this resilient community of Muslims, for whom the world has much need, to decay from the inside out: the decay starts with Intra-Muslim intolerance and then questions interfaith cooperation; it eliminates the musical duah between the Khutbas and then disputes the celebration of the birth of the Prophet; it specifies even the style of modesty for women and then it advocates removing women from the public sphere; it makes a welcome sadaqa or contribution to the coffers of a mosque, school or radio station, and then prescribes what can be preached, taught or broadcast.
The Cape Accord, signed in this mosque last week is an important bulwark against this decay from the inside out. But it will not be enough unless we do battle to defend the resilience we inherited over 300 years; unless we advance the Shared Abode we conceptualised at the National Muslim Conference 24 years ago; unless we revitalise authentic leadership that can retain much of who we are and incorporate the diversity of Muslims who have joined us over the last 2 decades; and unless we can refresh our mandate as citizens of both a South African Nation and a global Ummah, to stop the decay from the inside out.
I introduce the third transition with God’s great guarantee to those who are orientated to that which is good and right:
“And those who strive and struggle in Our cause, We will certainly show them the way. For verily Allah is with those who do right!” (29:69)
Our responsibility is not always to achieve outcomes we yearn for. Ours is to strive and struggle for an aspiration that we may or may not live to achieve. The emphasis however, is that we should never stop struggling or striving, for ceasing to strive and struggle is certainly the easiest path towards the abortion of our aspirations. This is the state in which our nation, our government and our liberation movement find themselves. If the challenge to the South African Muslim community is to arrest the decay from the inside out, then the story of our nation is about restoring vigilance over, and ownership of, the processes of liberation, transformation and fulfilled living from the outside in. As Stanley Kubrick put it: “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”
In the absence of that, we fulfill the prediction of God that honour can easily become disgrace, and sovereignty easily ceded to the greediest, most avaricious, and the amoral amongst us. South Africa’s is not the story simply of a family and a president. Ours is a story of a people who were fragmented by a myriad of issues and allowed impunity to reign in society. Ours is the story of those who were vigilant but often allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Ours is the story of those who were disgusted by what they saw, but often chose the distance of moral purity rather than the option of dirtying their hands in the fight-back that was needed.
This transition also reached a moment of great drama in December 2017 as the ANC National Conference replaced President Zuma with Cyril Ramaphosa, but potentially left us with a tenuous stalemate between two centres of power in the South African nation. It is as if there is a divine invitation for all of us to participate yet again in struggle to complete this transition. South Africans are called upon to regain their agency, to restore their ownership and to renew their participation in the cleansing of our nation so that we may yet hold our nation up as a mirror to a world caught in a vortex of competing extremisms, daily humiliations against ‘the other’ and structured deprivations of so many.
If it were that such matters could be solved through the mere rearrangements of power, important as they are, then we would not be exhorting the people of the world – as we did in the great struggle against apartheid – to find within themselves the agency, the power, the capacity and the desire to refashion the world so that the sovereignty of God is manifested in the honour and dignity of creation, and not in its disgrace and humiliation!
Toni Morrison, in her Nobel lecture in 1993, said: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Language is indeed the capability of transcending ourselves, of making improbable connections and of combining agencies because it provides the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification. (Marilynne Robinson).