Muslims in the modern world

2011-11-17 00:00

Fatima Asmal-Motala returned recently from hajj in Saudi Arabia which she covered as a journalist. THARUNA DEVCHAND chats to her about the changing face of Islam in South Africa and the documentary, Muslim Identity

WHAT was your experience like as the first SA Muslim woman journo to be selected by the Saudi Embassy to cover Hajj?

To me this was an immense honour, particularly as Hajj coverage on certain (not all) Islamic radio stations in SA is dominated by males, and women can and do add a different perspective on things. Being part of this programme, meant having a literal vantage point in many instances. For example, we were treated to a demonstration by thousands of military personnel who protect the pilgrims during the hajj. At Arafat, one of the areas where the pilgrims converge on to observe an essential rite of hajj, we could stand atop a tower and watch all 2,8 million of them milling in. Those are moments which I’ll never forget.

How was your experience of hajj?

Hajj requires many sacrifices. There is a lot of walking, dealing with huge crowds who come from every conceivable part of the world and, at this time of the year, blistering heat. Add to that your media duties (mine being two to three radio linkups per day, some photography, constant new media updates, and print and online coverage), and it can be quite taxing. But this is the beauty of it — as a Muslim you feel the struggle is not going unnoticed by God and you’ll be rewarded for every bit of it. It’s a spiritually charged experience: one in which you feel incredibly close to God and, as a media person, very close to the people back home too. It is probably the only occasion in a Muslim’s life in which he or she gets a sense of just how diverse a religion Islam is, in terms of culture, race, gender, social class, and so on.

How was Saudi Arabia? Did you experience any difficulty adjusting culturally from being a Muslim woman in South Africa to one in Saudi?

There are many cities here in Saudi Arabia and we visit only Mecca, Madinah and Jeddah. We interact mainly with other pilgrims, not Saudis. But from what I’ve seen, it’s a well-developed country, with impressive infrastructure. Mobile networks galore, easily accessible Internet, colourful shopping to suit everyone’s pockets. There is also social inequality — many people from the subcontinent, mainly Bangladesh, come to work here, and they live here alone for years on end, sending money home. There are illegal immigrants who beg on the streets.

Of course, there’s a lot of media attention on Saudi women, but a very progressive woman told me that some of this is exaggerated. Yes, women can’t drive, but within the media corps there were two female Saudi journalists, neither of them wore face veils (one works for Reuters, the other is a photographer) and they were by no means secluded from the males.

There are many young Saudi women who studied overseas who are questioning their role in society, and this was great to see.

Here women are free to attend congregational prayers at most mosques. In most mosques in Durban and Gauteng this is a no-no.

How is Muslim identity changing in South Africa?

The vast majority of Muslims in KZN and Gauteng are Indian in origin. Islamic texts (namely the Qur’an and the Sunnah which comprises the way of life of Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him) are interpreted differently within the Muslim world.

Traditionally, many Muslims in KZN and Gauteng have followed a patriarchal, conservative interpretation of Islam, exported from India. Granted, they still exist in huge numbers but there are also an increasing number of practising Muslims emerging who are looking elsewhere to learn their religion. They are more integrated and less insular in their approach and they are critical of the ruling class who are the ulama (religious scholars who study in Indo-Pak institutes and disseminate Islamic information and rules).

Why do you think that there is this transformation in SA? Is it happening all over the world?

The move away may be largely attributed to people’s experience of globalisation. The impetus may differ from person to person. Some work or study overseas and experience a world of Islam they didn’t know existed. Others become acquainted with this world through the Internet (websites, social networking), and overseas Islamic media like books, Islam channel TV (DStv channel 347) and Peace TV (a satellite channel which beams out of India). Some attend some Islamic programme like an ILM-SA conference and are interested in learning more. This shift started taking place years ago in the UK and U.S. In South Africa, there were always pockets of people different from the rest; but the major shift, in my opinion, is taking place now, at a fairly rapid pace.

What does ILM-SA stand for and how have people responded to these conferences-seminars?

ILM-SA stands for the Institute for Learning and Motivation, South Africa and is an organisation that I run. In addition to trying to give SA Muslims the tools they require to contextualise their identities, it also works in socioeconomic development, particularly in rural KZN where it works on improving the lives of close to 200 underprivileged children. People’s responses to the conferences have been mind-blowing. Many of them credit something they picked up there with catalysing a shift in mind-set. Our annual conference attracts some 800 people over a two-and-half-day period.

How do staunch South African Muslims react to more outspoken ones who are open about their culture in media platforms?

Sadly, the problem does not just lie with “staunch” Muslims. It lies mainly with some of their leadership — a group of Muftis and Maulanas who have access to media platforms like Islamic radio stations and newspapers ... they brand anyone who does not subscribe to their ideology as an “ignorant”, or “modernist” or “feminist”.

Women like Quraysha Sooliman of Gauteng have worked hard to break down barriers between women and the mosque. The leaders react negatively to this. We have been branded “ignorants” and “satanic” on public platforms like Islamic radio stations as well as booklets and pamphlets. People are warned against our “deviant beliefs”.

How aggressive are the reactions?

In some cases it has been said by them that we are no longer Muslim — and this is because we advocated a viewpoint that women should be allowed to attend Eid prayers. The environment is quite ugly, and far removed, I feel, from the spirit in which the Prophet Mohammad­, peace be upon him, lived Islam.

What does the future Muslim in SA look like?

I cannot speak for Cape Town as the environment there is quite different and not stifling. The leadership there is different.

In terms of KZN and Gauteng; well, I think that there will always be conservative Muslim groupings. But I think a time will come when there will be so many Muslims who are more contextualised in their understanding and practise of Islam, that the conservatives will tire in their efforts to deter them and will focus their attention elsewhere.

Muslim Identity written and directed by Fatima Asmal-Motala and Shaffee Shaik

MUSLIM Identity, a documentary Fatima Asmal-Motala made with Shaffee Shaik, is to be screened as part of SABC2’s Issues of Faith series and will investigate the changing face of Muslim identity within the South African landscape.

The documentary looks at how young Muslims view their identities and investigates several related issues.

“I am really excited about the documentary as it’s as vibrant and dynamic as Muslim identity is all over the world,” said Asmal-Motala, “and it showcases a segment of the SA Muslim community we don’t often see represented in the media.”

The documentary features a range of people and is divided into segments.

“In one segment all of them speak about their view on Muslim identity and whether Muslims in SA are grappling with this issue. In another segment, all of them speak about the Islamic scholars they look up to and in each instance you will find these scholars are ‘Western’.”

Then the other segments feature themes within which one or two of these personalities fit in. We look at how, unlike before, Muslim woman in hijaab are playing a more public role and here we feature political science lecturer and Muslim women’s rights activist Quraysha Ismail Sooliman, as well as journalist Khadija Patel. We also look at other issues like converts and creative expression within the community.”

The interviews are interspersed with scholarly perspectives from European intellectuals Tariq Ramadan and Anas Altikriti, as well as local Imam, Haafidh Fuzail Soofie.

Asmal says: “I am content to say that I am a constantly evolving Muslim woman. I grew up in a home where my parents too were just Muslims. They prayed, fasted and were morally upright, but didn’t subscribe to a particular ideology. I didn’t consciously ‘become involved’ in the changing face of Muslim identity. It just happened through harbouring a desire to always be open to listening to other viewpoints and some serious soul searching.”

• Muslim Identity will be screened on SABC2 at 9 am on November 20. Freelance journalist Fatima Asmal-Motala travelled to Saudi Arabia as a media representative on the Kingdom’s official hajj programme sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and Information of Saudi Arabia.

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