Faith to Faith

2011-08-16 00:00

REGULAR readers of the letters section of The Witness will recognise the names D. M. R. Lewis and Abdullah Saeed. City resident Saeed is a well-known Muslim commentator, while Howick’s Lewis tends to adopt a view from the stance of the West and Christianity. They regularly respond to one another’s letters in the newspaper.

After a recent exchange on topics that crop up periodically: Islam and terrorism, Saeed invited Lewis and any other interested people to meet in order to “further their discussions”. Lewis, his wife, Fleur, and Heather Murray, also of Howick, accepted.

Saeed teaches life orientation, arts and culture and Islamic studies at Nizamia Islamic School in the north of the city, so the group met there. Principal Omar Mohideen showed the visitors around the 450-pupil school that accommodates­ children from Grade R to Grade 12. Nizamia is an independent school that receives a small subsidy from the government.

Next door to the school on East or Masakwane Street is the well-known East Street mosque — Habibia Soofie Masjid. Saeed showed the visitors around the mosque and explained some of the rudiments of Muslim worship. He explained basics like the five pillars of Islam (see box), and the fact that men and women pray in separate areas of the mosque. The visitors’ knowledge of Islam appeared to increase as a result.

This continued during the discussions that followed over high tea in the school staff room. An articulate and knowledgeable intermediate- phase teacher, Basheera Ebrahim, joined the group. She and Saeed answered several more questions about Islam, especially the topics that provoked Lewis to be as animated in person as he is in print: Osama bin Laden, terrorism and suicide bombing.

The subject that seemed to rouse Saeed was the mass media and their role in moulding public opinion. He holds some sections of the mass media responsible for widespread misinformation, if not ignorance, about Islam and related issues. For example, he explained that while in the Western mass media Bin Laden and terrorism featured often and prominently, the late Al- Qaeda leader and his organisation barely featured in Islamic media.

According to Saeed: “Most Muslims believe that Al-Qaeda does not exist and is an American-manufactured creation to instil fear into the people.” He also said that the rules of warfare and conflict resolution that the Prophet Mohammed­ (PBUH) imposed on his people more than 1 400 years ago were emulated by the Geneva Convention formulated in 1949 after World War 2.

Similarly, while Lewis strongly expressed his desire to see Muslim leaders condemn terrorism, particularly suicide bombing, Saeed explained that local and foreign Muslim leaders had in fact publicly denounced terrorism as “anti-Islamic” on several occasions, but their comments had not been carried by Western media­.

So what actually happened during this encounter?

It appeared that the Lewises and Murray went away knowing more about Islam than they did when they arrived. They felt the gathering was worthwhile. So did Saeed, for whom it was “only the beginning” as he plans more such encounters in future.

However, it struck me as more of a one-sided sharing of information than a discussion in which participants probe and debate each other’s beliefs and opinions. If Saeed and his colleagues had questions for Lewis about his views, they did not ask them, or perhaps more appropriately, did not get a chance to ask them.

At the risk of generalising, I suggest that the encounter encapsulates the challenge that the entire country faces: many adult South Africans are largely uninformed about one another’s religion and culture. This applies not only to Christians­’ knowledge of Islam, as the encounter seemed to illustrate, but vice versa too. A passing comment by one of Saeed’s party that “Jesus called on his followers to take up arms” suggested a similarly limited knowledge of Christian scripture and tradition.

Although not without its flaws, the post-1994 state curriculum does try to address this issue. Thanks to elements of subjects like life orientation, social sciences and arts and culture, future generations of South Africans should be better informed than their forebears. It remains to be seen whether this will contribute to greater understanding and increased cross-cultural relations. Meanwhile, “Abdullah Saeed, Pietermaritzburg” and “D. M. R. Lewis, Howick” now know whom they are addressing when they write letters to the press. And, if Saeed’s plans for continued encounters come to fruition, they may even be able to move from information-sharing to dialogue and a deeper encounter.

TWO free copies of We Need To Talk by Professor Jonathan Jansen are being given away. In his book, Jansen writes about important issues such as the state of the education system, racism, violence, inequalities and anger among ordinary South Africans. To qualify you need to be one of the first two readers to present a copy of this article at the reception of The Witness, Pietermaritzburg. No photocopies will be accepted.

These are the foundation of Muslim life:

• faith or belief in the Oneness of God and the finality of the prophethood of Mohammed (PBUH);

• establishment of the five daily prayers;

• concern for and almsgiving to the needy (Zakaah);

• self-purification through fasting; and

• Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca for those who are able.




ABDULLAH SAEED (AS): I initiated this meeting to counteract the growing Islamophobia and to dispel some stereotypes, prejudices and misconceptions that some people have about Islam and Muslims. I felt the only therapy to … lack of knowledge about Islam is education, dialogue and interaction as Islam is not the problem, misrepresentation, injustice, inequalities and imbalances are our obstacles to co-existence, peace and harmony.

DAVID LEWIS (DL): I have Muslim friends with whom I have discussed Christianity and Islam for purely religious and academic reasons. I understand and support some of their beliefs and customs, especially helping one’s neighbour … I am also very interested in the Palestinian issue, as my father helped liberate Jerusalem from the Turks, and I have a daughter currently in a kibbutz in Israel, from which she had to be evacuated because of a rocket attack from Gaza.


AS: I felt and hope I am correct, that the guests had a slightly better understanding of Muslims, Islam and its message, albeit the discussions touched just the very tip of the iceberg.

DL: I very much enjoyed my visit … I enjoyed the discussion my wife and I had with Abdullah Saeed and others in the group … I accept what was said, but I need more time to discuss the matter before I can make up my mind.


AS: It made me understand why some people have negative views about Islam. It’s not entirely their fault. It comes from what they are fed, via the major news outlets that mainly focus on the behaviour of some misguided groups or individuals and paint the entire religion with the same brush.

DL: About Palestinian peace – yes: about Islam and suicide bombings — no, not yet.

What benefits would other people derive from attending such encounters?

AS: Together with imperialism and greed, religious and cultural intolerance are some of the causes of conflicts in the world today. Such encounters will help prevent the continued cycle of ignorance, suspicion, intolerance, hatred and violence. This can also help to promote better cross religio-cultural relations and, hopefully, may even improve the condition of Africans in Africa.

DL: Greater understanding of those with whom we live and world matters, especially those that lead to peace. We, in this country, need a greater knowledge and understanding of our neighbours to bring real peace and justice for all.

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