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South Africa: Many Muslims, One Islam

The Islamic community of South Africa reflects the same diversity that characterizes the rest of the South African population.

By Suraya Dadoo / 11 Nov 2013

With over 40 million people, eleven national languages, nine provinces, and landscapes that cover the extremes of the deserts and savannas to the beauty of snow-capped mountains,South Africa truly encapsulates diversity.

The country’s biggest asset is its people—a rainbow nation with a rich and diverse culture. At last count, there were over 40 million people in South Africa. Of these, 76.7% classified themselves as African, 10.9% as white, 8.9% as colored, and 2.6% as Indian/Asian.

The South African population consists of the following groups: the Nguni people (consisting of the Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi), who account for two-thirds of the population; the Sotho-Tswana people, who include the Southern, Northern and Western Sotho (Tswana); the Tsonga; the Venda; Afrikaners; English; Coloreds; Indians; and people who have immigrated to South Africa from the rest of Africa, Europe and Asia and who maintain a strong cultural identity. A few members of the Khoi and the San also live in South Africa.

Although Muslims constitute less than 2% of the population, the Islamic community of South Africa reflects the same diversity that characterizes the rest of the South African population.

Islam in South Africa

Islam grew by two phases of immigration in South Africa. The first phase brought the earliest Muslims to South Africa. They were part of the involuntary migration of slaves, political prisoners and criminals from Africa and Asia that lasted from about 1652 to the mid-1800’s. Included in this group were the “Mardykers”, the Malay servants of Dutch officials who were on their way back to the Netherlands from the East. Many of these servants opted to remain at the Cape, and the Cape Province today houses the majority of so-called Malay Muslims. The main group of immigrants came from East Africa, Madagascar, and West Africa. Islam spread rapidly as a result of institutionalization, and an emphasis on education and literacy. Other factors that acted as a catalyst for the growth of Islam at the Cape included conversion, adoption, the purchase of slaves by free Muslims, and intermarriage.

The Arrival of Indian Muslims in South Africa

When slavery was abolished in 1838, British authorities realised the need for an alternative system of labor, and Indians were brought in as indentured laborers to work in the sugar-cane fields in Natal. Between 1860 and 1868, and again from 1874 to 1911, some 176,000 Indians of all faiths were brought to the Natal province. Approximately 7-10% of the first shipment were Muslim, forming part of the second phase of Muslim immigration. These Muslims generally came from Malabar, on the west coast of south India, and Hyderabad in the south.

The indentured Muslims were followed by free immigrant Muslims, mainly Sunni Vhoras from Surat, and Memons from Kathiawad and The founding father of Islam in Natal was Sheikh Ahmad, who arrived with the indentured laborers of the 1860s.

Soofie Saheb, the second founding father, arrived in 1895 and saw that impoverished Indian Muslims were at risk of being absorbed into Hinduism. He demarcated special Islamic folk festivals to “lure” the vulnerable, and also established Muslim festivals and schools (madrasahs). After serving their indentures, Natal Muslims were free to live in the interior of South Africa (except in the Orange Free State, which Indians were prohibited from entering). Some Indian Muslims went to Cape Town, while others went to the Transvaal and Kimberley.

Although Muslims formed the minority of Indians in South Africa, most immigrants brought with them various cultural and linguistic traits from India. Muslims spoke either Urdu or Gujarati, with there being more Urdu-speaking Muslims than Gujarati.

Despite the ideological, cultural and linguistic differences between the “Malay” and Indian Muslims, the Muslim community here has continued to thrive—mainly as a result of the hard work of religious scholars and community activists. Particular attention has been paid to the establishment of religious and educational institutions to ensure not just the survival, but growth, of Islam in this country.

South African Muslims: vibrant and dynamic

In South Africa today, there are over 500 mosques, 408 educational institutes, colleges, Muslim private schools, religious instruction canters, and colleges of Islamic Sciences. Many universities offer Arabic and Islamic Studies as part of their academic curriculum. Muslims are involved in every profession and field of endeavor, and played a significant role in the anti-apartheid struggle and in the post-apartheid government of South Africa.

The proliferation of Islamic media is testament to the vibrancy of the local community. Private Islamic radio stations are broadcast in nearly every province with significant Muslim populations: Radio Islam in Johannesburg; Radio 786 in Cape Town; Radio Al-Ansaar in Durban. Islamic newspapers have also played an important role in educating the Muslim community about various issues. Prominent newspapers include Al-Qalam; The Muslim Digest, Ar-Rasheed; Muslim Views, Al-Ummah and The Majlis.

Local Muslim organizations have taken the lead in addressing humanitarian needs locally and abroad. The Gift of the Givers Foundation, Africa Muslim Agency, Crescent of Hope, and the Islamic Medical Association of South Africa have helped Muslims and non-Muslims alike in times of conflict, natural disasters, and political upheaval.

There are Islamic societies and associations formed by students at most of the important secondary and tertiary educational institutions. Muslim women are not far behind their male counterparts; they have formed their own associations and are rendering valuable services to the community with a true Islamic spirit. Noteworthy among them are: Cape Town; Islamic Da`wah Movement, Women’s Wing, Durban; Islamic Women’s Association, Durban; Jama`at-un-Nissa, Kimberley; Muslim Women’s Federation, Cape Town.

The Muslim youth are not far behind in this either. Some of their important associations and societies are: Fordsburg Muslim Youth Organisation, Johannesburg; Laudium Islamic Youth Awareness Movement, Pretoria; Muslim Youth Unity, Cape Town; Nur-ul-Islam Yield Youth Association, Cape Town; the Kauther Youth Circle, Johannesburg; and Saut-us-Shabaab, Cape Town.


South African Muslims have been blessed with the freedom to express and practice Islam. Even during the repression of apartheid, the National Party regime did not hinder Islam in any way. However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the increase in Islamophobic behavior following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York have led to increased fear and suspicion of Muslims.

Urban terrorism in the Western Cape committed by People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) has fuelled anti-Islamic sentiment there. This manifested itself in the form of anti-terrorism legislation following 9/11 that would ultimately target Muslims and Islamic organizations. Opposition to this type of legislation has been strong, and it is hoped that the government will not allow this legislation to enter the statute books.

Despite these challenges, Islam in South Africa continues to thrive with many indigenous Africans embracing Islam. This reflects the global trend of an increasing number of converts to Islam.

South African Muslims come from many cultural traditions but belong to one nation—a dynamic blend of age-old customs and modern ways, building a new South African society to create a better life for all.


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