Shafiq Morton’s historical study From the Spice Islands to Cape Town deals, as the subtitle indicates with “the life and times of Tuan Guru”, one of the key figures in the history of Islam at the southern point of Africa. ‘Abdullah Ibn Qadi ‘Abd ul-Salam, later known among Cape Muslims as Tuan Guru (Grand Teacher), was born in Tidore in 1712. For much of his life he was an advisor to Sultan Jamal al-Din, the ruler of the spice revenue-funded Sultanate of Tidore on the tropical Maluku islands in the Southeast Asian archipelago. At the age of 68, Tuan Guru landed at the Cape on board De Zeepard. As political prisoners, he and his fellow courtiers were immediately incarcerated on a bleak and windswept Robben Island, a place he referred to as Pulau Aylan. On his release from his second spell of banishment Tuan Guru played a pioneering role in organising and educating the faithful, making him “our country’s first recorded urban activist”
Morton tells, for those readers interested in the underclass history of the Cape, an engrossing tale of Tuan Guru’s history in Tidore, the world of his upbringing, his banishment, his supposed spiritual powers and his leadership. He spends a full chapter, Chapter 10, on the meaning of Ma’rifat al-Islam wa’l-Iman and traces the considerable impact of Tuan Guru and his descendants on life in the Cape Muslim community and the broader South African society. Through the Arabic orthography the Awwal madrasah played a pivotal role in developing an alternative communal literacy tradition that gradually changed from Malayu to Cape Dutch and gave rise to what we today know, as the Arabic-Afrikaans scribal tradition. Beginning with Tuan Guru, successive imams and Muslim leaders established the local Islamic education tradition and network of community support organisations that outlasted the Batavian, British and the early South African administrations and are still flourishing well into the 21st century.
Morton’s account is well-written and worthy of the story of a remarkable man whose legacy lives on through his writings, the religious and educational traditions he fostered and through the achievements of his many descendants. It is a welcome addition to the growing collection of biographical and historical works on underclass figures and communities.
About Tuan Guru
Tuan Guru, which means “Master Teacher”, is the popular name of a hero of Cape Islam. His full name is Imam ‘Abdullah ibn Qadi ‘Abd al-Salam, which means that he was the son of a religious judge, Qadi ‘Abd al-Salam.
Qadi ‘Abd al-Salam hailed from the royal house of Tidore, which was one of the famous Spice Islands in Indonesia. The spice for which Tidore was famous was the clove. Tuan Guru’s mother was Boki, or Princess, Nuriniyah. Tuan Guru had five brothers and two sisters.
Tuan Guru was born in Tidore in 1712. He died in Cape Town in 1807 aged 95 years. He arrived at the Cape on the Dutch East India Company sailing ship, the Zeepard, in 1780 when he was 68 years old. He was sent to Robben Island. The Dutch sent him to the Cape because they were afraid he would make friends with the English, a Dutch enemy.
Tuan Guru was a religious teacher who cared for the slave community. He established our first madrasah (or school) in 1793, and shortly after that, the first mosque in South Africa.
Tuan Guru, who was imprisoned on Robben Island twice, was a Hafiz ul-Qur’an and wrote out the Holy Book there from memory.
He also wrote another work called the “Ma’rifat wal Iman wal Islam” (the Knowledge of Faith and Deen) a book of 613 pages, from which he taught the Muslims of Cape Town about Islam.
Tuan Guru’s mosque and madrasah were established in Dorp Street in the Bo Kaap on the property of Saartjie van de Kaap, daughter of Coridon of Ceylon, who was one of the first black land owners in the Bo-Kaap.
The mosque is called “Masjid ul-Awwal” (the First Mosque), and is still standing today, though it has been rebuilt several times over the last 200 years. Many tourists, and important world leaders such as Nelson Mandela, have enjoyed visiting this historical mosque.
It is from Cirebon that Tuan Guru’s grandfather, Habib ‘Umar Rahmat al-Faruq, travelled to the Moluccan chain in 1646 to spread Islam. He settled on the island of Tidore, becoming a member of the Sultan’s royal household.
Tuan Guru, or Imam ‘Abdullah bin Qadi ‘Abd al-Salam, was born in 1712. As a member of the royal family, Tuan Guru soon became the focus of the Dutch East India Company, who fearful of rebellion, detained him in Batavia, and finally exiled him to the Cape in 1780.
Not only did Tuan Guru write the Qur’an from memory whilst imprisoned on Robben Island, but he also penned a 613-page textbook of Islamic belief, prayers and advice, which was used to teach Muslims at the Cape for over 100 years. He established South Africa’s first madrasah in 1793, and later on, its first mosque in Dorp Street, Cape Town.
About the author – Shafiq Morton
SHAFIQ MORTON is an award-winning Cape Town-based photo-journalist, editor, surfer and radio-TV presenter with decades’ experience.
He has covered South African stories such as the anti-apartheid campaign, the release of Nelson Mandela, the 1994 elections and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He has been on assignment in places such as Palestine, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Namibia and Niger.
In 2008 he won the National Vodacom Award in the community media section and the regional award in 2010.
He is the author of four books, Notebooks from Makkah and Madinah (a Saudi Arabian travelogue), Surfing behind the Wall, My Palestinian Journey and Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers, A Mercy to All and From the Spice Islands to Cape Town: the Life and Times of Tuan Guru.