Shaykh Yusuf da Costa: How we were and now, how we are

During the first few generations after the demise of Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ), there was a major blossoming of different branches of knowledge.  This blossoming was accompanied by a massive development of spirituality.  It is difficult to say whether at any other time in human history there was such an explosion of knowledge, especially when such an explosion was accompanied by highly specialised achievements in spirituality.  Great scholars, of both genders, were in many cases intensely pious people.  It appears from one’s understanding of history that this bringing together of intellectual and spiritual achievements, if not unique to Islam, then at least there was a large scale development of this during Islam.

If one just considers of an individual like Imam Ghazali, for example, then one can understand what is being written about.  He was perhaps one of the greatest thinkers in Islam.  It is for this reason that he is referred to as the Proof of Islam.  His intellectuality was watered by his spirituality.  Or was it the other way around?  Or did the watering come from both sides?  It is difficult to say.  Today he is recognised as one of Islam’s greatest intellectual and spiritual figures.  There were many like him; perhaps not as great but in the same category.  During those years the blossoming of Islam was unprecedented, and this blossoming made a major contribution to the Renaissance in Europe.  When Islam marched, as it did during those years, there was major intellectual and spiritual development.  It must have been wonderful to have lived during those years, because of the climate that prevailed; a climate characterised by major researches in different branches of knowledge and by major achievements in the sciences of the Hereafter.  I sometimes imagine scholars coming together to discuss their research and to mention what Allah Almighty had granted them of stations.  They must have done so; sharing their knowledge and their experiences.

When the Messenger of Allah Almighty () was ordered by Jibril (a.s.) to read, that instruction launched a movement which culminated in all these achievements.  It is almost impossible to believe that the belief in one God and the Messengership of Nabi Muhammad () could have started such a movement.  It must have been fantastic at the time to be a Muslim.  Both men and women achieved.  Scholarship and spiritual achievement reigned supreme amongst both genders.

Today, when one looks at those years, there is a sadness in one’s heart, because of what has happened since then.  Here is South Africa, where we live, when I did my doctoral thesis and studied the statistics on educational achievement in the different religious groups, I found, to my dismay, the Muslims right at the bottom of the scale.  I have very seldom spoken about this.  The shame is too great.  There were individuals who achieved despite the repressive social and political conditions but as a group there was no achievement.  There were only a few odd spiritual figures but even fewer in which the intellectual was combined with the spiritual.  If one looks back at the first generations of Islam and brings one’s eyes forward to the present generation here in South Africa, it is almost as if Islam has died.  This is so harsh to say but the shame that one experiences when one studies this community, runs deep.  And in a sense, the shame is accompanied by pain.  One pains because of what could have been achieved or what should have been achieved.

Of course, it is unfair to want to compare the achievements of the first generations of Muslims with the lack of achievements of the present generations, because, in a sense, the inspiration of Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) still prevailed large in the religious canvas of that time.  Today, it appears, that it is not so anymore.  But this is largely untrue, and perhaps this will be discussed in another letter.  In one sense the Prophet (ﷺ) has passed away but in so many different senses, he continues to impact on our lives.

You see one of the biggest mistakes of Muslims today, when one scans the religious landscape, is the massive gap between the intellectual and the spiritual.  There was no such gap at the beginning.  Today those who strive for intellectual achievements ignore the spiritual, and those who strive for spiritual achievement find intellectual achievement a burden.  What a horrible mistake.  How can one draw a line or establish a gap between the seeking of knowledge and the purification of the self.  But here in South Africa we have successfully done that.  And the consequences have been disastrous.  We have produced few individuals who have combined in themselves the seeking of knowledge and the striving of such purification.  One sometimes wonders if there are any such individuals.

But this is just part of the dismal picture that one sees.  There has been major social degeneration of large sections of this community.  This has found expression in rampant crime, consumption of drugs and all the social evils that one can think of that accompany this.  Today, I read that a Muslim mother had killed her two year old son.  This killing is a reflection of the extent of the degeneration of this community.  In many parts there is very little Islam left, if any, and the light of Islam has almost totally been extinguished.  There has also been an inability to use Islam as a defence against this degeneration.  We have found some people who have successfully done this, but most have not.

Every year we celebrate this social and religious degeneration of the community by thousands of us going on the streets of Cape Town as coon troops; in satin clothing, blackened faces, strumming guitars and jumping up and down.  Every year it happens and every year this disgrace and other disgraces parade through the streets of the mother city.  Is this our only achievement?  Will history one day record the only achievement of the nation of the Messenger of Allah () at the southern part of this continent was to entertain large crowds of people with coon carnival exhibitions or whatever we call them.  The more they walk and the more they jump, the more the intellectual and spiritual lamp of Islam is dimmed.  They, and the “nagtroepe”, (just like them but dressed in suits) will be recorded by future historians as the dimmers of the lamp of Islam.

The sad thing is, other than writing about this, is that it appears that there is very little that one can do.  This dimming, entrenched in the community through government and Lotto support, and the support of large numbers of other Muslims, has not dimmed the lamp but is helping to shatter it.  Yet here and there are those who try hard to prevent all of these especially those in Sufi Orders who, in their own way, are trying to stop the dimming and the shattering.  You see, there must be the intense belief that what people are doing to prevent such shattering and dimming will succeed.  We cannot think otherwise.  How can part of the nation of Nabi Muhammad () be characterised by activities which degrade this nation?  What happens in Cape Town is a major degradation of what Muslims are supposed to stand for.  Those of us who oppose this, must succeed and we ask Allah Almighty for that success, otherwise, future generations might ask about Islam: “What are all of these pieces of glass on the roads of the city?”  Or they might ask: “What has happened to the light of Islam?”  We must not believe that this cannot happen.  Our understanding of history and of sociology tells us that it can.

Perhaps what makes this situation even more tragic for us here is the fact that our forefathers came here as slaves and political exiles.  They suffered massive personal and social trauma.  There is no way that we can describe what happened to them, especially the women, on the boats as they crossed the Indian Ocean or what happened to them in the slave factories and lodges, or what happened to them at the hands of their “masters”.  There is no way to describe this.  There are not enough tears in our eyes that we can shed, because of what they had suffered.  Today, the suffering is highlighted, not by a sombre historical record of what had happened but by their descendants jumping up and down in the streets of Cape Town, singing stupid little songs.  We have disgraced our forefathers by what we do.  In fact we are not worthy of being mentioned with them in the same breath.

We must replace the shame and the pain with a determination to do something about our Islam in the Western Cape or in the whole of this country.  We must try to make people understand that Islam has to do with major intellectual achievements and the attainment of Divine grants from Allah Almighty, and that these can only be achieved not through the singing of “moppies” or the hitting of little canes on the tar of the streets but it can only be attained by the community, as a social structure, working and walking hand in hand to change its direction in this country.  We ask Allah Almighty for this with all the passion at our disposal, amin.

[Letters to Seekers on the Spiritual Path Vol 2 – Unpublished 2012]

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