THE LETTERS in this collection are some of the letters I have written to the murids in South Africa over the last few years. Most of them concern matters that arose with or among the murids. In many cases, I would use such a matter to explain one or other Islamic teaching or an understanding of such a teaching in terms of my very limited comprehension of spirituality. By spirituality is meant a perception of Islam that stresses the purification of the self for spiritual achievement. This achievement is usually in the form of special Divine Graces, such as Wilayah or Friendship that is granted by Allah.
IN THIS FOREWORD I wish to deal with a matter not explained completely in the collection. The Islam that was brought to South Africa by our forefathers from the 17th century onwards was mainly an Islam based on the teachings of the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama’ah or what are called Sunni teachings. Perhaps the most important aspect of Sunni teachings is the acceptance of those who succeeded the Messenger (ﷺ) as being religiously authentic. And here I am referring to Sayyidunas Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali (r.a.), in that order. In the field of jurisprudence, these teachings are represented by figures such as Imams Shafi, Abu Hanifah, Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Malik. With regard to the Prophetic Traditions, the Sunnis accept the following collections as being the most authentic; those of Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmizi, Ibn Majah, Abu Dawud and Nasa’i. There are also other fields or disciplines in these teachings associated with the names of prominent scholars. In the field of spirituality names such as those of Shaykhs Abdul Qadir Jilani, Baha’uddin al-Naqshbandi and Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chisti (r.a.), amongst others, occur. The latter group of shaykhs was to a large degree responsible for the establishment of Sufi Orders named after or by them.
IT IS, THEREFORE, NOT SURPRISING that the Islam that came to the Cape at the time was characterized by a number of well-known Sufi Orders. This was the Islam that was inherited by later generations and practised up to about the middle of the 20th century. In the meantime important changes had taken place in the belief system and practice of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula inspired by the teachings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) who rejected the Madh-habs and Islamic Spirituality. “A pact was made between Ibn Saud (a tribal chief in the Peninsula) and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, by which Ibn Saud pledged to implement Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings and enforce them on neighbouring towns. Beginning in the last years of the 18th century Ibn Saud and his heirs (The House of Saud) would spend the next 140 years mounting various military campaigns to seize control of Arabia and its outlying regions, finally taking control of the whole of modern day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1922. This provided the movement with a state. Vast wealth from oil discovered in the following decades, coupled with Saudi control of the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah, have since provided a base and funding for Salafi missionary activity” (Wikipedia). Through this military control, the teachings of Ibn Abdul al-Wahhab were implemented in all the educational institutions in that country and elsewhere in countries where Saudi oil wealth held sway.
LARGE NUMBERS of students from South Africa have continued to go to these institutions, totally unaware of the changes that had taken place in them, and they have come back to South Africa committed to the Wahhabi cause. In some cases they have been granted monthly stipends by the Saudi authorities to foster Wahhabi teachings in mosques and madrassahs. The Muslim community in this country, oblivious of the educational changes in these institutions, has been appointing the “new” shaykhs and mawlanas to important positions in the community’s religious structures. Today they occupy many of the country’s pulpits, madrassahs and decision-making councils, surreptitiously spreading the Wahhabi doctrine or its derivations against the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama’ah.
OF COURSE, the question that arises is: What has their impact been on the religious beliefs and practice of the South African Muslim community? Perhaps the most devastating impact has been on the practices associated with Islamic Spirituality, and so, for example, we have seen the virtual disappearance of the congregational adhkar of the different Sufi Orders. The Ratib al-Haddad and al-Attas of the Alawi Order, for example, so common in our community, is now seldom heard of. The only public congregational adhkar that they have been unable to stop have been the Naqshbandi ones. This has been, because of a deliberate campaign by this Order to plant its adhkar in certain areas. They have also not been able to totally stop the Mawlud al-Nabi, because of community resistance despite active campaigning against the Mawlud and pious people by a local cleric. Another practice that is disappearing are the adhkar and supplications after the fard salahs. In most mosques today only a single short supplication is made after these salahs.
IT IS NOT ONLY in the disappearance of certain religious practices that the impact of Wahhabi doctrines has to be seen. At other levels these doctrines have made serious inroads. And so local Islamic conferences generally exclude papers on aspects of Islamic Spirituality as if it is not part of Islam, and one of the local educational institutions dropped Islamic Spirituality as one of its courses after a change in rectors. Every Friday clerics trained in the Wahhabi discourses deliver sermons from their pulpits to thousands of Muslims. It is from these pulpits that these clerics are furtively destroying the teachings of the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama’ah. In one of the local mosques I personally heard a cleric that had just arrived from Saudi Arabia reducing the status of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) in his sermon to that of an “ordinary man”. The attacks on the status of the Messenger (ﷺ) are accompanied by attacks against the status of the inheritors of the Prophets (a.s.), the Awliya’. Thus visits to the graves of the Awliya’ are referred to as “grave-worship”, to supplicate to Allah at their graves is “shirk”, that there is nothing special about them, and that it is also “shirk” to display photographs of such people. Has this had an impact? Yes, for example, at one time it was common for pilgrims before leaving for Mecca to go to the graves of the Awliya’ “to greet”. Many pilgrims do not do this anymore. They say that it is an “innovation”. There has also been a steady decrease in the number of people visiting the graves of the Awliya’.
REMOVING TEACHINGS on spirituality from Islam has large scale consequences. There is, first of all, a major reduction in sensitivity to the teachings of Islam and functioning in the Presence of Allah. Such sensitivity only comes about as a consequence of intensive worshipping, especially long periods spent in His remembrance, and gives rise to the fear of disobedience of Allah Almighty and the Messenger (ﷺ), and the desire to strive for piety and to work in Allah’s Cause. It takes one away from religious pettiness and argumentation to consciousness that has to do with one’s relationship with Allah and His Messenger (ﷺ). Islam becomes a sacred experience through which one goes, and the Sacred Words of the Qur’an and the Traditions are there to help and foster that experience. Being busy with the sacred increases one’s holiness, and takes one to different spiritual stations. The processes involved in being busy with the sacred have a social dimension when many people are busy with it. And it is this social dimension that gives a very special quality to the faith and practice of a community. When it is not there, the community sinks into major disobedience of the Divine Law; a matter we are seeing in our community today. Those individuals and organizations that are fighting against spirituality are responsible for this vast religious decline, and all that this decline means for our community. They may raise their arms in protest, but the present rapid religious decline of the Muslim community coincides with their return to this country with teachings against spirituality. Their deliberate campaigns against the religious discourse as expounded by the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama’ah has left us with an Islam without spiritual energy and goals, an Islam devoid of compassion, love and brotherly feeling. The fact that large numbers of Muslims are turning their backs on Islam tells the whole story.
THE REMOVAL OF SPIRITUALITY also means that we decrease the possibility of people striving for piety and spiritual grants, and attaining these. This means that our religious affairs have slipped into the hands of people who are not only deeply irreligious spiritually, but have no clue of the spiritual energy of Islam. Many of them, in addition, have a dangerously limited understanding of Islam. They occupy positions in our religious structures and pass religious decisions that send shivers down one’s spine. The majority of Muslims, having very little Islamic knowledge themselves, accept these decisions, and ignorance spreads on the tongues and in the actions of these people. These religious leaders repeat the statements against spirituality they heard in the lecture theatres in educational institutions under Wahhabi control. I have not come across a single one – although there might be – who has made an independent study to come to the truths of Islam, like a real student would have done. I have, however, come across students whom the Wahhabis could not brainwash; so that, here and there, the beams of light of our heritage, the Tassawwuf perspective of Islam, continue to penetrate and do away with the Wahhabi darkness that is enveloping our community.
It is my sincere wish that these letters will add to these beams of light, insha Allah. And our Lord knows best.
Yusuf da Costa
N.B.: These letters were originally sent to the Naqshbandi murids in this country. It is for this reason that it appears that they are being addressed all the time. My wish is that adherents of other Tariqahs will find the information in these letters of benefit for them.