Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Islam in Grahamstown

This piece was inspired by a request from a lecturer to cover the topic of Religion in Grahamstown. As I was the only Muslim student among the 12 postgrad students in my class, I decided it was rather pertinent that I cover it as there are so many intricacies of the religion that make the task harder for someone outside of the faith to fathom so quickly. And as a Muslim, I had it easier as I was already connected to the community as I served as an executive member on the Muslim Students Association covering the portfolio of Media and Communications.

I already knew that there was no mosque in Grahamstown and that a Jamat Khana was used by the students and community alike. After endeavouring further into the topic of Islam in Grahamstown I quickly found out the following:

That not having a mosque to worship in has not stopped Grahamstown's Muslim community from joining the rest of the Islamic world in fasting during daylight hours and offering special prayers for the holy month of Ramadan. They continue to gather at one of two Jamat Khanas in town.

The Jamat Khana on Rhodes University campus, located in the passage between 52 and 54 Bathurst Street, is only for men. Fahád Saleh said that about 100 men perform their weekly Friday prayers there as it is small and there is no section for the women to pray.

But Grahamstown resident Shakur Norris said he prefers to pray at the Rhodes Jamat Khana as it has more to offer. “Prayer is taking place five times a day as well as the Friday lecture,” he said.

But land has been purchased in town to build a mosque, Norris said. “By God's will, construction will commence soon.”

The Jamat Khana at Rhodes has been serving the purpose of a mosque for the student and local community since it was established a decade ago. In addition to daily prayers, they have added special prayers there at night during the month of Ramadan. They also offer Islamic lessons in things such as Fiqh; Islamic jurisprudence, understanding the holy book, the Koran, through translation, explanation and interpretation, as well as special programmes for women.

Young Muslims aged six and above can receive their Islamic education at the Jamat Khana every weekday. Besides this formal school, many children learn about Islam informally at home from their parents.

Walking into the Friday lecture a while ago, I immediately felt the familiar tranquillity of a mosque. The smell of freshly cleaned carpets permeated the air. Muslim women in long, loose black prayer garments and scarves that cover everything but their hands, feet and faces, sat along different rows on the carpet.

Embracing you into the Islamic way of life, some of the women offered a warm soft smile. Like the men, who are in a separate room, the women sat side-by-side, typically next to family members or friends that have accompanied them. Whispers occasionally went around the room, but it was mostly quiet as everyone listened intently to the weekly lecture delivered by the spiritual leader, or Moulana, Huzaifa Cassim.

A little boy and girl sat silently beside their mother and occasionally stared at some of the women. They rolled around on the carpet and looked through the blinds but they, too, were silent in this place of worship.

The lecture on this particular day highlighted the values and principles, such as purity and honesty, that are core to the Islamic way of life. After the lecture, the Moulana led the prayers. The congregation followed, standing side-by-side with shoulders rubbing against each other and their feet neatly aligned along a line facing toward Kiblah.

When the prayers ended, women kissed and wished each other good health. After the prayers, men congregated outside for a quick chat. On this warm Friday afternoon, the crowd outside the Jamat Khana consisted mostly of male students and some older men from the town, as well as about six women students.

Though a small community, the Muslim population in Grahamstown is gradually growing. Consisting of mostly foreigners and students, Moulana Amir Sherman estimated that there are about 160 Muslims in the community. At Rhodes, there are about 40 young men and 60-70 young women, while another 20 families and about 35 other individuals live in Grahamstown.

Some Bathurst Street business owners and their families gather each night at the Jamat Khana to break their fast and pray together.

Muhammed Rizwan, a Pakistani who now lives in Grahamstown, said he appreciates that sense of community. “It’s nice,” he said. “Everyone is fasting in the Ramadan. We have a committee. There is food for about 70 people. We make our own food and give to everyone. We spend the whole month breaking fast together.”

One of the cooks, Bilal Bami, said he prepares food for Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian and Egyptian Muslims, all of whom break their fast together. Sajad Mohmood, another Pakistani who has relocated to Grahamstown, said that the Ramadan spirit is well and alive here.

“We go to the Jamat Khana in Bathurst Street,” he said. “The only arrangement for the women is at the Rhodes JK.” Another local, Jameela Yasini, said despite the active Jamaat Khana at Rhodes, she performs her prayers at home.

During Ramadan students gather at the Rhodes prayer room to break their fast with dates, water, samosas and chilli bites before praying. Later, everyone meets at the Reading Room next to the Oppidan Dining Hall to eat supper together before going back to the Jamat Khana for the special evening prayers, called taraweeh. Leftover food from supper is distributed to the poor each night.

Yousuf said that residents cook and celebrate the day with family and friends. Rhodes students celebrate Eid ul-Fitr at campus. The Muslim Students' Association (MSA) organises a celebratory Eid lunch or supper on campus. Sarfraz Mahomed, of the MSA, said that all the Muslims in Grahamstown gather to perform the morning Eid salaah on Kings Field. Afterwards, “we all dress up and spend the rest of the day at various friends’ homes,” Mahomed said.

But preparing feasts for Muslims isn't always easy. Although Rhodes does offer Halaal food to students in residence, the dietary guidelines that stipulate what may be consumed and what may not have only recently become available.

“We had to buy from Port Elizabeth or slaughter ourselves,” Norris said. “Now, thank God, Fruit and Veg just started recently to sell Halaal meat.”

As the possibility to follow their religion grows in Grahamstown, so does the Muslim community. A Da’wa centre is being established to encourage people to learn more about Islam. “This is the major problem in Grahamstown. People don’t know,” Norris said. “The Da’wa project for now is being run from two shops in New Street: Crazy Corner and Muscle Worx.” These stores give Islamic literature and English Koran's free to anybody who wants to know about Islam.

As the month of Ramadan concludes, Muslims in Grahamstown can look forward to a brighter future and an Eid Mubarak.

For more: Islam in Grahamstown

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