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The Middle Road: South Africa’s Constitutional Democracy and her Muslim citizens

Apr 14, 2014

umm Abdillah, Radio Islam Programming – 2014.04.14


As part of Radio Islam’s election focus umm Abdillah elicited comment from Moulana Ashraf Dockrat to questions based on the relationship between South Africa’s constitution and our public expressions of Islam.


Despite constituting a mere 2% of the South African population, Muslim political views are diverse and reflect the diversity of trends and threads in South Africa. On the one hand, there is support for the Constitution without and with reserve: (for e.g. an understanding of its leading to greater good; long-term with short-term goals for Muslims, averting greater harms; averting the influence of greater global power to Islamophobic governments). On the other hand, certain individuals and groups regard the Constitution as a rival authority to Islamic Law: (i.e. we should never be subjugated via any law that is not Shariah; Kufr is entirely one hue etc.).




There is a third viewpoint too. As Muslims we strive for an ideal. As our Deen is one of hope, we aspire too for the blueprint left with us by the Rasul of Allah (S). We bear this in mind not only in South Africa but globally too.


That said however, we need to be realistic and present solutions to the here-and-now. One of these is to exercise our right to vote and our constitutional responsibilities – as a stepping-stone to a better world for all.


Muslims in South Africa are deeply involved in national politics, and 
are fully represented at different levels of government. Their representation at this level far outweighs
 their proportion to the general population. According to statistics in 2007 for example: 18 out of 490 members of parliament 
from both houses were Muslim, even more in the lower echelons. Muslims
 are also well represented among prominent and outspoken public leaders and cabinet ministers. These range from Ahmad Kathrada, who spent 27 years with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island to then prominent ANC member, Ebrahim Rasool. According to Prof. Tayob – Islam and Democracy in South Africa”during his tenure as Premier of the Western Cape, Rasool articulated a religious approach to democratic politics. Emerging himself from small but vocal Muslim anti-apartheid activist groups in the 1980s, Rasool regularly espoused an Islamic justification for democracy and a national Muslim identity that did not contradict Islam.


Given that background, who holds the right to speak on behalf of the Muslims? Scholars of today are by-and-large not the jurists of yesteryear. Do our politicians or our scholars represent us?




The issues of citizenship, democracy, citizens and their constitutions within minority Muslim populations etc. need augmenting by our Fuqaha (Jurists). They have the right to discuss, debate and decide the parameters of these answers, and these are fluid.


The minute a politician overtly asserts his Muslimness and standing as representative of the Muslim populace, everything – even his personal corruption is open to slating under the banner of Islam. This is dangerous. Hence an important point – that Muslims sustain not as great a role as politicians, rather in governance. There is a decided distinction between these two.


Human rights activists have argued that Islamic law is a product of human history, subject to continued interpretation and adjustment. In their view, the South African Constitution represents shared universal values in the light of which for e.g. Muslim Marriage law may be re-interpreted.A vast majority of Muslims believe, however, that a compromise with the Constitution in that case is inherently impossible, because in contrast to the human construction of the Constitution, Muslim Personal Law (MPL) is Divine in origin and intent, and not be subject to compromise and historical conditioning.




Our Fiqh is Sacred. It’s sources, whether Qiyaas or Ijmaa’ are derived from sacred sources. However, we can exercise maximum benefit from the Constitution in this particular regard, as its purpose is relief. If interpreted correctly, MPL will even serve in areas where the Bill of Rights is currently being trampled.


Those who believe in the secularity of our Constitution are wrong. We are not a secular state and there is ample room in the Bill of Rights for Faith-Based solutions, pursued solely for relief.


Religious goals clearly derive support from the Constitution, but rather ironically turn individuals away from
 fully embracing the same? There is
 clearly a tension between religious objectives and
 commitments on the one hand, and the objectives
 of the South African Constitution on the other. E.g. homosexuality and gambling.




This will always be the case; this tension will always exist and is not only curtailed to the Muslim populace. This is the contrasting nature of democracy after all, to exercise our rights, for others to assert theirs, and for all to evoke the right to protest when they aren’t being upheld.


As one mere example, the Halal symbol on foods permitted for Muslims has become ubiquitous in governmental institutions, supermarkets and fast-food chain stores, even local airlines. On the one hand, the symbol represents the entrenched place of Muslims in building the rainbow nation of South Africa. On the other hand, it also points to the erection of much stronger boundaries between Muslims and other religious and cultural groups in the country.


This is rather different hue to our 1600’s to 1994 identity. Back then we worked on a base premise, i.e. achieving mutual goals and freedom from the monster of largely church-sponsored Apartheid.


Could it be then said we’re engaging the civil society sector and other good only to selfish ends? That we’re only interested in our own right to practice Islam freely and turn others to our Faith?




No matter how much civil good any individual contributes to, they are always looking out for themselves first. This is innately human. If you don’t stand for your own rights, who else will? Yes, we are interested in our own experience, we are concerned about Islamophobia, we are concerned that as Muslims our rights are taken seriously, but so is every other Faith group. This too is what a democracy entails.


Would we then say SA Muslims are progressive in this regard? We have clearly overlapping identities and rather than subvert or invert the status quo, we rather positively manipulate it?




Well, let’s not overestimate our influence. We’re certainly not a paradigm in our shared experiences. We have been integral in the building of democratic rights for all, yes, but the objective now is to sustain that. Politics is far less important than governance. It’s the ministerial level that influences decisions for the greater good.


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