The history of the establishment of the mosques of Cape Town is an incredible one. One of Princes, warriors, Sufi saints and Ottoman dignitaries. There is however, a history too often unsung, left out but in truth the most significant of histories for the Muslims of the Cape. One that truly connects us to this city, it’s very foundations.

The earliest Muslims were brought to the cape  as part of the involuntary migration of slaves, political prisoners and political exiles from Africa and Asia. In the 17th century the Dutch controlled East Indies and the Cape. Muslims were brought from Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia), etc. as slaves including those who waged Jihad in the Dutch colonies.

Sumatra fighters

Picture from the film “Tjoet Nja’ Dhien” about the war against the invading Dutch in Sumatra

The first political exiles were the rulers of Sumatra. They were Sheikh Abdurrahman Matabe Shah and Sheikh Mahmud. Sheikh Abdurrahman Matebe Shah used his exile to consolidate the teaching of Islam among slaves in the Cape. The first recorded arrival of free Muslims is in 1658, which were brought to the Cape in order to defend the newly established settlement against the indigenous people, and also to provide labour. The Muslims were prohibited from openly practicing Islam.

Under the Dutch the Muslims did not enjoy the freedom to worship in public. Public worship also included the right to build a mosque and to use it as a public place of worship. Dutch rule in the Cape lasted from 1652 to 1795. The British took over from 1795 to 1803 as a response to the Netherlands being conquered by the French Revolution and it being renamed the Batavian Republic. In the late 1790’s some Muslims, among them Tuan Guru (Imam Abdullah Qadi Abdussalaam), and Frans van Bengal petitioned the British authorities for a mosque site, but were refused.

There were a number of petitions that were sent after this. All were refused. Tuan Guru is known as the Father of Islam in South Africa. He was a prince from Tidore in the Trinate Islands and a descendant of the Sultan of Morocco.
He was banished by the Dutch invaders to the Cape in 1780 because of a conspiracy against them. He was incarcerated on Robben Island for 12 years until 1792. The British held the cape for 8 years when finally, after the Treaty of Amiens with the French, the British returned the Cape Colony to the Netherlands, being under French rule, in February 1803. It was then under occupation of the Batavian Republic under Commissioner-General J.A. de Mist and the Governor of the Cape of Good Hope, Lieutenant-General J.W. Janssens, who sponsored development and reforms. Elsewhere in Europe, as the Napoleonic Wars accelerated, the British concerned that the French would try to take India from British control, decided to take back the Cape colony as a way of stopping the advance of French warships on their way to India. The Batavian administrators being realists saw that they needed the assistance of the Muslims to defend the Cape against the British. The mosque site was granted, on the condition that the Muslims commit themselves to defend the Cape militarily.

This produced a matter of opportunity for the Muslims in the Cape living under the rule of the Batavian Republic in the face of this impeding British invasion. At the age of 97 the respected leader of his community, Qadi Abdussalaam known as Tuan Guru, was approached by General Dundas to help the Batavian army. In return the Muslims were promised “freedom” from slavery as well as a plot of land in central Cape Town for a mosque and burial site.

Because of his old age, Tuan Guru passed the allegiance to Frans van Bengalen, the Javanese army “chaplain.” In August 1805, as Napoleon massed forces at Boulogne to invade England, a British force sailed away in secret on a mission to retake the Cape. It consisted of 61 warships and transport vessels command by Vice-Ad-miral Sir Home Popham and 6,654 soldiers and marines under Major General Sir David Baird. It was a formidable force that outnumbered the troops of the Batavian Republic.

British Warships about to take the shores of Blaauberg

British Warships about to take the shores of Blaauberg

General Janssens enlisted the free Muslims to serve as soldiers in 1804 in exchange for a Mosque site. 54 gunners of the ‘Javanese Artillery Corps’, assisted by l04 auxiliaries such as wagon-drivers. These Muslim artillerymen were volunteer citizen-soldiers like the Swellendammers, members of a ‘corps of free Javanese’ from the free Muslims, the substantial community of freed slaves of Asian origin, which by that time was playing an increasingly important role in the social and economic life of the Cape.

People gather to re-enact the Battle of Blaauberg

People gather to re-enact the Battle of Blaauberg

Two Javanese Artilleries were instituted; one under the command of Frans van Bengalen; and a light Javanese Artillery on foot under the command of a Frenchman, J. Madlener. They were extremely well trained when they were deployed at the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806 and there was agreement that the Cape Muslim Artilleries would have won the day for General Janssens had he not retreated to the Mainland. Many were injured and some killed in the battle. Their gallantry in battle earned them great praise and respect from their British adversaries.

Men of their Word
Honour for Honour

The Muslims that fought, upholding their end of the bargain in promise of the right to build a mosque, ‘stood their ground after many of the Batavian troops had fled, and delayed the British advance long enough to let the Batavian Army withdraw in good order.’ As Willem Steenkamp explains in his book: Assegais, Drums & Dragoons. Major General Baird, so impressed by the Muslim Artillery men and their bravery, pushed to uphold the promise of the Batavian republic without hesitation, to allow the Muslims of the Cape to build their first mosque. There is evidence of a building having once stood in the historic stone quarry where Tuan Guru (Qadi Abdussalaam rahimullah) used to stand upon a large stone to deliver the khutba for the Jumuah prayer, which may have been utilized as a temporary mosque.

Indonesian Latakan Canon fired at the V&A Waterfront as part of the launching of Willem Steenkamp's book: Assegais, Drums & Dragoons

Indonesian Latakan Canon fired at the V&A Waterfront as part of the launching of Willem Steenkamp’s book: Assegais, Drums & Dragoons

However it is widely considered that the Awal Mosque of the Bo-Kaap to be the first Mosque on South Africa. The beginning of established Islam here in the Cape starts with this great event and can only be completed when we the inheritors of this fine Deen and community return to the practise and understanding of those before. More can be read on the Battle of Blaauberg in Ghamim Harris’ thesis: British Policy Towards the Malays at the Cape of Good Hope 1795-1850.

The Oldest Mosque in Cape Town. The Auwal Mosque. Auwal in Arabic meaning "first".

The Oldest Mosque in Cape Town. The Auwal Mosque. Auwal in Arabic meaning “first”.

Here in the first community of Muslims here at the Cape, we find a people that did not just merely accept the status quo of their time. Had they believed that Islam was simply a private religion they would not have fought so hard to establish the mosque. Indeed we owe all we have inherited of the Deen of Islam in this country to these brave forerunners. We are the descendants of fighters and upstarts that would not stop but to bring the light of Islam to every corner the world and shine on every aspect of life.

Nabeel Abdalhaqq
Cape Town Editor