by Zafar Bangash (Reflections, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 7, Ramadan, 1429)
That the first volume of The Ascendant Qur'an, Imam Muhammad al-Asi's new tafseer of the Qur’an, would be well received inSouth Africa was never in doubt, given his great popularity within the Muslim community; what was unclear was the degree of support it would receive. This became evident during the first programme, on August 8, organized by Al-Ghazali College in Erasmia, a suburb of Pretoria. Although originally a fund-raising event for a sports centre for al-Ghazali College, the tafseer launch quickly became the main event. Speakers included Imam al-Asi, Brother Afeef Khan (editor of the tafseer), Imam Abdul Alim Musa, Brother Iqbal Siddiqui (editor of Crescent International), this writer and several local speakers. Hundreds of copies were sold and more than a thousand sponsored by various individuals for distribution.
Thereafter, it was clear that the gruelling schedule organized by our hosts, which involved journeys of hundreds of miles almost every day, would prove enormously rewarding. Programmes in Polokwane, Mafikeng, Vryburg, Gaborone (Botswana), Durban andCape Town were all very successful. In each city, copies virtually ran out. Animated discussions followed each programme not only at the venue of the event—often a mosque—but later at the home of the local host as well. During our last stop in Cape Town, hundreds were disappointed because no copies of the first print run of 3,000 were left. At the end of our tour, there were outstanding orders for another 2,000 copies though we had visited only a few mosques in the country. In Cape Town, both Radio Cape and Radio 786 provided extensive coverage and interviewed a number of us, which gave the tafseer great publicity. Our final programme in al-Quds Mosque in Cape Town, attended by some 600 Muslims, was broadcast live, prompting many listeners to place orders, as well as inviting the guests to visit their mosques and centres for further programmes. It was not possible for us to accept these invitations, given our tight schedule, but we promised that, once the second print run was ready, their requests would be fulfilled.
In South Africa the mosques are large, beautiful and well-attended for all prayers. This is an unintended consequence of apartheid, which segregated people according to race. Whites had their own areas—materially the best—the Indians and coloureds theirs, while the majority (blacks) were corralled into townships or squatter camps that still exist even fourteen years after apartheid ended. The racist system of segregation forced Muslims to live in their own separate areas. Barred from many professions and denied education, they set up shops, developed businesses, and opened schools and mosques. Their businesses flourished and they donated generously to building mosques and schools. It is not widely known, but Muslims constituted the largest proportion of those incarcerated for opposing apartheid. Some of the leading lawyers representing Nelson Mandela were Muslims; they ended up with him in the notorious prison at Rubben Island, which has, since the end of apartheid, been turned into a museum.
During our ten-day tour we could only visit a few mosques in South Africa but, given our experience at the ones we did, there is every reason to believe that it is possible to sell 100,000 copies of the tafseer there. We were there for two jumu‘ahs and each of us was invited to a different mosque to deliver a pre-khutbah talk. In Cape Town alone there are more than 100 mosques; we visited only four or five and sold more than 500 copies, with hundreds of orders still pending. With the advent of Ramadan, the month in which the Qur'an was first revealed to the noble messenger (saws) of Allah (swt), we believe that this tafseer will be warmly received and eagerly read by many Muslims, offering them insights into the divine Book and enriching their lives.
Crescent International and the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) have had a long association with the Muslim community of South Africa. I first visited the country in July 1988 to attend a Hajj conference in Port Elizabeth. Other stops included Cape Town and Durban before I returned to Johannesburg. The restrictions of apartheid were still in place ; there was much tension in the air and it was difficult to venture far from one's own area (for instance Indian towns such as Laudium, near Pretoria, where our hosts lived) or even to venture outside after dark. Regrettably, it is still unsafe to go out at night; this is the result of the bitter legacy of apartheid and the criminal gangs that run amok, especially in certain parts ofJohannesburg and Cape Town. No keen observer can miss the contrast between the attitude of blacks in South Africa and of those in Botswana, both part of the same tribal group. Because the blacks in South Africa were brutalized, they have become bitter and resentful; this has not happened in Botswana.
Muslims in South Africa have a great opportunity to invite South Africa's black majority to Islam. This will require patience, hard work, sincerity and a willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue. This tafseer might help to provide the common ground on which to build this relationship. Muslims in South Africa must work hard to end the perception that Islam, the deen of the fitrah, is an “Indian” religion.