Signal Hill Kramat Cape Town

Living the Ihya in South Africa – Shaykh Seraj Hendricks Full Interview

Shaykh Seraj Hendricks sat down with Mishkat Media to talk about the Ihya, Al Zawiyah mosque, the Muslims of South Africa, and our need of the Ihya today.

Mishkat Media: Assalam alaykum. Today we are present at Al Zawiyah in Cape Town. With us is shaykh Seraj Hendricks, who is of the third generation of shaykhs who have been teaching the Ihya Ulum al Din of Imam al Ghazali. Shaykh Seraj, assalam alaykum.

Shaykh Seraj Hendricks: Wa alaykum assalam wa rahmat Allah wa baraktuh. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

MM: Tell us something about the the tradition of the Ihya at this institution called Al Zawiyah. You are of the third generation that has been teaching this very beautiful book of Imam al Ghazali, Allah be pleased with him.

SH: Yes, of course. It started with our grandfather Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks, who is reputedly the first ever to bring The Ihya to South Africa. And because, of course, he also belongs to the Ba Alawi Tariqa and was one of the the chief shaykhs within that order.

It is a custom of the Ba Alawi Tariqa to teach the Ihya as one of the staple texts at all of the institutions. Throughout the world, whether it is here, or at Dar al Mustafa and so many other institutions. He was the first, but he started teaching it long before Al Zawiyah. In fact he met considerable opposition against teaching the Ihya here.

MM: The reasons for that?

SH: There was a lot of ignorance at the time. There were particular social, political circumstances that are in fact and contributed to that sort of ignorance. But the relations relations have all mended and there is no hard feelings about this. That was one of the reasons why he got together with a number of sympathizers and decided to build Al Zawiyah in 1920.

He arrived in Cape Town in 1903 as The Cape Times shows. His arrival is on the front page. For about 17 years he was teaching The Ihya at various mosques throughout the Cape particularly up in the Bo-Kaap. Also, he had private classes at home.

But I think that the opposition he encountered became somewhat discouraging and, prompted by his students, he decided to build this place with their assistance. And in 1920 it was founded.

MM: What has been the the impact and influence of the teachings of the Ihya on the students of Al Zawiyah? There must have been many people who have been affected by it.

SH: Immense. There’s a large body of students. It continues in that way up to today. We are operating on what I would call a reserve tank of the baraka of the blessings left behind by his efforts and his commitment to the religion. But it does inspire generation after generation. As I mentioned in my talk on the Kitab al Halal wa al Haram, my first exposure to the Ihya was in fact that at age of 18. I was fascinated by this book which he taught on Sunday mornings, and that went on for years. As an undergraduate, before I left for Makkah, I did my my majors in psychology.

We had a project on that here, dealing with the aged. I selected four members of the mosque committee and Shaykh Maghdie as the fifth one. In my interview with him I spoke about his relationship with the unseen and the akhira, because he was a man of about 70, 71 at the time. Invariably the issue of the Ihya came up. The influence and impact it had on him as a person. Towards the end of the interview, he mentioned to me that he had completed his 20th reading of the Ihya. I was astonished when I heard that.

Many years later coming back and after having received my own copy of Tuhfat al Labib from our great, late Sayyid Muhammad ibn Alawi Maliki, I read within the Tuhfat of Abu Bakr ibn Sumayt, that it is part of the wirds of the Ba Alawi Tariqa to complete the reading of the Ihya 20 times. I was completely amazed.

MM: Can one safely say that for at least 800 years the Ihya has been transforming the inner soul of humanity?

SH: Oh, yes. I think it has obliterated virtually everything else that has been written on Islamic ethics, islamic spirituality. What we have to recognize, to understand, is that the Ihya has gained its fame not specifically because of the legal aspects. The Kitab al Baya for example, which I did as part of this program.

If you compare that to his Al Wasit, which is on our shelves, it is a condensed, distilled version of that particular work. I suppose that he selected those few because they were the most practiced aspects of trade during that particular time. His examination of that particular aspect is immense, also.

But where [the Ihya] excels is in dealing with the human condition. That is what so profoundly influenced, altered and changed the dynamics, the course, and even the history of Islamic thought. I like what Cyril Glass says in the encyclopedia of Islam. He says that at the time that Imam Ghazali lived there were so many factions and sects, confusion, useless debates going on, vying for rank and status.

Islam to [Imam Ghazali] was, in Glasse’s vision, a scattered puzzle lying around. Imam Ghazali came along and saw all the bits and pieces. And with his acumen, his intelligence, and his connection with the essential message of Islam, which is spirituality and the purification of the soul. He had seen this and realized and recognized the cause of all this dissension, conflict, and animosity, was that people had lost sight of the greater and deeper purposes of Islam.

That is, I think, what compelled him to the point where he in fact left his family and went on this long spiritual odyssey to reconnect with the spirit of Islam. So the Ihya should not be read as a work of fiqh, but one that, in the tradition of the spiritual alchemist, tries to transform the inner nature of the human being: the heart, the soul, the mind, the spirit. Up till today, there are various works of akhlaq and spirituality, but in my opinion he remains unequaled in that particular project.

MM: You have not given us the context of who Imam Ghazali is. Now, how do you place him within the context of the traditions of Al Zawiyah itself?

SH: I think its message is one with which my grandfather connected very profoundly. It is no coincidence that when he returned to Cape Town, that was the very first work that he taught.

MM: As a matter of interest, give us some examples of the kind of works that Shaykh Muhammad Salih the founder of Al Zawiyah taught in his day.

SH: It is quite mind-boggling. I will quote this from my thesis on him. I was staggered when I did the research and realized after my research how little in fact I knew. Let me just give an example of the fiqh works that he taught here.

For example in fiqh he taught or Risala al Jami‘a by Shaykh Ahmad ibn Zayd al Habshi. A work that is taught across the world – in Indonesia, Malaysia, the entire Southeast Asia. He taught the the Matn al Ghaya wa al Taqrib, commonly known as Matn Abi Shuja. And also a commentary on Matn Abi Shuja by Shaykh Ibrahim al Bajuri. And the Mughni al Muhtaj by Mohamed al Khatib al Shirbini, another staple text at Al Zawiyah.

Then the Minhaj al Talibin of Imam Nawawi. Maraqi al Falah, the commentary on Nur al Idah by Imam Shurunbulali which is a Hanafi text, because [Shaykh Muhammad Salih] was instrumental in trying to defuse the Hanafi conflict that had emerged at the end of the twentieth century.

These were some of the fiqh books that were taught from morning to night. He had an entire entourage of the helpers, twenty to thirty of them, whom he taught from eight in the morning to ten at night. In tafsir, the famous Tafsir al Jalalayn, and of course the famous Tafsir al Kabir of Fakhr al Din al Razi. In Usul al Fiqh he taught the Waraqat by Imam Juwayni; the Mustasfa of Imam Ghazali, another staple text; and Minhaj al Wusul ila ‘Ilm al Usul by Imam al Baydawi.

In grammar, of course, the Ajurrumiyya and also the Alfiyya of Imam Malik. In theology, he taught Aqida al Awamm of shaykh Ahmad Marzuqi; Umm al Barahin and Jawhara al Tawhid. In tasawwuf he taught Tuhfat al Labib by sayyid Ahmad ibn Sumayt. Al Nasaih, which I taught on Thursday nights, by Shaykh Abd Allah ibn Alawi al Haddad. And of course Ihya Ulum al Din.

These were some of the staple texts that were taught. But students were also graded depending on the rank and the understanding of Arabic. They had the general classes and the the more specific classes in which he taught smaller groups.

MM: The more elect of students in other words?

SH: Yes, the more elect of them I would say. Most of them went on to become Imams at Al Zawiyah or elsewhere.

MM: Let’s have a look at the amazing tradition of Al Zawiyah through Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks, its founder. Your uncle, Shaykh Maghdie, Shaykh Ebrahim – unfortunately Shaykh Ahmad passed away in Makkah. Now yourself, Shaykh Seraj, and of course your brother Shaykh Ahmad. But Al Zawiyah does exist in a wider context, doesn’t it? It was founded almost before the days of apartheid. Give us something of the history of Islam at the Cape. Where do we basically come from?

SH: From all over basically. Mainly from India and Southeast Asia. Although the impact of course of the Indonesians and Malaysians has been much more significant than in any other country. Most of them initially arrived as slaves.

MM: And how many years ago did the first Muslims arrive in South Africa?

SH: Apparently the first number of Muslims of whom we have no record whatsoever, in terms of the background, who they were, their descent and where they came from, was in fact in 1657. That was before the arrival of Tuan Mahmud and Shaykh Abdurahman Matebe Shah and others in 1667. So, the history goes back quite a long way. But there is no evidence unfortunately to show what sort of impact that first group of Muslims had.

MM: There’s something that seems to make Cape Town’s history slightly more unique. That is that we have a lot of Awliya or Saints buried in our environs. It seems that these people have played a major role in shaping Cape Town’s community. Who are some of these personalities and how does that shape our lives?

SH: In a major way. In fact professor Mason did a comparative study – and he interviewed me on this – between the three slave-holding societies: Cape Town, Brazil, and the United States. To his absolute amazement he found that in both countries [Brazil and the US] Islam had been annihilated – obliterated completely.

MM: Any reason for that?

SH: Well, I have. And I share, partly, with him, his reasons. One of the reasons I believe Islam survived at the Cape is the presence of the Awliya. The quality of Muslims who came here was probably much higher in terms of learning than those who went over there.

MM: Are you saying that they were actually scholars of Islam that came?

SH: I think they made a mistake to bring them here. Ironically, the Cape is called the Cape of Good Hope. Why is it called the Cape of Good Hope? Because Henry the Navigator had the Good Hope that Islam would be destroyed from here. So he called it the Cape of Good Hope. The name stuck, of course. Very few Muslims are aware of that. But that’s a reason why.

The mistake I think they made was to bring people like Shaykh Yusuf of Makassar, like Tuan Mahmud, like Shaykh Abdurahman Matebe Shah, Sayed Tuan Alawie, Biesmillahi Shah [Bawa], a whole host of them. Some of the students of Shaykh Yusuf who stayed behind, like Shaykh Hassen Ghaibie Shah up at Signal Hill. These people kept Islam alive.

MM: How did it survive?

SH: It survived within the homes of people or the musallas. There were special, dedicated rooms in Muslim households which was called a langa. Taken in derived from the Malay word linga which has no spiritual connotations, but in terms of a culture of those people it had. For us it would be obscene to even translate the word, but it was taken from that form of worship. Even the term Puasa that we use is a Malaya-Hindu term.

MM: That does not mean Ramadan?

SH: It means some sort of sacrifice, but not Ramadan. It’s got nothing to do with Ramadan as we understand it in Islam as such. But this shows the sort of cross-pollination and the way in which the Muslims here almost Islamized certain words. Words with which they could identify.

It was in these langas, these spiritual retreats within the homes of people, that the adhkar, the dhikrs, of of people like Shaykh Yusuf [a Khalwati], of Tuan Mahmud [a Qadiri], of Biesmillahi Shah, people like Tuan Sayed Alawie who was a missionary for the Ba Alawi Tariqa [were held]. There they practiced the mawlids. These were the practices that kept Islam, because it was done outside the reach of the colonial state and government and the rulers.

In fact one of the lecturers I spoke to at Umm al Qura believed that Islam had survived in Russia in a similar way. And also in China where both possession and distribution of the Qur’an were banned. Islam they in Russia had also survived through the Sufi orders.

So that is one of the reasons why it is so difficult for these people who come here and who try to charge us with the sin of shirk, of polytheism, and bida and malicious innovations in our religion. They will have an enormous task in trying to obliterate these practices, because these are the practices that kept Islam alive in the homes of people.

Why specifically do I say that? Because by the end of the 20th century there were a number of mosques already built. But they were built in opposition one to the other. One Imam took the other Imam to court. There was enormous animosity. The mosques in Cape Town became the center points of conflict and not of unity among Muslims. This is well known.

Dr Ahmad Davids has written extensively about this. Each and every Muslim knows this. Look at the archives. You will see one lawsuit after the other to the point of embarrassment. So it was not the mosque that played this vital role in sustaining and protecting Islam. It was the home. And within the homes, the langas or the spiritual retreats, where the mawlids continued, the adhkar continued, the recitals of surah Ya Sin, and the Thursday night recitals took place. These were the vehicles and the channels through which Islam sustained itself right up until today.

But I have to remind you that while we might describe ignorance to particularly the 19th century, Islam after the death of Tuan Guru in 1807 and in the banning of slavery in 1834, and its final implementation in 1888, the slave trade stopped. There were no more Muslims coming in. And there was this massive vacuum that appeared with him Muslim culture.

Imagine any society without education for a hundred years. We need hardly think to understand how catastrophic those consequences could be. I have here a letter found in the archives along with the assistance of our late brother Dr Ahmad Davids. [The letter] is by Shaykh Abdul Kader Biesmillahi Shah to show the suffering that these people went through.

MM: This is a shaykh who is buried very, very close to Al Zawiyah.

SH: It’s just across from here.

MM: Up on the mountain side.

SH: They were from the Buginese clan in Indonesia. There were a number of Buginese out in Stellenbosch. They scattered the Muslims widely. Some of them in Macassar, as you know, Shaykh Yusuf. Across Constantia which at that time was probably quite far from the scent of things in Cape Town. Swellendam where my grandfather came from and where he was was born. And then places like Stellenbosch where they could control them.

But listen to this letter. It’s such a moving one. A number of them wrote to Biesmillahi Shah because he was a highly respected individual within Buginese society. They write:

This letter comes as a message from Stellenbosch. You sent me, brother September. I announced that I’ve been sick for two months and that no human medicine can cure me. [Brother September refers to Biesmillahi Shah. The slaves are called by months. If they arrived in September, they disembark: “Your name is September.” If they arrived on a Friday: “Your name will be Friday,” etc.]

I seek encouragement from you because I know you care our Buginese people. I request from you, brother, if you have compassion, actually, for your Buginese race. Because I know from the time we spoke with our fellow Buginese people you said we were suffering, and that this concerned you. For we are a broken, suffering people in miserable conditions. Thus my request to you, brother September, if you are compassionate to your suffering Buginese compatriots. Will you lead the children who came from this place of Bulu Bulu and Sungai?

SH: It is such a moving piece that they wrote him. They appealed to him. This letter unfortunately landed up in the wrong hands. In the hands of the state. He was either farming or tending to sheep along the slopes of Devil’s Peak. With this letter they went out they arrested him. They undressed him. He was naked. There were four or five of his followers who were there to do the burial afterwards.

They tied him to the wheel and they stretched him limb by limb and until his entire body split and tore apart. Those who stood they looked at him with all the misery and compassion and pain in the trauma of having to watch their leader being torn apart in this way. But what amazed them that for as long as they stretched him – and this is one of the most painful deaths imaginable – the man did not utter a single word of pain.

These people, like the others who had been incarcerated on Robben Island, and in the Castle [of Good Hope] where you can still see the fingernails on the walls of those dungeons. These are the people who stood for Islam. Who lived with their dhikrs and their mawlids and their love for tasawwuf, who made Islam possible and as strong as it is for us today in the Cape.

MM: Very briefly, our last point in this interview. Islam survived slavery. It managed to get its way through colonialism. But then there’s also been the Apartheid era, the Post-Apartheid era, and of course the impact that its had on the the townships. Your your quick take on that.

SH: Yes of course. Muslims were really vital in the fight against Apartheid. In fact, they are disproportionately represented in government, up till today, because of the immense contributions that Muslims made.

We can think of so many organizations. The Call of Islam, Ebrahim Rasool, our past premiere of the Western Cape Province, was the head of The Call of Islam. Dr Farid Esack, another great activist. All these muslims played enormous roles in breaking down the rather tight scaffolding of this monster called Apartheid.

Al Zawiyah, in its own way, played a very important role. For example, in 1947, my father along with your father-in-law, Shaykh Ebrahim Hendricks, and my uncle, Shaykh Maghdie, who taught me the Ihya, were offered white identity because they were trying to garner votes. The voting took place in 1948 and the Apartheid State was instituted then.

That radicalized Shaykh Ebrahim tremendously. He rejected it completely and went on a campaign of which we have documents here as witness to that. In 1955 he had his passport removed. He had to smuggle out people like Abu Bakr van der Schyff – someone I was pleased to meet in Makkah because he never returned to South Africa.

One night when I came up to class, I saw these people trying to record what Shaykh Maghdie was saying. They were hidden behind the door and when they saw me coming up the steps – they were skulking in the dark just scattering. They had their radio equipment with them and they rushed out. They were plants right in the Masjid and Shaykh Maghdie was of course aware of that.

I was probably one of the most activist and I had the good fortune of landing up in prison for a short while. But it was all done in good faith. There was no hostility, no animosity. I remember when I was asked to talk by members of The Call of Islam.

They asked me to deliver talk in the [unclear] prison. It was a risk I took. But I just reminded them, in the spirit of Islam, that people should not be judged by their color. And that we should show no hostility to the guard standing there at the door who was taking care of us. Not taking care of us, but ensuring that we were in line, obeying orders, and behaved ourselves.

I turned to him in my speech and I said: Remember that oppression is not the the provenance of a particular group of people or a particular race or ethnicity. It’s a mindset. It’s built on conditioned prejudices. And that he, as much as everyone else engaging in oppression of this country, is a dehumanized being. He needs our help as much as everyone else needs our help when it comes to freeing people from the shackles of the oppressive attitudes.

He was very angry about what I said and turned the stungun on me and then threatened to shoot us. and He was running around. People started to panic. He closed the windows. But he didn’t go beyond that. So that is a little experience I had.

I’m thankful for the fact that I could have a say in the destiny of this particular country. But the focus of course was not on revolution as such. Here it was more on education. Educating people in the ethics and in the morality of Islam. Because without that morality we could hardly call a revolution a revolution in the first place.

MM: Would you say that the major impact of Al Zawiyah on the Post-Apartheid landscape reaching out to other South Africans as well. Has in fact actually been education – an education based on the the ethos of the Ihya?

SH: I think it will always be that. I am inspired by it. My brother Shaykh Ahmad is inspired by it. All of us are inspired by that. That is a project that will never end. In the post apartheid era I think there is a need for an even greater emphasis on the spiritual and moral spiritual aspects of Islam – the ethical aspects and the genuine and authentic teachings.

Living in a society as open as it is today, when we are confronted by the cost of the sorts of ignorance that we that we are witness, it is important as Muslims that we focus on these issues. That we support institutions that have Islamic education at heart. And not only just institutions but Ihsan-excellence within those institutions.

As Muslims we are all commanded with Ihsan. And Ihsan is determined by our consciousness of Allah Most High. Consequently a consciousness to determine the quality of education and attitudes that we assist in trying to engender within our Muslim community, and also with equal respect to the non-Muslim society.

MM: Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, thanks for chatting to us.

SH: Shukran. Jazak Allah khayr. It was a pleasure to be here.


This interview was originally done by Mishkat Media in cooperation with Travelling Light, where Shaykh Seraj Hendricks teaches the Ihya as it was taught to him.

Shaykh Seraj also has a personal blog: In the Shadow of Pure Light.