South Africa’s Black Muslims Fight the Bigotry Within


Mputumi Ahmed Stulweni says he knows the Koran from cover to cover. He goes to mosque each Friday. He adheres to the teachings of Islam and considers himself a servant of God.

But although Stulweni sees himself as fully Muslim, the 35-year-old graduate student says that, as a black South African, he feels marginalized within his religion.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, this nation’s Muslims have complained about growing discrimination and a rise in what they call Islamophobia.


But many black Muslims say they are enduring an additional intolerance: prejudice from fellow believers who are primarily of Indian, Malaysian or Arab descent and who dominate the nation’s more than 550,000-member Islamic community.

“They don’t accept us as Muslim,” Stulweni said. “To them, we are still inferior. They do not treat black Muslims as if [we] were part and parcel of this religion.”

Carry-Over From Apartheid Days

As South African Muslims rally against rhetoric they say brands their faith and its followers as propagators of terrorism, blacks among them want Islamic leaders to deal with hatemongering and bigotry within the religion’s own ranks first.

More than 200,000 of the nation’s Muslims, by some estimates, live here in western Cape province. There is no figure available for the number of blacks among them.

Under the former apartheid policy of divide and rule, Indians and Malays here--who were classified as “Cape coloreds”--were afforded more privileges and status than blacks. Still, many blacks say they embraced Islam because they felt a greater sense of acceptance among Muslims.

However, Stulweni and other blacks say they have never been fully accepted as equals because of their skin color.


“The Indians and the Malays have adopted the white Afrikaner way in order to suppress the black,” Stulweni said. “Until [they] accept our position and recognize our rights, we are not really part of Islam.”

Members of the province’s Muslim hierarchy deny there is unfair treatment, arguing that Islam forbids discrimination and promotes equality.

But other followers, among them educators and social commentators, acknowledge that black Muslims have been marginalized, and they blame ingrained ideas born of a racist past.

“We’ve got a problem because of the apartheid era, which put blacks at the bottom,” said Sheik Mahmoud bin Badih, a Cape Malay who teaches Islamic studies to about 70 children in the black township of Langa outside Cape Town. “The mentality of this generation, even if they are not white, is that they still think they are superior.”

Indians Steeped in Caste System

Farid Ahmed Sayed, an Indian Muslim and editor of a Cape Town-based Muslim newspaper, said that the attitude of Indians toward blacks is partly cultural and that social status typically supersedes any kind of religious commonality.

“Indians come from a background that reinforces and entrenches racism,” said Sayed. “A lot of Indians can trace their history to the caste system, and they brought that with them.”


Black Muslims note that many in their ranks are former Christians who converted during apartheid because their religion was being used by some whites to justify racist policies. Islam also was attractive because Muslims played an active role in the anti-apartheid struggle.

“We needed hide-outs,” said Mbulelo Abdullah Moagi, 39, an anti-apartheid activist who embraced Islam in the late 1970s. “We ended up with a lot of Muslims in the hide-outs, and during that time, we learned a lot about Muslims. I felt a lot more at home among the Muslims.”

Moagi went on to study for 11 years at the Institute of Religion in Kuwait City. By his reckoning, his level of religious education should have afforded him greater respect among his peers and even made him eligible for the title of sheik.

That hasn’t happened.

“I should be accepted,” said Moagi, who chairs the Langa Muslim Jamaat, a black Muslim township group. “But people are not accepted here, because of the color of their skin.”

Moagi lamented that officials from the non-black Muslim hierarchy rarely visit the townships. And although he estimates there could be as many as 5,000 black Muslims in Langa alone, the community does not have a mosque.

A Single Mosque in Black Townships

A corrugated iron shack, with tattered red carpet and a few dusty secondhand books, serves as the community’s madrasa, or religious school. Only one of Cape Town’s three main black townships has a mosque.


Bin Badih acknowledged that few non-black Muslims are willing to go into the townships to proselytize, primarily for fear of being attacked and robbed in high-crime areas.

But the apartheid system also enforced segregation, preventing Muslims of various race groups from freely associating. That has hardly changed since democracy was established seven years ago.

“In previous times, it was difficult for [blacks] to come out of their area and we could not go into theirs,” recalled Tajoodien Qassiem, 60, a Cape Malay Muslim who regularly delivers charitable food parcels to township dwellers. “That has continued today.”

However, some black Muslims believe the reason for their continued isolation goes deeper than skin color. They believe that mainstream Muslims view them as bending some of Islam’s rigid rules to preserve aspects of African identity.

Stulweni, for example, has tribal facial scars. He is proud of them because they underscore his African heritage. Nicholas Asad Koyana, a sound engineer in the music industry, wears his hair in dreadlocks, a style he says is frowned upon by non-black Muslims. And many black Muslim women choose to dress in traditional African garb.

“As long as you accept [the mainstream Muslim] way of life, you will be credible,” said Koyana, 28. “But anything that is associated with the black man’s [identity] is forbidden.”


“We shouldn’t have to compromise because we are black,” argued Stulweni. “We have to stand up for our rights. We don’t have to apologize for being Africans.”