A Silent Companion, by Iman Adams, is an exploration and a challenge to contemporary and historical ideas of Muslim identity at the Cape. Iman is an image and sound maker, and capoeirista (Brazilian martial artist). She is about exploring the light and the dark, peeling back the layers, and getting to the Source.
This photo essay and short video looks at the formation of Muslim identity at the Cape, using the response of the death of Imam Abdullah Haron as a reflection of problematic beliefs and actions of the Muslim community in the past, and how they persist in the present. The figure in my series is a symbol of the Muslim community through the centuries. I hid the face to suggest the Muslim identity is unknowable.
The figure wears items from the many cultures that have fed into the Cape Muslim community… [continued below images in italics]
1 …The silk Asian robe for the Chinese, the fez and abaya for the South-East Asian and Arab, the yellow cloth for the Africans such as the Xhosa but also the other African countries from which slaves were brought, the plants are for the Khoe (Khoi) people.
A Circle of Protection.
The Signal Hill kramat is a site that connects a number of important factors concerning Muslim identity. Firstly, the people buried at the kramats are considered the pioneers of Islam at the Cape. It is often recounted how some of the early Muslims retreated into the mountains to pray and teach, and how some who were healers learned about the medicinal plants from the local Khoe. The most famous story about the kramats is perhaps the 200-year-old prophecy that a circle of protection would protect the Cape, and that the kramats are the points that form the circle.
2 …The mphepho and the incense represent knowledge and practices that are common between cultures, burning these plants to chase bad spirits or negative energy away.
These are cherished and oft-told stories that establish a sense of belonging for the Muslim community – a community that is, in reality, from everywhere and nowhere, a displaced community with no definitive point of origin. The birthplaces of the early Muslim leaders also become a place that the community long for, and the coloniser sets those of ‘Malay’ descendent above ‘other’ brown people.
“Imam Haron felt… that being a Muslim meant fighting against oppression, and fighting for justice.”
These stories create a divine purpose, a reason for the pain and suffering of so many over the years. In stories told about the early Islamic leaders of the Cape, their rebellion against the coloniser is highly celebrated and emphasised – an assertion of Islam as a just religion.
3 …The figure kneels on the ground as acknowledgement of Khoe land as its foundation from which Islam was able to grow.
I found this assertion and desire of Islam, or being Muslim, as meaning ‘inherent justice’ to be an idealised narrative, and the lived reality, or Islam in practice at the Cape, something quite complex and different. This also relates to the complex identity issues with regards to ‘coloured’ people and the fact that within one family there were members who could pass for white, and there were others who were closer to black – portraying how members within the same family can harbour intense racism. That racism is a reflection of a self-loathing, perhaps. It reflects the psychological trauma inflicted by apartheid ideology.
4 …The red yarn represents the blindness and hypocrisy of the Cape Muslims, and the plants suggest a desire and a movement toward healing.
Those Who Said Nothing.
The story of Imam Abdullah Haron encapsulates the conflicting attitudes and beliefs I seek to challenge as they still permeate the Muslim community and psyche today. At the time, the Malaysian ideology made them believe that, according to Achmat Davids, “…they were the elite of the coloured people. This exclusivity and false superiority made it difficult for them to fuse with other sections of the oppressed and to develop a common united strategy against oppression”.
5 … The orange juice references Bernard Wrankmore, but also all non-Muslims who gave support, kindness, love, generosity, and righteousness, when the Muslim community turned their backs on their own.
The Muslim leaders at the time felt that the larger Muslim community had no business getting involved in political matters, as the right to practice Islam was not being hindered in any way.
“[I felt] there was a deeply internalised anti-blackness that is very much alive and well today.”
Imam Haron felt and taught his students differently, that being a Muslim meant fighting against oppression and fighting for justice. This, while the clergy at the time showed no concern or sense of responsibility for black Muslims and, according to my research, made no mention of their existence.
6 … The ablution represents a pathway to cleansing and healing and re-imagining of the Muslim identity.
Imam Haron received more support from those outside the Muslim community. Reverend Bernard Wrankmore being one of them, fasted 67 days at the Signal Hill kramat, drinking only water and orange juice. At this time, three opinions divided the Muslim community: those who wanted him off the site for ‘destroying’ its sanctity, those who supported him, and those who said nothing.
7 … The image of the figure holding the calabash and the tea-cup suggests embracing the conflicting bloodlines of coloniser and colonised within, and finding balance and harmony.
As a Muslim, I found the story of Imam Haron to be deeply disturbing. I reflected on how the community could be so apathetic and uninterested in the gross injustice of the time, while, at the same time, understanding the very real threat to life upon becoming involved in political matters – Imam Haron was murdered after all.
I realised that not only was the Muslim community offered the back-handed benefit of having kramats built in largely ‘white’ areas, but there was a simultaneous deep internalised anti-blackness that is very much alive and well today.
As much as I want to call out present-day anti-blackness in the Muslim community, I also believe it to be important to reflect on the way we remember Islamic history here at the Cape and the way that history shapes our identities.
Iman and her partner, Mntana.WeXhwele (indigenous sound healer/instrumentalist and knowledge facilitator), will begin working on an EP to be released later this year, titled Ntu-Akbar (God is greater). It is an exploration and merging of their respective spiritual paths through sound — the meeting of Afrikan spirituality and Islam. There is also a mini-doc on the way in relation to this project and their work together.
Words and photography: Iman Adams
Video: Iman Adams
Sound: Iman Adams and Nkosenathi Koela
Model: Kamil Hassim
Assistant: Carl-David Saldanha