Ijtihad and Pluralism in South Africa

by Tamara Sonn
Williamsburg, Virginia - One of the most challenging issues in contemporary Islam concerns the question of pluralism, particularly as it pertains to the rights of Muslim minorities. Islamic law was originally formulated to govern the lives of Muslim majorities, living under Islamic law. Today, however, as many as one third of the world’s Muslims live as minorities under secular law.

Most Muslims living as minorities in the West know they can practice their religion freely in the private sphere. But what about the public sphere? Can Muslims bring their principles of justice and human dignity to bear in a public sphere? This question confronted Muslim minorities in Apartheid South Africa in important ways, and their ijtihad on the issue is very revealing.

Ijtihad is a methodology for accommodating changing circumstances while maintaining fidelity to Islam’s eternal principles. It is a major theme of modern Islam because circumstances have changed so drastically over the past century or so. In Apartheid South Africa, Muslims used ijtihad to apply Islamic principles of justice and human rights to the national struggle against Apartheid.

Muslims are a tiny minority of the South African population – less than 2%. Because of their ethnic diversity and segregation from one another, it was difficult to make common cause with others opposed to Apartheid. Some Muslims joined secular resistance movements, but during the 1950s and 60s many young Muslims began to look to their religion for organisational and ideological bases of resistance. Several organisations were founded expressing discontent with the complacency and defeatism of Muslims who did not join in the resistance. In 1961, the “Call of Islam” movement was launched in the Cape, setting the tone for Islamic activism against injustice with the publication of its principles:

“For too long a time now have we been, together with our fellow-sufferers, subjugated, suffered humiliation of being regarded as inferior beings, deprived of our basic rights to Earn, to Learn and to Worship. We therefore call upon our Muslim Brethren and all brothers in our sufferings to unite under the banner of Truth, Justice and Equality to rid our beloved land of the forces of evil and tyranny.”

Muslims had protested interference with their religious practice in earlier years, but this call for Islamic resistance was unique. It was not aimed against specific rulings, but against an entire system deemed essentially unjust. More significantly, it expressed solidarity with all victims of oppression, regardless of religious affiliation. Islamic resistance organisations from this time forward focused on asserting not only their rights as Muslims, but also the core Islamic value of social justice as a motivating force in the national struggle against racism. This, however, required rethinking - doing ijtihad – on traditional notions of religious solidarity.

Imam Abdullah Haron was a leading figure in this movement. Active in several Islamic resistance organisations, he also edited the Cape's Muslim News. When he was taken into detention by security forces in 1969 and killed after four months, Christian activist Bernard Wrankmore undertook a hunger strike demanding an inquiry into his death. After 67 days, the government showed no signs of relenting, and Wrankmore ceased his strike. Nevertheless, the solidarity of all those motivated by social justice -- regardless of communal affiliation -- was demonstrated.

In the 1970s, more Muslims were attracted to the liberation agenda. New organisations appeared, and although there were important ideological differences among them, they shared commitment to the struggle against social injustice and to articulating the struggle in religious terms. The work of Farid Esack, a major figure in this effort during the anti-Apartheid struggle, who continues to work on social justice issues, argues strongly for the universality of Islamic human rights. The basic teaching of the Qur'an, according to Esack, is personal accountability in the effort to establish justice, not the establishment of a specific group identity. He challenges the Muslim community, therefore, to rethink the designation of the terms "believer" and "non-believer", suggesting that the term "believer" can be used to refer to all those who commit themselves to the struggle for social justice. Muslims, he says, must "re-appropriate" these terms in the essentially Islamic "search for … religious pluralism and for liberation." By doing so, they maintain their Islamic solidarity and, at the same time, legitimate working toward shared goals with the religious "other".

Of course, as in most religious communities, there are traditionalists who cling to religious exclusivism in Islam. There are also those who insist that ijtihad must be left to the officially recognised scholars of the major Islamic universities. Increasingly though, through the ijtihad of pluralism, Muslims like those in Apartheid South Africa are finding ways, based on motivations in their own legal tradition, to work with people of all beliefs in the search for justice and universal human rights.


* Tamara Sonn is Kenan Professor of Religion and Humanities at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA.

This article is part of a series of views on the role of ijtihad in Muslim-Western relations, published jointly by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and United Press International (UPI).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), April 4, 2006

Visit the website at www.commongroundnews.org

Distributed by the Common Ground News Service – Partners in Humanity (CGNews-PiH).

Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.
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The Door of Ijtihad is Open
In the Absence of Leadership, Anything Goes
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Other articles in this series

Open the Gates of Ijtihad by Claude Salhani
A collective ijtihad for solving society’s problems by Mohammad Hashim Kamali
Two Theories of Ijtihad by M.A. Muqtedar Khan
The Door of Ijtihad is Open by Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani
In the Absence of Leadership, Anything Goes by Noha A. Bakr