Academics in the College of Humanities participated in an Islamic Studies conference themed: Studying Islam and Muslims: Trajectories and Futures of South African Scholarship.
They were Dr Cherry Muslim, Dr Tahir Sitoto, Emeritus Professor Mohsin Abu Fadl Ebrahim, and Emeritus Professor Suleman Dangor of the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, and Professor Goolam Vahed of the School of Social Sciences.
The conference – hosted by UNISA, UKZN, the University of Johannesburg, and the University of Cape Town (UCT) – celebrated South Africa’s scholarly contributions to the study of Islam and served to collectively map present and future trajectories of scholarship within the study of Islam for the country and globally.
‘Our South African scholars have provided a rich and varied milieu of scholarship which began under the political challenges of the apartheid regime and have shifted to new debates in the post-democratic era. The conference reflected the diversity and complexities of the contribution of scholarship to the local and global contexts,’ said Muslim.
The conference was opened by prominent academics in the field of Islamic Studies: South African-born, Professor Ebrahim Moosa, who is co-director of Contending Modernities at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame in France; Professor Abdulkader Tayob, who is the National Research Chair for African Public and Religious Values, and Professor Sadiyya Shaikh of UCT.
In separate panels, Professor Abul Fadl Mohsin Ebrahim focused on the opportunities and challenges of introducing Islamic Medical Jurisprudence and not Islamic Bioethics as an independent discipline in Islamic Studies. ‘As medical science evolved, issues such as reproductive decision making, organ transplantation, just distribution of healthcare resources, access to healthcare and, with the appearance of COVID-19, global public health came to be included within the umbrella of medical ethics. Bioethics as an academic discipline is broader and incorporates medical ethics, animal ethics and environmental ethics,’ he said.
Dangor examined the introduction, establishment, development and transition of Islamic Studies at UKZN by discussing the courses offered in the discipline in the past, the staff who were involved with the department over the years, and the systemic changes, such as the introduction of the modular system, and research output of the Islamic Studies scholars.
Vahed’s presentation, through auto-ethnography, related to his experiences in the field, which have seen him try to negotiate between his own identity as a Muslim and his work as a historian. ‘I am a Muslim born in South Africa. As much as I have felt an insider, as a historian, I have tried to stand above the debates that rage, practising the faith, but feel the debates directly on my body, including the attitudes of my immediate family and friends. Being an insider has opened doors into the world of Muslims.’
In Muslim’s presentation, she reflected on Islam in the Digital Age: From Buraq to Cyberspace. ‘The Internet has transformed every aspect of life in the modern world and has provided a multitude of new and innovative ways to communicate, work and learn. For many practitioners of religion, online spaces have become critical alternatives for Muslims seeking a place/space to engage faith, create religious identity and build communities, particularly amongst the marginalised,’ she explained.
Muslim highlighted that the concept of Dar al-Cyber Islam had become a significant area of research within the broader, multidisciplinary framework of Religious Studies/Islamic Studies in global academia. Within this, theoretical considerations on political, social, cultural and religious aspects of Islam were interrogated as integrated factors of religion online/online religion. ‘Muslims in South Africa are prolific users of the Internet as are Muslims globally, however, there is a lacuna of research in this area in the South African context,’ she said.
A debate by a panel that included Sitoto, South African poet and scholar at Penn State University in the United States, Ms Gabeba Baderoon, who is the author of Regarding Muslims: from slavery to post-apartheid, and Dr Andrea Brigaglia formerly of UCT now at the University of Naples, concluded the conference.
In his reflections, Sitoto cautioned Islamic Studies scholars to guard against reproducing ‘racialised knowledge’. The study of Islam and Muslims in South Africa, he argued, was skewed due to its exclusive focus on communities of the Asian diaspora entrenching racial stereotypes of Islam as an exclusively ‘Indian’ and ‘Cape Malay/Coloured’ religious-cultural expression.
The racialisation of Muslims stirred a heated debate in a special panel which discussed the unrest, burning and looting in greater Durban earlier this year. The panel featured community activists, trade unionists, social critics, and community activists, including Maulana Sandile Twala.
Twala, a Black Muslim leader directly affected by the unrest, observed how though he was a known Muslim leader, he was racially profiled as being involved with the ‘African troublemakers’, threatening State security and the safety of Asian neighbours.