How Cape Town Muslims Safeguarded South Africa’s 200-Years-Old Quran

200-Years Oldest Quran

A Quran meticulously transcribed over two centuries ago by an Indonesian imam, Imam Abdullah ibn Qadi Abdus Salaam (Tuan Guru), banished by Dutch colonizers to the southern tip of Africa, has emerged as a cherished symbol within Cape Town’s Muslim community.

The handwritten Quran, hidden in a paper bag in the attic of Cape Town’s Auwal Mosque during renovations in the mid-1980s, stands as a testament to Tuan Guru’s legacy.

Imprisoned on Tidore Island in Indonesia for joining the resistance movement against Dutch rule in 1780, Tuan Guru was later transported to Cape Town as a political prisoner.

In exile, he committed the Quran to memory, later transcribing it while held captive on Robben Island, a location known for imprisoning anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.

The discovery of the unbound Quran, composed of loose, unnumbered pages, surprised researchers with its relatively well-preserved state, except for a few frayed edges. The Arabic script, inscribed in black and red ink, remains clearly legible and vibrant.

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After its discovery, the local Muslim community undertook the intricate task of sequencing the over 6,000 verses into proper order.

Maulana Taha Karaan, the late head jurist of the Muslim Judicial Council in Cape Town, and local Quranic scholars led this effort, resulting in the Quran’s careful reassembly and binding, completed over a three-year period.

Displaying the Quran within the Auwal Mosque, established by Tuan Guru in 1794 as South Africa’s first mosque, aims to honor its historical significance. To safeguard it from theft, the committee enclosed the priceless text within a fire- and bullet-proof casing in the mosque’s front area.

Tuan Guru’s achievement is even more remarkable considering his advanced age and the fact that Arabic was not his native language.

His five handwritten copies of the Quran, including the one found in the Auwal Mosque, offer insights into the resilience and determination of both him and the Muslim community.

Shafiq Morton, Tuan Guru’s biographer, suggests that writing the Quran may have been an effort to uplift the spirits of the slaves and prisoners surrounding him and to educate them in dignity.

“While they were preaching the Bible and trying to convert the Muslim slaves, Tuan Guru was writing the copies of the Quran, teaching it to the children and getting them to memorise it.

“It tells a story of resilience and perseverance. It shows the level of education of the people that were brought to Cape Town as slaves and prisoners,” Shaykh Owaisi, a lecturer in South African Islamic history told BBC.

Tuan Guru’s initiative helped counter attempts to convert Muslim slaves to Christianity, as he equipped them with religious knowledge and teachings.

Despite challenges, including the absence of proper materials, Tuan Guru’s commitment to penning the Quran and other religious texts underscores the enduring legacy of his faith.

Today, the Auwal Mosque’s Quran, one of only three of Tuan Guru’s handwritten copies still in existence, continues to stand as a testament to his dedication and the power of knowledge preservation.

In recognition of this historical treasure, replicas of Tuan Guru’s Quran have been produced and distributed internationally, promoting the legacy of Islam’s introduction to the southern tip of Africa.

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Written by Andrew Walyaula

Multimedia Journalist

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