Reflections from Cape Point, South Africa
  • Thu, 05/19/2011
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Cape Point is where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. It is a point of contact, where two distinctly and visibly discernable great bodies of water embrace one another. It resembles a relationship: one of sharing, exchange, and mutual support, where each retains its own identity, bringing to the relationship its unique qualities and gifts.

At Cape Point, just like in Tangiers, Alexandria, and Jordan, we witness the miracle of a meeting of two seas, just like Allah speaks about in the Qur’an: “He has made the two seas to flow freely (so that) they meet together: between them is a barrier which they do not transgress.” [Sūrah al-Rahmān: 19-20]

It was at a “meeting of the two seas” where Moses met Khidr, two people endowed by Allah with different qualities. As Moses said to him: “You have knowledge form Allah which I do not possess, and I have knowledge from Allah which you do not possess.” Thereupon began an exchange of knowledge and moral understanding from which both of them gained.

When Khidr finally said: “This is the time we must depart,” [Sūrah al-Kahf: 78] he said it with a tone of respect and affection.

Their parting occurred only after the purpose of their travelling together had been realized and without any ulterior motives. As Khidr said: “I have not done any of this of my own accord.” [Sūrah al-Kahf: 82]

The knowledge each of them possessed was a mercy from Allah. Indeed ,knowledge and Allah’s mercy are intertwined. Allah says about Khidr: “We granted Him our mercy and bestowed upon Him knowledge from Ourselves.” [Sūrah al-Kahf: 65]

We should note that in this verse Allah mentions mercy first. Mercy is crucial. It is the quality that prevents iniquity and oppression, which can otherwise take place on the basis of superior strength, or superior knowledge, or political authority, or even on the basis of race or some other superficial pretense.

In the natural world, complementarily and harmony are the order, not transgression. Al-Bukhārī relates in al-Adab al-Mufrid that Ibn `Abbās said: “If a mountain were to transgress against another mountain, the transgressing mountain would crumble to dust.” The same can be said for the human being who adheres to righteousness. Such a person is one who complements the other and seeks to enter into a mutually beneficial and rewarding relationship. Such a person does not seek to fight the other. Such was the case with Moses and Khidr when they encountered one another at the “meeting of the two seas.”

Here at the southern tip of Africa, a different encounter took place a few centuries ago, an encounter between the African and the European. There were the African ethnicities: like the Zulu, Xhosa, Suthu, and Swazi. Then there were the Europeans, mainly the Dutch and the English. There were also a number of peoples who would later be classified as “Coloureds” – the indigenous peoples like the San and the Khoi-Khoi, the Malays, and the people resulting from mixed marriages – and Asians who came from the Indian sub-continent.

Unfortunately, the barriers people erect between them, though invisible, can be far more unyielding and impenetrable than the barrier between two seas.

Everywhere in the world we see it: we see people who look at their fellow human beings – their kindred from Adam’s descendants – and the first thing they focus on is the color of their skin or their facial features. Consideration of culture, ethics, personality traits, and individual qualities comes as an afterthought, if ever. What matters to them first and foremost is something as irrelevant as skin color, and this is enough to keep them from embracing each other as kindred.

The normalization of relations between black and white people took place in South Africa only after centuries of atrocities and brutality.

We can understand why Islam emphasizes human equality so strongly, and why it specifically negates skin color as a factor in human relationships. It is a teaching so important that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) emphasized it in his Farewell Sermon:

Assembled people! Indeed your Lord is one Lord. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab , nor a non-Arab over an Arab, nor a white person over a black person, nor a black person over a white person. Superiority is only attained through one’s piety.” [Musnad Ahmad – and authenticated by Ibn Taymiyah]

Apartheid is not something that appeared in South Africa all of the sudden. Its roots can be traced back more than 400 years. Racism was well-rooted in people’s hearts and infiltrated the cultural attitudes and the laws of the land long before Apartheid became official policy. Many white people saw racial inequality as the natural order, believing that it persisted even on the level of God’s relationship with His creatures and would continue exist on the Day of Judgment!

They saw political power, wealth, administrative control, and education to be the privilege of white people. As for blacks, they were compared with apes. They could have no more than what they needed to stay alive and keep fit enough to serve the whites.

During Apartheid, this inequality was pervasive and universal. In front of a government building one would see two wooden benches. Painted on these benches in big letters would be the words: FOR WHITES ONLY. The brutality of Apartheid entered into every aspect of life. It was belittling and demeaning in every possible way.

Look at this picture. This long line winding around the buildings of the town and continuing off the edge of the picture is the line of people waiting to vote. This picture was taken during South Africa’s first free elections where black people could for the first time vote to decide their country’s future. Lines like this one stretched to the thousands.

This long, patient line is not what many had expected after decades of some of the worst racial brutality in history.

The African National Congress (ANC) won those elections and became the ruling party in the first elected government of the free South Africa. They won a clear majority in fair elections, in most provinces having the support of the overwhelming majority of the black vote.

South Africa has shown rare courage. There was no vengeance, no expulsions of the “white oppressor”, no mass confiscations of property. There was nothing of the black racist regime whites had feared would take the place of Apartheid.

The logic of revenge was set aside, and the superior logic and morality of coexistence, national cohesion, and cooperation was embraced instead.

Black South Africans have shown deep political insight in realizing that a violent overthrow would not do away with the scars and negative consequences of the past, and that developing the future requires hard work and responsibility.