I was an Ignoramus about Islam

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

101Until recently, I was an ignoramus about Islam. When almost a quarter of your city’s population is Muslim, and you are not, that’s not a good thing.

This was why I took a Culture Connect walking tour of the Bo-Kaap, Cape Town’s historic Muslim cobblestoned neighbourhood (commonly but erroneously called the Malay Quarter). Nevertheless, when I signed up, I thought the promised meal at the end would be the main attraction. What I didn’t realise was that it was Ramadan, a month that until that afternoon, meant only fasting to me. The little I knew came from the odd conversation with my beautician and the supermarket posters that wish Muslim customers well over the fast. My entire take on Ramadan was that it is a fast from sun-up to sun-down that lasts about a month, and is broken with dates and followed by a meal. My experience is that non-Muslims in the Cape generally feel awkward around Muslims at Ramadan: you can’t help but feel self-conscious about eating lunch when your colleagues are fasting. Are you offending someone? Are you making their fast more difficult?

IMG_1720The sun was low in the sky on a chilly winter afternoon, when some 20 of us non-Muslims walked the steep streets of the Bo-Kaap, led by Mohammed Groenewald, a local imam. High above anywhere I’d been on my previous ventures into the neighbourhood to buy spices, I had a much different perspective: less picture postcard, more real, just as exotic. The area may be bright with small houses, painted in every shade of the jellybean rainbow, but it is still modest; and parts of it are poor.

But first, a little history. Islam came to Cape Town in the city’s earliest days, when exiles and slaves were brought as labour for this budding Dutch colonial way station, in the late 1700s and 1800s. Actually, the name ‘Malay Quarter’, which has its roots in the Apartheid years, is misleading. None of the residents of the Bo-Kaap came from Malaysia; rather they came from other parts of Asia (modern Indonesia), and even Africa (Madagascar).

In particular, Muslim scholars and imams who Dutch colonisers considered dangerous religious agitators were brought to Cape Town. Sheik Yusuf is credited with bringing Islam to South Africa. A learned imam from Goa, India, he was captured in 1683, exiled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and eventually relocated to the Cape of Good Hope. Dutch attempts to isolate him in an outlying area and prevent his influence over the Cape’s growing Islamic population failed, and his influence and teachings spread.


The Islam that developed in the Cape is different from what you find in other parts of the world, and even different from Islam practised in other parts of South Africa, explained Mohammed. It’s a more relaxed religion than is practised elsewhere, he said, and in particular, is more inclusive of women.

Today, about 6000 people live in the Bo-Kaap, and that population is almost entirely Muslim. While most of Cape Town’s Muslims live elsewhere now, the Bo-Kaap is the historic heart of Cape Muslim culture, and the preservation of that is close to Mohammed’s heart. In recent years, the neighbourhood’s urban charm and lower prices have attracted creatives and hipsters, and there is an ongoing struggle to preserve its authenticity. The idea of bars and clubs in the Bo-Kaap just doesn’t work for the locals, who do not consume alcohol.


093During Ramadan, Muslims are required to perform acts of charity, and in the Bo-Kaap, the community hosts a soup kitchen which serves anyone in need. After visiting Auwal Mosque (which is South Africa’s oldest mosque) with headscarves on and shoes off, we walked up the hill to the community centre, where soup prepared by residents was being dished up. The streets were eerily quiet as we moved on to the cemetery where Tuan Guru, Auwal’s first imam, is buried.

IMG_1702Sunset meant the end of the day’s fast, and for us, a traditional Cape Malay meal prepared by cook and local resident Faldela Tocker in her home. Crammed around her dining room table, we ate a light meal (the norm for post-fasting), starting with falooda, the bright pink milk drink that is fragrant with rose syrup and floating with soaked falooda (basil) seeds. A fried feast in a basket arrived, with two kinds of samoosas (spinach and meat) and chilli bites, followed by a Malay-style chicken curry with rotis, and lastly, Malay koeksisters, which unlike their twisted Afrikaans cousins, are like fried doughnuts dipped in syrup and sprinkled with coconut. All prepared by a woman who had been fasting all day. Bless.

If it seems like the food was not that significant to me, you are right. My mind was swimming with Mohammed’s tales of imams, Nelson Mandela (who visited the Auwal mosque shortly after he was released from prison) and how the first Qur’an to be hand-written in South Africa was written from memory (and that the earliest known written form of Afrikaans was in fact Arabic). And, how much richer I felt from knowing the story behind this place. There’d be other times to get into the nitty gritty of Cape Malay food, but probably not many opportunities to break the fast at Ramadan.

“Ramadan is a time that should touch everybody,” Mohammed had told our group earlier that afternoon. It touched me, long before the food arrived.

Culture Connect SA connects people with culture through tours and events in Cape Town. Faldela Tocker teaches Cape Malay cooking in her home to locals and tourists.

Written by Ilana Sharlin Stone

I'm a food writer, blogger and former chef who found her umami in Cape Town, South Africa.

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4 thoughts on “I was an Ignoramus about Islam

  1. Beautiful story, Ilana, and inspiring! The more I learn about your city and environs, the more I want to go there. Today’s post covers so much that I know little about, and I am grateful to learn from you.

    Thank you for describing the Cape Malay food, even if you were not focused on it at the time you ate it! It sounds delicious (esp. the chilli bites). Looking forward to reading all of your posts. xo
    Ann (“Trixie”) Rosenfeld
    Sebastopol CA USA

  2. Loved reading your thoughts ..am in the same boat of ignorance about Islam. .. Inspired me to educate myself

  3. Great article…only came across it now and the relevance more prevalent with current day developments in the bo kaap. Historic area and culture of cape town not to be gentrified.

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