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Historical Context

Over the course of its modern history South Africa became an increasingly racist state, as a White minority came to dominate an indigenous Black majority, leading to an anti-apartheid movement that toppled the regime in 1994. The Dutch first arrived in South Africa as part of a shipping cartel in the late seventeenth century, followed by the first wave of the British in the late eighteenth cen- tury.[1] The burgeoning White settler community confiscated land from the indigenous people and created a racially stratified society. Separation—or apartheid, as it later came to be termed—between Coloureds and Whites became an integral part of the social order and was institutionalized in law.[2] The Urban Areas Act of 1923, for example, made it illegal for Blacks to live in the cities.[3] Three hundred years of White supremacy came to a head in 1948 with the electoral victory of the National Party, which sought to institutionalize racial hierarchy in every aspect of South African life.[4] Though a mass resistance movement had existed since the early 1930s,[5] it took on a more radicalized and militant colouring with the rise of the National Party.[6] The anti-apartheid struggle gained great momentum over the second half of the twentieth century, despite the ruthless manner in which the state clamped down on activists, ranging from imprisonment to torture to outright murder. The internal liberation struggle was also strengthened by a formidable international solidarity movement, arguably the largest in world history,[7] successfully calling for a global boycott of the South African state. In 1994, the regime fell and democratic elections were held, ushering in Nelson Mandela—the leader of the main resistance organization, the African National Congress—as president.

Trained in Qur’anic studies and active as a religious scholar, Esack played a leading role in the anti-apartheid struggle. He was born in 1956 in the Cape Town suburb of Wynberg,[8] and experienced the racism of apartheid at a very early age. As a result of the Group Areas Act of 1961, Esack, his mother, and five siblings—his father had abandoned his mother when Esack was only three weeks old—were forced to move from their home, which was now rendered ‘White’, to the ghettos of the Cape Flats.[9] It was here, in the Coloured township of Bonteheuwel, that Esack was raised. He recounts vividly his experience of growing up in poverty: ‘Long periods passed during which we had no shoes and I recall running across frost-covered fields to school so that the frost could not really bite into my feet.’[10] These formative experiences led Esack to join the anti-apartheid struggle while still a child. Indeed, he was first detained by the South African Security Police at the age of nine. Esack was awarded a scholarship when he was seventeen to undertake Islamic studies in a madrasa in Karachi, Pakistan. Eight years later he completed his studies, specializing in ‘ulum al-Qur’an (the Sciences of the Qur’an). After his return to South Africa, he and several friends formed the Islamic antiapartheid group ‘The Call of Islam’ in 1984. The Call worked closely with the United Democratic Front (est. 1983), a mass-based coalition of organizations that emerged in response to the National Party’s proposed Tricameral Parliament giving Coloureds and Indians limited political representation while continuing to exclude the Black majority.[11] After the fall of apartheid, Esack travelled to Germany to study biblical hermeneutics and then to the UK, where he earned a Ph.D. in Qur’anic hermeneutics at the University of Birmingham. Having studied in the madrasa and the so-called secular university, Esack is reflective of a growing class of Muslim scholars schooled in both systems of knowledge.[12] He has taught at numerous seminaries and universities around the world, such as Union Theological Seminary in New York City and Harvard University. Esack returned to South Africa in 2009 and is, at the time of writing, Professor in the Study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg.

  • [1] Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 19.
  • [2] For useful surveys of South Africa and its history of apartheid, see LeonardThompson, A History of South Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000)and William Beinart, Twentieth-Century South Africa (Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 2001).
  • [3] Bernard Magubane, ‘Introduction: The Political Context’, in The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Vol. 1, ed. South African Democracy Education Trust (CapeTown: Zebra Press, 2004), 8.
  • [4] Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 24.
  • [5] Magubane, 31. 2 Ibid, 29.
  • [6] 7 Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 240.
  • [7] 8 Esack (in discussion with the author) preferred that his full date of birth not be
  • [8] disclosed.
  • [9] Farid Esack, On Being a Muslim: Finding a Religious Path in the World Today(Oxford: Oneworld, 1999), 95.
  • [10] Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 2.
  • [11] Jill E. Kelly, ‘ “It is because of our Islam that we are there”: The Call of Islam inthe United Democratic Front Era’, African Historical Review 41:1 (2009): 121.
  • [12] Taji-Farouki, 5.
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