Islam in Malawi and South Africa


Because there are so few Muslims in this part of Africa, this brief paper will only focus on the two countries where there are considerable Muslim populations about whom information is available: Malawi and South Africa.


     Islam came to Malawi through several different routes. It was introduced to the country through the Jumbes, local rulers who represented the Sultan of Zanzibar and ruled along the coast of Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi) for most of the second half of the 19th century. During the same period, the Yao, an ethnic group that was, until then, based in Mozambique, migrated to the southern tip of the lake, bringing Islam with them. Additionally, as Christianity spread during the period of colonization, adopting Islam was seen as a means of resisting colonization.

     The Yao and closely related ethnic groups (including the Mwera, Makua and the Makonde) total some 8,000,000 people, mostly in Malawi , but also Mozambique and Tanzania.   About half of these are Sunni Muslims who adhere to the Shafi school of Islamic jurisprudence.

     The Yao trace their families through their mothers, not their fathers. If a couple is in a monogamous marriage, they generally live near the woman's family. However, if the marriage is polygynous, the man and his wives live with the man's family.   Marriage to a parallel cousin is prohibited, as it is considered incestuous. It is unclear if this prohibition applies to paternal parallel cousins, as they may not be viewed as relatives, since the Yao are matilineal. Marriage to a cross cousin is the preferred marriage pattern.

     Besides tracing families through the maternal line, inheritance also follows maternal ties. It is unclear what the practice of the Yao is for dividing up land and goods. However, in Mozambique the customary practice for all Yao (Muslim or not) is that a man's property reverts to his relatives upon his death.   As there is no correlation in that country between the size of lots in different Yao communities and the religion of the owners, it appears that there is no distinction between inheritance practices of different groups. Also, in both Mozambique and Malawi , it appears that whatever widows actually are entitled to on the death of their husbands, women are often unaware of their rights and therefore do little to protect them. Inheritance matters are handled in customary courts and there is no counsel or assistance provided.

     Among the Yao, there are three factions of Muslims. One, the sufists, are closest to the Islam that was adopted at the time the Yao converted. Many rituals and customs remained from pre-Islamic times, gaining just an Islamic overlay, often changing little more than the name of the ritual.   One of their primary rituals is the dhikr , which for the Yao involves dancing in a circle, eventually becoming entranced. This group has little interest in either the Qur'an or Islamic law.   Second, there is a group called the sukutis (sukuti translates as quiet), who, in a reaction to the sufists, rejected the dhikr. They are generally more orthodox, but also do not place a high degree of emphasis on studying the Qur'an or Islamic law. Since the 1970's, there has been an upsurge of orthodox Islam, with the adherents of this faction being referred to as reformers. The reformers study Arabic, the Qur'an and Shari'a law. They reject all the practices of the other Yao that they do not view as sanctioned by the Qur'an. They study in schools funded by the Kuwaiti government, highlighting the international nature of this new trend in Islam in Malawi .

     The practice of Islam is clearly changing among the Yao society as contacts increase with the rest of the world. It appears that this may lead to a more orthodox approach to Islam, but certain practices with no basis in Islam remain, particularly that of tracing family lines through maternal rather than paternal ties.

South Africa

     South Africa has two main groups of Muslims, neither of which are indigenous Africans. There is a group generally referred to as Malay, though they originally came from Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar and western India.   The Malay came to South Africa in the 17th century, mostly as slaves and servants of the Dutch.  Most of the Malays settled in Cape Town. The Malays are Sunni Muslims who follow the Shafi school of jurisprudence. The other group are Indians who came to South Africa in the 1860s and settled in Transvaal and Natal. They, too, are Sunnis, but they follow the Hanafi school.   There are also as many as 13,000 indigenous South Africans who have become Muslims.

     Within both of the main groups of Muslims, polygyny is acceptable but rare. There is little concern that a woman be a virgin when she is married and no social stigma attached to getting married when a woman becomes pregnant. However, children actually born outside of marriage do face a great deal of prejudice.

     One of the areas in which it appears the Muslim community is the most orthodox is that of who a person may marry. Muslim men can marry women who are Muslim, Christian or Jewish, whereas, Muslim women must marry a Muslim man or become an outsider to the community.

     Purdah is fairly rare, however men and women occupy distinct spheres of life, with women staying in and around the home when they are not working, and men working outside. Most women are free to go out in public, dressed basically as they like and unescorted, except when they go on the pilgrimage. Except among the most orthodox, men and women interact freely when they do see each other, even shaking hands.  

     Divorce is common among South African Muslims. Though there are restraints on a woman's capacity to seek a divorce, there are avenues in the Muslim community that enable women to end unhappy marriages. In particular, the South African Law Commission, Sub-Committee on Muslim Personal Law, a governmental body made up of Muslim clerics, frequently facilitates annulments when a woman wants to terminate a marriage but her husband refuses. The same committee has also been known to allow women to marry when they are unable to get permission from their families.

     In recent years, there have been two distinct movements in the Muslim community in South Africa. One, the more liberal, is led by organizations such as the Call of Islam and the Muslim Youth Movement. These organizations have struggled for greater rights for women, though to differing degrees. The Call of Islam particularly, has emphasized that though Shari'a does not change, the conception of justice does and should adapt to changes in society.

     The other is a movement pushing for greater orthodoxy. This faction of the community recently became embroiled in a controversy when its radio station, Radio Islam, was shut down for violating the law requiring 3 hours of broadcasting by women every day. The argument of the radio station was that women's voices should not be heard, and claimed to have about 30,000 female listeners who agreed. At the hearing, women who supported the radio station attended wearing full hijab .

     The Muslim community in South Africa has generally not been particularly strict in its adherence to Shari'a family law. In recent years, two forces have emerged, one pushing for greater freedom for Muslim women, the other struggling for what they see as closer adherence to Shari'a. These two groups came into direct conflict during debates about new Islamic structures under the new government, after the fall of apartheid, with conservatives pushing for polygyny, greater divorce rights for men, and Qur'anically prescribed inheritance. The more liberal grouping, on the other hand, argued for respect for the principle of non-discrimination, as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights in the new South African Constitution.   It remains to be seen how these two forces will eventually impact South African Muslims.


     In both of these very different countries, Islam has long been practiced according to customs comfortable to the local community. In both countries, the Muslim population has accepted certain aspects of Shari'a, while rejecting, or simply ignoring other parts of Islamic family law. In recent years, a movement has emerged in both countries seeking to encourage Muslims to adhere more closely to what the leaders of those movements interpret as a purer form of Islam. The impact of these movements on the rest of the Muslim communities in Malawi and South Africa has not yet become clear.


Sat, 28 Apr 2012 @17:11

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