November 27, 2008

The Muslim Contribution to Afrikaans

Filed under: Islamic Terms — abuaisha @ 12:04 pm

 ان دي كُوْنِڠْ سْكَپْ اس بِيْدِيْ هُوْكَ الله تعالا ان ڨَارْلِكْ اللـه تعالا اِسْ بَاس فِـَرْ اَلْدِيْ اِتْسْ

“En die konungskap is by die hoege Allah ta`ālā en waarlik Allah ta`ālā is baas vir al die iets.”

(A sample of Arabic Afrikaans, quoting from the Qur’ān – Sūrat al-Mulk 67:1)

Afrikaans is a language that is spoken primarily in South Africa and Namibia, which has its origins in the Dutch and German languages. It evolved from the dialect of Dutch that was spoken by many of those Europeans who settled in South Africa around 1650-1700.

For many, it seems almost the antithesis of a ‘Muslim’ language. It was brought by the Dutch, coming from the Netherlands – a nation which historically had no interaction with Muslims, and they settled in the southernmost area of the African continent, which unlike the North, West and East of Africa was for the most part not greatly exposed to Islam. Very few Muslims lived in the South, especially not once you would pass Malawi.

So what then does this European language have to do with Muslims, and how could its history provide us with an insight into just how far Muslims had spread and had an influence in those remote areas to which they went?

Let’s take a look.

Long ago, the Dutch ruled over Indonesia and much of the Malay archipelago. The Dutch, like many European nations were colonialists, they would claim foreign lands as their own to rule over and gain great financial benefit from. These colonial ventures by the Dutch helped to spread the Malay people around the globe. When workers were needed in Suriname, one of the Dutch possessions in South America, many Malays were sent there. Because of this, we find today that 15% of Surinamese are Malays, and 20% of the population are Muslims.

A mosque in Durban, South Africa

When workers were needed then in Africa, the Dutch sent forth many Malays who were basically slaves to work. After some time, South Africa became somewhat of a refuge for many peoples escaping political problems in their own nations. People like Mahatma Gandhi left India to seek work in the new South Africa, also many Malays and Indonesians too left their lands to seek sanctuary there.

The society in which these Muslims lived was not one which granted non-Europeans many rights, they were regularly harassed by the Afrikaners, however they were allowed to live amongst their own societies and to build Islamic schools and mosques. The first ‘madrassas’ were run by the Malays, who we now refer to as the ‘Cape Malays’ due to their location in the Western Cape of South Africa. These Cape Malays were Shafi’īs in fiqh, so the Shafi’ī madhhab was taught amongst the people. Whilst Malay would have been the main language of instruction, the language of the wider public was a localized dialect of Dutch. Whilst all official business was carried out in the same Dutch as would have then been spoken in the Netherlands, the language of the street was what the Malays spoke. This language was non-standardised, it did not have a common way to be written or spoken, so when its speakers would use it there were no clear rules dictating how it should be spoken or spelt.

As Dutch was the formal language of the colonialists, the casual register used by the lower classes was viewed with some level of disdain. It was a slang speech which those running the country were not interested in.

It was at this time when the Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz decided to send over to Cape Town a Qādī (judge) and scholar named Abu Bakr Effendi. His role was to act as a teacher and Imam for the Muslims. Abu Bakr Effendi himself was a Hanafī who hailed originally from Makkah, and this fact did cause much confusion as his Hanafī teachings sometimes differed from the Shafi’ī school followed by the Malays. However it was through his teachings that the linguistic innovation which we wish to look at evolved.

Shaykh Abu Bakr wrote a book called Uiteensetting van die Godsdiens which translates as ‘Exposition of the Religion’ (بيان الدين).
This work was written in the language being spoken by the Cape Malays in their everyday lives. In the time in which it was written, the language we know of as ‘Afrikaans’ was still not known. The language was as mentioned, still seen as a lowly variant of the official Dutch language.

The fact that Shaykh Abu Bakr chose to write in this language was then rather innovative, not just for the fact that he wrote in a ‘new’ language yet to have a literary existence, but the Shaykh also managed to write the entire book with the Arabic script.

Just as the Turkish and Malay languages were also written at those times with the Arabic alphabet, Shaykh Abu Bakr developed a system of writing Afrikaans with Arabic letters.

As such, the first book to be written in the Afrikaans language was written not only by a Muslim, but also in the Arabic script.

One of the reasons why this is interesting to learn about is not only does it help to provide us with an insight into how early Afrikaans was spoken, however it also offers a chance to give us a different way of looking at the history of South Africa as a nation.

South Africa of course is a nation which has a dark history in terms of its racial relations. The apartheid system meant that the European Afrikaners maintained a system whereby they subjugated and oppressed the non-Europeans. After many years of campaigning for their rights, the local Africans and the other non-Europeans won their right (on paper at least) to be treated as equals.

Now in historical revision, those people who were once the oppressed are now discovering their own histories within Southern Africa. The Muslim peoples are seeing the literary legacies left by their forefathers who strived to establish a place for themselves to practice Islam, despite the many hardships they faced. From these discoveries there is the opportunity for linguists to discover more about the evolution of the Afrikaans language and a chance to marvel at the fruits of the Muslim scholars wherever they travelled to. The Muslims’ thirst for Islamic knowledge amongst their communities is so evident here and it has helped produce this gem in the field of linguistics. Afrikaans does not have to be viewed only as an oppressive colonialist language, rather we can be proud in saying that the literary founders of the language were Muslim Malays and a Kurdish scholar from Makkah. This helps us to re-evaluate and to better understand the history of Muslims in the world, it is a reminder of the legacy which Muslims leave behind them wherever they go, and a wake up call to eurocentric historians to realise that even in the most seeming European strongholds, one finds that even the ‘second class’ peoples have had so much to contribute to the societies of the past, we just have to dig it up and find it.

A look at Arabic Afrikaans

The script of the language uses Arabic letters and is most similar to the Malay-Arabic (Jawi) script.

Whilst the original texts did not extensively use vowel markings, a standard system has since evolved for writing the vowels.
The system is innovative in combining vowels together to produce the vowels not present in Arabic and hence not able to be presented normally in the Arabic script.

The letters E and O for example have no way to be written in Arabic, however Arabic Afrikaans uses 2 vowels together to represent each.
For E, the letters A and I are both written, meaning that both a kasrah ( ِ  ) and a fatħa ( َ  ) are merged to prodouce the E sound – اَِنْ is the way to write the Afrikaans word ‘en’ (which means and’)


For O, the letters A and U are merged, meaning that the fatħa ( َ  ) and damma ( ُ  ) are merged together to produce the O sound – پْرَُوفَِيت is how to write profeet’ (which means ‘prophet’)



To be continued –  Inshā’ Allāh



  1. This is fascinating, thank you very much for this post!

    Comment by skraapdotnet — September 4, 2009 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

  2. very interesting read. In school i always disliked Afrikaans, maybe if i had this knowledge i would have looked at Afrikaans in a positive light. shukran for this post

    Comment by Ari — September 17, 2009 @ 2:52 am | Reply

  3. Very well written, I enjoyed this and found much of it familiar, as I did some research on this a while ago. One quick erratum: I’m not sure how this was meant, but the seventh paragraph (which begins “[t]he society in which these Muslims lived […]”) seemed slightly confusing, because during the time of the first Malay settlements in South Africa, Afrikaners did not yet exist, so we hardly had a hand in government (or harrassment) at that stage. Except if this referred to later events, but its proximity to mentions of earlier events could confuse people.

    Interestingly, it’s only among the lower classes that some forms of Afrikaans were originally spoken, both by the Malay slaves and by the lower-class Dutch farmers on the border with Xhosa-controlled regions; the lower-class Dutch having been brought to South Africa as a way to pay off their debts to the Dutch East India Company. These various dialects heavily influenced each other, although some of them remain distinct to this day (Cape Afrikaans is often said to be closer to Dutch). It was these lower class Afrikaans speakers (of various / mixed races) who first referred to themselves as Afrikaners; so it’s estimated today that the average Afrikaner is 15% Xhosa, with some other ancestries mixed in (incl. Malay). The idea of Afrikaners being direct descendents from “pure” European stock was a mistaken idea which only took root later, partly encouraged by NP nationalist propaganda to set us apart from so-called “natives”.

    Comment by wolfie_inu — September 27, 2009 @ 11:28 am | Reply

  4. Interesting post, recommended that your blogger audience must check out the following article

    File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat – View
    MUHAMMED HARON community. And they will also highlight and provide additional information with regard to the development of the. Afrikaans language. … – Similar –
    by M HARON – 2001 – Cited by 2 – Related articles – All 5 versions

    Comment by Mogamat Kammie KAMEDIEN — October 5, 2009 @ 8:07 am | Reply

  5. Arabic-Afrikaans literature at the Cape.

    Tuan Guru–the first official imam at the Cape–used Malayu as the medium of instruction in the Dorp Street madrasah (Muslim religious school) which he established at the end of the 18th century. This changed in the middle of the 19th century when Cape Dutch was adopted as the language of instruction. While the children were familiar with this language they could not read the Latin script since they were barred from attending the public schools. Cape Muslims could, however, read the Arabic script which they had to learn for liturgical purposes–though they could not speak Arabic. To overcome this conundrum, numerous scholars and …
    Bibliography for: “Arabic-Afrikaans literature at the Cape”

    Suleman Essop Dangor “Arabic-Afrikaans literature at the Cape”. Tydskrif vir Letterkunde. 05 Oct, 2009.

    Comment by Mogamat Kammie KAMEDIEN — October 5, 2009 @ 8:10 am | Reply

  6. Another recommended website link covering two recent academic articles related to Afrikaans – Arabic dialect or Cape Afrikaans variety.

    A Vehicle for Identity Formation rather than Integration
    Muhammed Haron
    (University of Botswana)

    1st extracts :
    0. Introduction
    South Africa’s Muslims, though numerically small in number in relation to the total
    population, have made a lasting contribution in different sectors of society. Their
    footprints have been noted not only in the building arena as carpenters and bricklayers,
    the clothing industry as tailors and dressmakers, and the cuisine sector as great cooks and
    bakers, but also in the construction of a creolized Dutch, namely the Afrikaans language;

    2nd extract :
    3. Towards a Conclusion
    In this short essay an attempt was made to give an overview of process of the production
    of the Arabic-Afrikaans literature. The article demonstrated that subsequent to the
    presence of certain key religious personalities as well as the production and circulation of
    their writings, they inspired and motivated a chain of Imams and Shaykhs to make some
    significant and noteworthy contributions. It went on to highlight selected Arabic-
    Afrikaans manuscripts that formed the core of this genre of literature and via this
    demonstrated that the Cape Muslims used this genre of literature as a vehicle for identity
    formation. And the article argued that their efforts to construct their identity within an
    unfriendly colonial environment also meant that the Cape Muslims exploited the situation
    so as not to be integrated into the colonial cultural system; the production of these
    manuscripts was in effect also a unifying agent and also complemented the other
    communal Muslim institutions.

    Arabic-Afrikaans: A Vehicle for Identity Formation rather than …
    File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat – View
    Arabic-Afrikaans: A Vehicle for Identity Formation rather than Integration. Muhammed Haron. (University of Botswana). 0. Introduction ……/Haron_AfroArabConference2006.pdf – Similar –
    by M UBSpace – Related articles – All 2 versions

    Comment by Mogamat Kammie KAMEDIEN — October 5, 2009 @ 8:23 am | Reply

  7. “Madrasahs and Moravians: Muslim educational institutions in the Cape of Good Hope in the 19 Century.” – Robert C.-H. Shell

    Abstract :The vigorous revival of Christian missionary activity after 1792 with the return of the Moravians and the arrival of the London Missionary Society had little effect on Cape Town Muslims. By 1793 the Dorp Street school (madrasah) was established. By then, many of the males slaves and the free black population in Cape Town were securely Muslim. The success of the Cape Town Muslim clerisy owed much to the schools the imams established in all the colonial ports and some inland towns during the nineteenth century. In academic discussions of the “first” or “oldest” school in the country only European schools are mentioned. There is no reason for this omission. The author reviews the rise of the Cape madrasahs.

    extract :
    From the vantage point of a nineteenth century Cape Muslim, facing the fierce colonial double-barrelled intolerance of race and religion, the establishment of a network of Islamic schools and finally, a college must have been a culturally satisfying outcome, a quite unthinkable prospect under the Dutch East India Company…………


    Madresahs and Moravians. Madrasahs and Moravians: Muslim educational institutions in the Cape Colony, 1792 to 1910. Robert Shell. Department of Statistics …

    Alternatively check out the Robert Shell article at
    Robert C.-H. Shell. “Madrasahs and Moravians: Muslim educational
    institutions in the Cape of Good Hope in the 19th Century.” New
    Contree, no 51 (May 2006): 101-114.

    Comment by Mogamat Kammie KAMEDIEN — October 5, 2009 @ 8:38 am | Reply

  8. Fascinating article – I regret not visiting the Bo-Kaap area of Cape Town when I was in South Africa.

    The term ‘Malay’ in South Africa loosely covers anyone from the Malay archipelago (including what is now Indonesia) but in the context of Suriname, it’s less fitting as most people of Indonesian origin are of Javanese descent. Arabic influence on Malay (and hence Indonesian) is considerable, but less evident in Javanese, which draws more upon Sanskrit than does Malay.

    The Afrikaans word for ‘very’ or ‘much’ baie (which always puzzles Dutch speakers) apparently comes from the Malay ‘banyak’.

    It’s bitterly ironic that a language that was the result of miscegenation should later have been branded the language of white supremacists. However, even the Taalmonument, erected in 1975 to commemorate the Afrikaans language includes a section showing the Malay influence, as well as that of Europe and Africa.

    Comment by bule — September 15, 2010 @ 3:14 am | Reply

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