Story of faith: How Cape Town Muslims preserved 200-year-old handwritten Holy Quran

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An image of the hand-written verses from the 200-year-old copy of Holy Quran in Cape Town, South Africa. — BBC/File
An image of the hand-written verses from the 200-year-old copy of Holy Quran in Cape Town, South Africa. — BBC/File

Cape Town Muslims proudly guard a handwritten copy of the Holy Quran, over 200 years old, found in a paper bag in the attic of the Auwal Mosque during renovations in the mid-1980s.

The copy of the Holy Quran, neatly handwritten by an Indonesian imam banished by Dutch colonisers, is a symbol of pride and cultural heritage in the South African city.

Nicknamed Tuan Guru or Master Teacher, Imam Abdullah ibn Qadi Abdus Salaam is believed to have written the Holy Quran from memory at some point after he was sent from Tidore island in Indonesia to Cape Town as a political prisoner in 1780 as retribution for joining the resistance movement against Dutch colonisers.

"It was extremely dusty, it looked like no one had been in that attic for more than 100 years," Cassiem Abdullah, a member of the mosque committee said. "The builders also found a box of religious texts written by Tuan Guru."

The unbound Holy Quran, consisting of loose, unnumbered pages, is preserved in a surprisingly good condition with the exception of a few frayed edges, inked with legible Arabic script calligraphic writing in red and blue.

The local Muslim community faced a significant challenge in preserving a 1694 Quranic artefact, ensuring the correct sequence of over 6,000 verses on its pages. The task was carried out by Maulana Taha Karaan, head jurist of the Cape Town-based Muslim Judicial Council, and local Quranic scholars, taking three years to complete.

The Quran was displayed in the Auwal Mosque, the first mosque in South Africa, and after three unsuccessful attempts to steal it, the mosque's committee secured it in a fire- and bullet-proof casing 10 years ago.

Tuan Guru, a prominent anti-apartheid activist, is believed to have written the first of five copies of the Declaration of Independence while imprisoned on Robben Island, between the ages of 80 and 90 years old, according to his biographer, Shafiq Morton.

His achievement is considered remarkable, as Arabic was not his first language.

Guru was jailed twice on Robben Island, first from 1780-1781 and then again between 1786-1791.

"I believe one of the reasons he wrote the Quran was to lift the spirits of the slaves around him. He realised that if he were to write a copy of the Quran he could educate his people from it and teach them dignity at the same time," Morton says.

"If you go to the archives and look at the paper that the Dutch used it's very similar to that used by Tuan Guru. It's probably the same paper.

"His pens he would have made himself from bamboo and the black and red ink would have been easy to obtain from the colonial authorities."

Shaykh Owaisi, a South African Islamic history lecturer, believes Tuan Guru was driven by the need to preserve Islam among Muslim prisoners and slaves in a Dutch colony.

"While they were preaching the Bible and trying to convert the Muslim slaves, Tuan Guru was writing the copies of the Quran, teaching it to the children and getting them to memorise it.

"It tells a story of resilience and perseverance. It shows the level of education of the people that were brought to Cape Town as slaves and prisoners."

Tuan Guru wrote a 613-page Arabic textbook, Ma'rifat wal Iman wal Islam (The Knowledge of Faith and Religion), which was used for over 100 years to teach Muslims in Cape Town about their faith.

The book is in good condition and is in the possession of the Rakiep family, descendants of Tuan Guru.

"He sat down and wrote down just about everything he could remember about his faith and he used that as a text for teaching others," says Shaykh Owaisi.

Three of Tuan Guru's five handwritten copies of the Holy Quran remain, with two in his family's possession.

Around 100 replicas have been produced, with one handed over to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in April and a few to visiting dignitaries. The remaining copies are in the possession of his family and great-great-granddaughter.

In May 2019, Ganief Hendricks, leader of the Muslim political party Al Jama'ah in South Africa, used a replica of Tuan Guru's handwritten copy of Holy Quran to be sworn in as a member of parliament.

The Dutch's ban on Tuan Guru in southern Africa facilitated the spread of Islam, with Muslims now comprising 5% (4.6 million) of Cape Town's population.

"When he came to the Cape, Tuan Guru observed that Islam was in pretty bad shape so he had a lot of work to do," Morton says.

"The community didn't really have their hands on any texts — they were Muslims more from cultural memory than anything else. I would say that that first Quran he wrote is the reason why the Muslim community survived and developed into the respected community we have today."