Islamic Culture Amongst The Nguni (Xhosa & Zulu) Peoples

Muhammed Haron



After the Government of National Unity came to power after South Africa’s first democratic elections, its members embarked upon numerous reforms; amongst these was providing the necessary space for religious traditions to freely function and operate. Islam, which belonged to the marginalised religious traditions during the era of apartheid, was recognized as one of the traditions which struggled alongside others to bring about social justice in South Africa.


During the apartheid period the South African society witnessed the gradual growth of Islam, particularly amongst the Africans. This phenomena not only alarmed the Churches - particularly the Nederlandse Gereformeerde Kerk which was the state church, but also those amongst the government circles. This, as well as other developments, caused the 1986 NGK synod to once again declare that “Islam was a false religion;” a view which many of the Black churchgoers did not accept. In the 1960s the government and the NGK church espoused the opinion that there were three dangers; these were the spread of Communism, the entrenchment of Black power, and  the challenge posed by Islam. The mere fact that Islam was earmarked as one of the potential dangers in southern Africa has led to many Blacks to ask questions about its philosophy and practices. Another factor which also aroused their interest were the visits of Afro-American Muslims such as Muhammad ‘Ali, the former world boxing champion, and Farakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam.


This article intends to explore the existence of Islamic culture amongst the Nguni (Xhosa and Zulus) peoples. However, before commentary is provided on this, two aspects will first have to be discussed; the one is the historical link-up between the Nguni and the Muslims on South African soil, and the other is a comparative inventory of the two cultures.


Nguni's identity & location:


The South African population, according to the 1996 census, is approximately 43 million. Since the statistics reflect the different racial categories which have been created by apartheid’s architects, it is useful to retain them to show the number of adherents to Islam within in each group. The four major groups  are: Whites (5 million), Coloureds (5 million), Indians (1 million) and Africans (32 million). The latter have been further divided into their respective tribal affiliations such as the Nguni, Sotho, Venda, Tsonga and Herero-Ovambo. Each of these tribal groupings have, in turn, been subdivided into their different clans who speak their specific dialects. For example, the Nguni speakers are composed of four tribes, namely the Swazis, Ndebeles, Xhosas and Zulus. The latter two are the two largest South African groups and they are located along the coastal regions streching from  the Cape to Mozambiques’ border. Over the decades, the socio-economic conditions forced many of them to trek from the rural to the urban areas.


Contact with Islam:


In the cities they came into close contact with members of the three Abrahamic traditions. Since the 19th century many missionary organizations such as the London Missionary Society were active amongst the Africans. Even though they were successful in Christianizing many Africans, there were groups who opted to remain faithful to their African traditional religion and others who integrated their beliefs with the Christian faith giving rise to the emergence of an indigenous church such as the Zionist Church of South Africa.


Recent sources reveal that African tribes in southern Africa came into contact with Islam at a fairly early period, however Islam did not make any significant impact at that juncture in  their history. Moreover, a small number living in the Northern and Mpumalanga Provinces respectively had made contact with Muslim Arab traders who were the carriers of Islamic culture and who had reached as far as Mozambique. One tribe, namely the Lemba who is a sub-group of the Venda, has moreover adopted some of the Islamic traditions such as abstinence from consuming pork and slaughtering their meat according to Islamic law.


Throughout the 20th century contact between the Muslims and the Africans has been on the increase and very visible in the main urban areas such as Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. Most of the South African Muslims had been classified `Coloureds' (and forms part of the subgroup known as ‘Malays’) and ‘Indians.’  Although they only constitute about 1,8% of the total population, they have been part of the South African demographic landscape for more tha three centuries. The first Muslims arrived at the Cape  in the mid-17th century as Dutch colonialists’ slaves; they were brought from the Melayu and Indian worlds. At the Cape they made tangible contact with Muslims from other parts of the African continent. In 1860 the British colonialists brought another batch of Muslims from India to Kwa-Zulu Natal province; some of them were indentured labourers whilst others were free passengers. Their arrival also coincided with the coming in 1873 of the Swahili and Arabic -speaking Zanzibaris; and they were later joined by a fair number of Malawians who came to work on the Gauteng mines.


Despite their presence in South Africa for such a long period, there is little oral and written evidence to suggest that Islamic culture directly or indirectly impacted upon Nguni culture over these centuries. There is however a view which opines that when the Muslims set-up home-based schools to disseminate their religious thoughts, they warmly accomodated the slave children as well as the Nguni children. Tangible contact between Muslims and Africans only appeared to have taken place from the beginning of the 20th century, and this has developed into the creation of strong bonds.


Moreover, due to the rapid socio-political transformation during the last four decades of the 20th century and because of the Christian missionary activities in the 1950s and 1960s amongst Muslims, Muslim missionaries came to the defence of Islam and made a concerted effort to carry the message of Islam to the Africans. Organizations such as the Islamic Missionary Society (Johannesburg), Islamic Propagation Centre (Durban) and the Al-Jihad Islamic Movement (Cape Town) were very active during the mentioned period to convert Africans and others to Islam; the title of IMS’s magazine, for example, “Muslim Africa” clearly captured its focus. In the 1970s the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa (est.1970) played a crucial role in undertaking missionary work in Kwa-Zulu Natal via their missionary wing called the Islamic Movement of Kwa-Zulu & Natal; it  was however renamed the Islamic Da'wah Movement of South Africa (IDMSA) in the 1980s when it separated from its parent-body. And by then, it undertook missionary activities in more than thirty townships across South Africa. IDMSA’s activities were later complemented by those of the Johannesburg-based and Kuwayti-funded Africa Muslim Agency whose activities are not only confined to South Africa. Through the efforts of these  and many other Muslim organizations, Mosques (eg. in Soweto), Muslim schools (eg. in Mamelodi), Islamic Centres [in Mabopane (Transvaal), Kwamashu (Natal) and Guguletu (Cape)] and secular schools [the Cassiem Thombela High school (Durban)] were established. These institutions have played important roles in disseminating Islamic culture in the various densely populated African regions. In addition to them, there have been a fair number of individuals who have also contributed very vigourously to da`wah in South Africa; some of these were done in an informal and unofficial manner.


Many Muslims in the Cape, for example, were  artisans and semi-skilled labourers who came into close contact with unskilled Xhosa-speaking Nguni  labourers in the building trade. It is in these circumstances that the urban African came to meet and know Mslams (i.e. Muslims) and their Islamic culture. In many cases, the relationship between the Muslim artisans and the Nguni-Xhosa-speaking labourers was not very cordial. Although apartheid was a major factor which contributed towards this disharmony between the various ethnic groups, the Muslims themselves acted discrimately towards the Africans.  And it was perhaps in these conditions that the derogatory term `kaffir' (which means `unbeliever' in Arabic) came to be used; it is a term which the Afrikaner Boers tactfully appropriated to describe the Africans. Even though the conditions were not the same in Natal, the relationship between the Indian Muslims and the Nguni-Zulu-speakers was somewhat worse. Many Indian Muslims employed them but did not pay them a livable wage nor did they treat them humanely. Consequently, the relationship led to certain prejudices which ultimately snowballed into continuous racial conflict and misunderstandings in both groups. This relationship also caused the Africans to have a truncated perception of Islam and the Muslims; they, in fact, are generally under the impression that all the `Indians' adhered to the same religion and therefore thought that the Muslims are `Hindus'. However, due to the infiltration of the Zanzibaris and Malawians into the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng respectively, a clearer understanding of Islam was provided; this has mainly been because of their interaction and intermarriage with members of the Nguni peoples.


According to the 1921 statistics African Muslims numbered about 1,896 out of an African population of approximately 4 m. In 1936 their numbers decreased to 1,440 (out of 6.5 million). By 1970 and 1980 they were 8,896 (out of 15.4 million) and 12,499 (out of 22 million) respectively. The 1992 estimate stands at 18,000 (out of 25 million). This indicates that the growth of Islam within the African population, on the whole, has been very slow. Two reasons may be forwarded for this. The one is the widespread racial prejudice which exists between the Muslims and Nguni and other African communities; and the other is that the Muslims do not mix freely with them nor do they speak any of the indigenous African languages. Despite their small numbers and slow growth, the Muslims were nevertheless able to make inroads into the very social structure of the Nguni people. Before commenting upon these, the two distinct cultures will be briefly compared.




Comparing the two cultures:


Amongst the Ngunis there exists an idea of the Supreme Being (Unkulunkulu [Zulu] or Qamata

ka tayi [Xhosa]). However, since their belief system underwent an evolutionary process, the Supreme Being was eventually replaced by the ancestors/spirits who are regarded as guardians of morality and act as mediators between man and the Supreme Being. Since the Islamic concept of Tawhid (i.e.Absolute Unity of God) does not permit any form of intermediaries, the Ngunis who embraced Islam, whilst remaining respectful towards their ancestors/spirits, redirected themselves to believing in the Supreme Being.


The Nguni belief system is intertwined with their rich culture and it is quite common to witness how their culture pervades the religious rituals for all institutions such as birth, marriage and death. There are remarkable similarities between certain Nguni marriage customs and Muslim marriages. The marriage institution does not differ when it comes to the payment of the dowry (lobola [Xhosa]/mahr [Arabic]) or polygamous marriages; the labola is paid in cattle and those who do not possess cattle are expected to pay in cash. In contemporary South African Muslim society it is normally paid in cash and kind. However, the couples' families, in both traditions, have to agree to the marriage before matters can proceed. The impact of western culture has caused the adherents of both traditions to abandon practices such as these. Also, polygamy, which is an accepted Islamic practice (on condition that the man is able to be just towards his wives), was widely practiced in almost all the African tribes in South Africa. The urbanized African, however due to his circumstances, has largely maintained a monogamous status form of marriage.



The urbanized African has, because of his social conditions, probably induldged in premarital sex; an act which has been reprehensible by both the African and Islamic traditions. Thus the birth of a child out of wedlock meant that - in both traditions - the child did not adopt the father's family name but that of the mother. And according to Islamic law, the child was also not allowed to inherit from the father.


When it comes to the birth of an Nguni child certain rituals are performed and animals are slaughtered as a sign of sacrifice to please the ancestral spirits. Something similar happens in the Islamic tradition. The institution of `aqiqa is almost the same except that the sacrifice is made only to the Supreme Being, namely Allah, which is a sign of obedience and a form of worship.


After child birth the Nguni woman normally experiences the continuous flow of blood (isikhundla [Xhosa]) and her monthly menstrual cycle also restarts. During these periods the woman is considered impure and thus no sexual relations is expected to occur. The same view is prevalent amongst the Muslims. However, Muslims do allow for daily interaction between husband and wife and free movement within the family. Among some of the Nguni tribes any form of contact between spouses during this period is forbidden.


After the death of the husband a waiting period (inzilo [Xhosa], `iddah [Arabic]) is instituted. However, the Nguni tradition expects the widow or widower to mourn for approximately six months during which no free mixing may occur. In Islam the period for the widow is much shorter (four months and ten days) with the specific objective of ascertaining whether the widow is pregnant or not.


Islam's impact amongst the Nguni:


Now that a brief comparative perspective has been provided of both traditions focus will be upon the impact of Islamic culture upon some aspects of the Nguni tradition. The most important area in which the impact is most visible is in the belief system. It should, however, also be remembered that in the process of undertaking Islamic missions the Muslims met many Nguni-speakers who were Christians; this therefore meant that their emphasis and focus had to be upon both the Christian and African traditional religion belief systems.


Whilst the Nguni peoples were absorbing the beliefs of their `new' tradition they also became acquainted with the usage of certain oft-quoted Arabic phrases. Thus it is currently very common to hear the Xhosa or Zulu-speaking person express a wish and adding the phrase in sha` Allah (If Allah so wishes - xa umdali evuma [Xhosa]) or if something good occured the person says ma sha` Allah (What Allah had desired). These and other similar phrases helped to conscientize and reinforce the concept of Tawhid and it also made them aware of the importance of the Arabic language. Many have taken a course in learning the basic Arabic alphabet so that they may recite the Qur`an and repeat the familiar Arabic phrases; this has indirectly helped to advance the literacy campaign amongst the Africans.

Islamic practices seem to have left a mark on the Nguni name-giving ceremonies. The Nguni families believe strongly in giving the children praiseworthy names. Sometimes the Arabic names, which were chosen, were synonyms of their Xhosa or Zulu names or else they complemented the meaning of these names in these languages. Because of the revolutionary climate in South Africa and the Middle East, an interesting phenomena has arisen. Some African Muslims have strongly identified with the names of Arab leaders such as Qadhdhafi who were recognized as revolutionaries. The ceremonial sacrifices, which were normally undertaken whenever a child is born, were made to express their obedience and submission to Allah alone. This has been a direct departure from their tribal practices which expected them to show their allegience to their ancestors.


When the Nguni-Xhosa-speaking boy reaches the age of puberty, he is expected to attend an initiation school where he is circumcised (ie. abakwetha) and in which he is taught the duties and responsibilities of adulthood. The boy normally attends this school for a period of approximately three months until the wound has healed; and during this time, the initiate is smeared with white ash or clay (ikota/ifutha [Xhosa]) and is isolated from the rest. Among the Xhosa-speakers the circumcision is seen as a separation between the boy's manhood from his childhood. The young Muslim Xhosa-speakers generally do not however circumcise immediately after their conversion; they, in fact, wait until they attain puberty to attend the initiation school. Zulu-speakers also used to circumcise their boys but have stopped this practice a few decades ago. This clearly indicates that they still desire to adhere to some of their traditions. Of late, however, those who have been born into Muslim families are less loyal to their African traditions and are usually circumcised during the first few months after their birth.


After the boys and girls attain adulthood they are expected to dress the tribal garb and to partake in gatherings which encourages loveplay and flirtatious bantering. Many young Nguni men and women, after having entered Islam, stop participating in these gatherings. They therefore do not display their naked breasts to the young men at the mentioned gatherings since Islam strictly prohibited this and other similar acts; this thus meant that they had to discard their customary clothing so that they may observe the Islamic code of dress. The men occasionally donned the long dresses (which means `thobes' in Arabic) worn by the Arab men. Since this has been common amongst contemporary South African Muslims, many of them chose to wear this in order to reflect their identity as Muslims. The young Nguni women cover themselves completely as required by Islamic law.


At the time of death, African converts to Islam have adopted the Muslim method of burial; and they have also requested the govermental authorities to be buried in the graveyard specifically allocated to the Muslims. They therefore wash the body and thereafter clad the body in a white sheet. The widow is thus expected to observe the Islamic rites in terms of the `waiting period'. However, since there is no big difference between Islam and the Nguni culture as far as the mourning period is concerned they normally also observe rules as prescribed by their African tradition.


The process of cultural change has also impacted upon the very social structure of the Nguni society. It is common knowledge that the tribal structures are based upon the fact that the chief is the main spokesperson and guide. Much effort was and is still being made by Muslim missionaries to convert the king of the Zulus and chiefs amongst the Xhosas in order that many of the tribesmen enter the fold of Islam. They have gone to the extent of preparing handbills in the Nguni languages and of translating the Qur'an into Zulu and some Quranic chapters into Xhosa. Until now these efforts have not been able to yield any fruits. Nevertheless, the Muslim Xhosa-speaker or Zulu-speaker still maintains a certain amount of loyalty to the king and the chiefs. But it should, however, be pointed out that due to process of urbanization and the lack of commitment to the tribal traditions his dependence upon the king or chief's leadership has decreased. Moreover, many Africans who were priests inherited the mantle of imamate even though they were never trained for it. During the past few years a number of Muslim educational institutions such as As-Salaam Educational Institute (Braemer-Natal) have been established to specifically serve the needs of African Muslims. Of late, some of them have been sent to Middle Eastern and Asian educational institutions to be trained as Shaykhs in order to serve their respective communities. Those who have graduated from these institutions have come to play an important role in weaving Nguni culture into the framework of Islam and without causing any unnecessary protests or fears that Islam will be or is being undermined by the Nguni culture.




Department of Arabic Studies

University of the Western Cape 


May 1998