Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

Biographies of Muslim Activists in South Africa 1

Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

Biographies of Muslim Activists in South Africa 1

Article excerpt


In 2009, Aishima and Salvatore reminded us that the 'intellectual trials and tribulations' that went into the making of Islamic revival have not been sufficiently studied.2 An enormous body of literature has been produced on Islamic fundamentalism or Islamism, but relatively little has been written on ordinary individuals who have turned to religious activism in one form or another. Islamism is used in this article as a broad category for Muslims who have embarked on various projects to re-Islamize themselves, society and politics in one way or another. These Muslims follow very diverse theologies and socio-political projects, but they share the conviction that Islam needs to be re-introduced in some way into all sectors of life. We know an enormous amount about prominent leaders such as Hassan al-Banna, Abu al-Ala Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb, and Ayatollah Khomeini. More recently, radical leaders such as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram have received a great deal of attention.3 The life-trajectories, including the trials, conversions and back-sliding, of less prominent Muslim activists are either presented in one-dimensional portraits, or simply passed over in silence.

This article is focused on the biographical trajectories of a group of Muslim activists in South Africa. It is a close examination of the journeys of individuals through activism over time. The scope of this article is limited to the accounts of individuals who established or joined the Muslim Youth Movement (est. 1970) at one time or another, and played a role in its long history. They experienced its complex history in diverse ways. They include accounts of conversion, doubt and significant engagements in pursuit of an activist life. Their biographies reveal a glimpse of the personal journeys that countless others, in South Africa and beyond, have taken in pursuit of an authentic Islamic life. Their journeys point to the need for greater attention to be given to the study of life trajectories of activists in this important development within Islam.

Making Sense of Identity and Authenticity in Islamism

There is no disagreement over the importance of identity and authenticity in analyses devoted to the study of Islamism.4 Scholars agree that identity looms large in these movements, but they offer different approaches on what is identity and how it is constituted. There is a body of literature represented by Stephen Humphreys and Roxanne Euben that argues that Islamism is an indigenous interpretive framework or discourse. Identification in this approach is regarded as a broad social development. In another line of approach, Robert Lee and Olivier Roy emphasize a more constructive approach to identity by focusing on individual agency in Islamist projects. This article brings the two approaches into conversation with each other through a 'psychology of religions' approach.

Humphreys' early and perceptive analysis identified the rise of Islamism as manifested in the Muslim Brothers of Egypt and the Jamaate Islami in the Indian subcontinent as a common language of resistance. Emerging within colonial and post-colonial cities, the ideologues of Islamism produced a discourse of resistance and indigenous identity: "... Islam is ... reified into a fixed and eternal body of ideal doctrine, not subject to human hypothesis or revision, which is readily available to anyone who cares about it."5 Humphreys highlights the difference between premodern and modern forms of Islamic revival, but his main point rests on a new language created for young people living in the new cities and states. Roxanne Euben and Qasim Zaman write similarly about Islamism as an 'interpretive' framework that provides a "lens on the world rather than a mere reflection of material conditions or conduit for socioeconomic grievances."6 In such works, the terms 'identity' and 'authenticity' refer to the adoption of an indigenous language and worldview. …

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