In South Africa, many blacks convert to Islam

Islam is growing in South African communities, offering a haven from social vices, an ethic of charity for the needy, and social reform.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Bilal Motsau converted to Islam in 1976, he was considered an oddity in Soweto, a sprawling black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg that was once the center of anti-apartheid activism. In the South Africa of that period, Islam was practiced primarily by the country's small South Asian and Malay populations, and blacks considered it an "Indian" religion.

But these days, Mr. Motsau, who wears short, trimmed beard and a black and white prayer shawl over dark, Western-style clothes, is being joined in his faith by a growing number of South African blacks. Though still a small force in black townships, Islam is gaining a foothold in many black communities in this predominantly Christian country. The faith is attracting both poor shantytown dwellers who appreciate Islam's emphasis on charity, and young intellectuals attracted by the faith's focus on lifestyle and social reform.

"In 1976 there were about 10 black Muslims in Soweto, and everyone knew each other," says Motsau, who, like many black South African converts traded his Christian first name for a Muslim one, but retained his African surname as a sign of his heritage. "There used to be one Bilal and everyone knew who I was. The growth of Islam these days has been tremendous."

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Many of the new converts are young men like Omar Khambule, who was attracted to Islam's belief in one God and saw it as a way out of gangsterism and drugs.

"Islam teaches you how to behave," he says, sitting with a friend outside Soweto's one mosque, a traditional Muslim skullcap on his head. "I was corrupt and was heavily involved with dagga [marijuana] and a gang. But then I found Islam and felt that this offered me a different path."

Mr. Khambule says he has left that life behind. Now he lives with other Muslims and says he tries to pray five times a day, going to mosque as often as possible. For Khambule, who is young and unemployed, Islam offers stability, community, and enough charity to survive.

Few women in black South Africa find their way to Islam on their own. Most female converts, like Layla Zange, follow husbands, boyfriends, fathers, or brothers. But those who do convert say the religion offers a refuge from the early sex, AIDS, alcoholism, and domestic violence rampant in many poor black communities in places like Soweto.

But it is only recently that Muslim women in Soweto say they have begun feeling comfortable wearing headscarves in the township.

"People used to call us Indians. It was difficult, and they called us names," says Ms. Zange, who once worshipped primarily in Indian communities. But now, she and some 2,000 others attend the Dlamini mosque near home. "Now I wear a scarf. People understand what it means. But that's new."

The growth of Islam is difficult to quantify because, with a dearth of Muslim facilities in the townships, much of the effort to spread the faith occurs informally. Recent converts open their homes to neighbors for prayer or offer small, after-school religious programs in their living rooms or backyards. In Soweto, five small Islamic religious schools, each serving hundreds of children and their families, have opened since the end of apartheid.

There are no official statistics on the number of black Muslims in South Africa, but Mr. Motsau, who works for a Muslim charity group working in townships around Johannesburg, estimates that there are now 10,000 in Soweto alone. Muslim leaders in other areas say the growth in other townships has been similar.

"Islam is the fastest growing religion of conversion in the country," estimates Omaruddin don Mattera, a prominent writer and poet who converted more than a decade ago and is now active in helping to spread the faith. "But no one will tell you the statistics, because they don't want to threaten the Christians."

Some 72 percent of black South Africans are Christian. The rest mostly adhere to traditional African religions, and a small number are Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu. Islam, which first came to Africa in the 7th century, was spread to much of the continent by Arab traders over the course of centuries. But on the continent's southern tip, the religion failed to take root in black communities that were Christianized by settlers and missionaries. Apartheid and the isolation of the Indian community also slowed the spread of the faith.

Today, much of the conversion work in townships is being carried out by older converts like Motsau and Mattera and by the tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants from other African countries who have surged into South Africa since the end of apartheid.

Funds from Indian Muslims in South Africa are helping, but there is enormous tension between South Africa's black and Indian Muslim communities. Blacks accuse the Indians of racism. And many Indians tend to adhere to a more radical brand of Islam. One Indian group, Pagad, is named on the US list of alleged terrorist groups, and is responsible for bombing some Cape Town restaurants.

While black Muslims sympathize with Palestinians and Afghans, they tend to be moderate and concerned with issues at their own back door.

"[Indian] Muslims in South Africa are more worried about problems far from their eyes. They see a problem in Afghanistan, but not in Soweto," says Omar Duma, who struggles to raise money for the small religious school his family runs from their home. More than 100 black children attend the after-school classes in his maddrassa, receiving soup, bread, and education in Islam, the Koran, and Arabic.

Small schools like one run by the Duma family are playing a lead role in spreading Islam in the townships, especially among the poor. Their founders and teachers believe they are doing a double good by feeding poor children and spreading the faith. But not every community has welcomed such charity. In one area of Soweto, neighbors have gone to court in an attempt to close a newly opened maddrassa. Tensions between Muslims and Christians are rare, but some are concerned such conflicts may increase as the faith grows.

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