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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 Nicole ItanoSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 10, 2002


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.

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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."

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.