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Turkish delight: the multi-cultural call of South Africa’s newest mosque

Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab

The Nizamiye Mosque and Complex, built with largely Turkish funding, was officially opened last week by President Zuma. Truly exquisite, there is no structure comparable to it in Southern Africa or in what it means for South Africans and interfaith harmony. 

“Build it,” intones the heavenly voice to Kevin Costner in the film Field of Dreams, “and they will come.”  In early 2006, on the hot and dusty outskirts of what was once farmland between Johannesburg and Pretoria, a group of visionaries assembled to do just that. They were foreigners, unused to our regulatory laws which could hold up such projects, doubtless unused to our society as well. But they had a dream. In time, that dream would become the Nizamiye Mosque and Complex, a simply breathtaking structure destined to be bathed in superlatives and yet worthy of them all – an iridescent pearl on the Johannesburg skyline.  

President Zuma enthused much along these lines when he officially opened the complex last week. More than the grandeur of its aesthetics, however, the real richness of the builders’ achievements has been that this band of outsiders has succeeded in creating a social jewel which has been embraced by locals as their own.

The one-time outsiders have now become firmly part of the wider community, which has been a most gratifying thing to watch. I remember visiting the complex at several points during its construction. The mosque at the complex’s centre might accommodate 6,000 now, but in those early days there were few people around. Emerging from the rubble with smiles on their faces were Esat and Mehmet Naci Kaya, recently out of Turkey and now heads of Nizamiye’s high school. They spoke with great hope about what was being attempted, but also with humility about how they intended to approach their task of educating children from the area. 

I also met Turkish craftsmen, highly skilled men who were laboriously carving away at the imported marble which had to be brought to life by hand and painstakingly hand-painting much of the interior. In the lower level of the complex, I met a local builder who was decorating a fountain with mosaics. He hadn’t been contracted to work, but was moved to offer his services for free after seeing the glorious vision taking shape on the hill below where he worked. And finally, I met the man behind the entire project, Ali Katircioglu, an unassuming, retiring man of immense determination who funded the entire project himself. Uncle Ali, as he is known, is a man of few words, but his eyes would come alive when he spoke of a hope that as many non-Muslims as Muslims would come to the complex. This is for the community, was his message, not just for Muslims. Taking to all of them, a clear commonality became apparent – a desire to build a mosque, yes; but more than that, to project a face of Islam more at peace with itself and with those it interacts with.  

The Nizamiye complex, in Midrand, is based on the tradition of the Turkish külliye, or complex of buildings. During the great Ottoman civilisation, the concept of community life meant that mosques or places of worship were never intended to be removed from social life; rather, they should be its heart. The külliye was thus incorporated around a beautiful, multi-domed mosque but extended to include everything for a community to engage with itself: schools, kitchens, bakeries, madressas, hammams, bazaars. It’s a wonderful concept, and has been updated in the South African context to also include, at the suggestion of Madiba, a medical clinic. 

But Nizamiye’s importance goes far deeper than just the emergence of another mosque in Southern Africa. Rather, it represents for both Muslims and non-Muslims, a clear statement that there exists a widespread, more tolerant Islam quite distinct from the brand to which most South Africans have previously been exposed. Islam, a religion and identity of more than 1-billion people, is not a monolithic, unchanging structure. Its strains are many. Unfortunately, as in so much of life, it is most often the loudest and most virulent notes which drown out the sweetest.

The dominant Islamic ideologies during the last century have rarely been associated with progressiveness or the ideals of free thought and debate upon which so many past Muslim civilisations were based. Perhaps the most dominant in its spread has been Wahhabism and its several derivatives. Wahhabism is driven by an ultraorthodox zeal, with heavy emphasis on literal interpretations. It has been exported from Saudi Arabia as that medieval kingdom tried to grow its power and reach over the global Muslim community. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose reach has extended beyond Egypt, is also active in most Western countries. Hizb ut-Tahrir, by some counts active in 40 countries, advocates a rejection of any form of electoral democracy, which it views as incompatible with the desire for a global caliphate. In South Africa, the Tablighi Jamaat offers a South Asian flavoured, propagationist ideology that emphasises a return to fundamental principles and replicating as much as possible the life of the Prophet.  All these ideologies are distinct, but share certain beliefs which place a deep cynicism and mistrust of the construction of Western democratic societies and value structures.   

But there is another, more refreshing, alternative, as this mosque proves. As Turkey grows in geo-political power and stature, it has sought to assert itself on a global stage- and has become more confident in espousing its own strain of Turkish Islam. A brand of Islam nurtured from within its previous empire, one that advocates peace, tolerance and scholarship. It draws on traditions of Sufism, a mystical version of Islam which emphasises an individual’s search for direct knowledge of the divine.  The main driver is the Gulen movement, criticised by some for its stealthy expansion of power throughout the world and its secretive nature. But it is also the first major Muslim movement to give primacy to education, science and technology and to critical thought. Its followers have built more than 500 places of education globally, the latest in Johannesburg.  

The message of Islam being spread at Nizamiye points to just these characteristics. This Islam speaks of gender rights, of minority rights, of comparative religious studies and of how to live in a modern secular democracy.  

This is not simply a mosque, or even a complex. It’s more a call for all South Africans to go beyond the stereotypes about Islam. Just a few days after the official launch, it may still be too early to tell whether Nizamiye will be a long lasting success in all that it hopes to achieve, and whether its interpretation of Islam will take hold and begin to influence South Africans. But it is certainly a good start. DM


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