From Istanbul with love: a fresh memorial
IT IS eight years since I last wrote about the Ottoman scholar Abu Bakr Effendi (1814-1880), who came to Cape Town under the auspices of the Turkish government in January, 1863. He spent 17 stressful years at the Cape – years during which he was often lonely and misunderstood – but he remained steadfast to his calling.
I have always hoped that someone would expand the story to include an analysis of the Effendi’s religious activities and the impact they had on Islam in Cape Town.
I was therefore delighted when I was contacted by Halim Gencoglu, a Turkish postgraduate student at UCT, who had taken that very topic for his Master’s dissertation.
Gencoglu started his academic career with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in musicology in Turkey and then took a further degree in the history of the Ottoman Empire. This sparked his interest in colonisation and he decided to come to South Africa to study the history of the colonial powers on the continent.
His next academic challenge will be a PhD on Turkish-South African relations, based on primary research conducted in the British, Cape and Ottoman Archives.
According to Gencoglu, Islam in north Africa had been administered from Istanbul since 1517, but the Cape had been left to its own devices and was in disarray owing to lack of guidance and proper leadership.
Congregations were often in dispute about conflicting and inaccurate religious practices, and corrupt leaders exploited their followers’ ignorance to enhance their own social positions. Following an appeal by concerned Cape Muslims, the Turkish cleric Abu Bakr Effendi arrived to educate them about the true rules of Islam.
He immediately established an Ottoman theological school in a building which still stands on the corner of Wale and Bree streets.
The Effendi died in 1880 and was buried in the Tana Baru cemetery in the Bo-Kaap.
During the course of his research Gencoglu discovered details of the original tombstone in a file in the Western Cape Archives, and this inspired him to commission a new one to commemorate the dedicated teacher’s legacy and mark his grave in an appropriate manner.
With the support of the Effendi’s South African descendants, he decided to order a similar one from Istanbul. The impressive tombstone was inaugurated last Tuesday with a religious ceremony at the Nurul Islam Mosque on Buitengracht Street.
Shortly after the Effendi’s death an anonymous Cape Town Muslim wrote: “Since his first visit to South Africa we have enjoyed the inestimable benefits of his learning and teaching.
“He made the youthful members of his worship his especial charge, he has taught them in such a manner that they now surpass in learning many grey-haired old men. The good he has done amongst us will bear fruit long after his name has passed away.”
LEGACY The replacement tombstone, which includes a Turkish inscription on the far side