History enthusiast, Jackie Loos continues to slave history and migration in her "The Way We Were" column in the Cape Argus. Picture: Gary Van Wyk/INL
History enthusiast, Jackie Loos continues to slave history and migration in her "The Way We Were" column in the Cape Argus. Picture: Gary Van Wyk/INL

Book on Muslim scholar in SA is one of a kind

By Jackie Loos Time of article published May 10, 2018

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Halim Gençoglu, a soft-spoken Turkish academic who has studied and taught at UCT for the past few years, has recently published an important book called Ottoman Traces in Southern Africa: The Impact of Turkish Emissaries and Muslim Theologians.

As Muslim readers will know, their religious beliefs and practices were strengthened in the 1860s by the unexpected arrival of a highly educated Turkish scholar and teacher, Abu Bakr Effendi (1813-1880). He had been chosen by the Ottoman government to settle the doctrinal disputes that were all too common among the followers of Islam at the Cape and he came with the blessing of the British government.

In recent years, Abu Bakr Effendi’s turbulent professional and personal life have come under scrutiny and he has featured in several of these columns. However, these brief evaluations have always been one-sided because the rich resources of the Ottoman State Archives have been beyond the reach of local historians.

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For example, he was in regular contact with the Ottoman government and sent reports to Ottoman state journals which have not previously been tapped. Now, Gençoglu has redressed the balance in a well-illustrated scholarly publication containing 787 footnotes.

Soon after his arrival, the shrewd “Turkish Professor” realised that the best way to correct errors and change entrenched attitudes would be to start with the youth. He therefore opened an Ottoman School of Theology in Bree Street and began to educate the religious leaders and politicians of the future.

His book, Beyan al-Din (a Muslim catechism written in Afrikaans using Arabic script), was a pioneering achievement in South African literature. It was published in Istanbul in 1876 and distributed as a gift from the Ottoman Sultan.

Gençoglu’s publication also includes chapters on Abu Bakr Effendi’s gifted sons, Ahmet Ataullah Bey and Hesham Neamatollah Effendi and other descendants who made their mark in politics, teaching and medicine. He also sketches the lives of Turkish citizens and envoys who enriched South African society, including some Ottoman Jewish refugees.

Gençoglu claims that his book covers the life of Abu Bakr Effendi from childhood to death “and can thus be considered a mini-biography”.

However, there is more to biography than lineage and achievements and he glosses over the professor’s hasty temper, abuse of his wives, divorce of Tahora and his complex property dealings - subjects that were well-ventilated in the newspapers of the day.

That said, the book, which was published in Istanbul by Libra, is unlikely to face much competition in the foreseeable future. It is a tribute to the author’s scholarship that he has been able to produce a complex historical treatise in a difficult foreign language, but the publication nevertheless suffers from repetition, inconsistency and occasional errors and would have benefited greatly from an English-speaking editor.

* Jackie Loos' "The Way We Were" column is published in the Cape Argus every week.

*** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus

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