Spiritual Teacher, Mystic & Freedom Fighter

The Dutch, Portuguese, English, French, Spanish and Danish seafaring Europeans in a mad rush for dominance of Southeast Asia and its resources entered this arena not just warring against each other but also warring against the Arab merchant presence and influence. Most importantly they were at war with the indigenous peoples of the region. These wars resulted in thousands of captives some of whom were sold into slavery. Others who were royals, nobility, military leaders and religious leaders were banished to colonies or areas where European powers had established what they called Factories headed by colonial Factors.

Standing in opposition to the European invasion and appropriation of wealth were a number of powerful kingdoms, small empires and fiefdoms. Some of these were headed by rulers who also often were revered spiritual leaders known as the Orang Cayen. Sheikh Yusuf Al-Makassary was one of these Orang Cayen, also known as Tuans, or in Sulawezi – as the Wali Pitue.

Sheikh Yusuf was also known by the name Abadin Tadia Tjoessoep, the nephew of King of Gowa in the Celebes. He was born at Macassar in 1626. His father was Galarrang Moncongloe (Abdullah Khaidir), a brother of the Sultan Alauddin, the first king of Gowa who converted to Islam in 1603. His mother was Aminah binti Damapang Ko’mara, who was descended from Tallo kingdom nobility; the twin kingdom of Gowa.

Pioneer & Exile

Sheikh Yusuf was a pioneer of the introduction of Islam for the first time to communities in Macassar in South Sulwesi, Bantam in West Java, Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) and Cape Town where he spent the last part of his life in exile or banishment.

After showing potential as a child, his father sent the young Yusuf to pondok pesantren Bontoala for Islamic studies. This was followed by a period of advanced study in pondok Cikoang under the tutorship of Sheikh Jalaluddin al-Aidid. After completing his studies, it was recommended to his father that he further his studies in Jazirah in Arabia. He returned to Southeast Asia after 20 years away. He was now an accomplished teacher and propagator of the faith. He was also a man of letters, producing a range of popular writings in five languages.

In addition to his religious training, he became a resistance leader, opposing the Dutch who had a strong colonial footprint across the territories of Southeast Asia wherein Sheikh Yusuf had a following. Macassar had been captured by the Dutch and as a result, when Sheikh Yusuf left Jiddah in 1664 he did not sail to Gowa, but to Bantam in Western Java.

Sheikh Yusuf married the daughter of Sultan Abdul Fatah, the Sultan of Bantam, also known as Ageng, meaning ‘the great’. His father-in-law appointed him as Chief Religious Judge and personal advisor to the Sultan. Fearing the reputation of Sheik Yusuf, his prominence in Bantam was a worry to the Dutch.

The Dutch VOC (or Dutch East India Company) dominated the area and claimed the right to nominate any prince to be crowned. The Sultans were seen as VOC company kings. They were bound by contracts to follow the VOC’s policies, especially with regard to the pepper trade and international relations. If any Sultan ignored these commitments or was unable to defend the Company’s interests in Bantam (or Banten), he would be removed from the throne.

In 1680 the Dutch fanned tensions within the family of the Sultan, by cultivating patronage with one of three of the Sultan’s sons. This led to a war in which the protagonist son appealed for support from the Dutch. They obliged by entering the conflict against the Sultan and his other two sons as well as the Sultan’s adviser, Sheikh Yusuf. The resistance carried on for over three years. Finally, a wounded Sheikh Yusuf who had fled and found refuge under harsh conditions, was persuaded to surrender on a promise of pardon in 1684.

A Sanctuary for Slaves

The Dutch reneged on their promises and Sheikh Yusuf was imprisoned at Batavia. Later he was transferred to a prison in Colombo, Ceylon. All high-powered pleas for his release, such as that of the King of Gowa, were rejected. The Dutch feared a military push against them by those calling for his release. They subsequently transferred Sheikh Yusuf to lifelong banishment at the Cape of Good Hope on 27 June 1693.

Sheikh Yusuf and his wives Carecontoe and Carepane arrived at the Cape on the ship de Voetboeg in April 1694. They were accompanied by two slave girls Mu’minah and Na’imah, twelve children, twelve imams and a number of devotees with their families. There were 49 people in all. They were received by the Governor of the Cape at the time, Simon van der Stel, who settled them on the Farm Zandvliet, near the mouth of the Eerste River. The area later became known as Macassar because of Sheikh Yusuf’s origins.

At Zandvliet Sheikh Yusuf’s settlement soon became a sanctuary for fugitive slaves. It was here that the first cohesive Muslim community of the Cape was established. It was from here that the message of Islam was disseminated to the slave community living in Cape Town.

Effectively Sheikh Yusuf turned his exile into a religious mission which more than successfully lay the foundations of a thriving Muslim community in South Africa.

When Sheikh Yusuf passed away on 23 May 1699 at Zandvliet at the age of 73 years old, he was buried at a hill near where he lived. Four of his students who worked with him in establishing the Islamic community of faith in Cape Town are also entombed there on the hill overlooking Macassar at Faure. A Kramat or shrine was constructed over his grave and over time it has been rebuilt, renovated and maintained as a place of memory and devotion. It receives many pilgrims.

The majority of Muslims at the Cape at the time were not originally followers of Islam in South Asia and Southeast Asia where they had been captured or sold into slavery. They were either war captives, refugees from famine and natural disasters, sold as a result of debt bondage or victims of capture by pirates. These enslaved people had been stripped of all dignity. They had lost touch with their cultures and faiths including Shamanistic Animism, Buddhism, Hinduism and in some cases Catholicism.

At the Cape slaves were discouraged from being Christians from the 1680s because there would be an obligation on owners of Christian slaves to free them after a set period. Missionaries who brought Christianity to indigenes in the 1790s were dissuaded from doing the same with slaves until the abolition of slavery, whereupon they conducted mass baptisms around all the farming towns. This scenario was recognised by Sheikh Yusuf as an opportunity for bringing the comfort and dignity of faith to the enslaved.

Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar is therefore regarded as the father of Islam in South Africa.