Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Tanzania Business Times Correspondence-07

Last week in the UK we received a visit from Pope Benedict XVI. It was a busy four days – he travelled to four cities, conducted mass to tens of thousands of Catholics and beatified a nineteenth century theologian. He dominated the newspapers during his stay and the news channels on television covered his every move, even including what he ate for breakfast.

The trip got me thinking about great African religious icons – who they have been and what they have preached.

But I quickly realised that, apart from the renowned Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I really know pathetically little about any African religious leader. It’s not something we’re taught in schools here and I’ve never, until now, been in a position where knowing about them was important.

I’ve just spent time on the internet, frantically trying to find some kind of information about this. Now, as it’s getting late, I’ve settled for writing a little about Tutu and a little more about a figure described as ‘an eminent hero of traditional Sufi Islam’, a man born on the coast of Somalia who went on to propagate the spread of Islam throughout East Africa.

Shaykh Uways bin Muhammad, known as Shehu Awesu in Kiswahili, was born in 1847 into humble origins. As a young boy dedicated to his studies, he was taken to Baghdad by his teacher, who noticed an unusual piety in the child. This journey represented the incubation of his greatness: he studied under the best masters, made pilgrimages to Medina and Mecca and allegedly received an ijazah – a Muslim certificate to show one has been authorised by an authority to impart certain Islamic knowledge.

After his 1883 return to his homeland, it didn’t take long for his reputation as being an Islamic expert to spread. He became leader of the Qadiriyya (one of the oldest Sufi orders in Sunni Islam) in southern Somalia and began missionary work in East Africa.

Invited by the Sultan of Oman, the then ruler of Zanzibar, Shehu Awesu made many visits to Zanzibar and initiated many disciples into the order there. These were the disciples who spread the Qadiriyya, now the largest brotherhood in Tanzania, as far inland as the Congo. It sounds as though this man was a catalyst for Islam in Tanzania.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is more world renowned. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate spearheaded the fight against apartheid in South Africa and since then has continued working for peace and justice with characteristic energy and charisma.

He was the first black South African to do many things: in 1975 he became the first black Dean of St Mary’s cathedral in Johannesburg, in 1978 he was made the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches and in 1986 became the first black Archbishop of Cape Town. In the 1994 all-race election, Tutu coined the term ‘Rainbow Nation’ and introduced Nelson Mandela as president – a moment he describes as: “One of the greatest in my life.”

In 2003, the African Leadership Institute (AfLI) was established with ‘The Arch’, as Tutu is affectionately known, as patron. President Kikwete is currently working alongside AfLI to develop a new project – the Young African Leaders Awards and Conference. The AfLI website says the goal of the project is to ‘highlight the amazing achievements of Africa’s young leaders which go unnoticed in a continent mired by negative publicity’, thus creating role models.

So, these last few paragraphs have been a history lesson for me and maybe for you too. Why am I writing them? Well, Tanzania impresses me for its peaceful cohabitation of varied religions. It’s a commendably progressive attitude in a world where religion frequently causes segregation and even war. Only a few days ago, a pastor in the USA was threatening to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of September 11, due to his dangerous belief that Islam is a “false religion” and is “of the devil”. He wanted retribution for the September 11 attacks and made the mistake of thinking that Islam was to blame for them.

Tanzania is, thankfully, largely free of such nonsense. Religions are a faith, an expression of life – not a divider. It is warming to see.

It seems apt to end with some of Tutu’s words: “In God’s family, there are no outsiders, no enemies. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Buddhist, Hutu and Tutsi, Pakistani and Indian – all belong. When we start to live as brothers and sisters and to recognise out interdependence, we become fully human.”

I would like to hear any comments or suggestions, particularly regarding African religious leaders. If you would like to share, please email at mikeedmondstone@hotmail.com.

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