Kramats are not mosques. They’re burial places, or shrines, of the saints or holy men of Islam. They’re also open to anyone who wishes to visit them.
In Cape Town, the city with the largest Muslim community in South Africa, there are 30 or so kramats that form part of the city’s landscape.
Kramats (mazars in Arabic) look like miniature mosques. Most of them are humble white buildings crested with domes (some of them fairly ornate), scented with incense, resting quietly on hillsides. There is even one on Lion’s Head (although my research turned up very little information about it).
Their positions in and around Cape Town are said to fulfil an ancient prophecy foretelling a ‘circle of Islam’ around the Mother City – beginning at Signal Hill, extending around Oudekraal beach to Constantia, and then to Faure (Macassar). The kramat on Robben Island is believed to conclude the circle.
They offer the city divine protection and are used by the Muslim community as holy sites of pilgrimage. Each kramat is a memorial to the courage of the Auliyah, or friend of Allah.
People go to different kramats for different reasons; each has its own relevance. If you need help with your marriage, you go to a certain kramat. And the same goes for legal problems or to offer up a prayer. It is spiritually beneficial to visit and remember the holy men buried in these kramats.
Photo: The Kramat of Sheikh Mohammed Hassen Ghaibie Shah al Qadri on Signal Hill, Cape Town
Many of the holy men were political prisoners of the Dutch. During the 17th century the Dutch East India Company invaded places like Ceylon, India and Java. Anyone resisting their occupation got sent to the Cape. Combined with Malay, Indian, Javanese, Bengalese and Arabian slaves, these people formed the beginnings of the Muslim community in Cape Town.
How to behave when visiting a kramat: You’re in a holy place. Lower your voice, switch off your cell phone, remove your shoes, and try to remember not to lean on or put your feet on the grave. Respect that any Muslim visitor will be in a state of tahaarah (purity) and has no other intention but to derive spiritual benefit from the holy place. Sit, or stand, facing the grave.
Here are 5 of the kramats that form part of the circle of kramats in Cape Town…
1. SHEIK YUSSAF, FAURE
This is arguably the most visited shrine in Cape Town. The Sheik Yusuf, or Yussaf, kramat of Faure lies in the sand dunes near Macassar Beach. Sheik Yussaf is regarded as the father of local Islam. Also known as Abadin Tadia Tjoessoep he was royalty; a nephew of King Biset of Goa.
On arriving at the Cape, and even though warmly welcomes by Governor Simon van der Stel (van der Stel’s mother was a freed Indian slave known as Monica of the Coast of Goa), he was settled well away from Cape Town because of his Indonesian background on a farm known as Zandvliet, now called Macassar, after the place of Sheikh Yusuf’s birth.
2. SHEIKH ABDURAHMAN MATEBE & SAYED MAHMUD, CONSTANTIA
These two kramats lie relatively close to one another – Sheikh Abdurahman Matebe Shah, the last of the Malaccan sultans regarded as a man of power and influence, at the gateway to Klein Constantia; and Sayed Mahmud, captured alongside Sheikh Abduahman Matebe Shah, in Summit Road, Constantia.
If you live anywhere in the vicinity of the Constantia Waldorf school, then you will already be aware that something of Islamic significance lies in the vicinity, based on the congestion of cars on certain Fridays. The two are probably the oldest sites of deceased Auliyah (friends of Allah) – both having arrived in 1667 in the Cape. Sayed Mahmud Kramat is particularly beautiful, set away from the road on ‘Islam Hill’.
Photo: Robben Island Sayed Abduraghman Moturu Kramat
3. SHEIKH SAYED ABDURAGHMAN MOTURU, ROBBEN ISLAND
Robben Island is regarded as a symbol of the struggle not only against apartheid, but also for the establishment of Islam. Sayed Abduraghman Moturu, also called Tuan Matarah, was regarded as a very religious man. He was imprisoned on the island but was known for his wonder cures and the comfort he brought to those who were ill. Tuan Matarah died on the island and his grave soon became a shrine. His tomb is important because it completes the circle of kramats around the city.
4. TUAN SAYED ABDUL MALIK, VREDEHOEK
You’ll find this holy shrine on Gorge Road – the top end of Upper Buitenkant Street – along slave walk (this road once lead to pools on Platteklip Stream where slaves used to wash clothes – an archaeological dig in the bed of the stream revealed buttons, buckles and pins), close to St Cyprians School (now housed in two beautiful former homesteads of Rheezicht and Nooitgedacht). The grave is housed in a green and white mausoleum with arched windows and domes. Sayed Abdul Malik was believed to have arrived in the Cape near the close of the 18th century as a slave.
He was both an Imam and a doctor and regarded as the local saint of spiritual medicine. Local legend has it that an Abdul Malik was the owner of a magic snake ring, now lost, that protected him from harm. Whether or not this Abdul Malik is the same as the local saint of spiritual medicine, is anyone’s guess. But it’s a lovely story, considering that an archaeological dig in the area, in 2006, dug up an unusual snake ring.
5. TANA BARU
Tana Baru, or new ground (new in the sense that it was given to Muslims in 1804, after religious freedom was granted in the Cape), is the oldest Muslim graveyard in South Africa in the Bo-Kaap. It is also the burial place of three Wali – Tuan Nuruman (Paay Schaapie de Oude), Tuan Sayeed Alawie (a prisoner sentenced to remain in chains for the rest of their lives who arrived in the Cape in 1744) and Tuan Guru (or Imam Abdullah ibn Kadi Abdus Salaam, a prince from Tidore who could trace his ancestry to the Sultanate of Morocco).
Tana Baru has its own caretaker, a retired school teacher.
Photo: Holy Shrine of Sheikh Yusuf Macassar South Africa by and © Peter Titmuss