We found Kemal Effendi in Cape Town, the grandson of the Ottoman Scholar Abu Bakr Effendi sent to South Africa as a “teacher and professor” in 1862, and held an interview that can shed light on Turkish history.
Abu Bakr Effendi who showed the world one and a half centuries ago that “we can live in unity and solidarity despite all differences”, left behind a historical legacy applauded by all in South Africa and neighbouring countries with educative and cultural activities he carried out, setting off from Istanbul. As the marks left by this esteemed Ottoman scholar can still be seen, .tr magazine met with and interviewed his grandson Kemal Effendi, a South African citizen living in South Africa.
Could you introduce yourself briefly as the grandson of Abu Bakr Effendi?
I have never introduced myself before, for 30 years. Thirty years ago, while I was a elementary school student in Turkey, they would ask me, “Kemal, can you introduce yourself?”. I would reply, “I come from South Africa. I am 11 years old. I was born and raised in Cape Town, and as a young person, I aspire to study in Turkey. But I do not speak Turkish.” That was the case back in the day. Now I am an Ottoman citizen who studied in Turkey and live in Cape Town.
You said “I am an Ottoman citizen”. As you know, 1862 was the year Abu Bakr Effendi arrived in South Africa. This in fact demonstrates the historical depth of both Turkish Republic and the Turkish people. Who is Abu Bakr Effendi, what kind of activities did he conduct in Africa? Could you briefly share with us?
It is not easy to briefly describe Abu Bakr Effendi. The last book written on Abu Bakr Effendi is 650 pages-long. Based on his services, he left Istanbul in November-December months in 1862. He spent 40 days in England. Later he embarked on a ship, and arrived in Cape Town in January 1863. The main reason why Abu Bakr Effendi visited Cape Town were the Muslims living here who practised Islam in a completely uneducated manner. Most of these Muslims were from India, Java and Malaysia. Indigenous people and Indians in that region uprose against the British, while Malaysians and Indonesians revolted against the Dutch. They sent rioters to exile knowing that more people would uprise had they executed the rebels. Most arrived in South Africa as slaves. But when the British took the colonial power in this region from the hands of the Dutch, they released most of the slaves. During the Dutch period in South Africa, Islam was openly practised however to a certain extent. Islam went through a period of regression under English rule. The English allowed Muslims to open mosques here but they banned performing prayers. A journalist came to South Africa in the 1860s, and saw two Muslims fighting each other in front of the town hall in Cape Town. One killed the other over an argument that arose from a simple Islamic provision. After witnessing this, the journalist returned to England thinking that “There is need for a serious Islam education in this country and people need books,” and sent a letter to Queen Victoria. In the letter, the journalist wrote, “In Cape Town region under your rule, there is a lack of education and awareness among Muslims. These people do not know Islam. There are serious issues between them. This may lead to unmitigated chaos.” Upon receiving this letter, Queen Victoria wrote to Ottoman Sultan of the period Abdulaziz, expressing the urgent need for Holy Koran in Cape Town area, and asked the caliph to send holy books. caliph responded as follows: “Islam education cannot be provided without scholars.” He assigned one of the grand viziers of the period, Enver Pasha to send a scholar to Cape Town. Enver Pasha requested the scholar to both have knowledge on Islamic studies and law education and speak a foreign language. Upon this brief, Abu Bakr Effendi was assigned to this task after returning to Turkey from England where he had been conducting a research. He renounced all his duties concerning service to the caliph and arrived in Cape Town after saying goodbye his family in Erzurum. He also brought along his nephew Ömer Lütfi. If you read Ömer Lütfi’s travel book, you can learn about Abu Bakr Effendi’s life and every stage he went through here. They lived under very difficult conditions. Abu Bakr Effendi first visited the state house upon his arrival. The governor’s office allowed him to provide the education as he desired. At this point, we should stress the following: Abu Bakr Effendi represented the caliph in South Africa; and the public deemed him the delegate of the caliph.
So what did Abu Bakr Effendi do when he first arrived in Cape Town?
After the arrival of Abu Bakr Effendi, local people gathered and thanked Sultan Abdulaziz with a letter featuring five thousand signatures. They said, “You saved us from darkness, sent us a professor, and from now on, Friday sermons will be performed in your name.” Abu Bakr Effendi opened his first school in South Africa 15 days after arriving. Convinced that the people here primarily needed education, he opened the First Ottoman school in South Africa. 30 students enrolled in this school in 15 days. With his first wife, Abu Bakr Effendi also opened the first school for girls. In addition, he spent most of his time in courts. Local courts received Abu Bakr Effendi’s opinions in accordance with Islamic law to settle disputes between Muslims.
Abu Bakr Effendi successfully learned the local language in 7-8 months. He wrote a fiqh book in African language. Abu Bakr Effendi trained many teachers, hafizes with a good command on Islamic principles, after settling here. The task of his nephew Ömer Lütfi was to teach Arabic to hafiz students and improve their education. Ömer Lütfi left after four years. But he trained many of Abu Bakr Effendi’s students until then. Those who achieved a sufficient level of education, also received training and became qualified enough to train other students. The first Ottoman school was inaugurated in South Africa. The grades of students were reported to Istanbul on a weekly basis. Ömer Lütfi wrote that Abu Bakr Effendi lived in Cape Town for 18 years, and he raised competent students after his 13th year here.
He also opened a mosque in Port Elizabeth and established a madrasah. This madrasah was later administered by Abu Bakr Effendi’s son, Hisham bin Nimetullah. During the Apartheid in the 1960s, unfortunately those who wanted to control that region demolished the neighbourhood and the madrasah was destroyed as well.
Abu Bakr Effendi did not always stay at the same place due to his active efforts. In Durban there was an Indian family called Ahmet Osman. He collaborated with them, and raised considerable funds, especially for the Hijaz Railway. Secondly, Abu Bakr Effendi’s student Sadik Bey opened the London Mosque in England. After working in this region, Abu Bakr Effendi moved to neighbouring island, country of Madagascar and actively worked there. Now we have a mosque in Mozambique.
After Abu Bakr Effendi’s passing, his sons carried out similar projects in different regions of Africa. As Ottoman Empire neared its end, unfortunately their funds were cut off. Let me explain this: They were forced to leave my mother with a relative. Because my grandfather had no way of taking care of all of them. But they continued to serve regardless.
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Abu Bakr Effendi began to lose contact with his family. So, when did they contact with senior officials in Turkey?
In 2005, they introduced me to then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who was in South Africa. As the most important man in Africa… I looked around, who did they refer to? Who is the most important man in Africa? I was confused. They introduced me as an “Ottoman grandson”. After I met him, I took a few steps back. Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called me again, asking “Where is that Ottoman grandson?” and he said to me, “Take me to Abu Bakr Effendi’s mausoleum.” I replied, “Mr. Prime Minister, it has been neglected for a while. It is better if you do not visit.” Immediately after our chat, Mr. Erdoğan gave instructions to turn the grave into a proper place for visit. After a certain period of time, TIKA had a fence built around his grave. After landscaping, the grave is now suitable for visiting.
As you know, Yunus Emre Enstitüsü is an institution that introduces Turkish language, culture and art to the world. What are your expectations from our Enstitü?
It is a pleasure for us that our Yunus Emre Enstitüsü has arrived in South Africa, that it will teach Turkish and introduce Turkish culture and art, our national and spiritual values here. We have been longing for this for years. My father told me that Ottoman remnants here waited for Turkey to extend a hand from for many years. TIKA arriving here although late, Yunus Emre Enstitüsü coming here is exciting and pleasing. I thank you very much for all your efforts. There are many people here who aspire to learn Turkish. I believe that as soon as Yunus Emre Enstitüsü organizes a Turkish language course here in Cape Town, dozens will sign up only from our family. Culture-art activities will be appreciated here as well as language instruction. We must utilize radio stations, newspapers and magazines to inform South Africans on services Turkey brings to Muslims here and for promotion of Turkey.