A Koran, carefully handwritten over 200 years ago by an Indonesian imam who had been banished to the southern tip of Africa by Dutch colonizers, is the pride of Cape Muslims, who jealously guard it in a mosque in the historic district of Bo Kaap.
Builders found it in a paper bag in the attic of the Auwal Mosque, when they were demolishing it as part of renovations in the mid-1980s.
Scholars believe that Imam Abdullah ibn Qadi Abdus Salaam, affectionately known as Tuan Guru, or Master Teacher, wrote the Quran from memory at some point after being shipped to Cape Town as a political prisoner from the island of Tidore in Indonesia in 1780, as punishment for joining the resistance movement against the Dutch colonizers.
“It was extremely dusty, it looked like no one had been in that attic for over 100 years,” Cassiem Abdullah, a member of the mosque’s committee, told the BBC.
“The builders also found a box containing religious texts written by Tuan Guru.
Tuan Guru biographer Shafiq Morton believes the scholar likely began writing the first of five copies while in custody on Robben Island – where anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela was also imprisoned for years 1960s to the 1980s – and that he continued to do so after his release.
Most of these copies would have been written when he was between 80 and 90 years old, and his achievement is all the more remarkable since Arabic was not his mother tongue.
According to Morton, Tuan Guru was imprisoned on Robben Island twice: the first time between 1780 and 1781, when he was 69 years old, and the second time between 1786 and 1791.
“I think one of the reasons he wrote the Quran was to cheer up the slaves around him. He realized that if he wrote a copy of the Quran, he could educate his people from it and teach them dignity at the same time,” says Morton.
“If you go to the archives and look at the paper used by the Dutch, it is very similar to that used by Tuan Guru. It is probably the same paper.
“He would have made his own bamboo pens and it would have been easy to obtain black and red ink from the colonial authorities.
Shaykh Owaisi, a lecturer in South African Islamic history, who has done extensive research on Cape Town’s handwritten Korans, believes that Tuan Guru was motivated by the need to preserve Islam among Muslim prisoners and slaves in what was then a Dutch colony.
“While preaching the Bible and trying to convert Muslim slaves, Tuan Guru wrote copies of the Koran, taught it to children and made them memorize it.
“It tells a story of resilience and perseverance. It shows the level of education of the people who were brought to the Cape as slaves and prisoners.