Abdullah Drury: Crucial element locked in past

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New Zealand Muslims are now observing Ramadan which will finish, as always with Eid al Fitr, the festival to mark the end of the fasting when the new moon is sighted. There will be an increased attendance at the mosques, various gatherings across the country and an exchange of presents, especially for the little ones. The only element missing from this festival of joy is an over-arching philosophy or interpretation of history that contributes to any community's collective sense of identity.

What the local Muslim community lacks is any clear sense of collective history. There is a real absence of any concept of local Muslim history.

The last census showed New Zealand had more than 36,000 Muslims. However, this is not a homogenous, singular, mono-linguistic, united community. Rather the opposite. There are rich and poor; Asian, African and European Muslims.

The 1996 census indicated there were Muslims in every statistical area for the first time (a step up from the 1874 census when the first 15 Chinese "Mahometans" were recorded at Dunstan, Otago).

Attend any mosque in New Zealand and one will find a plethora of different nationalities and languages praying together.

Excluding Pakeha and Maori converts, the oldest ethnic minority Muslim families can trace their whakapapa here back to the 1900s. The newest Muslim immigrants probably arrived yesterday.

How exactly can one tie this disparate group into a genuine fraternity?

All Muslim community leaders need to explore the past and learn from their predecessors. Learn about Kupe and Cook by all means, but New Zealand Muslim leaders need to research and discuss the Islamic pioneers of this country.

Who knows that the first Islamic cleric here is still alive in Auckland? Maulana Patel arrived here in 1960, after graduating from the Dar al Uloom institute in Gujarat, and taught a generation of Kiwi Muslim kids how to recite the Quran. New Muslim immigrants will do well to read Dr William Sheppard's various articles outlining the details of the New Zealand Muslim community but what about other authors, sources or opinions?

Many times, I have met local Muslim community activists who proclaim an interest in "dawah" (explaining Islam to non-Muslims) who have never heard of Cheryl Hills' 2001 Canterbury University thesis about conversion to Islam here.

When Dr Ghazala Anwar organised the Canterbury University Symposium on Islam in New Zealand last year the non-Muslims outnumbered Muslims three to one. The only elected mosque office bearer was Daud Azimullah from the New Zealand Muslim Association in Auckland.

Four years ago, I was serving with the executive committee of the Muslim Association of Canterbury. At one meeting, the mosque secretary, who had arrived here in 1997, announced we were appointing a female treasurer and this was a first. No, I intervened politely, there had been a female treasurer in 1990. Sadly the secretary, like so many new migrants, had assumed the mosque had operated in some kind of a vacuum before his arrival.

It is important for the burgeoning Muslim population to develop a strong sense of localised New Zealand identity and to identify strongly with Islam as it is practised here. Our youth must study the example of Patel, Sheikh Hafiz and other secular leaders who built the Islamic organisations and mosques here from scratch. This is important if we are to avoid the alienation experienced by Muslim minorities living in other Western countries and if we are to develop our own peaceful Islamic traditions here.

* Abdullah Drury is the author of Islam in New Zealand: the First Mosque.

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