Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review- The Imam and his Diary

 There’s two types of heroes in life, the heroes who have somehow been catapulted into the limelight, thus amassing fame and fortune, and then you get the ‘unsung heroes’. Those who silently go about making a difference in the world, changing lives and inevitably the course of history, without even expecting to be recognized. For me, this latter group of heroes are more important, because without these silent heroes, societies would not be able to survive and thrive. Yet these are the very heroes who are often not given enough credit and easily overlooked, though they work tirelessly and effortlessly.

I think it is for this reason that I enjoyed reading this book, because it manages to shed light on one such hero, through the analysis and in-depth discussion of a personal diary. The book’s main focus is on the diary of Imām Muhammad Sālih Saban who served as the Imam of Simonstown (a small Town in Cape Town, South Africa) during the years 1904-1928.

In my opinion. the keeping of an in-depth diary by a local Imam at that time was something remarkable in itself, and as the book points out so well, this diary is not just a personal account of an Imam’s life, but instead, it can be regarded as a historical artefact, so brilliantly shedding light on what life really was like in the Simonstown and extended to the Cape Town Muslim community at that time. It is not often that history is told from such a perspective, and as the author illustrates, this diary helps to fill some gaps and holes in the common accounts of history, accounts which are almost always Eurocentric and biased.

I learnt so much about what the Muslim community was like in Simonstown at the time of Imam Saban and through his own words, coupled with the author’s discussion I could create a vivid image of life at that time, which is a wonderful thing in its own. It also helped me to understand and contextualize some of the social issues that we are experiencing today in the South African Muslim community.

I enjoyed reading direct excerpts of the Imam’s diary, even though the English was confusing at times. I think it was the realness of his words which was able to bring everything home for me, emphasizing that Imam Saban was an integral part of his community. It was great to read accounts from an “insider”, and this approach was refreshing as opposed to the “outsider” views that we are so accustomed to reading. Here was a member of the community, who lived and served his community, and getting insight into his diary was a rare privilege, one that I feel so happy to have received.

Another thing that’s so crucial about this book is that, as the author points out, this account is given by someone from the so-called “underclass” during the Colonial period in South Africa. This book reminds us that people from so-called lower classes play just an important role in a society as the so-called upper classes do. Basically through Imam Saban’s diary and this book, a voice has been given to people who would otherwise have been passed by as unimportant. That all people who live in a society inevitably shape that society, is something that is emphasized in this book. It’s also very interesting to read about how members of different cultural groups were able to live together and form some sort of reciprocal relationship. I think there are many lessons that we can learn from this and perhaps if we applied some of these lessons to our present day societies then we would be able to thrive as one society with people from different cultural groups.

One issue that may arise for diverse readers however is the very local flavour of the book. People from different backgrounds may initially find it difficult to relate to the mention of local customs and practices such as rampies sny, ratiep or tamatt for instance. However, these practices are nicely explained and contextualized within Cape Malay Muslim society, so readers should be able to adjust to this without hassle.

I was introduced to this book by a good friend of mine who happens to have the privilege of being a relative of Imam Saban. Shortly thereafter, I was glad to see the book being sold in a bookstore in Johannesburg because although I am not from Cape Town, I hold the belief that the history of Cape Muslims is or should be central to all South African Muslims, because this history speaks to all of us and has helped to shape present day history in all parts of South Africa. Hence, this book is a puzzle piece in the larger puzzle which makes up Muslim society in South Africa as a country. 

Images from here 

Watch a short video about the book here 


  1. Your book is on my list to read this I have another. Thank you for this review!

  2. Salma

    I hope that you are doing well, In sha Allah you will get to read them both;-) Thanks for showing interest!