Muslim Views

Muslim Views - October 2010

Counsel from Damascus: “Fear Allah and He will teach you”

More than a month had passed since the Hajj cyclists from Cape Town, Imtiyaz Haron and Nathim Cairncross, dismantled their bicycles and boarded a flight from Nairobi on August 4. They re-assembled their bikes in Gaziantep, Turkey and started cycling on September 14.

On September 15 they departed from Gaziantep and stopped at the Kilis border crossing where they again met members of the Said Nursi Jamaah. Professor Ibrahim Özdemir assisted them at the border the next day with their transfer into Syria. However, before they could continue their journey they had to pay 300 lire each at the Turkish border post for exceeding their stay in Turkey by six days.

After gaining admission at the Syrian border post they spent the night at a mosque one kilometre farther and immediately encountered the challenge of Arabic as a foreign language. And none could speak English except another traveller, an Iranian woman on her way to the mosque of Zainab (RA) in Damascus. She acted as interpreter to the hospitable mosque caretaker.

The next morning, Friday September 17, they left for Aleppo, passing through quiet rural towns like A’zaz. In Aleppo, after performing Jumu’ah and enjoying the hospitality of some Syrians, they were referred to Said Nursi Jamaah member with whom they stayed for two days. Thereafter they moved to a mosque, met some tour guides and had an opportunity to acquire a little more competency in Arabic.

They also met Shaikh Abdullah Hasuni, Imam of the Great Umayyad Mosque, who admonished them with the first words he uttered: “Fear Allah and He will teach you.” The Shaikh was impressed with their endeavour and endorsed travelling in one’s youth. Inspired by this encounter, and the subsequent encouragement of Dutch tourists who engaged them in some Afrikaans, the pilgrims departed Aleppo for Idlib on September 22.

It was like a heroic send-off as the locals cheered them on. About 30km after leaving Aleppo a motor-cyclist accompanied them and the driver invited them for a meal. “He served us a king’s meal. His entire family and extended family came to meet us,” says Nathim. This kind of hospitality greeted them everywhere as they went along.

About 60km after leaving Aleppo, at Idlib, Imtiyaz and Nathim stopped to stretch their legs. Here they met another two cyclists, a married couple, Enrique from North Eastern Spain and Chele from Argentina who were cycling to South Africa. The couple seemed to be just exploring, but according to Nathim, it also seemed that “they are searching” because much of their conversation centered on religion and spirituality.

While the two teams were getting acquainted with one another a local school principal and English teacher, Haitham Al Hasan, approached them and invited them for lunch. Chele was invited to join the women in the host’s household. When she re-emerged, after what sounded like a festive rendezvous, she had had a makeover, complete with cosmetics, ribbons and gifts. Their hospitality was spontaneous, and when they learned of the young pilgrims’ mission they were of even greater generous spirit.

The four cyclists remained together as they continued their journey till sunset for about 30km after Idlib and found a place to lodge in a mosque. Chele slept at the bottom and the men slept upstairs. The next day, September 23, they arrived in Homs, an important industrial centre and a population reflecting religious diversity. They were again overwhelmed by the Syrians’ hospitality, and lured by a crafty shopkeeper who invited them to sit and enjoy a spread of biscuits, soft drinks and water. And then he billed them liberally, including a hefty charge for the seating!

That night the two teams booked into the Cairo Hotel rooftop. This is the third time the Hajj cyclists opted for hotel accommodation in their entire journey of ten months, the first two instances being in South Africa and in Tanzania. The following morning, September 24, Enrique assisted Imtiyaz with temporary repairs to a worn pedal and the two teams parted ways when Enrique and Chele proceeded westwards to Lebanon.

After a visit to the Mosque and tomb of Khalid bin Walid (RA), a Homs resident, Talha, approached them and arranged for his wife and children to go to relatives just in order to host Imtiyaz and Nathim in his home. Again the language barrier was overcome with their common faith and the inspiring nature of Imtiyaz and Nathim’s journey. After Jumu’ah and lunch they left Homs, again with cheering residents and an entourage of jubilant children.

That night the cyclists lodged in Hassiya, an industrial town in the outskirts of Homs, as guests of another English teacher who first checked their passports. On Saturday September 25 they covered over 110km from Hassiya to Damascus. This is the greatest distance they have cycled in a single day and the physical strain on their bodies was deeply felt, especially after the long break in Turkey. They were welcomed to Rukn ad-Din, an old quarter in Damascus famous for affordable accommodation for foreign students. They enjoyed the hospitality of Shaikh Anwar who offered them lodging in the same house occupied by Shaikh Nazim al Haqqani, the head of the Naqshbandi Sufi Order, whenever the Shaikh visits Damascus.

The Syrian capital is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and it is vibrant with historic significance. In Damascus the ancient and the modern worlds meet. It is associated with Habil and Qabil, Yahya (AS), ’Isa (AS), Imam Husain (RA), Bilal (RA), the Umayyad Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, ibn Tamiyyah and ibn al-Jawzi. Imtiyaz and Nathim sat in the class of the renowned scholar Shaikh Said Ramadan Buti, attended several adhkar of the Shadaliyya spiritual order and met scholars from Iran. They also met some South Africans, including Aslam Farouk-Alli, a counsellor at the South African consulate in Damascus.

At the time of going to press on October 4, the Hajj cyclists had just departed from Damascus. This means the total distance they had cycled since they left Cape Town in February is 7 140km from Cape Town to Kenya, plus 460km from Gaziantep to Damascus which equals 7 600km. It also means they had 40 days left before the commencement of the Hajj on November 14, and a distance of about 1 050km to cycle to Madinah. Although this implies a comfortable average of 26.25km per day, over 750km of the journey ahead is through the forbidding Arabian Desert where daytime temperatures in November range from 20°C to 30°C. At night it can be as cold as 0°C. Rub’al-Khali is at the centre of this desert and is one of the largest continuous bodies of sand in the world. A great challenge still lies ahead.

Muslim Views - September 2010

Hajj cyclists spend Ramadaan in Turkey

Four days after Muslim Views spoke to Imtiyaz Haron on August 4 in Kenya he and his travel companion, Nathim Cairncross, boarded a flight to Istanbul, Turkey.

This ended their travels in Africa, after approximately 7,140km of cycling from Cape Town to Kenya. They were hoping to proceed from Kenya via Ethiopia, Eritrea across the Red Sea and into the Hijaz to reach Makkah before the beginning of Ramadaan.

However, this was not to be. Their visa applications were repeatedly declined by the Ethiopian and Sudanese authorities. The disappointment was deep and the decision to seek an alternate route via Turkey was a difficult one. It was hard to abandon the original vision of reaching Makkah via Africa.

The impact of the sudden change from cycling to flying was felt as they took off from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Their bikes had to be completely dismantled and packed as luggage to save costs. Cycling at medium speed is about 24km/h, but the liftoff speed for a passenger aircraft is up to 290km/h. Not the typical bye-bye-bike-hello-plane odyssey. And the ambivalence of this thrill was not felt before another perplexing encounter.

Imtiyaz and Nathim were interrogated for an hour by Nairobi airport security before they could board. Two young bearded and devoted Muslims travelling and keeping constant contact with mosque and madrasa networks aroused some suspicion. “Did you preach in mosques?” was one of the questions they were asked during the interrogation. Their hearts sank when they were told they could not go ahead to Turkey. However, the head of security eventually relented and they were able to proceed.

They arrived in Istanbul on August 9 and were welcomed by Ertuğrul Gazi, a Turkish friend whom Imtiyaz met in Cape Town last year. Nathim says they were struck by the overwhelming presence of the Turkish flag and the powerful nationalist sentiment of the Turks. Imtiyaz and Nathim soaked in the inspiring exchanges with master calligraphers and historians and visited some institutions and events dedicated to the teachings of Said Nursi, a Turkish Kurd scholar who wrote the famous Risale-i Nur collection between 1910 and 1950. This is a work of tafsir consisting of 6,000 pages. Nursi’s title is Bediüzzaman, which means “the wonder of the age”. He is believed to be a descendant of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

The heat in the day was unbearable with the temperatures between 37°C to 40°C. However, Istanbul comes alive after dark. An important difference between Africa and Turkey is the public transport system. The latter is sophisticated and expensive while the former is developing but with lots of room for negotiation.

They left Istanbul on August 22 and journeyed 452km east-south-east by bus to Ankara, the capital of Turkey. This city, says Nathim, is like Johannesburg, more to offer in terms of business and trade than history and culture. They were received and hosted by Umar Cook, an American who married and settled in Turkey and to whom they were referred by a friend from Cape Town.

They departed from Ankara by bus on September 1 and travelled 698km further south-east, arriving in Gaziantep, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Here they met Ibrahim Özdemir, rector of the newly founded Gazikent University, who facilitated accommodation for the cyclists with the local Said Nursi Jamaah.

On September 4 Imtiaz and Nathim visited Şanliurfa, more commonly known as Urfa, 143km east of Gaziantep and 80km east of the Euphrates. It is reputed to be the City of the Prophets because of its association with Prophets Ibrahim, Ayoub, Elyas, Shu’aib, Nuh, Moosa, Lut and Ya’qub (AS). Urfa is known as the birthplace of Prophet Ibrahim (AS) and the city in which Allah saved him from the fire of his enemies as recorded in the Qur’an in 21:69 and 29:24. Prophet Ayyoub (AS), who was tested with disease, believed to be in a cave at Urfa, remained constant in his gratitude to Allah Who restored his health.

The Hajj cyclists were busy arranging for the visas to enter Syria on last contact with Muslim Views on September 5. They intend to depart from Gaziantep immediately after Eid, southwards across the border at Kilis into Syria at and continue cycling from Aleppo.

Their bikes will be re-assembled in Aleppo and start rolling again after more than a month’s break. Nathim is confident they will reach Makkah in the 60 days they have left before for the Hajj, even though they need to recondition their bodies to the physical challenge. They have established a comfortable distance of 80 to 90km of cycling per day, at times even 100km per day.

Due to unforeseen escalation in costs the pilgrims’ financial responsibilities have become more onerous. Anyone who wishes to assist them may deposit funds into the following Standard Bank account in the name of I A Haron: Account number 275505839, Lansdowne branch code 026209.

Muslim Views - August 2010

Hajj cyclists denied visas in horn of Africa


Imtiyaz Haron and Nathim Cairncross have been in Kenya since June 23. In what is probably the most dramatic part of their journey they have been refused visas to continue cycling to Arabia via Ethiopia and the Sudan.

The problems with visas may be linked to the twin blasts that hit the Ugandan capital Kampala on July 11 as soccer fans gathered to watch the World Cup final, killing 74 people. However, no reasons for declining the visas were given except that they were required to apply for visas in Nairobi or in their home country. This was clearly not consistent with the information they were given before departing Cape Town on February 7 this year.

On July 13 they were first declined a visa at Moyale, the north-eastern border post between Kenya and Ethiopia and had to return to Nairobi to obtain supporting documentation. The immigration official at Moyale seemed confident that they would be granted a visa, so Imtiyaz and Nathim left their bikes and bags there and travelled 820km by bus back to Nairobi.

However, in Nairobi their hopes were dashed as their application for travel via Ethiopia was denied twice. They then attempted to obtain visas to travel via the Sudan. Two attempts at the Sudanese embassy also failed. This is despite assistance from the Muslim Judicial Council in Cape Town and the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims in Nairobi. In the interim they were anxiously awaiting the return of their bikes and bags from Moyale which arrived four days later, adding a significant unforeseen expense to their journey.

Muslim Views spoke to Imtiyaz on August 4, the day a constitutional referendum was held to approve or disapprove the new proposed constitution passed by the Kenyan parliament on April 1, 2010. Everything seemed calm in the Kenyan capital and Imtiyaz observed queues of over 1km of Kenyans waiting to vote in the referendum.

It seems unlikely that they will reach the Hijaz before Ramadaan, so Imtiyaz and Nathim are considering the option of taking a flight to Turkey (with their bikes on board the aircraft) and continue cycling from there to the Hijaz. They were planning this dramatic new development in their itinerary at the time of going to press.

This means their travels through Africa will come to an end and that a new phase in their pilgrimage to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah will dawn as they become airborne after six months of cycling. However, it also means that they will have the opportunity to cycle from Turkey to the Arabian peninsula via Syria, Jordan and Palestine.

Africa gave them the opportunity to interact with fellow Africans and cultures in a unique way: sleeping in villages, meeting with chiefs, encountering poverty with dignity and wearing the dusty traces of travel on their faces and clothes.

The new phase will have its own challenges and the pilgrims have embraced whatever lies ahead.

Due to unforeseen escalation in costs the pilgrims’ financial responsibilities have become more onerous. Anyone who wishes to assist them may deposit funds into the following Standard Bank account in the name of I A Haron: Account number 275505839, Lansdowne branch code 026209.

Muslim Views - July 2010

Hajj cyclists head for the horn of Africa


On July 10, Imtiyaz Haron and Nathim Cairncross had been cycling for 154 days through Africa to Makkah for the Hajj. Songwe, Tanzania was the place of the last report from them on June 1 after 4,844km of cycling from Cape Town. From Songwe they cycled to Mbeya, Iringa, Morogoro and Dar es Salaam.

On July 10 they arrived in Wajir, Kenya which adds another 2,044km to their journey. The total distance travelled thus far, according to a fairly accurate Google Maps calculation, is 6,888km from Cape Town to Kenya.

It is remarkable that after 6,800km their bikes are still in good condition. Only Nathim has had to repair a puncture.

Small segments of their journey were covered by alternative means of transport. For example, on June 16, they departed the Tanzanian capital and port city, Dar es Salaam, and boarded a boat to visit the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. They toured the two islands for five days, absorbing the fascinating legacy of Islam on the islands, and obviating the need to enter Kenya via Tanga. Pemba is the world’s major clove producer and where the juju traditions of medicine and magic are practiced. From there they boarded a dhow (a traditional Arab sailing vessel) and sailed about 50km to enter Kenya at Shimoni on June 23.

In Kenya they cycled to Mombasa, travelled by bus to the capital Nairobi to meet some people who advised and assisted them and returned to Mombasa, a port city along one of Africa’s most beautiful coastlines. Their bicycle journey on the East African coast continued along Kilifi and Malindi. From Garsen, an inland town, they travelled by bus for a tour of Lamu Island, one of the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlements in East Africa. The Kenyan coast is mostly populated by Muslims and 25% of Kenya is Muslim.

On July 9 they arrived in Garissa, the capital of the northeastern province and home to more than 75% Muslims and over 54 mosques. Garissa is on the banks of the Tana, one of the largest rivers in Kenya. Then they proceeded to Wajir, further to the northeast of Kenya. Wajir is in a semi-arid plateau and close to the Somali border. Its population is mainly Somali refugees, 99% Muslim and 1% Christian.

In Wajir they found accommodation in the home a Facebook member, Nadir Basabra, who followed their progress through Kenya. There were times they had to sleep on trucks, boats, beaches, rooftops, backyards and madaris, but they continue to find accommodation in the preferred place, namely a mosque. This is where they can get the most reliable information and advice of local conditions, where they can find assistance and the opportunity to perform their prayers in congregation.

Imtiyaz describes his encounter with the cosmopolitan life of Dar es Salaam as a “curry-pot full of ideologies” and discovered that the Swahilis in Zanzibar share some of the Capetonian qasidas. They enjoyed “freshly hunted peri-peri guinea fowl curry” met with local ulama who gave them counsel and even had sessions with local Tableegh Jamaah members.

The physical challenges have little to do with being fit to cycle the average distance per day. It has more to do with maintaining good health through discretion with diet and mental preparation for the journey each day. The mind takes a greater beating when the body is routinely exhausted over a long period.

Imtiyaz and Nathim view their journey as part of their spiritual growth. The tahajjud prayer is becoming “a habit” due to the strong recommendation of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). They also spend some time reading about pious peoples’ experiences of Hajj and its virtues.

The soccer World Cup, according to their observation, seems not to have acquired a sense of continental euphoria over the achievement of Ghana in almost making it to the semi-finals. However, they have inspired some excitement in many Africans who noticed the South African flags mounted on their bikes. South Africa appears to evoke a great deal of respect among the African people. “We feel very proud to be Muslims from South Africa,” says Imtiyaz.

Many Africans they met expressed surprise to learn that South Africans do not only consist of indigenous black people, but also people whose roots may be traced to other continents like Asia and Europe.

The heat is excruciating and daytime temperatures average around 32ºC. Wajir is periodically struck by drought and travelers through these areas at times report banditry and open firearms in public is a norm. However, Imtiyaz and Nathim have not been in any danger or at risk.

Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea are part of the horn of Africa, which is a conflict-ridden zone. However, the cyclists find the advice of the indigenous population and those who have travelled in the region more reliable. They say the alarmists are people who have never been there. They rather put their trust in Allah and adopt a peculiarly African attitude: “hakuna matata!”

The journey ahead is via Ethiopia to Djibouti and then Jeddah. Their next major stop is Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

Muslim Views - May 2010

Pilgrim youth cyclists reach Harare

The journey from Cape Town to the Hijaz in Arabia by plane is 12,000km. Two pilgrims, Imtiyaz Haron and Nathim Cairncross, are now four months into their journey on bicycle to perform the Hajj. At the time of going to press they were in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Although the flight distance from Cape Town to Harare is over 2,185km the cyclists travelled 3,154km, through major towns like Kimberley, Potchefstroom, Johannesburg, Rustenburg, Gaborone and Francistown.

Imtiyaz and Nathim are now the remaining cyclists of the original four-member team that departed Cape Town on February 7. For ‘personal reasons’ Mugamad Najaar and Ishmaeel Adams respectively returned to Cape Town from Pretoria on March 12 and Palapye, Botswana on April 19.

The two young men are determined to fulfil their sacred mission. Originally their plan was to cycle consistently for 60km per day. They have managed to do up to 90km on certain days.

The routine is cycling by day, resting by night. The golden rule is stay together. No one cycles ahead of the other without maintaining close proximity. When time is of the essence, managing time and keeping to a routine are essential. Nathim explains that within thirty minutes after Fajr they recite the Qur’an. If they fail to do so it is not likely they will get another opportunity later in the day.

Imtiyaz and Nathim generally find accommodation at night in mosques. Oftentimes they are overwhelmed by the hospitality and support of Muslims who offer accommodation along the route. They established a formidable network of support on Facebook and addressed several groups of youth and other audiences in mosques, sharing their experience.

The cyclists learn the basic local courtesies in the indigenous tongues like Shona and Ndebele. Respect for the local culture is important and includes understanding the culture of driving on the road. Some motorists do not defer for the safety of cyclists. Some roads are narrow and without shoulders. Safety comes first, so they take every necessary precaution.

On April 20 in Francistown Imtiyaz and Nathim met three South Korean cyclists on a mission to donate mosquito nets in Africa. The Koreans were excellent company and were struck by the brotherhood among the Muslims. In a madrasah in Bulawayo the cyclists were welcomed by children in the way epitomised by the children who welcomed the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) when he arrived in Madinah at the time of the Hijra. They sang Tala’al Badru ‘Alayna and chanted the Talbiya (Labayk Allahuma Labayk).

It was truly a poignant moment. The Koreans, who share neither their faith nor their mission, too were brought to tears. And in them was aroused an interest in Islam.

Muslim Views - February 2010

Four youth cycle 12,000km to the Hijaz for Hajj

Four Capetonians embarked on an extraordinary journey of a lifetime: cycling from Cape Town to the Hijaz for the Hajj. On Sunday February 7 Natheem Cairncross, 27, Imtiyaz Haron, 24, Ishmaeel Adams, 25, and Mogamad Najaar, 30, departed Cape Town at 9am for Makkah.

The idea of undertaking the Hajj by bicycle occurred to Imtiyaz about four years ago, but it was in the latter part of 2009 that the he seriously applied his mind to it and got his friends Natheem and Ishmaeel involved. Mogamad joined the trio in December 2009 when they commenced training for the trip. Natheem is the leader of the group.

Imtiyaz drew inspiration from others who had completed the Hajj by travelling long distances by motor vehicles from all parts of the world. Another source of inspiration was the South African, Riaan Manser, the first person to circumnavigate the African continent by bicycle. Riaan travelled 37,000km through 34 countries in two years and two months to complete his journey in December 2005.

The journey of the four cyclists is expected to take seven months and the estimated distance by bicycle is 12,000km from Cape Town to Makkah. They intend to cover 60km per day. At the time of going to press they had completed 15 days, reaching Kimberley after cycling for 1000km. The group hopes to reach Makkah by Ramadaan, coinciding with August and September 2010.

Their journey will take them from South Africa through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya. If political conditions from that point allow they will proceed by bicycle via Ethiopia, the Sudan and Egypt until they arrive in the Middle East. If not, they will take a boat from Mombasa, Kenya to the Hijaz.

None of them had undertaken the Hajj before and none, except Imtiyaz, had participated in a major cycle tour. The preparations of the group ranged from physical training to diplomatic support from the Deputy Minister of the South African Department of International Relations and Co-operation, Mr Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim.

Physical training and a diet regime commenced a month-and-a-half before their departure and included cycling and running for up to three hours per day. The Department of International Relations recommended that they enlist with Registration of South Africans Abroad (ROSA) which is a programme to assist South Africans travelling abroad in the event of an emergency. However, information on ROSA is not continuously monitored and will only be accessed during a declared consular emergency.
The department also referred them to the embassies of the various countries that they will be travelling through for further assistance. This will be accomplished when the group reaches Pretoria where the various embassies are located.
Additional support is offered by the Muslim Judicial Council whose network of possible Muslim organisations, ulama bodies and other support structures in southern Africa will be approached for assistance to the group. In Botswana the group will be hosted and assisted by Imtiyaz’s father, Drs Muhamed Haron, who teaches at the University of Botswana.
Apart from the bicycle, all members of the group carry both communal and individual essential supplies and equipment, including food, clothing, toiletries, first aid kit, cooking utensils, water, bicycle repair kits, diary and mobile phones.
Natheem says they have been encouraged by the support of the community, but they have also taken heed of warnings by some that the challenge may be more than they can bear. However, they are determined to complete the journey and the Hajj, after which they will decide on how to undertake the trip back home.
The group welcomes any financial support for their journey. Anyone who wishes to contribute financially may deposit money into the following Standard Bank account in the name of I A Haron: Account number 275505839, Lansdowne branch, branch code 026209.
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