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Outsider and Insider: On being a historian of Islam and Muslims in South Africa

Goolam Vahed


I am a Muslim born in South Africa. As much as I am an insider practising the faith, as a historian trained in African Studies, I am an outsider to the study of Islam and Muslims in South Africa. I try to stand above the debates that rage, but feel them directly on my body. Being an insider has opened doors into the world of Muslims as much as it has sometimes closed them. Through a semi- autobiographical approach, in this article I present my experiences of studying Muslims and Islam in South Africa. This endeavour has seen me try to negotiate between my identity as a Muslim and my work as a historian, as I focus alternately on the everyday practices of Muslims, and on those who seek to structure Islam, give it direction, and entrench their role as shepherds of the flock. A focus on lived Islam underscores the diversity among Muslims and underlines the idea/fact that Islamic practices are a continuously changing construction both in relation to new theological influences and textual traditions as well as changing social, economic, and political forces. 

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eISSN: 0257-7062