The Built Archives of Popular Islam in Singapore and Cape Town

Historian Sumit Mandal initiates a comparison of the architecture, surrounding landscapes, and histories of two keramat, or Muslim gravesite-shrines—Habib Noh in Singapore and Tuan Guru in Cape Town—proposing that these keramat are built archives of once-prevalent geographic and religious networks.

Muslim gravesite-shrines dot the rim of the Indian Ocean, where they lie nestled in the culturally and geographically textured meeting point of water and land. This essay is concerned with the shrines that connect the Malay world, across the vast oceanic expanse, to southern Africa. The Malay world, in this instance, is the archipelagic region constituted by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The essay highlights shrines to two individuals in particular—Habib Noh in Singapore and Tuan Guru in Cape Town—and explores them as visual markers of sacred geographies and histories.

As is the case with other Muslim shrines, the figures they honor are regarded as awlīyā’, the term in Arabic for those who enjoy a closeness to God and serve as the guardians of believers. Many attribute the power of mediating between mortals and God to a walī (singular of awlīyā’). Hence, the term is frequently translated into English as “saint.”

Habib Noh and Tuan Guru are also both looked upon as keramat. This Malay term is derived from the Arabic karāmah, or the miracles attributed to a walī. Keramat means an otherworldly potency in Malay and refers to both the figure buried in the grave and the site itself. For centuries, Muslims as well as people of other faiths have offered votive prayers at such potent gravesites. Belief in awlīyā’and keramat draws from Sufism (Islamic mysticism) and is popular among Muslims but viewed with caution by religious authorities.

Built Archives

Keramat can be regarded as the built archives of both sacred geographies and histories. Geographically, they serve as built archives because they mark in the landscape a form of popular veneration. The shrines draw the eyes of viewers to low-lying visual markers of long-standing sacred sites that are human in scale rather than monumental as in the commemorative structures of nation-states.

Historically, keramat are the built archives of migration and exile in the Indian Ocean. Habib Noh and Tuan Guru began their journeys from the west and east, respectively.1For Habib Noh, I drew from the following hagiography: Mohamad Ghouse Khan Surattee and the Outreach Unit of Al’Firdaus Mosque, comp., The Grand Saint of Singapore: The Life of Habib Nuh bin Muhammad al-Habshi (Singapore: Masjid Al’Firdaus, 2008), 30–33. For Tuan Guru, I consulted Achmat Davids, The History of Tana Baru: The Case for the Preservation of the Muslim Cemetery at the Top of Longmarket Street (Cape Town: Committee for the Preservation of the Tana Baru, 1985), 40. The former arrived in Singapore in the nineteenth century as part of the Hadrami diasporic networks that expanded out of Yemen into the Indian Ocean. Tuan Guru was forcibly shipped from the island of Tidore, in eastern Indonesia today, to Cape Town by the Dutch East India Company in the eighteenth century. When Tuan Guru and other political leaders were exiled to southern Africa, they brought with them the practice of keramat veneration.

Keramat become visually compelling built structures when they are regarded not in isolation but rather in close relation to the landscape. Habib Noh inscribes histories of popular veneration and oceanic journeys amid the tall and hypermodern cityscape of Singapore while Tuan Guru inscribes the same in the natural landscape that rises dramatically around Cape Town.

Tuan Guru

The music begins with gentle and soft notes on the piano and is soon met by drumbeats that gradually make their presence known. Abdullah Ibrahim, the Cape Town–born musician, is on the piano and gradually builds up the pace and intensity of his playing. The drums fall into the background before returning in a rapid and vigorous battle march; they take center stage. The piano steps up its pace on an ascending scale to spar with the drums. Both instruments play to the finish, and the piano brings it all to a close softly, before coming to an abrupt stop.

Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Tuang Guru,” a variation of “Tuan Guru,” is a jazz composition created in the mid-1980s and synonymous with the Islamic leader who was exiled to Cape Town.2I refer to the version recorded in the following album: Abdullah Ibrahim Trio, Yarona (Munich: Tiptoe, 1995). I am grateful to Louis Mahadevan for first making me aware of this composition. The Dutch met with resistance as they expanded eastward into the Malay Archipelago in the competition with other European powers for control over the spice trade. Tuan Guru and the other leaders who opposed the Dutch were removed to Cape Town, the Dutch outpost at the southern tip of Africa, to keep them at a great distance. Abdullah Ibrahim’s composition is not always an easy or melodious listening experience as it sonically re-creates the forced exile of Tuan Guru and the remaking of his life in another world.

Tuan Guru (1712–1807) played a foundational role in the establishment of Islam in his place of exile and came to be commemorated as a keramat after his death. He established the first mosque in Cape Town and transcribed several copies of the Qur’an from memory for the use of Muslims.3Davids, The History of Tana Baru, 45­–46. Besides these and other accomplishments, he is remembered for the miracles he performed.

The visual experience of Tuan Guru’s keramat is closely tied to that of the striking landscape of Cape Town, as the shrine is located on a hill above the city center, facing the iconic Table Mountain to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the west (figs. 1, 2). This is the setting of a notable number of paintings and photographs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some of which were reproduced on postcards that were widely circulated.

Fig. 1. Tuan Guru with a view of Table Mountain in the background, 2012. Photograph by the author
Fig. 2. Tuan Guru with a view of Cape Town’s city center and Table Bay in the distance. Courtesy the African News Agency (ANA)

The shrine once had a thick, low white wall with corner pillars along its perimeter, like a miniature fortress, with trees around it (fig. 3). At present, the wall has been replaced by a half-built brick structure that recalls the pyramidal tombs of eastern Indonesia, where Tuan Guru came from. A few palm trees are found nearby. The shrine has retained its human scale throughout the changes it has undergone.

Fig. 3. Tuan Guru with a view of Table Mountain shrouded in clouds, probably ca. mid-20th century. Courtesy the African News Agency (ANA)

The aesthetic of the gravesite is inseparable from the cemetery in which it is located. Tuan Guru’s shrine comes into view upon stepping through the arched concrete gateway into the burial ground. Countless gravestones dot the hillslope that rises up from the gravesite; these are very old as it is the site of one of the earliest Muslim burial grounds in Cape Town. The cemetery is aptly named “Tana Baru,” or “New Land,” in Malay.

Fig. 4. Tuan Guru with the hillslope cemetery in the background to the right and a shrub garden in the foreground, 2012. Photograph by the author

Tuan Guru’s gravesite contrasts with the understated Muslim gravestones on the hillslope beyond, some of whose inscriptions are no longer legible and others that are practically submerged in the earth (fig. 4). The keramat serves not only to commemorate Tuan Guru as a pioneering Islamic figure but also to offer a collective name and visual marker to the forgotten dead, many with origins in the Malay world.

The presence of the keramat in the cemetery overlooking Cape Town is not only a visual and historical marker of the forced transplantation of Tuan Guru and countless others. The gravesite is within reach of the people who reside in the area and thus also a place where they are able to pay their respects to their forebear.

Habib Noh

Like Tuan Guru, Habib Noh was buried on high ground overlooking the sea. The latter is said to have chosen the particular spot in Singapore because it was where he often spent time in contemplation before his death in 1866.4Surattee, The Grand Saint, 34. The British East India Company established an outpost on the island in 1819 and, in time, decided that Mount Palmer, the hill that once rose above Habib Noh’s favorite spot, was suitable for the construction of fortification for the defense of their harbor town. The British leveled part of the hill for this purpose, leaving the area around Habib Noh’s gravesite untouched.

According to one hagiographic account, Habib Noh was born in 1788 on a ship from the Hadramaut bound for Penang.5Ibid., 30. People of Hadrami ancestry, like him, were part of multilingual and transcultural diasporic networks and became well-known religious adepts, miracle workers, traders, and diplomats across the Indian Ocean. Many were descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and thus carried the honorific “Habib” before their names. Their skills and exalted genealogy had been highly valued by a number of coastal polities of the Malay Archipelago for a couple centuries already. Thus, Habib Noh arrived in a world in which he cut a somewhat familiar figure.

Habib Noh is believed to have come to Singapore in the year the British established their trading outpost, and over time, he developed a reputation as an Islamic ascetic who through his extraordinary devotion to God, was given the gift of performing miracles. He is said to have used his powers to assist the sick as well as the seafaring merchants and crews of the bustling harbor.6Ibid., 39, 48–49. By the time of his death, Habib Noh had become well-known not only in Singapore but also across the Malay world, and people visited his gravesite from far and wide out of veneration.

The motif of a keramat overlooking the sea was idiomatic of awlīyā’ across the Indian Ocean. Habib Noh’s gravesite thus symbolically connected Singapore to an expansive sacred geography across the watery domain. An early twentieth-century image of the keramat shows a seascape with ships in the distance. The seascape disappeared from sight when land reclamation works were undertaken in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a highway was constructed in the late twentieth century; the maritime connection to the expansive sacred geography was thus severed.

Fig. 5. A reproduction of an early twentieth-century postcard of Habib Noh showing the seascape that once existed. Collection of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board

The architectural features of the keramat are a blend of the cultural influences that have been present in Singapore since the nineteenth century. The large dome at the top is representative of Islamic architecture across the Muslim world, and the columns recall classical European buildings (fig. 5). In broad terms, the structure today remains the same as it was more than a century ago. However, the louvered wooden windows and what appear to have been whitewashed walls have been replaced by glass shutters and olive-green tile walls.

The visual experience of the keramat has changed radically in the past 150 years. The infrastructural expansion begun in the nineteenth century has been carried on into the twenty-first century. The cityscape of Singapore—a wall of concrete, steel, and glass—fills up the sky near Habib Noh, and today, the shrine sits on a small plot of land with the highway on one side and a train system under construction on the other (fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Habib Noh in 2020, showing the construction site of the underground train line and skyscrapers. Photograph by the author

The spot where Habib Noh chose to be interred has remained in place in a landscape that has probably seen some of the most radical transformations in Singapore’s recent history (fig. 7). It is located on a knoll, which once abutted Mount Palmer on the southern coastline of the island, and a short distance from the buzzing financial center. Mount Palmer has been mostly leveled, and the historical harbor Habib Noh once overlooked has become reclaimed land. The keramat is the only remaining visual marker of a sacred geography and oceanic history whose traces have been erased.

The persistence of the shrine might perhaps be attributed to the respect with which it was held by British and Singaporean authorities. Rather, the stories that circulate by word of mouth and appear in hagiographies attribute its persistence to miraculous powers. For instance, heavy machinery is said to have failed when, in the 1980s, construction was begun on the highway to pass through the sacred site.7Ibid., 51–52. Work resumed only after a ritual was performed and the highway was redesigned to skirt the keramat.

Fig. 7. Habib Noh, 2020. Photograph by the author

The Sacred in Our Times

Tuan Guru and Habib Noh lie on opposite ends of the Indian Ocean, separated by thousands of kilometers, and their biographies and historical contexts contrast sharply. There would appear to be little reason to compare the two. The transplantation of the popular practice of keramat veneration from the Malay world to southern Africa, however, allows us to view the disparate sites within a single frame.

Set against Table Mountain and the hypermodern cityscape of Singapore, respectively, Tuan Guru and Habib Noh are visually striking built archives of popular Islam. The focal points of these contrasting landscapes are the keramat themselves. Each is only a speck in the landscape on the scale of continents and oceans, but each is nonetheless potent. The keramat are repositories of devotion to God and miracles as well as oceanic histories whose visibility in the landscape matters. Whereas the sight of a mosque could inspire piety or awe, seeing a keramat is to connect with memories of a gifted human being, one who offers intercession between mortals and God.

To write about the sacred geographies and histories of keramat is not to claim primacy for them by privileging them as a particular set of built archives. Others have walked the earth and sailed the seas before them in Singapore and Cape Town. Tuan Guru and Habib Noh inscribe in the landscapes of these cities a time in the last millennium when the popular veneration of Muslim shrines was as ubiquitous across the Indian Ocean as Islamic networks were. The keramat are visible representations of this long-standing sacred geography and history within urban landscapes that have been transformed as radically as their political and social lives by colonial and national states.

Tuan Guru and Habib Noh open the doors of our imagination to other ways of understanding human relationships with the world, and to a much-needed mitigation, if not rethinking, of developmentalist ambitions. The sacred thus continues to assert its presence in our times.

  • 1
    For Habib Noh, I drew from the following hagiography: Mohamad Ghouse Khan Surattee and the Outreach Unit of Al’Firdaus Mosque, comp., The Grand Saint of Singapore: The Life of Habib Nuh bin Muhammad al-Habshi (Singapore: Masjid Al’Firdaus, 2008), 30–33. For Tuan Guru, I consulted Achmat Davids, The History of Tana Baru: The Case for the Preservation of the Muslim Cemetery at the Top of Longmarket Street (Cape Town: Committee for the Preservation of the Tana Baru, 1985), 40.
  • 2
    I refer to the version recorded in the following album: Abdullah Ibrahim Trio, Yarona (Munich: Tiptoe, 1995). I am grateful to Louis Mahadevan for first making me aware of this composition.
  • 3
    Davids, The History of Tana Baru, 45­–46.
  • 4
    Surattee, The Grand Saint, 34.
  • 5
    Ibid., 30.
  • 6
    Ibid., 39, 48–49.
  • 7
    Ibid., 51–52.

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