Indian Ocean as Memory Space: Islam in Indonesia and South Africa

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In 2015, during a research stint in South Africa, I visited the Bo-Kaap Museum in Cape Town, South Africa together with some colleagues from the AFRASO project. The museum “showcases local Islamic culture and heritage” associated with Cape Malays that were brought to South Africa as slaves by the Dutch East Indies Company. It was then that I found out about a prominent saint, Sheikh Yusuf, who was an Indian Ocean Muslim scholar and preacher of Islam from Indonesia. Born in 1626 in Makassar and educated in Aceh and Saudi Arabia amongst other places, he was exiled to Sri Lanka in 1884 and later to South Africa in 1693 by Dutch colonialists, hence introducing Islam there. He died in Macassar in South Africa, a small town named after Makassar, the city of his Indonesian origin.

When I visited his shrine in Macassar, a Cape Malay family was at the shrine to say prayers before two family members travelled to Mecca for Hajj. I was invited to join their family picnic and prayers besides Sheikh Yusuf’s shrine. They are descendants of Malay slaves who were shipped to South Africa by the Dutch East India Company in the 15th century. They said that another shrine associated with Sheikh Yusuf existed in Makassar, Indonesia. In 2017, I visited it. He is buried next to his wife Mrs. Sitti Daeng Nisanga. At the shrine, women pray for fertility and couples for wedding blessings. Mothers and grandmothers held infants while praying in thanksgiving at the shrine. A mosque named after Sheikh Yusuf exists next to the cemetery where his shrine is located.

Various publications claim that Sheikh Yusuf’s corpse was exhumed from Macassar (South Africa) and reburied in Makassar (Indonesia) (Taylor 2003, 169-170). The caretaker of the shrine in Makassar said that resultant from Sufi mysticism, after exhumation in South Africa, it is believed that he is buried in three places. According to him, despite Sheikh Yusuf having instructed his family to repatriate his body back to Indonesia upon death, his body was claimed by three groups from three different places: Makassar, Indonesia (where he was born as the son of the King of Goa); Macassar, South Africa (where he died after being exiled by the Dutch that were colonising Indonesa); and Serang Indonesia (where he lived from 1664-1680 after returning from Mecca, Saudi Arabia). Hence, three teams that claimed his corpse placed remnants of his corpse in one coffin and because he was a holy Sufi saint, they believe that his body ended up in the three coffins. So each team that claimed him took a coffin and buried it in the three locations with the belief that he was in the particular coffin they buried. The foregoing avoided conflicts and competition amongst the three shrines.

I also visited the third shrine in Serang, Indonesia in 2017. Busloads of pilgrims visited to pray at Sheikh Yusuf’s shrine which is located in a ‘memory route’ that connects shrines of prominent Muslim scholars, imams and Indonesia’s former ruler and independence hero Sultan Hassanuddin.


Bo-Kaam Museum: (11.11.2017).

Taylor, Jean Gelman (2003) Indonesia: Peoples and Histories, (Yale University Press).




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