How British Musician Discovered Islam in Apartheid South Africa
Cii Broadcasting (08-05-12)
In the booming world of Rock ‘n Roll in the 70′s, Brian Hewitt was a rising star. Popularly known as Bandsman Hewitt, the semi-professional musician was a regular on the British club and orchestra circuit, entertaining revellers nationwide with his talented execution of the trombone, tuba and other brass instruments. His popularity had taken him to many places, eventually even landing him a coveted position in the British Army band.
He reminisces quite fondly about the moment in 1975 when, at the Royal Albert Hall, he was afforded the opportunity to play with the legendary Sting in a show that sought to identify the best band in the United Kingdom. However, despite his passion, there was one element of his occupation that Hewitt never quite found himself too comfortable with. Because of his profile, most of his shows took him to clubs or other entertainment arenas where alcohol inevitably would be splurged quite freely. “Musicians drink a lot themselves,” he told me recently, confessing that he was no exception. “I lost days because of alcohol. When you wake up after a night out, it is terrible. Looking back it is truly shameful.” He recalls people he associated with in those days getting “very silly” once under the influence, and remembers how awkward he felt amidst such behaviour.
However, in spite of this distaste, he hardly did anything significant to alter his preoccupations or outlook.
That was before 1979. For it was during that year that Hewitt, who still identified himself as being largely agnostic, met some Muslims from South Africa who invited him to visit their country. Hewitt consented and, quite incredibly, soon found himself petitioning the South African authorities to grant him a permit to stay with his friends in the then fledgling Indian township of Azaadville.
What Hewitt encountered on that brief sojourn was nothing short of eye-opening. Hot off the heels of the 1976 student uprising, he was scalded by his first-hand encounters with apartheid. First, he was refused entry into Rhodesia. Then whilst queuing for a train in Musina, he embarrassingly became the centre of attention for unwittingly standing in the ‘non-whites’ queue. Restaurants refused him service because he had ‘non-whites’ accompanying him, and he was startled to discover that even some churches were racially segregated.
The Nurul Islam Mosque in Lenasia where Hewitt Discovered Islamic non racialism
Then, one evening, his hosts decided to take him on a tour of the newly built Nurul Islam Mosque in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg. As he sat solemnly watching the congregational prayer, it soon struck him that the rows of faithful were not made up exclusively of Indians as he had envisaged, but were also filled by Muslims of different races who were praying side by side. At once, Hewitt was puzzled. “Despite the segregation of Apartheid, people of different races were all praying together it one place! So I wondered how this was happening in South Africa of all places.”
This, Hewitt admits, was the moment he started to read about Islam. On his return to the UK, he started researching the new faith. But still, he had no intention of converting. “I did not buy books to become a Muslim. I just bought books to find out why – it was Allah Ta’ala who planted the seeds of Imaan in my heart bit by bit,” he says.
For two full years, often with little urgency, he read about Islam. According to Hewitt, the faith came to him gradually. “When I read about Islam, I discovered that Muslims believe in One God only. This corresponded with what I read in the Bible. I also found Muhammed SAW to have propagated the same message as the previous Prophets I had known of. Some specifics may have differed, but the core message was the same.”
Hewitt explained that he also found the prohibitions in Islam to be logicial. “To stop drinking made sense to me, so I stopped. Not eating pork made sense to me, so I stopped.”
On the day he formally entered the faith, Hewitt was still searching. However what began as another routine trip to purchase new books on Islam, soon culminated with a ceremony which saw him taking the Shahadah. “The brothers at the bookshop got talking to me and we ended up at the Regents Park Mosque. They helped me make Wudhu and I joined the Salaah.” Hewitt jokingly remembers how he was looking sideways trying to see how to perform the Salaah. After the Salaah he formally took the Shahadah.
It was only once he got home that night, that he realised the consequences of what he had just done. “I realised that as a Muslim I have to pray. So I went through a little book I had about Salaah, and the next morning at Fajr, I was in the mosque! I also read that keeping the beard was Sunnah, and I haven’t shaved ever since.”
Not too long thereafter, Hewitt, now having adopted the Islamic name Ibrahim, hung up his musical instruments, gave up his drinking habit and resigned from a post he held at an insurance firm. He says his motivation for forsaking his former lifestyle was not motivated by the Islamic injunctions on music(which he was not aware of as yet) but rather by his disdain for alcohol. “I had a choice. I could easily carry on with life as normal, but then I would have to live with the guilt.”
The media and education consultant does not make much of his sacrifices. “It is not that a big deal to give things up when you become a Muslim because if you really think carefully about the consequences of your Shahaadah, you realise you could lose your family, your friends and your job. But you also stand to gain so much from Islam.”
Despite being primed for the post-conversion fallout, Hewitt admits that the reaction from his immediate family to his decision caught him off-guard. “I did not expect such a problem from my family. My mum was accepting but dad was really upset and threw me out the house. In fact, he did not speak to me for a full 2 years.” It was only a while later, when his mother encountered ill health, that Hewitt received a call from his father and was then able to regain some of the lost ground.
Hewitt, who was recently back in South Africa as a guest of the Islamic Medical Association(IMA), says he still finds it ironic that he discovered the equality of Islam in Apartheid South Africa. “As a family, we always had conservative – even right-wing views. It is very strange because on the other side of the river where I live, perhaps just 3 miles away, there was a Muslim community that was already existing for the past 100 years made up of Yemenis and Somalis who had worked on ships that came into the ports. They have been there since the 1880′s in South Shields. So it was ironic, but Allah guides you in very strange ways.”
There is yet another South African connection in the Hewitt story. Whilst in South Africa, he coincidentally commemorated the 30th anniversary of his marriage to his South African wife who hails from Azaadville. He also found himself again calling at the Nurul Islam Mosque in Lenasia, where his journey of discovery had first began. This time though, far from scanning the congregation with his curious eyes, it was him who was addressing them, sharing his insights about happenings in Palestine in his capacities as the chair of trustees at Interpal, the renowned British charity, and as editor of the Middle East Monitor, an online media and research body.
Hewitt is generous in his praise for South African Muslims, whom he calls a “special community.” He however is eager to caution against complacency. “Islam is a Gift from Allah. If we are not interested in it, He will take it away and give it to someone else.”
With an almost fatherly love, he shares with me an oft-recurring encounter in his life. “People always ask me when I took the Shahadah. I counter by asking them when they took theirs. Because, whether you are born in a Muslim home or not, at some stage you must make Shahadah and decide to live as a Muslim at some stage. I became a Muslim in 1981. It is up to you to decide when you too will become a Muslim.”