South Africa's First Muslim Mason?
By H. Brother Dr Alan A Cooper
First published in August 1985
In the Provincial Grand Lodge (Southern Division) Spring Ball magazine
The South African Cultural Museum in Cape Town, which already houses an exhibition of masonic regalia, will soon boast a display of coins bequeathed in 1927 by another Freemason, Hajee Suilaiman Shamahoed. The Hajee is believed to be the first Muslim Freemason in South Africa. During the many years he lived in the Cape he was able unable to attend masonic lodges because of local circumstances at the time. Nevertheless as a benefactor to his community and to the public, he exhibited Masonic qualities of charity and forbearance, ready to declare to all he was a true Freemason.
It’s not clear whether he became a Freemason in India or in Britain, where he lived for many years.
Born in Dhoraji in the Presidency of Bombay, India, in June 1859 he settled at the Cape in 1883 where he became a prosperous fish merchant and a leading member of his community. His extensive will, drawn up in 1915, records his many bequests. To the SA Public Library he left £100 for the purchase of books on Oriental philosophy and art; to the Cape Town Art Gallery a similar sum to provide for artistically talented Muslims; to the New Somerset Hospital £100 to establish a bed in his name for Muslim patients. Money to provide medals and prizes for Malay and Coloured children in Cape Town schools was left to the Cape Provincial Department of Education and £100 was bequeathed to the South African National Society for research into the lives and graves of Muslims who arrived from the Indian Archipelago in the early days of the Cape.
During his lifetime his charity extended to educational and religious projects. In 1911 he gave land and money to found two Muslim schools in Cape Town. Their foundation stones were laid on Jube 22, 1911, the day of the coronation of King George V.
The tragic loss of two of his daughters led him to finance two religious establishments. In 1908 he bought a burial site of a Muslim holy man, Sheikh Joseph, who died an exile from Java, near Faure in 1699, and set up a trust to protect the Kramat. Several other Kramats of religious leaders in the 17th century were protected for posterity by him.
In 1909 his eldest daughter, Janeb Hajee Suilaiman, aged 20, died when her dress caught alight from a stove. To commemorate her name, he bought land near the cemetary and erected a mosque attached to which was a classroom named after Janeb.Ironically his will made provision for bequests 100 years after his death in 1927 to descendants from the male line of his family. However only his four daughters produced children. One of these, Mr Yussup Essop, now living at Paarl, recalls that the Hajee often declared that he was a Freemason and abided by its principals, which he said resembled those of Mohammedanism.
Unfortunately the Hajee could not attend recognised Masonic lodges. Because of the laws of the land at the time the English, Netherlandic, Irish and Scottish Lodges in the Cape could not admit persons of colour. Only in 1977 was the Grand Lodge of South Africa given official permission to allow Coloured and Indian candidates to the Order.
Despite this, the Hajee was proud of being a Freemason, as the frontispiece of his will indicates. The square and compasses are seen prominently displayed, together with a drawing of him.