Imam Abdullah Haron at work in his Mosque library in this 1967 file picture.
Imam Abdullah Haron at work in his Mosque library in this 1967 file picture.

The unwavering legacy of Imam Abdullah Haron

By OPINION Time of article published Sep 26, 2016

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Education, youth, selfless giving are just a few aspects of the remarkable life of Imam Abdullah Haron who died in detention 47 years ago, writes Farzana Mohamed.

On September 27, 1969, Imam Abdullah Haron died in detention in Cape Town. He had been incarcerated for 123 days at the then-notorious Caledon Square Police Station in the city centre.

Autopsy evidence proved strongly that the imam had been tortured and had died of these injuries.

He was imam of the Al-Jaamia Mosque in Claremont at the time of his death.

Many people in South Africa, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, unfortunately have never heard of Imam Haron, and don’t know about his legacy and contribution to this country.

Forty-seven years ago, the imam was killed in detention in Cape Town, leaving behind a community that would be changed forever.

Three important aspects of his legacy stand out for me: those of education, the youth and selfless giving.

How would the imam feel today about these issues and the local Muslim community?

Among the progressive innovations Imam Haron brought to the Al-Jaamia Mosque in Claremont was the creation of discussion groups and adult education classes.

At that time, Muslim education was about rote learning and repeating parrot fashion what the imam taught.

Sadly, this is still the case in many places in South Africa and around the world, where there is no space for questioning minds or even higher learning about the faith beyond the basic essentials of learning to recite the scripture and the rituals of prayer.

Imam Haron made higher learning in Islam egalitarian, not only to empower ordinary Muslims who had no ambitions necessarily of becoming an Imam or Sheikh, but also extending this to women. At that point in time, this was new.

A spin-off from this egalitarian view of education, was the establishment of the Muslim News newspaper. The imam, along with several other individuals at the Cape, established the newspaper in 1960, and he would be the editor until his death.

The paper would come to play a very functional role in keeping Muslims informed about issues taking place in the Cape, other parts of South Africa, and in the Muslim heartlands.

The critical notion was the need to be informed about matters beyond the immediate community.

A second important aspect of Imam Haron’s legacy was an investment in young people.

The imam was instrumental in organising young people to form the Claremont Muslim Youth Association.

Many non-Muslim political thinkers and activists at the time, were invited to address them.

These ideas gave the imam and CMYA members clearer perspectives on other opinions, and how they needed to respond to contemporary issues in the country.

These exchanges helped young people in Claremont to formulate their own ideas about Islam and society.

A third aspect of the imam’s legacy I wish to highlight here, is that of bold and selfless giving.

Imam Haron was involved in alleviating the plight of the poor beyond his own community.

He assisted black African communities in Langa and Gugulethu at a time when Muslim engagement and involvement with these communities was unheard of.

He developed close ties particularly with the banned Pan Africanist Congress and assisted the families of those who were imprisoned or killed.

But moreover, Imam Haron joined the ranks of those who spoke out boldly against apartheid injustice at the time.

In the broader Muslim clergy class, this was frowned upon and even heavily criticised.

Ultimately it was this activism that led to his detention and eventual martyrdom in custody.

In the current times, these three aspects of Imam Haron’s legacy set great examples of inspiration.

Most importantly though, my observation is that the legacy of Imam Haron has filtered down into many areas of the Muslim community across the country, whether they know it or not.

It would be disingenuous on my part to bemoan a total lack of survival of the legacy of Imam Haron in South Africa today.

Muslims have made great investments in education over the years, both individually and institutionally.

Many Muslims, men and women, continue to pass through institutions of higher learning annually, at graduate and post-graduate levels.

Local Muslims could so easily have become a community that shunned secular education and was reduced to parochial traders and artisans.

But the ranks of doctors, scientists, lawyers, engineers, accountants and academics are well populated by Muslims. Imam Haron would indeed be proud of this.

In terms of the investment and empowerment of youth there is a lot Imam Haron would be proud of, but also some areas that will disappoint.

Over the years since the death of Imam Haron, we have seen courageous Muslim youth in the front ranks of the progressive struggle for transformation in the country.

Feroza Adams, Firoz Cachalia, Omar Badsha, Farid Essak, Yunus Carrim, Ebrahim Rasool, Adli Jacobs, Naeem Jinnah, Shamima Shaikh, to name but a few, are some of the young Muslim people who stood up and spoke out with courage against the injustices of apartheid.

Even now, we see young Muslim people in the ranks of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements, the EFF and the ANC Youth League.

Young Muslims in progressive formations seeking transformation in the country.

They keep the flame of Imam Haron’s legacy alive, even while many Muslim youth are stuck in the consumerist mall culture, or are trapped in conservative family cultures where politics is disavowed, or even worse, attracted to extremist Islam exemplified by the likes of Islamic State, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.

Yes, it is mainly young people whom these extremist groups have attracted the world over, and South Africa is no exception.

My quick observations as to why young Muslims are being attracted to these extremist groups is because of a lack of dedicated spaces for young Muslims to grapple with issues of their faith, and also to be exposed to other and even differing points of view.

These are areas of the community that Imam Haron made a great commitment to, and which more and more Muslim leaders should be mindful of following.

Finally, Imam Haron’s legacy of selfless giving remains crucial for reflection.

An overall observation is that the range and magnitude of Muslim charitable giving in South Africa is off-the-scale.

This is reflected in the vast infrastructure and charitable initiatives undertaken by local organisations such as Gift of the Givers, Nakhlistan, Mustadafeen Foundation, Africa Muslim Agency, Muslim Hands, AwQaf South Africa, the South African National Zakaah Fund and the Saabri Ashrafi Relief Fund. Hundreds of thousands of people benefit annually from the work of these organisations.

In reflecting on Imam Haron’s legacy in broad strokes, I am both humbled and thrilled to recognise that it is not lost in our greater community.

Imam Haron exemplified what it meant to do good, not only for your own community, but also beyond.

Not only to give in charity, but also of your time and effort. Not only to identify injustice, but also to actively speak out against it.

My prayer is that his name and legacy may be remembered and extended throughout South Africa; that the charitable works of all the big and small Muslim organisations operating in the country be expanded; and that young people be ever more inspired onto the bold path of service and devotion to their community.

* Farzana Mohamed is chairwoman of the Imam Abdullah Haron Education Trust.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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