Assalamu `Alaikum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatu
Rabbish rahli sadri, wa yassirli amri, wah lul `uqdatan min lisani, yaf qahu kauli
“O my Lord! Open up my heart and make my task easy for me, and loosen the knot from my tongue so that they might fully understand my speech.”
In keeping with our series of jumu`ah talks this Ramadan here at the Claremont Main Road Masjid, my pre-khutbah talk today will focus on another dimension of the life and death of Al-Shahid Imam Abdullah Haron.
Allow me to begin with an illuminating verse from the Glorious Qur’an. Allah, the Lord of Compassionate Justice proclaims in Surah al-Baqarah, chapter 2, verse 154:
وَلَا تَقُوۡلُوۡا لِمَنۡ يُّقۡتَلُ فِىۡ سَبِيۡلِ اللّٰهِ اَمۡوَاتٌ ؕ
بَلۡ اَحۡيَآءٌ وَّلٰـكِنۡ لَّا تَشۡعُرُوۡنَ
And do not say about those who are killed in the way of Allah,
“They are dead.” Rather, they are alive, but you perceive [it] not.
I was just a toddler when Imam Haron was killed in detention in September 1969. But I grew up with an awareness that he had been a significant figure in the Muslim community, and particularly in the lives of my parents and some of my extended family. The connections to Imam Haron as I was growing up, were always there for me, starting with my first experience of attending a masjid.
My father was born and grew up in Claremont, right opposite the Stegman Road masjid, in Draper Street. While the Main Road Masjid was the only masjid in Claremont when he was growing up, when Imam Haron became the Imam of the Stegman Road masjid in 1955, my father, a young teacher, became one of his students. He was also part of the youth group that started the Claremont Muslim Youth Association under the leadership of Imam Haron. Stegman Road masjid became part of my family’s life as I was growing up. From around age 4 or 5 I used to go to masjid on ‘Id mornings with my father, Sedick Galant – and we only ever went to al-Jaamia masjid. This was the only masjid I knew for many years and Imam Haron was this mythical figure who was once the Imam at the al-Jaamia masjid.
I don’t have any memories of meeting Imam Haron, but my mother always referred to the Imam’s love of children, and used to relate that when he visited our home he would like to pick me up and ask me to recite the shahada because I used to recite it with the English translation, which he loved hearing everytime he visited. But it is another story that always fascinated me, and that was the story of the night the Imam was buried.
My mother always used to tell us, how on the night Imam Haron was buried, my father was at the imam’s home and she was 8 months pregnant and at home with me and my 1-year old brother, when an earthquake struck Cape Town. She describes the fear and impact of having the earth shake that evening after an emotional weekend of first hearing of Imam Haron’s death on the Saturday, then the trauma of waiting for his body to be released on the Sunday, and culminating in his janaza and burial on the Monday, 29 September 1969. In relating this story of the earthquake, for my mother, and I guess for many others close to the Imam, there was an unforgettable link between the martyrdom of Imam Haron and the night the earth shook with the Tulbagh earthquake. The earthquake on the 29 September 1969 remains the most destructive earthquake in South African history. It measured 6.3 on the Richter scale. The epicenter of the earthquake was in Tulbagh, but its effect was felt throughout the City of Cape Town. And it occurred on the day the Imam was put into the ground in the Mowbray cemetery in Cape Town.
It was during the 1980s that my awareness grew of the political activities and struggle for social justice that led to the martyrdom of Imam Haron. This awareness was integral to my own political awakening in the anti-apartheid struggle as a young student. Over the years, I attended many political rallies that invoked the Imam’s name, and of course many khutbahs at this masjid that commemorated the death of the Imam and elaborated on different dimensions of the Imam’s life.
But as we commemorate the 50th year of the Imam’s death in 2019, I have become more intrigued by an apparent silence in public debates. This silence is about the muted reaction and response of the broader Muslim community to the detention and death of the Imam. What I did know was that over 30 000 people attended his janaza. But what I was more intrigued by was what did the Muslim community do for the 123 days that the Imam was in detention, and what did they do after he was murdered in detention? Afterall, at the time of his detention the Imam was a high-ranking member of the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) (he had served as Chairman of the MJC from 1959-1960), and editor of the mouth piece of Cape Town’s Muslim community, the Muslim News.
In searching for material on this topic, I recently read Rashied Omar’s 1987 Honours thesis at UCT, titled ‘The Impact of the Death in Detention of Imam Abdullah Haron on Cape Muslim Political Attitudes’ and a 2004 journal article by Ursula Gunther titled ‘The Memory of Imam Haron in Consolidating Muslim Resistance in the Apartheid Struggle’ (Journal for the Study of Religion, Vol. 17, No. 1 (2004), pp. 117-150). In my talk today, I draw on these two research articles to share their reflections on how the broader Muslim community in Cape Town reacted to the detention of the Imam and how they responded after his death. I also reflect on some lessons we can learn from that period for how we as Muslim citizens engage politically today.
Imam Haron in Detention
Imam Haron was arrested and detained on the 28 May 1969. That evening was also Milad al-Nabi and Muslims all over the Western Cape gathered in masajid to commemorate the Prophet’s (pbuh) birthday. At Stegman Road masjid, where the Imam was to lead that evening’s proceedings, the deputy Imam, made the announcement to confirm Imam Haron’s detention earlier in the day. The congregation, which numbered more than 1000, was in shock and immediately sought out the support of other Shaykhs, Imams and Muslim Bodies to protest against the Imam’s detention, with little success. The first indication of the indifference with which the broader Muslim community would respond to the Imam’s detention, came when Muslim News sought to distance itself from the political views and activities of the Imam three days after his detention. The editorial board issued a statement saying:
[Cape Times, 31 May 1969]
It went on, in an editorial five days later, to say ‘If Imam Haron is being held because of his political views, then there is nothing ‘Muslim News’ can do about the situation, as Imam Haron’s position as editor was to express the religious aspects of the community. ‘Muslim News’ would not hesitate for one moment to register the protest of all Muslims if our Deen (religion) were imperilled (sic) (Muslim News, 6 June 1969).
In this editorial, the Muslim News epitomized the indifferent and apolitical stance of the local Shaykhs and Imams as well as the broader Muslim community, that contrasted with the outspoken views against the racism and injustices of the Apartheid regime expressed by Imam Haron. Muslim News preferred to assume that the Imam’s opposition to racism and injustice had nothing to do with his faith in Islam. This was despite the fact that the Imam used his platform at the Stegman Road masjid to draw on Islamic teachings of justice to mobilise his congregation to speak out against racism and Apartheid injustices, including the Group Areas Act in the 1960s, that affected all oppressed communities. In witnessing to justice, Imam Haron stood apart from his ‘ulama colleagues of that time.
In the six editions of Muslim News that were published during the 4 months that Imam Haron was in detention, the paper did not once protest against Imam Haron’s indefinite detention or call for his release. And yet, at the time that the was detained he was the editor of that newspaper, and they had given prominence to many of his other activities, including his trips abroad and meetings with prominent Muslim ‘ulama in the Middle East.
A week after the Imam’s detention, the Cape Times published a strongly worded letter of protest against the detention of Imam Haron by a prominent Christian cleric. However, throughout the period of Imam Haron’s detention, no protest letter was published from a Muslim religious leader or any other Muslim institution or individual. Given the track record of the Cape Times at that time, it is unlikely that they would have refused to publish such a letter were it to be received. The Muslim voice of protest was silent in the public domain.
The Stegman Road masjid congregation stood isolated in their quest to protest and raise awareness against the unjust detention of Imam Haron. In desperation, they approached a United Party member of parliament, who raised the issue in the House of Assembly. Not surprisingly, during the period that the Imam was in detention, some of his students at Stegman Road masjid were also hauled in for questioning by the Apartheid Security branch, forcing those who were close to the Imam to keep a low profile and go underground. Nevertheless, during every Friday khutbah (sermon), the Imam’s continuing detention was mentioned, and during congregational prayers they performed a special qunut prayer for him.
Some members of the Stegman Road masjid congregation also continued to lobby prominent Shaykhs and Imams in the MJC and Muslim Assembly at the time, to issue a formal protest against Imam Haron’s indefinite detention, and to demand that the Imam be charged or released. Every single member of the ‘ulama who had been approached refused to issue a public statement in this regard.
There was no outcry from the Muslim community or ‘ulama, when, a month after the Imam’s detention, it became known that Wilson Rowntree had terminated the employment of Imam Haron. There was no rallying from the Imam’s colleagues in the MJC or Muslim News to support his wife, who was left alone to care for her two young children while the Imam was in detention. This support was left to the family, friends and students of Imam Haron from the Al-Jaamia masjid congregation.
The stance from the ‘ulama at that time, was that Imam Haron’s detention was ‘a political affair’ and they wanted no involvement in that. It was an attitude that reflected not only the parochialism of the Muslim community but also a deep seated racism that regarded the anti-apartheid struggle as the ‘black man’s’ struggle not the struggle of Muslims. Rather than identifying with the struggle of all the oppressed in the country, Muslims preferred to see themselves as an ‘ethnic’ group of ‘Malays’ who in their minds, occupied a higher status than ‘black-African’ in the Apartheid racist ideology. As a consequence of embracing this racist ideology, Muslims sought to curry favour with Apartheid apparatchiks and refrained from criticising the State and expected to be given privileges that other ‘blacks’ were denied. How misguided they were.
And yet, for all their claims to not want to be involved in politics, during this same period, community newspapers carried news stories of prominent Muslim ‘ulama and public figures, fraternising with and honouring Apartheid army Generals, Apartheid Ministers and inviting the Mayor of Cape Town to speak at events. So rather than being apolitical, the broader Muslim community and the ‘ulama in particular, chose silence or accommodation with the Apartheid state. For example, on 15 June 1969 just less than a month after Imam Haron had had been detained, the inaugural edition of a local Muslim newsletter, called Shura was published. It carried a prominent story of the official opening of the Robben Island kramat of Sayed Abdurrahman Matura. Muslim leadership had gathered on Robben Island with the then Minister of Prisons, General J.C Steyn, as the official Guest of Honour. At the ceremony no mention of Imam Haron or other political prisoners were mentioned and General Steyn was presented with a garland at the end of the ceremony.
The indifference displayed by the broader Muslim community to the unjust detention of Imam Haron was indeed shocking. I was curious therefore to find out more about the response of Imam Haron’s students and the Stegman Road masjid community during this time.
I asked CMRM member Boeta Sulaiman (Layman) Abrahams, who was one of Imam Haron’s students, to share his recollections of Imam Haron and tell me about what they, his students and congregation, did during those 123 days when the Imam was in detention. Boeta Layman was one of the Imam’s students who was also called in for questioning by the Apartheid security police. He recalls how scared they themselves were of being detained, but they were also desperate to get any information about the Imam’s whereabouts and well-being. Imam Haron was held incommunicado and no-one was allowed to visit him, not even his family or a lawyer. So, some of them used to go and hangout in the streets around Caledon Square prison and shout out the Imam’s name in the hope that he was being held there and could hear them and respond. On one such occasion Boeta Layman recalls that Imam Haron heard their shouts, and responded only by saying ‘dit gaan maar swaar hier’. Those were the last words of the Imam that Boeta Layman recalls hearing and weeks later the Imam was killed.
After the Imam’s death
On Saturday 27th September 1969, 123 days after Imam Haron had been detained, two security policemen delivered the news to his wife, Aunty Galiema Haron that the Imam had died in detention. The news spread rapidly, and hundreds started to converge on the home of the Imam in Athlone. A post-mortem was requested by the family to determine the cause of death, leading to a delay in the Imam’s janaza and burial until Monday 29 September 2019. Reports of the Imam’s janaza inform us that more than 30 000, men and women, Muslims and people of other faiths, attended the funeral procession on foot from Athlone to Mowbray. The janaza salah was performed at City Park Stadium opposite the Imam’s home, and despite the presence of prominent Shaykhs and Imams from the MJC and Muslim Assembly, the janaza salah was led by one of the Imam’s students from Stegman Road masjid, Al-Marhum Boeta Saliem Davids. Having had no support from the ‘ulama while the Imam was in detention, there was resistance from the Imam’s close family and friends to give the MJC ‘ulama any scope or prominence at the Imam’s janaza. The janaza was the largest ever seen in Cape Town, and the anti-apartheid eulogies and speeches delivered after the salah and at the graveside turned the Imam’s janaza into a massive political demonstration against the Apartheid regime. Speakers included political activist Victor Wessels, Eulalie Scott from the Black Sash as well as Shabbir Seria from the Muslim Assembly and Shaykh Nazeem Mohammad of the MJC. All of them praised the Imam for standing up for truth, justice and human dignity and condemned the Apartheid state for the Imam’s unlawful detention and unanswered questions about his death. Imam Abdullah Haron was the 7th person to die in detention in 1969 and the 19th known death in detention. The death of Imam Haron also sparked international condemnation of the Apartheid state.
Despite the anger and fervor of the crowd at the Imam’s janaza, it did little to shake the broader Muslim community and its leadership out of its political complacency immediately after his death. They reverted to their stoic silence uttering no more public protests at the unjust killing of the Imam. Although, in a few issues in October 1969, Muslim News extensively covered the Imam’s janaza and published messages of condolences, it still stopped short of attributing the Imam’s struggle against the injustices of Apartheid to his deep commitment to Islam and its teachings of social justice. During the month of Ramadan, just five weeks after the Imam’s death, the Stegman Road masjid was the only masjid where Imam Haron’s struggle for social justice was still commemorated during sermons and invocations read for him every evening. At the rest of the masjids in the Western Cape, the Imam was already a forgotten man. By this stage the Muslim News also imitated the public silence on Imam Haron. Not only was there silence from the ‘ulama and broader Muslim community, but also no support for the widow of the Imam, who was left to care for two young school going children.
It was the white liberal opposition who used their privilege in Parliament and in the media, following the death of Imam Haron, to launch a sustained protest campaign over two years against unlawful deaths in detention, and amplified calls for an inquest into the death of Imam Haron. At no time did Muslim News or any of the Muslim organisations or ‘ulama publicly support the call for an inquest into the death of the Imam. When the inquest was eventually held, and the findings made public five and a half months after the Imam’s death, there was again an outcry from the white liberal press and opposition members of parliament. They condemned the inquest finding that the Imam had died as a result of injuries from falling down a flight of stairs. The evidence of injuries to his body suggested otherwise. The 26 bruises on his body and broken ribs suggested that he had been tortured to death.
The Cape Times carried several comments from white liberal institutions and prominent Christian clergy who condemned the inquest findings, but not one of the ‘ulama or Muslim organisations issued a statement about the inquest findings. The Muslim News did not even carry a report on the inquest findings. Such was the indifference of the broader Muslim community to the unjust killing of Imam Haron. The Cape Times carried an editorial to commemorate the 1st anniversary of the death of the Imam in September 1970. The Muslim News was silent. The Al-Jaamia masjid stood alone in paying tribute to their martyred Imam.
Two years after the death of Imam Haron, Anglican priest, Rev Bernard (Bernie) Wrankmore embarked on a 67 day fast at the Karamat on Signal Hill to demand an official judicial inquiry into the death of the Imam. His fast was reported virtually everyday in the Cape Times, keeping alive the uproar over the Imam’s death, and about 500 people visited Wrankmore at the shrine every week during his fast to support his cause. But it was not Muslims that were going up there in their droves to support him. In fact, the prominent Muslim organisations remained aloof from his campaign, while some Muslims actively protested against the Christian Reverend’s fast, claiming he was violating the sanctity of the shrine and that since Imam Haron was laid to rest two years ago, they felt it was not necessary to keep the issue of his death alive.
The truth is, it was only a decade after the death of Imam Haron, in the late 1970s, that the first major commemorative meeting was organized within the Muslim community by the South African Students Association (SASA). It was only from that period onwards, that commemorating the legacy of Imam Haron and his struggle for social justice, became an annual event embraced especially by young activist organisations of the 1980s like Qibla, the Call of Islam and the Muslim Youth Movement.
What lessons Can we Derive from this History?
This history of the silence and inaction of the Muslim community and its leadership is an indictment of those who believe that we as conscientious Muslims should strive to uphold principles of Faith, Justice, and Compassion. I want to suggest three key lessons from this history that should serve as a cautionary tale for how we engage in the political and social space of today.
The first is the lesson Imam Haron has taught us, that there can be no place for political complacency, apathy and indifference when social, political and economic injustices persist in our society. Our commitment to Islamic principles of Justice must always inspire us to speak truth to power and seek social and economic justice for all. This is the noble path we should walk.
The second lesson derives from the inertia of the Muslim community that was based on parochial and racist attitudes and self-interest that prevented the broader Muslim community and its leadership from witnessing to justice in the way of Imam Haron. Imam Haron exemplified Islam’s message of non-racialism and taught us that, when striving for social justice, there is no separation between our faith and our social activism that encompasses all who live in our society. We must thus guard against racism and parochialism in our communities that seek only to look after ourselves and the interests of Muslim communities while being blind or indifferent to the struggles of other marginalised communities in our society.
The third lesson relates to the dangers of civil society organisations seeking patronage from the State. Seeking patronage from the State silences us from speaking truth to power and holding state institutions and government officials accountable for their mandate to serve all the people of this country equitably, with justice and compassion. This does not preclude us from commending and supporting just policies, but we must maintain an independence that allows us to hold those in power accountable for their actions. If we make ourselves beholden to the State we mute what we can say to call out State injustices, corruption by the state or inaction by the State.
In conclusion, this brief history that I have related, underscores the imperative for the re-inquest into the death of Imam Haron. Questions surrounding his death have been left unanswered, and no-one has ever been held accountable for his death. Following the successful re-inquest into the death of Ahmed Timol in 2017, it is time that all unnatural deaths in Apartheid prisons be re-visited and those responsible for their deaths must be held accountable.
- I make du`a and pray that Allah grants Imam Abdullah Haron a high status in Jannah, insha-Allah.
- I also make du`a and pray that Allah grants his loyal deceased students, including my dear father, to be united with their beloved Imam in al-jannah, insha-Allah.
- I make du`a and pray that Allah, the Source of all Healing, grants Imam Haron’s widow, Aunty Galiema Haron, who is 93 years old, patience and ease to bear her frailty and old age, insha-Allah, and bless her abundantly for the care she provided her children after the Imam’s death.
- Finally, I make du`a and pray that Allah, the Lord of Compassionate Justice, will guide authorities to bring justice and closure to the Haron family and other families of detainees, through the re-inquests into the true causes of their loved ones’ death in Apartheid prisons.