From Abstinence (imsak) to Elevation (rif’ah): Reimagining Imam Abdullah Haron’s Path of Shahadah (bearing witness) in the Quest for Justice and Dignity
Khutbah delivered at Claremont Main Road Masjid, 31 May 2019
The month of Ramadan is a hadiyyah, a gift. We abstain in this month from our baser physical desires as a means of connecting to the higher purposes of life.
Ramadan sensitises us to our small human frailties, encouraging us to offer a smile, a good word, and material support that comfort the weak, sick and frail.
Ramadan presents us the spiritual and moral resources to increase our commitment to fellow humans.
This month affords us the resources to recognise how we should behave in the world, in service of Allah’s command to live a life of fairness and dignity.
We have over the last few jumuahs at this masjid been commemorating the life of Imam Abdullah Haron.
I present in this khutbah an engaged ethical reading of Imam Haron’s life. Having imbibed the details of his story, I’m concerned to understand what makes his life story a primordially Cape Muslim story.
Such a story would bring to the fore Islam’s ethical commitments in the particular historical circumstances of our city, imbued by religious, social and deeply spiritual practices that emanate from our submission to the tawhid of Allah.
I base the khutbah on advice that I take from prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). When asked about those, like Imam Haron, who embark on a path of just righteousness (bir), the Prophet replied,
Consult your heart. The just righteous path (bir) is that about which your soul feels at ease and the heart feels tranquil. (transmitted by Ahmed bin Hambal and Al-Darimi)
As the hadith explains, a path of just righteousness, once taken, is imbued with the clarity of one whose soul is at ease and heart tranquil.
A soul at ease and a tranquil heart, as the Prophet suggests, places Allah’s divine grace at the centre of one who lives a righteous life, the one who bears witness to Allah’s justice in this world.
The righteous person is infused with clarity and sense of purpose. Nothing will distract such a person from his moral path.
Such a rendition would bring us closer to what Allah explains to us in the Qur’an, chapter 2, verse 154,
And say not of those who are slain in God’s cause, “They are dead”: nay, they are alive, but you perceive it not.
Today, the person who dies in the path of Allah only comes to life for us when we are prepared to invest our lives with dignity, fairness and justice.
And, Imam Haron’s path comes alive in a conversation with our community’s history in this city.
Imam Haron was an inheritor of a long line of men and women whose linage is traced from all over the world and various indigenous connections made under conditions of colonial harshness at the Cape.
The impact of Allah’s divine intervention was at play when the emerging community fashioned itself out of the harsh raw life circumstances of banishment and slavery.
One of our community’s founding fathers, Imam Abdullah Qadi Abdus Salam, the imam known as Tuan Guru, described the Cape under Dutch colonialism as a ‘dar-al huzn’, a depressive place of deprivation.
The nascent community used its Islamically informed ethos to domesticate the harsh environment by deploying community building processes that helped them establish viable existences at the edges of the colonial city.
The community was strengthened by spiritual and ritual practices that gave it cohesion and an ethic of self – reliance.
Imam Haron was immersed in the community’s liturgical practices and cultural rhythms since his birth in 1924, including doekmal; tamat; lamba; nikah; merang; kiefayat; 7, 40 and 100 night commemorations; sport and recreation.
The community’s spiritual practices were based on the Qur’anic instruction, which they recite in their ‘ghaajats’ and ‘gadat’,.’ from which they took strength, when Allah declares;
Human beings said to them: “A great army is gathering against you”: And frightened them: But it (only) increased their Faith: They said: “For us Allah is sufficient, and He is the best disposer of affairs. (Q3, V73)
In adversity the community submitted to Allah as the disposer of all affairs. Their actions were based on true iman (faith), enacted through steadfast prayer and fasting, to conquer over their condition of huzn, the depressive colonial state.
As an inheritor of this steadfastness, Imam Haron was a constant reciter of the Qur’an; as Hafith-al-Qur’an, he imbibed its message. Crucially, he also fasted throughout his adult life on a Monday and Thursday, emulating Prophet Muhammad.
Ibn ’Arabi, the great sufi mystic, explains that fasting affords the one who fasts an elevation onto Allah, what is called ‘rif’a’, Ibn ’Arabi explains that the fast is,
… an abstinence (imsak) whereby those who fast are granted an elevation (rif’a) unto Allah the Most High.
Abstinence and elevation are the cornerstone of Imam Abdullah Haron’s life. Fasting developed the Imam’s body into a body instilled with physical, mental and spiritual strength.
Rif’a or spiritual elevation finds heightened expression in Imam Haron’s choice to fast during his imprisonment. We are told that he consciously chose to fast during his incarceration.
And we are told that that he did the special wisal type of fasting during his imprisonment, which involved eating only one meal per day, brought to prison by his wife. He sometimes went without food for more than one day under conditions of torture and deprivation. This type of fasting was not generally recommended, reserved only for those imbued with an elevated spiritual state.
With his body, mind and spirit then already disciplined over years of personal tutorship, fasting in prison elevated him to an even higher state of spiritual perfectibility, bringing the time of his shahada, his witness bearing into stark reality.
Such an elevated state fortified Imam Haron throughout his imprisonment to finally enter Allah’s divine presence as a being who lived the ultimate principled commitment to a righteous life in service of humanity.
Allah explains such an elevation in the Qur’an as the righteous path of those who are wholly patient and deeply grateful to God,
Verily, in this (reminder) there are messages indeed for all who are wholly (and entirely) patient in adversity and deeply grateful [to God].
In other words, the martyr or shahid is completely dedicated and entirely and wholly patient in accepting the path of bearing witness to the Allah’s ordained injunction of standing firm in opposing a system of human brutality.
Once embraced and embalmed by his shukur or gratitude to Allah, the martyr walks such a path without any fear or self – doubt.
While suffering incarceration, Imam Haron drank from the spiritual fuel that his perfectible disposition, his fitrah, and his patience and gratitude to Allah provided him. His remained disciplined and focused during his imprisonment.
Imam Haron was arrested on 28 May 1969 on the annual celebration of Prophet Muhhamad’s (PBUH) birthday after being hounded, spied on, followed around, and intimidated by the security police for months.
He was detained for his underground work in the struggle against apartheid, for doing relief work among the families of detainees, and his involvement in underground political activities.
Imam Haron’s revulsion for racism and oppression was turned by him into a cultivated anti-apartheid Islamic gaze.
He must have acutely felt the impact of apartheid’s laws on his congregants, their forced removals, their daily indignities and their stunted life chances.
He came under a sphere of politicisation by younger people in his congregation and the broader Claremont community, and it was in this context that he mapped his political and ethical commitments onto his Islamic identity.
His was a seamless Islamic ethical identity and an uncompromising commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle. And it is this heightened ethical commitment that strengthened him during his imprisonment.
Imam Haron was tortured relentlessly, day and night. He was often prevented from changing his clothes, and from getting proper and medical treatment.
Alas, he gave nothing away. The record shows that he did not give his torturers a single name and no information about any of his underground activities.
Imam Haron was in a state of heightened elevation during his incarceration, a path for which he prepared his entire life.
He understood his community’s acquiescence during apartheid. The lesson of Imam Haron was that he was a traditional imam involved in all the daily matters of his community, yet his path was never constrained by the community and its leadership’s political apathy.
Instead, the lesson we learn from his is that when a community suffers, yet remains silent and accepting of their fate, the martyr recognises and chooses a revolutionary path. Imam Haron mobilised his spiritual and ethical resources to walk a brave just righteous path relatively parallel to his community.
His was the path that conferred dignity on all the oppressed in this country. His was the path of shahadah, a path of bearing witness to Allah, even as against himself, his kin, and those closest to him (based on Qur’an 4, Verse 35).
I can think of no better way to conclude this khutbah then to summarise a moving fictionalised account about the very last moments of Imam Haron’s life, written by Barney Desai and Cardiff Marley in their book, The Killing of the Imam (1978). Imagining the last moments of Imam Haron’s death they write that, he could die with honour, that he met all his obligations to Islam, that he kept his word to his comrades, and that their secret would die with him.
They write that the imam prepared for death in his cell, painfully. He took the symbolic wudhu, and made salah for a long time. He picked up his Qur’an, kissed it, then he laid down.
The authors imagine the Imam’s last prayer thus,
In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful, forgive me my sins. Please care for my wife and children. Oh most merciful one, you are the only one, this I believe. And the prophet Muhammad is your messenger. Oh merciful one, take my soul. let me die now; let my soul be free; let my people be free.
And then Al-Shahid Imam Abdullah Haron was dead; 123 days of confinement, abuse, insult, persecution, torture and terror ended for Imam Haron on that morning of Saturday, 27 September 1969.
Upon death, Allah invites the martyr into paradise with this sublime invitation (Q189: Verses 127 to 131);
O (thou) soul, in (complete) rest and satisfaction!
Come back thou to thy Lord,- well pleased (thyself), and well-pleasing unto Him
Enter thou, then, among My devotees.
Yea, enter thou My Heaven!