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Imam Haron’s detention and the Muslim response

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The following is a transcript of the talk delivered by Jaamia Galant at the Daroel Ielm Institute as part of a lecture series on the life and legacy of Imam Abdullah Haron

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:

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 antiapartheid 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 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, theCall 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.

Supplication
• 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.
10
• 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.

Allahumma Amin

 

LISTEN TO THE DISCUSSION: 


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