Monday, July 11, 2016

Searching for the Imam: the legacy of Imam Abdullah Haroon revisited


Imam Haron's tombstone. Photo Shafiq Morton
THE story of Imam ‘Abdullah Haron, one of South Africa’s most renowned anti-apartheid martyrs, is something that has haunted me for years. I have never been able to forget the earthquake on the evening of his burial in September 1969, and how it literally shook the world. 

The narrative of Imam ‘Abdullah Haron, who was murdered in detention when he was 46,  is a bittersweet one, made accessible by Khalid Shamis’ documentary the Imam and I. Shamis, who grew up in England, was Imam Haron’s maternal grandson.

Shamis incorporated animation, rather than re-enactment, in his 2010 award-winning piece which borrowed from the iconic cover of Cardiff Marney and Barney Desai’s 1978 book, The Killing of the Imam. It shows the imam falling down a flight of stairs – the alleged cause of his death – while being held in incommunicado for 123 days under the Terrorism Act.

Imam Haron’s funeral was attended by over 30, 000 people, yet his family was left to fend for itself. Muslim News – of which he was an editor – dithered and prevaricated (the paper did eventually pay homage to the imam), and his widow, Galiema, received no aid from the community – legal or otherwise. As a sole breadwinner, she was forced to sell their house whilst the MJC, Ashura and the Muslim Assembly looked on.

And only when Muslims became emboldened to mobilise against apartheid in numbers (well a decade after the imam’s death) did awareness of him begin to stir amongst the youth, the Qiblah movement making him a cause celebre in the late 1980s.  

But only recently has Imam Haron got the recognition he has always deserved. The Order of the Disa was conferred on him by Premier Ebrahim Rasool in 2004. A section of Landsdowne Road was named after him in 2013. An honorary doctorate was awarded by UWC in 2014, and in the same year, the prestigious Order of Luthuli Gold was bestowed upon him by President Jacob Zuma.

Then there is the Imam ‘Abdullah Haron Educational Trust. It has granted over R1.5 million in bursaries since 2006, and hosts the annual Imam Haron Memorial lecture. But after a long search, it appears as if the IAHT – supported by the family – has been the only Cape Town institution to dignify his memory, other than Community House in Salt River.  

And this is our very great shame: the first Muslim to receive the tribute of a memorial service in St Pauls Cathedral in London has still never been truly honoured by his own community. It is an astonishing revelation.

So who exactly was Imam Haron? We know that he was one of the youngest imams of his day, appointed at Stegmann Road in Claremont in 1955 when he was only 32. We know that he refused to accept payment for his position. We know that he was a community man, a dapper dresser who loved sport and movies.

We know that he was a progressive leader, that he’d assimilated a wide spectrum of views ranging from the Coloured People’s Congress, the Non-European Unity Movement and the Teacher’s League to Hassan al-Banna.

We know that he was one of the first imams to extend invitations to non-Muslims in the mosque. We know that he empowered women. We know that he founded the Claremont Muslim Youth Association that published the Islamic Mirror, which became the Muslim News.

We also know that the imam had a solid theological grounding. His son, Dr Muhammad Haron, writes that his father studied with Shaikh Ismail Hanif and Shaikh Abdullah Ta Ha Gamieldien, both local scholars, and sat for two years at the feet Sayyid ‘Alawi al-Maliki in Mecca.

So how did he become politically aware? The late Barney Desai said that the imam was roused by his visiting Langa as a sales rep for Wilson-Rowntree. Nonetheless, Imam Haron became the first imam to support da’wah in a South African township.

His propagation occurred in an era of strict segregation and cultural isolationism. In the context of apartheid it was daring, if not revolutionary – especially given that the Afrikaner Nationalist government’s policy was that blacks were inferior to Coloureds, Indians and Malays.

It soon attracted notice from the anti-apartheid movement, as well arousing the interest of community informers and state security. He also became publicly outspoken, describing the Group Areas Act as a “tyranny” and “un-Islamic” at the Call of Islam rally in the Drill Hall in 1961.

Only a few imams signed the Call of Islam anti-apartheid document, and it is clear that Imam Haron’s activism did not appeal to most of his apolitical colleagues who’d advocated a quietist dichotomy of faith and government. It is evident that Imam Haron embraced a secular socio-political response to apartheid, but that as an individual he was informed by his faith.

In other words, his political awareness was a convergence – something that would be espoused by a breakaway group from the Muslim Youth Movement in 1984, which would interestingly name itself the Call of Islam.

There has always been conjecture whether Imam Haron was a member of the PAC.  His association with people such as Alex La Guma, Robert Sobwuke, Albie Sachs and the Black Sash proves that his brief was more common cause than a party one.

In 1966 the imam went on Hajj. He was interviewed by the Arab media, thus raising his security profile. He visited Cairo and London, where he met Canon John Collins of St Pauls Cathedral, who had collected money for political detainees under the International Defence and Aid Fund.

The IDAF would channel millions of rands into South Africa, and the imam would be one of its go-betweens. The special branch would never be able to penetrate the IDAF.

It’s at this stage of Imam Haron’s life that a spiritual aspect begins to appear, and where there has been little coherence. And whilst – as we’ve already stated – the imam’s politics were a convergence of faith and social conscience, his spirituality is another thing entirely.

By the late 60s Imam Haron was very much on the special branch radar, and they’d already questioned him several times when they detained him on 28 May 1969. It was on the day of the Milad un-Nabi.

Whilst in detention, Imam Haron was brutally beaten. His death, due to cardiac failure, had been directly caused by the trauma – baton blows, electric shocks and needles stuck into his spine.  His post-mortem revealed 28 bruises, a broken rib and an empty stomach.

When Khalid Shamis interviewed Dr Yusuf da Costa, celebrated historian and spiritual leader, he told Shamis that one day he’d visited the Salt River cemetery. Da Costa relates that an elderly person with him had asked him whose grave was emitting a blazing light. It was discovered to be Imam Haron’s. Da Costa asked Shamis if he could imagine the intensity of the imam’s ‘ibadah during his ordeal, and what it could have meant.

But in terms of inner worship, it is the imam’s fasting that stands out. When he was about to leave Mecca due to the Second World War, his Shaikh had asked him what he would do to serve his Creator. The 16 year-old Imam Haron had said he would obey the Sunnah of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays. By 1969, the imam would have been following this practice for 30 years.

Space precludes a discussion on the merits of the imam’s fasting, known only to Allah anyway. But it’s also the curious synchronicity of events surrounding his final days that deserve further study.

Imam Haron was snatched away on Milad. Was there significance in that? Then an earthquake of 6.3 on the Richter scale hit Tulbagh on the evening of his janazah. Bearing in mind that the last earthquake in the Cape had been 160 years previously, the co-incidence is uncanny.

Another curiosity is a dream experienced by the late Sayyid Abdul Qadir Naqshbandi, a former imam at Dar ul-Qarar in Wynberg. Imam Hasan Walele, a student, remembers Sayyid Abdul Qadir saying:

“I dreamt that I was sitting in the Haram about five rows from the holy Ka’bah. As I looked up I noticed two clouds coming speedily from the heavens and descending onto the roof of the Ka’bah.

“Suddenly the door opened and two persons appeared. I did not know the first one…. the second appeared with a beautiful nur, and I immediately recognised Imam Haron. He seemed to be searching…and when he saw me, his face lit up. Suddenly, he was standing next to me, and we were embracing each other.

“Imam Haron introduced me to the other person, and then addressed me saying that he had a message for me and the ummah. He then recited Qasidah Munfarijah https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_W6WhTriMM , saying that if people recited this du’ah constantly, Allah would bestow great blessings upon them.”

Sayyid Abdul Qadir relates that he woke up with great joy. He would recite the du’ah weekly after that with his followers.

Qasidah Munfarijah is an extremely powerful invocation. It’s read with a galloping rhythm, and was penned by Sayyid ibn al-Nahwi al-Tawzari, a celebrated 11th century Tunisian jurist and saint. Does the Munfarijah, a du’ah written for warding off calamity and oppression, embody the legacy that Imam Haron wanted to leave us?

For he told Sayyid Abdul Qadir in his dream that the rewards for the Munfarijah would be compassion for one another, love for one another, solidarity with one another, succour for one another and unity with one another.

Given his obvious spiritual status, it is my view that the shaheed, Imam Abdullah Haron, should be associated with our historical forefathers. These are our towering pioneers, people such as Shaykh Yusuf, Tuan Guru and September van Bugis – who on the rack in 1709 for crimes he did not commit – did not utter a word other than the kalimah as he was left to die a painful death, his arms and legs torn from their sockets.

Like van Bugis, Imam Haron’s sacrifice was the ultimate one, and surely, it now behoves us to really understand what it all means.