Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Taj Hargey: a rebel without a pause

That Dr Taj Hargey, the well-known gunslinger of Islamic contumacy, is back in town is more than obvious. He has been feted by talk show hosts, has garnered headlines and got social media buzzing.

His establishment of an ‘open mosque’ in Wynberg that he says will welcome all – irrespective of gender, shade of belief and sexual proclivity – may look good on paper, but the baggage that it carries via Hargey and his ‘religious revolution’ is decidedly overweight.

The pity is that those who’ve entertained his bombast about liberality have no institutional memory of him. Hargey – a native of Cape Town – may have a doctorate in religious studies, but his is a career that has been plagued by conflict and controversy.  

Hargey, no academic slouch, earned his first degree in History and Oriental Studies in Durban and his doctorate at Oxford before moving back to Cape Town to lecture at UCT. He also opened a bookshop in Claremont.

That was in the 1980’s when the Cape-based Muslim Judicial Council was fighting a bitter, drawn-out case in the High Court with a sect called the Qadianis, or Ahmaddiyyas. They were objecting to being labelled as unbelievers by then MJC president, Shaikh Nazeem Mohamed.

The Qadiani sect, regarded as apostate by Sunni scholars worldwide, was founded in India in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed of Qadian. Scholars say he claimed to be a manifestation of prophethood – a violation of the central Islamic creed that Muhammad is the final messenger.

The conflict is that whilst constitutionally, the Qadianis do enjoy rights to practice their beliefs, Sunnis balk at the insistence of the Qadianis that they are Muslims, when according to their doctrinal evidence, they are not.

Dr Hargey became embroiled in controversy when he stepped into the dock as an ‘expert witness’ in the MJC-Ahmadiyyah case. Rumours that he was selling pro-Ahmadiyyah literature in his shop are believed to have contributed to his leaving UCT for the US.

In the US he ran into trouble collecting money to establish an anti-apartheid newspaper. An investigation by the Austin Business Journal revealed it never went beyond being a title. Hargey was criticised by media experts at the time for claiming it would be South Africa’s first Black-owned publication.

The story, also run by the Cape Town-based South in April 1990, revealed that Hargey’s business card listed the address of an NPO, the Open House Cultural and Welfare Society at 221 Landsdowne Road, in Cape Town. 

Directors listed by Hargey on its letterhead did not check out. One was identified as Mandla Tyala, a South African journalist studying under a Harvard Fellowship. A surprised Tyala denied being a director.

When confronted, Hargey said the person was actually a Moses Tyala who was travelling in the Ciskei. Another person, a Cape Town man, who was listed as the society’s treasurer also denied any involvement with the society.

Hargey’s next port of call was Britain where he formed the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, becoming its self-appointed imam. He was declared a heretic by a local publication, the Muslim Weekly, and Hargey successfully sued it for defamation in 2009.

It was in Britain that Hargey carved out a reputation for his disavowal of the niqab, the face veil, supporting moves for its banning and even expressing approval of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempts to prohibit it.

And whilst Hargey’s observation is correct that the veil is a ‘Persian invention’, it is his ardent revulsion of it that proves the blatant contradiction of his calls for true religious liberality and non-sectarianism.

Hargey has infuriated British Muslims by labelling the Indo-Pak and Arabic communities as tribally archaic. He has said that British mosques are filled with ‘Neanderthals’ harking back to the 7th century.

However, it is his posing on the fringes of Islam as a mainstream practitioner that is perturbing. Hargey’s spurning of Hadith (validated prophetic axiom) which underpins Islamic law together with Qur’an, confines over 1,400 years of classical endeavour to the dustbin, and is more reflective of extremism than moderation.

His insistence on conducting marriage ceremonies of Muslim women to non-Muslim men (Muslim men can marry Christians and Jews) has been regarded as gratuitously provocative. His religious justification, for an issue better resolved in a civil court or by Islamic legal experts, is spurious in terms of him saying the Qur’an does not broach the subject.

Hargey’s determination to establish his religious revolution in Cape Town, widely regarded as having one of the most tolerant of Muslim communities, has perplexed many. Cape Town’s mosque platforms are amongst the freest in the world and women, for the most part, can pray in its 150-plus mosques and serve on the committees.

Hargey’s missionary zeal for an ‘open mosque’ is by far his clumsiest contradiction. Mosques, by their very nature, are places of open worship. People do not stand at the doors asking patrons about their sexuality, ideology or identities. Islam is not a confessional faith, but one of private intimacy between the individual and the Creator.

By actually identifying congregants as Sunni, Shi’ah, gay or Sufi in the name of liberality and non-sectarianism, Hargey is calling for unnecessary social discrimination that in turn can only lead to the danger of unwanted social tensions. It is an article of faith that Muslims are enjoined not to look into another’s heart.

The question of gender equality, of women being involved in mosque activities, is an old chestnut. The prophetic model was one of interaction. Many of the top Islamic scholars of the Middle-Ages proudly listed women teachers, who were prominent in Andalusian universities well before the European Renaissance, in their certificates.

Finally, it is hoped that cool heads will prevail in yet another contrived Taj Hargey saga. What he has suggested is nothing new. Al-Quds mosque in Gatesville and Claremont Main Road mosque are but two institutions which have had an open door policy for as long as he has been controversial.

Indeed, Cape Town may not be perfect, but it’s certainly 100% better than say, Kabul or Karachi, where everybody knows Dr Taj Hargey will not dare to set foot.