Remembering Imam “Mfundisi” Abdullah Haron and Apartheid South Africa | An Interview with his son, Muhammed Haron

Ahmet Köroğlu: Thank you very much Professor Muhammed Haron for having accepted our request. In this interview, we want to talk about Imam Abdullah Haron since you are the son of Abdullah Haron. First of all, I would like to ask you how well you remember him. Secondly, how did he come across to you as his son? Because when he passed away you were about 13 years old. So can you tell us a little bit about Abdullah Haron as a father?

Abdullah Haron with his family, 1957

Muhammed Haron: Thank you for this opportunity. Firstly, when we think back about my father, I was, of course, only 13 years of age when he was killed while incommunicado for 123 days during 1969. So yes, I was quite young; but despite my age and as I was growing up being the only boy-child, I remember some of his activities. I had the chance to be driven around by him. As a salesperson for one British owned sweets company, he had a car and he used to take me around. Wherever I used to go with him, he used to recite the Qur’an in the car. So, he was conscious of the Qur’an because he himself was hafiz. For me, this basically also stood out as a memorable piece in my life. Recently, I was listening to a cassette recording of his that was recorded during the month of Ramadan; I could hear his voice and visualize him reciting the Tarawih salat as he did then. So, it brought back memories about him constantly reciting the Quran. That was indeed one of the things that I remember. Having been a salesperson for a sweets’ company, he always had lots sweets in his car. What also used to happen was that when he had ‘sell-by-date’ sweets, which had to be returned or whatever, he then distributed them to the children in the townships. He, for example, gave them to the children in these areas; these children knew that whenever the Imam came to their area that he would have sweets for them. In that way, he developed a connection between him and the children.

“Firstly, when we think back about my father, I was, of course, only 13 years of age when he was killed while incommunicado for 123 days during 1969. So yes, I was quite young; but despite my age and as I was growing up being the only boy-child, I remember some of his activities.”

Abdullah Haron and his wife (Galiema) when they were in London on a visit, 1967

So, he was fairly open to having children around him. I also do recall whenever he entered these racially divided areas (that is, areas that were set aside for whites, others demarcated for Africans, and others for coloreds and Indians). During that period anybody who went to the African area had to have a special permit issued by the police; since the Imam was a sales representative the company for which he worked provided him with a permit; on this basis, he managed to go in and out. The point that I want to make is that the children were alerted as to when the imam came to their area and these children fondly called him Mfundisi (Priest [in the Xhosa language]). In that community, it was a sign of respect towards the Imam; more importantly was the fact that he was coming to hand out sweets for them. In this manner, there was this sort of relationship that he had built up with us as his own children, but also with the children of the extended family, of friends of and of neighbors. On the whole, he always showed kindness towards all of them.

Ahmet Köroğlu: Ok. Can you tell me the most important milestones in his life? For example, I think of him being appointed as an Imam at Al-Jamia Stegmann Road in Claremont in 1955 when he was only 31 year of age – was that not a very important step in his life?

Muhammed Haron: Well, of course, many years before he became Imam in 1955 he attended a Muslim school during the 1930s. This particular school was known as Talfalah, and it was one of the important Muslim schools at that time since it was set up and controlled by the Muslim community. It was established by Dr. Abd ullah Abdurrahman (d. 1940), who was a medical doctor and who was also a Cape Town social reformer; he was instrumental in having set up a number of such schools. Among them was Rahmaniya Primary School and Talfalah Primary School. The Imam attended the latter school and it was at this school that he met many of his friends particularly those who also became members of his congregation at Masjid Al-Jamia. After he completed his studies at that school, he departed for Makkah where he stayed for about two years. There, he met the prominent scholar and spiritual figure:  Sheikh Malik Al-Alawi; the latter tutored, guided and mentored him for these two years. Interestingly, the Imam’s stay in Makkah was cut short as a result of the Second World War; he wanted to remain longer there. Important to note was that before he returned his sheikh had asked each of those who were taught by him what they would do when they go back. Imam’s response was he would ‘fast’ every Monday and Thursday as a way of honoring the sheikh’s teachings. Since he had nothing else to offer and give, the act of doing this was the Imam’s way of ‘giving’. From that period onwards, he fasted Mondays and Thursdays until he died on 27 September 1969. In this manner, one may describe him to have been very much a spiritual person. This is in addition to what I mentioned earlier and that is constantly reciting the Qur’an wherever he went.

Abdullah-Haron and his son Muhammed Haron after his return from the pilgrimage in 1964

Ahmet Köroğlu: How about his educational background? Did he pursue any Islamic education from anywhere? Makkah, Azhar, etc? I am asking because for a Muslim intellectual or an activist obtaining Islamic education must have been seen as a very important credential.

Muhammed Haron: As I mentioned earlier, he was under the mentorship of Sheikh Malik Al-Alawi while he was in Makkah. The young man (that is, the Imam) had a very close relationship with this particular sheikh. As a result, he was very much influenced by him. But when he returned to Cape Town, he continued his studies under a few Cape Town sheikhs; from amongst them, there was an important sheikh by the name Sheikh Ismail Ganif Edwards who was an Azhar graduate.  Sheikh Ismail Ganif completed his studies at Al-Azhar University and upon his return taught many. Besides having taught many at the Cape, he also wrote a number of texts on Islam; these were known as Arabic Afrikaans texts. Though written in Afrikaans using the Arabic script, it was very much classical texts with a sort of contemporary touch to them. He, for example, wrote fiqh texts, kalam texts, and also Arabic grammar works. So apart from offering courses to big classes, he also taught small groups. And my father was among those who attended the smaller groups. The sheikh thus too became my father’s mentor since then. And here we are talking about the 1940s into the early 1950s. Before my father became imam, he consulted the sheikh since he was approached by the members of Al-Jaamia Masjid to consider becoming an imam. He took up that position because the sheikh encouraged him to do so and since he had the necessary knowledge to be an imam. The sheikh felt that the Imam was equipped to take up that particular task.

Abdullah Haron standing behind a number of shuyukhs: among these is Qari Abdul Basit Abdus-Samad during his visit in 1966

Ahmet Köroğlu:  As I understand at that time, sheikhs and scholars, Islamic schools, madrasas and mosques were very important parts of the Muslim community in South Africa. What kind of effect did this triangular structure have on the South African Muslims?

Muhammed Haron: Well, indeed I think Muslim institutions have been part of Muslim identity. The Muslim community basically grew very gradually in terms of numbers. Their identity was, however, reinforced by the madrasas. And it was reinforced by the masjid; it was further reinforced by the Muslim mission schools that were set up by Dr. Abdurrahman. In this sense, these structures played a very critical role in the life of the Muslim community and the Imam grew up in that particular environment where he realized the importance of knowledge. In other words, Talfalah Muslim School was one pathway that disseminated basic secular education. So, the community was very familiar with what these Muslim schools had to offer; but, at the same time, they had to go to a madrassa in the afternoon where they gained Islamic knowledge. Of course, the masjids also used to play a role in reinforcing the identity of the Muslims. Within the community there was that understanding that once you received your secular knowledge then you should also see that you secure your Islamic knowledge. The Imam was thus able to draw from these institutions since he was exposed to them all; so he was therefore influenced by this particular background along with the ideas of the sheikhs that I mentioned earlier.

Ahmet Köroğlu: You mentioned some names like Dr. Abdurrahman and Sheikh Ismail Ganif. Did these figures have an impact on Imam Abdullah Haron’s life or intellectual thought? Was there anyone else who influenced him? For example, figures from Middle East movements (Muslim Brotherhood) or from South Asian movements (Jamaati İslami) who were popular all around the Muslim world at that time?

Abdullah Haron with some members of the Muslim Judicial Council, Cape Town

Muhammed Haron: In terms of your question yes. All of these organizations and individuals that you had mentioned had definitely influenced him. These were organizations that operated at the time and their influence was felt in many Muslim communities. Now, perhaps, I should quickly give a background – as I mentioned earlier – on South African society; the latter society was very much a racist society; by a racist society I mean that a white minority government ruled over the majority of its Black people and it divided the society into different racial categories. The Muslims most of them form part of either what they call the ‘colored’ community or the ‘Indian’ community and within the ‘colored’ community there were the ‘Cape Malays’. So, my father and of course our community fell under the latter group. Because of these racist categories, we basically find that communities, therefore, lived in their own racial communities and geographical locations. Although there were interactions or mixtures with others, these were somewhat very limited in the inner city to a certain degree. The sheikh and others that we mentioned all came from within this particular community. So, whatever was built was basically built within these particular communities. Now that being the case the Imam himself was working within these communities and there were groups that were against the apartheid government. They were not in support of the racist government that was constructed in the interest of the Whites. Dr. Abdurrahman was one of those who rejected these racial categories. He was among the few social reformers who had not only built a string of Muslim schools that we referred to earlier, but he, along with others, was also politically active. He, for example, established the Teacher’s League of South Africa (TLSA) and this was way back in 1913. And the TLSA became one of the most important teachers’ organizations in the Cape Town by standing up and voicing its views against apartheid.

“He, for example, established the Teacher’s League of South Africa (TLSA) and this was way back in 1913. And the TLSA became one of the most important teachers’ organizations in the Cape Town by standing up and voicing its views against apartheid.”

That was one and alongside that there were other similar organizations that also contributed towards the intellectual outlook of the young emerging individuals. Of course, the Imam was not a teacher nor was he a TLSA member; however, a few of the members and friends in his congregation were teachers. When they became teachers, he was influenced politically through their ideas. So that was one level and alongside that the sheikhs influenced him. The third level is when he was in Makkah where he was exposed to the ideas of the Ikhwan (that is, the Muslim Brotherhood) and other scholars at the time. As a result of that he basically was able to bring some of their works to the Cape and he had them translated and circulated translated books; we thus came across the works of Sayed Qutb, Hasan El Benna and, of course, other sheikhs (such as Sheikh Muhammad Abdu) and their well-known theological texts; all of these were translated in short form partly because it was not a school of translation but because they wanted to do so in order to disseminate basic knowledge to the community.

But also, people like Qutb became prominent – as you and I know – in the late 1950s particularly and in the early 1960s. This was a period when the Imam was trying to understand how to apply Islam within a racist society. So, he drew from these individuals, from the local organizations, from the local sheikh as well as from abroad. He put these ideas together and therefore came to the conclusion that in order to bring about social change one should actively support anti-apartheid organizations such as the Pan Africans Congress (PAC) and African National Congress (ANC). Through this way, he basically drew from all these traditions and ways of thinking, and it demonstrated to what extent he understood these and applied them within his context where racism was the order of the day.

Ahmet Köroğlu: I want to ask about Pan-African Congress (PAC) and Africa National Congress (ANC). How did they fight against apartheid? What sort of relations did the Imam have with these organizations?

Muhammed Haron: As I had mentioned earlier, South African society was a vibrant society that was divided into four different racial categories. Although this legally came into effect during 1948, it was a practice that was already in place before then. When the one group within the white community came to power and as a result of this the government, from a purely Biblical perspective, argued that God had chosen them to rule over the black people. And their understanding is that all must be divided into racial lines. As a result of that notion of apartheid, because word ‘apartheid’ is constructed from two words, and the first part of it (that is, ‘apart’) means to live apart or to live separate from others. While the government discriminated and oppressed the other racial groups, it took much of the wealth for itself and it gave as little as it could towards the other racial categories; the lowest group among them was the Africans who were the majority of the people. We, of course, as ‘coloreds’ or ‘Cape Malays’ were in a different category and the Indians were placed in separate category racially. So, this is basically what apartheid is all about pushing people into their own areas and not permitting them to freely mingle as they wished. In other words, if somebody from the African community married somebody from the white community then that would be considered an illegal marriage; and if someone from the colored community married an African or a white then that would also be an unlawful act. On that basis the Imam came with his ideas by saying and teaching that Islam did not and does not allow racial categories; it essentially spoke out against racism. At the same time, there were these organizations that emerged and that spoke out against the apartheid. One of these was the ANC and the other was the PAC; the latter, however, only came into existence in 1959 as compared to the ANC that was set up in 1912. The ANC is indeed a very old organization compared to the PAC. The imam, however, identified himself with these groups as such because he supported their stance towards the apartheid racist system. As Muslims, he argued, they also have a voice to share their views against the apartheid system.

“The two organizations that were banned, there were two others as well, but the two organizations that were band were the ANC and the PAC. The imam, because of his understanding of Islam, he felt that he needed to support the most active group at the Cape and that was the PAC. He wasn’t against the ANC at all…”

Abdullah Haron, editör of Muslim News, checks the newspaper at the printing press, 1967


Ahmet Köroğlu: Can we say that the imam was arrested because of his attitude towards fascist politics?

Muhammed Haron: There was an act that was introduced in the late 1960s known as the Terrorism Act No. 83 of 1967. The Terrorism Act was a legal instrument that stopped anybody from supporting, sympathizing and being active in any political organization that was banned.

The two organizations that were banned, there were two others as well, but the two organizations that were band were the ANC and the PAC. The imam, because of his understanding of Islam, he felt that he needed to support the most active group at the Cape and that was the PAC. He wasn’t against the ANC at all; he was very much in favor of working with the PAC and the communist party that was active at the Cape. As a result of that, he provided a different understanding of how Islam should be seen and applied within that context. Another reason is because of his contribution, he helped people whose breadwinners were either arrested or killed in detention. And in that way, he became a target by the notorious apartheid South Africa’s Security Branch (SB). And because of these activities in helping others, he was arrested on 28 May 1969.

Ahmet Köroğlu: Nowadays almost all around the World, there is a refugee and migrant crisis. In parallel with this crisis we are witnessing a rise in nationalism, far right and some anti-refugee policies. If the Imam Abdullah Haron had lived today what attitudes do you think he would have adopted? What would have been his position towards these debates and politics?

Prof. Muhammed Haron, Istanbul ,2019


Muhammed Haron:  Well, firstly I think he participated in the anti-apartheid struggle because he wanted to achieve social justice, not for himself but for everybody. He put his life on the line to basically assess every day to achieve this particular goal. So, when you ask that question about the position that he would have assuming he had been around – if he had been around today, he would, of course, had been in his nineties. But the point of the matter is he would have spoken out against any injustice by any group, whether it is the right-wing fascist groups or any such group that support fascists’ outlooks or whatever. He would definitely have spoken out against them because for him the middle way was Islam. As Muslims, we understand that to be the case. So, any group that tries to abuse even Islam itself or use Islam like we have seen in the case of the Boko Haram and the ISIS group, all of these individuals he would have spoken out against. This would, partly, be because they abused the fundamentals of Islam, the interpretation of the Qur’an, and the application of the prophetic example. He had a good understanding of how to draw from the Islamic sources (that is, from the Qur’an and Hadith) and he gave his congregation a fairly clear understanding. And one would assume that on a more global level he would have done the same.

Ahmet Köroğlu: You mentioned that he was arrested, and he died when he was under detention. Is there any regret shown by any official authorities or governments in South Africa towards him?

Muhammed Haron: To respond to that question I’ve got to go back. First of all, when the Imam was killed on the 27 September 1969 (which coincides with this year [2019] when we are commemorating the 50th year of the Imam’s killing) the apartheid government was not remorseful at all; no regrets were shown then. At that time when the Imam was killed, the apartheid government was pressured to hold an inquest. It was something that was regarded as legal and a way of overcoming a wrong that it committed. But, of course, the outcome of that inquest was that the SB and no one else were at fault for the Imam’s death. They held the view that the Imam fell down a staircase and he had killed himself. So, in a sense the government the apartheid put the blame on the Imam himself. So, they found no fault and none were found guilty.

Mandela and his cabinet decided by 1995 – under the former Minister of Justice, Mr. Abdullah Omar who was himself a Muslim and who knew the Imam well – to set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC began its life in 1995 and ended in 1997. The idea behind that was for all family members and individuals to come forward and publicize the trauma that they experienced during apartheid, particularly those family members who were killed while held in detention. We, as a family, did not do so. And this was for a number of reasons particularly for my mother who had gone through much trauma.”

But in the post-apartheid period the South African democratic government under former President Nelson Mandela recognized the contribution that people like the Imam and others made towards the anti-apartheid struggle. Now Mandela and his cabinet decided by 1995 – under the former Minister of Justice, Mr. Abdullah Omar who was himself a Muslim and who knew the Imam well – to set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC began its life in 1995 and ended in 1997. The idea behind that was for all family members and individuals to come forward and publicize the trauma that they experienced during apartheid, particularly those family members who were killed while held in detention. We, as a family, did not do so. And this was for a number of reasons particularly for my mother who had gone through much trauma. That period, of course, any person who lost his or her partner – in this case my mother losing her husband – in such a tragic situation would find it extremely difficult to get to grips with the death of her husband.

And this is what happened in my mother’s case. So, we respected her position and she did not want to go into public and go on TV or on radio and say more or less what had happened to her. The government or the TRC commissioners did come to our house and did speak to us. In a sense, we gave our story as to the reasons why we didn’t want to participate but also the need for the government to revisit those inquests. Unfortunately, the current government has been dragging its feet and didn’t do much to this very day as we speak. However, on 28 May 2019 we, as a family, had indicated to the government that we established the Imam Haron Foundation (IHF), which is different from the Imam Abdullah Haron Educational Trust (IAHET), to address this and other related matters. The idea was to persuade the government to reopen the inquest so that we can just have closure to the event that had affected us in sort of dramatic ways over the five decades. We have formed a temporary committee and it has over the past few months made attempts to address this particular issue and other matters with the government. We have done so not only for our family but for all those who had similar experiences; we, for example, teamed up with the Steve Biko (d. 1977) family to also have his case opened up. We felt that we needed to link up with all the other families and do a collective effort hoping that the government will respond to our call; and so far it seemed to work.

Prof. Muhammed Haron with Ahmet Koroglu in Istanbul, 2019

Ahmet Köroğlu: When we look at the present, what does Abdullah Haron mean for Muslims in South Africa or more broadly for all South Africans? Are there any groups or communities who follow and implement his ideas?

Muhammed Haron: Let me just repeat first the IHF structure that we created was essentially a family effort: myself and my two sisters; we decided to establish a structure in order to see that firstly the inquest is being re-opened and to bring closure to our father’s death. Because the TRC report said that he died, our argument is that the government should categorically state that he was killed at the hands of the apartheid state. That is the one. The other is to also help – through this structure – to help the community to bring back the memory or legacy of individuals such as the imam. The Imam’s life was about achieving social justice for all. In this sense, we must draw lessons on what basis he lived his life during a very trying period and demonstrated how to lead a community that encountered this situation. The IHF has been undertaking various activities, dialogues, sporting activities, cultural activities and religious activities. Last month, my mother Galima Haron was honored because she was the silent partner in the Imam’s life throughout that period. While the people spoke about him as an “unsung hero”, she used to be alongside him although she didn’t know much about the Imam’s political life; though she did not know much, she gave him all that necessary support. Then along with the cultural activities, the IHF partnered with others such as AwqafSA to have sporting activities like rugby or cricket in which my father was involved. So, we organized sporting events that commemorated his memory by making the point that the imam used to like rugby/cricket and so in this way we have a trophy in honor of him.

Therefore, we feel that we can make a statement about the Imam’s life. Prior to this, in 2005 the community, not so much from the family, but the community established what is known as Imam Abdullah Haron Educational Trust (IAHET) that was mentioned earlier. The IAHET, however, had its annual lecture on the 25 September 2019 and it basically consists of a number of people from the community; among them are CEOs of companies and other prominent persons from various fields. They came together and they created a committee that runs this particular trust. It used to collect money for bursaries for students going to universities and doing certain programs and assisting them. But as from 2019, which is this year, it has changed its tack because a number of such trusts exists and do the same activity; so instead of that it decided to shift focus and give its attention to early childhood development (ECD). The IAHET considered this a viable area of focus area that needs the necessary support structures at different levels. As I said, annually IAHET has an annual lecture where it invites a prominent speaker from the society to come and give a lecture, not necessarily about the Imam; anyone is invited depending upon the theme and focus even though he or she did not know the Imam; however, so far each of the speakers have connected their thoughts to the ideas of the Imam. Of course, it was very much interested in madrassa education, in education in general and the Imam used to emphasize that. So, we felt that this was one way of memorializing him. In terms of memorialization, the government, the City of Cape Town, has named one street after my father’s name ‘Imam Abdullah Haron Road’ where we used to live. So, in that way there are buildings that have been named after him, there are halls that were named after him. There’s a community hall in one area known as Salt River where they have a hall named Imam Abdullah Haron hall. So, when you go to conferences or meetings you will recognize his name. They have memorialized his life in different ways. We hope with the activities, which I mentioned, that we as a community have undertaken and are undertaking would continue to realize his legacy.

Ahmet Köroğlu: Thank you so much for all these helpful answers. Before I end I want to ask if you have any plans for the 50 year anniversary of his death? Are you going to organize some programs, symposiums or academic activities? 

Muhammed Haron: In fact, we basically have already started some of those as we had said on the 28th May 2019. We publicized some of the activities. Over 123 days Imam Abdullah Haron – from the day he was arrested on the 28th of May and to the day he was killed on 27th September 1969 – we have organized activities. When one calculates the number of days while he was detained, it comes to 123 days. So, for this period we have had different activities that have been taking place. The idea here is to memorialize him but also with the hope that it will continue into the years to come. One of the other activities apart from the culture, we had a quiz competition for high schools; one of IHF’s partners worked out a set of questions about the Imam for the participating schools. The quiz, as mentioned, was on the life and the ideas of the Imam. Alongside that we also have books that are being edited and authored. For example, somebody is working on collection of stories of what people remembered. He is thus putting together the interviews and he is writing them up with the hope that it will be read by everyone. Most of the people know that the Imam was killed but they don’t know how he lived his life. Through these new writings we wish that people should come to know who he was and what he stood for. I’m personally doing a new biography in addition to the book that was written and translated into Turkish by Barney Desai and Cardiff Marney The Killing of the Imam. Hopefully we will have a separate biography of him. In addition to that, we have tried also to put together some of his writings. He didn’t have lots of writings but in short slim volumes we want to expose people to his ideas most of which were recorded in some of the local newspapers.

Ahmet Köroğlu: Thank you so much for the interview.

Muhammed Haron: Thank you too for having given me this opportunity.