Abdullah Haron was born on the 8th February 1924 in Newlands-Claremont, one of Cape Town’s areas located in thesouthern suburbs; an area which is presently one of the very prosperous commercial centres in Cape Town. He was the youngest in a family of five and still an infant when his mother, Asa Martin, passed away. Since his father, Amarien, was not able to care for him, the latter’s childless sister, Maryam, reared him. This aunt’s stern, strict and firm-handedness had an influence upon the Abdullah Haron during his teens. She supported him to pursue his studies until the time he got married to Galiema Sadan on the 15th of March in 1950.
During his early years he schooled at Talfalah Primary School (est.1912) and completed Grade 6, and for 2 years pursued ‘Islamic studies’ in Mecca; here he was tutored by the famous Shaykh ‘Abdurahman al-‘Alawi al-Maliki (d.1986). Upon his return he continued his studies under Shaykh ‘Abdullah Taha Gamieldien (d.1946) and Shaykh Ismail Ganief (d.1958); these three shaykhs had an indelible impact upon the Imam’s ideas and activities. Shaykh Ismail Ganief was, however, the one who encouraged him to participate fully in community activities, particularly in the social welfare sector. He thus extended his services to the poor and the needy, and also began to teach.
The Imam was, moreover, also influenced by other internal and external factors. Internally whilst doing his part-time studies under Shaykh Ismail and teaching at a local Muslim school, he befriended individuals who prepared themselves for the building trade and teaching professions; they came from the Fakier, Sadan, Hattas, Galant and Ganief families. Quite a few of them frequented the intellectual gatherings of the Teacher’s League of South Africa and the Non-European Unity Movement, and, in turn, shared these ideas with him. The Imam was thus attracted to their views, and, in the process, became more aware of his community’s socio-political circumstances. Externally he was influenced by the ideas of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and other Arab-Indian movements. He purchased their books and extracted the relevant articles for circulation purposes; in this manner the internal and external forces impacted upon and shaped his ideas.
When he was officially appointed in 1955 as Imam of Al-Jamia Mosque in Stegman Road (Claremont) many of his ideas were implemented. At Al-Jamia he created discussion groups, initiated adult – male and female – classes, innovated alternatives for the coon carnival, introduced brief talks about various issues pertaining to Islam after prayers during the month of fasting, allowed women to participate in the mosques’ executive activities etcetera. He, along with his close circle of friends such as Abu Bakr Fakier, Ismail Saban, Sait Galant, Sedick Galant, Karriem Sadan, Abu Bakr Hattas, Rashaad Saban, and others, established the progressive Claremont Muslim Youth Association in 1958; the CMYA went on to publish a monthly bulletin, the Islamic Mirror, in 1959. And during that same year the Imam, Mr Abdul Kays, Mr Gulzar Khan, Mr M Mukaddam, Mr Abdul-Rashied Sayyid and Mr Zubayr Sayyid decided to establish a monthly newspaper, the Muslim News (1960-1986). He was appointed its editor and used the opportunity to make the paper as representative as possible and covered cultural, religious, and political issues. The newspaper played a very functional role in that it kept the Muslims informed about Islamic issues taking place in the Cape, other parts of South Africa, and in the Muslim heartlands.
During the early 1960s the Imam and the CMYA invited various prominent individuals of diverse backgrounds to address them on various topics; individuals such as Zac de Beer of the Progressive Party, Ray Alexander of the Food and Canning Union, and Mrs Eulalie Stott of the Black Sash addressed them on relevant aspects of their organizations. These ideas gave the Imam and CMYA member’s clearer perspectives of how others think, and how they need to respond to the contemporary developments. And since these exchanges helped them to formulate their own ideas about Islam and society, it prompted them to circulate the well-known Call of Islam anti-apartheid pamphlet in 1961. In addition to listening to the various viewpoints, they also maintained close contact with a number of activists such as Alex le Guma, Albie Sacks (CPSA members), Prof. Raymond “Bill” Hoffenberg (former Professor of Medicine at UCT), and Robert Sobukwe (PAC leader).
The Imam’s ideas were however not only channelled through the Muslim News, but also via the Friday sermons and public lectures during the late 1950s and 1960s. It was in these sermons and lectures that he critically commented upon the different, barbaric racial laws. When the famous 1960 PAC-led march got underway in Cape Town, the Imam delivered a significant Friday sermon emphasising the concept of human brotherhood in Islam, and the Muslims’ role during that time; he urged them to support the Africans who were worst within this racist system. The Imam, at this point in his life, had been in close contact with the Africans from Langa, Guguletu, and Nyanga to show his social, moral and financial support. It is because of his respect for and his humane treatment of his fellow oppressed that they and their children affectionately called himmfundisi(priest).
At a meeting on the 7th May 1961 at the Cape Town drill hall, the Imam in an emotionally-charged speech described the Group Areas Acts as “inhuman, barbaric and un-Islamic” and added that “these laws were a complete negation on the fundamental principles of Islam… (they are) designed to cripple us educationally, politically and economically… We cannot accept (this type) of enslavement.” When the Sabotage Bill was tabled in parliament, he and many others reacted very emotionally to it. He stated that this Bill “… seeks to close all loopholes in the Government’s regimentation of the lives of the people. Our motherland has been a big prison house with just a few loopholes to breathe through. Now that it is cemented, a granite wall is to be built around our motherland to suffocate us, so that the world does not hear our cry. Our country is unique…. Under the Suppression of Communism Act, it suppresses anti-Communists – like the Duncans and Luthulis – and yet it is not satisfied. The monster of racialism is vicious. … How much can we bear, I ask you! Has tolerance not a limit?” In this manner he pro-actively attacked the apartheid laws.
During the 1960s the Imam developed strong ties with individuals such as Barney Desai, a former member of the Coloured People’s Congress, who had by then gone into exile and became a member of the PAC. It was through the latter’s links that the Imam gave his assistance to the PAC and helped the families of those that were killed or imprisoned. Although he was not a member as some may argue or wish to believe, he clearly supported the activities of the PAC as well as that of the African National Congress. By the mid-60s when the Group Areas Act was cruelly enforced, the Imam was amongst the 1,000s who were affected by it. In 1965 the Imam and his family had to move from the house – where all three of his children (Shamila, Muhammed & Fatima) were born – Jefferson Road, Lansdowne to Repulse Road, Athlone. The Imam was in a fortunate position at that time in that he was working as a sales representative for Wilson Rowntrees (the British sweet company), and was therefore financially independent and in the position to build himself a new house. He built it opposite the City and Suburban Rugby Stadium where he eventually played a crucial cementing role in Muslim-Christian relations.
In 1968 he undertook a journey to Mecca; the main objective was to review his relationship with PAC and to sort out his eldest daughter’s study programme at one of London’s educational institutions. On this journey he met the Saudi Arabian Minister of Education, Hasan ‘Abdullah ‘Ali Shaykh, to discuss matters of educational interest and he also had the opportunity of meeting King Faysal (d. 1972). After his brief stay in Riyadh he left for Cairo where he spent a few days reacquainting himself with PAC members and also attending a conference where he represented the Muslim travel agents. During this time he also addressed a conference of Muslim groups/organizations, which was attended by the PAC and ANC. Before reaching London where he was to meet up with Canon Collins and Barney Desai, he stopped over in Holland where he met the Director of the International University Exchange Fund, Lars Gunner Erickson.
Before he returned home, he was warned that the Security Branch was on his heels and that the situation was getting too dangerous for him; he was advised to emigrate. He was in a quandary because his father was old and frail, and was not over enthusiastic to move to another country. As fate would have it, the Canadian Embassy seemed to have rejected his application. By then, he realized that it was too late because the Security Branch had been slowly building up a dossier of information regarding his clandestine activities. On the morning of the 28th May 1969 the Imam was summoned by the notorious Security Branch to come to Caledon Square; he was then accompanied by one of its brutal officers, Spyker van Wyk; this coincided with the 12th of Rabi’al-Awwal/28th of May, which was the day when the community was preparing to commemorate the birth of their Prophet Muhammad. He was detained under Section 6 of Act 83 of 1967, referred to as the Terrorism Act. The Imam was held incommunicado for four months (123 days) without having been given the opportunity to see his wife and children. That day marked the end of all the activities he had undertaken with such great zeal and enthusiasm since he had assumed the responsibility of Imam.
Mrs Catherine Taylor of the United Party, after having met members of his congregation, raised the Imam’s detention under the 180 days Act on the 10th and 13th June 1969 in parliament. She received a reply from the Minister of Police, Mr Muller that ‘it was not in the public interest’ to know why the Imam was detained. Despite these efforts, the Security Branch tortured and eventually murdered him on the 27 September 1969; they averred that the Imam had ‘fallen down the stair-case!’ Subsequent to his tragic death, the family requested for an inquest where it was admitted that he was badly injured. As a consequence, the family sued the Minister of Police who eventually paid them anex gratiapayment of R5, 000.00! Even though the Imam’s death did not have an immediate impact on the Muslim community that he represented, it was the student generation of 1976 that realised that the religious-political role the Imam played and thus used him as their symbol of liberation.