The Progressive Imam

Claremont Main Road Mosque is tucked between auto dealerships, bargain electronics emporiums, and fast-food joints in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. The street is gritty, four lanes wide, awash with engine noise from the minivans that provide public transportation between Cape Town and the townships around it. The mosque, 150 years old, predates all this. My cab driver drove past it twice. I found it by the Islamic green of its high, peaked roof.

Being out of place is the mosque's pride. During apartheid, the government designated the Claremont area as whites-only. Cape Muslims, mostly descendants of slaves brought by the Dutch from Southeast Asia, were officially "colored" and were expelled to townships. In quiet protest, they continued coming to their mosque. By the 1980s, it was a center for young anti-apartheid activists and for a bubbling mix of Islam and questioning, progressive politics. That blend still sets it apart from most of local Islam, and much more so from the stereotype of Islam in the Western media.

I'd come to South Africa at the invitation of Limmud, a festival of Jewish learning sufficiently pluralistic that it is boycotted by the country's stodgy Orthodox rabbis. I was invited to speak about Mideast politics but also, it seemed, to provide the novelty of a left-wing Orthodox Israeli. When I heard of a progressive mosque in Cape Town, I instinctively arranged to visit.

The presence of such a community does not prove that Islam is "really" progressive or peaceful. Rather, it's a reminder that a religion is not "really" any one thing. A religion is a set of potentials. The question on my mind is what factors bring the potential for fury to the surface -- or the potential for compassionate social justice.

It was Friday noontime when I came. Worshippers on their lunch break were arriving for the week's main communal prayers. Muslims are perhaps 10 percent of Cape Town's population, 1.5 percent of South Africa's. To be Muslim here is a minority experience.

Inside, the carpeted prayer hall was divided, from the front to the back by a cord hanging from low posts. One side of the hall is for men, one side for women. This is a revolutionary arrangement, a statement of Imam A. Rashied Omar's commitment to what he calls "the gender jihad." Some mosques lack any place for women; others allocate space in back or in an upstairs gallery. Here they are side-by-side.

Critics, Omar told me after the prayer, tell him, "You are going to encourage promiscuity." His reply is, "Who comes to the mosque with that intent? Are you saying the majority is so infantile?"

Still, he stresses that he is "maneuvering" within the bounds of Islamic law, to which he is committed. During prayers, the first three rows of worshippers across the full breadth of the hall are men. So, "if they say that the women must be behind men, I say, 'They're behind men.' You have to come from within tradition." In 1994, the mosque stirred huge controversy among Cape Town Muslims by inviting American feminist scholar Amine Wadud-Muhsin to speak to the congregation on a Friday. But her talk was carefully defined as a "pre-sermon lecture." Giving the sermon, the khutba, is a sacral function. "Very few" Islamic scholars would allow a woman to perform it, Omar says.

As we sat on the mosque carpet, his description of his "strategic maneuvering" made me feel curiously at home, reminding me of the tactics used by feminists within Orthodox Judaism. A religion that stresses community and legal tradition, but has decentralized authority, changes by small increments. The pace can be frustrating, but someone who steps too far, too quickly is regarded as having left the community and loses influence.

Omar, 49, is an extraordinarily slim man with a small goatee and frameless glasses. His mother, he recounts, wanted him to attend a madrasseh, an Islamic institution, for high school. His father insisted on a secular school. He attended both each day. By 12th grade, he was jailed as a student activist against apartheid. Since then, he says, "My struggle has been how to build a bridge between my faith commitment and my participation in protest against racism and apartheid, which I believed is evil." This biography hints at two factors that can shape a religious progressive: learning to value a complex education and having the opportunity to apply religious commitment to human equality, not just one's own liberation.

In 1985, he went to Sudan "to see how Muslims in the mainland were struggling with religion and politics." He was, he says intensely, "extremely disappointed" by the stream of political Islam that had turned an Islamic state into a "sixth pillar" of the religion, alongside belief, prayer, giving to the poor, fasting, and performing the hajj to Mecca. He rejected the "idolatry of the state." As an imam in Cape Town, before and after the transition to democracy, he has insisted instead "on being part of civil society," separate from the state, and on "speaking truth to power and not being part of any political party." For that reason he's critical of the mainstream South African clerical group, the Muslim Judicial Council. "During apartheid they didn't speak out," he says. "Now they are too close to the new government."

One expression of his activism is addressing the HIV-AIDS pandemic overwhelming South Africa. "We were among the first … to invite someone HIV positive to Friday services, to speak, to get rid of stigma, to say that our first response should not be one of judgment but rather of compassion," he says. "We tried to challenge theology of those who said is punishment, a curse of God for those who may not living chaste lives." From that work sprung an activist group, Positive Muslims, that provides counseling and runs education programs.

In the late 1990s, Omar publicly criticized the violence of People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD), a vigilante group that arose in the townships and, he says, had "a radical Islamic agenda." Omar and other critics face death threats; at one stage he had to have a police escort, especially when making public appearances.

Already interested in continuing his education, Omar temporarily left South Africa to earn a master's in peace studies at the University of Notre Dame and then stayed to write his doctoral dissertation. When the U.S. government denied a visa to European Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan to teach at that university, Omar took over his course load. Now based back in Cape Town, he still spends each spring semester at Notre Dame.

PAGAD, according to an anthropologist who studied the group, sprang from a vigilante tradition that developed in the townships during apartheid. Omar agrees, saying, "You have to situate it in the South African context."

And so, too, its antithesis, Claremont Main Road Mosque, has a social context. The congregants are "very middle class," Omar says. Many are educated professionals. And in his view, the Cape Muslim community, rooted in Indonesia, influenced by Africa, has traditionally had "a much softer version of Islam," with more acceptance of women taking a role in religious life than, say, in Indian Islam. To that he adds the experience of being a minority, and the influence of the South African liberation movement, which has also raised gender issues.

Writing this, I don't mean to slip into crude determinism. Social context creates possibilities, only that. But surely a successful engagement with Western culture can shed a different light on Islam -- or any religion -- feeling politically or culturally assaulted by the West. Seeking a change justified by universal values -- rather than by injured national identity -- can encourage you to seek universalism in your own tradition.

And perhaps distance from the overheated Islamic center helps. Reform in Islam, Omar suggests, "will not come from the center, from the Arab world, but from the periphery, from South Africa, Europe, the United States," or even Southeast Asia. "Currently we are not the mainstream," he says, but then religious change begins with a critical outsider. He takes the founder of his faith as an example.

On the street outside, a taxi was waiting to take me to give a lecture on Judaism and humanism. At the mosque, a continent's length from my home in Jerusalem, I too was an observer of someone else's prayers and someone else's struggle. Nonetheless, they were close to home.

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