The Islamic community of South Africa has grown significantly since the arrival of the first Muslims to the Cape Colony in 1658. The first Muslims came from Amboina in the eastern Indonesian islands of Maluku, and came to the Cape as military reinforcement against the San and the Khoi at Jan van Riebeeck’s request. Islamic practices were forbidden in public for centuries, but have had a significance in the political shaping of South Africa, particularly the Cape area. The mosque has always played a pivotal role in the life of Muslim societies since the building of the first mosque in Madinah by Prophet Muhammad. This mosque was not only a place of worship and prayer, but also served to grow the educational, political, judicial, recreational and economic aspects of Muslim community life. Likewise, the Claremont Main Road Mosque has been instrumental in the growth of the Muslim community of Cape Town.
Claremont has a rich socio-political history and a full representation of the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Each of these religions have had a strong presence in the community with the building of synagogues, churches, and mosques within the community. The Claremont Main Road Mosque was established in 1854 and served as the meeting place for many Muslim families in the Claremont area to express their unique cultural expressions of Islam, along with the universal basic practices of Islam. The Cape Muslim community has cultural practices that are unique to them while still honoring the fundamental principles of Islam. For example, the birthday of Prophet Muhammad is commemorated during the third lunar month of the Islamic calendar, and Muslims in Cape Town celebrate this historic moment differently. During the celebration and commemoration of the Prophet’s departure from Makkah to Jerusalem and his subsequent ascension to the highest lote tree to have the highest honor bestowed upon him by God, the Cape Muslims gather in mosques to listen to a dars (lectures) about the life of the Prophet.
The Claremont Main Road Mosque was built in 1851 by a mason and coachman named Slamdien, who purchased the property the mosque is built on because it was at a prime location with a natural water source which is said to have been ideal for cleansing rituals that preceded daily prayers. The mosque was formally established on 03 November 1854, when Slamdien signed over the property to Imam Abdol Roef of the Buitengratch Street Mosque in Cape Town. Slamdien declared the property and mosque to God for the everlasting benefit of the community. By appointing Imam Abdol Roef as trustee of the mosque, Slamdien ensured that the Claremont Main Road Mosque would exist for as long as the Buitengratch Street mosque existed. Soon after, many Muslim families settled in the proximity of the mosque and the Claremont Main Road Mosque became pivotal to the religious, social, and cultural life of the community.
Group Areas Act and Muslims in Claremont
The Group Areas Act No.66 of 1966 solidified and legalized the dispossession and relocation of non-white residents in Claremont that began in the 1950s, designating the area a whites-only residential area. This resulted in the displacement of about 500 families consisting of 2900 black and coloured individuals. Unlike many other coloured areas, Claremont was an established, developed settlement with infrastructure and deep social ties. The implementation of the group areas severed many solid relationships and destroyed a community, uprooting the lives of thousands and forcing them to start over elsewhere with less resources. The Muslim community did not succeed in protesting the forced removals, but fought to retain the right to continue worshipping in the mosques in the areas affected by the Act. The Muslim Judicial Council, established in 1945, organized a national protest that fought and succeeded in protecting mosques in white areas from expropriation and destruction.
The Claremont Main Road Mosque and all its decisions, and daily runnings had been administered by the Abderoef family for over a 100 years before the congregation democratically elected an Imam (the person who leads the congregational prayers and is the head of a mosque) for the first time in 1979. The first Imam of the Mosque was Imam Abdol Roef, who served as Imam until his death in February 1863. The next recorded Imam was Imam Abdol Roef’s second eldest son Abdullah Abderoef, although he did not succeed his father immediately, as he would have only been thirteen years old at Imam Abdol Roef’s passing. Imam Abdullah’s tenure benefitted the Cape Muslim community greatly by making Islamic literature more widely accessible through the translation and publication of Arabic and Roman literature into Afrikaans. In addition, Imam Abdullah oversaw the building of a residence on the Mosque property to serve as the official home of the incumbent Imam. After his death in 1922, Imam Abdullah was succeeded by his eldest son Imam Abu Bakr Abderoef, who served as Imam for ten years and continued his father's tradition of writing and translating Islamic literary works in Arabic-Afrikaans. Imam Abu Bakr Abderoef died in 1932 and was succeeded by his son Imam Muhammad Amin Abderoef.
Imam Muhammad Amin Abderoef was only Imam for four year, serving from 1932 until 1936 when he died. He was succeeded by his brother Imam Rouf Abdullah (also Abderoef), who would also be the last Abderoef to serve as Imam of the Claremont Main Road Mosque. Imam Abderoef dedicated much of his life to the Muslim community of Claremont where he resided at the official Imam residence on the Mosque property. However, he was not open to any challenges to his leadership style, which had become stern, domineering and recognized him as the only true authority over the mosque and congregation. Imam Abderoef had occasionally appointed Shaykh Ismail Moos to deliver Sunday morning lectures at the Mosque because the Imam had difficulty communicating in public. Following the death of Imam Abderoef in 1964, his nephew Shaykh Abdullah Abderoef essentially appointed himself Imam as succession had always followed a hereditary line within the Abderoef family. Dissatisfied with this system of succession, some members of the congregation called for a meeting to appoint a formal committee to oversee the keepings of the Mosque.
Imam Gassan Solomon was elected as the Claremont Main Road Mosque’s first democratically elected Imam in 1979, and the whole board was re-elected as well. Imam Gassan’s first profound action was beginning to give the Friday sermon in English. Imam Gassan also focused his sermons and lectures on contemporary politics of South Africa in the 1980s and engaged the congregation on the state of affairs in the townships of the Cape Town area. Under Imam Gassan, there was a strong focus on youth engagement in the Mosque. The Mosque became at the center of political resistance to racial oppression and the apartheid regime.
Imam Gassan's convictions on the role of Muslims in the justice and anti-apartheid struggles spread to the Muslim community across the country and was instrumental in mobilizing many Muslim activists. Imam Gassan along with other patrons were arrested for defying a ban to enter the township of Gugulethu in their capacity as leaders of the United Democratic Front (UDF), and became a target for police surveillance after being bailed out. To evade assassination and detention, Imam Gassan embarked on an umrah (a lesser pilgrimage) in Saudi Arabia in 1985.
The 1980s were a turbulent period for the Claremont Main Road Mosque because of the increased participation of Muslims in anti-apartheid activism. With Imam Gassan was in exile, Abdul Rashied Omar stepped in as Imam and continued giving political and critical matters in the community priority in his Friday sermons. He introduced discussion forums to encourage debates with the issues. Imam Rashied also facilitated political education and election-related discussions in 1994 just before the first democratic elections in South Africa. Imam Rashied and his family left for the United States, where he pursued postgraduate studies. Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar is the current co-ordinating Imam of the Claremont Main Road Mosque, assisted by Imam Shaheed Gamieldien.
Long court cases to free the Claremont Main Road Mosque from the grips of the Abderoef hegemony drew divisions within the congregation and the community. The court cases and appeals brought about great uncertainty in the future of the Mosque, with the last two Abderoef brothers going against the community to keep control over the Mosque and the property. This conflict spanned over 10 years in the mid 1960s to late 1970s. The first-ever democratic election of an Imam brought these conflicts to rest in 1979, after the Abderoef brothers lost the final court case, being forced to relinquish their rights to the Mosque property.
In 1984 the roof of the Claremont Main Road Mosque was blown off by the worst storm to hit the Cape in 50 years. There was great damage to the interior of the Mosque as well, and these required resources to fix. Renovations to the Mosque began in 1992, but Shaykh Cassiem Abderoef served the board with a court interdict to stop renovations because in allowing for the demolition of the old dwelling for a new building, Shaykh Cassiem argued that Imam Rashied was in violation of Islamic law. Eight months later, Shaykh Cassiem withdrew his application for the interdict and renovations were completed.
On 12 August 1994 Muslim feminist scholar Dr. Amina Wadud delivered the pre-sermon talk before the Friday Khutbah- a sermon that has always been given by men- at the Claremont Main Road Mosque. Media coverage of this historical event made it a controversial act that bolted the gender jihad to the forefront for many Muslims across the world, despite the inaccuracy in reports that Dr. Wadud gave the actual sermon. The response was a group of Muslims protesting at the Claremont Main Road Mosque before the Friday congregational prayers, and this led to a series of acts of intolerance at the Mosque, ultimately resulting in Imam Rashied receiving death threats.
Gamieldien, Fahmi. 2004. The History of the Claremont Main Road Mosque, Its People and Their Contribution to Islam in South Africa. Claremont Main Road Mosque.