South Africa | Words of the Prophet

One mosque’s radically different take on Islam

“Shock therapy is necessary sometimes,” Taj Hargey has said of his style. Schalk van Zuydam / AP Photo
01 June, 2015

ON AN APRIL EVENING, inside a small mosque in the Cape Town suburb of Wynberg, two men knelt towards Mecca to pray. The room’s walls were a pale green, like the whole of the nondescript, single-storey building that accommodated it, nestled among workshops and homes on a back road near a railway line. There were no crescents, no minarets, only a painted sign on the front wall that said “The Open Mosque,” and “All welcome.”

With prayers ended, Taj Hargey—a portly, clean-shaven 60-year-old man in an olive-green shirt and off-white trousers—hoisted himself up, and approached a desk in a corner. On it were dozens of volumes of the Hadith—collected reports of sayings and deeds attributed to the prophet Muhammad, and, for most Muslims, a guide to doctrine and practice second only to the Quran. Hargey had spent 5,000 rand, or about $400, on the books, and had stacked them up into an impressive tower about a metre tall.

“These are the fairy tales,” he said a few minutes later, waving at the stack as he started a Quran seminar. A small audience had trickled in, including a black Congolese student, a mixed-race part-time singer, and a white university professor. Hargey said many things about Islam that evening, not all of them printable. “Who goes to mullah school?” he thundered. “The stupid son of the family. If you send a donkey, you get a donkey, not a horse.”

Hargey, the Open Mosque’s self-appointed leader, holds a doctorate from Oxford and considers himself a devout Muslim. He founded the mosque in October, after three years of preparation, aiming to vitiate several dearly-held principles of Islam as it is prevailingly practiced. In his interpretation, Hargey holds gender equality and non-sectarianism as fundamental tenets of the faith. At the Open Mosque, there is no permanent imam—anyone, including women, can lead prayers; there is a single, unisex entrance, and everyone prays side by side; and beards and headscarves are actively frowned upon. The mosque has also conducted inter-faith marriages. But Hargey’s bullish attitude has seen him fall afoul of many South African Muslims, and has divided opinion even among sympathisers, earning him the reputation of a trouble-maker and publicity hound. Not that he minds.

“His peculiar view of Islam, which is liberal, is not in itself unusual,” Mahmood Sanglay, a 50-year-old journalist with Muslim Views, a community newspaper, told me on the phone. South African Muslims are not strangers to progressive exegesis. In 1994, the American Quranic scholar Amina Wadud delivered a Friday sermon at Cape Town’s Claremont Main Road Mosque, setting off controversy throughout the Islamic world as tradition does not allow women this privilege (Wadud has also led Friday prayers, and in 2013 had a lecture at the University of Madras cancelled following threats). The Masjid al-Islam in Brixton, Johannesburg, has also had women deliver Friday sermons, as one columnist recently pointed out in the Mail and Guardian. Hargey, however, Sanglay said, “has been rubbing people the wrong way.”

By South Africa’s 2001 census—the last to gauge religious affiliation—Muslims made up 1.5 percent of the country’s population, which now totals 52 million people. Mostly descendants of transplants from the Malay Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent, South African Muslims are culturally and historically diverse, though primarily Sunni, and are concentrated in major cities. By and large, they have studiously shunned the Open Mosque. Hargey’s establishment receives as few as two worshippers on some days, and on good ones about 30.

After the mosque opened, abuse was swift to come. Hargey was dismissed as everything from a heretic to a stooge of Western intelligence agencies, and local Muslims protested outside the mosque. In the press, the place was widely labelled a “gay mosque”—a tag Hargey said his opponents pushed to “create confusion” in the community, and which he is still trying hard to shrug off. “We don’t condemn homosexuality, but we don’t condone it either,” he told me before the seminar. “The mosque is for everyone. I won’t ask you who you slept with.” Hargey also claimed that the Muslim Judicial Council, or MJC, South Africa’s most prominent Muslim body, threatened to excommunicate anybody who worshipped at the Open Mosque.

Last month, I spoke over the phone to Maulana Irshaad Sedick, a Muslim scholar who directs an Islamic educational institute and sits on the MJC’s fatwa committee. Sedick said he was not aware of any threats of excommunication, but was far from approving of the mosque. “His comments on the clergy speak for themselves,” he said of Hargey. “These are uneducated, unacademic, ad hominem attacks.” Just before the Open Mosque’s inauguration, Sedick, who disputes that the establishment is a mosque at all, wrote a paper titled “Open Temple: An attempt by Taj Hargey to attack traditional Islam in the guise of liberalism and pluralism,” which was circulated widely among the city’s clergy.

“Some of the issues he raises are there,” Fakhruddin Owaisi, the chairman of the Sunni Ulama Council, a body of theologians, conceded when I called. “But the way he has been presenting them is exaggerated and the manner is even more dramatic.” Owaisi pointed out that more journalists than worshippers attended the mosque’s opening. “Hargey only wants to follow the book”—the Quran—“but not the one who brought the book,” he continued. “That doesn’t make sense. He goes against the beliefs held by most Muslims.”

Hargey’s primary quarrel is with the Hadith, which, he told the seminar, has led Muslims off the true path of Islam and into the realm of “gossip” and perversity. “We want the real, original stuff,” he said, “not the man-made reports.” The clergy copped it repeatedly, characterised as power-hungry patriarchs, and the rest of the community—in Hargey’s telling, blind followers bereft of reasoning and introspection—didn’t come out looking good either. One middle-aged participant tried to reason with Hargey. “Don’t confront them in a manner that degrades them,” he said. The man refused to give me his name, saying he had received death threats after being identified with the mosque in the past. “You have to fight fire with water, not with fire,” he argued. But Hargey, a volcano of energy and emotion, would have none of it. “Shock therapy is necessary sometimes,” he said.

So it went on for a full three hours, punctuated by tea, biscuits and banter. At one point, Hargey passed around different translations of the Quran, which he considers Islam’s sole authority. Over the course of the evening, he got participants to read aloud and compare particular sections in the various versions. One man also read out a verse from a Bible he had brought along.

South Africa’s Muslim community, though quite self-contained, is well integrated into society, and, barring recent concerns about radicalisation at the hands of ISIS, extremism has not been a problem. Nor has persecution—the country has a history of religious tolerance, and the right to free worship is constitutionally protected. “The post-apartheid state can be criticised for many things, but not in terms of its commitment to religious freedom,” Zahraa McDonald, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Cape Town who focuses on citizenship, religion and education, told me. “You can practice any religion, in any way. The Open Mosque is testimony to that.”

Hargey, on another occasion we met, left little room to distinguish between the orthodox and the extremists. “Muslims believe what ISIS believes,” he said, referring to their attitude to women, and paused for dramatic effect. “Except without the beheading. It’s a gateway theology.”

Hargey’s stance has come at a cost. He told me he has pumped all his savings into the mosque, and has persevered in the face of verbal abuse, death threats and four arson attacks. “That won’t stop me,” he said. And neither will the clergy: “They know I’m a stubborn son of a bitch, they know I’m not a pushover.” He spoke proudly of his own history. Born to illiterate parents of Malay descent in Cape Town, Hargey was christened “Taj” after the Taj Mahal. He earned degrees in Durban and Cairo before completing his PhD, with a thesis on slavery in Sudan, at Oxford. His first experiments with a radical rebooting of Islam came in 2001, he said, when he opened the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford—“a haven for thinking Muslims,” as its website says. Hargey now lives between Oxford and Cape Town.

I first met Hargey two days before the seminar, at a free inter-faith “braai”—barbecue—the mosque organised at a sports ground, to mark the end of the South African summer and reach out to other religious communities. Besides Hargey, the event featured a rabbi, a Unitarian reverend, a Buddhist monk and a Hindu swami. Non-alcoholic ginger beer flowed freely, and mutton and chicken roasted over coals (no beef or pork, in keeping with Hindu and Muslim sensibilities). This softer approach to promoting the mosque’s beliefs seemed to work well. Vanessa Badroodien, a 52-year-old woman born to a Christian priest and married to a Muslim, who considers herself an atheist, was taken with Hargey’s project. “Too much of what we do in religion is otherness,” she told me. “What he is trying to do is great. He’s attempting to force people to put the magnifying glass on practices.” Shanaaz Samuels, a 46-year-old Muslim woman who came to the barbecue after hearing about it from her son, said she had been skeptical about the mosque at first, but was now less so.

Still, Hargey doesn’t seem cut out to be a popular reformer. Muslim leaders have, among other things, objected to Hargey implying that other mosques are sectarian and unfriendly to women. Gender activists have written, in several op-eds on the mosque, that Muslim women are hardly in need of rescue by a messianic male figure who periodically swoops in from another country to teach the locals how to fix their ways. Increasingly, Hargey’s opponents are choosing simply to ignore him rather than rise to provocations. “You can do what you want, this is a democratic society,” Sedick told me, “but don’t say this is Islam.”

Hargey brushed such criticisms off, and insisted he simply wants “to make sure Muslims become theologically self-empowered.”

During the Quran seminar, Hargey paused briefly as he and the mosque’s muezzin, a Malawian former domestic worker—but nobody else at the seminar—knelt down for the day’s last prayers. He returned to his position at the table after a few minutes, and carried on. Suddenly, as if under the force of his rhetoric, the tower of Hadith volumes collapsed. “Ah, it’s fallen down,” he said. “That’s good.”   s