Fifty years after his imprisonment, the activist example of Imam Abdullah Haron lives on [ABC RELIGION & ETHICS]

June 20, 2019

It was an anniversary that passed much of the world by. Last month marked the fiftieth anniversary of the arrest of a South African anti-apartheid activist who was reportedly killed, following months of torture, at the hands of the authorities. His name was Abdullah Haron, and he was a Muslim religious leader who left an indelible mark on South African Muslims.

Fifty years on, Haron remains something of an exemplary figure for Muslims of the West ― the symbol of the kind of activist that is making something of a comeback, particularly against the background of internecine strife within broader Muslim majority communities in the Arab world and the wider region. But Haron also occupies a contested position within the mainstream of the Sunni Muslim community ― a contestation that reared its head recently against Saudi Arabia.

Imam Abdullah Haron is known in South Africa as one of the most renowned martyrs of the anti-apartheid struggle. He died in 1969, at the age of 46. By that stage, he had already been recognised as an imam in his community for fourteen years ― appointed at the age of 32, he was one of the youngest imams of his time. He was a fairly traditional Sunni Muslim ― an adherent of what I would call ‘normative Sunnism’, which accepts the validity of the canonical schools of law, the primary theological approaches and Sufism. Haron had travelled to Mecca as a young man in order to study under the noted traditional scholar, Shaykh ‘Abdurahman al-‘Alawi al-Maliki. His studies were eventually interrupted by the Second World War and he had to depart Saudi Arabia, but the experience evidently left an indelible mark on him.

Though an imam, Haron was an activist through and thorough. He was a vocal opponent of apartheid. He engaged with the Coloured People’s Congress, the Non-European Unity Movement and the Teacher’s League, among other organisations. Thanks to the research of South African journalist Shafiq Morton, we also know he was deeply involved in inter-faith relations, women’s empowerment and the building and strengthening of civic institutions such as newspapers. He was also an internationalist figure, responsible for the distribution of millions of rand worth of assistance to political detainees through the International Defence and Aid Fund, which he arranged during his travels to Europe.

Little wonder, then, that South Africa regarded him as a significant political threat. On 28 May 1969, Haron was arrested as he prepared to attend celebrations marking the birth of the last Prophet of Islam ― Mawlid al-Nabi al-Sharif. His family never saw him again. During the 123 days that Haron was in prison, he was tortured with batons, electric shocks and needles stuck into his spine. He died of a heart attack on 27 September 1969, no doubt due to the trauma he experienced. During his funeral, the first earthquake to hit Cape Town in 160 years occurred; it was 6.3 on the Richter scale. The symbolism of this seismic event was not lost on the 30,000 people who attended his funeral procession.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the mainstream Muslim community of South Africa shared Abdullah Haron’s commitment to activism. And, in this regard, there are interesting parallels with the contemporary world. In South Africa, there were traditional Muslim authorities and figures that preferred a more quietist approach ― they too loathed the system of apartheid, but deciding that to oppose it might bring about more harm than good as a result of the instability that might take place. There were others that made apologies for it. Perhaps Haron might have been sympathetic to the first group, even if they weren’t activists such as he, but certainly not the latter.

That same kind of tripartite division among traditional, mainstream Muslim figures exists in Western Muslim communities today. Within Muslim majority communities, there have always been ‘activist’ types ― one can think of historical figures such as Omar al-Mukhtar and the Sanusis of Libya, for example. In more recent times, many of the traditional religious scholars of Syria, who supported the Syrian revolutionary uprising, or the likes of Shaykh Emad Effat of Egypt, who was killed in late 2011 during a protest against the military authorities. There have also been quietists, who prefer to avoid making political statements, concerned that involvement in that regard might bring about more, not less, strife. And then there are others who have been active supporters of oppressive regimes ― again, using the argument from stability, but actively backing autocrats and dictators as a consequence.

But in the West, at least, there has been less focus on activism among traditional, mainstream Sunni Muslim scholars. When political activism has taken place, it has more often than not been the domain of Muslims who are distant from that traditional setup ― sympathetic to different types of Salafism or trending towards the Muslim Brotherhood. When it comes to mainstream authorities in the West, it is rare to see that same kind of political stance in support of social and political justice issues being actively pursued. Silence is more the norm.

That may be changing, however. Around the time of the fiftieth anniversary of Imam Haron’s arrest, a completely unrelated letter was issued seeking clemency for several Muslim preachers who are currently in detention in Saudi Arabia. The letter was drafted, hosted and supported by very traditional mainstream scholars, particularly Shaykh Faraz Rabbani of Canada and Shaykh Salman Younas of the United States. It’s an interesting development, and one that is new in the contemporary context. First, it was conceived and continues to be dominated by traditional scholars, rather than Brotherhood or certain sorts of Salafi types, who might have been expected to voice their thoughts loudly on political matters. Second, the letter wasn’t issued about a traditional mainstream scholar, like a Sufi shaykh or someone of that ilk. It was issued in support of several more moderate leaning Salafi preachers ― that is, not the same ‘camp’ as Rabbani and Younas.

For Younas, the reasoning was quite simple. As he told me, it was about “transcending the activist-scholar frame and recognising that being a scholar in Islam means being a leader and exemplar for the wider community who has a religious duty to be a voice of moral clarity to people.” His training in mainstream, traditional Islamic teachings had taught him that, “especially in contexts of oppression and suffering, it requires some of us to speak out firmly and courageously with wisdom, and lend whatever little support we can to the oppressed and their families.” Maybe not everyone with that training had to do it, but some do ― and those that do not are still obliged not to side with oppression.

Younas’s letter echoes the example of another scholar in the contemporary age ― the Egyptian revolutionary shaykh, Emad Effat. As I have written elsewhere:

There was a sense of Shaykh Emad Effat bringing together what I would call the ‘Hasani’ and the ‘Husayni’ approaches to power. The former being an engagement with it, to minimize damage and lessen conflict. The latter being an opposition to it, through open declarations. For Shaykh Emad, they were intertwined ― by consistency, by persistent adherence to principle, by a refusal to bow to authoritarianism of any type.

How significant is this letter? It remains unclear. The letter is gaining a good deal of attention, and scores of rather important traditional scholars in the Sunni Muslim mainstream of the West are signing up to it, with efforts to get signatories led by Rabbani and Younas. But it is also non-sectarian, with a noted Shi’i Canadian scholar, preachers and scholars who are more Salafi- and Brotherhood-inclined, even though the list seems to be predominantly Sunni traditionalists in nature.

Such a letter would not be the most ground-breaking within Muslim majority communities― but in the context of the West, it certainly is a marked shift. Perhaps Imam Haron’s message lives on in different ways in different parts of the world after all.

Dr H.A. Hellyer is senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Counciland the Royal United Services Institute, and a visiting professor at the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation in Kuala Lumpur. He is currently on the steering committee for a multi-year EU-funded project on ‘Radicalisation, Secularism and the Governance of Religion’,  which brings together European, North African and Asian perspectives with a consortium of 12 universities and think-tanks.

Source: ABC Religion & Ethics

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