Soweto’s oldest mosque: A place of solace and suspicion

The mosque on 58 Beacon Road in Kliptown claims to be Soweto’s oldest mosque. 

It is midday on a Friday and the maulana (Muslim religious scholar) issues a wailing call to prayer from Kliptown Masjid. Devoted Muslim brothers come from all around Soweto – Kliptown, Eldorado Park, Dlamini, Pimville, Phiri – to give praise to Allah in this house of worship that lays claim to being the oldest mosque in Soweto.

A WEALTH OF WISDOM: Rashid James the longest serving congregant at the mosque.

Located on number 58 Beacon Road Kliptown, the mosque has been in this very spot since 1940.

“However, even with such a long history in the area, the Muslim religion still faces serious hostility from community members,” says Rashad James a frail looking 60-year-old man who has been attending mosque in this building since 1963.

This may not come as much of a surprise since Soweto, like most of South Africa, is predominantly Christian. However, Kliptown in particular is inhabited by mostly migrants who themselves have relocated from other provinces.

Yet “they still see Islamic people who have been worshiping at this mosque longer than some of them have been in the area as foreigners, taking no regarding of how the mosque has been and continues to be a place of solace for many migrants in the community” this according to some congregants at the mosque.

Allah-hu-Akbar (Allah is great)”, repeats the maulana five times. At the sound of the first call James stops mid-sentence and rushes back into the mosque from a bench he had been sitting on that leans against the front of the mosque.

There are two entrances to this weathered house of worship, both positioned symmetrically in front of the building.

The 1.90 meter tall, lean built James with a bushy grey beard dashes for the entrance closest to where he had been sitting – his shoes are already off and left side by side at the entrance of the mosque.

Here, dozens more shoes are lined up awaiting their owners who have gone into the mosque to worship. His right foot goes in first, then his left. He had earlier explained that this is a sign of respect for “Allah’s house” in reference to the mosque.

Aesthetically the mosque epitomises the old-fashioned architecture of early Kliptown. One could mistake it for any one of the original houses built in the Kliptown area in 1903 subsequent to the township having been laid out in 1891.

The area is located on a portion of the Klipspruit farm, named after the klipspruit (rocky stream) that runs through it. Actually, “The mosque operates from the same building structure which was a house owned by a Jewish family built in 1903. It was given to Muslim worshippers in 1940 by the owner when he left the Kliptown area,” James had earlier explained.

There are two features that set it apart from the other original houses that haven’t been refurbished since their construction.

These features are the mosque’s green minaret (dome) which has a crescent moon and star on top as well as a distinctive three meter tall pole with two microphones attached to it situated in front of this house of worship.

Passers-by cast curious glances at the mosque as those coming to perform sallah (offer prayers to Allah) continue to pour in. They are either fascinated by the maulana’s loud call to worship resonating from the loudspeakers or the distinctive regalia donned by these faithful.

Taqiyah (rounded skullcap) and thobe (an ankle-length garment, usually with long sleeves, similar to a robe) are what most of these Muslim men are dressed in.

Another possibility is that the passers-by are captivated by the unfamiliar greetings of “As-salamu alaikum wa-rahmatullahi wa-barakatuh” (May the peace, mercy, and blessings of Allah be with you)”, met by the response “wa-alaikum-salaam wa-rahmatullahi wa-barakatuh” (and upon you be peace, mercy and blessings of Allah).

Their shoes tell a story

As the mosque fills up with devotees coming to worship, what they leave behind gives an account of who attends Friday prayers.

They all follow the Muslim practise of leaving their shoes outside the mosque as a sign of respect for the “…holy house.

Even in the Christian bible, when Moses came across the burning bush, the command he got was for him to remove his sandals as a sign of respect,” explained James.

The majority of footwear left behind is made up of formal shoes and sandals – clearly belonging to the older men who are no longer chasing after trends.

In the midst of this not so stylish apparel, there are jaw dropping kicks that range from labels such as Puma, Nike, Adidas, and Jordans clearly belonging to the more youthful Muslim boys.

Some of the shoes are dusty, the owners have most probably walked from far to come and give prayers.

There are no feminine shoes left outside so one can tell that Friday prayers are mostly attended by men.

“A typical mosque has a section for males and one for females but because we are still using the same building structure build so many years ago, our particular mosque does not have these separate sections hence women worship from home,” said James.

Formal shoes and sandals: A wealth of history

The shoes confirm what James had told me earlier, “The majority of worshipers are older Muslim men some of whom bring their sons along.”

“The Muslim religion in Kliptown is almost as old as the township itself since people from Cape Malayan decent most of whom are Muslim settled in the area as far back as the township itself was started,” said a reminiscent James.

Explaining how he had come to be a regular at this mosque James said, “I am of Cape Malayan decent. My great grandfather was from Indonesia and later brought to Cape Town as a slave to come and work in the vineyards. He maintained his Muslim religion regardless of his Dutch master’s attempts at converting him to Christianity.”

“My father then later moved to Johannesburg in search for work and still maintained the Muslim religion taught to him by his father,” added James.

James’ account challenges most historic accounts on Soweto. Scholars such as Ebrahim Fakude in his academic paper Muslims in the Townships of South Africa claims that “Islam in the townships emerged in the late 1970s and Muslim pioneers in the townships came from Malawi and Mozambique.”

These misconceptions that Islam in the townships emerged in the 1970s may be drawn from the fact that the Soweto Muslim Association was only established in 1978. This association was founded by Sayed Ali Zhange, Adam Ali Koko, Walid Ndebele, Muhammed Ali Mvelani, Faizel Morris, Babu Magudielo, Babu Chauke and Haroon Mbombi.

Another reason why people believe that the Muslim religion emerged in the 1970s as Fakude explains is the idea that since the riots in 1976 many Sowetans started moving from South Africa to the neighbouring African countries, where most of them converted to Islam and brought this religion back with them to the townships.”

The caretaker of the mosque, an enthusiastic Issa Hashim, however, agrees with Fakude. “From the fifties to the seventies there was an influx of foreign nationals especially from Malawi, Angola and Mozambique coming to worship with us at the mosque,” he said.

As the processions in the mosque comes to an end, the congregants start pouring out and each stops at the spot where they left their shoes and puts them on. The old James is one of the first to appear, he standout in his all white taqiyah and thobe and distinctive white woollen glove on his left hand. He joins me back on the bench leaning against the front of the mosque.

Directly in front of the bench are a pair of dusty formal shoes, the owner has a wide smile ready as he approaches, “As-salamu alaikum,” he says to James. “Wa-alaikum-salaam,” James responds. He casts a glance at me and I utter the foreign greeting at him “As-salamu alaikum”, and he responds with an unfamiliar “Wa-alaik.” James is quick to explain, “wa-alaik is the fitting response to a non-Muslim, don’t be surprised.”

Dusty shoes as embodying migration

As he turns his attention towards putting his dusty shoes on, he introduces himself in a very strong foreign accent, “My name is Ibrahim.”

He then goes on to explain how he is an asylum seeker from Uganda who was forced to leave his country of birth due to political persecution in 2002. “I started coming to this mosque in 2005. I was accepted with open arms by fellow Muslims who worship at the mosque but it’s not always the case with the larger Kliptown community,” says Ibrahim who avoids eye contact like it’s a plague.

Like most townships, Kliptown has had its fair share of xenophobic violence. Ibrahim attests to this, although no physical harm has befallen him, the emotional strain of seeing other brothers being victimised and their shops physically broken into or even torched takes its toll on him. “The mosque has been a place of solace, were I can come to offer prayers and have peace even while I go through life’s numerous storms,” says Ibrahim.

A somber James adds, “Our religion is still seen as an Asian religion, particularly an Indian religion by most community members hence the reason why we are seen as foreigners in our own land. This is baffling especially within a place like Kliptown. Kliptown is made up of people that are all not from here, most residents migrate from other provinces in search of opportunities in Johannesburg, one would expect such a diverse collection of people to then be more understanding of other people’s plight.”

Earlier, a talkative Elsie Peters, who is a resident living two houses from the mosque on 60 Beacon Road expressed her views on the religion when she said, “This religion is really not a South African thing, our people [South Africans] only join Muslim churches for money. They see these Indian people who are the original Muslims give back so much to the community then they join the church so that they are in close proximity to being aided by them.”

IN COMMEMORATION: A plaque in recognition of the mosque’s long existence.

Last year, at a function hosted by the Soweto Muslim Shura Council (SMSC) at the Protea South Hall to honour luminaries that have contributed to the growth of Islam in the Soweto Community, founding members of the Soweto Muslim Association Sayed Ali Zhange and Walid Ndebele both black Muslims who converted in the 1970s to Islam confessed to also being of the notion that Islam was an “India religion” before they saw “the light”. Fakude explains how a majority of black South African from the fifties to the seventies converted to Islam as a way of going against the “Christian rooted apartheid government.”

Ibrahim explained that, “Stereotypes that Islam is an Indian religion or that it is only foreign nationals that practice it is due to lack of knowledge.” In order to educate the community, the mosque holds madrassa [the teaching of Muslim tradition] usually targeted at young children in the community who wish to learn more about the religion said Hashim.

“As congregants, there has been a plan to demolish this old building in order to rebuild a mosque that will be able to accommodate the growing numbers of people that attend.

However, since this building is the oldest mosque in Soweto, it has been designated as a historic site making the rebuilding almost impossible,” explained Hashim who has now managed to wiggle some space on the bench next to James.

From his sit next to James, the caretaker explains that the real problem is the fact that some residents have occupied land that belongs to the church, “The shacks that you see at the back of the mosque are on land that belongs to the mosque hence they are hindering the demolition and expanding plan that we have.”

According to the city council the expansion may only take place when the shack dwellers have been relocated to RDPs.

A shack dweller directly behind the mosque David Mathebula who moved to Kliptown in 2013 said, “Black people are the rightful owners of this land and yet we have to stay in such horrible conditions while these foreigners [referring to Muslims from the Kliptown mosque] possess all this space as well as own all the shops in the Kliptown area.”

“Besides, if they [Muslim worshippers] are allowed to build a bigger mosque, it will attract more foreigners to our community as most Muslims are not form South Africa,” added Mathebula.

However, all three Muslim men agree that the problem is not their religion, “The issue is the scapegoating of the mosque and those that worship in it as an attempt at finding solutions for this community that has been so neglected by government.

If the government fulfils its duty of providing housing and sanitation to the community, then the mosque would have its land back and would be able to rebuild and continue teaching Muslim tradition to young community members and assisting foreign nationals affected by xenophobia,” said James.

The maulana is the last to exit the house of worship, as he walks but the three men also stand and finish putting on their shoes, “Wadaeaan (goodbye),” they say and head their separate ways.

FEATURED IMAGE: Soweto’s oldest mosque. Photo: Junior Khumalo.


Mayfair women break the Muslim mould

*This article has been amended to protect the identity of some individuals (17.02.2016).

The women of the Garda family are far from “mainstream Muslim” women. This family of three daughters and seven granddaughters run their own businesses and rarely wear the hijab. Although unconventional, as modern women they fit into their conservative communities by blending their Islamic beliefs and Western influences.

The day Sumayya Mohamed finished high school at the Johannesburg Muslim School in Fordsburg, she packed away her abaya and hijab. They are now taken out once a year when her family goes on hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. On any other day, you will find her in her everyday go-to outfit – skinny jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers.

THE BLENDER: Sumayya Mohamed is a young Muslim girl from Mayfair who enjoys skating and contemporary music. Her family says she is the ‘blender’ with her Western sense of style. Photo: Riante Naidoo.

Her “unorthodox” clothing and short pixie haircut make people in the Muslim community look twice. The stir usually stems from the absence of a hijab neatly wrapped around her head.

“The way I dress is how I find comfort in who I am,” says 22-year-old Sumayya. “I defy every expectation that they throw at me.” She also does not wear a hijab or an abaya because she “does not think there is only one way to express Islam and the world is preoccupied with that”.

Sumayya’s aunt Tasneem Garda, 42, also does not wear a hijab. “I love my fashion and wearing the hijab is a very personal thing and right now it is just not me,” she says. “I wore it for a period of six months once, after I returned from hajj, but then I thought, ‘Who am I kidding?’”

Sumayya is known as “the blender” in her family. “My family say I can go anywhere in the world and look like I’m from there,” she says.

As the oldest granddaughter, neighbours in her suburb of Mayfair expect Sumayya to dress and behave “conservatively”, but she has her own ideas on what it means to be “a 21st-century Muslim girl”.

Modern lifestyles 

Sumayya, a master’s student at Wits University, is currently doing her research on Indian women in Fordsburg’s public spaces. “I am interested to know how women situate themselves in a city and get around,” she says. “I want to study that to study myself.”

Safiyyah Surtee, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Johannesburg, says it is more common for most 21st-century women to have access to university and it is “a really big step away from one generation before theirs, like their mothers”.

“Young Muslim women are now leading modern lifestyles and have careers and access to tertiary education,” Surtee says. She notes that with the progression of time “families evolve and younger generations are very liberal and lead the lifestyles they choose”.

BUSINESSWOMAN: Munira Garda unpacks patterned curtains in the family business Just Curtains she has worked in since she finished high schoolHer daughter Sumayya says her mother has always been supportive of their academic decisions. Photo: Riante Naidoo.

Sumayya’s mother, Munira Garda, 49, did not go to university due to a combination of health issues and financial constraints. After she matriculated, she worked at the family business at the Oriental Plaza in Fordsburg.

“She has always supported our decisions and interests because she was never exposed to the degree options we have,” Sumayya says. “My mother has allowed my sister and I to study whatever we wanted and sort of lives through us.”

With every generation, family life and traditions have changed and those changes are always different.

THE GARDAS: Yusuf Garda (left) and his wife Tahera (right) are parents to three daughters and seven granddaughters. Yusuf says that on Friday nights when the entire family gather for dinner, his voice is often drowned out by the cheerful conversations of his wife, daughters and granddaughters. Photo: Riante Naidoo.

Sumayya’s great-grandparents came to South Africa in 1940. Her maternal grandfather Yusuf Garda, 75, married his cousin Tahera, 69, which was common practice at that time. Together, they raised their three daughters, Munira, Zaheda and Tasneem, in Pageview, known as Fietas by those from the area. Yusuf’s youngest daughter, Tasneem, now a mother of three daughters herself, says life then was “very different”.

“I remember playing in the streets with the children next door,” she says, recalling a sense of community she believes her daughters are not exposed to.

Remembering Fietas

Salma Patel, a Fietas resident of 57 years, watched Tasneem and her siblings as children. She used to live across from the Garda family on 14th Street and says Fietas community life was “unbelievable” in the 1960s.

“There was a social glue,” she says as she walks through what is now the Fietas Museum. Patel turned two double-storey houses on 14th Street into the museum, to preserve the memories of those who were instrumental in the financial, cultural and educational development of the Fietas community.

FIETAS MUSEUM: Originally created out of two double-storey houses, the Fietas Museum now stands on 14th Street in Pageview. The museum showcases an array of photographs of families, business owners and the colourful stores that made up the ’14th Street Bazaar’ which was described as ‘a bustling centre of trade’ in the 1960s. Photo: Riante Naidoo.

At the entrance to the museum, a sign reads: “Towards the 1940s, the population had become predominantly ‘Indian’ and merchants turned 14th Street into a famous shopping mecca.” This all changed in 1950 when it was declared a whites-only suburb under the Group Areas legislation and all non-white families were forcibly removed by the apartheid government.

“The streets were filled with children after school,” Patel says, but when they were not in school or out playing, their mothers were expected to take care of them, while their fathers ran the family business.

Women were the main support structure in the community and whether neighbours were family or not, Patel says there was “no hesitation to care for or feed each other’s children”.

Surtee, whose grandparents had a clothing business in what is now part of the Fietas Museum, says “there was hardship in raising children, but there was the broader family and greater community to help raise them”.

“Cooking was a very big part of their existence,” Surtee adds, as “women were in the domestic sphere and had to be the ideal wife and daughter-in-law.”

The “mentality was selfish as they [the older people in the community] expected their daughters-in-law to look after them because self-interest was a big motive,” Yusuf says.

‘Boy meets girls, girl meets boy’

Yusuf was 25 and Tahera 19 when they married. He says families “had to keep the wealth and secrets in the family”. The tradition of marriage began changing when his daughters decided to marry as the Gardas’ three daughters “all married outside the family”. Yusuf says that there was no parental pressure from him or his wife to marry within.

Tasneem explains that her father was the youngest of eight brothers. “We had male cousins that were much older so marrying one of them was not really possible,” she says.

Although Islam prohibits the concept of “courting”, as Yusuf puts it, “boy meets girls, girl meets boy and you can’t do much about the rest.” When Tasneem met Mohamed Fiaz Rajah in school, Yusuf says he “scrutinised his [Mohamed’s] family background and it was decent”.

Tasneem and Mohamed began dating when they studied pharmacy at Wits and, at the age of 23, they married with 700 guests at their wedding. Tasneem says their marriage was their choice but they had no say as to how many guests were invited. “It was what your parents wanted,” she says, “The entire community gets invited.”

Even though traditions have changed with time, older traditions sometimes filter down, like the expectation of marriage in many Indian families.

Sumayya also feels that her mother and grandmother secretly hope she will marry her best friend, Faheem. “But we’re just friends,” she always tells them and, as expected, “they just grin back at me as if they don’t believe me.”

Some of her friends chose to get married after matric, but Sumayya says she never felt pressured to get married. “Those antiquated traditions don’t come into my everyday life,” she says. There are times when her grandmother jokes around, “but sometimes I don’t think she’s joking when she asks when am I going to find a boy?”

Sumayya explains that when a girl decides to marry, part of that decision is to “take the worry off her parents. Indian parents worry about your future as a girl – are you gonna have a good boy?” She says “it’s a thing that stems from tradition”.

Yusuf says a woman was “seen as an asset to the family” that she married into. His own mother, he says,“gained eight daughters-in-law” and they all had a “keen sense to help”. He says domestic skills were extremely important to have.

A PASSIONATE CURATOR: Salma Patel is the Fietas Museum curator. As a Fietas resident for 57 years, her passion to preserve the history of her family and those who contributed to the community’s life and spirit is seen in her detailed account of artefacts and photographs that are displayed in the museum. Photo: Riante Naidoo.

Patel views things differently. She “saw women as unpaid labour”. In the 1960s, “they cooked upstairs and when things got hectic, they would come down and assist in the shop.” This was the convention of the time and women accepted it as the community was “very patriarchal”.

Tasneem says, “I will encourage my kids to be domesticated, more so than I was because I didn’t know how to cook when I got married and I was embarrassed.”

She says her mother prefers to cook alone and, also, did not have the patience to teach her. “My mother would tell me to go study instead because I think she preferred not to have someone in her way.”

Tasneem moved in with her in-laws after she married. “I learnt to cook from my mother-in-law and she is just as patient with my girls in the kitchen,” Tasneem says.

Sumayya is also expected to know how to cook, but admits that “it doesn’t always work out. My nani [grandmother] always kicks me out the kitchen at the most crucial point because I ask too many questions.”

Tahera says “it’s not always easy” to teach her daughters and granddaughters to cook as the recipes are all in her head. “I can’t tell them quantities or measurements, and that’s what they need to cook today,” she says. “I cook from judging.”

Tahera and the family also do not judge their daughters as Sumayya does not feel pressured to fit the image of a “conventional Muslim girl”. She likes that she has “the potential to change the narrative” about the world’s view of Islamic women. “I’m just a normal girl and these are my beliefs,” she says.

Islam allows her the ‘freedom and choice to be a feminist’

Her “different interests” have always been accepted by her family. She loves writing and listening to new music, although it is haram (forbidden). “When we have family braais we put music on and my dad dances to MiCasa which is really embarrassing,” she says, “but my parents understand our generation and the things we enjoy.”

MAYFAIR SKATER: While it is uncommon to see a Muslim girl skating on the roads in Mayfair, it is Sumayya Mohamed’s favourite activity. The master’s student enjoys ‘letting off steam’ when she gets on her board and says it allows her to get her ‘mind off things’. Photo: Riante Naidoo. 

Skateboarding is her favourite activity and she describes it as the only thing she can do to “get her mind off things. It’s like my jogging I guess.” Occasionally, Sumayya skates on the uneven tar roads around her home. On more than one occasion, males driving by whistle and ask her why she is skating.

People often ask her “uncomfortable things” like why she wants to look like a boy or if she is a lesbian. “Because I am an Indian Muslim girl, they want me to be like the Indian Muslim girl next door,” she says. “There is a common preoccupation with how an Indian Muslim girl should behave and look, as if that is the most important part of her.”

She views herself as a Muslim girl, but in a greater world, and “will draw on those experiences, in relation to Islam”.

To her, faith is “believing in God and Muhammed as his messenger” and tradition is about “family, familiarity and culture. You teach generations the sense in things,” she says, and adds that Islam allows her the “freedom and choice to be a feminist”.

Surtee also considers herself an “Islamic feminist” which are “Muslim women who are arguing from within the faith for power, inclusion and equality”. She says there are still “pockets of Muslims who are stuck in the idea that Muslim women should be invisible, silent and docile,” but Islamic feminists are determined to change these perceptions.

Although young women are moving away from expressing Islam in an orthodox way, Surtee says, “The trend is to evolve with the rest of the world while also going back to scripture in the Qur’an and interpreting it in ways which are relevant to women today.”

However, Sumayya says the thought of losing her faith sometimes keeps her up at night. One day, she wants to leave Mayfair to work in The Big Apple. “If I moved there, I would have to find a base and find my people,” she says. “The core fundamentals of praying every day and educating children on their faith are the most important traditions to continue for all Islamic women.”

She and her grandfather agree on this as Yusuf says “reading the Quran every day is a must” because “it’s fundamental” to their faith, but that “you can’t impose too much on children,” and should “let them evolve and develop”.

Faith is most important to Tasneem as it teaches “values and discipline. The most important tradition is to continue with prayer and remain close to family. It’s not even an option,” she says.

Whether Sumayya finds herself in New York or some place closer to home, she says it is important for her to leave Mayfair so she can “appreciate it more”.

“Moving away doesn’t mean you’re not that community, you still represent them,” she says.

“Your life is a puzzle, you just have to find your pieces and they won’t always be in the place you call home.”

FEATURED IMAGE: A PASSIONATE CURATOR: Salma Patel is the Fietas Museum curator. As a Fietas resident for 57 years, her passion to preserve the history of her family and those who contributed to the community’s life and spirit is seen in her detailed account of artefacts and photographs that are displayed in the museum. Photo: Riante Naidoo.