District Six mosque turns 100

Zeenatul Islam Masjid in Muir Street has been a beacon of hope for 100 years. Picture: Fuad Esack

The Zeenatul Islam Masjid, in Muir Street, District Six, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

The mosque is nestled between the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and the Good Hope Centre. Its central location is convenient to all who visit Cape Town.

Humble beginnings

During the latter parts of the 19th century and the advent of the 20th century, traders from the State of Gujarat in India came to South Africa as passenger Indians, financing their own trips.

Most of them settled in Cape Town, in District Six, seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

By 1906, this community, better known as Kanamias, had grown considerably and the need arose for them to establish a prayer facility to accommodate their Hanafi traditions.

In the absence of a masjid, members of this group met regularly at 3 Muir Street, using it as a jamaat khaana (a group prayer space) and a place of solace for new immigrants.

Imam Ebrahim Haffeejee was brought from India to lead the daily salaah (mandatory prayers) at these premises.

On January 2, 1919 a few members of his community announced their intention to construct a masjid to replace the jamaat khaana.

Funds were raised locally and nationally and in September 1919 two adjacent properties were bought on the corner of Muir and Chapel streets and converted into a masjid with a minaret.

This new masjid served the growing needs of the community at large by promoting goodwill and understanding about Islam.

By 1923 all alterations were completed and the Kanamia Moslem League was founded to oversee the affairs of the masjid.

During the 1920s this community of immigrants grew rapidly and the masjid was unable to accommodate all worshippers. Adjacent properties, 17 Muir Street and
1 Johnson Street, were purchased and plans were drafted for a new, bigger brick building.

During the mid-1930s the existing masjid was demolished and replaced with a new three-storey building in 1938.

The new masjid housed a basement for educational purposes or a women’s prayer section, ground level and first floor for men.

Over the years the masjid hosted many dignitaries and guests from abroad. The most famous being Sheikh Abdus Samad Abdul Basit, from Egypt, in 1966.

Forced removals and demolition of District Six

On February 11, 1966 the National Party declared District Six a white group area, which meant everybody else had to be removed.

Thus began the eviction of the multicultural, diverse religious, racial and ethnic community.

After the bulldozers vacated the area the only reminders of the existence of this community were their places of worship. During this difficult period the masjid doors were kept open by the activities of the tabligh jamaat (a group of men propagating Islam by inviting people to it), which was founded at the masjid in 1963.

Past imams

Prominent imams who officiated over the past 100 years are Imam Haffeejee, Hafiz Ahmed Kajee from Tankaria in India, Hafiz Umar Zardaad, Sheikh Abdulrahman al Iraqi (Saydie/Sayrie), Imam Mogammad Talaabodien also known as Imam Talap, Sheikh Salieg Abarder, Sheikh Abubakr Najjaar and presently Sheikh Moegamat Moerat.

In 1995, the ANC-led government introduced the restitution programme where former inhabitants of District Six could start returning to the area.

The Trust Board then realised this would place a great demand on the inadequate facilities at the masjid. After much deliberation and investigation, inadequacies were identified and prioritised.

Plans were drafted to cater for a modern wudu (ablution) facility, toilets, showers, modern salaah facilities for ladies, classroom for madrassa (Muslim school), as well as facilities for the tabligh jamaat, imaam’s office, caretaker area and a janaaza (burial rites) room.

With the generosity of the local and national Muslim community, the renovations and extensions were completed in 2010.

The present Trust Board executive comprises Yunoos Ismail as chairman, Jameel Adams as vice-chairman, Hussain Mohamed as secretary and Zunaid Natha as treasurer. Zahid Adams is the sound engineer and Abduraghmaan Ebrahim is responsible for maintenance. Additional trustees are Shaheen Ebrahim, Ataullah Ebrahim, Yakub Omar, Abdul Aziz Vallie and Ahmed Essa.

Activities at the masjid include, among others, the full recitation of the Qur’an during Ramadaan; the distribution of fitra parcel food hampers during Ramadaan since 1935; and provision of a “boeka table” for Muslims to break their fast at sunset.

During daily pre-sunrise prayers (tahajjud) they recite more than a chapter (juz) of the Qur’an.

There are i’tikaaf (seclusion) facilities, a special programme on Laylatul Qadr (Night of Power, usually the last odd numbered nights of Ramadaan), and collections of fitra and fidya (alms paid by those who are too sick or frail to fast). They have a hafith (memorisation of the Qur’an) school, counselling by Sheikh Moerat, ghusl facilities and a hearse.

Activities are being arranged to celebrate Zeenatul Islam Masjid’s milestone. Celebrations started in January, with the complete recitation of the Qur’an (khatam), prayer recitals (thikr) and speeches.

Sheikh Moerat, who has been the imam at the mosque for 27 years, says the biggest factor for him in the story of 100 years of survival is that the mosque and other places of worship in the area survived the apartheid era and did not close their doors.

“The call to prayer has never stopped from the minarets.”

He believes worshippers are more important than the place of worship and says people still came to the mosque to pray even though they were removed from the area.

Sheikh Moerat said the extension of the mosque to welcome back the people of District Six was important and today they have so many worshippers on a Friday that the mosque needs even more space.

The mosque is currently closed as part of the national lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Sheikh Moerat said while this was the first time in the mosque’s history that they have had to close their doors, it was an important decision to make and he was sending daily sermons out via WhatsApp.

“Having the majestic Table Mountain as a backdrop, the Muir Street masjid stands as a towering symbol of belief for a District Six Muslim,” says Yunus Ahmed, 67, who now lives in London.

“The place to go and communicate through prayer with the creator of the universe and beyond.

“The place where marriage vows (the nikha) were declared. All my family were married in that masjid.

“From the minarets, the azaan (call to prayer ) five times a day would be heard when we all lived in District Six. When the azaan was called, people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, would stop walking and only moved again once the azaan was over. Such respect.

“My mother Miriam Ahmed (nee Bux) lobbied for the women’s section to be opened. My father was a trustee of the masjid and after he passed on, I became a trustee. I was one of the trustees who appointed the current sheikh, Sheikh Moerat after the passing of Sheikh Najaar.

“The Group Areas Act tore us away from our masjid, our neighbours, our livelihoods and our city, Cape Town.

“Where my family was so ruthlessly relocated we could no longer hear the call to prayer… Friday prayers and 29 Ramadaan night prayers became a 60km journey.

“After prayers driving away from the masjid every night always left a feeling of loss in one’s soul.”

Fatima Ismail, 88, from Gatesville, was born and lived opposite the Muir Street mosque.

“The mosque was part of my religious and social upbringing. I have a strong historical connection with the mosque,” she says.

“I heard the five daily calls to prayer. From my kitchen window I could see the men praying. I got married in that mosque in 1959. My grandfather contributed to the establishment of the masjid. My father was a treasurer. My husband was a treasurer. My son is the secretary. All my children attended the madrassa at the masjid.

“Ramadaan was a special time spiritually for us. On Eid (day of celebration either Eid ul Fitr, after Ramadaan, or Eid ul Adha, day of sacrifice) mornings after mosque prayers family friends and neighbours would come to my house to greet and enjoy my special boeber (sweetened spiced milk drink) and spand pastei (large pie).”

Asa Salie, 67, who lives in District Six, says the mosque has played an important role in the community’s healing and return to District Six.

“Sheikh Moerat is the epitome of how an imam should be. When a mureed (parishioner) has the imam’s mobile number on their phone and the request is acted upon, this is when an imam is doing what they are (suppose to do). Above all of that, the Ghutbah (sermon) delivered, is always based on worldwide calamities, such as the Palestinians’ pain and tortures, the Chinese treatment of the Muslims and Christians, the problems in India and now the information and the lessons around the coronavirus. Algamdulielah (all praise to Allah), we need this imam and this masjid to resume, by Allah’s will Insha’Allah.”

Hussain Mohamed is the secretary at the Zeenatul Islam Masjid.