Farid Sayed, looks over IHRC advisor Imam Achmad Cassiem’s life and legacy
At a time when many young people were looking to give full Islamic expression to their role in the struggle for justice in this country, Imam Achmad Cassiem was a leader, teacher and a practical example for Muslims committed to social justice.
On Friday, July 14, Imam Cassiem passed away at the age 77 after a life-long struggle against apartheid and global oppression. The indelible legacy he has left is that not only can people of faith be part of the struggle for social justice, but their claim to be followers of the heroic examples of Prophets (peace be upon them) necessitates Muslims to be in the forefront of that fight.[Obituary continues under video]
His Janazah prayer was held at the Habibia Soofie Masjid in Athlone, a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, immediately after the Jumu’ah salaah. The mosque overflowed with those who had come to pay their last respects to the iconic anti-apartheid activist.
Former student Sheikh Sa’dullah Khan, who led the Janazah salah, addressed the congregation before the prayers.
“We say farewell to a courageous man, a man of integrity, who stood by what he believed in, even if at times he stood alone. We bid farewell to a revolutionary leader, a principled fighter for justice, the voice of conscience, our inspirational teacher, the brave, heroic, gentle and selfless Imam Achmad Cassiem.”
Sheikh Sa’dullah recalled that Imam Cassiem was often “ostracised by those who were supposed to be his own”, and he was at times vilified by clergy which led to him being denied a platform at many mosques.
“Yet, he never compromised on principle,” said Sheikh Sa’dullah. “He died neither subdued nor conquered. He was uncompromising in pursuit of justice.”
He also described Imam Cassiem as someone who was sharp-witted, articulate and soft in speech.
Fellow Islamic activist Ebrahim Bardien spoke about the devastating loss of a dear friend; a friendship that went back to 1959 when they were in the same standard 5 (grade 7) class at Wesley Preparatory School in Salt River.
“I was a regular visitor at Achmad’s house in Pontac Street, District Six. The way he handled his domestic responsibilities, as a 14-year-old, left a lasting impression on me. I would see this every weekday morning because I would first go to his house before we caught the same bus to school.”
Bardien said that Imam Cassiem was an avid reader from a young age.
“His father, Boeta Cassiem, had bought a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica which Achmad would use for his research. He even offered it to me as reference when I had to do a primary school assignment on the Second World War.”
Although their high school journeys were different – Imam Cassiem went to Trafalgar High School and Bardien to Livingstone High School – their friendship remained firm. Even Imam Cassiem’s imprisonment on the infamous Robben Island could not break that bond. In fact, it only served to strengthen it further.
Trying to hold back his emotions, Bardien recalled visiting Imam Cassiem on the island in 1966. Imam Cassiem had been sentenced to five years’ imprisonment after being falsely charged with helping his teacher and fellow anti-apartheid activist Sadiq Isaacs manufacture explosives to target the apartheid regime. Imam Cassiem thus became one of the youngest inmates in the prison that also housed three future South African presidents, Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanth and Jacob Zuma, besides numerous other prominent revolutionaries and activists of the time.
“Even with the prison warder standing right behind him, Achmad fearlessly articulated his thoughts and the revolutionary path forward,” said Bardien. “To me it was a one-hour political khutbah that inspired me to stay in touch with Achmad.”
Bardien says that while he and Imam Cassiem may have had differing perspectives – “we agreed on the end goal but may have differed on the process” – this did not affect their friendship. “He displayed the utmost respect and would often break the tension with his wonderful sense of humour,” he recalled.
In 1979, inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Imam Cassiem became a founder member of the Qibla movement, set up to promote and defend Islam in South Africa and fight injustice. The imam would subsequently spend much of his adult life in and out of jail.
Imam Cassiem saw Islam as the main revolutionary driver through history and argued that Muslims had lost a correct understanding of Islam and its revolutionary heritage.
Imam Cassiem believed that Muslims should acquire the requisite skills for resistance since the Muslim community had previously shown itself to be the most fearless and steadfast in its fight against oppression and injustice worldwide.
Although South Africa was not a Muslim-majority country, he maintained that South Africans should present Islam as the main liberating force to the oppressed masses, in the hope that enlightened masses would then follow their direction and rise up against the oppressors.
To achieve this aim Imam Cassiem was also a strong proponent of Muslim Unity. In March 1994, one month before the first democratic elections in South Africa, he was instrumental in setting up the Islamic Unity Convention (IUC), an umbrella organization of 300 Muslim organizations across the country.
Nkosi Zwelivelile ‘Mandla’ Mandela, an ANC MP, grandson of Nelson Mandela and tribal chief of the Mvezo Royal House was also among those to pay tribute to Imam Cassiem at his funeral.
“South Africa has lost one of its most formidable sons; one who was fearless in his opposition to imperialism and their lackeys in the apartheid State whom they supported.”
While Imam Cassiem was in the forefront of struggle for justice, human rights and dignity for all in South Africa, Nkosi Mandela said that he would be equally remembered for his tireless campaign for the liberation of Al Quds. His name will be honoured amongst the fearless fighters for justice for the Palestinian people.
Imam Cassiem’s revolutionary roots, he said, ran deep.
Nkosi said: “It was in his father’s home in District Six that Imam Abdullah Haroon met activists of the Cape Muslim Youth Movement and the Claremont Muslim Youth Association. This shaped the character and world view of a generation of Muslim Anti-Apartheid activists. It is no surprise, therefore, that Imam Achmad Cassiem was ideologue, mentor, leader and a father figure to many in the anti-apartheid struggle and the fight against gangsterism and crime.”
Timeline of Imam Achmad Cassiem’s life*
- Imam Achmad Cassiem joined the armed struggle at the age of 15 while a student at Trafalgar High School in Cape Town.
- In August 1964, during his matric year, he, and his teacher, Sedick Isaacs were arrested by the apartheid regime’s security police and held, without trial, under the 90-day detention law, being denied access to a lawyer or his family during that period.
- They were eventually charged under the Sabotage Act and sentenced on December 2, 1964; Imam Cassiem to five years in prison and Sedick Isaacs to 12 years.
- He completed his matric (grade 12) and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy while imprisoned on Robben Island.
- Upon his release in 1969, he was banned for a period of five years and detained in 1976 by the security police for allegedly inciting armed revolt whilst addressing students at a mosque in Surrey Estate.
- The apartheid regime, in an attempt to curb his revolutionary message, again slapped him with a five-year banning order on December 19, 1979. At the time Imam Cassiem was a teacher at Westridge Senior Secondary School in Mitchells Plain.
- In 1979 he was a key figure in the founding of Qibla, a movement dedicated to the fight for justice.
- On April 23, 1980, he was arrested for organising school boycotts against racist education. After 240 days in detention without trial, Imam Cassiem was released on December 9, 1980.
- He was served with a new banning order in June 1983 because the previous banning order was abrogated by the Internal Security Act. The new order expired on March 31, 1986, adding more than two years to his previous banning order.
- In December 1984 he was arrested at a Jumu’ah (Friday prayer) with 56 other people for attending what the regime deemed to be an unlawful gathering while under a banning order.
- Imam Cassiem was again arrested on May 2, May 1986 under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act.
- He was charged on December 2, 1986 for ‘terrorism’. The state cited certain Quranic verses that Imam Cassiem had quoted and declared that these verses were ‘subversive’.
- After a trial that lasted almost two years, Imam Cassiem was sentenced on October 28, 1988.
- He was sentenced to six years imprisonment. Although released three years into his sentence, he remained under severe restriction until 1993.
- Largely instrumental in the establishment of the Islamic Unity Convention in March 1994, and later served as its chairperson.
- In 2005, Imam Cassiem led the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) in the Western Cape.
Farid Sayed is a founding editor of Muslim Views, in Cape Town South Africa.
For more tributes and statements about Imam Cassiem, please visit the tribute page we have set up for him here.
*Sources: Notes from The Begging Bowl (Achmad Cassiem); sahistory.org.za