THE visit of the president of the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), Shaikh Irfaan Abrahams, on May 14, to the Imam Husain Mosque, in Verulam, where 34-year-old Abbas Essop was murdered, was an important moment for the MJC to declare its rejection of sectarian violence in the name of Islam.
Moulana Aftab Haider, leader of the Ahlul Bait Foundation of South Africa (Afosa), acknowledged that the MJC was the first organisation to condemn the attack. Moulana Abdul Khaliq Allie, first deputy president of the MJC, added that the MJC has always advocated peaceful inter-faith relations.
Moulana Aftab shared the gruesome details of the incident, in chilling detail. The narrative depicts extraordinary brutality of three relentless assailants. Although they were armed with guns, they were determined to savage their victims with knives, drawing as much blood as possible.
Witnesses saw how, after Essop’s throat was slit, he fought off the assailants, from the kitchen of the mosque to the outside, until he finally collapsed due to blood loss. Moulana Aftab, who performed the ritual ablution of the deceased’s body said the wounds were a horrific signature of evil.
Both the MJC and Afosa prudently decline to speculate about the perpetrators of the atrocity pending information from police investigations. Nevertheless, they were frank about their respective sectarian differences and the conduct of their followers.
Shaikh Riad Fataar, second deputy president of the MJC, expressed concern that the Shia in South Africa want ‘carte blanche’ to spread their teachings and that they routinely insult the Sahaba of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).
On the first concern, Moulana Aftab responded saying that for several years he made it clear – and specifically to the leadership of the MJC – that the policy of the Shia is not to curse, insult or abuse any belief or revered personality of Sunnis.
Moreover, the two supreme spiritual Shia authorities in the world, namely Ayatullah Khamenei of Iran and Ayatullah Sistani of Iraq, issued a decree prohibiting cursing and insult to the Companions of the Prophet (SAW). This is the official position of the Shia, globally, and the commitment of Afosa.
Moulana Aftab added that Afosa distances itself from Shias who are in breach of this decree, in the same way that Sunnis distance themselves from fellow Sunnis who support the atrocities of Isis. The mainstream of either sect cannot be held accountable for the actions of the extremists in their ranks, provided they take reasonable steps to reign in the hate mongers.
On the second concern of Shaikh Fataar, Moulana Aftab responded saying that Afosa has never had a programme of converting any Sunni to the Shia sect. He added that he has been in South Africa for 27 years and he challenges anyone to find a single Shia converted by him from Sunni Islam.
Although Shias claim different readings of the history of Islam, said Moulana Aftab, including being critical of the Sunni rendition of history, this precludes hate speech against anyone. He also conceded that Sunnis similarly have a right to their reading of history and to criticise the Shia rendition.
He said the hate campaign against Shias was sustained for years. Contractors working at the Ahlul Bait Centre were threatened, and Sunni ulama who were invited to attend the opening, in December 2017, were labelled munafiq (hypocrites).
Shias were labelled as worse than pigs and dogs. Verbal abuse, said Moulana Aftab, is routinely directed at the mosque from occupants in vehicles passing by.
The hate speech described by him extends to misuse of his identity and personal information. He says a fake Facebook page was created in his name using, inter alia, stolen family photographs. Over the past three months, this Facebook page was used to spread misinformation, and his identity was used to propose a false mut’a marriage to the daughter of an acquaintance.
It is possible, said Moulana Aftab, that the cumulative effect of such hate mongering can precipitate violence.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged and expressed appreciation for the ‘responsible and sober’ reaction of the MJC and religious leaders generally.
He pointed out that those who support hate speech and violence against the Shia are a small minority and that the majority support peaceful co-existence, social cohesion and respectful expression of religious differences.