South African Islamic scholar Taj Hargey has opened an “Open Mosque” in Cape Town that welcomes worshippers regardless of gender, religion or sexual orientation, defying opposition from segments of the local Muslim community and accompanying threats of violence.

“We are opening the mosque for open-minded people, not closed-minded people,” Hargey, a professor at the Muslim Educational Centre in Oxford in the UK, told the BBC.

In a stark departure from the gender segregation ordinarily imposed at mosque, the Open Mosque allows women to pray in the same room as men, and to lead prayers.

Hargey explained that he wanted to revive “the original mosque of the Prophet Muhammad, where there were no barriers”, in contrast to the practise of seeing women “at the back of the street, back of the hall: out of sight and out of mind”.

“This idea of female invisibility is an innovation that came after Muhammad, and unfortunately it has become entrenched,” Hargey noted, personally adding: “I want my mother, wife, daughter to pray alongside me, not to be second-class citizens.

“The original mosque in Madinah had one door and men and women came to pray together, and they pray together at Hajj; so why can’t men and women pray together in the mosques of the world?”

Fighting for freedom

Since opening, the Open Mosque has so far been picketed, blockaded and even subject to an arson attack in the run up to Eid al-Adha – an incident that the police are now investigating.

In comments to South Africa’s News 24, Hargey noted that “instead of preparing for the holy day these people were preparing to destroy the house of God. It’s very sad and disrespectful.

“If people don’t like what we do, they are entitled to stay away. But they have no right to try and intimidate us and bully us by burning down our place.

“Our opponents should know that they don’t have a copyright on Islam.”

Segregation struggle

In a country where, for many years, the socio-political structure of the country was oriented around segregation by race, segregation by gender has become a similarly emotive issue.

“In South Africa, 20 years ago there was a peaceful revolution changing from apartheid to democracy, and we need to have a similar development in the area of religion,” Hargey asserted.

One worshipper, who had to push past protestors to attend the mosque, exclaimed to reporters; “South Africa has got a great constitution. What did you fight apartheid for? Not this!”

In his final word on the topic, Hargey asks; “Why are they [our opponents] so scared? Because they know that if this mosque succeeds, their theological monopoly is over.”

On the inside walls of the mosque, which is still under construction, the most prominent feature is the Shahada, the unifying profession of faith spoken by all Muslims, regardless of sect or gender: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

Muslims account for about 1.5% of the population in South Africa, or some 737,000 people, according to figures from the Pew Research Centre.