Many indigenous South Africans who embraced Islam before 1994, at the height of apartheid and those, like me, who embraced just after the dawn of democracy will tell you that what drew them to Islam was its revolutionary message. The message was unequivocally anti- oppression and firmly placed the oppressed and the poor at the centre of the Islamic message. With time, and with the dawn of democracy, many Muslim activists and progressive scholars left to join the academia and government. That left a vacuum and the revolutionary fervour that characterised progressive Muslim circles began to wane.
I had to travel to Tehran, attending a unity conference on Palestine, to rediscover that the revolutionary message that drew me to Islam is still being preached from pulpits. From my arrival in Tehran I could tell that theirs is a country under siege, evidenced by the tight security everywhere we went. However, at no point did I sense any hostility by the security personnel at all the security checkpoints. They were courteous and some took time to explain the rationale behind such stringent security measures. Iran faces a lot of threats, near, like apartheid Israel, and far, like the United States. The country has seen too many assassinations to leave anything to chance.
So it was that I attended Friday prayers at one masjid in Tehran. The atmosphere was electric. It felt like I was in a political rally. It was solemn at the right moments and it exploded with passion at some other moments. The preaching did not disappoint. The message was clear, direct and relevant. It was punctuated by enthusiastic shouting of revolutionary slogans. One got the sense that Iranians are a people united by and committed to the revolutionary mission of their country and if any of the enemies of Iran were to attack, the country would be one big graveyard for the attackers.
I left the masjid rejuvenated, filled with hope that the revolutionary message of Islam still resonates amongst Muslims. My only hope is that we rediscover it in South Africa in order to be able to confront the many challenges that face our country. We need to return to the Islamic ideals that drove martyrs like Imam Abdullah Haroon and others. Iran can teach us a thing or two about inspiring that kind of commitment.