‘You don’t have to wear a scarf,” says Dr Taj Hargey, speaking from inside the Open Mosque, which he founded in the Cape Town suburb of Wynberg in 2014.
While I take the fabric off my head, he adds: “When men tell women what to wear, they’re halfway to telling them what to think.”
One of the Open Mosque’s founding principles is gender equality, says Hargey.
“We do not discriminate; both men and women have an equal voice and space in our mosque,” he says while pointing at one entrance that serves both sexes.
The Open Mosque has been firebombed several times since it opened, and someone once drove a 4x4 into its mint-green exterior wall.
Hargey’s wife of 22 years, Jacquiline Woodman, who is from the UK, is Christian.
“We fight about the usual things, like cups of tea, but never about religion,” he says.
He regularly performs interfaith marriages at the Open Mosque, without either spouse having to convert.
Hargey – probably South Africa’s most controversial imam – describes the Islam preached at his mosque as enlightened, erudite and egalitarian. Women are allowed to lead prayers, and gay people and non-Muslims are welcome.
He describes his teachings as “Koran-centric”, saying he follows only the Koran – “the book of God”.
Hargey rejects the Hadith – a book of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings, which was compiled after the prophet died. He also rejects Sharia law, the rules by which a Muslim society is organised and governed.
Hargey says these are “man-made” literatures that are used to enrich the clergy and justify violence.
He insists that the Koran and the Bible have much in common; hence Islam and Christianity should be able to coexist peacefully.
Hargey, who was born in Cape Town, holds a doctorate in religious studies from Oxford in the UK, where he also served as a professor at the Muslim Educational Centre.
Back in South Africa, his unconventional ideas and criticism of the Muslim clergy, and particularly of the Muslim Judicial Council, have elicited disapproval.
While Hargey views his mosque as a “sanctuary for free-thinking Muslims”, many members of Cape Town’s Muslim community think it is blasphemous.
On Friday, Hargey acknowledged the Christian celebration of Good Friday by hosting a sermon on religious tolerance at his mosque.
He invited City Press to join about 20 other worshippers, some of whom wore robes or scarves; others wore jeans and denim jackets.
He steps on to a pulpit and starts his speech: “Today is Good Friday, the most auspicious day for our Christian friends. So it is appropriate to dedicate this sermon to tolerance between Christianity and Islam.”
Hargey preaches for about an hour, with Koranic citations in Arabic.
He says that the Prophet Muhammad respected the Christians in his midst: “This is the lesson Muslims need to know today. Not the violence and bloodshed of the Islamic State, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia.”
Hargey refers to these extremist groups as “toxic contagions of what Islam really is”.
“The Belgium attacks, 9/11 and the rest, that is the reaction by Muslim fanatics, such as the Islamic State, who believe the only way to resist Western imperialism is to do battle, killing innocent people [in the process].
“They must be condemned outright. This is absolutely contrary to the teachings of the Koran, which says that if you kill one person, you kill all of humanity.”
For Hargey, it is about pluralism, coexistence and mutual respect, about “focusing on commonality instead of differences”.