More than just a place of worship, a mosque is viewed as the centre of a Muslim community – one of the first things that the Prophet Mohammed did when he entered Medina was to build a mosque, as did the first Muslim immigrants to arrive in Natal in the late 1800s.
The land for Juma Masjid, in Durban’s Grey Street area, was purchased in 1881, with the first version of the mosque accommodating just under 50 worshippers. Over the years the building has been added to, and at one point Juma Musjid was the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere, with room for up to 7000 devotees.
The name ‘Juma Masjid’ translates to ‘Friday Mosque’ as it was the meeting place for the majority of Durban’s Muslims during the Friday prayers – even today the streets of Durban’s Grey Street precinct are lined with cars double (sometimes triple) parked for midday prayers. Amongst non-Muslims, the building was known as the `Grey Street Mosque’ because it dominated the area, as well as Durban’s skyline – it’s hard to believe, but at the time that it was built Jumuah Musjid was one of the tallest buildings in Durban.
As the centre for Muslims living in Natal, the mosque offered educational facilities, retail spaces – the income from which helped to maintain the mosque – as well as a meeting place for activists opposing the system of apartheid. And the efforts of the mosque weren’t just limited to defending the rights of Muslims: in 1890 the trustees of Juma Masjid invited the mostly-Hindu farmers to sell their produce in the mosque courtyard, after they were subjected to a barrage of regulations, bye-laws and discriminatory measures aimed at curtailing their activities as hawkers. The Durban Town Council attempted to shut down the market at the mosque, but after negotiations with the trustees it was arranged that the market would continue to operate, with a nominal annual payment of ten pounds being made to the Durban Corporation.
People also used the protection of the mosque in other, more subtle ways – 1960 marked the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Union of South Africa, and a festival was planned to celebrate the occasion. The aptly named ‘Festival Boycott’ called on all people to boycott the Durban City Council’s celebrations. In a statement, the Joint Congresses said that they were of the opinion that “the non-white peoples, in particular, have little to celebrate on this occasion as the fifty years since Union was formed have been marked by one oppressive Act of legislation after another”. Protestors were asked to attend counter demonstrations and prayer meetings taking place in the mosques, temples and churches around Durban, with Juma Masjid being the primary location for Muslim protestors.
Times may have changed – there are many buildings that now tower over the Grey Street Mosque – but Juma Masjid remains the heart of the city for many people, and will forever be remembered by the hundreds of thousands of people who have passed through its doors, many of whom were seeking refuge from the oppressions of the apartheid government.