Imam Abdullah Haron was born in Newlands-Claremont on 8 February 1924 to Asa Martin and Amarien Haron, the youngest of five children. Having lost his mother as an infant, Haron was primarily raised by his aunt, Maryam. On 15 March 1950 Haron married Galiema Sadon. The couple had three children, Muhammed, Fatiema, and Shamela.
Haron was tutored in Islamic Studies by a number of eminent Islamic scholars, including Shaykh Abdurrahman al-Alawi al-Maliki, Shaykh Abdullah Taha Gamieldien, and Shaykh Ismail Ganief. The latter particularly encouraged his interest in social welfare. In addition to his religious studies, Haron also taught at a local Muslim school. Here, he befriended members of the teaching and building trade, and communist organisations. It was during this time that his political activism was awoken.
In 1955, at the age of 32, he was appointed to lead the Al-Jaamia congregation at the Stegman Road Mosque in Cape Town. He was one of the youngest imams in South Africa, and was considered very progressive. As imam, he worked to raise the consciousness of his congregation, and of the wider Muslim community, to the injustices of apartheid. He also forged ties with non-Muslims, including Christians, communist groups, and other faiths and organisations.
Over the years, he became increasingly critical of the government’s policies, and sometime in the 1950s or 1960s, he began taking part in clandestine anti-apartheid operations. In order to protect his family and congregation, he deliberately kept his political actions secret, so it is unclear exactly what operations he took part in. However, he is known to have developed close ties with the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), both banned organisations at the time, as well as the Black Sash, a non-violent legal welfare movement of volunteer women.
In addition to his duties as imam, Haron also worked as a salesperson for the Wilson Rowntree confectionary company. This job allowed him legal movement in and out of black townships, despite the segregation laws that separated the races. Along with several close friends, he also established the progressive Claremont Muslim Youth Association in 1958 and a monthly newspaper, the Muslim News, in 1960. Both organisations distributed cultural, religious, and political news, and emphasised inclusivity. This ran contrary to the State’s policies of racial and religious segregation.
On 28 May 1969, Haron was summoned to the Security Branch office at Caledon Square in Cape Town. There, he was charged with terrorism under section 6 of the Terrorism Act 83 of 1967. The Haron family was told that he died on 27 September 1969. The police stated that he had fallen down a flight of stairs. In the aftermath of his death, his widow learnt that the Islamic marriage between her and her husband was not recognised, meaning she could not inherit his estate. As a result, Galiema Haron was forced to sell her home. At the same time, the Haron family instituted a claim against the Minister of Police and the Minister of Justice for the death in detention, but was forced to abandon the case due to financial constraints.
On 29 September 1969, over 40 000 people came to pay their final respects to him. A huge funeral march carried his coffin to its final resting place in Mowbray Muslim Cemetery. A few days later, on 6 October 1969, he became the first Muslim to be commemorated at St Paul’s Cathedral, where he had closely befriended Canon John Collins. Canon Collins referred to Haron as a martyr, noting his message of justice and peace that bridged racial and religious divides.
At the time of his death, Haron was 45. He left behind his widow, daughter Fatima Haron-Masoet (who was 5 years old when her father died), son Muhammed Haron who was 12 at the time, and a second daughter Shamila, then based in London. He was the first cleric of any faith to die in police detention in the apartheid State. His death sent shockwaves around the world, as it showed that even men of faith could be persecuted by an increasingly repressive regime.