MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The call to prayer at Cape Towns newest mosque, which advertises itself as one of a kind in South Africa.
TAJ HARGEY: We are the only mosque by the way in the whole country that has the words all welcome. We chose the name open mosque to really identify what the mosque was about—it was open to all.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Sixty-year-old Taj Hargey is the man behind this new mosque– a mosque he sees worthy of being replicated in other parts of the world.
Hargey says his mosque is open to non-muslims, homosexuals—women are allowed to preach from the pulpit—they pray side by side with the men.
Tanweer is one of the few who prays here regularly ever since the Mosque opened last September.
TANWEER: I come to this mosque every week because this is the only mosque that I know of where there's equality in the genders, where females sit and can actually view the sermon from the front and we're considered equals to men.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: A counter, he says, to the daily stream of news and images that portray Islam as extremist and violent.
In fact, Hargey has been challenging Muslim orthodoxy for years..
Born and raised in Cape Town Hargey went abroad and studied at Oxford-he has a Phd in Religious studies.
He made headlines in Britain last year because of his ‘ban the burqa' campaign.
TAJ HARGEY: This idea of face masking, if its an islamic practice. Why is it banned in mecca? No woman which goes to mecca the holiest mosque in islam is allowed to cover her face—so this notion that is an islamic practice with due respect is nonsense..it may be a cultural expression..fine..it may be a personal wish..fine—If I want to put a bone through my nose—I have a right..but then do I have a right to say a bone through my nose is an islamic thing?
SHAFIQ MORTON: It think the first reaction from the muslim community was one of surprise, of astonishment and then i think a certain amount of anger.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Shafiq Morton is a journalist and a convert to Islam.
SHAFIQ MORTON: There was a feeling of insult and hurt as well that somebody could come in and make these assumptions about the state of the community and make these claims that the community wasn't open, that it wasn't welcoming and that it was a closed community that it was ultra-conservative in the negative sense.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: But it's not just Hargey seeking an alternative to conservative Islam. The idea has caught on in small numbers in places like Canada to Paris to Los Angeles where mosques have opened up seeking to cater to women or gay people.
HUSSEIN RASHID: I think what we're seeing is an attempt to really go back to debates that have existed in early muslim traditions and try to bring those traditions back to the front.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Hussein Rashid is a professor of religious studies at Hofstra University on Long Island.
HUSSEIN RASHID: When we look at these new centers coming up, I think we have to see it– not as a trend towards we're gonna have gay mosques or a trend towards having women's mosques. But really it's a pattern of muslims are now reimagining what these spaces could be like more largely. And so it's important because it's not the transformation of the tradition but it is the adaptation of the tradition.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:Even so Hargey's interpretation of Islam has put him at odds with the mainstream Muslim community here-established nearly 400 years ago by slaves from the Dutch East Indies–present day Indonesia.
Muslims now account for 1.5 percent of South Africa's population. Hargey's call for a revolution on how Islam is practiced has made him a target–last year there were 3 arson attacks against the mosque.
His theology is a sharp departure from mainstream, Islam—a few miles away at the large Gatesville mosque women pray from the balcony at the back of the mosque and are separated by a barrier.
Mainstream muslims say it has been this way for centuries and they are against what Hargey is doing..
AMIEN GAMZA: He doesn't represent Islam what his teaching and his philosophy is totally at variance with islamic philosophy. Completely at variance.
YOUSEF GAMZA: I would say he's a heretic and we will leave him to his own devices, ya he's an imposter.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Some people are calling you an imposter..even a heretic?
TAJ HARGEY:I am not a heretic—they have very little grounds theologically and otherwise to condemn this mosque—what they are doing is scraping the bottom of the barrel. They are issuing tendentious leaflets anonymous and so forth saying i am gay because har gay—means the gay part of my name..i'm gay—nonsense like that.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Although Hargay's position on homosexuality has been questioned—so we asked him for a clarification..
TAJ HARGEY: Well—I don't endorse homosexual living. I think this is not what the koran teaches, but like I've said earlier, I do not have the right to condemn people. It is not our business to decide who enters this mosque or not and the Koran is very specific that judgement belongs to god alone, so if the homosexual or the lesbian comes in known to me or unknown to me we don't have the right to exclude them from this gathering.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: For all their differences, Hargey and the long established Gatesville mosque are actually not that far apart
The imam of that mosque, Sheik Alexander says nobody is asked about their sexual orientation when they come to pray..
ABDURAHMAN ALEXANDER: Even though homosexuality is condemned in islam my heart and my arms are opened to those people who have a different sexual orientation always encouraging them to come back to god almighty but the mosque is still open for them because they are still human beings.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: And Hargey's critics say it is implied that all mosques are ‘open' in one fashion or another.
For example this mosque in the Cape Town suburb of Claremont has operated with ‘open' practices for years..
SA'DIYYA SHAIKH: The space is effectively, if you walk into the room, there are women on the right side and men on the left side. And there's a narrow rope. So, for example when my husband and I go there my husband sits there, we sit next to each other effectively. And when I say rope it's a thin rope and our kids can play in between.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Rashid says in the South Africa mosque and others like it people are reacting to what he calls a ‘culture of exclusion' in the centers they belong to.
HUSSEIN RASHID: So it's one thing to say, “of course, we're open. we don't do a check if you're gay.” but at the same time, there's a culture of where are women located in a mosque– how do your sermons talk about different people who are gay or people of a different ethnicity?
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Conservative Muslims in Cape Town don't think Hargay is going to get many followers at his mosque.
The turnouts at Hargay's mosque have been small.
TAJ HARGEY: Because they have been intimidated and frightened into not coming. People are afraid for their lives.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The arson attacks late last year are still under investigation Cape Towns Muslim Judicial Council declined to comment on Hargay's mosque— however, its leaders have urged tolerance and condemned the acts of violence.
Taj Hargey's claims and approach have stirred up controversy—but they have also struck a nerve in the Islamic community especially on the issue of gender equality..
SA'DIYYA SHAIKH: I like the fact that we've started conversations about this..I like the fact that people are falling over themselves to claim openness when in reality there are a number of mosques that simply don't have spaces for women.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:And Hargey—he says he's not afraid of all those critics.
TAJ HARGEY: If they thought that somehow we would shut up shop and somehow we'll disappear they have another thing coming. Even if we just have two or three people here this mosque will not close.