An exploration of urban-islam through 30 joburg mosques.

A photo essay by Aslam Bulbulia.

A few years ago I visited a different Mosque in Johannesburg every night during the month of Ramadhan. Reflecting on my 30 Joburg Mosques photo blog keeps revealing new layers of the richness and variety of a distinctly urban Islam.

Mosques in Cities with Muslim Minorities

Mosques are a common source of conflict between citizens and urban lawmakers in Muslim minority countries. Mosques bear direct witness, in the urban fabric, to the presence of Muslims. The symbolism carried with them is the changing demographics of the city. Difference is presented and grappled with.

The conversation around Urban-Islam usually begins and ends with questions of the Mosque being built, the Athaan (Call to Prayer) being sounded out loud and how much parking the Mosque provides. Rigid urban regulations reveal that most cities are unprepared to deal with these questions and are slow in responding to the needs of a religiously diverse citizenry. This is particularly true in European and North American cities and to an extent in Johannesburg as well. However, the unique experience of Islam in Johannesburg, in large part due to the impact of Apartheid’s Group Areas Act spatially concentrating Muslim communities, has meant that other concerns come to the fore.

Masjid-ur-Rahma, Greenside.

Non-Muslim residents in the Greenside objected to the Athaan being called over loudspeaker when the Mosque was being built. As a compromise the Mosque silently broadcasts the Athaan and it is picked up by specialized radio receivers in people’s homes.

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Nizamiye Masjid

The story goes that after years trying to build this Mosque in the United States as a beacon of remembrance for the Ottoman contribution to world history, the affectionately called “Uncle Ali” came to South Africa and received permission to build it in a matter of months. The Nizamiye Mosque in Midrand is relatively new in the city but iconic in its architecture and presence. It is not only a prayer space but the complex also holds a school, restaurants, dining hall, shops and hospital.

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Mayfair Jumu'ah Masjid

In some ways the Mayfair Jumu’ah Masjid demonstrates the changing demographics of a space that would outwardly perhaps, be read as an established, homogenous Muslim community. The mosque was founded by third and fourth generation Indian migrants to South Africa, most of them merchants around Johannesburg’s downtown core. More recently, the number of Somali and other African migrants, that attend the mosque has overtaken that of the Indian community.

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Fordsburg Pool Hall Musallah

One of my favourite spaces in the entire city is the pool hall in Fordsburg. It’s located down an obscure, red passage next to the Milky Lane that’s been a feature of Fordsburg Square for as long as I can remember.


When I was younger I was warned to avoid the pool hall, it was a known hang-out for the “wrong sorts”, it was where many guys would hang out, bunk Taraweeh and get up to other sorts of behaviour parents wouldn’t approve of; but some years ago I believe a Pakistani gentleman took it over and built the jamaat khana on the far end of the pool hall, repaired the tables and turned it into a spot that’s open most hours where young (and sometimes older) men spend their time mastering pool, snooker and tatabox (foosball). 

One of the fascinating things about the space is the respect given to prayer. As soon as it is prayer time everyone, Muslim or not, stops whatever they’re doing for the duration of the prayer. All games come to a halt and everyone prays together. Women’s facilities are provided behind a curtain but the curtain goes up to make additional room for men if the crowd is too big.

After taraweeh a lecture was given in Urdu with translations provided in English (just for me, after they asked if I could understand Urdu which I can’t). This recreational, religious home for the migrants provides what I think is the spatial glue that keeps societies together.

And their masala tea is (dare I say) better than your mother’s. 

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Somali Masjid

The Somali Mosque on 8th Ave, Mayfair serves as a first point of contact for many Somali refugees who have come to South Africa. Through the Mosque, new arrivants are able to reconnect social ties and build new relationships. It also serves as a space of refuge from the busy Mayfair streets and crowded accommodation.

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Masjid-ul-Islam in Brixton is unique in the composition of its Mosque Committee. The committee tries to be representative of the community by making sure there is diversity in its make up. The results of this can be seen through projects that are more inclusive of the needs of families, such as their family focused Eid prayer and their child-care facilities during longer Taraweeh prayers in Ramadhan (pictured above). Importantly, it can also be seen spatially. The mosque has significantly more space for women relative to the space provided for men, than majority of the other mosques in the city and the women’s entrance is as pleasant to access.

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Madrasa Zia Ul-Badr, Jeppestown

In Jeppestown, Madrasa Zia Ul-Badr is not only a Mosque and Madrasa (school) but also home to many boys from all over Africa. The boys often spend years at the institution memorising the Quran, attending classes and return to their home countries as religious leaders and teachers.

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Emdeni Musallah

The Emdeni Musallah in Soweto conducts the majority of its lectures, Dhikr (remembrance) and discussions of the Quran in isiZulu. The Soweto Muslim community resembles a minority that is spatially isolated within its surrounds, unlike Muslims in the other Group Areas of Johannesburg.

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Bab-ul-Ilm, Edenvale

The Shi’ite community’s presence if often overlooked when they are a minority, within the Muslim minority. Edenvale’s Bab-ul-Ilm is one of a handful of Shi’ite prayer spaces in Johannesburg. When the needs of Muslims in the city are spoken of their voice is rarely heard.

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Rasooli Centre

The Rasooli Centre in Centurion is one of the few mosques in the city that is transparent in displaying what it stands for. While other mosques are usually open to any member of the public entering it and any Muslim that chooses to enter and pray there, there is rarely any information for visitors on how this mosque situates itself within the broader Muslim context.

(The Rasooli Centre is pictured above and to the left of this text.)

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Bosmont Masjid

At the Bosmont mosque a young boy is being given the opportunity to sound the Athaan. The mosque is situated in a formerly “Coloured” area and the community consists of many people from Malay descent. The style of Dhikr is distinctly Cape-Malay and many of the gestures - greeting one another after prayer and when entering the mosque - are identical to what would be experienced in Cape Town.

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“The development of Islam in Johannesburg does not point to homogeneity but to a heterogeneous community of Muslims...This heterogeneity is obviously not unique to Johannesburg. It is rooted in the global history of Islam and the way Muslims from different parts of the world with their various backgrounds came to locate in the City.”

(Dinath, Patel and Seedat 'Footprints of Islam in Johannesburg' in Todes et al. Changing Space, Changing City 2014)

I am tremendously grateful that I grew up in a city that had such a diverse and rich Muslim tradition. Hopefully the images above provide a glimpse into this heterogeneity of the Muslim experience in Johannesburg. Experiencing the various ways Muslims express their religion in the city prompts questions that go beyond the acceptability of their presence.

What is the role of the Mosque?

Some mosques in the city go beyond a space for prayer. Do cities recognise and support the role of Mosques may play in migrant settlement, early childhood development or building social cohesion? Can the city look beyond a strictly secularist approach and support the work that happens in mosques without encroaching on religious freedoms?

Whose Mosque is it anyway?

Although Mosques are typically established privately they do represent a public good, at least for those who are a part of the Muslim community. Does the Mosque then have a duty to be representative of their community rather than being run by a small group of its founders and does the city have a role to play in ensuring this?

Who are “The Muslims”?

In the city’s attempts to consult with its citizens it can easily overlook the voices of the minority groups within minority groups. Fair representation must be aware of, and consider the heterogeneity of, any group that is easily read from the outside as being homogenous.