The largest and oldest masjid in the Southern hemisphere is actually located in South Africa. Its original building was constructed in 1881 but by whom? Had Islam traveled south throughout the continent Africa and the indigenous people there converted to Islam? Not exactly. And the European colonizers certainly were not the ones who brought Islam there. So how did Southern Africa first get in contact with Islam? People from India brought it there.
Are you wondering what on earth Indians were doing in South Africa? Well gather around, it’s time for a history lesson.
In the eastern coast of modern-day South Africa is an area called Natal. This area was colonized by the descendants of the Dutch who originally landed on the western side of South Africa. During the nineteenth century, the British gained control of it. This area was good for growing sugar, so large-scale sugar plantations developed in Natal. A few decades earlier, this area used slave labor to process crops but the British banned the slave trade in the early 1800s and abolished slavery in 1835. The British thus had a difficult time getting labor to work on these plantations during the following decades.
The nearby African peasant farmers weren’t going to work for them, not only because it was difficult work, but also because they were doing fine on their own. The mining industry grew quite a bit, and they were wealthy growing food and selling it to miners. Many of them were wealthier than the Dutch descendants who lived in the area. So where did they get this labor from?
That’s right, India. Tens of thousands of Indians were contracted in India and sent over to be indentured laborers on these sugar plantations. Eventually, these Indians were able to start business ventures there and began to import and export goods within Natal. As a result, they grew to become a major political and economic force in the region. (If you want to learn more about the Indian population in Durban, South Africa especially during the years of apartheid, the South Asian Studies Department will be hosting a talk on Monday, March 24 in the Alexander Library!)
The ones who started this masjid were like one of these Indians. In 1881, a man named Aboobaker Amod Jhaveri bought a portion of land on Grey Street, Durban. He arrived in 1863 in Natal to manage an Indian business firm’s trade there. He was the first Indian trader and therefore the first member of a class of Indians who would later be known as “free” Indians.
In 1884, the Muslim community grew, leading to the demolition of the original building to construct a larger space by buying nearby sites. The new masjid was completed in the 1930s. The larger space held 200 prayer mats and accommodates 6,000 worshipers today. Although its appearance is similar to Islamic architecture, its design is very unique in that one structure is part of a masjid, shops, offices, and a school. There are a series of connected buildings and corridors that allow a wide variety of activities to take place under the same structure.
The majority of the shoppers in this area were Muslim and as a result, the Grey Street complex is known for the prominent Indian culture. This neighborhood was so successful that it became the trading center of Durban. Today, with its strong Indian community, the Grey Street area still retains its success and position as the trading center of Durban, while the Juma Masjid has become a major tourist attraction.