History of the Auwal Masjid

The Auwal Masjid is the first and oldest mosque built in South Africa. This is evident according to very strong oral tradition which also confirms that Imam Abdullah Kadi Abdus Salaam, also known as Tuan Guru, was the first Imam at this Masjid. The Auwal Masjid came into existence in 1794 during the first British occupation of the Cape of Good Hope and was the main religious institution during the years 1804 until 1850. It is also the first to have practiced most of the Cape Muslim traditions.

The Auwal Masjid, which is situated in Dorp Street, has always been a symbol of the struggle of Cape Muslims for the recognition of Islam and their freedom to worship. The mosque was built on land belonging to the freed slave Coridon van Ceylon.

In 1793 Tuan Guru was released from Robben Island, having served a prison sentence of thirteen years. When he established his first madrasah in 1793, the property, a warehouse, was rented by Coridon of Ceylon, the freed slave of Salie van de Kaap. He then made an application to the Cape authorities for a site in Cape Town for the construction of a masjid but it was refused. An open-air Jumu ‘ah Saldh [Friday congregational prayers] was then held in a disused quarry in Chiappini Street in Cape Town. Tuan Guru, also known as Imam Abdullah, led the Cape Muslims in the Salah.

On September 26, 1794, a Vryezwarten [Free Black Muslim], Coridon of Ceylon by name, purchased two properties in Dorp Street, Cape Town. Coridon was the first Muslim to own properties in Cape Town. On his death, his wife, Trijn van de Kaap, inherited the properties, as he had willed. In 1809 Trijn sold the properties to her daughter, Saartjie van die Kaap. In this regard, Saartjie, a remarkable woman, made land available for the building of a masjid which was first constructed in 1794 with additions in 1807. A structural change – the construction of a mihrab [niche] indicating the direction of the qiblah – was made in order to convert the warehouse into a masjid. This masjid was established during the era of slavery, and established its roots in a climate of social and political prejudice.

According to Achmat van Bengalen the construction of the Auwal Masjid was made possible through General Craig who, for the first time, permitted Muslims to pray in public in the Cape Colony. The Auwal Masjid, situated in Dorp Street, Cape Town, became the first to be established and is still functioning as the noble founders had intended. It became a centre of Muslim communal activity, regulating and patterning their social and religious life.

The second site [adjacent to Auwal Masjid] is presently occupied by the family of the late imam of Auwal Masjid, Imam Gasant Achmat Gamja [Hasan Ahmad Hamzah] [d 1981], a descendant of Corridon of Ceylon.Prior to the construction of the “Saartjie’s Masjid”, the construction of masajid [sing masjid] and open freedom of worship were strictly prohibited in the Cape. The only “Kerk” [Church] permitted in the Colony was that of the Dutch Reformed Church. It was only in 1936 that extensive renovations were made to the Auwal Masjid.