Omar Cassem


South African Muslim scholar and anti-apartheid campaigner. Omar Cassem was an Arabic scholar, anti-apartheid campaigner in South Africa, calligrapher, interior designer, poet and angler. Omar acted as a spokesman against the hated Group Areas Act (passed soon after the National Party came to power in 1948) under which the expropriation of the properties of the majority of South End's non-white and mixed-race was implemented in the 1960s, despite mass protests and demonstrations by local communities. In June 1966, Omar was ordered by a magistrate acting on instruction from the Minister of Justice to stop his activities. His home and workshop were seized - he with his family migrated to England. He continued his struggle against apartheid as an executive member of the South African Institute of Race Relations and of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee from London. In 1969, Omar was the first Muslim cleric to read extracts from the Qur'an from the pulpit in the crypt of St. Paul's at a memorial service organised by Canon Collins for Imam Abdullah Haroon, a South African Muslim cleric and friend, who was tortured and died in police custody. In 1975 when it was learnt that the world heavyweight-boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, was flying to London, Omar was chosen to gatecrash Ali's suite in the Park Lane Hilton to meet him and dissuade Ali from making a forthcoming visit to South Africa. Muhammad Ali decided to cancel his South African trip. In 1848, he chartered an aircraft to take 22 pilgrims from Port Elizabeth to Makkah and was given a royal reception by Prince Faisal - this was the first pilgrimage flight from the Eastern Cape area. Omar Cassem, as interior designer, carried out extensive modifications and decorations of Masjid al-Abra, which his stonemason father had helped to build in 1894. Omar's modification was by erecting two discs and three wall panels with Quranic verses worked intricately in gold leaf against a black background, and fitting a prayer niche, the pattern of which is identical to a mihrab made for a mosque in Isfahan, in Iran, more than 600 years ago. Omar Cassem was born in Port Elizabeth in the mixed-area municipality of South End.

Compiler: M. Nauman Khan

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