The imam who took on the 'Muslim McCarthyists'

Jerome Taylor meets the man on a mission to modernise British Islam

Taj Hargey was in an ebullient mood as he drank a cup of steaming hot chocolate in a coffee shop opposite the High Court yesterday morning. "Today is a great day for British Islam," he declared triumphantly. "Liberal, progressive Muslims have finally won a battle against the extremists that dominate the Muslim establishment in Britain."

Dr Hargey, a clean-shaven imam from Oxford who describes himself as a "thorn in the side of the Muslim hierarchy", had just won a libel claim against a conservative Muslim newspaper that claimed he belonged to a sect which many in his faith believe is heretical. A South African anti-apartheid campaigner who has lived in Britain on and off for the past three decades, Dr Hargey has made many enemies because of his liberal brand of Islam which he preaches from a small assembly hall.

Unlike most British imams who insist on segregation during Friday prayers, Dr Hargey allows men and women to pray in the same room. He believes Muslims should not feel compelled to grow beards or wear a veil and last November his mosque became the first in Britain to allow a female Islamic scholar to lead Friday prayers.

One of his staunchest critics was the Muslim Weekly, a popular English language newspaper which takes a relatively orthodox line on social issues. Yesterday, after nearly three years of legal wrangling, it agreed to pay a "substantial" five-figure sum in damages to Dr Hargey over an article it published in May 2006 claiming that Dr Hargey was a member of the Ahmadiyya, a sect of Muslims who believe their 19th-century founder was the Mahdi – Islam's equivalent to the messiah. The paper also wrongly claimed he was forced to leave a post teaching Islamic studies in Cape Town because of his beliefs.

Dr Hargey, a devout Sunni Muslim who freely left Cape Town to teach in the UK, said yesterday: "This is a watershed moment in the struggle between liberal Muslims in the UK and the extremist views ... [of] a foreign-educated clergy. Progressives like me are described as heretics in order to ruin our credibility. It's a form of Muslim McCarthyism that is used to root out anyone who dares question these unenlightened, tribal and foreign forms of Islam.

What makes Dr Hargey so unusual and controversial is his determination to confront British Islam's view of the role of women. "We need to create an indigenous British Islam that is integrated into its own environment. It should stay true to Koranic teachings but is also erudite, egalitarian and enlightened."

When Dr Hargey invited Amina Wadud to lead prayers at his mosque, it was mostly women in full veils who objected outside. "It was like women protesting against Emily Pankhurst chaining herself to the railings," he says. "Muslim women are being brainwashed by men into adopting customs that are not a religious requirement. Islam is not about superficial tokens. When I see women adopting the niqab [full face veil] I want to tell them that the niqab isn't mentioned in the Koran. Nor are veils. The only thing the Koran says is to dress modestly."

Dr Hargey now intends to raise £2m to build a mosque in Oxford where men and women can continue to pray together. Expect the sparks to continue flying.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected