Three men entered the large mosque after midday prayers, carrying guns and attacking the victims with knives and then releasing a petrol bomb that set fire to the building.
Police said the attackers remained at large after escaping in a Hyundai car from the Imam Hussain mosque in Verulam town, on the outskirts of the eastern port city.
“The motive of the attack is unknown at this stage. Verulam police are investigating three counts of attempted murder and arson,” police spokeswoman Nqobile Gwala said in a statement.
The incident appeared to be unprecedented in South Africa, where about 1.5 percent of the country’s 55 million population is Muslim.
Paul Herbst, spokesman for the private IPSS medical rescue service, told AFP that the imam had his throat slit and passed away a few hours after the attack.
“There were three people in the mosque — a caretaker, a worshipper and the imam and they were held up by three armed men,” Herbst said.
“The (imam) was tied up and thrown to his knees and his throat was slit. The other two men were also stabbed — one was stabbed in the abdomen and the other in the groin of his left leg.
“Before the assailants left the mosque, a petrol bomb was thrown into the mosque and it was set alight.”
The imam was treated by paramedics on the scene and transferred to hospital where he was pronounced dead.
– ‘Sudden attack’ -Prem Balram, spokesman for the Reaction Unit South Africa security company, said he had arrived at the mosque to find two victims covered in blood lying in the forecourt of the mosque.
He said a third victim had been attacked inside the building and had jumped out of a window when it was set alight.
“Eyewitnesses said three attackers with guns had used knives. One knife was left behind,” Balram told AFP.
“There have been theft and robbery incidents at mosques before, but not like this, when nothing appears to have been taken.”
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is due to start next week.
“It is the first time anything like this has happened in South Africa, let alone in KwaZulu-Natal province,” Faizel Suliman, chairman of the SA Muslim Network, told AFP.
“It was a sudden attack and at this point we don’t have enough information. Speculation about the motive is quite dangerous at this point.”
The South African parliament’s police committee condemned the attack.
“A mosque is a religious institution, and South Africa’s constitution guarantees and protects the right to religious practices,” its chairman Francois Beukman said.
“This kind of attack on three innocent people is totally unjustified. We want our communities to live in harmony, practising their religions without fear.” DM