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Why Shahi Imam doesn't matter - in Islam and upcoming elections

Nizam Pasha
Nizam PashaJan 16, 2017 | 14:04

Why Shahi Imam doesn't matter - in Islam and upcoming elections

As elections to the UP Legislative Assembly draw near, political pundits are speculating that a lot will depend on how the Muslims vote. As political parties rush to woo the community, there is a sense of something missing. And then it strikes!

The fatwas or religious diktats to Muslim voters haven’t been pronounced yet. Rahat Indori’s couplet comes to mind:

Sab ko rusvā baarī baarī kiyā karo

har mausam meñ fatve jaarī kiyā karo

(Insult each person in turn,

issue a new fatwa every season)

It’s the season for fatwas, so whose turn is it? Last year, Ahmed Bukhari, the Imam of the Jama Masjid in New Delhi, declared that the Samajwadi Party had betrayed Muslims and said he would campaign against it.

Over the course of the year, Bukhari has been questioning the SP on what it has delivered for the Muslims in UP. As one cringes, waiting for the fatwa to fall, a brief look at this election time phenomenon is in order.

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The position of Imam of a mosque is neither a title nor a position of spiritual leadership in Islam. It is a service that is limited to leading namaz five times a day in that mosque. 

In the 2004 general elections, Bukhari had urged Muslims to vote for the BJP led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In the 2007 elections in UP, he campaigned against the Samajwadi Party, but in 2012 he forged an alliance with the party, the terms of which included a ticket for his son-in-law to contest the elections.

In the 2014 general election, he backed the Congress after having denounced it several times earlier. In the run-up to the elections in Delhi, Bukhari issued a fatwa to the Muslim voters to vote for the Aam Aadmi Party. The AAP rejected his offer of support, claiming it was an attempt to communalise the atmosphere and suggested that the fatwa was the result of "resonance" between Bukhari and the BJP.

AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal pointed at the alacrity with which the BJP held a press conference denouncing this as AAP’s attempt to polarise the vote, a polarisation which, incidentally, as the Lok Sabha elections had already shown, only benefits the BJP. The fact that in 2004 Bukhari had campaigned for the BJP only strengthens the possibility of such resonance.

The question that begs to be asked is, who is this seemingly vacillating individual known for election time volte faces who goes by the presumptuous title of "Shahi Imam"?

To begin with, the Jama Masjid itself has no special religious significance. Even in the Mughal era when it was built, it was at best the emperor’s mosque and as such, its significance was temporal. The Imam of the mosque was appointed by the emperor and the significance of his position was also merely temporal as it signified only his affinity to power.

After the end of the Mughal empire, when the position of the Shah itself came to be abolished, it is ironic that someone claiming descent from the appointee of the erstwhile Shah should call himself by the presumptuous title of "Shahi Imam" and stake a claim to spiritual and political leadership.

The fact that at a time when the Shah’s descendants themselves have faded into ignominy, anyone who claims to have descended from the Imam of the Shah’s mosque can stake a claim to leadership of the community and find any takers, is indicative of how severe the crisis of leadership within the Muslim community is.

The position of Imam of a mosque is neither a title nor a position of spiritual leadership in Islam. It is a service that is limited to leading namaz five times a day in that mosque. The Imams of all mosques in Delhi are employees of the Waqf Board and no spiritual or political significance is attached to them, and for good reason.

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Ahmed Bukhari, who is himself an employee of the Waqf Board, held an elaborate ceremony to "anoint" his son as his successor to the imamat.

In fact, upon evaluation, all these Imams would, if anything, carry greater religious significance than Bukhari on account of their having been employed on the basis of merit and religious learning rather than some superfluous claim of descent.

Recently, Bukhari, who is himself an employee of the Waqf Board, held an elaborate ceremony to "anoint" his son as naib or deputy Imam and his successor to the imamat.

Ironically, Sunnis who historically parted ways with the Shias on account of their opposition to Hazrat Ali’s succession as the first caliph after the demise of the Prophet on the ground that it would propagate the rule of primogeniture which was unIslamic, turned up in thousands to witness, as one Imam claiming the right to lead prayers from descent instead of learning "vested" that right in his son.

No reference was made throughout to the son having had any religious learning and it was only helpfully suggested that he was pursuing a Bachelor's in Social Work degree at Amity University and had an inclination towards humanities.

The Delhi High Court hearing three petitions challenging the ceremony held that the ceremony would vest no right in Bukhari’s son and issued notice on the petitions which challenged the anointment ceremony as well as the continuation of Bukhari himself in the position of Imam as illegal.

The matter is now sub judice and the court has asked the Delhi Waqf Board to explain why it has not exercised any rights or supervision over the Jama Masjid and why it has allowed Bukhari to appropriate all earnings from the Jama Masjid and not taken any action against failure to render accounts of such earnings by Bukhari, despite earlier court orders to the contrary.

More than anything else, elections are a good time for the Indian Muslim community to introspect on the primary crisis facing them; the crisis of leadership. Religion hasn’t given them, particularly the Sunnis constituting the majority among Muslims, a pope.

A scattered demography hasn’t left them with meaningful representation in Parliament and in Assemblies. And unfortunately for India’s Muslims, the miniscule class of intellectuals that their limited access to the mainstream allows them are too busy declaring their agnosticism, trying to distance themselves from their regressive brethren and making themselves culturally indistinguishable from their non-Muslims social peers.

This leaves the field open for petty brawlers and rabble-rousers, Imams of religiously insignificant but historically prominent mosques and teachers at seminaries with cloistered ideas to swoop in to make what they can of the opportunity offered by the vacuum.

Unless Muslims can act soon to get their house in order, they will deserve the "Shahi Imam" they get.

Last updated: January 16, 2017 | 14:04
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