A petty feudal at Jama Masjid

A petty feudal at Jama Masjid

By M.J. Akbar | 8 November, 2014
Imam of Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmad Bukhari.
The Imams of Mecca, Medina do not possess hereditary rights. They are appointed by the Saudi court. But in Delhi, we have permitted a dynasty to prevail.

When ignorance marries bluster you get a functioning blunderbuss. Every scattershot gun should come with a safety catch, but human behaviour so often becomes vulnerable to the ego of a weak mind.

Muslims claim, with justified pride, that the age of jahilya, or ignorance, ended when the message of Islam came to the Prophet Muhammad in the desert city of Mecca. Regrettably, jihalat still lingers in parts of the Muslim world. It has found a temporary sanctuary in Delhi's Jama Masjid, the iconic symbol of Indian Islam.

If the bluster of its Imam, Syed Ahmad Bukhari, were nothing more than self-inflicted wounds, it would not matter so much. But Bukhari gets media space, thanks to his position, and thereby affects the wider perception of Indian Muslims. When he claims that he will not invite India's Prime Minister to his 19-year-old son Shaban Bukhari's so-called investiture ceremony, but would like Pakistan's leader to be present, Ahmad Bukhari is guilty of many varieties of stupidity. Indian Muslims relate to their country's leaders, not to those of a foreign nation. But this is an appropriate moment to ask another question.

Since when has a mosque become, in Islamic doctrine, private property? Who has given the Bukhari family genetic rights over India's most glorious mosque? Who has allowed him to pocket all the revenue from that institution, and use it for a lifestyle that is anything but pious? The mosque is wakf property, and therefore owned by the Delhi Wakf Board. Bukhari claims a hereditary right to the Imam's position because an ancestor, sixteen times removed, was made Imam by the emperor who built the mosque, Shah Jehan. That is an illegitimate argument because of both religious practice and a democratic environment. If that principle were applicable, Shah Jehan's woebegone heirs should send an application for the ruler's job in Delhi.

A mosque is always owned by the Muslim community for which it was constructed. The first mosque was built by no less a person than the Prophet Muhammad in his adopted city, Medina. This glorious mosque is still a magnet for the faithful, wherever they may reside across the world. Did the Prophet bequeath that mosque to his son-in-law Hazrat Ali and his daughter Bibi Fatima? No. Why have Indian Muslims abandoned the precept established by the Prophet himself?

The two holy mosques are at Mecca, where Muslims go on Haj, and at Medina. For 14 centuries a succession of Caliphs and Sultans has protected these mosques from external threat and internal turmoil.

Every ruler has described himself as only a servant or custodian of the mosques. When the great Ottoman Sultan Selim the First became Caliph, after defeating the Mamelukes, he went to the grand mosque of Alleppo for Friday prayers. The nervous Imam described Selim as an overlord during the sermon. Selim corrected the cleric immediately. He was only a servant, said the Caliph.

The Imams of Mecca and Medina do not possess hereditary rights. They are appointed by an order of the Saudi court, and can be changed in their lifetimes. The selection criterion is familiar: knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah, combined with piety in character. But in Delhi's Jama Masjid, we have permitted a dynasty to prevail. This is anathema to Islamic practice.

Why? No one really knows. The true answer is the community's inertia.

There are countless mosques in India's cities, towns and villages. In each one of them an Imam is chosen by the will of the community, through the mosque community. This principle should be applied to Delhi's Jama Masjid as well, for, to reiterate, the place of worship belongs to the congregation, not to the person who leads the prayers. It is up to the Muslims of Old Delhi to establish the democratic process through which they elect the mosque committee, and then empower the elected body to choose the Imam for regular terms.

Perhaps it is also time media and politicians stopped catering to the arbitrary whims and fancies of an interloper like Ahmad Bukhari by according him importance. Who, after all, does he represent except himself? Would he ever dare contest an election in his local constituency? We might then find out precisely how much support he has in his own area. We could even test the trust he commands in an even smaller constituency, his congregation. I have little doubt that he would lose.

Institutions must be protected through institutional mechanisms. Bukhari has set himself up as some sort of petty Nawab of Jama Masjid, rather than as an Imam who serves the people. People have been afraid to intervene largely because they do not know how to go about it. The Bukharis have, in effect, acquired squatters' rights.

It is time that honest Indian Muslims decided who is a good Imam, instead of a devious Imam deciding who is a good Muslim.

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