The ‘Shahi Imams’ – Imperial Spiritual Leaders Of India
By C.M. Naim
NOV 26, 2014
Saudi Arabia is a kingdom, and has had several Kings during the last 100 years, but it does not have a ‘Shahi Imam’, nor had one before. Even the men who lead the prayers at the Kaa’ba in Mecca are simply known as Imams. Pakistan has had no king so far, but it has the great Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. It too has only Imams, and they, regardless of any other delusion of grandeur that some could have entertained, have remained content with the simpler title. Compared to the Saudi Kingdom and the Islamic Republic, India stands tall—in fact taller than most of us think, for it has four ‘Shahi Imams’. And that’s the four I know of. Someone more diligent might yet find a few more.
Shaban Bukhari (C), the son of Delhi’s Jama Masjid Shahi Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari (R) after being formally anointed the Naib Imam of the 17th century mosque at a ceremony in New Delhi.
The nation’s capital, not surprisingly, is blessed with two: Mr Syed Ahmad Bukhari at the Jama Masjid, and Dr Mufti Mukarram Ahmad at the Fatehpuri Mosque. The first mosque was indeed built by a Shah, but the second was not. It was built by Fatehpuri Begum, one of Shahjahan’s many wives, and so its Imam is technically only a ‘Begumi Imam’. But who wants to be called that?
Kolkata has our third ‘Shahi Imam’. The city, in its previous incarnation as Calcutta, had indeed been British India’s capital for decades, but neither George III nor Queen Victoria built an imperial mosque there. Mr Nurur Rahman Barkati claims his title by virtue of leading prayers in a mosque that was built by Tipu Sultan’s sons during their stay in the city as virtual prisoners. Since Tipu never designated himself a Shah, Mr. Barkati can at best call himself a ‘Sultani Imam’, but, obviously, he wouldn’t get as much mileage out of it.
By now you might be expecting to visit Lucknow to meet the fourth ‘Shahi Imam’—after all the later Nawabs of Oudh had themselves anointed as ‘Badshah’ by the British. But there is no Shahi Imam in Lucknow. Even the Imam of the major Shi’a mosque in the city does not claim that title.
No, dear reader, our fourth ‘Shahi Imam’ resides in Ludhiana, Punjab, that city humming with productive energy of every kind. Mr Habib ur Rahman, however, is unique; he claims to be the ‘Shahi Imam’ of not just Ludhiana but all of Punjab. (Does his Punjab also include the areas that are now parts of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, not to mention Pakistan? I can’t say.) Mr. Rahman is also the President of a political party, the Ahrar, long defunct everywhere except in Ludhiana. Since last year, his followers have also started calling him Sher-i-Islam (The Lion of Islam), for, like some Sikh leaders; he likes to carry a sword when making appearances in public. Much to my shame I don’t know what Shah bestowed upon his ancestor that title, though I hope it was not Ahmad Shah Abdali.
So here we are with four ‘Shahi Imams’ in one republic, a secular one at that. Mera Bharat is indeed Mahan.
My least favourite is the savant of Kolkata. From what little of him I have seen or read on the Internet, I get the impression that his range of words and ideas is rather limited. Always ready to ‘deal’ with anyone who dares to question his actions within the precincts of his mosque, he is also a gourmand and believes that for Muslims to invite people like him to a feast or festive gathering is the same as extending an invitation to the Prophet. During the recent elections he threw his weight around in Bengal politics, and consequently may have lost some of his clout.
Courtesy: Facebook page of the Ludhiana Jama Masjid
The most irascible of the four has to be the savant of Ludhiana. The ‘Lion of Islam’ is always ready to wave his sword and threaten the Ahmadi Muslims of India. He regards them as not only outside the pale of Islam but also tools of a vast ‘Jewish’ conspiracy against Islam and India. Last year, when a prominent Muslim educationist and scholar accepted an invitation from the Ahmadis in Qadian, the ‘Lion of Islam’ declared that she had ‘ruined her faith and injured the hearts of all Muslims’, and threatened to have fatwas issued against her if she didn’t give a satisfactory explanation ‘within three days’. Since the threat appeared only in the Urdu press, no brouhaha followed. Earlier his range was restricted to Punjab, but lately he has gained many friends and supporters in the South, in particular in Andhra/Telengana, where Barkati too has been on occasion an honoured guest of the Owaisis. Thankfully, most politicians in Punjab have so far ignored him, but one never knows what a ‘leader’ desperate to win might do.
The more educated of the four might seem to be the savant of the Fatehpuri Mosque. But education and common sense are not synonymous. Recently a seminar was held at the Jamia Hamdard in New Delhi under the auspices of the Dept. of Islamic Studies where the chief guest was our Dr Mufti Mukarram Ahmad. In his keynote speech, he cast light on ‘the scientific facts described in the Qur’an’, and announced that what science now knew concerning human embryo formation had already been described in the Qur’an centuries ago. Incidentally, a Mr Harun Yahya has recently made a similar claim about the nature and function of cartilage in human bone structure.
What the two champions of Qur’anic science do not bother to ask themselves are such simple questions as ‘Why nearly 13 centuries had to pass before that scientific knowledge became known to the world?’ or ‘Why that epiphany about the alleged similarity was alleged first in France and then in Canada but not in some so-called Muslim country?’ Apparently, Allah revealed all scientific verities in the Qur’an to the people of East but left it to the people in the West to discover them many centuries later without the help of the Qur’an!
That brings us to the fourth, and hopefully the final, ‘Shahi Imam’: Mr. Syed Ahmad Bukhari of the Delhi Jama Masjid. He could be the most delusional of the four, and also the most successful in his delusions—at least so far. Last week, Bukhari anointed his heir, and, while extending an invitation to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, pointedly did not invite the Prime Minister of India. The press, of course, fell for the bait. The event would have gone unnoticed by everyone, but not anymore. Some are saying it was an insult to India, but I say it was an insult to Pakistan. In fact it was rubbing salt into the wounds—since Pakistan has no ‘Shahi Imam’ of its own.
Let’s face it. India heard of the Bukharis only after Sanjay Gandhi launched his scheme to ‘clean up’ Old Delhi, in particular the area around the Jama Masjid, and in the process threatened the livelihood of any number of hawkers and traders who gave that area its colour and hustle and bustle, and who had long been a major source of income and authority to the Bukharis. Then came the end of the Emergency and election time—and the rise of the Bukharis in politics. It has been a rough ride. Plenty of ups and downs. But Mr Bukhari deserves credit for never giving up. He has been a true heir to his father—despite what Azam Khan might say.
According to the reports published in the Urdu newspapers Rashtriya Sahara and Sahafat, Mr Bukhari presents the story of his family as follows. After the Jama Masjid was completed the Emperor wrote to the King of Bukhara and asked him to send some ‘Aalim or learned man who was also ‘mystically inclined’ to lead the prayers in his great mosque. The King of Bukhara sent him his own son-in-law named Syed Abdul Ghafur Shah, and it was this gentleman who led the prayers when the Emperor Shahjahan performed an Eid prayer in it for the first time in July 1656. After the prayers, the report claims, the Emperor enrobed Syed Abdul Ghafur and gave him the title: Imam-al-Saltanat (Imam of the Realm).
Since the reports do not refer to any historical source I imagine the story is a family lore, and was supplied by Mr Bukhari. Some of it could be true. Non-Arab Muslim kings often had their daughters married to some Syed in order to avoid the ‘shame’ of giving her to someone of their own race but necessarily lower in rank to them. And since Shahjahan’s empire at one time extended up to Balkh in Central Asia it is also quite possible that he made a request to the ruler of Bukhara—the hometown of the revered Imam Muhammad al-Bukhari—for some worthy man.
As everyone knows, Delhi was not Shahjahan’s original capital; it was Agra. Nor was it ever his only capital, for Lahore was also counted as one. In fact, from Akbar to Aurangzeb, the Mughals had at least three different ‘capitals’ simultaneously. Both Lahore and Agra have major mosques, but neither has a ‘Shahi Imam’. Even in Delhi, before the Jama Masjid was finished, the Emperor often went out to the Eidgah for the two major annual prayers. Someone must have done the duty of an Imam at those prayers. He is also recorded to have prayed at many Eids at the mosque built by another wife, Akbarabadi Begum. Someone must have led the prayers there. In other words, Shahjahan did not have a particular ‘Shahi Imam’ who tagged along with him to lead the prayers wherever his campaigns took him. He had many Imams.
Syed Ahmad Khan wrote a remarkable book in 1847 about his Delhi entitled Asar-al-Sanadid. He has much to say about the Jama Masjid, but nothing about its Imam. The only mention comes when he refers to a lane called Imam ki Gali close to the Jama Masjid. This is what he writes: Is Kuche Men Qadim Se Imam Jama Masjid Ka Makan Hai Aur ISI Sabab Imam Ki Gali Mashhur Hai, ‘Since old times the house of the Imam of the Jama Masjid has been in this lane and that’s why it is known as Imam ki Gali’. Just plain old ‘Imam’s Lane’. His description of the lane takes up only two lines. Immediately after it he spends ten lines describing a shop at the mouth of the lane, the shop of Ghazi Bharbhunja (one who sold parched grains). At the end of the same book he devotes many pages describing the most important scholars, Sufis, poets and physicians of the city. No Bukhari finds mention in those pages. Apparently both ‘Ilm and Tasawwuf had long disappeared from the descendents of the first Bukhari Imam.
Things had not changed in 1894, when Hakim Abdul Hai, father of the late Maulvi Ali Miyan of Nadwah, visited Delhi and wrote an account of his stay there. He visited the Jama Masjid, and prayed there at least twice, including a Friday prayer, but has nothing to say about the Imam. Apparently the person was not known for any learning or spiritual status. He too mentions Imam ki Gali, since he passed through it on his way elsewhere. He describes how preachers from four different Muslim sects harangued people after Friday prayers inside the precincts of the Jama Masjid, and how the Nawab of Bahawalpur was getting repairs done to the portions of the great mosque that had been damaged by lightning that year. But nowhere is any mention of a ‘Shahi Imam’.
‘Amal-i-Salih a.k.a. Shahjahan Nama is a reliable history of the Emperor’s times. It mentions the construction of the city and the subsequent inauguration of the mosque but makes no mention of the mosque’s Imam, ‘Shahi’ or otherwise. More usefully, it lists at the end all the dignitaries or Mansab-holders of the time. The lowest Mansab was titled Pan-Sadi (i.e. with income from the royal treasury or grant sufficient for the maintenance of 500 foot-soldiers. That was the way things were done in those days.) The list contains 180 names—in descending order of importance—under that category, and the name of one Syed Abdul Ghafur occurs just about in the middle. So, yes, the man from Bukhara got the appointment, as claimed, and was also treated reasonably well by the Emperor, but that was that. There was no special status or title.
In fact, the claim made by Mr Bukhari that Shahjahan named his ancestor Imam-al-Saltanat is bewildering, even laughable, unless he has a document to prove it. Shahjahan was a Badshah and not a Sultan, and rather finicky in such matters. A brief check did not turn up any title of his time that included the word Saltanat.
Be that as it may, what is certainly laughable is the claim made in those same published reports that the Imam of Jama Masjid used to perform ‘the Tajposhi of the Mughal kings’. As if the so-called ‘Shahi Imam’ was also an ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’ for the Mughals! To begin with, since Akbar’s time no Mughal king, except the last two, wore a crown and those two were fairly Anglicized when it came to presenting their royal visage to the public. Just look at the surviving portraits. All Mughal Emperors from Akbar to Shah Alam II are always wearing a turban. Only Akbar II and Bahadur Shah II are shown wearing something that could be called a crown or Taj. (The other Taj-wearers were the equally pretentious Nawabs of Oudh, beginning with Ghaziuddin Haidar.)
Could it be that the Bukhari family lore mentions a position of ‘turban-tying’? My betters will correct me but I think such daily tasks as enrobing the Emperor, holding his mirror, or tying his turban were regularly assigned to various dignitaries, and Syed Abdul Ghafur could have been one among the many turban-tiers that Shahjahan had. A prestigious enough position. In fact, I too would be a tiny bit proud had some ancestor of mine held such a position. But I wouldn’t turn him into an Indian ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’. Foolish I am, but not delusional, at least to that degree.
The phenomenon of an ordinary Imam turning himself into a ‘Shahi Imam’ is easily accountable. What is still known as Dabal ka Mitha in Hyderabad was turned into Shahi Tukre in Lucknow. Check the menus at fancy restaurants and you will find some simple Daal turned into Shahi Daal. A sad looking sign on the road from Lucknow to Barabanki points to an equally sad King George English Medium School. South Asian academics once added ‘Dr.’ to their names if they had done a PhD but otherwise were content with ‘Professor’ or ‘Mr.’ Now many come with calling cards describing them as ‘Professor Doctor’, even if they were not trained in Germany. This desire to gild a lily—or a cauliflower, for that matter—is understandable, but why has it afflicted at least four Indian Imams in this manner but not any of their peers in Pakistan and Bangladesh? And why do so many Muslims in India go along with these pretensions? Could it be that in Pakistan and Bangladesh most Muslims have got rid of that old syndrome of Pidram Sultan Bud a.k.a ‘We ruled here for centuries’, and now feel no need to attach themselves to an imaginary imperial past except perhaps in matters of café cuisine? A syndrome that unfortunately may still be found expressed frequently enough in India, though more mutely than before, in the pages of many Urdu newspapers and journals. Equally unfortunately, it is then reinforced by the clamour of those who persist in believing that they became independent only yesterday, ‘after 800 years of subjugation’.
C.M. Naim is Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago.