The Imam of India’s biggest mosque, Delhi’s Jama Masjid, has decided who his successor will be: a 19-year-old student who is pursuing his Bachelors in Social Work. Shaban Bukhari is also the younger son of Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari.
Shaban will be formally anointed as the Naib Imam, or the vice Imam, of Jama Masjid by his father during a ceremony in Delhi on November 22, when he will be just one step away from a position that is a powerful symbol of Muslim interests.
At the moment though, Shaban appears to be an unlikely candidate for the job. Continually prompted by his father to give the right answer, the shy student of Amity University told The Indian Express, “I am far from politics; I am still a student. I don’t like the communal politics that happens today. Any caste or religion-based tension is an attempt at distancing communities — it is bad politics and very bad for the progress of the country. Politics has to be issue based.”
In Islam, the Imam has the limited function of leading the prayers, and the priestly class has almost no other role. But in the 1970s, during and after the Emergency, the position of Imam of Jama Masjid acquired political significance, with various parties trying to enlist his support.
The current Imam has carved out a political space for himself, and has also been in the news for his tussles with the Waqf board which oversees the affairs of all the other mosques except Jama Masjid.
This year, the Imam’s endorsement of the Congress party for the Lok Sabha elections, after Sonia Gandhi met him, had hit the headlines. Earlier, there were attempts by the BJP during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s prime ministership to woo him, as also the Samajwadi Party — that political clout appears to have diminished now because of his shifting loyalties.
Shaban will have “to be trained”, said Syed Ahmed Bukhari, who will retain his title as long as he lives before making way for the 14th generation of “Shahi” Imams – the title Shahi, conferred by Shahjahan the Mughal emperor, holds no relevance today.
“He (Shaban) will take another 10 years till he is trained to be the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid. He has already started spending time with me. He will travel around the world with me and learn from me – just the way I learned from my father,” he said.
The announcement, however, has also raised some eyebrows.
Family sources said the 12th Imam, Syed Abdullah Bukhari, while announcing the next in line had also declared that his son Syed Ahmed Bukhari would be succeeded by his eldest son, continuing a tradition that has been in place since the time of Shahjahan, who built the Jama Masjid and conferred the title of “Shahi Imam” on Syed Ghafoor Shah Bukhari in 1656.
“The previous Imam had said that the present Imam would be succeeded by his eldest son from his first marriage whose name is Arif Bukhari. But he has been disowned by Imam Bukhari,” said a source within the family.
Imam Bukhari said that Shaban’s elder brother, Arhan, refused to take up the title when offered. “Shaban has more of a religious bent,” he said.
Shaban said he has also been “unofficially” helping his father. “I want to serve the people in whatever way possible. I am also studying Imamat to be be the Imam. My training with my father started about one year back and I have unofficially been assisting him since then,” said Shaban, who studied at St. Xavier’s School in Nainital and is now into the second year of his undergraduate programme.
The Bukhari household, meanwhile, is gearing up for November’s ceremony that will be held at Jama Masjid for which about 1,000 Muslim religious leaders from across the world will be invited. With the reading of the Quran, Syed Ahmed Bukhari will declare Shaban Bukhari his successor, after which a pagadi ceremony would be held, when each guest will lend a hand in tying a long cloth around the new Imam’s head.
“I am going to do it differently from what my father did,” said Syed Ahmed Bukhari. “My father had invited all the top political leaders for my investiture ceremony. But I am inviting only Muslim religious leaders.”
During the week thereafter, the Bukhari family will host at least three dinners: for the religious leaders; for about 3,000 “namazis” in Delhi; and the biggest, on November 29, for top diplomats and politicians from within India and abroad.
Once officially appointed, Shaban will need to religiously perform the namaz five times every day, and also conduct the Friday prayers. When asked if he would mix politics with religion in his discourse, the father cut in: “It is my duty as a religious leader stop people from doing anything wrong. Reading the Friday prayers does not mean imparting a bookish sermon. It means making the namazis aware of good and bad, and to show them the right path. This is how it should be.”