Succession: What the new Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid can learn from history

- February 27, 2024
| By : Vivek Shukla |

Shahi Imams of the Mughal-era mosque in the national capital have been known to root for communal harmony and peace, however, controversies have often followed them through the years; Syed Shaban Bukhari will have to do his best to steer clear of them

SUCCESSION: Shaban Bukhari (right) has succeeded father Ahmed Bukhari as the Imam of Jama Masjid. (Credit: Munsif TV India)

Syed Shaban Bukhari, an alumnus of Noida’s Amity University, will likely lead the Eid prayers this year at the historic Jama Masjid after he was named the successor by father Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the current Shahi Imam, in a grand dastaar-bandi ceremony (anointment of successor through the tying of a turban) in a glittering function at the Mughal-era mosque.

A descendent of Syed Abdul Ghafoor Shah Bukhari, an Islamic cleric from Bukhara in Uzbekistan, who was invited by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to take charge as Imam of Jama Masjid and lead the first Eid prayers at the mosque on July 25, 1656, Shaban Bukhari will lead prayers only when his father is not around. He is the 14th Imam in the history of the mosque.

Earlier, the major duties of the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid were to perform the coronation ceremony of Mughal emperors and lead the smooth conduct of prayers at the Jama Masjid. Syed Ghafoor Bukhari performed the coronation of Emperor Aurangzeb. Bahadur Shah Zafar’s coronation ceremony was performed by Mir Ahmed Ali Shah Bukhari, the eighth Shahi Imam, on 30th September 1837.

DIVINE GUIDANCE: The newly-appointed Imam raises hands in prayer along with others following dastaar-bandi (Credit: Munsif TV India)

The incumbent Imam declares his heir apparent in his lifetime to avoid any succession-related controversy. Even Syed Ahmed Bukhari, who had briefly studied at St. Columba’s School, was declared Naib Imam in 2000 when his famous and burly father, Syed Abdullah Bukhari, was indisposed and bedridden.

The new Shahi Imam

As celebrations related to the anointment culminate with a grand dinner on February 27, many people ask whether Syed Shaban Bukhari will follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather or remain aloof from controversies.

Old-timers will tell you that Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari and his father, Imam Syed Abdullah Bukhari, courted controversy through their actions and statements.

Many years ago, Ahmed Bukhari, Shaban’s father, created a stir when he made some unsavoury comments about Bollywood actor Shabana Azmi.

Sahmat, an organisation set up to defend the pluralist and democratic spirit of creative expression, had heavily criticised him for his utterance.

Noted historian of Delhi, RV Smith, once wrote that the great-grandfather of Syed Shaban Bukhari, “… Imam Abdul Hamid Bukhari, was regarded as a non-controversial cleric until he had a big tiff with General Shahnawaz Khan of Netaji’s Indian National Army. The general, who faced court-martial, along with two other INA officers in Red Fort and was defended, among others, by Jawaharlal Nehru, opposed the anointment of Syed Abdullah Bukhari as the next Imam, contending that the decision rested with the Waqf Board and claiming the support of Barrister Nuruddin Ahmed.  Syed Abdullah Bukhari did eventually succeed his father.”

It may be recalled that General Shahnawaz Khan was a close relative of Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan.

As a young man, Syed Abdullah Bukhari had worked hard with his father and others in persuading Muslims of Delhi not to leave for Pakistan despite widespread communal riots gripping the Capital.

In the following decades, Imam Bukhari used his clout as the cleric of India’s best-known mosque to take a keen interest in the social and economic problems of Muslims.

He took to the streets following communal violence in Delhi’s Kishanganj area in 1974, leading to his imprisonment for 18 days in early 1975. The event triggered widespread protests.

He rose to national prominence in March 1977 when he joined politicians in mobilising people to vote out the Congress government of Indira Gandhi, accusing it of displacing the poor from their homes and forcing their menfolk to undergo vasectomy.

Practice of anointment

Now that Syed Shaban Bukhari has become the Shahi Imam, some people are questioning the practice of hereditary succession and whether it is fair in a democratic country.

“It is an fair practice. There is nothing wrong with it. This tradition has been going on for centuries. Those who question this well-established practice have no respect for the rich tradition,” says Maulana Umer Ilyasi, President of the All India Imam Organisation.

However, many do not share Maulana Ilyasi’s thoughts.

“This hereditary power is an assault on India’s constitution, the source of egalitarianism in our national life,” writes author Tufail Ahmad, referring to Jama Masjid a couple of years ago.

SACRED RITUAL: Shabani Bukhari during the dastaar-bandi, which is the tying of turban (Credit: Indian Minorities Foundation)

In her book But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim, writer Rakhshanda Jalil writes about the Imam of Jama Masjid, “Neither he is an alim (scholar of Islamic law) nor a hafiz (one who has memorised the Quran). And when was the position of an imam a hereditary one?”

She adds, “He certainly does not have the stature of Maulana Azad, who was an alim.”

Well, it is from the ramparts of Jama Masjid that Maulana Azad had called upon the Muslims of Delhi on October 23, 1947, to stop thinking of leaving India in the wake of Partition.

In an impassioned speech, he told the Muslims that ‘India belongs to them and you belong to India’.

Of course, that speech of Maulana Azad is now part of the annals of Indian history.

To be sure, Jama Masjid is not all about Muslims.

Arya Samaj leader, Swami Shraddhanand, also spoke from here and appealed for Hindu-Muslim unity on December 23, 1926.

Around 20 years ago, on November 4, 2004, former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke from here and called upon Indian Muslims to work for the overall development of India. This writer was there when the cricketer-turned-politician was warmly welcomed by the rozedaar (those fasting).

Expectations from Imam Shaban Bukhari are very high. Hopefully, he would keep his position non-controversial and respected.