Urdu speakers take much pride in their language. They particularly flaunt Urdu’s allegedly unique ability to put into resounding words whatever spasm of politesse grabs them at any time. It’s often edifying to see the results, particularly when the politesse is mixed comes packaged with an intense desire to be “religiously correct”.

Consider talking of death. Urdu has one perfectly good, all-purpose word: marnā (to die). We also have, for the purpose of being more specific in a certain “technical” sense, qatl honā (to be murdered) and halāk honā (to die a violent death of some other kind, say, in an epidemic or a train crash). We also have generally applicable euphemistic expressions, such as uTh jānā and guzar jānā (to be lifted from the world; to pass on). Then there are the more “formal” or “dignified” expressions for a general use, like wafāt pānā and intiqāl honā (to die). I may write, Pandit Nehru kā intiqāl 1949 men huā, or Qaid Azam ne 1950 men wafāt pāī, and in both cases my Urdu would be considered quite correct. I would, in fact, get an A for not using marnā with reference to the two statesmen. On facts alone would I be denounced, and rightly so.

Now consider the situations that the editors of some Urdu newspaper in Pakistan recently faced, and the decisions they made regarding the word “killed.”

In December 2014 there was a horrifying attack on the students of the Army Public School at Peshawar. The headline of the report in the Jang read:

In the terrorist attack on the Army Public School, 137 persons, including children, were killed (shahīd) and more than 245 injured.

The report then used the word shahīd (martyr) several times with reference to the victims, in general, and the children, in particular. I was not able to access the report in the Express, but one can be sure that it too did exactly the same.

A month later, there was an equally dastardly attack on a Shi’ah mosque in Shikarpur, in which 58 persons, including many children, lost their lives, and many more were injured. This is how the Jang headlined its report on January 30, 2015:

Fifty-eight persons, including children, who had come to offer Friday prayers were killed (jān ba-haq) when an explosion occurred inside the Imambargah at Lakhi Dar in Shikarpur.

Jān ba-haq is an abbreviation of the euphemistic expression jān ba-haq taslīm karnā, i.e. “to submit one’s life to God.” The report used that expression throughout. In this case, I was able to check the report in the Express—they too had done exactly the same.

On May 7, 2015, there was a tragic accident in Gilgit in which an army helicopter carrying various foreign diplomats crashed while landing. The Jang reported it with the headline:

Due to some technical problem, a Pakistani army helicopter crashed near Gilgit, and seven persons were killed (jān ba-haq).

However, as the report progressed, the paper used (jān ba-Haq) with reference to the ambassadors and their wives, and consistently used shahīd when it referred to the two Army pilots and one Army technician. The Express, in this case, consistently used the common expression halāk hona (to be killed) with reference to both groups. Two other papers that I looked into, Dunya and Nai Bat, followed the Jang’s example, and used jān ba-Haq with reference to the foreigners and shahīd concerning the Pakistani army personnel. Apparently, in the opinion of the Jang, Dunya, and Nai Bat, even the Muslim wives of the Ambassadors from Malaysia and Indonesia were not considered fit to be designates as martyrs.

A few days later there was a horrible attack on a private bus in Karachi. The Jang reported it in this manner:

Terrorists forced their way into a bus of the Isma’ili community and blindly opened fire on innocent passengers, as a result 45 persons, including women, were killed (jān ba-Haq).

The same expression was used in the three other newspapers that I checked that day: Dunya, Express, and Nai Bat.

Earlier this year, on Sunday, March 15, two separate suicide bombers attacked two churches in Lahore. As a result 15 Christian worshippers died, while 79 were severely injured. Both the Jang and Express reported the tragedy in bold letters on their front pages, but both used the expression halāk honā to refer to the Christian victims of the attack. Mercifully, the suicide bombers, both Muslims, were not called either shahīd or jān ba-haq. In fact, they were not much mentioned at all.

Five years back, on May 28, 2010, Lahore witnessed another ghastly carnage, when two Ahmadi mosques were similarly attacked during the Friday congregational prayers. As a result 88 worshippers, including women and children, instantly lost their lives, and more than 200 worshippers were badly injured. Urdu newspapers rigorously referred to them as mahlukīn (the killed). And, of course, as required by law in Pakistan, they referred to the Ahmadi mosques as ahmadī ‘ibādatgāh.

The headline in the Express next day read:

Firing in Ahmadi Worship-places in Garhi Shahu and Model Town; Suicide bombings; 88 killed (halāk), 200 wounded.

In the body of the full report, the Express used the expressions halāk honā and marnā when referring to the victims, except near the very end when it said: “It is feared that the number of people killed (jān ba-haq) in this terrorist attack could exceed 100.” Earlier the report mentioned that one of the victims was Major General (retd.) Nasir Ahmad—a cousin of Sir Zafarullah Khan, Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister—but both times used the verb marnā. The report in the next day’s paper used marnā and halāk honā exclusively. I was not able to access the issues of the Jang—their Internet archive does not go that far back—but I am confident that they did exactly the same, and used only the expressions marnā and halāk honā with reference to the Ahmadi victims of a well-coordinated attack by “mainline” Muslim fanatics.

So, what do we learn from this little exercise?

At least in these two Urdu newspapers, the attackers are always only dahshatgard (terrorists). They either blow themselves up to smithereens or are killed (māre gaye). Their religious/sectarian affiliations are not mentioned; they may, however, be identified as belonging to some organization, particularly if that organization immediate takes “credit” for the carnage.

As for the victims, Christians and Ahmadi Muslims only die or get killed (marnā; halāk honā). Shi’ahs and Ismailis get to “submit their lives to the Truth” (jān ba-Haq), and foreign dignitaries—Muslim and non-Muslim, alike—may get that privilege too. Only the non-Ahmadi Army personnel and students at Army schools are unequivocally recognized as worthy of being designated as “martyrs” (shahīd).

Both the Jang and the Express have sister publications—The News and the Express Tribune, respectively— in English. In them, people “die” or get “killed”, but the news-writers remain respectfully silent about the deceased person’s relationship with his Maker.

Verbal religious finesse has not yet reached such dubious heights in the Urdu press in India, but the potential is very much there. I well recall the time, decades ago, when Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi raised a ruckus in his popular and influential weekly, Sidq-e Jadīd (Lucknow), over someone’s use of the word marhūm with reference to either Jawaharlal Nehru or Lal Bahadur Shastri. The word is commonly used in Urdu the way the expression, “the late….” is used in English, its more literal meaning being, “One who has received God’s Mercy.” The Maulana insisted that it was not correct to use marhūm with reference to non-Muslims, and that instead everyone should use ān-jahānī (Belonging to the Other World). As I remember, the Maulana very much prevailed over the few who had opposed his assertion. Even now one hardly ever sees marhūm after a non-Muslim name in Indian Urdu newspapers. It is always ān-jahānī, placed before or after the deceased’s name. Incidentally, if memory still serves me right, the old Arya Samajist Urdu journals, used marhūm with Muslim names, granting them the mercy of Allah, and svargīya or svargbāshī (Residing in Paradise) with Hindu names. What they did with Christian and Sikh names escapes my memory.


*Published in Scroll.in on June 27, 2015.

Did you hear that the American Ambassador in Rome went and lit seven candles before the case containing the Shroud of Turin on behalf of President Barack Obama? Or, that the Secretary of State, John Kerry, ordered a diplomat from the American Consulate at Chennai to go and place flowers on the deity in the holiest temple at Thanjavur? I’m sure you did not. And for a very good reason—neither incident actually happened. I made them up just now to catch your attention. Now consider the following news as reported today (April 21, 2015) in some Urdu newspapers in India:

American President sent a chador [a ceremonial sheet of cloth] to the annual observation at the shrine of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti at Ajmer.

All papers also published images to complement the news. Here is one report in the Sahafat (Lucknow). Chador at Ajmer 4:21

The caption reads: “Ajmer: At the occasion of the 803rd ‘Urs of Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti people are carrying the chador sent for presentation by the American President Barack Obama.” The same image appeared the same day in the Aag, another daily published from Lucknow, with some additional details:

report in Aag 4:21

Ajmer: A special chador was presented on behalf of the American President  Barack Obama at the 803rd ‘Urs of Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti.  Today was the first day of the six-day commemoration. Richard Verma, the American Ambassador to India had given this red sheet to Salman Chishti, an attendant at the shrine, on Thursday in Delhi. And today he, [i.e. Chishti], offered that sheet at the shrine and read out the message sent by the American President in which the latter had said that no matter what our beliefs and traditions we must strive to make Peace a certainty, and that we must spread light where there was darkness and love where there was hatred.

A different image was published in the daily Sahara in its New Delhi edition.

Sahara image

The headline reads, “American President sent a chador for the ‘urs of Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti.” The report mentions that it was given by the American Ambassador to an attendant of the shrine and was carried to the sacred grave by some “officials from the Embassy.”

Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti (d. 1236) was the founding saint of the Chishti Sufi order in India, and is popularly regarded as the “Head” of all Sufis in India. His ‘urs or the annual commemoration of “the day he joined his Beloved”—God—is celebrated in a grand manner. Over the years it has become common to read in the news about Bollywood stars of any age and Indian politicians of every hue visiting the shrine, and further displaying their devotion by offering elaborate chadors. These are usually draped over the grave of the saint for a while and then shared by the attendants or resold to another devout visitor.

Not having come across any previous indication of President Obama’s devotion to saints and shrines even of the Christian kind, I was quite intrigued by these reports. Bollywood celebrities and Indian politicians go to Ajmer to ensure success in their enterprises, both business and electoral. Ordinary folks visit the shrine hoping to get the saint to intercede with God on their behalf and let them have a child (preferably male), be ridden of some possessing spiri (male or female), escape conviction in some court case, succeed in examinations and interviews, get a job in Dubai or a visa to the United States, and so forth. But why, I wondered, should the President of the world’s greatest power and its most exceptional nation send a gaudy satin sheet to have it draped over the grave of a 13th century saint in a remote town in Rajasthan, India?

Then other questions came up. Did he pay for it personally, or did the Embassy buy it? And if it was the Embassy in New Delhi, then under what account did they list the expenditure to satisfy the General Accounting Office nitpickers? The last question revealed the whole story, for it was, as young people say, a “no brainer.” The money for that gaudy red satin sheet must have come from the funds earmarked “War on Terror; sub-category: Islamic Extremism.”

Obviously either the White House or the Embassy in India—probably both—has swallowed the latest snake oil being peddled by the experts on “Islamic Terror.” Turn all Sunni Muslims into Sufis, the latter declare, and the world will become safe from all the Wahhabis, Salafis, Deobandis, Ikhwan, Jama’atis, and other baddies. An attractive solution for many reasons. Just compare the price of a satin sheet with the cost of a missile fired from a drone. There is no collateral damage either. And it offers much better photo opportunities.

Curiously, only just recently, similar “experts” in New Delhi brought a bunch of Imams and Sufi shrine-keepers, led—you guessed it—by another caretaker from Ajmer, to meet with Prime Minister Modi. The worthies offered their “Sufi Islam” in the service of the new government. Here is an image of that historical meeting on April 6, 2015 as reported in Sahafat in its Delhi edition of April 8

. Ulama and Modi copy

Could it be that it was not some hapless junior officer at the Embassy but Prime Minster Modi, who recommended this low cost-high gain “sheet diplomacy” to his friend, admirer, and biographer in the White House? And that it was the Defender of the First Amendment who chose to go along just to humor his new-found soulmate in New Delhi? We will never find out.

Meanwhile let us hope that the caretakers of the Shroud of Turin and the priests at the temples of Thanjavur do not come across this blog and start demanding similar displays of faith and devotion from nearby American diplomatic missions.


P.S. Today’s (April 22, 2015) Sahara (New Delhi) brings the news that Sonia Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpeyi, and Narendra Modi have also offered chadors at the shrine. The chador sent by by the President of the Indian National Congress, as seen in the picture below, could be the grandest—it is definitely larger and more elaborate than that sent by the President of the United States. As always, the State Department chooses to economize where it shouldn’t. A chador being brought from Pakistan is reported to be a mile long. Now that is some sheet.

Sonia's chador




An editorial—‘Into the Open’—in the Express-Tribune of December 16, 2014, begins: ‘There has been much speculation, frequently alarmist or simply ill-informed, as to the extent or otherwise that the Islamic State (IS) has a presence in Pakistan. Government ministers have gone on-the-record to say that there is no IS presence, but there are reports of supportive wall-chalking and the circulation of literature that supports the IS from several parts of the country.’ It then goes on to allow that ‘there are parts of the country where the extremist mindset has been fostered and grown over many years, and the ideology of the IS may find fertile ground to root itself in,’ and offers two examples. One is of Abdul Aziz, the chief cleric of the infamous Lal Masjid in Islamabad—the paper charges: ‘[Aziz] is happy to declare that he holds the group in high regard’—and the other is the case of some ‘female students of Jamia Hafsa [a part of the same institution] who have prepared and circulated a video extolling the IS.’

The naming of names is commendable even if it amounts to only one institution, for the practice is rather rare in Pakistani editorials and columns. But I wonder why the editors of the Express-Tribune had go to the trouble of finding just one example so far away from their comfortable offices when they could have easily found an equally redoubtable supporter of IS in their own sister Urdu journal, the Daily Express. I, of course, mean the one and only Orya Maqbul Jan, the self-proclaimed expert on International Finance, Muslim Political History, and the Doomsday. Consider his column of November 17, 2014—titled Taqsim Wazih Ho Rahi Hai’ (‘Lines are now clearly drawn’). In it he ever so blithely argued that Syria was the place where lines had been clearly drawn between Islam and non-Islam, and where would likely be, in his view, ‘the headquarters of [the promised] Imam Mehdi and the capital of his Caliphate.’ He then expanded his argument by quoting two alleged hadith. According to one, the Prophet allegedly prophesied that before the end of the world there would be a decisive battle between Muslims and Christians near Aleppo, and that, according to the second alleged hadith, the best among the Muslims at that time would be those who would do the hijrat to Syria—in other words those who would leave their lands to join the Mehdi’s army.

A few days later, on December 5, 2014, Mr. Jan shifted from Doomsday forecasts to Political History and questioned the sincerity of any Muslim who accused Amirul Mominin Abu Bakr Baghdadi and his IS crowd of wanton killing. I cannot reproduce here his long and a bit convoluted argument—it should be read in Urdu to get its full flavour—but this is how he closed: ‘According to all the principles of Political Science the Daulat-e Islamiya [i.e. IS] is a state; it is also a state according to those who champion the cause of a Muslim Social/Political Contract (musalmanon ka nazm-e ijtima’i).” He then proceeded to argue that in 1988 the revolutionaries in Iran were fully justified in declaring Iranian Communists and Liberals to be mulhid (heretics) and munafiq (dissembling enemies) and therefore fully deserving execution as enemies of the Revolutionary Islamic State. If that was right in 1988, he asked his co-religionists, why should it be wrong and un-Islamic now?

Then, only a day before the Express-Tribune published its editorial, Mr. Jan published the second part of a long essay against contemporary democracies, arguing in favor of a system where only certain ‘worthy’ individuals should have the right to choose the ruler of a Muslim state, and that once a Caliph had been chosen in that manner it was incumbent on all Muslims to obey him. No one must challenge a ‘chosen Caliph,’ he wrote, and then, expectedly, quoted another alleged hadith in which the Prophet allegedly ordered that in situations where two persons claimed the title and obtained allegiances (bai’at) from different supporters, ‘the person to make the second claim must be executed.’

Now it is quite possible that the common owner of the two journals has issued strict orders that the people of one journal should never question or even read what the other publishes. That would make good business sense. Each journal then meets the expectations of the audience the owner and his advisors imagine for it, and does nothing to rock the boat of commerce.

The same business acumen might be seen in two other sets of twin publications that I am slightly familiar with: the hellfire and brimstone in some of the columns of Jang and Nawa-i-Waqt do not find their way into the columns of The News and The Nation, just as the moderate and rational mode of thought in most columns of the latter two does not seep into the la-la musings that the former two mainly peddle. Most instructional in that regard are the English and Urdu versions of the column that the ‘Father of Islamic Bomb’ Dr. A. Q. Khan writes in The News and Jang. When writing on some political issue he always appears more subdued in English, but lets loose in Urdu. In the same two newspapers, Ansar Abbasi, another popular columnist, takes an easier way out by writing on certain subjects only in Urdu, avoiding them in English and in general dampening down his rhetorical flourishes.

Not quite coincidental to the above is the fact that these same conglomerates make piles of money presenting endless talk shows in Urdu on the channels they own, but have not done much to provide anything on the same channels that could possibly reflect the moderate posture of their English publications. They know what sells, and in what language.

But perhaps I am barking up the wrong tree. It may be more accurate to assert that the ‘Anglophone’ population in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad prefers it that way. Who are these ‘Anglophones?’ The people who quickly switch to English when after starting a serious conversation in Urdu, seldom buy and then read an Urdu newspaper, and prefer to look with disdain at what they may perchance see in Urdu—’Just some more backward thinking.’—rather than take it as seriously as any scribbling from the English language sister journals of the same Urdu dailies. As I wrote I tried to recall some serious engagement with Urdu columnists in any English newspaper of Pakistan, but nothing came to mind. I hope I am wrong.

On the other hand, to see how juvenile a view ‘Anglophone’ Pakistanis take of what is published in Urdu newspapers just check the section, ‘Nuggets from the Urdu Press,’ in any issue of The Friday Times. This week’s (Dec. 19, 2014) issue contains a dozen or so such ‘nuggets.’ The shortest is titled, ‘Widower runs away on the day of second marriage,’ and reads: ‘According to Nai Baat (November 26, 2014), a widower and father of three ran away from his home in Narang Mandi on the day of his second marriage. He was caught from Lahore, where he said he was joking about wanting to get married again, only to see if someone would give him their daughter. A panchayat seized his tractor and trolley when he failed to pay a Rs. 1 million fine.’ Giggle, giggle!

Never mind that Nai Baat is generally considered to be the paper of preference for the ‘enlightened’ and ‘liberal’ supporters of the Jama’at-e Islami, and should be taken as seriously as The Friday Times, if not more so, where the political, intellectual and cultural future of the country is on the table.



An Urdu version of the above is available at Tanqeed.

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 Ka’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.

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’ah 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 Habibur 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 mahaan.

My least favourite is the savant of Kolkota. 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.

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 Qr’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 ‘alim 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 tasavvuf 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’.



Originally published—with additional images—in Outlookindia.com on November 26, 2014.