The Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, who made news recently, belongs to one of the oldest families of Delhi. His grandfather, 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 appointment of Abdullah Bukhari as the next Imam, contending that the decision rested with the Waqf Board and claiming the support of Barrister Nuruddin Ahmed. Abdullah did eventually succeedhis father and was once arrested for leading an agitation.
One remembers him as an obese, fair-complexioned man, who had partly studied in St. Columba’s School, but looking at him some found it difficult to believe that. He would walk down from his spacious house in Gali Imam Wali 50 years ago to lead namaz at the Jama Masjid, accompanied by a hefty, head-shaven, barefoot man, carrying a lathi and dressed in kurta-tehmet. It was Ahmad who kept looking to the left and right and keeping people away while the Imam, wearing dark glasses and a skull-cap above his long shirt and pyjamas, walked nonchalantly, with slow, heavy steps, acknowledging greetings from acquaintances while a frowning Mir Mushtaq Ahmed (later Chief Executive Councillor of Delhi) looked down from his balcony in Urdu Bazar. It was an open secret that he and the Imam were not on the best of terms. M.O. Farooqui, the Communist leader who lived close by, was an unconcerned observer, like Mustehasan Farouqi, caretaker of the shrine of Hazrat Kalimullah. But Imdad Sabri and area councillor Chaudhuri Abdul Sattar had strong contrary views on the matter. Another ambivalent balcony looker on was Haji Zahooruddin of Haji Hotel, bang opposite the masjid.
Abdullah Bukhari had a powerful voice which could be heard as far away as Daryaganj at the two Eids, and specially the last Friday of Ramzan, when the Mewatis and others came from Haryana to offer Alvida namaz in Edward Park, where they generally congregated. The Imam began to be guarded after a man tried to attack him in Urdu Bazar. When he became old and ill the question of his succession again led to a controversy, with some free-thinking Muslims questioning the right of the incumbent Imam to name his successor. But he had his way all the same and his elder son, Syed Ahmed Bukhari was appointed the next Imam. One thing about Imam Abdullah Bukhari that few people knew was that he could speak and write good enough English and once surprised a British dignitary by interrupting the interpreter and answering questions himself, obviously the result of his early education. When the Imam of Kaba came to Delhi on a visit as guest of the Government of India, he was pleasantly surprised to find that the Imam could converse with him in Arabic directly. A Persian cleric was delighted when he briefly spoke to him in Farsi. Despite his flaring nostrils, he was not a quick- tempered man, though bearing a strong resemblance to King Farouq of Egypt, who was in the news (before his ouster) for choosing a beautiful commoner as his second wife and installing her as Queen Narriman in Cairo.
The Shahi Imam, his politics apart, is a direct descendant of the first royal prelate of the Jama Masjid who was invited by Shah Jahan from Bukhara to take charge of the mosque soon after its completion in mid-17th century. The office became virtually hereditary, with the Imams occupying an important position at the Mughal court. They have continued to stay in the same lane in which the first Shahi Imam resided and the lane has been named after them. With the fall of the Mughal Empire the Shahi Imams were often at loggerheads with the Company Sarkar, especially after the First War of Independence, when the British thought of demolishing the Jama Masjid because of the resistance put up by the Muslims entrenched there. The Shahi Imams had since then been under a cloud and considered a security risk by successive British Commissioners of Delhi.
Syed Ahmed Bukhari has inherited the same outlook as his forebears and is still looked upon by some as the repository of Islamic ideals. However, his brother’s public dissent (on whom Muslims should vote for) was probably the first such instance in the history of the family, the names of whose Imams are inscribed on a tablet in the mosque.
The author is a veteran chronicler of Delhi