Invisible Imams

While religion evokes emotions and generosity among Kashmiris the people who preach it struggle to feed their families. Once highly respected class of the society Imams are forced to live on the margins. Syed Asma reports the indifference.

Imam Hai leading Friday prayers at Jamia Masjid Srinagar in a file picture.
Imam Hai leading Friday prayers at Jamia Masjid Srinagar in a file picture.

Wild, inhuman, harsh are few words that apparently cross your mind when you think of slit-throat-bodies of a 3-year-old, Aliya, and her 2-year-old brother Hashim, lying in the pool of blood.  Such gruesome crimes were unheard of in Kashmir.

Aliya and Hashim, children of Molvi Iftikar Ahmed, were found dead in the basement of their rental apartment in Bemina on the outskirts of Srinagar, while his wife, Naseema, had also been critically injured in the incident who later succumbed in hospital. Iftikar, a resident of Gurez had shifted to Srinagar recently and was leading prayers in a masjid in Iqbalabad, Bemina.

After few days of investigation, JK police solved the case and come up with a surprising revelation: The infants were killed by their mother, who later committed suicide. This leads to a very disturbing question, “What prompted a mother to slaughter her two infants?”

MM Shuja, a social activist and an editor of a local daily, Mission Kashmir, says the same question prompted him to look deeper into the case and believed got the answer.  “Poverty,” he claims, “is the reason which forced a mother to indulge in this wild act.”

A meagre amount of Rs 5500 cannot fetch much to the family of four, feels Shuja. But Iftikhar’s case is no different, as his monthly honorarium was almost same to any other Imam’s in Kashmir. The Imams across Kashmir are paid in the range of Rs 2500 to Rs 6000, excluding the Imams of 75 Masjids which are managed by the Wakf Board of Kashmir.

“We pay between Rs 5000 and Rs10,000 keeping in view the importance of the Masjids,” says Yasin Qadri, the Vice-Chairman of the Board. Rs 10,000 is paid to the Imams who lead prayers in the shrine managed by the Board. “Yes, the honorarium is not much, but it has been decided keeping in view, the revenue of the Board,” Yasin adds.

This ‘meagre’ amount of honorarium paid to the Imams across Valley forced Shuja to file a PIL in State’s Human Right’s Commission (SHRC) and “enforce Human Rights in respect of the Imam in the state,” the PIL reads.

It is not the only section of the society which is suffering on financial grounds, but analysing the place and amount of respect the post demands, Imams should not be in the condition they are presently in, explains Shuja, “If our society is not realizing the importance of an Imam, we should sensitize them and make them to pay the due respect an Imam deserves.”

In the PIL, Shuja had asked the Commission to set a proper system for the Imams in the Valley, so that, they will not have to suffer on financial grounds. One of the demands that the PIL has put forward is that minimum wages of Rs 12000 should be granted in their favour as recommended by Sachar Committee appointed in 2005 by the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. The committee was commissioned to prepare a report on the latest social, economic and educational condition of Muslim community of India.

Iftikhar is not the only one who chose to lead the prayers and had to suffer. Razzaq (name changed) has a similar story to narrate. This 24-year-old man hails from Kupwara and shifted to Srinagar as he believed that Imams in the city are comparatively well-off. The locals whom he led to prayers introduce him as a “well learned man” but later on the same locals accused Imam of committing a blunder: The cleric attempted suicide! Much to everybody’s surprise.

Razzaq had consumed poison after he failed to pay back the loan he had availed to build a concrete house. “I had to get my sister married,” he says, “She had faced rejection for many years, because of the mud house we used to live in.”

Razzaq shifted to Srinagar, led the prayers, took loan from people, build a house, got his sister married but could not pay back the amount.

“I am the lone bread winner in my family and only earn Rs 3500 a month. I tried hard but could not manage to return the money. So, I thought of ending my life, but to my bad luck, I survived.”

Razzaq is no more leading the prayers and is working as a salesman in Handwara.

But as per Mohammed Tariq, 32, wearing a long black beard who leads prayers in his locality for past 20 years now, thinks that an Imam should be chosen from one’s own locality.

“I was just 12-year-old, when I had to lead the prayers,” he says. Tariq was a good student and was then learning the Holy Quran in the same Darazgarh, he presently runs when the previous Imam fell ill. “Molvi sahib recommended my name and I could not say no,” remembers Tariq, “Who on this earth can say no if he is given an opportunity to lead the prayers!”

Tariq, like many other Imams too wasn’t paid much, but the managing body of the Masjid decided to hand over one of their shops to Tariq till he is leading the prayers in their locality.

Content with his life and earnings so far, Tariq is feeding a family of seven, his parents, wife and three children- two boys and a girl. All the three are enrolled in a local private school.

Sharing Tariq’s opinion Mujahid Shabir, a writer and an expert of Islamic jurisprudence, says a local Imam knows how to teach his own locality. “It is really difficult to trust a non-local and to allow him to live in our locality, besides, he will take months to gauge the mood of the locals and put across the religious teaching.”

He adds, “We should make religion easy to understand and choosing a local Imam makes half of your work done. He can preach using the local examples that the population can easily relate to.”

Choosing a local Imam was a usual practice in the Valley but the trend changed few decades back. Looking back at the history, Imamath was an affair of ‘elites’ in Kashmir but when they started looking for better options of earning, others tried their hands but they too could not sustain for long. And since then, the scene is spoiled by mismanagement.

The Imams don’t earn much – and many believe this is the only reason why locals are reluctant to learn and preach Islam and we have to ‘import’ imams from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and other parts of country.

The trend of inviting non-local Imams started in early 1990’s. Then most of the Masjids were occupied by them.

“In 1990’s I remember, I was a kid then, we in Tral had hired a new Imam, a non-local, his diction and pronunciation of Arabic was amazing and had generated good respect in very little time in our area,” says Shabir.

“But during the same period a strong rumour was spread in our area that some Arabic learnt Hindus are leading prayers in our Masjids and he, our Imam sahib, too vanished in the thin air.”

Shabir says, since then, the locals talk about his exit.

Shabir supporting Shuja’s thought says that society should definitely pay the respect to their Imams but simultaneously the Imams should not exploit the situation.

“A man who actually understands the importance of being an Imam will never try to earn from it. He does this in the way of Allah but if the society, or even a section of it is thinking of appertaining his position, he should not try to exploit it.”

Maulana Rehmatulla who is running a darul-aloom Rehimiyya in Bandipora, says an Imam should never depend on the honorarium he gets but should be skilled with which he can feed his family.


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