New Age Islam
Fri May 07 2021, 10:17 PM

Debating Islam ( 25 Apr 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Muslims in India debate: Should Imams be on Government Payroll?

By Adab Nawaz,

Last week’s news of Lucknow-based Pandit Amar Nath Mishra, president of Brahmin Sansad, joining the chorus of Imam Council of India for monthly wages to imams made for interesting reading. But beyond the heart-warming, eye-catching headline of a Hindu dharma guru’s batting for poorly paid Muslim imams, there is a less-debated issue. That is: Does a secular government have the mandate to pay the imams who perform a purely religious duty? And if imams are brought on the government’s payroll, should the priests in sundry temples, churches and gurudwaras be left behind? Given the nature of our society, the demand of salaries for imams, community leaders and commentators believe, will only give fillip to competitive communalism in India.

Admittedly imams who lead prayers and muezzins (those who call for namaz five times a day) are poorly paid.  Barring a few, most imams across India survive on a princely monthly salary of less than Rs 10,000. Since imams’ is an important job, they deserve to be taken care of well. But it’s the duty of the community, not the government, to ensure that imams are well-paid.

“Government has no business to fix salaries of the imams. Just as the community build mosques and maintain them on their own, they should also pay the imams well,” says Javed Anand of Muslims for Secular Democracy.

The imams’ bodies argue that they demand salaries from the income of the Waqf Boards which are custodians of Muslim-dominated properties. They cite a precedent: Waqf Boards in Delhi , Haryana and Punjab pay imams of the mosques registered with these boards.

“Our demand is from the Waqf Boards which control huge Muslim properties,” says Maulana Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, president of All India Imam Association.

Ilyasi and his family have something to do with the mosques, imams and their salaries. Ilyasi who inherits his father late Jameel Ilyasi’s “passion” to get justice for the imams, also wants 186 mosques across the country, many defunct and currently under the control of the Archaeological Survey of India, to be restored to the Muslims. It was Ilyasi senior who, having established the Imam Organisation in 1976, upped the demand for imams’ salaries. Close to the corridors of power in Delhi , senior Ilyasi would hobnob with politicians and even got Indira Gandhi almost handing over 123 long-abandoned mosques in Delhi to the Muslims. Indira Gandhi didn’t give keys to these pre-Independence era mosques to Ilyasi, but brought them all under the control of Delhi Waqf Board. Umer Ilyasi claims that many of these mosques are inside the bungalows of senior ministers (minority affairs minister Salman Khurshid’s bungalow too has one). They never became Muslim properties as a Hindu organization went to the courts against Indira Gandhi’s “Muslim appeasement.” Since then the dispute has been dragging in the Delhi High court.

Meanwhile, the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, facing Muslim disenchantment in the aftermath of Babri Masjid demolition, announced several sops to Muslims, including salaries to the imams. Jameel Illyasi again was instrumental in getting Rao announce it. Faced with opposition, Jameel Ilyasi petitioned the Supreme Court which ruled in 1993 that Waqf Boards should establish schemes to pay the imams. This ruling became a benchmark which the imams today quote while raising their demand for wages.

Interestingly, of late some areas of Delhi have witnessed some crazy scenes on Fridays. Every Friday, hordes of namazis, galvanized by imams who have personal and spiritual stakes in holding congregations, fight with the cops to get entry to several protected monuments in and around Delhi . They shout slogans, offer prayers and leave only to return next Friday. “We want to restore Allah’s houses to their pristine glory, not to turn them into clubs,” reasons Umer Ilyasi. He doesn’t rule out the hidden agenda of at least some of the imams who lead prayers in those mosques which are protected monuments.

The demand for imams’ salaries, even sought from the badly-managed, corruption-riddled Waqf Boards, is ill-conceived and goes against the grain of secularism. “The Waqf properties are encroached upon both by the governments and individuals, both Muslim and non-Muslims. Muslims should fight to remove the encroachments and get incentives for education and employment from Waqf Boards,” suggests Kamal Farooqui, member of All India Muslim Personal Law Board. He adds that, like the Haj subsidy (Muslims actually want to get rid of it), imams’ salaries too will be an albatross around the community’s neck.  

The imams’ wages is not a popular demand among Muslims. In fact, Farooqui recalls, the revered Islamic scholar Maulana Ali Mian Nadvi who was head of Lucknow-based seminary Nadwatul Ulema, had once in the 1990s openly criticized the demand for imams’ salaries. “Maulana Nadvi was angry and called it tantamount to allowing the government’s entry into the mosques,” recalls Farooqui. “If the imams are on government’s payroll, the government will be justified in vetting the Friday khutabas (sermons). Are the Muslims ready for this?” Maulana Nadvi had asked.

The question is relevant and begs answers from, not just Muslims, but all those who have a stake in inclusive, secular India.    

Adab Nawaz,