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The Antics of the Mullahs Never Cease

By K. Itarwala,

The antics of the Mullahs and their clones truly never cease to amaze—and disgust—me. The same, I suppose, could be said of most priests, ‘holy’ men and other such creatures who claim to be religious authorities in other faith traditions, but here I will restrict myself just to the ‘Muslim’ case.

Last month, Muhammad Burhanuddin, the head priest of the Dawoodi Bohra sect (a branch of the Mustalian sect, which, in turn, is a branch of the Ismaili sect, which, in turn, is a branch of the Shia sect, and which [phew! finally!] is a branch of Islam [as it is conventionally understood]), celebrated his 100th birthday. Vast sums of money were spent by his unthinking followers in an unprecedented birthday bash. They even sponsored six pages of advertisements in the Times of India to hail their leader as God’s gift to humankind—at the cost of who knows how many tens of lakhs or perhaps even crores of rupees!

Being from a family that was, years ago, excommunicated (thankfully!) from the Daudi Bohra community for speaking out against the greed and corruption of its head-priest, I have a somewhat insider’s knowledge of the reality of this man and his cronies. In order to do my bit of good, at a time when the media, including even sections of the Sunni media, was agog with stories singing his praises,  I penned a couple of articles exposing Burhanuddin for what he is. I pointed out how, using appeals to religion, he and his family had risen from rags to riches and now presided over a vast empire. I mentioned how, in order to reinforce his authority among his blind followers, he claims that no Bohra can be admitted into heaven without his assent. I drew attention to how he uses the weapon of baraat or the threat of excommunication to expel any Bohra who dares to challenge his authority or even to critique his ways that have no sanction whatsoever in religion, if understood sensibly. And so on.

I emailed my articles to a couple of newspapers and websites, including some run by ‘Muslims’. Sadly, though not unexpectedly, none of them deigned to publish any of them. I say ‘unexpectedly’ because I am aware of the immense economic clout that Burhanuddin and his henchmen exercise, lavishly patronising the media in order to project the myth of the Bohra head-priest as a pious do-gooder. The vast sums of money that must have been paid up to the Times of India for the advertisements glorifying Burhanuddin are a case in point. I am given to believe that the Kothar, the Bohra religious establishment, likewise generously patronises other media outlets, including sections of the Sunni press, in similar ways. The Kothar also reportedly makes it a point to pass on money on a regular basis to a range of influential Sunni institutions and clerics so as to keep their mouths shut—that is their way of preventing them from speaking out against the Bohra head-mullah’s dictatorial ways and a host of practices that he enforces that have no justification whatsoever in the Quran. These Sunni beneficiaries of his largesse, I am sad to say, have sold their consciences for just a few pennies.

The Quran very explicitly critiques those who take fallible human beings as what it calls ‘lords’. In a verse that has universal applicability, it states, ‘They have set up their religious leaders and scholars as lords, instead of God’ (9: 31). Most Muslims fondly imagine that the phenomenon that this verse describes applies only to Jews and Christians, and not to themselves. That, however, is not quite the case, for notwithstanding the particular context in which the verse was revealed, it suggests to us a phenomenon that applies universally, even to those who call themselves ‘Muslims’. Some ‘Muslims’ might protest, saying that they do not worship their mullahs as ‘lords’, and so this definitely does not apply to them. My point is that the concept of lordship indicated in this verse is not restricted to worship, and also applies to the unthinking following of all sorts of ‘religious leaders’ or ‘scholars’ in the belief that they are the representatives of God. The tendency to imagine that mullahs, priests, rabbis or pujaris are God’s spokesmen and that blindly assenting to them is what God demands is, lamentably, a universal one, and ‘Muslims’ are no exempt from this error, which the Quran condemns in no uncertain terms.

The unfortunate habit among ‘Muslims’ of calling their mullahs as ‘maulana’, which means ‘lord’, well exemplifies the phenomenon that this Quranic verse indicates. The verse certainly tells us something about how deluded those ‘Muslims’ are who fervently believe that their half-baked mullahs, whom they take as their ‘lords’, are their stepping-stones to heaven. This applies fully in the case of the Daudi Bohras, as I have just indicated, but also in the case of the various bickering sects among the Sunnis.

A fortnight ago, the imam of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Abdul Rahman al-Sudais paid a short visit to India. This provided an occasion to a host of Sunni mullah groups, of the Deobandi, Jamaat-e Islami and Ahl-e Hadith or Wahhabi sects, to project themselves as ‘leaders’ of the Indian Muslims and as authoritative spokesmen of Islam, a claim they never tire of asserting. Lakhs upon lakhs of rupees were spent on lavish lunches, dinners and reception parties given in al-Sudais’ honour in Delhi and Deoband—by outfits representing these sects. Hobnobbing with the visiting Saudi Wahhabi mullah, these Indian mullahs and their organisations sought to feather their own nests and, touting about their foreign guest at hugely-attended rallies, used the occasion to reinforce their authority among their star-struck followers. ‘See how important we are’, they seemed to proclaim, ‘we have access to the imam of the mosque of the Kaaba himself!’

A reliable friend of mine (of Sunni background, but who, like me, now refuses any denominational or community label) informs me that one leading Sunni mullah even announced that praying behind the visiting Saudi mullah would earn one the merit of the haj pilgrimage! That, in part, is possibly what attracted vast unthinking crowds to hear the foreign guest speak, although, my friend assures me, they understood almost nothing at all of what he said because he spoke in Arabic, a language totally unintelligible to them, and almost all of what he spoke was un-translated.

But, yet, as newspaper reports reveal, hordes of ‘Muslims’ thronged to see and pray behind the Saudi mullah. There is nothing in the Quran that tells us that the imams of mosques, including of the mosques in Mecca and Medina, are ‘holy’ and special, and that holiness attaches to their persons. (Sadia Dehlvi rightly critiqued the Islamic Cultural Centre, New Delhi, for sending out an invitation to a party organised to welcome the Saudi mullah wherein he was described as ‘His Holiness’). Why, then, this burst of enthusiasm for praying behind him or listening to him speak without understanding even a word? Is this not an indication of the phenomenon that the Quran very explicitly condemns in the verse quoted-above?

But there is more to this stupidity than meets the eye. Reports indicate that the visit of the Saudi mullah was quickly pounced upon by the maverick mullah Arshad Madni, head of one of the many bickering groups of the Deobandi mullah mass organisation Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind, to bolster his sagging authority among his fellow Deobandis, about which much has been reported in the media in recent weeks. Madni gushed forth in praise of the Saudi mullah, who can be said to be the official representative of the Wahhabi sect, even going to the extent of projecting him as some sort of Muslim Pope. ‘Sheikh Al Sudais is the highest religious leader of the Muslims’, Madni had the temerity to claim, as quoted by the redoubtable Sadia Dehlvi in an incisive article titled ‘Keeping the Faith Inclusive’, published in the Times of India in the wake of the Saudi mullah’s visit.  Madni conveniently forgot, and, presumably kept the visiting Saudi blissfully ignorant of, the longstanding polemical wars that his fellow Deobandis have been engaging in with al-Sudais’ fellow Wahhabis and their Indian counterparts, the so-called Ahl-e Hadith, some of them going so far as branding them as ‘enemies of Islam’. Surely, Arshad Madni must not have forgotten that some years ago his own brother, the late lamented Syed Asad Madni, head of the Jamiat ul-Ulema, whose legacy he claims to have inherited, had launched a massive campaign in the name of ‘Protecting the Sunnat’, all across India directed against the Ahl-e Hadith and the Wahhabis, the sect to which al-Sudais belongs, and even declared them to be the greatest fitna or source of strife afflicting the Muslims in contemporary times! And yet, in the face of all this, Arshad Madni had the cheek to declare al-Sudais, agent of the Wahhabi regime, to be ‘the highest religious leader of the Muslims!’ 

And so, addicted to petrodollar-fuelled theology and everything Arabic, the unthinking hordes who flocked the rallies where the visiting Wahhabi head mullah was feted conveniently forgot and forgave the crimes of the Wahhabis—not just their destruction of ‘holy’ shrines, as Sadia Dehlvi, one of the few who dared to speak out on the occasion, noted, but, more saliently, their sustained attack on the very roots of Quranic spirituality, replacing it with a theology that is barren and hate-driven and that has caused havoc for the name of Islam and the image of Muslims worldwide. And all this because, as the Quran reminds us, such people have taken their religious ‘scholars’ and ‘leaders’ as lords besides God.

Some friends of mine, who keep a close watch on the machinations of the mullahs, speculate that one of the purposes of the visiting Saudi Wahhabi mullah’s whirlwind India tour was to drum up support for an anti-Shia and anti-Iran campaign among the South Asian Sunnis, particularly the Ahl-e Hadith and the Deobandis, who, despite their never ceasing rivalries, are united in branding the Shias as apostates and even as ‘enemies of Islam’. These friends believe that in the face of growing opposition to the dictatorial regimes in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, which have long banked on Wahhabi-style ‘Islam’ to keep themselves in power, the Iranian or Shia bogey is being pressed into service to keep these tottering regimes in power. And for this purpose, it is believed, Saudi Wahhabi groups are now seeking to galvanise support among likeminded groups in India and elsewhere for a concerted anti-Shia movement in the name of ‘protecting the honour of the  companions of the Prophet’. It might well be that this was one of the reasons for al-Sudai’s much publicised India visit, although I have no firm evidence to back this claim. If true, it only demonstrates how readily the mullahs can be pressed into the service of the interests of their worldly masters, as well as how unthinking ‘Muslims’, overawed by these men’s claims to religious authority and taking them, as the Quran says, for their ‘lords’, can so easily be led to fall in line.

Truly, the antics of the mullahs never cease—and, I have to add, they never cease to disgust, either.

 K Itarwala is a regular columnist for