“Saudi Obama,” the imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca

“Saudi Obama,” the imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca

 

RIYADH, April 11 — Two years ago, Adil Kalbani dreamed that he became an imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.

Waking up, he dismissed the dream as a temptation to vanity. Although he is known for his fine voice, Kalbani is black, and the son of a poor immigrant from the Gulf. Leading prayers at the Grand Mosque is an extraordinary honour, usually reserved for pure-blooded Arabs from the Saudi heartland.

So he was taken aback when the phone rang last September and a voice told him that King Abdullah had chosen him as the first black man to lead prayers in Mecca.

Days later Kalbani’s unmistakably African features and his deep baritone voice, echoing musically through the Holy Mosque, were broadcast by satellite TV to hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world.

Since then, Kalbani has been half-jokingly dubbed the “Saudi Obama.” Prominent imams are celebrities in this deeply religious country, and many have hailed Kalbani’s selection as more evidence of King Abdullah’s cautious efforts to move Saudi Arabia towards greater openness and tolerance in the past few years.

“The king is trying to tell everybody that he wants to rule this land as one nation, with no racism and no segregation,” said Kalbani, a heavy-set and long-bearded man of 49 who has been an imam at a Riyadh mosque for 20 years.

“Any qualified individual, no matter what his colour, no matter where from, will have a chance to be a leader, for his good and his country’s good.

“Officially, it was Kalbani’s skill at reciting the Quran that won him the position, which he carries out — like the Grand Mosque’s eight other prayer leaders — only during the holy month of Ramadan. But the racial significance of the king’s gesture was unmistakable.

Kalbani, like most Saudis, is quick to caution that any racism here is not the fault of Islam, which preaches egalitarianism. The Prophet Muhammad himself, who founded the religion here 1,400 years ago, had black companions.

“Our Islamic history has so many famous black people,” said Kalbani, as he sat leaning his arm on a cushion in the reception room of his home. “It is not like the West.”

It is also true that Saudi Arabia is far more ethnically diverse than most Westerners realise. Saudis with Malaysian or African features are a common sight along the kingdom’s west coast, the descendants of pilgrims who came here over the centuries and ended up staying.

Many have prospered, and even attained high positions through links to the royal family. Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, is the son of Prince Sultan and a dark-skinned concubine from southern Saudi Arabia.

But slavery was practised here too, and was abolished only in 1962. Many traditional Arabs from Nejd, the central Saudi heartland, used to refer to all outsiders as “tarsh al bahr” — vomit from the sea.

People of African descent still face some discrimination, as do most immigrants, even from Arab countries. Many Saudis complain that the kingdom is still far too dominated by Nejd, the homeland of the royal family. There are nonracial forms of discrimination, too, and many Shiite Muslims, a substantial minority, say they are not treated fairly.

“The prophet told us that social classes will remain, because of human nature,” Kalbani said gravely. ‘”These are part of the pre-Islamic practices that persist.”

Black skin is not the only social obstacle Kalbani has overcome. His father came to Saudi Arabia in the 1950s from Ras al-Khaima, in what is now the United Arab Emirates, and worked as a low-level government clerk.

The family had little money, and after finishing high school, Kalbani took a job with Saudi Arabian Airlines while attending night classes at King Saud University.

Only later did he study religion, laboriously memorising the Koran and studying Islamic jurisprudence. In 1984 he passed the government exam to become an imam, and worked briefly at the mosque in the Riyadh airport.

Four years later he won a more prominent position as the imam of the King Khalid mosque.

Theologically, Kalbani reflects the general evolution of Saudi thinking over the past two decades. During the 1980s he met Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam, a leader of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

He initially sympathised with their radical position and anger towards the West. Later, he said, he began to find their views narrow, especially after the attacks of Sept 11, 2001.

Now Kalbani speaks warmly of King Abdullah’s new initiatives, which include efforts to moderate the power of the hardline religious establishment and to modernise Saudi Arabia’s judiciary and educational establishment. He reads Al Watan, a liberal newspaper.

“Some people in this country want everyone to be a carbon copy,” Kalbani said. “This is not my way of thinking. You can learn from the person who is willing to criticise, to give a different point of view.”

Kalbani’s life, like that of most imams, follows a rigid routine: he leads prayers five times a day at the mosque, then walks across the parking lot to his home, which he shares with two wives and 12 children.

He expected it to continue that way for the rest of his life. Then in early September he woke up to hear his cellphone and land line, both ringing continuously.

Stirring from bed, he heard the administrator of the Grand Mosque leaving a message. He picked up the phone, and heard the news that the king had selected him.

Two days later he walked into a grand reception room where he was greeted by Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca Province, where the Grand Mosque is located. Kalbani tried to introduce himself, but the prince cut him off with a smile: “You are known,” he said.

Next, Kalbani was led to a table where he sat with King Abdullah and other ministers. He was too shy to address the king directly, but as he left the room he thanked him and kissed him on the nose, a traditional sign of deference.

Remembering the moment, Kalbani smiles and goes silent. Then he pulls out his laptop and shows a visitor a YouTube clip of him reciting the Quran at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

“To recite before thousands of people, this is no problem for me,” he said. “But the place, its holiness, is so different from praying anywhere else.

“In that shrine, there are kings, presidents and ordinary people, all being led in prayer by you as imam. It gives you a feeling of honour, and a fear of almighty God.” — IHT

 

   Black imam a model of evolving Saudi Arabia The Malaysian Insider

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