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India's Jama Masjid
Published in The Egyptian Gazette on 04 - 09 - 2012

With a population of one and a quarter billion people, India is now the world's largest democracy, made up of a rich blend of cultures and ethnic groups speaking a variety of languages and observing many different faiths. With a booming economy and with India playing an increasingly important role in the region and on the world stage, many suggest that India is destined to become one of the world's great powers.
It was not always so. After years of rule by Britain, whose monarchs styled themselves “emperor of India," India gained her independence in 1947, after years of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. Even though the British had had years to prepare for it, their handover of power was hasty and ill thought-out. As a result, when the sub-Continent was divided into two new states, India and Pakistan, it is suggested that between one quarter of a million and one million people died in the ensuing violence that accompanied partition.
Each year on August 15, the anniversary of independence, the Indian Prime Minister hoists the country's flag and delivers a speech in an annual ceremony at the Red Fort in Old Delhi. It was here, in 1947, that India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had first unfurled the flag of the new nation and delivered his famous “tryst with destiny" speech. “At the stroke of midnight," he had declared, “while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom."
Opposite that Red Fort in Old Delhi there stands a testimony to the greatness of India's past, when she was free of colonial interference, for there we find one of the largest mosques in the world. India's fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jehan, may be more famous for the Taj Mahal, the exquisitely beautiful mausoleum he built for his favourite wife, but the mosque, now known as Jama Masjid, is equally worthy of fame.
Begun in 1650 and completed six years later by a workforce of six thousand men, Jama Masjid is one of the world's great mosques. Its vast courtyard can accommodate twenty-five thousand worshippers.
So important was his new mosque to the emperor that he sought the finest and most learned of men to be its first imam. Looking towards Bukhara (modern day Uzbekistan), long famed as a centre of Islamic learning, asked the ruler of Bukhara to send one of his finest and most upright theologians, from the ancestral line of Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him), to serve as the Shahi Imam.
This he did and the imamate of Jama Masjid has remained in the same family ever since, passing from father to son. The Shahi Imam was the one entrusted with carrying out the coronation of successive Mughal emperors, right up to the last coronation in 1837, before the British abolished the title.
In modern India, the investiture of a new Shahi Imam is an event of national importance, attended by governmental ministers, foreign ambassadors and thousands of Muslim faithful.
It is worth remembering that although the British partition of India was done along religious lines, with India reserved mostly for Hindus and Sikhs and Pakistan for Muslims, the modern state of India has as many, if not more, Muslims than the modern state of Pakistan. Its 177 million Muslims make up about 15 per cent of the population. Human nature being what it is and tribal instincts being so strong, this has sometimes, over the years, been the cause of ethnic and religious tension within India, but on the whole the country has remained strong in spite of it.
The great symbol of Islam in India, then, Jama Masjid, was originally built on a small mound overlooking the whole of Old Delhi. Its full name is Masjid Jahan Numa, or "mosque commanding a view of the world". Great care was taken when building the mosque, to ensure that the pulpit was above the level of the royal throne opposite in the Red Fort, affirming the pre-eminence of Islam over any worldly authority.
It is believed that when the mosque was being built, the emperor asked why it was taking such an inordinately long time to complete. When he was told that a verse of the Qur'an was recited before each stone was put in place, he agreed that it was worth the wait! We can only agree with him.
The mosque's design is utterly simple, like Islam itself. With two great minarets, 40 metres high, the mosque also has three great gates and four towers. The mosque itself is 800 metres long and 500 metres wide. The courtyard is reached by three flights of steps, built of red sandstone, and in former times these were packed with food stalls and merchants selling their wares. Indeed, the eastern side used to be a morning poultry market.
With eight domes of purple and white marble, the floor is covered in black and white marble, imitating the shapes of the Muslim prayer mat.
Muslims read in the holy Qur'an:
“Verily, We have granted you a manifest victory,
That Allah may forgive you your sins of the past and the future,
And complete His favour on you. And guide you on the Straight Path,
And that Allah may help you with strong help."
(48: 1-3)
The “manifest victory" talked of in these verses was, in fact, a peace treaty. Allah Almighty had revealed to the Muslims that their true victory was in signing a treaty of peace with their enemies. What a contrast to the Islam portrayed in the media today, an Islam of violence and uncompromising aggression.
It is here that we can learn from India. Her long struggle for independence from Britain was not achieved by violence. Like the first Palestinian Intifada, for example, it was carried out by peaceful means. In the face of the peaceful opposition of an entire continent, the British could not keep face in front of the whole world and were forced to grant independence.
With so many countries today, ranging from Cyprus to Palestine to Afghanistan, occupied by foreign soldiers, the message of India and of the Qur'an is quite clear. Peaceful methods are the way to win the support of the rest of the world and, ultimately, to achieve victory over oppression. Inshallah, the beautiful Jama Masjid can remind us all of this.
British Muslim writer,
Idris Tawfiq, teaches at Al-Azhar University. The author of nine books about Islam, he divides his time between Egypt and the UK as a speaker, writer and broadcaster. You can visit his website at www.idristawfiq.com and join him on Facebook at Idris Tawfiq Page.


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