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The Thief Imam | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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During a meeting with an Imam of the Masjid al-Haram [Sacred Mosque of Mecca] in Europe I mentioned an amusing incident that occurred to me when I was holding the position of Director of the Islamic Centre in London. One of the leaders of the Islamic community there – he was from the Indian Subcontinent – wanted to introduce me to a conference as the “Director of the Islamic Temple in London [i.e. Director of the Islamic Synagogue in London]. The Imam of laughed and replied that this was nothing compared to what had happened to him when someone – also from the Indian Subcontinent – introduced him by saying “Let me introduce our guest, His Excellency, Imam Masjid al-Harami [adding the suffix “i” to the Arabic word Haram or Sacred, with the word “harami” in colloquial Arabic meaning thief and so the introduction then translates to “His Excellency, the thief Imam”]. Although his description was, of course, unintentional, it was also unexpected and shocking. However we should pardon our non-Arab friend for turning the sacred into a thief, because grammatically speaking he was correct to stress the word in this way, however not in this context. Our friend was overly enthusiastic with regards to following the rules of Arabic grammar, and may have also been excited about the presence of the Imam of Masjid al-Haram, and therefore paid more attention to grammar than was necessary and this is why he said what he said.

Dr. Abdullah al-Turki, Secretary General of the Muslim World League, was also no stranger to such situations, particularly when he held the position of Minister of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Call and Guidance – which as you can see is a lengthy title that needs to be memorised and practiced. When he was in London in the early 1990s, the ministry had just been established and people were yet used to the new name. The head of a large Islamic organization in Britain wanted to deliver an address during a conference held in London, in which he said “We welcome His Eminence Dr. Abdullah Bin Abdul-Mohsen al-Turki, Minister of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Call and ‘Tableegh’ [Islamic Missionary Work]”. Thus he replaced the word guidance with a word meaning Islamic missionary work. I do not know if the Salafists, Muslim Brotherhood, Deobandis, Bareilvis and other Islamic groups in Britain, who form the spectrum of [Islamic] ideological and intellectual trends there, complained that their movement’s names were not included in the official name of this ministry, given that ‘Tableegh’ was mentioned exclusively by our friend.

The interesting thing is that when I told stories of such real life situations to my friend Afzal Khan, the former Mayor of Manchester and one of the most promising political leaders in the British Labour Party, who is a Briton of Pakistani descent, he answered by saying: “But you Arabs also have your funny situations, particularly when you speak English. Some of you fail to distinguish between the letters P and B, to the extent that I heard a story that an Arab in Britain once wanted to park his car; and asked the policeman: “Can I park here?” But he pronounced it as ‘bark’. The policeman answered: “of course you can bark here or there or anywhere you want”!

The funny situations I refer to centre on linguistic confusion, including slips of the tongue. One of the Imams of al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, who hundreds of millions of Muslims listen to during these blessed days of Ramadan, was also guilty of such an offence. The Imam recited a verse the holy Quran “Mothers shall suckle their children for two whole years; (that is) for those who wish to complete the suckling” [Surat al-Baqara; Verse 233] however he accidently replaced the word “children” here with the word “husband” and so it was as if he was advising wives to wean their husbands! One of those in the audience comically replied “you have permitted something forbidden!!”