By Farooq A. Kperogi
On April 10, the New York Times ran an instructive story of the appointment of an African, identified as Sheikh Adil Kalbani, as the Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest and biggest mosque in Islam's holiest city.
This is the first time in the history of the Mosque, known in Arabic as Al-Masjid al-Ḥarām, that a person of African descent has been appointed to be its Imam. In symbolic significance, this is huge, very huge.
Consider this, for instance: It is toward this Mosque that over one billion Muslims across the world turn five times in a day in supplication. It is also the main location of the annual Muslim Pilgrimage called the Hajj. Of course, in Islamic teaching, there is nothing supernatural about the Mosque, except that it is also the location of the famous oasis called Zamzam, which has never dried since it was revealed around the year 2000 BC.
Picture of the Grand Mosque
In comparative symbolic terms, this is almost like appointing a Black man as the Pope of the Catholic Church. I have to admit, though, that the contrast of contexts is a wee bit overstretched here since the Imam of the Grand Mosque does not have the kind of political power that the Pope has. But being the spiritual guardian of the holiest sanctuary of the world's second biggest and fastest growing religion is a big deal. It is an even bigger deal if that spiritual guardian comes from a historically oppressed group.
To be sure, there have always been very well qualified black Muslims who could have assumed this emblematically significant position. But none had been considered worthy of the honor, probably on account of race. It's a well-known but rarely discussed fact that there is a disturbingly high degree of anti-black bigotry in the Saudi society--and indeed in much of the Arab world--although Islam explicitly denounces racism.
For instance, my friends from Kano, Nigeria's second biggest (and northern Nigeria's biggest) city who took up English language teaching jobs in Saudi Arabia about seven years ago told me how utterly stupefied they were by the rampant xenophobia, especially negrophobia, that they encountered in the Saudi society. One of them couldn't even wait for his contract to expire before running back to Nigeria. It was that bad. And these are devout Muslims.
The indescribable humiliation my friends said they experienced is almost reminiscent of nineteenth-century racism in Europe and America or Jim Crow in twentieth-century Southern United States.
So what has changed between that time and now? What has inspired King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to suddenly appoint a Black man to lead Islam's holiest Mosque?
Sheikh Adil Kalbani
Here is a short YouTube video of Sheikh Adil reciting the Holy Qur'an:
There is no doubt that the elevation of Sheikh Adil to this enviable position is a consequence of what has now been called the "Obama effect." In fact, according to the New York Times, it is now customary for people to refer to the 49-year-old Sheikh Adil (who is two years older than Obama) as the "Saudi Obama."
Similarly, Obama’s election has emboldened Iraqis of African descent (whom many people, including I, never knew existed) to contest for elective positions in their country for the first time ever. Many of the black Iraqi political aspirants told CNN that Obama is the inspiration behind their decisions.
It's amazing how much symbolic capital one man's election has conferred on an entire race in so short a time. Hopefully, some day soon, we will also celebrate the appointment of the first Black Pope.