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Lords of the land by Ali Arqam

Maulana Attaur Rehman has been leading prayers at Faroogi Mosque in Kharadar, Karachi`s old city area, for more than 20 years. He is the principal of Jamia Ahya ul Uloom, a madressah built in Sector 9/A, Baldia Town. He is considered a devout religious leader.

Except that the land where the Jamia Ahya ul Uloom has been constructed was not meant for the seminary to begin with. Located in the centre of a formal settlement, the plot was allotted for a mosque named Yaseen Masjid. It never remained restricted to the mosque; today, the plot houses several buildings which have no legal sanction.

The official land-use map, designed for every formal settlement in Karachi, reserves land for a mosque, a public dispensary, two STplots, a playground and a high school.

In reality, there is no dispensary, but a mosque with a madressah, two residential blocks on the ST plot (one for boys and the other for girls), while the playground is marked as an Eidgab. The land allocated for a high school now has houses built on it, after property was allegedly sold out by local workers of a political party.

`When the ST plots (16 and 18) were acquired by the madressah, people initially raised some objections. But then they negotiated the matter with some people there, and it was allowed. The place allocated for the school was sold out later,` narrates a resident of the area, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A few blocks away, another madressah, named Jamia Mahadul Jameel, located in Sector 17/A was expanded from Masjid Hadi-i-Alam to the adjacent plot allocated for park by crecting a boundary around it.

Both these examples are from formal settlements in Karachi, which still have a modicum of government administration. But in informal settlements around the city, land-grabbing mafias have occupied land through nominally legal, quasi-legal and illegal means. One of those methods is by the construction of illegal mosques and madressahs; away from the public gaze, land across Karachi has been grabbed by madressahs of various sects.

Of the community, for the community, by the community Mosques have always been described as community organisations, designed and built to involve the neighbourhood in the management of its affairs. Many madressahs in Karachi arrived as mosques too, run and administered by mosque committees.

Locals of a neighbourhood would constitute the committee, with the purpose of getting the mosque registered as a trust with the Auqaf Department. Prayer leaders, or peshimams, as well as muezzins were simple employees of the mosque with no role in the administration; both were paid salaries by the mosque committee for their jobs.

`The well-known madressah of Jamia Uloom Islamia, New Town, commonly known asJamia Binori Town, used to be a mosque,` narrated a lawyer who requesting anonymity. `The founder of the madressah, Maulana Yousuf Binori, was just an employee of the mosque committee, but he went on to build a madressah too. He then claimed the madressah`s ownership.

This claim gave birth to a decade-long legal dispute between the mosque committee and the madressah administration.

`There was no dispute over the madressah; the mosque committee was insisting that the authority to appoint the peshimam rests with them and cannot be exercised by the madressah. This principle is practiced even today, says Qari Fazal Shah, a leader of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), who was part of the arbitration committee to resolve the dispute.Matters came to a head when local representatives of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) got dragged into the dispute.

`Some people associated with the MQM became involved with the dispute between the mosque committee and the madressah. But all issues between the MQM and the madressah were settled after our delegation met Farooq Sattar, who then stopped his party workers from interfering in a religious dispute,` recalls Shah.

While Jamia Binori Town officials have no qualms about admitting that much of their funding is received from local and foreign donors, the seminary also earns revenue byrenting out the many shops constructed along its outer boundary wall. This dynamic allows the mosque and seminary to build clout and business relationships in the area.

Not that all money is unaccounted for: Jamia Binori Town officials explain that all monetary exchange is overseen and checked by a trustees board.

The fissure between the mosque committee and the madressah administration grew to such an extent that there was talk of moving the seminary away from the Jamia Binori Town premises. Such a plan was even deemed workable; when madressahs built alongside mosques in formally developed settlements run out of room for horizontal or vertical expansion, clerics would acquire land at the outskirts of the city to build madressah campuses there.

The burgeoning of madressahs at the outskirts of the city meant that trained and taught peshimams were readily available for hire to lead prayers elsewhere in the city. It is for this reason that most prayer leaders in posh localities of the city and in many cantonment areas belong to the Deobandi sect, have their own madressahs, teach there, or have been deputed by those madressabs.

`These peshimams are efficient in making contacts and connections with businessmen living in these posh localities. They trace guiltridden individuals among the devotees, and coax them to donate hundreds of thousands of rupees for madressahs and mosques,` argues journalist Taha Siddiqui.

Mufti Zarwali Khan, principal of Jamia Ahsan ul Uloom, Gulshan-i-lqbal Town, once proudly boasted in one of his dars (lecture) that a businessman, on his advice, had built a large mosque in the scarcely-populated locality of Maripur, Kemari Town by spending mil-lions of rupees. To get the mosque filled with devotees, he crected a madressah there as well.

The mosque, therefore, left the purview of the community. Slowly but surely, the peshimam`s power and influence grew. When disputes now rise between a committee of residents and the prayer leader, the imam often dominates through much manoeuvring and arm-twisting.

`In one such case, a dispute rose between the peshimam and the committee of a mosque in Sultanabad,` narrates a lawyer currently in litigation on this issue. `The imam managed to constitute a parallel committee of cherrypicked devotees and had it registered throughbackdating.

He refused to give details of the mosque and the parties involved.

Exit community, enter land-grabber During the days when the Muttahida Majlisi-Amal (MMA) had representation in the Sindh Assembly, elements from JUl-F allegedly managed to establish connections with notorious land-grabbers in Baldia, Kemari and Gadap Town. These grassroots relationships allowed them to multiply the number of madressahs in these areas, and acquire more land for the already established ones.

`These clerics invested in the booming property business on behalf` of` others in a f`ew cases, and were also able to acquire lands for personal use, as well as to build mosques and madressahs on it,` recalls a local broker from Baldia Town, speaking on condition of anonymity.

When clerics build mosques and madressahs on lands acquired through personal conneetions, they exercise unbridled power to the extent that locals living around these mosques with madressahs of`ten complain of` alienationfrom the affairs of their mosque.

`When I bought a plot here, it took me three years to turn it into a place for living. But a mosque and madressah were already built here,` narrates a resident of Muhammad Khan Colony, a locality bordering Ittehad Town.

`We cannot object or question the imam for any activities carried out, as he singlehandedly raises funds required for the construction and expansion of the mosque and madressah from his contacts in the business and traders communities,` says another resident.

`Our only role is to attend one or two prayers a day,` explains a labourer living in the area.

`We go to pray when we are off from jobs, and sometimes contribute a paltry amount in donations at Jumma or Eid prayers.

Not that these sums are enough for the mosque. As a member of a nearby mosque committee argued: `Donations from those attending Friday prayers are hardly enough to pay the mosque`s electricity bills, so we have to rely on other sources to meet our expenses.

In situations where attempts to illegally acquire land in the name of a mosque or madressah were thwarted, some seminaries responded with creating an `other` saying that those who thwart their plans must be some version of an `anti-Islam` voice.

In SITE Town, for example, an officer with administrative authority once obstructed Jamia Binoria Al Alamia`s attempts to grab a plot. Commercial plots worth millions were allegedly being acquired by various forces at the time, with the madressah also notorious in the area as being among the offenders and beneficiaries.

While the officer must have believed the law sided with him, graffiti appeared overnight on walls across the area, claiming the officer was an `Ahmadi` and demanding his removal from the position. Fearing persecution, the officer `apologised` for his mistake. A ceremony was then held in his honour some jokingly called it a `conversion ceremony` to validate the officer`s Muslim credentials. In hisspeech, one of the teachers of Jamia Binoria disclosed that the family roots of the officer could be traced back to one of the rightly guided caliphs.

Battle because of the mosque Mosques located in commercial and business localities have a great advantage: traders and businessmen readily contribute to the income of the mosques and its peshimam.

Rent received from shops constructed along their boundary walls and other space leased out makes the mosque financially stable, and thereby, makes it easier to turn the mosque into a madressah.

Taking control of such lucrative mosques is crucial and often becomes a battle for power between competitors, played out on the streets of Karachi and killing many in its wake. The violent conflict between the Sunni Tehrik and the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ) is a prime example.

It is alleged that the founder of Sunni Tehrik, Allama Saleem Qadri, a Sunni Barelvi hardliner, was assassinated by militants of the banned sectarian outfit, Sipah Sahaba Pakistan(SSP), now renamed as the ASWJ, after a clash erupted over the control of a mosque situated in Bahadurabad.

Sunni Tehrik spokesman Faheem Sheikh denies this, but argued that the Sunni Tehrik was founded to reclaim and recover dozens of mosques in Karachi that had been established by members of the Barelvi sect but `captured` by Deobandi organisations. In many instances, Deobandis invaded these mosques by using militants from banned outfits.

`Allama Saleem Qadri was against sectarian jihadi organisations involved in acts of terrorism and violence against other sects. He was punished for speaking against them,` says Sheikh. `A few years later, the first-tier leadership of Sunni Tehrik and other Barelvi clerics were killed in a suicide attack by these militants during an event at Nishtar Park on the day of Eid Miladun Nabi.

Noor Masjid in Jubilee Market and Qadeemi Masjid in Jamia Cloth Market are among the other lucrative mosques located close to trade centres, which have witnessed violent encounters between these groups.

Jamia Binoria Al Alamia in SITE Town is another example of a madressah established at the centre of commercial activities. The madressah was first established as a campus of the well-known Jamia Binori Town, Jamshed Road but it later became a separate institution, owned and administered by Mufti Muhammad Naeem.

Owing to the confusion of similar names, many people mistook it as the original madressah of Binori Town and referred to Mufti Naecm as its principal. Being a beneficiary of this confusion, the madressah contributed to this misunderstanding. It kept receiving funding from other countries that was meant for Jamia Binori Town.

Lords of the land by Ali Arqam

The writer is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Karachi. He can be reached at You can also interact with him on 1ïvitter @aliarqam


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