In the mosque of Maulana Gazali

SRINAGAR: At the foot of Koh-e-Maran, the hill overlooking Srinagar, stretches the largest graveyard of the Kashmir Valley. At one end of this graveyard is a nearly 40-year-old mosque that opens only on Fridays, when it hums with Quranic verses and Prophetic praises, and for the rest of the week it remains locked, silent.
On the late afternoon of the third Friday of Ramadan, Maulana Javed Saleem Gazali, the mosque’s preacher, is finishing the day’s sermons when he asks the listeners to cough up Rs 200.
“Keep the amount ready,” Gazali urges from the pulpit of the mosque. “Pay your donations for the mosque; Allah will multiply your sources of income from his trenches of wealth.”
Devotees sitting in disciplined rows were patiently listing to their guide for nearly two hours. When Gazali asked for the donations, more than 500 faithful sitting in the mosque slipped their hands into their pockets. Gazali came down from the pulpit, took a bag from his deputy, and moved to a corner of the first row. A man with grey beard stood up to pay his weekly sum. In the second row, a man lowered his face when Gazali passed him by.
“Yo ponse du (hey, give me the money),” Gazali shouted and the man answered with silence. “Che ha goi warya kaal yoor yiwan, winti haechuth na (you have been coming here for a long time, are you yet to learn?” Gazali shouted at him.
This unwritten rule to pay a fixed amount on the Fridays of Ramadan has existed since the foundation of the mosque was laid. If a devotee is new, Gazali either leaves him unattended or asks him to pay the next time, but when the devotee is old, Gazali scolds him for not paying the sum.
Initially the amount set was a few rupees. Over the years it has increased to Rs 200. Gazali also has a selected section of devotees from whom he takes a handsome amount. This Friday, one such devotee paid him Rs 12,000. Some others paid him in thousands.
“Molvi sahib has been collecting the money himself during Ramadan. I have seen him doing this for the past thirty years. This money is being used for the construction of this mosque,” says Noor Mohammad, 75, who has been offering prayers after Gazali since his childhood.
“At times when an old devotee pays an amount less than the fixed sum, Movli sahib tears the note,” says Noor. Gazali threw back a Rs 100 note which this correspondent offered him.
Gazali began constructing the mosque in the graveyard after his presence was questioned by locals who came to the Khujee Mosque in Rainawari. Noor says Molvi sahib started his career from the Rainawari mosque where he was initially given a good reception, but later some locals objected to what they saw as his effeminate way of leading prayers. He was seen as someone who attracted more women devotees than men, with women coming to him for special prayers, amulets, and consultations. Locals cast aspersions on his character, especially as he was a bachelor. This divided the locality among two groups, one against him, the other in his favour.
“It triggered a controversy. Molvi sahib was barred from offering sermons in the mosque. The mosque was locked for a long time. He then went to deliver the sermon from the house of a local who was his staunch devotee,” Noor says.
“Against the restriction, Molvi sahib moved court, which later gave the verdict in his favour. The court allowed him to lead the sermon from the mosque but barred him from leading the prayers. It prompted him from the pulpit of the Rainawari mosque to publicly announce that he was straight in his sexual orientation. It was during this time that Molvi sahib thought of constructing his own mosque,” Noor says.
Gazali collected the money and bought the land whose ownership rights he kept with himself. He built a shed made of corrugated steel where prayers were offered for many years. After he consolidated his base, he began to ask for a fixed amount that devotees continue to pay on every Friday of Ramadan.
“Molvi sahib saved this amount over these years to construct the mosque. Initially he laid its foundation, then set its structure and did other construction later,” recalls Ali Mohammad, Gazali’s another staunch devotee.
This Friday when Gazali collected the donation from males, he climbed the pulpit again.
“This pulpit is Prophet Mohammad’s (SAW) pulpit. May Allah fill the pockets of all those who keep their pockets open for Allah. May Allah fullfill the desires of those who respected me by paying the donation. May Allah open the hearts of those who did not respect me,” Gazali prayed.
He later led the Friday prayers. Once completed, he himself went upstairs in the compound of females to take the donation. When he came down, he prayed the same for them as well.
Gazali is a man of short stature, with a dyed short beard and a protruding belly. When he was leading the prayers he was wearing a gold-colour gown and a Jinnah-style karakul cap which was covered with a scarf. He had dark sunglasses on. Before starting the prayers, he asked everyone to imagine the difficulties they faced. He mentioned the difficulties of women who were unable to find a match for their daughters, and those whose sons had not found employment. Then he sang traditional women’s prayer songs, interjecting them with cries of Ya Allah! Ya Rasool (peace be upon him)! He broke down in tears, and the women began to cry along with him. Some men also joined in the crying.
Despite the donations, the mosque is still incomplete. It has neither a bathroom, nor a finished flooring. The internal electric wiring and the public address system is also temporary. The last time construction work was carried out was in 2005. Over these forty years, the mosque has been hosting only Friday prayers. For the rest of the week it remains locked and its keys remain with deputies of Gazali. Locals have built a separate mosque for daily prayers.
All the rules prevalent in the mosque come from Gazali himself. He has barred his devotees from recording his sermons. No one is allowed to photograph him. If anyone is found doing so, the apparatus is confiscated.
“For this mosque, Molvi sahib has given his life. He is still a bachelor because the mosque is still incomplete. He once said that he won’t marry until the construction of the mosque is complete,” Ali said.