The “Saudi Obama” – Shaykh Adil Kalbani, first Black Imam of Masjid al-Haram, Makkah

A Black Imam Breaks Ground in Mecca
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia

TWO years ago, Sheik Adil Kalbani dreamed that he had become an imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.

Waking up, he dismissed the dream as a temptation to vanity. Although he is known for his fine voice, Sheik Adil is black, and the son of a poor immigrant from the Persian Gulf. Leading prayers at the Grand Mosque is an extraordinary honor, usually reserved for pure-blooded Arabs from the Saudi heartland.

So he was taken aback when the phone rang last September and a voice told him that King Abdullah had chosen him as the first black man to lead prayers in Mecca. Days later Sheik Adil’s unmistakably African features and his deep baritone voice, echoing musically through the Grand Mosque, were broadcast by satellite TV to hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world.

Since then, Sheik Adil has been half-jokingly dubbed the “Saudi Obama.” Prominent imams are celebrities in this deeply religious country, and many have hailed his selection as more evidence of King Abdullah’s cautious efforts to move Saudi Arabia toward greater openness and tolerance in the past few years.

“The king is trying to tell everybody that he wants to rule this land as one nation, with no racism and no segregation,” said Sheik Adil, a heavyset and long-bearded man of 49 who has been an imam at a Riyadh mosque for 20 years. “Any qualified individual, no matter what his color, no matter where from, will have a chance to be a leader, for his good and his country’s good.”

Officially, it was his skill at reciting the Koran that won him the position, which he carries out — like the Grand Mosque’s eight other prayer leaders — only during the holy month of Ramadan. But the racial significance of the king’s gesture was unmistakable.

Sheik Adil, like most Saudis, is quick to caution that any racism here is not the fault of Islam, which preaches egalitarianism. The Prophet Muhammad himself, who founded the religion here 1,400 years ago, had black companions.

“Our Islamic history has so many famous black people,” said the imam, as he sat leaning his arm on a cushion in the reception room of his home. “It is not like the West.”

It is also true that Saudi Arabia is far more ethnically diverse than most Westerners realize. Saudis with Malaysian or African features are a common sight along the kingdom’s west coast, the descendants of pilgrims who came here over the centuries and ended up staying. Many have prospered and even attained high positions through links to the royal family. Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, is the son of Prince Sultan and a dark-skinned concubine from southern Saudi Arabia.

But slavery was practiced here too, and was abolished only in 1962. Many traditional Arabs from Nejd, the central Saudi heartland, used to refer to all outsiders as “tarsh al bahr” — vomit from the sea. People of African descent still face some discrimination, as do most immigrants, even from other Arab countries. Many Saudis complain that the kingdom is still far too dominated by Nejd, the homeland of the royal family. There are nonracial forms of discrimination too, and many Shiite Muslims, a substantial minority, say they are not treated fairly.

“The prophet told us that social classes will remain, because of human nature,” Sheik Adil said gravely. “These are part of the pre-Islamic practices that persist.”

BLACK skin is not the only social obstacle Sheik Adil has overcome. His father came to Saudi Arabia in the 1950s from Ras al Khaima, in what is now the United Arab Emirates, and obtained a job as a low-level government clerk. The family had little money, and after finishing high school, Adil took a job with Saudi Arabian Airlines while attending night classes at King Saud University.

Only later did he study religion, laboriously memorizing the Koran and studying Islamic jurisprudence. In 1984 he passed the government exam to become an imam, and worked briefly at the mosque in the Riyadh airport. Four years later he won a more prominent position as the imam of the King Khalid mosque, a tall white building that is not far from one of the Intelligence Ministry’s offices.

Theologically, Sheik Adil reflects the general evolution of Saudi thinking over the last two decades. During the 1980s he met Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam, a leader of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He initially sympathized with their radical position and anger toward the West. Later, he said, he began to find their views narrow, especially after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Now he speaks warmly of King Abdullah’s new initiatives, which include efforts to moderate the power of the hard-line religious establishment and to modernize Saudi Arabia’s judiciary and educational establishment. He reads Al Watan, a liberal newspaper.

“Some people in this country want everyone to be a carbon copy,” Sheik Adil said. “This is not my way of thinking. You can learn from the person who is willing to criticize, to give a different point of view.”

His life, like that of most imams, follows a rigid routine: he leads prayers five times a day at the mosque, then walks across the parking lot to his home, which he shares with two wives and 12 children. On Fridays, he gives a sermon as well.

HE expected it to continue that way for the rest of his life. Then in early September he woke up to hear his cellphone and land line, both ringing continuously. Stirring from bed, he heard the administrator of the Grand Mosque leaving a message. He picked up one of the phones, and heard the news that the king had selected him.

Two days later he walked into a grand reception room where he was greeted by Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca Province. Sheik Adil tried to introduce himself, but the prince cut him off with a smile: “You are known,” he said.

Next, Sheik Adil was led to a table where he sat with King Abdullah and other ministers. He was too shy to address the king directly, but as he left the room he thanked him and kissed him on the nose, a traditional sign of deference.

Remembering the moment, Sheik Adil smiled and went silent. Then he pulled out his laptop and showed a visitor a YouTube clip of him reciting the Koran at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

“To recite before thousands of people, this is no problem for me,” he said. “But the place, its holiness, is so different from praying anywhere else. In that shrine, there are kings, presidents and ordinary people, all being led in prayer by you as imam. It gives you a feeling of honor, and a fear of almighty God.”

Muhammad al-Milfy contributed reporting.


66 Replies to “The “Saudi Obama” – Shaykh Adil Kalbani, first Black Imam of Masjid al-Haram, Makkah”

  1. Salaam,

    I’m not sure what tribe you are from in Sudan. Sure. There are tribes in Sudan that aren’t Arabs, but tribes like the Kabbabish, the Hamar, the the Rizeigat, the Awlaad Berry (Beryab), the Jaafara, the Awlaad Uqba, etc are Arab tribes. By the way, what tribe are you from?

    What do you mean when you say “African”? That word has no meaning when talking about history because it is a new word. Concerning the name “the Sudan” used for the country, it’s the name that was used for a large region- from present-day Sudan to the Senegal. The modern country called Sudan was given the name of the old “Bilad As Sudan”. You say that you are “African”. Did your grandfather and great grandfather say that they are “African”? I don’t think so brother.

  2. Bukhari :: Book 6 :: Volume 60 :: Hadith 1

    Narrated Abu Said bin Al-Mu’alla:
    While I was praying in the Mosque, Allah’s Apostle called me but I did not respond to him. Later I said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I was praying.” He said, “Didn’t Allah say’–“Give your response to Allah (by obeying Him) and to His Apostle when he calls you.” (8.24)
    He then said to me, “I will teach you a Sura which is the greatest Sura in the Qur’an, before you leave the Mosque.” Then he got hold of my hand, and when he intended to leave (the Mosque), I said to him, “Didn’t you say to me, ‘I will teach you a Sura which is the greatest Sura in the Quran?’ He said, “Al-Hamdu-Lillah Rabbi-l-Alamin (i.e. Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the worlds) which is Al-Sab’a Al-Mathani (i.e. seven repeatedly recited Verses) and the Grand Qur’an which has been given to me.”

    We should be focusing on the glory of Allah and this deen rather than arguing about ALL of that above my brothers

    Jazakallah khayr

  3. This deen of ours is very comprehensive brother. It’s a way of life. Allah says:

    يا أيها الناس إنا خلقناكم من ذكر وأنثى وجعلناكم شعوبا وقبائل لتعارفوا

    “O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. ”

    This means so we can know who is from who.

    The hadith says:

    “تعلموا من أنسابكم ما تعرفون به أحسابكم، وتصلون به أرحامكم”

    “Learn enough about genealogy for you to know your descent and to keep family ties.”

  4. Salam Tariq.

    That’s a nice name you have. My uncle is also called Tariq.

    I’m from different sides of Sudan. My mother if from the North of Sudan, an area called Dungula. My Father is from Omdurman.

    I’m not denying there are Arab tribes in Sudan. Like I said, there are a few who are descended from the Arabs. The reality is these tribes you mentioned, have a small proportion of Arab blood. So they are not really considered Arab, although technically they are.

    A lot of other Arabs, such as Saudi’s, Kuwait’s, Syrians, and so on, don’t consider them Arab. They are viewed as Blacks/Africans. There are many Sudanese living in the Middle-East, and they will tell you without doubt, that they are not treated the same as other Arabs, because they aren’t classed as Arabs, but rather Africans. They will use the same derogatory terms they will use on any other Black person, on a Sudanese person. Such as Aa’bid, and Zunji.

    What I mean by African, is a native person of Africa.

    You say the name “the Sudan” was originally a name used for a large region- from present-day Sudan to the Senegal. Do you realize why it was used? Do you notice the fact that this region is inhabited by people African descent? That they are of of African ancestry? Black people?

    My grandfather is alive, and yes, he says he is African. I haven’t met my great grandfather, so I don’t know his views. But for sure my family doesn’t view itself as ‘Arab’, but rather ‘Sudanese’ or ‘African’. Many Sudanese simply see themselves as ‘Sudanese’. Not ‘Arab’.

  5. Thank you brother. By the way, what’s YOUR name? : ) You are from Dongola, so you are right- you aren’t Arab because the Dongolawis are Nubian. But the tribes that I mentioned and many other tribes of the Sudan are Arab tribes. The are descended from Arabs, they speak Arabic, and they look like the original Arabs. Why do you say that they have a small proportion of Arab blood? What proof do you have of this?

    The people of Dongola aren’t black-skinned people and you know that they are not called black-skinned in the Sudan. The tribes of the south are called black-skinned or blue زرق. You know this very well brother.

    You say that the Saudis, Syrians, and Kuwaitis don’t consider the Sudanese Arabs. The Saudis, Syrians, and Kuwaitis don’t make Arabs and don’t decide who is Arab and who isn’t. They need to busy themselves with their own origin.

    The people who lived in that area called Bilad As-Sudan in the past were black-skinned people.

  6. Salam,

    I’m Somali from the Hawiya tribe, you are right brother when you say the true Arabs were dark skinned. The truth remains the term Arab has become more political then reality. We in Somalia never refer to ourselves as Arabs for the simple fact that most Arabs have a love hate relationship with Somalia. Lobe the fact we are Muslims hate the fact we are Africans. The sad fact is a blond blue eyed infidal from Sweden will get more respect from a Saudi then a dark skinned individual from South Yemen. What have we become? No wonder our lands are occupied, our women and children raped and murdered. We have become hateful to one another. We are weak, pathetic and disloyal. All others who stand up like Gamal Abdulnasir and Anwar Sadat are murdered and silenced. Arabs have become selfish oil pimps.

  7. Salam,

    Brother, all dark-skinned Arabs need to work together to face the light-skinned Arabs who are trying to change Arab history and make the true Arabs a light-skinned people. We need to face them with proof of the fact that the original Arabs were dark and we must see to it that the Arab countries spread this truth and teach it to both children and adults and do whatever is necessary to make this truth known to the masses. As long as the dark Arabs are silent, the light Arabs will be silent and try to avoid the issue so that they can continue to steal the origin of the true Arabs.

  8. Asalaamu Alaikum,
    So if someone is light they can’t be a pure arab?

    And Arabs can’t be africans?

    My husband = Moroccan

    Berber and Arab

    Berber= African

    North africa= Has whites, browns, blacks, and Yellows.

    Are they any less african because they aren’t black?

    Are they any less arab?

    Flat noses Kinky hair? isn’t that abit rascists? there are plenty of people in this world, who have kinky hair and flat noses. The same goes for black hair and dark skin.

    Lets just remember that we all came from the same people, and As the prophet(Sallalahu Alayhi Wa’Salaam) said, and Arab is no better than a non-arab, and a non-arab is no better than an arab, a white is no better than a black, and a black is no better than a white.

    The point is it doesn’t really matter where the Arabs came from Location wise, today in this world there are black, white,brown, and yellow arabs, and black, white, brown, and yellow, africans.

    I’m not denying rascism in the Ummah, there is rascism everywhere Saudi arabia, Indo-pakistan, The Pashtuns, even the sudanese brother seems to have something personal against the arabs. The point is it’s everywhere and we need to work on it as muslim. Because the fact is every single muslim is your brother and sister, Not just arab, pasto, persian, african, white, black, chinese, pak.

    Oh and whats wrong with blond hair and blue eyes, your sounding awfully NOI to me, the white devil, and all. There are born muslims of every complexion everywhere on the planet, there are convert Muslims everywhere of every complexion on this planet.

    I’m just saying it doesn’t matter.

  9. As salaamu alaikum

    The Arabs of the past described someone who was very light-skinned as looking non-Arab and they said that the color of the Arabs was dark. This is what the Arabs said about themselves.

    Why do you consider “flat nose” and “kinky hair” racist? They are just descriptions.

    You say it doesn’t matter where Arabs come from. It does matter where they came from and everyone should try to know where he/she came from. Allah says that He created us natuons and tribes so that we may know one another. That means so that we can know who is from who.

    You say that your husband is Moroccan. Ask him if he considers himself “African”. A forthcoming response from him will be “no”.

  10. Tariq (responding to our past conversation above):

    Salam. My name is Uthman.

    I’m not Nubain. Many people who live in Dungula are not Nubian.

    I agree with you that no one has the authority to decide who is Arab and who isn’t.

    And you admit;

    “The people who lived in that area called Bilad As-Sudan in the past were black-skinned people.”

    Don’t you realize those ‘black-skinned’ people, are African people? Not Arabs? Sudanese are black people. African people. That’s the point I’ve been trying to make.

  11. Salam brother Uthman. Black-skinned is just a color brother and the Arabs of the past described themselves as black-skinned. Why do you believe that black-skinned means non-Arab? Also, what do you mean by African? “Africa” and “African” are new terms and they are meaningless when talking about history.

  12. Salam Tariq. I believe those questions have been previously asked by you, and I answered them during one of the earlier posts of our conversation.

    Can you tell me, who according to you, are the Arabs? Can you describe their common features?

  13. Salam Uthman,

    Anyone who is descended from Adnan, Qahtan, Bani Qatoura, or Aram is an Arab. Concerning their common features, today they have many different features as a result of mixing, but originally they were, in general, a dark people with kinky hair. This is what the Arabs said about themselves. Unfortunately, today many people think that the opposite is true.

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