- Advertisement -

The controversial Indian Muslim leader feted by Anwar

Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musliyar was one of the first to congratulate Anwar Ibrahim last year, and was bestowed the top Islamic award from the Malaysian government eight months later.

4 minute read
Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musliyar (right) has been criticised by Muslim groups for being too lenient towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musliyar (right) has been criticised by Muslim groups for being too lenient towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

About five months before the general election last year, Pakatan Harapan chairman Anwar Ibrahim received a VIP guest from India.

His name was Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musliyar, but outside of India, he also went by the name Sheikh Abu Bakr Ahmad.

When Anwar was appointed as prime minister in November of that year, Abu Bakr was among the first to congratulate him, recalling how the politician had visited him in Kerala, India, just a couple of months earlier.

Eight months later, Abu Bakr again appeared in Malaysia; this time he and his delegation were flown in on a private jet and stayed in Putrajaya.

Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musliyar being welcomed by Anwar Ibrahim at his Petaling Jaya office in June last year, five months before the 15th general election. Photo: Facebook
Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musliyar being welcomed by Anwar Ibrahim at his Petaling Jaya office in June last year, five months before the 15th general election. Photo: Facebook

He was one of the individuals bestowed the Maal Hijrah award, Malaysia's most prestigious Islamic award, in conjunction with the beginning of the Muslim calendar year.

But who is Abu Bakr, an unfamiliar name to Malaysian Muslims who was likely only introduced when feted by the prime minister and praised for his services to Islam?

In India, the 86-year-old enjoys a near-cult following among those aligned with his organisation – a normal occurrence in a country as religiously diverse as India, with a population of more than a billion and approximately 200 million Muslims of all schools of thought, including those considered as outside of mainstream Islam. 

As such, the fact that Abu Bakr is regarded as a controversial figure is not surprising.

Not long ago, he became mired in a protracted debate that has divided the subcontinent's Muslim community for years.

At the centre of controversy is his claim that he keeps a strand of hair belonging to Prophet Muhammad.

While Muslims generally agree that relics of the Prophet are to be treated as sacred, most mainstream Sunni scholars today cast doubt on the authenticity of such objects. Meanwhile, historians believe that some of the most genuine relics linked to the Prophet can be found in Turkey's Topkapi Palace, an Ottoman building that is now one of the world's most famous museums.

Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musliyar and his delegation shortly after they were flown into Kuala Lumpur on a private jet last month. Photo: Instagram

Abu Bakr first made his claim after returning from Oman. This was questioned by other Muslim scholars in India, many of whom accused him of trying to make a profit through donations and contributions for a mosque which was to be the largest in India – a charge Abu Bakr has denied.

In 2018, he announced that, in addition to the existing one, he had received a fresh "sacred hair" from the holy city of Medina.

Abu Bakr dismissed the criticism against him and instead embarked on an ambitious project to build the largest mosque in India which he named Shahre Mubarak, literally meaning the "Blessed Hair", where the relic he claimed to be that of the Prophet would be the central attraction.

While the mosque has yet to be officially named, the Mughal design complex is believed to be nearing completion and sits within Markazu Saqafathi Sunniyya, a sprawling Islamic education hub run by Abu Bakr's organisation in Calicut, Kerala.

It is said that some 400 million rupees (about RM22 million), the bulk of which came from wealthy non-resident Indians in the Gulf, was spent on its construction.

But the successful construction of the complex, which is almost the size of five football fields and would be the biggest in India, has been dwarfed by the "hair" controversy.

The criticism of Abu Bakr over his claim on the "holy hair" is one of many divisive issues within India's diverse Muslim community, where even a major festival such as Eid is sometimes celebrated on different days due to differences in the sighting of the moon.

Abu Bakr's "grand mufti" title which he has used since 2019 is also controversial, especially in the absence of any official recognition for such a post from the Indian government.

The title was bestowed on him by the All India Tanzeem Ulama-e-Islam, an organisation aligned with him.

This and the "holy hair" are not the only controversies that have attracted Muslim criticism of Abu Bakr.

More recently, Abu Bakr was panned by Muslim groups who said he was too lenient towards the right-wing BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose policies have targeted Muslims in India as part of a right-wing religious nationalist agenda.

Modi is also accused of involvement in the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujerat in 2002, when he was the chief minister there. A recent BBC investigative documentary on the riots concluded Modi was responsible for the violence that killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.

In March, Abu Bakr was the lone Muslim leader to attend the World Sufi Forum in New Delhi, an event graced by Modi.

Abu Bakr is one of many successful and enterprising Muslim leaders in India, a country whose Muslim community shares many traits with Muslims in Malaysia.

In the past, Muslim politicians from both the government and opposition defended Indian scholar Zakir Naik despite protests from non-Muslim politicians who accused him of insulting their religions.

There were also accusations against another popular Muslim speaker, Zimbabwean scholar Ismail Menk, better known as Mufti Menk, who was banned in Johor for views deemed disruptive to racial harmony.

More recently, a supporter of Anwar expressed disappointment with him for welcoming Indonesian speaker Abdul Somad Batubara, saying this was against the principles of moderation being preached by the prime minister.

Somad is already barred from giving talks in Singapore as some of his views are regarded as intolerant, including his support for the return of the Islamic caliphate.

Meanwhile, Indian Muslim leader Abu Bakr may not be the last controversial Muslim figure embraced by Malaysian politicians in their attempts to showcase Islamic credibility to a critical vote bank.