Source: The New York Times
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.