The Tablighi tangle

by May 1, 2020 0 comments

One wonders whether the Government did or didn’t possess any advance information on the Nizamuddin gathering. The event has exposed another kind of intelligence failure

It was an adage about Hindi films in the 1970s and 1980s that the police always arrived in the end. There seemed to be a re-run of it in real life when Delhi Police personnel reached the Nizamuddin Markaz mosque on Sunday, March 29, as part of the COVID evacuation exercise, several days after the Tablighi Jamaat event (March 13-15) had concluded and many of the participants had departed to various parts of the country. Attendees took home not only the message of reverting to true Islam but many also carried the strain of the Novel Coronavirus. The rest stayed back in the enormous six-floor dormitory of the Markaz mosque before being caught up in the lockdown.

The evacuation lasted for 72-odd hours involving police personnel, medical and administrative officials and staff members from the Delhi Transport Corporation. But it was the National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Doval, who stole the media thunder with his presence. Why does the NSA need to visit the spot like a superintendent of police is not clear. One does not expect any bonhomie between the nationalist “superhero” of intelligence and the Tablighis, who fell to disrepute. It might be his signature style. Had he not visited the scene during the Nepal earthquake, the Kashmir lockdown or even the riots in Delhi? However, one wonders whether the Government did not possess any advance information on the Nizamuddin gathering? Why was the event, which drew participation from COVID-affected nations like Malaysia and Indonesia, allowed to take place in the first place? It appears that international participants were permitted to enter India without proper screening, let alone sending them into quarantine. This failure led to a flare-up in COVID infection. 

Though the conduct of the event antedated the beginning of the lockdown period, there were hardly any prohibitory orders (from the Delhi Government) on any political, cultural, social or religious gathering, comprising more than 200 people. It was later hardened to a gathering of more than 50 people, before being completely prohibited. Were the intelligence and law enforcing agencies completely clueless about what was going on? It is difficult to believe that his large congregation of more than 3,000 people was organised without seeking any permission. Neither the Central or the Delhi Government has accused the gathering as patently illegal. In non-COVID times, the event would have passed off peacefully without raising eyebrows.

The event has actually exposed another kind of intelligence failure. Our security apparatus is more obsessed with Islamic terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiyabba, the Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Harkat ul Mujahideen, the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, among others because of their offensive and disruptive activities. These organisations recruit full-time activists (Mujahideen), who indulge in terrorist activities with the use of explosives and weapons.

By doing no such thing, the Tablighi Jamaat escaped the security radar. It is a huge global missionary network that does not recruit fighters but works peacefully. It does not target the non-Muslims in any manner. Its focus is only on nominal or lapsed Muslims, whom it seeks to enliven with true faith of Islam. The Tablighis insist that preaching must be done face to face and that intellectualism and arguments are irrelevant when it comes to influencing lives. For them, what counts more is a meeting of hearts. No wonder, the Tablighi Jamaat has no digital presence like the Darul-Uloom of Deoband or the Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama of Lucknow.

Its agenda is actually more penetrative. More than a decade ago, the Tablighi Jamaat was in the news for Islamisation of Pakistan’s cricket team. Cricketers like Inzamam-ul-Haq, Saeed Anwar and Shahid Afridi became devout Muslims by visibly growing beards. While Pakistan is an Islamic republic, its cricketers, recruited from urban nurseries, were mostly urbane and suave sportsmen till then. In the 1980s and early 90s, before ODIs became a year-long activity, many Pakistani cricketers played in British county cricket. Even the Islamisation of Pakistan under Zia-ul-Haq had left them unimpressed.

What Zia could not do with his policies and laws in the 1980s, the Tablighi Jamaat achieved with its proselytising activities in the first decade of the millennium. Yousuf Youhana, Pakistan’s former vice-captain, thanks to the Tablighi’s activities inside Pakistani cricket squad, became convinced that “Islam is the best religion.” He adopted Islam, accompanied by a change of name to Mohammed Yusuf, whereas his wife Tania became Fatima. As a Muslim, he grew a long beard and piously hoped that if every non-Muslim accepted Islam in Pakistan, the country could become the land of the pure, literally. That is the power of the Tablighi Jamaat.

The “Islamisation” of the Pakistani cricket team is illustrative of what Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi (1885-1944), founder of the Tablighi Jamaat, envisaged to achieve almost a century ago. His goal was to turn a born Muslim (mumin) into a true Muslim (Ihsaan/Muhsin). He sought to purge a Muslim of non-Islamic parts, whether inherited or adopted, into a one-dimensional individual inspired by the lives of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions as the basis of model Muslim society. 

This was against the spirit of syncretism that liberals often wax eloquent about. Mewat,  the historical region spanning Haryana and Rajasthan, became the nursery of Maulana Ilyas’ work in the 1920s. Islam had extended its sway in this region during the time of the Delhi Sultanate. However, Islam sat only lightly upon most converts for ages. The Meos (Mewati Muslims) celebrated Hindu festivals like Holi, Janmashtami, Dussehra and Diwali alongside Muharram, Eid and Shabi-e-Barat. Very few know the Kalima and fewer still observe Namaz regularly. The beginning of the Shuddhi and Sangathan movement in 1923 by Swami Shraddhanand of the Arya Samaj threatened many Muslims lapsing to their original faith viz, Hinduism.

Maulana Ilyas began his campaign to turn Meos into true Muslims. He had grown up as a beloved student of Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (1826-1905), co-founder of the Darul ul Uloom, Deoband. The Deobandi movement, in contrast to the contemporaneous Aligarh movement started by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, had kept itself away from Western education and turned its back to developments in the modern world. Maulana Ilyas’ work had the same imprint of Deobandi orthodoxy. He wished to bring the expertise in Islam available in western Uttar Pradesh — Muzaffarnagar and Saharanpur (which he considered “wellspring of faith and godly men”) — to the service of Mewat.

His innovation was in the terms of method that made its impact widespread. Perhaps realising the truism of the axiom (made famous of Francis Bacon), “If the mountain does not come to Muhammad, he must go to the mountain”, he began taking the teaching of Islam to homes, fields and workplaces of those who could not go to maktabs and madrasas. The Tablighi Jamaat was born in that open air preaching of missionaries going from village to village in Mewat and group retreats centred on religion.  Publicity was shunned from day one by Maulana Ilyas, a code which remains inforce even in this day of social media.

Emanating from the Nizamuddin Markaz, this missionary movement has spread to various parts of the world. The Tablighi Jamaat organises the world’s largest Islamic congregation next to Hajj in Mecca, at Tongi near Dhaka in Bangladesh every January. It is called Bishwa Ijtema (global congregation). The Tablighi Jamaat has contributed to “re-Islamisation” of Bangladesh that gained independence from Pakistan on the plank of Bengali nationalism. How little does India know about its most globalised conservative Islamic movement?

(Writer: Priyadarshi Dutta; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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