Tablighi Jamaat: A curious lot engaged in ecclesiastical pursuits caught in a crossfire

Though Tablighi Jamaat is indifferent to politics and worldly concerns, it has unwittingly contributed a potent weapon to communal discourse and politics. Read what William Dalrymple found

Photo Courtesy: social media 
Photo Courtesy: social media

Abid Shah

Well known writer William Dalrymple once spoke to a Tablighi Jamaat member outside the Jamaat’s headquarters in New Delhi and sought his views about the shrine of Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin next door.

“Sufism is not Islamic. It is Jadoo: magic tricks only. It is superstition. It has nothing to do with real Islam.”

Dalrymple next sought the views of a devotee of the Sufi saint about Tablighis. This is what he wrote in The Guardian.

“At the entrance of the shrine of Nizamuddin stands Hussein, the old man who looks after the shoes of pilgrims. I asked him what he thought of the Tablighis. ‘These people are khattar,’ he said passionately, ‘extreme and intolerant. Why should they tell people not to pray to the saint? Look at the streams of people coming; everyone in Delhi knows about the power of Nizamuddin. He is God's advocate. He presents our case to the Almighty’.”

Between Humayun’s Tomb and the tomb of the 14th century mystic saint lies the nondescript mosque of the Tablighis. They are a curious lot. What is well known is their penchant for globetrotting and complete indifference to politics and public affairs. In their worldview, all that matters are rites prescribed by Islam. Most other issues and concerns are unwelcome distractions. They are to be shunned to ward off Satan and evil. The faithful are often cajoled to leave home and hearth and join the ranks of the faithful, who keep hopping from one mosque to another for months.

The idea is to escape the wrath of God and ensure better times through the endless afterlife. The present days’ responsibilities are thought to be best left to the will or rather mercy of God. This cultivated stoicism have led most Tablighis to live in a time warp.

They not only lead an austere life, but they deliberately shun people who do not follow them. The brand of Islam that the Jamaat generally leans on is based on today’s Saudi Arabian model. It propagates belief in oneness of God and oneness of Muslims. This is a newer obsession among a section of Muslims as opposed to what was once spread through by Hazarat Nizamuddin and his disciples. Unlike the Jamaat, the Sufi variant of Islam encourages belief in oneness of God and oneness of mankind.

Years after such juxtaposition of the views from the followers of the two streams of Islam, the prevailing Corona scare has hit the intricate maze of lanes around both the shrines at Nizamuddin even as both are shut.

Typically, Tablighi Jamaat ignored the pandemic straddling much of the world. It was none of their concern, was the attitude. Whatever the Lord willed would follow in any case. They would rather take care of their after-life. Seldom before have faith and fright crossed paths though because of the indiscretion of a motley band of wayfaring Muslim orthodox revivalists from Tablighi Jamaat. They ignored warnings, held a congregation attended by a large number of visitors from abroad and paid the price by getting infected by the virus.

Their insular life and indifference to the rest of the community have helped the rabid, communal elements to stigmatise not just the Jamaat but also the entire minority community. The Jamaat and its exclusionary ethos have cost Muslims dearly in a world, which had become increasingly interdependent.

What is essentially a natural calamity has sadly become a weapon, pulverising the already tense communal scene after widespread riots that hit the Northeastern parts of the Capital only a month ago. Though the current row at Nizamuddin had started with what looks like to be a misdemeanor on the part of Tablighi Jamaat, few efforts were made to avert it.

Looking at Jamaat’s protestations it seems that pleas were made to allow its members to disperse amid the lockdown, which went unheeded. Thus, the possibility of the Jamaat members carrying the contagion virus has become quite worrying. Though they are the worst sufferers of the pandemic, the blame is also falling upon them because of what is thought to be their indifference to the lethal threat.

Whether they are innocent or culpable is a matter to be decided by the courts. But their habit of looking the other way amid a potential crisis or even after it is an old one.

In December 2018 an Uttar Pradesh Police officer Subodh Kumar Singh was killed near Bulandshahr by a rightwing Hindutva mob soon after a cow carcass was found in the area under his jurisdiction. A person in the mob too had lost his life in the scuffle. The incident had taken place when a Tablighi Jamaat congregation was being held in the area, casting doubts about the motive behind the row over the carcass. There were reports that it aimed at causing riots around the time of return of the huge crowd of Jamatis at the end of their meeting.

Yet, one never heard a single word from the Jamaat, either in sympathy of the brave officer or in condemnation of the mob. The Jamaat remained preoccupied in its ecclesiastical pursuits until the Covid-19 virus stuck its followers at its Nizamuddin bastion.

Will it change the stoical Jamaat? One doubts it very much.

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