For a week now, there has been no sign of Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, the head of the Delhi-based Tablighi Jamaat Markaz which ignored prohibitory orders to go ahead with its global congregation in Nizamuddin last month, and is now being blamed by health authorities for the spread of COVID-19 across the country.
Saad has not been seen since March 31, the day Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal slammed the Markaz gathering as “very irresponsible” and “wrong”.
That very day, Delhi Police filed an FIR against Saad and other members of the Tablighi Jamaat under sections of the Epidemic Disease Act and Indian Penal Code for violating “government directions given to the management of the Markaz regarding restriction of social/ political/ religious gathering and for taking safety measures, including social distancing”.
Saad’s personal assistant M Aleem claims the Tablighi Jamaat chief is “at a relative’s house in Delhi, under self-quarantine”. This flies in the face of police claims that they have been looking for Saad since the day the FIR was registered.
Aleem told The Indian Express, “His (Saad’s) great-grandfather purchased land inside the Markaz premises many decades ago and the family has been living there since. But now that it has been emptied, Maulana Saab is at a relative’s house in Delhi, under self-quarantine.” He says Saad is a “simple man who barely uses a phone or any technology… and has never had to deal with media, FIRs and lawyers”.
Police are approaching YouTube to check on a 28-minute clip — uploaded on March 20 on a channel called Delhi Markaz — in which a person, said to be Saad, is heard saying “if someone says lock mosques or that by staying here, the disease will spread… remove that thought from your heart… veham baith gaya hai bimaari ka, baith gaya nahin, baithaya gaya hai (a misconception has been spread about the disease).”
Advocate Shahid Ali, who represents the Markaz and members of Tablighi Jamaat, says, “The Delhi Markaz does not have a YouTube channel. In fact, the Markaz has no social media account on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. This is not the Maulana’s audio clip, we have no idea who this is or who uploaded it.”
Police are not buying this, nor the explanation on Saad’s whereabouts. “We have not been able to trace the Maulana, his lawyers keep saying he is under self-quarantine. The Maulana has not come forward yet and the lawyers say he is in Delhi. Efforts are on to trace him,” says a senior police officer.
So, who is Saad? How did he become the head of an organisation with footprints across the world?
Cut to 1995, a quarter century before its tryst with infamy. That was the year Saad, then a 30-year-old, took charge of the Tablighi Jamaat, an apolitical, socio-religious movement founded in 1925 by his great-grandfather Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi in Mewat in present-day Haryana.
Kandhlawi is a pointer to the family’s roots — Saad’s great-grandfather was born in Kandhla, a small town near Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh.
The movement that Ilyas founded was in response to what was described as “deterioration of Islamic values” among Muslims. It called for a return to the practice of Islam as existed during the lifetime of the Prophet. With members travelling to lands far and wide, the word spread — the Tablighi Jamaat following is today estimated to be in millions, across continents.
According to Saad’s aide Aleem, the global headquarters or the Markaz was set up at the Banglewali Masjid in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area after Saad’s forefathers purchased land there. It has been the family home for decades.
Saad has five children — three sons and two daughters. His two elder sons are married and teach at the madrasa inside the Markaz.
The Markaz, according to one of its officials, is a five-storey structure with a basement and a terrace. “There are 200 toilets, and 300 taps for wazu (ablution). There is an open kitchen and two small water bodies inside. It also has the madrasa and the residence of Maulana Saad.”
The Tablighi Jamaat, according to Professor Shail Mayaram of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, is “a trans-national religious regime which believes in monotheism and believes that only Allah is divine. They are apolitical. Maulana Ilyasi founded in Mewat with the sole purpose of teaching Muslims how to be ideal Muslims. They are not against the dargah, they just don’t regard them as people who are divine.”
Partition in 1947 made it hard for Jamaat members to journey across the borders, so Pakistan had its own Tablighi Jamaat headquarters in Raiwind.
Yet members of the Jamaat, according to Mayaram, consider the Nizamuddin Markaz as their global headquarters. “They are not rival groups. Tablighi Jamaat is not interested in siyasat or politics. So even when Bangladesh was formed, the global headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat remained the Nizamuddin Markaz.”
In 2015, the leadership of the Tablighi Jamaat split with one small faction demanding that a “committee lead the Tablighi Jamaat and not an individual”.
“While the Tablighi Jamaat believes a man must lead it, a faction broke away because they wanted a committee or a shura to lead,” says Aleem. The breakaway faction, called the Shura-e-Jamaat, set up its headquarters in Delhi’s Turkman Gate — it adhered to the lockdown in March.
The movement’s apolitical nature, ever since the days of the British Raj, also became the reason for its growth. It flourished in lands beyond the sub-continent.
According to Zafarul Islam Khan, chairman of the Delhi Minority Commission, the Tablighi Jamaat has had nothing to do with politics or worldly matters, and “hence, has caused no trouble to successive governments because they never commented on anything political related to the Indian Muslim community”.
“They only concentrate on Allah… They believe that if you are in trouble or in good times, it’s all because of God, and if there is a misfortune or illness, then one shouldn’t complain because it’s what Allah has done,” he says.
For now, the Tablighi Jamaat is in trouble.
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