Updated: July 22, 2020 1:25:57 pm
No other piece of news around Covid-19 in India has created the kind of controversy like the one involving the Tablighi Jamaat at the Nizamuddin Markaz. The religious congregation held in March, attended by over 8000 members from across the world, was then called a super-spreader event leading to a scrutiny of the sect and their style of functioning.
Journalist and social commentator Ziya Us Salam in his new book, ‘Inside the Tablighi Jamaat’, published by Harper Collins, looks closely at the Markaz incident and delves into the apolitical nature of the Jamaat. The Jamaat, despite being the largest Muslim organisation in the world, is known to have been of least interest to political leaders and the government in India before the March incident.
Salam begins his book with an interesting look back at the Emergency, when the government led by Indira Gandhi came down heavily upon Muslim organisations in the country. The only organisation that was left untouched was the Tablighi Jamaat. “It remained free to pursue its aim to profess, practice and propagate religion. At a time when many Muslim organisations went underground, its volunteers — sporting long beards that touched their chests, and wearing pyjamas that ended a few inches above the ankles — still went door to door, inviting the faithful to join the daily prayers in the neighbourhood masjid,” writes Salam.
Also read: Tablighi Jamaat: Its purpose, how it runs
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In an interview with Indianexpress.com, Salam discusses his book, elaborating on why the Jamaat’s lack of political inclination and awareness is one of the reasons why the incident at the markaz could not be avoided. At the same time, he explains that the discussion arising out of the incident failed to distinguish between the larger Muslim community and the unique socio-political dispensation of the Jamaat.
Why were political parties never interested in the Jamaat?
Ziya Us Salam: The Jamaat has no political ideology or ambition. It does not want to change the political or economic system of the country. Most governments across the world are tolerant of the Tablighi Jamaat simply because the Jamaat does not insist on overthrowing any government or bringing about Caliphate. They are not aspiring to bring about Islamic rule. Their focus is on internal cleansing. Their focus is on Muslims to become better Muslims. They are not even trying to convert non-Muslims.
It is interesting that the Jamaat never took a stance during moments like the Shah Bano case or Babri masjid. Why? Weren’t these issues of Islamic interests other than being just political?
Ziya Us Salam: They were of interest to the Islamic community for sure. Considering that the Tablighi Jamaat has the highest membership among Muslim organisations across the world, it was important for them to speak up on these subjects. Say for instance with Triple Talaq, had the Tablighi Jamaat guided the community, it would have been really beneficial. The decision on the subject of talaq had to be taken in light of the Quran. When the Supreme Court invalidated it, it did so in light of the Quran. All that the Jamaat had to do was to open the Quran and come up with the decision. Unfortunately the Tablighi Jamaat does not put emphasis on understanding the Quran.
During the demolition of the Babri masjid and Gujarat riots as well they kept quiet and saw it as a will of Allah.
Could you explain a bit about the historical circumstances in which the Jamaat was born? How were things different from when other Muslim organisations were born?
Ziya Us Salam: The time when the Tablighi Jamaat came into being in 1927 was when Dayanand Saraswati’s Shuddhi campaign was going on in Awadh and what is now the Haryana region of Mewat. Many new converts who had been Muslims for a generation or two were being reconverted to Hinduism. These were people who did not know much about rituals in Islam. Their rituals were still those of Hinduism, except that when they died their bodies were buried.
At that time, Tablighi Jamaat spread knowledge of Islam among the Muslims. They started bringing them to mosques so as to give them a sense of fraternity and camaraderie. These were people who did not give in to Saraswati’s Shuddhi campaign due to the influence of Maulana Ilyas who was the founder of the Tablighi Jamaat. His father had the rare distinction of looking out for the landless labourers from Mewat who would be coming to Delhi for work. He would bring those workers to the Nizamuddin Markaz and ask them to memorise the surahs from the Quran. So throughout the day these men would be taught to read and memorise the surahs. At the end of the day they would be given wages as if they worked at a construction site.
Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind was born before the Jamaat in 1919. It has always been a socio-political body, wedded to the idea of India. It believes in an inclusive culture and a pluralistic society. It opposed Muslim League’s philosophy of one nation for Islam and the creation of Pakistan. It played an active role in the freedom struggle. Unlike the Jamaat, it was not confined to a madrasa or a masjid and was always part of the society and polity. Yes they tried to understand Islam, but they believed that Islam and nationalism were mutually compatible.
In the 1940s, the Jamaat-e-Islami was established on the principles of establishing an Islamic order. But after Independence, it also got wedded to India’s principles of secularism, justice etc. As a result, the body started supporting elections and many of its members also stood as candidates. Consequently, the Jamaat-e-Islami has also been a religio-political body now.
How did the Jamaat become a global movement?
Ziya Us Salam: They simply spread the word of Allah. Wherever they went, they had no interest in the political dispensation of the country. All that they were interested in was reading the Quran and asking Muslims to be better Muslims. For that they insisted that Muslims need to look distinct from non-Muslims. That is how Maulana Iliyas came up with the idea of men having a beard and wearing pyjamas that end just above the ankles and women wearing the hijab. Wherever they went across the world, they used the Indian template.
Would you say the incident at the Nizamuddin Markaz could have been avoided had the Jamaat been politically active?
Ziya Us Salam: I guess so since they would have been more aware of what is happening in the world. At the time they had their congregation in Delhi in March, the fear of Covid had spread across countries. But they refused to take a decision keeping in mind the health dangers because they keep away from all this. I don’t think the Jamaat even insists upon its members to read the newspaper regularly.
Having said that, the Jamaat was not completely wrong in hosting the congregation in Delhi on March 13. If you recall, on March 13, our health minister had said that there is no health emergency in the country. No religious congregations were banned at that time. This ban started coming into force from March 16 onwards. By then the Jamaat congregation was over. But those members who had come from abroad or from far off places in the country could not be expected to leave in a hurry. Then on the 22nd, the prime minister asked everyone to be wherever they are. They abided by the instructions of the prime minister. Where did they flout the rules? They applied for permission to travel to the local police who guided them to the local magistrate and they got permission to travel in small numbers and they abided by that.
In your book, you have given a detailed account of how the media covered the incident of the Tablighi Jamaat at the Markaz. Where would you say the media went wrong in their coverage?
Ziya Us Salam: Firstly, there was a lack of enterprise shown by the media to find the truth. If the media had bothered to investigate a bit or even read up the instructions by the Delhi government on religious gatherings they would have concluded that at least for the March 13-15 gathering, the Jamaat was well within rules. After the lockdown was announced as well, they were still following the rules. Where it went wrong was when they had the first case of suspected Covid-19, they ought to have got in touch with medical professionals and alert the local police.
But it’s absolutely whimsical and irresponsible to come up with statements like they were hiding in the Markaz. They were stranded in the Markaz because the trains and flights were not working.
Also the kind of videos circulated by some sections of Hindu newspapers and English news channels were not from the Jamaat at all. There was a widely circulated video of the members sneezing together, there was one of a Jamaat member stripping in front of a nurse, and then there was one of them asking for biryani in UP. All of them were proven to be false. The video of the man stripping was found to be that of a deranged man in Karachi. But the media did not have the patience to find the truth.
Undoubtedly, there was a larger issue of Islamophobia that went into the coverage of Tablighi Jamaat. The Jamaat came to be representational of all Muslims.
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