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Home / Books / Excerpt: Inside the Tablighi Jamaat by Ziya Us Salam

Excerpt: Inside the Tablighi Jamaat by Ziya Us Salam

An exclusive first excerpt from a new book on the Muslim religious organization accused of spreading Covid19 in India. Reproduced here is the preface to the book, which provides an idea of the Tablighi Jamaat’s focus

books Updated: Jul 01, 2020 14:48 IST
Ziya Us Salam
Ziya Us Salam
Hindustan Times
People who took part in a Tablighi Jamaat function at Nizamuddin West in New Delhi in March 2020 walk to board buses that will take them to a quarantine facility on day 7 of the initial 21-day nationwide lockdown imposed to check the spread of coronavirus.
People who took part in a Tablighi Jamaat function at Nizamuddin West in New Delhi in March 2020 walk to board buses that will take them to a quarantine facility on day 7 of the initial 21-day nationwide lockdown imposed to check the spread of coronavirus.(Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times)


Rs 399; HarperCollins
Rs 399; HarperCollins

During the Emergency, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi came down heavily on the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind – both Islamist organizations that paid for taking a stand against the authoritarian politics prevalent at the time.

Unlike the Jamiat which had actively participated in India’s struggle for independence, and had many freedom fighters as part of its distinguished history, who played a crucial role in the Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India movements, the Jamaat, founded by Maulana Abul Ala Maududi in 1941, focused on the restoration of the Caliphate in its initial years. By the mid-1950s though, it was part of the Indian economy and polity, opening its bank account, participating in elections and seeking to enter various representative bodies. Both the Jamaat and the Jamiat brought out a newspaper each, Daawat and Al-Jamiat, respectively. The four-page broadsheets in Urdu focused on politics, economy, religion, and so on. In addition, the Jamaat published Radiance, an English magazine that adhered to its principles in letter and spirit. The publications of both organizations spoke of a commitment to India’s Constitution and voiced the interests of India’s largest minority through peaceful means. Indira Gandhi was neither pleased nor convinced, though, seeing in them as in others, a danger to her autocratic ways. They were dealt with swiftly, harshly, vengefully.

Several of the Jamaat’s functionaries were incarcerated. Journalists working for its newspapers and magazines were also imprisoned; some went underground, their offices were sealed, and their wives reduced to the status of half-widows. There were instances of senior officer-bearers of the Jamiat being picked up by the police in civilian clothes from their rooms in Deoband and sent away to jails in Lucknow, Kanpur and Bareilly. Often there was no confirmation of their incarceration for days.

One Muslim organization, however, was left untouched by the prime minister’s muzzling tactics. It remained free to pursue its aim to profess, practise and propagate religion. At a time when members of many Muslim organizations 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 daily prayers in the neighbourhood masjid. Their gashts (local tours) went on uninterrupted. Some men went for a three-day spiritual rehab, others for a forty-day chilla (a self-transformative tour to a mosque in another city). They would be called ‘Allah Mian ki fauj’ (Allah’s army) in jest. In contrast to rest of the country, they seemed to be living in a social and political vacuum: no power could touch them, no force could go near them. They were the members of the Tablighi Jamaat, a non-political body that was neither in favour of, nor against, the Congress or the Emergency.

The Tablighi Jamaat maintained no list of its members. It did not raise its voice for the release of political prisoners, including those of the Jamaat and the Jamiat. Neither did they step out to establish the Caliphate nor attempt to change the economic system governed by riba (interest), considered haraam (taboo) in Islam. Unlike the other two organizations, whose members were often well-heeled scholars of Islam, the Tablighi Jamaat’s members were poor, often illiterate men, who could barely recite a few verses from the Quran. They were told by their organization to look within to move ahead in life. They had no quarrel with the world. For them, life was all about internal cleansing with regular prayer, paving the path to spiritual upliftment. They memorized the Quran but made no effort to understand it; they sought no answers from the book. Instead they read Fazail-e-Amal (Virtues of Deeds), a compilation of Hadiths, some regarded as authentic by scholars of Islam, and others whose authenticity is questioned by most, besides some anecdotes and hearsay. From the poverty-stricken peasants of Bihar to dairy farmers of Mewat, all attended the Tabligh’s three-day retreats at local mosques. Some travelled all the way to the body’s Markaz (headquarters) in Nizamuddin, Delhi. They came of their own free will, at their own expense. They bought their own tickets, their own meals.

Author Ziya Us Salam
Author Ziya Us Salam ( Courtesy HarperCollins )

When Indira Gandhi asked for more information about the Tablighi Jamaat, her officials assured her that she had nothing to fear from it. She, however, was not convinced and sent members of her coterie to spend time at the Tabligh’s headquarters at Nizamuddin. For days, they searched for some evidence of propaganda against Mrs Gandhi – a Friday sermon with political intonations or an address from the pulpit after Fajr (dawn) prayers. They were flummoxed. Forget Mrs Gandhi, the Tabligh’s members never spoke of any worldly affairs at all. There was no talk of increasing the representation of Muslims in government services or in Parliament, no talk of promoting Urdu or seeking more grants for Aligarh Muslim University. It was unlike other Muslim bodies, which sought to maintain balance between the here and the akhirah, the Hereafter, between worldly attainment and good deeds for the afterlife. The Tablighis cared, as the prime minister was informed and as most scholars of Islam would dub their spiritual quest to be, about ‘matters beyond the sky and under the earth’. Whatever happened in between did not concern them. The Tablighi Jamaat represents an ideal Muslim body for some – focused on introspection and isolation.

It is this steadfast refusal to take a political stand or even guide the community in matters of religion that has stood the Tablighi Jamaat in good stead. Not just Indira Gandhi, but even the Janta Party, a ragtag combination of Opposition parties which replaced her at the Centre in 1977, and following governments, have had no impact on the Tablighi Jamaat. Nor has the organization ever been inconvenienced because of the country’s changing politics.

When the Muslim community was stirred into action during the Shah Bano debate in 1985, the Tabligh expressed no views either in favour or against the Supreme Court judgement or subsequent changes to the law made by Parliament. When popular Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader LK Advani led a rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya in 1990, which impacted thousands of Muslim lives and livelihoods, the Tabligh remained silent. When a large section of the Muslim community raised their voice in favour of the Babri Masjid and organized rallies across north India, the Tabligh maintained its distance. Neither matters of Muslim personal law nor masjid shook them, not even the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The large-scale anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 failed to goad the body into action. Even when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee reminded Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of his ‘Raj Dharma’, the Tabligh did not express any opinion. Nor did it provide relief to those whose houses had been set ablaze, or those who had been orphaned and left destitute, effectively leaving the supplicants to their own means. The 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, which the BBC described as the ‘worst in a decade in India’ in which ‘tens of thousands’ fled their homes, passed by without comment from the Tabligh, as did incidents of Muslim men being lynched following allegations of cow slaughter. ‘Between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people – 36 of them Muslims – were killed across 12 Indian states. Over that same period, around 280 people were injured in over 100 different incidents across 20 states,’ Human Rights Watch reported.

The only purpose of an adherent of the Tablighi Jamaat, it seems, was to go on gasht, pray five times a day, and read Fazail-e-Amal. This was reinforced spectacularly when Delhi witnessed anti-Muslim violence in February 2020. More than fifty people were killed in northeast Delhi and hundreds injured. Copies of the Quran were set ablaze. Saffron flags were hoisted atop minarets of half a dozen mosques, and nineteen were either burned down or desecrated. Civil society swung into action. The Jamiat sent a delegation to assess the damage, helped in resuming prayers in many mosques, got the saffron flags removed through well-meaning members of the majority community. The Jamaat-e-Islami provided food packets and helped the displaced return home. The Tabligh members, however, remained occupied with their respective mosques, focusing on internal cleansing to benefit the individual first and the larger Muslim ummah (Muslim community the world over) at a later stage. There was not even condemnation of the action of hate-driven mobs. Their gasht and khurooj (self financed tours for spiritual rejuvenation), continued as before. Then, quite by accident, the Tabligh found itself in hot waters, literally for the first time since its inception.

In January 2020, the world woke up to the spectre of a deadly virus spreading from China. From the US to Europe, West Asia to South East Asia, everyone geared up to limit mortalities. India reported its first case of the novel coronavirus on 30 January. By the second week of February, there was talk of social distancing. Many wondered aloud about the repercussions of the deadly virus for a country as densely populated as India. By early March, many offices gave their employees the option of working from home as a measure to protect life and health. By the second week, many made this compulsory. Attendance at many mosques had started thinning by then with people choosing to offer prayers at home. Many small congregations, where the message of the Quran was discussed during weekends, were cancelled or continued over online sessions through internet-based meeting apps. On 13 March, the Delhi government banned non-religious congregations above the size of fifty people. As gyms, clubs, cinemas began to down their shutters, the masses read the writing on the wall. Though the state government brought religious congregations under the list of banned groups only through subsequent orders, the Jamaat-e-Islami, not always given credit for liberalism, cancelled its Saturday ijtema (religious gathering). The Tablighi Jamaat, however, continued as before.

Neither newspaper warnings nor government rulings dimmed the enthusiasm of the men at the helm or the organization’s many foot soldiers, more than 3,000 of whom descended upon the Markaz in mid-March. Hundreds of these volunteers spread far and wide. Some went to Mumbai where the meeting was cancelled after the Maharashtra government withdrew permission. Some went to Jaipur where too permission to hold the congregation was withdrawn by the state government. In Delhi, though, the jod (congregation) continued. There were men from Tamil Nadu and Telangana, the Andamans and Lakshadweep, Gujarat and Bihar. There were worshippers from Malaysia and Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Kuwait. The dates had been decided a year in advance and the emerging danger to humanity failed to dissuade the faithful. Neither the law of the land which now prohibited gatherings, nor the message of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) who instructed people not to move around during an epidemic, managed to deter them. Gather they did.

People who took part in a Tablighi Jamaat function  at Nizamuddin in New Delhi in March 2020 aboard buses taking them to a quarantine facility on March 31.
People who took part in a Tablighi Jamaat function at Nizamuddin in New Delhi in March 2020 aboard buses taking them to a quarantine facility on March 31. ( Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times )

This book comes in the wake of the challenges of Covid-19. Its seed, though, was laid in more peaceful times almost a decade ago, when the Tabligh had not quite created any ripples in the Yamuna. Its volunteers came from across the country to Markaz, attended prayers and sermons, and departed without anybody taking notice. Back in 2009, one early winter morning, a man intercepted me after Fajr prayers at a mosque in Noida. I had seen him in the masjid often but had no idea about who he was.

Assalam-u-Alaikum! Hazrat ji Bambai se aaye hain. (Hazrat ji has arrived from Mumbai.) We would like to have a cup of tea with you,’ he said.

I had no clue who ‘Hazrat ji’ was. I managed to extend a half-hearted invitation. Half an hour later, the gentleman was at my place with the said Hazrat ji, a man of about seventy, whose paan-stained lips stood out in stark contrast to his lingering white beard and fair complexion. He wore a cream kurta and white pyjamas, and carried a walking stick. He had with him another gentleman whose job I discovered was to smile through the conversation in general and nod enthusiastically whenever Hazrat ji made a point.

Hazrat ji, I was informed, had come from Mumbai and was on his way to Egypt. ‘He won’t be back any time soon,’ our local man said. ‘He is going on tabligh (tour for taking the message forward) for a year. Hazrat ji has put in many four month trips in his life. Now he is going to Egypt on his own expense for a year. He will not even take his phone. It is a trip with brothers in salvation.’

‘I see,’ I said, not seeing anything at all. ‘All the best for your trip. Lekin aapne aaj aane ki zehmat kaise ki? (Why did you take the trouble of coming over?)’ I did not realize it, but this was the opening he had been waiting for.

He promptly responded by reciting a verse from the Quran: ‘You are the best nation brought forth for mankind. You enjoin what is right, and forbid what is wrong, and believe in Allah.’*

‘It is Ayah 110 of Surah Al-’Imran,’ I said. ‘With some friends, I too work for deen (faith),’ I added enthusiastically. ‘Remember verse 104 of Surah Al-’Imran? “And from amongst you there must be a party who will call people to all that is good and will enjoin the doing of all that is right and will forbid the doing of all that is wrong. It is they who will attain true success.”’ (*The translations of Quranic verses used in the book, unless otherwise mentioned, are from Maulana Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, Towards Understanding the Quran: Abridged Version of Tafhim al-Quran, trans. Zaar Ishaq Ansari (New Delhi: MMI Publishers, 2011)

‘Yes, that is what Hazrat ji and all of us preach too. We try to be that group,’ our local contact chipped in, his smile reaching his ears, his eyes glowing. Hazrat ji’s companion smiled some more.

Phir aap toh jaante hi hain (Then you know it all),’ he said, assuming I knew everything about the Tabligh’s underlying principles which are based on these two verses of the Quran. ‘Inke saath Bismillah kar lijiye. Teen din mein thoda dekh lijiye. Phir ye ladke aapko chalees din aur char mahino ke baare mein bata denge. (Please begin in Allah’s name by spending three days in retreat. Then these young men shall explain to you about the forty-day and four-month trips). It is important for you to spend your time in the path of Allah. For us, it is important to have educated men amongst us. Just guide these men. Fazail-e-Amal toh padhte honge? (Surely, you read Fazail-e-Amal?)’

That did it.

‘Sorry, I don’t. I read the Quran with meaning. Occasionally, I read its commentary.’

Lekin Quran ke fazail aur Hadith ... (But what about the virtues of the Quran and Hadith …)?’ Our Noida man was now desperate to save the conversation.

‘No, I read Sahih Muslim and Bukhari, two books of authentic Hadiths. My father wrote a tafsir (commentary) on the Quran. It is very elaborate. It is in chaste Urdu. I struggle through it as my Urdu is pretty elementary. Anyway, my idea of Islam is probably different from yours. I do not believe that sitting in a mosque and chanting Allah’s name is the only path to success. We work to help the widows, we try to help orphans with education,’ I said.

‘All that is good but you must take time out for Tabligh. We all make a beginning some day,’ said Hazrat ji, as he got up to leave.

‘If you mean going on a chilla and all that, I can say it directly, I won’t. I cannot. But yes, if you want me to spend time with your people in Noida, I do not mind. We can begin our conversation by talking about Surah Al-Asr,’ I said.

Now it was our Noida guy’s turn to slip away. ‘We will see,’ he said, not seeing at all.

‘Come to Banglewali Masjid. I will be there for a couple of days before I leave,’ Hazrat ji extended one last invitation.

Hazrat ji, as I discovered, intended to travel for a year with just one small suitcase; no phone, no laptop, no suit. Nothing. Just a few articles of clothing and a lota. No check-in luggage at all. This man was heading forth in pursuit of paradise, inviting unknown men, complete strangers actually, who would not speak his language, to come to the mosque for daily prayers. This way he hoped to create a community of brothers in search of salvation, a brotherhood detached from the ways of the world. How was he going to survive for a year in a foreign land with such limited resources, I wondered. Was this where his unflinching faith in Allah – that everything would work out because he was out spreading His message – come in handy? After all, it was the Prophet who advised the faithful to trust in Allah but first tie the camel – to take all precautions, then leave the rest to the Almighty.

‘Why does he not begin with his own family?’ I asked Hazrat ji’s companion when I met him on another visit to the local mosque. ‘Islam gives us a pyramid to work with for amelioration. We start with self, the family, neighbours, relatives … it goes on.’

‘That is true, but a man cannot discover his inner calling without leaving the comfort of family and home,’ he responded.

So, it was in search of his inner calling that Hazrat ji had left. He, like millions of others, was a traveller in faith who had left the comforts of home and hearth to find inner peace. And that is how the Tabligh, with a vast grassroots outreach programme, works. In some measure, the idea for this book was born in that meeting with Hazrat ji and his companions in the winter of 2009 when the three-member delegation tried to include me for tabligh. For years after that, I often tried to pick the brains of the members of the organization, trying to get my viewpoint across as well. No matter how much I admired the organization’s powers of patience and persuasion in bringing people to masjid for prayer, I was never convinced with the idea of a chilla or khurooj. Then the avoidable tragedy of Covid-19 occurred. And the book began to take shape in my mind.

The book is often critical and occasionally empathetic in its assessment of what is arguably the largest Muslim organization in the world. The Tablighi Jamaat neither promotes a deeper understanding of the Quran, nor of the law of the land. It does help the poor and the ignorant get a feel of religion, and thereby frees religion from the hold of the ulema. Yet it fails to take its recruits to a higher level of accomplishment, impart to them intellectual muscle. It neither encourages nor obstructs its members from participating in the task of nation-building. It never takes on the political dispensation, which probably explains why its volunteers are easily given visas to countries like England, Belgium, Canada and Malaysia.

A bundle of ironies, the Tablighi Jamaat has its own mysterious, some would even say mystical, way of approaching life. But then does it even approach life, when it is concerned solely with that which lies beyond the skies and underneath the earth?

Clearly, there are no easy answers in the world of the Tablighi Jamaat. Nevertheless, I have attempted to find them.

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