Tablighi Jamaat traces its origins to the Mewat region
The Tablighi Jamaat has been in the eye of a storm since last week, when hundreds of Covid-19 affected people across the country were found to have links with a congregation (ijtema) of indeterminate duration at the Jamaat’s markaz headquarters in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti in March.
Started as an Islamic reform movement, the Tablighi Jamaat traces its origins to the Mewat region, where it was founded by Islamic scholar Maulana Muhammad Ilyas in 1926.
Till today, Meo Muslims continue to form the core of the Jamaat movement, with a large majority of Meos subscribing to its tenets.
Meo Muslims are spread across the once contiguous belt of eastern Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Culturally, this area spanning the three states is known as the Mewat region. Meos embraced Islam in various phases, between the 15th to the 17th century, and some of them continue to follow syncretic practices.
Siddique Ahmed Meo, community historian and author of books on Mewat’s history, said the Jamaat’s origins in Mewat could be traced back to a time when labourers from Mewat, now officially known as Nuh, commuted to Delhi in search of work.
According to the 2011 Census, the Nuh district’s population was about 1.09 million, of which the majority were Meo-Muslims. According to Meo, around 80% of the present-day population of Nuh district is made up of Meo Muslims.
“People from Mewat would travel to Delhi for work and halt for lunch near the masjid in Nizamuddin, before proceeding ahead with the journey. Maulana Ilyas took notice of the labourers and enquired about them one day. Through conversations with the Meos, he realised that while they were Muslims, they did not have a good understanding of Islamic practices,” said Meo.
Driven by his interactions with Meos in Nizamuddin, Maulana Ilyas visited Ferozepur Namak in Mewat for the first time in 1925. He started surveying the region and over subsequent visits, he came to the understanding that Meo Muslims needed to be introduced to Islamic practices and brought back into the fold.
“A panchayat was called in Nuh and a charter consisting of names of 103 people was shared. Some 31 proposals aimed at laying the groundwork for the Jamaat were passed in that panchayat. Finally, in 1926, the Jamaat started undertaking trips to reach out to people and spread the message of Islam,” said Meo.
He added that more than 90% of the people in Mewat identified themselves as Tablighi and the organisation exercised considerable influence in the region. “The aim of the Jamaat is to ensure that Muslims become better Muslims. It seeks to get Muslims to adopt practices followed by the Prophet Muhammad. All Meos might not go for the chilla (40-day Islamic camp), but they owe allegiance to the Tabligh,” said Meo.
Tablighi Jamaat, Meo said, was also involved in various social interventions in present-day Mewat.
“Tablighi Jamaat has been a strong proponent of eradication of practices like dowry in Mewat. Whenever they hold their ijtemas (Islamic congregations), they conduct mass nikah (marriage) ceremonies for people without any involvement of dowry. The Jamaat also seeks cooperation of imams in promoting polio eradication drives or preventing alcoholism and drug abuse in Mewat,” said Meo.
Shail Mayaram, author of “Resisting Regimes: Myth, Memory and the Shaping of a Muslim Identity”, which discusses the Tablighi Jamaat, said it was a non-political outfit whose foundation was laid in Mewat. “Tablighi Jamaat’s aim is not to capture political power. They are only driven by the goal of making Muslims better Muslims. They focus on religious practice, one that is often seen as being conservative in nature,” said Mayaram, who is also a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
Mayaram said the Jamaat was hugely popular in Mewat and Meos played an important role within the organisation of the outfit.
“Mewatis have a significant role in the Jamaat administration. Over the years, Mewatis both in India and Pakistan have become closer to the Jamaat,” she said.
Mayaram added that the support of the Meos to the Jamaat in the decades after Partition was significantly influenced by excesses that Meos faced during the Partition.
“In my view, the belief in the Jamaat can also be explained by the violence that Mewatis experienced during Partition. It led to a shift in the identities and how they navigated their ways in the changing landscape. The circumstances led to a strengthening of the Jamaat’s case in the region,” said Mayaram.
According to several local residents, Tablighi Jamaat supports two madrasas — one each in Nuh and Ferozepur Jhirka. It has a markaz (centre) in Nuh which coordinates activities with the centre in Delhi. Arshad, a Nuh resident, who owes allegiance to the Jamaat, said two congregations take place in Nuh every year where members of the Jamaat come together. “Earlier, the jalsa (gathering) would be a one-day affair. Since last year, a three-day gathering has started taking place. There is no fixed schedule or venue for the gathering. It takes place in different villages every year,” said Arshad, who goes by his first name.
Since the beginning of this year, the Jamaat has not conducted any congregation/gathering in Mewat. “Usually, the congregation happens in April, after the harvest of crops. People are relatively free during this time. There has not been any update on that front this year,” said Arshad.
However, hundreds of locals are believed to have been at the congregation in Nizamuddin last month. The police identified at least 270 of them and isolated them in Government Polytechnic College in Malab and Shaheed Hasan Khan Mewati Government Medical College, Nalhar, Nuh earlier this week. According to the health department, at least seven of them had tested positive for Covid-19 by Sunday.
Shahid Ali, an advocate with the Tablighi Jamaat, said that while there was no written count of the members of the Jamaat; most people in Mewat subscribed to the Jamaat. “The organisation has a loose structure and there is no recorded membership, but the Jamaat traces its origin to Mewat due to which it is widely popular in the region. There is no fixed schedule for any congregation or gathering. Members of the Jamaat travel to Mewat for prayers, just as they visit other places across the country and beyond,” said Ali.