Tablighi Jamaat is esoteric, not political

Syed Hurairah

Hyderabad: The Tablighi Jamaat is now in the spotlight with several of its workers testing positive for the coronavirus. A case has been registered against its Ameer (leader) Maulana Saad Kandhalvi.

But what exactly is the Tablighi Jamaat? Is it a radical Muslim organisation which it is accused of? Is it political? Or, is it a benign inward looking spiritual Muslim evangelical group which focuses on piety and the hereafter?

To answer these questions, it is important to look at its origins and the socio-economic and religious conditions which precipitated its rise into global force.

The Tablighi Jamaat’s origins can be traced to the mid 1920s as a back-to-basics approach towards Islam. Its founder, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, said to have been born in the 1880s, came from an family of Islamic scholars. While the organisation was not as structured and did not have a global presence as it does today, it began as a grassroots, reformatory movement with the Muslims of Mewat, especially Meo Muslims as its constituency.

The Meo Muslims are rooted in Rajasthan, but can also be found in Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Many of them were farmers and their religious practices drew influences from both Islam and Hinduism. It would be safe to say that during the time of Maulana Ilyas, their religious identity was fluid.

It was this lack of an Islamic consciousness and a largely absent religiosity that moved Maulana Ilyas to intervene and he began to engage in tabligh, meaning the preaching of Islam. Hence, the name Tablighi Jamaat.

The preaching of Maulana Ilyas to the Meo Muslims before 1925 was traditional. This included establishing maktabs (schools, mostly in mosques) with an Islamic curriculum. This work underwent a sea-change after his return from performing his second Haj in 1925. Maulana Ilyas was of the opinion that the maktabs were not effective enough and gradually gave up the method. Thus, began the jamaat system. People organised themselves in groups, and went away from their regular surroundings to engage in talking, and preaching Islam.

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As the years passed by, the Jamaat system was expanded. Networks, first in Uttar Pradesh and Nizamuddin were established. Decades later, this network connected masjids in neighbourhoods in cities and states not only across India, but also countries and continents.

The Banglewaali (mosque of the bungalow) Masjid in Nizamuddin serves as the Tablighi Jamaat’s Global Markaz (Headquarters). It is this masjid which is the epicentre of all networks.

The duration of each jamaat – a semi-ascetic practice – ranges from 24-hours to a year. For instance, jamaats camp in masjids for a day. A sehroza is a jamaat which camps in a masjid for three days, ashra, for 10 days, chilla, for 40 days, for four months, and eventually a year. This is known as waqt lagaana, to dedicate one’s time for God’s work. Workers are expected to pay for their own expenses with little or no help from the organisation as such.

In jamaats, the band of preachers – comprising those employed in both private and public sectors, students, professionals and even the neighbourhood pan shop owner or vegetable seller – engage themselves in prayer and remembrance of God. They stay, eat and pray in the masjid.

But an important practice is gasht. It can best be described as identifying Muslim households, canvassing on foot, going door-to-door to these households to spread the word of God and call them to prayer and strengthen their resolve in the faith.

Given its semi-ascetic nature, the Tablighi Jamaat is not without any criticism, some of which may well be valid. Tablighi workers have been ridiculed for speaking only of spiritual matters and ignoring practical issues which one likely to face in the modern world. The semi-ascetic method of preaching too has been criticised, as has been some of the content of Fazaail-e-Aamal, the prescribed book which contains parables of Muslim ascetics and religious figures.

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While the Tablighi Jamaat describes itself as completely non-political, it is no stranger to politicking within the organisation. Around four years ago, a massive power struggle ensued between its current Ameer – Maulana Saad Kandhavli – and Maulana Zuhair-ul-Hasan, another senior member of organization.  While Maulana Saad insisted that he remained the Ameer or the chief the latter’s followers demanded that a Shoora (council of elders) system should be put in place. Interestingly, Maulana Saad’s father Maulana Yusuf Kandalvi was the previous Ameer.

The ripple effects of the power struggle was felt across the nation and the globe. The Tablighi Jamaat has two groups now. One, under the leadership of Maulana Saad Kandhavli and the other under the Shoora.

Unlike the Maulana Saad-led group, the Shoora group operates from a masjid in Nerul, Mumbai. In order to have a presence in Delhi, Jamaat activity is monitored from Faiz-e-Ilahi masjid. While this group follows the council method of governance, Maulana Ibrahim Deola, a an Islamic scholar, is largely considered their main leader.

According to those well acquainted with the Tablighi activity and organisational setup, the Shoora is strong in states such as Karnataka and Gujarat. The Maulana Saad group is strong in Delhi, Telagana and Andhra Pradesh and parts of Uttar Pradesh.

Closer home, the Tablighi Jamaat has not divided its operations into Telangana and Andhra Pradesh but in fact, considers both states as a single unit. Led by Maulana Ikram Ali, a Maulana Saad loyalist, the markaz is in Jama Masjid Moazzampurah in Mallepally.

The Tablighi Jamaat has 23 jurisdictional circles which correspond to each district in the former Andhra Pradesh. There are city wide jurisdictional circles and area jurisdictional circles as well. For instance, Hyderabad and Secunderabad have over 80 neighbourhood jurisdictional circles. Each of these jurisdictional circles – be it state, district or neighbourhood – have an Ameer.

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