Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi must be a happy man today. The 54-year-old emir of Tablighi Jamaat, in self-isolation, according to him, and in hiding, according to the police, has not contracted the novel coronavirus in spite of virtually swimming in the Petri dish that his Nizamuddin Markaz had become when about 3,000 people were removed to safety.
But the bigger reason for his joy would be the number of English-speaking Muslim elite supporting him and defending his movement. While the average worldly 'educated' Muslim would keep a safe distance from the jamaat, the elite had only disdain to offer, if not contempt. While acknowledging that the group and its members worked silently for the deen, the perfumed elite would heap scorn on them in their carpeted living-room chatter and meekly meow 'well, different strokes for different folks' in public. On the other hand, the 'public' Muslim thought of this jamaat as flagbearers of faith, who demanded little. Only the six sifaat: kalima, namaaz, and so on in addition to the five pillars that the deen ordained.
So this sudden outpouring of defence, not love, not at all, is the result of the half-wit and full-throated vile attack on the Muslim community by the bunch of social media users who get triggered by anything Muslim. With their backs already to the wall due to the misgivings of the NCR fog, even those Muslims arose in defence of the jamaat of whose bounds they would keep their homes and children away. The extreme piety and obsession with life after death that the jamaat preaches is beyond the average practicing Muslim making sense of life here and now. But then, buoyed by the so-called proofs - random skull-capped lout claiming Muslims are corona-proof to mischievous misreporting by a part of the media - the Hindu right-wing went ballistic blaming Muslims for the spike in coronavirus cases. The hatred tends to spill on to the ground as well and a community already facing extreme prejudice had to fight back. And they are fighting back, and in the process, also providing cover fire to the cult, much to Maulana Saad's chagrin. The ideological separatism that the jamaat insists on is re-enforced by the loud louts on the other side who have been insisting on the cultural separatism of their kind for a few decades now.
Many Indians also came to know about the scale of Tablighi Jamaat in the process. That it's a global movement headquartered in a nondescript building-mosque complex in Hazrat Nizamuddin. Many commentators are calling them one of the biggest proselytising movements in the world. Theoretically, they may be right, but for all practical purposes, Tablighis preach to the converted. They spend their time making Muslims more Muslims because they find most Muslims aren't Muslim enough. This lies at the very root of the movement.
Established in 1926-27 by Maulana Saad's great-granddad, Muhammad Ilyas of Kandhla, hence Kandhlawi, a small town in West Uttar Pradesh, the Tablighi Jamaat set out to make Mewati Muslims proper Muslims. You see, the Jats, Gujjars and Rajputs of Mewat, in the early stages of Islamic rule in India, converted under the shade of swords. They accepted Islam but they didn't know much about the faith that had swept through the land.
The result was a new set of Muslims with little knowledge of Islamic traditions. They wore traditional Indian clothes, retained non-Arabic names generation after generation; some even continued worshipping traditional deities and their weddings famously had saat pheras around the sacred fire. Forget about ilm and zikr, the Mewatis couldn't even recite the kalima (la ilaah il allah...).
This cognitive dissonance of 'have changed faith, not ancestry', pleased many as the true Ganga-Jamni tehzeeb and the syncretic ideal of Hindustani culture. Not Ilyas Kandhlawi. This master left his Deobandi seminary in Saharanpur to launch his own in Nizamuddin of all places (the jamaat doesn't recognise saints and dargah-visiting is a strict no). Kandhlawi made Mewat his focus with the help of like-minded maulvis.
He would get batches of children from Mewat and bring them to Nizamuddin to Islamise them. These children would go back and in time become a Mewati again. That's when the Maulana decided that one needs constant vigil, for those not rooted in Islam tend to become weak in faith again. He devised a set of rules, followed up strictly, made isolation steeped in faith mandatory for the jamaat, and gradually a movement emerged that spans over 200 countries today. The isolation came in the shape of travel. The idea was to withdraw from the immediate world and travel with only a bedroll, sleep in mosques and invite people to the mosque, encourage them to pray on time. This removal from family for weeks and often months availed them the opportunity to think and transform one's self. That travel feature would become the bug that bit it in 2020.
Still a loose organisation with a very short paper trail and bureaucracy, Tablighis are a sight for sore eyes for the deen-centric Muslim and a sore sight for the duniya-discerning ones. For people of other faith, they do not even so much as exist. Hence the shock. Tablighis avoid the limelight like the plague. They are notorious for not being notorious as other fundamentalists are wont. Whenever they have been linked to fundamentalist organisations, it's been because of their ideological proximity, not any direct involvement. The Godhra train burning involved a Tablighi Jamaat man but not the jamaat itself. They are politically neutral and would not side with a political party.
They have a dark side too, like religious cults of all inclinations do. Their six sifaat (attributes) include Ikram that literally suggests honouring Muslims but practically the jamaat ends up seeding questionable ideas in people's minds. This exhorts followers to rise above the concepts of nation, countries, caste or ethnicity and identify as part of the one nation, that is ummah. Then comes the not-so-subtle advice to not mix with non-Muslims and 'imitate' their traditions. That doesn't fit well with the centuries-old social realities of India. Not only people of other faiths have no place in the jamaat world, the Tablighis openly ask Muslims to withdraw from them. Tablighi Jamaat has attained new following in Muslim institutions like Jamia and AMU, especially among those studying engineering and medicine. If you see an uncanny increased religiosity among some college students, you know the movement has touched them. Remember the yearly debate about Khuda Hafiz being replaced by Allah Hafiz? Thank them for it.
So are they bringing an Islamic State? Are they out to destroy India? Well, in my lifetime, I have witnessed the Tablighi Jamaat destroy only one strong institution: Pakistani cricket. The jamaat got in the dressing room, and the rest is history. Their idea of revolution is that of extreme piousness. They believe Muslims will remain weak as long as they do not strictly adhere to their prescribed tenets of Islam and six sifats of the jamaat. They also believe khilafat, the salafi wet dream, can be re-established only if Muslims surrendered their worldly quests to the ultimate quest of paradise. Easier said than done.
Yes, shari'a and blah blah also come up because, well, it's an Islamic movement, no? But the jamaat is the austerest form of missionary movements with such absence of bells and whistles that it wouldn't be wrong to call it secretive. Its innards are not seen by Muslims, forget about Hindus. This unknown commodity status has worked to its advantage. But people also fear the unknown.
In the coronavirus crisis, the Hindu right-wing weaponised this, accusing Tabligh of terrorism, to establishing shari'a law in India. Unilateral dreams are dreamt up by every right-wing organisation. The Tablighis' singular focus on the afterlife is the only deadly virus they spread though. Not the coronavirus they are accused of spreading today.
The disease figures and official furcation of the numbers don't help the jamaat. They are not seen as the biggest victim, which they technically are, of the virus, but vectors in a pandemic. In February, the jamaat had an ijtema (annual gathering) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. From this global ijtema, preachers went off to different countries for national-level ijtema. Malaysia reported 615 infections in Malaysian preachers. Ijtemas in a dozen countries including Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand and India became clusters of the coronavirus. Once the epidemic blew out of proportion, the fear of law (most foreign preachers came on tourist visas), compounded by the stigma associated with this disease, sent them into hiding. This gave fuel to the conspiracy theories that the Tablighi Jamaat is deliberately hurting India and the world in a pandemic.
Maulana Saad has been located but the police aren't swooshing in on him yet. They know the jamaat has a large following and a nationwide network. Any hint of mistreatment of their emir will make things worse. Muslims are anxious because of the relentless vitriol rain and no silver line in the clouds. They are huddled with the impossibly pious who were brothers but from a distance. They realise they are in it together as if fate ordained what faith had.
Of course, this rain will stop. So will the cacophony of corona curses. Tablighis may find some solace in the in-community defence but Maulana Saad knows that this is a losing battle. The world moves on. His luxurious farmhouse life is public knowledge now, while he preaches living a Seventh-Century Arabian nomad life. Then there is the internet, constantly chipping away at the very foundation of faiths. He will continue his task of making Muslims more Muslim as more Muslims become less Muslim. As Mirza Ghalib said: Aadha Musalman. Rumis will live on, the Ghalibs will inherit the faith. Saad's son will inherit Ilyas Kandhlawi's followers and his namesake Sharafuddin will be on panels in TV debates, the progressive Muslim will find no space. The more prominent the zebiba, the better o habiba, chhetti bori way tabiba, nai te main mar gaiyan. Chal chhaiyan chhaiyan.