After several COVID-19 affected people across India were traced to a Tablighi Jamaat Ijtema (congregation) in Delhi held in the second week of March, the Islamic outfit finds itself at the receiving end of a great deal of attention and even vilification.
Several news channels have went to the extent of accusing the Tablighi Jamaat of having indulged in “Corona Jihad”.
Now what is Tablighi Jamaat and how is it seen by other Muslims?
What Is Tablighi Jamaat?
The Tablighi Jamaat was founded in 1926 in British India by Muhammad Illyas Kandhalwi, a scholar from Darul Uloom Deoband.
According to scholar Yoginder Sikand, who has written extensively on Tablighi Jamaat, “Maulana Illyas believed that Muslims had strayed far from the teachings of Islam. Hence, he felt the urgent need for Muslims to go back to the basic principles of their faith, and to observe strictly the commandments of Islam in their own personal lives and in their dealings with others”.
The part which set apart Tablighi Jamaat was this complete focus on “personal lives and habits”.
Maulana Illyas is said to have distanced himself from Deoband as he wanted to focus more on preaching and proselytisation as opposed to Darul Uloom’s focus on imparting religious education and managing mosques.
Maulana Illyas established Tablighi with its headquarters in Nizamuddin in Delhi, but its most important context became Mewat.
Home to Meo Muslim peasants, who are said to be of Rajput origin, Mewat became a place of contest between the Tablighi Jamaat and the Shuddhi and Sangathan movements led by Hindu reformist organisations like Arya Samaj.
With the British rulers introducing religion-based census, it created a competition between Hindu and Muslim organisations to “convert” communities like Meos who followed mixed practices.
There was also an increasing emphasis on text over customary practices, with Tablighis stressing on Quran and Sunnah and Arya Samaj on Vedas.
After Independence, Tablighi Jamaat expanded rapidly across the world, first among the South Asian diaspora and then among other Sunni Muslims.
The focus remained on getting Muslims to live their lives in line with what according to Tablighi Jamaat were the practices followed by Prophet Muhammad.
A great deal of emphasis was on ritual, dress and personal behaviour. Politically, it translated into a dissociation from political activism, even regarding causes like Palestine.
After the 11 September 2001 attack, security establishments and think tanks across the world have had an ambiguous view of the Tablighi Jamaat.
On one hand, some like French analyst Marc Gaborieau accused Tablighi Jamaat of working towards a “planned conquest of the world”, others like former CIA official Graham Fuller call it a “peaceful and apolitical preaching-to-the-people movement”.
The view in the Indian security establishment has both these elements, with one section seeing it as a counter to political Islam especially in Kashmir. The visit of Ajit Doval to the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz must be seen in this context.
How Muslims See Tablighi Jamaat
Tablighi Jamaat is said to have millions of followers across the world. However, not all of them are involved at the same level. Only a proportion of them are into proselytisation.
Among Muslims, opinion is divided regarding Tablighi Jamaat. Some, like journalist Shahid Siddiqui, see it as a “threat to modern education of Muslims”.
Delhi-based activist Saima Rehman has a different view.
“It is wrong to characterise Tablighi Jamaat as backward and fanatical. The organisation has had an extremely positive role in Mewat - from warning people against harmful practices like dowry to preventing drug abuse or even promoting polio eradication drives,” Rehman, who has roots in Mewat, told The Quint.
“Tableegh is based on the ideals of Islah (reform). It promotes good and forbids evil while maintaining humility and patience. They preach their ideals but have no place for coercion. They have a commitment to humble, austere lifestyle.”Saima Rehman, activist
For many non-Tablighi Muslims, the view towards Tablighi Jamaat has been shaped by their interactions with Tablighi preachers and the opinions range from respect and admiration to annoyance and even amusement.
The interactions with Tablighi preachers have also fostered a brand of humour, such as this popular video from Pakistan titled, “When You Get Caught By Tableeg Wale Uncle”.
Meem Hakeem, a popular Facebook page among Indian Muslims, also regularly posts memes poking fun at Tablighi Jamaat, such as this one using the famous Cat-Angry woman meme.
Encounters with Tablighi preachers have spawned monikers like “Takleefi (troublesome) Jamaat” or “Muslim police”.
“It would be wrong to say that they (Tablighis) don’t pester people to come and join their group, even if it was in a polite way. But don’t most ideologically oriented organisations do that? Take students groups in college for example,” says actvist Asad Ashraf, founder of Karwaan India.
What Made Tablighis Vulnerable to COVID-19?
However irrespective of whether they agree or disagree with the Tablighi Jamaat’s worldview, Muslims are by and large shocked at the “Corona Jihad” campaign being carried out in the media and social media. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board called it an “organised conspiracy”.
In the entire controversy, what seems to have been missed is what made Tablighi Jamaat members vulnerable to COVID-19.
The answer lies not in any grand conspiracy, but in the fact that Tablighi Jamaat is a transnational organisation in which a central role is played by the institution of Ijitima or a congregation comprising people from different countries.
These Ijtimas are nothing abnormal and have been going on since decades. Some of the biggest international Ijitimas in India in recent years were held in Bhopal.
As this also brought revenue, the BJP government in the state gave special importance to these functions with Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan supervising the arrangements himself.
There’s nothing sinister in the Delhi Ijtema per se but obviously it was callous of the organisers to hold such a large gathering with international travellers in light of the pandemic.
The second Tablighi practice relevant in this context is the Chilla or 40-day trips undertaken by Tablighis to preach their mission. These often involve going to remote areas and setting up a kitchen.
The international travellers who ended up becoming carriers of COVID-19 were probably taking part in such trips.
It is a similar institution of transnational preaching that led to a Sikh Granthi in Punjab becoming a carrier for COVID-19.
The source of the problem therefore lies not in a conspiracy but in inadequate awareness on the part of these preachers and inadequate measures on the part of the government of India.