I am not surprised that the Almi Markaz or Global Centre of the Tablighi Jamaat in Nizamuddin West, Delhi has emerged as the hotspot for Coronavirus suspects in the capital. At a time when WHO and other experts prescribe ‘social distancing’ to curb the spread of deadly Coronavirus, around 2000 Tablighis gathered at Banglewali Masjid at the Nizamuddin earlier this month.
After the three-day meet, the preachers, many of them foreigners, fanned out to different parts of the country in the group of 10 or 12. Six of a group from Telengana which attended the meet at the mosque have reported positive for COVID-19. God knows how many more carried and transmitted the virus to others.
The multi-storied mosque sits at a crowded street, a stone throw away from Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia’s mausoleum. While devotees throng the saint’s mazar and soak in spiritual vibes amidst beats of dhol and nagara, the bearded tablighis, wearing long kurtas over short pyjamas, preach puritanical Islam. An Islam which considers worshipping at saints’ graves sinful and to which music is taboo.
In between Tablighi Jamaat’s headquarters and Nizamuddin Aulia’s mazar, peacefully sleeps Mirza Ghalib the great poet who is as much famous for his unmatched poetic oeuvre as for announcing his “weakness” for drinking and gambling from the rooftops. Add to this Ghalib’s well-known heresy and he easily becomes persona non grata for the Tablighis. Many in the community say that the Tablighis are so escapist and cut-off from this world that they often speak about things which are zameen ke neeche and aasmaan ke upar (below the earth and above the sky).
To be fair to Ghalib, he was not a hypocrite. He openly admitted his own dilemma:
Imaan mujhe roke hai to kheenche hai mujhe kufr/Kaaba mere peechche hai kalisa mere aage (Faith restrains me while I am tugged by heresy/Behind me stands the mosque, the church in front of me).
To honour Ghalib’s memory at Nizamuddin, the famous industrialist-philanthropist and a great patron of arts and literature late Hakim Abdul Hameed got the Ghalib Institute built near the poet’s grave. The building houses an auditorium and a library which stocks almost all works of the poet, many commentaries on life, times and poetry. If you are an ardent lover of Ghalib and you happen to be in Nizamuddin, you must visit this Institute.
Many mistakenly believe that Ghalib lived in one of alleys of Nizamuddin basti. No, he lived near Ballimaran, behind Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. His haveli, now restored thanks to the efforts of some Ghalib lovers, including Gulzar and Pawan Verma, attracts many visitors interested in heritage and culture.
Unlike Ghalib, the Tablighis have no qualms in declaring that they follow or at least they try to follow the path shown by the Prophet. They also strive to bring others to the “right” path. And since the journey on the right path needs sacrifice, the Tablighis preach qurbani (sacrifices) of waqt (time) and maal (money). So the indoctrination begins roughly like this. After a Tablighi jamaat arrives in a village or a locality of a city, it resides at a local mosque and preferably cooks its own meal. Led by an amir or head, the jamaat, ropes in some local fellow travelers from among the faithful and visit Muslim homes, door-to-door, inviting them to the mosque. The actual preaching begins post-namaz at the mosque where the senior most Jamaati or member, mostly the amir himself, stands to spell out the purpose of undertaking the ardous journey. He also explains the transitory nature of this life and the never-ending joyful life hereafter. The Tablighis emphasise on preparations for the hereafter and, for that, an exercise, a certain discipline is needed, they say. Leaving homes, remaining away from kith and kin for a certain period, funding the cost of journeys are needed to get disciplined in that path to paradise or Jannat. Once convinced, the uninitiated are first drafted to leave in groups initially for just three days and the first journey is not very far from where the new members reside.
The Tablighis claim nobody has a list or register of members but its members are spread across the globe. Practice makes a man perfect. To understand how to lead a true faithful’s life, members are encouraged to leave on Jamaat journeys of chilla or for 40 days. These 40 days’ spiritual journey could be within India or abroad depending on the travellers’ financial condition. Like herds, they always move in groups, stay close, cram vehicles they travel in and rooms they accommodate at. Social distancing is anathema to their idea of living on God’s land. They are the sitting ducks for COVID-19.
When I was studying at AMU in the mid-1980s, some of us were very wary of the Tablighis. They would often visit our rooms at hostels. Some of us had invented our own ways of disarming them. Many would shut doors, switch off lights and feign as if they were very serious students and were fast asleep as they studied till late in the night. The Tablighs would knock at the door a couple of times and go away. Or if some of the students were “caught”, they would promise to join the “pious” group later but seldom kept the promise.
Started by Maulana Mohammed Ilyas in 1927, the Tablighi movement initially targeted at poor Muslims of Mewat region in Haryana. Maulana Ilyas found that many of these illiterate or semi-literate Meos had deviated from the path of Islam and adopted “un-Islamic” ways in their day-to-day lives. He began gathering and preaching them in mosques. The movement received impetus after Nizamuddin became its headquarters.
In the mid-1990s I spent a year or so as a trainee reporter with a tiny magazine a few lanes off the Tablighi headquarters in Nizamuddin. Often, loitering around the streets, passing by the famous restaurant The Karims (only smelt the aroma of food, didn’t have the courage to enter it as my pocket was lighter than the tissue paper on the hotel’s table), I would cross the Tablighis’ Markaz to reach Nizamuddin Aulia’s durbar. Nobody asked me there if I was a Shia or Sunni, atheist or agnostic. Sufis’ shrines are places of inclusivity and all, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, are welcome there.
And when spirituality appeared too mundane and boring, I would stroll across the road to reach the Humayun’s Tomb. Seated there on the manicured grass, hearing chirpings of birds in the trees, I would think about nature’s own way of setting the rules. Those who were interested in Sufism had no interest in the regimented life the Tablighis led and preached. And those who loved nature had little time either for Nizamuddin Aulia or puritanical Islam that the Tablighis practiced and preached. Gahlib would have described this condition in his own inimitable way:
Kaaba kis munh se jaoge Ghalib/Sharm tum ko magar nahin aati (Ghalib what face will you to the Kaaba take/When you are not ashamed not contrite)
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.