By Yoginder Sikand, TwoCircles.net,
Maulana Ismail and the Meos
Even though the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) as we know it today took off in Mewat only in the late 1920s under Maulana Ilyas, it was actually the Maulana’s father, Maulana Muhammad Ismail (d.1898), who first made contact with the Meos. Ismail came from a family of Siddiqui Shaikhs of Jhanjhana in the Muzaffarnagar district of the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). This family, which claimed descent from Abu Bakr, the first khalifa, of the Sunnis, had for generations been renowned for its piety. Ismail is said to have been a very learned and pious Islamic scholar. So deeply engrossed in his spiritual quest was he that it is reported that he would often go for days on end without any food, forgetting that as a result his own little children had to remain hungry (Ferozepuri n.d.c:6). In Tablighi hagiography he is even credited with having possessed certain miraculous mystical powers, besides having been vehemently opposed to the British for having dispossessed the Muslims of political power (Baliyavi n.d.:38-39).
Ismail is said to have been the heir to a vast estate in Jhanjhana. According to one source, besides 4,000 bighas of agricultural land, he owned over 400 houses, all of which he had given out on rent. However, he is said to have completely renounced his wealth and taken up residence in a semi-abandoned mosque, the Banglewali Masjid in Delhi’s Basti Nizamuddin, which today serves as the global headquarters of the TJ. It is said that when Ismail first got to Basti Nizamuddin, he found to his consternation that he had no one else to join him in a jama’at for congregational prayers. He did not give up hope, however, and went out onto the main road, hoping to find some fellow-Muslims. Just then, a small group of people, who, from their external appearance, seemed to be non-Muslims, passed by. Seeing them, Ismail called out to them, asking them who they were. In reply, they said they were Muslim Meos from Gurgaon, and that, owing to a severe famine in their part of the country, they were heading towards Delhi in search of work.
Curious to know more about them, Ismail asked them what they would earn if they were to work as labourers in Delhi. They answered that at the most they would earn two annas a day. On hearing this, Ismail asked them if they would be willing to work for him for the same wage. They readily agreed to his proposal. To the utter amazement of the Meos, the work that the Maulana asked them to perform every day was simply to learn how to pray in the Islamic way and to memorise selected verses from the Qur’an. At the end of each day they were paid two annas each. For the simple-minded Meos, Ismail appeared to be nothing less than a spiritually exalted wali (friend) of God, a recipient of great divine grace. Among themselves they remarked:
He seems to be Allah’s wali since he not only teaches us about religion but even pays us for it. He does not tell us to press his feet, to fill water in the drums or even to sweep the mosque, all of which he does himself (Baliyavi op. cit.:43).
After a few days, the Meos returned to their homes, promising Ismail that they would soon come back to him along with their families. On their return to Mewat they excitedly spoke to their fellow-villagers about Allah’s wali whom they had personally encountered, exclaiming:
He is, indeed, true and we have seen all the signs and qualities of a wali in him. He is not greedy at all. In fact, he is actually helping us both materially as well as spiritually. Truly, he is an extraordinary wali (Baliyavi op. cit.:44).
So much were these Meos awed by Ismail’s kindness towards them that they sent a group of children to the madrasa that he had opened at the mosque at Basti Nizamuddin. This is dated, by one source, to around 1880 (Mahdi 1985:6). Soon, regular batches of Meo children begin being sent to the madrasa. After completing their studies they would go back to Mewat to preach Islam and a fresh batch would be admitted (Bijnori n.d.:25). There, they were given free education, food, clothes and a place to stay. Meo elders now began paying visits to Ismail at Basti Nizamuddin. He would pay for their travel and would serve them food (Baliyavi op. cit.:44).
After Ismail had been able to win the confidence of the Meos, he, along with some Meo disciples, began to undertake short tours of their villages. As a result of these efforts, he is said to have made ‘nearly five hundred real servants of God, some of whom became huffaz [memorisers of the Qur’an], religious scholars and missionaries who strove to spread the name of Allah throughout the world’ (Baliyavi op. cit.:46).
Ismail died in 1898 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Muhammad, as the head teacher of the madrasa at Basti Nizamuddin. Muhammad continued with his father’s work among the Meos, including extensive tours of Mewat, making many followers and attempting to spread Islamic awareness in the area. After having worked among the Meos for several years, Muhammad died in 1917. His mantle was then taken up by his younger brother, Muhammad Ilyas, who was to go on to found the TJ.
Bangle Wali Masjid in Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin
Beginnings of TJ
Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, originally Akhtar Ilyas, was born in 1885 at his maternal grandfather’s home at Kandhla, in the Muzaffarnagar district of the United Provinces. The youngest son of Maulana Ismail, he was brought up in a strict Islamic environment. ‘The stories of Hazrat Shah ‘Abdul ‘Aziz and Sayyed Ahmad Shahid were constantly on the tongues of the men and women of the family’, says one source, and the womenfolk ‘would tell the children not stories about parrots and mynahs but about these brave and great leaders’ (Baliyavi op. cit.:15).
Ilyas memorised the Qur’an at an early age. He received his primary education from his father and, at the age of 11 or 12, went to Gangoh, then an important centre of Deobandi influence. There he stayed for nine long years, studying various Islamic disciplines from Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (1829-1905), a leading Deobandi ‘alim. Thereafter, in 1908, he proceeded to Deoband itself to study the traditions of the Prophet under the renowned scholar, Shaikh-ul-Hind Maulana Mahmud-ul Hasan (1851-1920), from whom, it is said, he took an oath of jihad against the British (Baliyavi op. cit.:24). While at Deoband he also came into contact with such other renowned Deobandi ‘ulama as Ashraf Ali Thanawi and Shah Abdul Rahim Raipuri (d. 1919), of whom he was to declare that they were his Very body and soul’ (Baliyavi op. cit.:24). From Deoband Ilyas proceeded to Saharanpur to study under the supervision of Khalil Ahmad at the Mazahir-ul Ulum, a sister institution of the Deoband madrasa. In 1910, he was appointed as a teacher at the Saharanpur madrasa (Baliyavi op. cit.:22). He probably intended to make this his career for the rest of his life, but this was not to be.
Following the death of Maulana Muhammad, a group of Meos proceeded to Saharanpur to request Ilyas to take up his late brother’s position at the Basti Nizamuddin madrasa. Initially, Ilyas seems to have been reluctant to leave Saharanpur, but the Meos pleaded in desperation, saying,
Your father and brother gave us duniya and din [worldly and spiritual blessings] … before which we were completely ignorant. You must come to Nizamuddin. [If you so desire you can even] merely sit at the Banglewali Masjid. That itself will be enough for us and we will be reformed thereby, for the entire Meo community loved and respected your brother and father (Baliyavi op. cit.:48).
Ilyas finally relented and agreed to go to Delhi to take up the responsibility of the madrasa there, but laid down one condition—that the Meos would have to send their children to the Islamic makatib (elementary schools) that he would set up in Mewat.
The Makatib experiment
After making two unsuccessful tours of Mewat, in the area near the township of Nuh, Ilyas finally seems to have managed to induce some inhabitants of the village of Ferozepur-Namak, a Meo village in Gurgaon with which his brother and father had established close ties, to send their children to the makeshift Islamic school that had already been set up there (Bakhsh 1995:43-50). Over time, as Ilyas made tours of Mewat with increasing frequency, he set up several such schools in other villages. Elementary Islamic education was provided in these makatib, supplemented with occasional lectures delivered by touring ‘ulama which Ilyas arranged for (Bakhsh 1995:37). Besides, the number of Meo students at the main madrasa at the Banglewali Masjid also rose considerably. Ilyas had now succeeded in establishing a fairly extensive network of religious schools, both in Delhi as well as in Mewat, through which he thought he would be able to mobilise the Meos to Islamise themselves more fully. Some of these were simply makeshift structures, consisting of a sackcloth spread under a shady tree, with arrangement for cold drinking water and bukkahs. Teams of Ilyas’ disciples sat there waiting for passersby to preach to, ‘each time’, it is said, ‘adapting their call to the needs of particular listeners’ (S.A. Haq 1972:152).
According to one writer, Ilyas soon managed to set up in Mewat, ‘quite a few hundred makatib in which the Qur’an was taught’, hoping thereby to spread awareness of Islam as widely as possible (Hasni 1989:201). However, a single event so deeply shocked him that it made him realise the futility of these efforts, forcing him to adopt, instead, the novel means of missionary communication that has become the single-most distinguishing feature of the TJ.
It is said that three years after the setting up of the first Islamic school in Mewat by Ilyas, its first batch of students completed their course of study. Ilyas was invited to preside over the graduation ceremony. There, he was presented with a young Meo man who had just passed out of the maktab as a hafiz, having memorised the entire Qur’an. In his appearance, this man was indistinguishable from the other Meos as well as from the local Hindu peasants. He ‘had a thick, long moustache but had no beard. He wore a dhoti, the dress of the non-Muslims, and his mannerisms, too, were just like theirs’.
Ilyas was stunned beyond belief on seeing this hafiz. He ‘clasped his head in his hands and began sobbing’, crying out,
Oh Allah! What should I do? My life and my money have been completely wasted producing a hafiz of the Qur’an like this one!
Ilyas is said to have been so greatly pained and shocked at seeing that a hafiz of his maktab still ‘appeared as a non-Muslim’ despite so many years of Islamic education that he reportedly, ‘nearly fell unconscious’ and, in fact, ‘just missed having a heart attack’, but ‘Allah rescued him’, for ‘he had chosen him to accomplish great things’ (Baliyavi n.d.:52). It then dawned upon Ilyas that the makatib that he had set up had proved to be ineffective in bringing about the Islamic reform that he desired, since both the teachers as well as the students of the makatib lived in a generally un-Islamic environment from whose cultural influence they could not possibly remain immune.
Central to this narrative account is the importance that is placed on the role of apparel and facial hair as external markers of identity dividing Meos (‘Muslims’) from non-Meos (‘Hindus’), from whom in most respects they were almost wholly indistinguishable. Religion, here, is seen not simply as an inner spiritual experience. One’s religious identity must be publicly expressed and announced through the display of visible symbols that dramatically set apart one religious ‘community’ from the others. ‘Islamic’ external appearance was just one among the large ensemble of symbols that were now seen as integral to Muslim community identity. Most Meos, even those who were not particularly pious or committed Muslims, would respond enthusiastically to these calls. It seems that this probably had much to do with an urge to differentiate themselves from the Hindus, who, as we have seen, were now increasingly being seen as the oppressive ‘Other’. A shared and separate external identity provided by ‘Islamic’ external appearance helped strengthen this sense of Meo cohesion, an identity defined essentially in opposition to the Hindus, a response to what were seen as the growing Hindu onslaughts on the community.
The method of Tabligh
While the incident involving the ‘un-Islamic’ looking hafiz prompted Ilyas to discontinue with his makatib in Mewat, it is not clear what made him see the jama’ats of roving missionaries as the most appropriate means to spread awareness of Islam among the Meos. There seem to be four different accounts concerning this. One, which understandably finds particular favour with Muslim opponents of the TJ, has it that Ilyas simply devised his method of tabligh work on his own and then claimed that it was divinely inspired. A variant of this thesis is that, faced with the shuddhi onslaught of the Arya Samaj, Ilyas, after considerable thought, devised a means by which he could mobilise the Meos to struggle in the path of Islam while offering this to them as an incentive to work for their own salvation in the hereafter (Habib 1996:72). Tablighi sources, however, stress that the method of tabligh was not of Ilyas’ own making and that it was actually inspired by God. According to one Tablighi account, Ilyas was so upset with the failure of his makatib that he considered migrating to the Hijaz for good and actually proceeded to Mecca for his second haj in 1925—26. Though he had planned to settle down in Arabia he actually stayed just five months there, before returning to India. Apparently, at the Mosque of the Prophet at Medina, where he spent three days in silent contemplation, he saw the Prophet Muhammad in a dream, who addressed him saying, ‘Oh Ilyas! Go back to India where God shall take work from you.’
Overwhelmed with fear, Ilyas approached one Maulana Qutbuddin of Mecca to interpret this dream for him. In reply he was told, ‘Do not fear. Do not do anything. God shall do all through you. You cannot do anything through your own mind or intellect.’
After this, Ilyas returned to Delhi in 1926, immersing himself in prayer, continuously pleading with God to tell him ‘what work he would take from him’. Then, at last, it is said, ‘Allah, through a dream, taught him the tariqa-i-tabligh [the method of preaching]’ (Baliyavi n.d.:52-53).
Notable in this account is that the tariqa-i-tabligh is portrayed as being of divine inspiration, it being suggested that it was taught to Ilyas by God himself. Consequently, any critique of it, or of Ilyas’ own project, could possibly be interpreted as questioning the divine will itself. Since it was claimed that God had appointed Ilyas ‘to take work from him’, any challenge to him and his movement, then, could be capable of being construed as a challenge to God and to His din. This claim to divine inspiration seems to have been a crucial factor in building up the image of Ilyas as a charismatic figure in direct communication with God, and over time, an increasing number of Meos began to see him as such. Thus, according to one Meo writer:
Irreligiousness had become so widespread that Allah in his mercy selected Hazrat Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Sahib and illumined in him [munkashf armaye] the principles for the guidance of the people of this age. The name of this method of guidance is now famous as the Tablighi movement … All its principles are divinely inspired [iske sare usul ilhami hain]. That is why it is necessary for Muslims of all classes to join in this work. It is, in fact, the demand of the hour (Ferozepuri n.d.c:4).
This author goes so far as to invest Ilyas’ birth itself with great divine significance, as a major event in God’s plans for the world. Thus, he announces:
Allah, the honourable cherisher, had selected Hazrat Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, may the mercy of God be upon him, on the day of creation [roz-i-azl] itself for the reformation and guidance of the Muslim community of this age, and so, from the very beginning had put this soul in him (Ferozepuri n.d.c:38).
Contrary to the above account which attributes the tariqa-i-tabligh to divine guidance, the same writer suggests another account later on, according to which Ilyas may have learnt the method of preaching from the Meos themselves. Thus, he writes that one Hafiz Muhammad Ishaq of Ferozepur-Namak, son of Munshi Nur Bakhsh, a Meo disciple of Ilyas’ elder brother Muhammad, had first formed a jama’at composed, among others, of Nambardar Mehrab Khan, Munshi Umrao Khan, Munshi Nur Ali, Hafiz Abdul Rahman, Miyanji Suleiman, Patwari Nasrullah, Chaudhri Namaz Khan and himself—all, with die exception of the last, inhabitants of Ferozepur-Namak. They would pray, cook and sleep together and would go in a group around Ferozepur-Namak calling people to the mosque to pray.
At the time when the Aryas were spearheading the shuddhi campaign among the Malkana Rajputs in neighbouring Bharatpur and Agra, the members of this jama’at approached Ilyas. They told him that his visits to Mewat, for the most part only of Ferozepur-Namak and only for one or two days, were far too short and that he needed to spend at least a week each time he came to Mewat if the shuddhi onslaught were to be effectively prevented from spreading to the region. Ilyas himself was greatly troubled at the prospect that, like their neighbours, the Malkanas, the Meos, too, might fall into the Arya trap, for they also were Muslim only in name. This thought is said to have so pained him that:
He completely lost his sleep. He would cry out in anguish and would beseech God for help. He did not know what to do because he had tried the conventional way [of attempting to spread awareness about Islam through setting up makatib], but that had been a complete failure (Ferozepuri n.d.c:13).
In reply to the request of the Meo jama’at, Ilyas is reported to have said that Ferozepur-Namak was an educated village that could take care of itself. At this the Meos said to him, ‘Yes, we are doing some work here. We go about enrolling children in the madrasa and, through gasht, we bring people [to the mosque] for worship.’
Ilyas was apparently greatly intrigued when he heard the word gasht (tour) mentioned and he asked the Meos what they meant by it. They explained that it involved forming a group of five to seven persons that went from house to house inviting people to the mosque. On hearing this, Ilyas said that he would like to personally witness their gasht. When he saw for himself the way the jama’at performed gasht, he was very pleased but offered some suggestions for its improvement. Among these were the appointment of an amir to lead the groups and a mutakallim or speaker; doing gasht in villages other than Ferozepur-Namak alone; and, in the gasht, not restricting the content of the speech just to the importance of prayers but also teaching and stressing the importance of the kalima (Ferozepuri n.d.c:16). This is how, according to this account, the tariqa-i-tabligh of the TJ came to be developed.
According to the fourth account, the tariqa-i-tabligh was partly divinely inspired and partly fashioned by Ilyas himself. Thus, Rahim Bakhsh, a close Meo disciple of Ilyas, writes that when the Maulana returned from his second haj he went into solitary meditation in order to learn from God the method of ‘doing his work’. At last, in a dream he was told that just as the first lesson that Muhammad had given to his people was to ‘recite the kalima and attain felicity’, he, too, should make the kalima his first principle. Ilyas then decided that his second principle should be ritual prayers, the ’emperor of worship’ (sultan-i-‘ibadat). Thereafter, he pondered over what aspect of Islam his own Deobandi elders had left untouched which he could take up—religious instruction was already being done at Deoband and Saharanpur; Ashraf Ali Thanawi had taken up the task of writing Islamic books; Sa’eed Ahmad was propagating Islam through his lectures; and Hussain Ahmad Madani was serving Islam in the field of politics. He found that besides the kalima and prayers, the other four of what were to become known as the ‘six principles’ were not being given the attention that they deserved by the ‘ulama of his day and so decided to focus on them as well.
Having drawn up his scheme of tabligh based on the ‘six principles’, he began his work among the Meos. Later, his Meo followers pressed him for an instructional text about the principles of tabligh. Ilyas was apparently very reluctant to prescribe any such book, because, he argued, in the Prophet’s day there were no printing presses and the companions had engaged in the tabligh of Islam simply by word of mouth. However, later bowing to the repeated requests of his followers, he instructed the commissioning of three texts—the first, a slim booklet, Musalmano ki Pasti ka Wahid Ilaj (‘The Sole Remedy for the Plight of the Muslims’) penned by his relative, Ehtisham-ul Hassan Kandhalawi; and the other two, the Faza’il-i-Tabligh and the Faza’il-i-Namaz, compiled by Muhammad Zakariyya. This is how, says Rahim Bakhsh (1995:62-63), the unique tariqa-i-tabligh of the TJ came to be developed.
1. See E.H. Kandhalawi (1382 A.H.) for full details. A genealogical table of the family appears in Husn-i-Ikhlaq, September 1995, pp. 45-46.
2. This figure must be treated with caution. Apparently, over time almost all the tenants managed to register these houses in their names. Ismail, however, remained unconcerned because God, he said, would give him far more luxurious mansions in heaven instead (Baliyavi op. cit.:47).
3. This school had been set up by Munshi Nur Bakhsh and Ilyas later expanded it, giving it the name of Madrasa Khaliliya, after his teacher at Saharanpur (Ferozepuri n.d.a:53).
4. As for the quality of education that was imparted in these early makatib, the example of one of the first of them to be started, at the village of Rupdaka, is instructive. After laying the foundation stone of the maktab, Ilyas told the villagers to search for a teacher. They managed to find one Karim Bakhsh, a ploughman in the service of one Miyanji Amanullah. Karim Bakhsh knew just some odd parts of the Qur’an. Ilyas appointed him as the teacher of the maktab on a monthly salary of ten rupees (Bakhsh 1995:50).
5. Ilyas himself seems to have suggested this, as for instance, when he declared that,
“The manner and magnitude in which, participating in this movement one receives the agreement, the closeness and the help and blessings [of God] is not to be found in the case of other methods [of working for the cause of Islam]. This movement of da’wat and tabligh is really a great blessing from God. Not to respect it is a sure invitation to danger” (quoted in Hafizullah n.d.:22).
6. Ferozepuri (n.d.c:40) quotes Ilyas as having announced, with regard to the supposed divine origins of the tariqa-i-tabligh, that,
I have not made the principles [of tabligh] of my own accord. Rather, they have been bestowed upon me [by God], and I have been ordained to work according to them.
7. According to Ferozepuri, once one Qari Sayyed Raza Hussain asked Ilyas if he were the mujaddid (renewer) of the age. Ilyas replied that he was not the mujaddid but the Imam, and that he had tried to keep this fact concealed so that ‘thete should be no dissension among the friends (auliya) of God’ (quoted in Ferozepuri n.d.a:21).
8. Ferozepuri writes that it was this group of Meos, along with some others, who had approached Ilyas at Saharanpur to request him to take up the responsibility of the Nizamuddin madrasa (Ferozepuri n.d.a:ll).
9. According to one report, by May 1923, half of the Muslim population of the Bharatpur state had been converted to Hinduism (see Aligarh Gazette, 4 May 1923). The Pratap of 29 April 1923, reported that all the Malkanas of Bharatpur had undergone shuddhi and that Shraddhanand had announced that he was shortly going to resume shuddhi work among the nau-Muslims of Gurgaon. According to the Milap of 18 January 1924, the Bharatiya Shuddhi Mandal of Agra had, from February to December, done shuddhi work in some 50 villages in Gurgaon, 16 in Bharatpur and a few in Alwar. Mayaram writes that the Aryas had made sporadic efforts that the shuddhi of the Malkanas and the Meos of Bharatpur and Alwar before the Mapilla revolt, but it seems likely that organised attempts at this started only after mass shuddhi of the Malkanas began in 1923 (Mayaram 1997:64-65).