Tablighi Jamaat: Aftermath of Nizamuddin Markez incident and Muslim higher education in India

By Azhar Uddin Sahaji, 

Shahnawaz is only 17 years old, and somehow managed to enter class 11 after a few attempts and plans not to continue with schooling. He has become a ‘devout’ Muslim trying to follow all the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH) very religiously and utmost sincerity. Not just that, he has taken upon the responsibility of Dawah or invitation towards the ways of Allah at this young age. In the course of a conversation with me, he commented, Azhar Bhai, the education you have, the job you do, will be of no use in your afterlife. He knows very well that I teach as an assistant professor at Delhi University and often advocate for higher education among the locales in North Delhi. His remarks made me sad and left me flabbergasted. Not because I felt guilty for running after worldly pursuits but by seeing how young minds like Shahanwaz and others are taught to look at education. The orientation he inherited at this young age made me sad.

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Shahnawaz is one of those permanent residents of Delhi, living here for generations, carrying a surname that he is proud of and earning a handsome amount from tenants from a big house that his family owns – the pushteyeni maakan. Perhaps there is nothing else that he needs to look for apart from possessing a motorcycle, a fancy mobile phone, sporting a hairstyle and going to Jamaat occasionally. My area in North Delhi is not a Muslim dominated one. Muslims may constitute only two per cent of the population here (my mere guess, since I could not count the numbers) and to my experience, till now in 2020 from 1947 not a single Muslim boy (don’t even talk about girls, they just locked in, completely) has seen the threshold of any college in regular mode, whereas Delhi boasts of many famous institutions like DU, Jamia, JNU, IIT and others. To my knowledge of the past seven years, only a few boys have made it through the School of Open Learning at Delhi University. Although, thousands of students, including some Muslims from different Indian states, do get a chance and come to study in Delhi.

The case is the same with almost all (permanent) Muslims residents in Delhi, most of whom are pushteini – the ones living here in Delhi for (a few) generations and own a makaan or house and a major source of their income is rent or small scale businesses. The same scenario could be seen in almost all the areas in Delhi – both Muslim dominated and the areas where Muslims live as minorities. Areas like Zafrabad, Mustafabad, Loni, Khajuri, Inderlok, Bara Hindu Rao are all the same – completely devoid of higher education except one or two families who are in touch with the educational processes. However, there are two exceptions: Old Delhi and the whole of Okhla area thanks to Zakir Husain Delhi College and Jamia Millia Islamia, which is educating generations.

We, the Muslims of India have realized that governments came and gone but we continue to live in the same place where we used to live. Perhaps the situation is even more challenging these days. However, as a student, teacher and education enthusiast, I will take this opportunity to criticize some internal factors which are equally responsible for the backwardness of Muslims in educational sectors. I would like to take this opportunity to argue that as much as the governments and political parties are responsible for neglecting education among Muslim youths, the Tablighi Jamaat too, is equally responsible. Why? Let me state some reasons from my experience and observations.

Tablighi Jamaat is perhaps the only one big organization that has a deep-rooted reach in the heart of Muslim colonies and societies in North India specifically in the Hindustani language areas than others (although it’s spreading beyond the said areas nowadays). They have been able to do so through local mosques where all the Muslims assemble for prayers at some time or other. The Tablighi Jamaat is a missionary group whose primary target is to call the people towards the path of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The professed target of Jamaat is to take Muslims back to the platform where the Prophet has left Muslims after his demise. Thus, Tablighi Jamaat sees itself a service to Islam and its members are selfless volunteers who devote their time and willingness to the will of Allah and ways of the Prophet. The volunteers divide mosques among themselves into small groups in a particular area and stay there for a particular period, varying from 3 days, 10 days, 40 days or more than that. In the duration of their stay in a mosque the food is arranged by the locals and the people in the Jamaat indulge in religious discussions, learning new practices and correct mistakes if any. After the evening prayer of Asr, they go door to door after calling people to the path of Islam and preaching Islamic values of good deeds and bad deeds. They discuss, argue and invite individuals to the mosque to listen to a sermon delivered by the head of the Jamaat. Thus, Jamaat has reached the heart of the Muslim societies in North India. (I’m not very sure of other regions such as the South, or the Maratha speaking Maharashtra since Jamaat has a reach in the Decani Urdu speakers in the southern states or Kashmir. In Bengal, they do not have a deep-rooted reach because of an existing legacy of local reformation movements. Although Jamaat is making significant progress among educated male youth in West Bengal these days). This attempt to introduce reforms among Muslims has brought many positive changes in terms of religion and Jamaat has largely been successful in achieving their mission. Now, you can rarely see a religious Muslim across Hindustani speaking areas who do not have a Jamaat connection.

However, there is a tremendous negative impact of this whole process when it comes to the question of Muslims being a minority in India, who are devoid of education and financial affluence. Jamaat, while inviting individuals to the path of Truth completely devalues, nulls and voids education, jobs, business and agriculture (padhainaukrikaro-war and kheti) and terms them as a means for indulging in worldly pursuits. Thus Jamaat has successfully managed to argue against education, job, business or agriculture and invites individuals to leave respective works alone and work for the cause of Allah and His Prophet (PBUH). This whole process has made many young Muslims like Shahanwaz to distaste their studies, jobs and business and only spending time in Jamaat related works and practising Sunnah with ultimate religiosity and care. And I take this opportunity to argue that this has a far-reaching impact among the Muslims Hindustani languages speaking areas. Every single boy and man can tell you about Jamaat and being at Jamaat at times but they would not be able to tell you about local schools and colleges or any educational courses and career plans as such. To them, the worldly life has completely zero value and man should focus only on the afterlife. If you go on arguing against this, you will be termed as kaafirmurtad or munafeeq in an instant and that you are against Islam and the Prophet and Allah. And, if you ever say a word against Tariq Jamil, the Pakistani preacher, there will be graver repercussions.

However, it needs to be said that arguing against Tariq Jamil or Tablighi Jamaat has nothing to do with criticizing or commenting against Islam. Islam allows us to criticize and question. That’s how the Prophet (PBUH) allowed the Quraysh, the Jews and Christians to argue and then finally accept Islam. There is nothing blasphemous in it. But most of the followers of the Tablighi Jamaat have incomplete knowledge about Islam as none of them have cared to read the Quran and Life of the Prophet in their mother tongue (to understand) them word by word. Most of them have become devout and staunch Muslims only by listening to preachers like local imams or Jamaat leaders or Tariq Jamil. Maulana Tariq Jamil could have been a doctor himself (as I hear), he could have been a preacher too along with being a doctor. He could have helped poor people educate themselves. But he left studies to preach and thus, in turn, making millions of Muslim youths to leave their studies and business and turning to an austere religious life. Pakistan being a Muslim dominated nation where one cannot even imagine of the phrase ‘social justice’ and where only the rich elite who keep themselves slyly away from Jamaat could afford this loss, but can the Indian Muslims, who are already deprived of constitutional rights, fair justice and equal bearings bear such a great loss? Never.

In India, the case with elite rich educated Muslims is the same as those in Pakistan. The high gates of Zakir Nagar (the abode of rich Muslim intellectuals) cannot be penetrated by the poor jamaatis. In Jamaat there are two sets of groups. One who works on the ground and goes door to door forsaking their family, job, education and business. They mostly come from financially backward families. And the second, the big masters or markez heads and leaders of Jamaat like Maulana Saad and others. The people who belong to this second group never go door to door, only send the poor vulnerable youths, who are not their sons or relatives. They are brainwashed to leave their studies and jobs. This second group come from rich business backgrounds (but alas, not as rich as Ambani, Adani or even Ajim Premji) and who have other people to look after their businesses in their absence. Interestingly, office goers are rarely visible in Jamaat activities. Thus who is bearing the ultimate loss in terms of all-round development? It is people like Shahanwaz, his brother Tanzim, his cousins and relatives who even have not seen the threshold of a college in their lifetime and neither can they in the future, I presume. But all of them are active members of Jamaat.

This article is not against the very existence of the Tablighi Jamaat. Reformation movements have always been there in all religions. And through ages, religious reformation movements have always existed which shaped our present-day life and culture, including the Sufi and Bhakti movements, the Wahhabi movement and so on. Moreover, it is one’s constitutional right to practice and preach within one’s community, neither any other community nor the government has any right to poke nose into one’s religious affairs. Thus this article argues neither against the very existence of Tablighi Jamaat nor for its ban but what do Jamaatis preach—excessive focus on the afterlife and a complete denial of any worldly pursuit.

Islam as a religion never focuses completely on evangelism or the afterlife. There are thousands of examples where the Prophet (PBUH) can be seen encouraging his followers to pursue education and do business honestly and prosper. Will it be possible for Jamaat to preach and teach like this: “Be religious, be pious but never leave your education, your business, your agriculture rather continue pursuing them for Muslims need them both – a good worldly life as well as ‘works’ and ‘preparation’ for the afterlife. If the Jamaat cannot make this change, it is for the benefit of the Muslims in (north) India that it must be banned. If the Jamaat agrees to follow, acknowledging the fact that it has a grassroots reach in the Muslim societies – Muslims in India will see a great surge of development in terms of education and finance not by the help of the government but by their hard work. The Sikhs, Christian missionaries apart from preaching, have provided support both to men and women to pursue higher education, to establish a business, to create community-based educational institutions (like St Stephen’s or JMC, Khalsa and so on in Delhi). Have the Tablighi Jamaat been able to do such a thing in Delhi, where the central marqez is located? How many boys (not even mentioning girls, the Jamaat completely denies any sort of rights to them) have helped to study and pursue their dreams? How many individuals have they supported to establish a business? Or how many community schools and colleges (not madrassas as it has always been there) they have established? Zero in my experience. Perhaps one kind reader of this article brings to my notice any such example.

After the Tablighi Jamaat incident in Nizamuddin Markez in March 2020, Muslims in Delhi and India were hounded like dogs. The wound is still fresh. Even the verdict of the Bombay High Court recently and the Supreme was not able to heal that wound. The trauma, the insults Muslims suffered cannot be compensated in any way. However, this is the time that Muslim thinker and intellectuals and of course, respected members of Tablighi Jamaat could think about this great shortcoming in their system and rectify it immediately apart from blaming the external causes. I am sure it will enliven a great development within Muslim communities in a swift space.

Azhar Uddin Sahaji teaches English at the undergraduate level at Delhi University. He writes frequently in Bangla and English.