Over the last couple of days when the world was occupied with unifying efforts to fight the deadly Covid19 pandemic, sections of Indian media provided viewers with a familiar scapegoat – the Indian Muslims – who are often stereotyped as a community being constantly at loggerheads with the citizenry and the State.
Biased media channels were quick to resort to blaming the entire Muslim community for the spread of the disease in the country, thanks to an ill-timed Tablighi Jamaat gathering at its international headquarters in Delhi’s Nizamuddin. Unsurprisingly, the opprobrium was also marked by a sudden spike in WhatsApp forwards of videos with people wearing skullcaps licking spoons and performing Sufi breathing rituals, suggesting some sort of wild conspiracy on the part of the community to spread the virus. Some media channels were quick to formulate, hypothesize and provide loose definitions of a newly discovered form of Jihad i.e. ‘Corona Jihad’ thereby vilifying the Islamic faith and its followers.
While the investigation on the culpability of the organizers of the Nizamuddin event is still ongoing, there is enough information to suggest that the meeting was held before any lockdown was in force, and the problem began when there was no way of getting people out once the curfew was announced. Be that as it may, there is little doubt that organizing a meet of such a scale when there is a global pandemic smacks of gross misjudgment, and definitely the organizers should be held accountable if laws or public orders were defied. Attendees who attempt to defy quarantine measures must be dealt with strictly. However, what is alarming is that the focus and narrative have now shifted from the unfortunate event at Nizamuddin to the Tablighi Jamaat itself.
For those not familiar with the Tablighi Jamaat, the organization was founded in 1926 in Mewat by scholar Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi. The Jamaat’s main objective was to get Muslim youth to learn and practice pristine Islam shorn of external influences. This is achieved through individuals dedicating time for moral and spiritual upliftment secluded from the rest of the world for a brief period of time. There is no formal membership process. More senior and experienced participants typically travel from one mosque to other delivering talks on religious topics, inviting local youth to attend and then volunteer for a spiritual retreat for a fixed number of days to a mosque in a nearby town or village to present the message to their co-religionists.
Contrary to ongoing Islamophobic rhetoric, the movement does not actively proselytize. The focus is rather on getting Muslims to learn the teachings and practices of Islam. This grassroots India-based movement has now grown to almost all countries with substantial Muslim populations. Its annual meets or ‘ijtemas’ are among the largest Islamic congregations in the world after the annual Haj.
One of the reasons for its popularity and wide network in the subcontinent and worldwide is the fact that it has eschewed the need for scholarly intervention, focusing on peer learning of fundamental beliefs and practice rather than highfalutin ideological debates. The Tablighi Jamaat also distinguishes itself from other Islamic movements through its strictly apolitical nature, with a focus on individual self-improvement rather than political mobilization. Hardships and difficulty in the world are expected to be faced through ‘sabr’ (patience) and ‘dua’ (supplication), than the quest for political power or influence. In terms of ideology, it is very much based on mainstream Sunni Islamic principles derived from the Deobandi school.
So, why is all this background important in the current context? While biased media entities have expectedly brought out their Islamophobic paraphernalia for full display, more neutral commentators have tried to paint the Tablighi Jamaat as a fringe group and have tried to distance it from ‘mainstream Muslims’. While the intent is no doubt innocent, this is a trap we must not fall into. This narrative, unfortunately, is also gaining ground due to apathy some Muslims have for the group, accusing it of being “disconnected from the realities of the world”.
Unlike other Muslim organizations and movements, the Tablighi Jamat, by virtue of its political indifference, does not boast of high-profile advocates and savvy spokespersons who can defend it in mainstream or social media. The use of adjectives such as ‘outdated’ and ‘orthodox’ by liberal columnists to describe the Jamaat feeds into the malignant attempt to change the narrative from the control of the spread of the pandemic due to the Nizamuddin gathering to ‘raison d’etre’ of the organization itself.
A large mainstream religious group like the Tablighi Jamaat with nearly a hundred-year history, normally considered to be peaceful, apolitical and minding its own business is now suddenly being villainized owing to unfortunate circumstances. Biased media reactions filled with disgust and hate seem to feed the Indian public conscience with a dangerous misconception – to be a nominal Muslim is okay but being a practising one is not. For those committed to the truth and fighting the spread of Islamophobia, the temptation to throw the entire Tablighi Jamaat under the bus must be resisted.
The author, Wafa Sultana, is a lawyer and research scholar at Qatar University. Her research interests include Islamic law and politics.