Taking tea with the Tablighi Jama’at

by - 23rd January 2009

I realized quite suddenly that I was in love with India.  It had been building up, from admittedly inauspicious beginnings.  The suffocating yellow dust of Delhi, the huddled poor in filthy rags sitting by miserable little fires on every patch of waste ground; the scabby dogs and dying puppies; the way nothing ever seems to be finished off, or final; the traffic that careens crazily along pitted highways; the way no one, literally no one, can drive in a straight line, or give way. Yet in twenty years, India has changed.  Once you get tuned in, it dawns on you that India is doing what I once thought beyond imagining: changing for the better.  The slums are not as big as they were.  People actually queue for things, rather than simply barge past you to reach their objective.  There is a Metro that is clean, efficient and safe (all bags are searched politely and thoroughly, with a booth for women).  Poverty may be all around, but the mental illness one might assume it would cause is no greater per head of the population than in UK, where incomes are seventy times higher.  Even the cycle rickshaw wallah, a village escapee, peddles his creaking load with gusto, mopping his brow triumphantly with the rag he wears around his head, and grinning as if he had just won the marathon.

I am leaving after six weeks travelling all over the country, from the Dalai Lama’s mountain home-in-exile in the northwest, to the jungles of Orissa in the central south east.  And what I will miss is the human contact, the kindness, the strangely intimate comradeship of a shared struggle, the belief everyone has in the national project.  The humility of the Delhiwallah is astonishing and redemptive.  He gets on with his lot, however meagre, with a strange resolve.  I will miss the way catastrophe is so often averted right at the last minute, when all seemed hopeless, by people who ultimately look out for each other.  I love the way, even if catastrophe does strike, people just get going again: the 126 people who were knocked off the roof of a train by overhanging branches in Andra Pradesh, will get back on their feet and back on some other train roof despite the three deaths, because that’s what you do with no money, and a need to travel.  And no one has it in them to deny at least hope to the poor.

I love the all-night sound of the community’s chowkidar, the night watchman, banging his sticks and blowing his little whistle as an ‘all’s well’ that lulls me to sleep.  I’ll miss the monkey man who beats his drum down our street for a penny.  I’ll miss the love-starved, half-feral puppies on every garbage heap who go weak and fall into your hands if you so much as stroke them.  The cows that wander past my suburban balcony, munching the shrubbery; and the pregnant cows that just get on and give birth in the middle of the traffic.  I’ll even miss the cowpats on the sidewalks – because of what it represents.  India hates boundaries, endings, things that belong here and not there.  The sacred is co-existent with the secular and everyone is deeply religious.  Sikh men chant the guru’s book together in a circle in the park in the early morning as they do their exercises.  The best restaurant in town is in the same filthy alley as the biggest Muslim prayer hall.  Anyone can wander into the famous Jama Masjid and photograph the up-ended bottoms of the faithful at dusk.  Everything is mixed up with everything else and almost anything is possible.

History is never history in Delhi; the past lives on with the present, as William Dalrymple has so poignantly observed in City of Djinns. Nonetheless change is coming.  MacDonalds sells tikka-burgers and fries, and as our populations merge, it could be Wood Green.  The old mission station in Diptipur, west Orissa has a red-and-white Vodaphone mast towering over it.  A self-made entrepreneur from a severely deprived village background is building a whole new futuristic suburb in Bhubaneshwar on a bank loan – and educating 7,000 tribal children on the strength of it.  Someone else is developing a vaccine for salmonella.

The TJ markaz or HG in NizamuddinBut my love affair with India became official the evening I took tea with the Tablighi Jama’at.  They’re the other-worldly Islamic missionary sect whose markaz or international headquarters is in the teeming old basti or slum of Nizamuddin.  The name means ‘preaching party’.  They are expected to devote up to 80per cent of their lives travelling from mosque to mosque, evangelising the disciplines of reformist Islam, renewing the faithful in preparation for the life hereafter.

Totally unannounced, and with a brazenness that staggered even me, I wandered uninvited through the open gateway and asked for an interview with Maulana Saad, the great grandson of the founder Maulana Muhammad Ilyas.  The alarming reputation of this sect in Britain had daunted me, and I had needed all the professional courage and personal faith I could muster to surmount the threshold.  But as I had no phone number, and I was leaving Delhi within two days, it was do, or die.

The TJ is said to have 80 million followers around the world and wants to build a so-called megamosque in Newham, east London.  A combination of factors has caused increasingly alarm in Britain about the Tabligh.

Medieval poverty surrounds the TJ HQ in DelhiWhat I wanted to know was why they were building a new ‘global headquarters’ – as it’s been called - in London, presumably moving from their historic location in Nizamuddin that, with its surrounding tombs of poets and warrior kings, reeks of a peculiarly Indian Islam whose Mughal heritage fascinated the British for centuries.  Surely we need to understand the cultures that shaped our migrants if we are to have any meaningful relationship with them?  What can a dislocated Dewsbury or Newham kind of Islam do for us, with all its huffing and puffing about equality and its justified or unjustified taint of terrorism? Would not a rekindled sense of Indian Islam’s continuity with the complex couplets of the nineteenth-century Mughal poet Ghalib who lived nearby, and the architectural achievements of Humayun whose bones lie entombed a hundred yards from the TJ markaz, help us a hundred times more?  Would not an understanding of the Hindu persecutions of the Meo tribe, the first Tabligh converts, put things in a helpful new perspective?

So there I was, without a word of Urdu, with only two names on a piece of paper gleaned from Wikkipedia, and a mobile phone if I got abducted or worse.  A fine-boned young man in a startling white turban waved me in and on – and I found myself standing next to a shrieking green parrot in the homely hallway of Maulana Saad’s family, being looked at silently by several females of varying shapes and sizes, all draped in shawls or burqas, who must have thought I was some kind of apparition.

But undaunted, the lovely bespectacled woman who turned out to be Mrs Saad bade me remove my shoes and come in – to what turned out to be the zenana, the women’s quarter of the large and spacious house at the side of the huge concrete complex.  Muslims who want to get closer to God in prayer come here from all over the world, to be taught by the descendants of one of the leading Islamic reformers of his day.  The TJ was the most enduring of the many reform movements that sprang up in response to the Hindu shuddhi or purification movement from 1875 onwards.  The Arya Samaj had alarmed Muslims by its success at ‘re-converting’ nominal Muslim tribals to the so-called ‘mother religion’ of India, when numbers became a political issue after the British introduced a religion census in 1871.  TJ is avowedly a-political.  It longs for heaven, and anticipates victory for Allah, but all bets are on it happening in the hereafter, not now in India or Pakistan – or Newham.

'Other-wordly?'As I sat cross-legged on floor cushions, a young woman in several layers of black and a nose stud joined me, and we quizzed one another in halting English.  I showed her the photos of my half-Indian nieces, assuring her their father was Muslim, even though I was not. They brought me fruit juice, almonds, cashew nuts, dates from Medina and tiny yellow sultanas.  Then they brought me sweet chai with hot milk in little stainless steel teapots on a tray.  After piecing together who I was, and what I wanted, Mrs Saad, with great simplicity, once more ushered me forward, this time to sit adjacent a door kept just ajar enough for me to be addressed by two bearded men, whom I knew instinctively I should not turn and look at.  For as TJ Mufti Bulandshahri says:  ‘Women should not come before strangers.  They may give to strangers a short reply to their questions from behind a screen.’

Thus protected from certain danger, there began the most extraordinary conversation.  My interlocutor told me he was none other than Professor Sana’a Suhan, the famous statistician from Aligarh University, who did his PhD at the Sorbonne in France.  His answers to my questions were subtle, thoughtful and interesting.  But on one thing he was absolutely adamant.  He repeated it in different ways throughout the 15-minute encounter as if there were already considerable debate going on about it within the establishment.  There will be no markaz in London.  It will just be a mosque, and possibly a school, to cater for the number of Muslims who want the training and cannot get to Delhi.  ‘Personally, for me, they should construct a mosque according to the need of that area and whosoever says this is a markaz should never tell it like this.  Maulana Sa’ad does not agree with this idea so whosoever says it is a markaz you may freely tell: “I have been to Nizamuddin and there is no markaz.”

Then he says it again.  ‘This is simply the idea of some enthusiastic people that this is a markaz.’

And again.  ‘These are not sincere people who name it a markaz.  It should be named a masjid [mosque] and that’s all.’

I put to him local concerns about cohesion and integration caused by a 12,000 capacity building and he says:  ‘This is for the government in England.  They have to see whether there is a need for such a big mosque.’

He said that Nizamuddin was the pioneer mosque, the ‘markaz of the whole world’ – but not a place where global strategy was worked out.  It was a place of prayer, and a place to learn more about prayer.

As if to address my unspoken concerns about the hijacking of an other-worldly movement by those with a more secular agenda, he added:  ‘Prayer is a pivotal worship in Islam around which the whole of Islam revolves.  If a Muslim is not performing the prayer in such a way as to build the Islamic character, he may claim to be Islamic - as more than 50 per cent Muslims claim - but if they don’t perform the prayer, then they are not.’

Then, abruptly, he was gone, back to his praying.  And he took my card so I could be followed up by a tabligh, a preacher, in Britain, who could give me some books.

Then the women came and enfolded me in shawls for the evening prayer and Qur’an recitation, spoken with hands cupped to heaven, and amin whispered again and again in response to the words intoned by Sa’ad himself over the loudspeakers built into the walls of the zenana.  Asma said she could not do the Qur’an reading because she had her period.  Neither could she pray the salaat.

Before I could go into that delicate subject, it was time to go.  But not before the gentle Mrs Saad had loaded me with gifts: a huge box of dates from Medina; several large books on tabligh; and most incongruous of all, a large bottle of Cartier Déclaration eau de toilette.

We kissed one another goodbye.

And that’s when I knew my love affair with India was for real.