Emerging from political deception and disenchantment in 20th-century India, the Islamic organisation, which has been traditionally apolitical, grapples with an intense political storm engineered by the far-right.
In the most recent controversy, Tablighi Jamaat, a transnational Islamic revivalist movement, has been implicated in the sudden spike of the number of Coronavirus cases in India, owing to a large gathering of national and international jamaatis who were housed at the Nizamuddin Markaz in New Delhi in early March. The Markaz is the global headquarters of the movement, which is home to the travellers-in-faith all through the year. It is a movement that never stops - it is constantly on the move.
This means that while the world was grappling with the outbreak of coronavirus and the politics around it, Tablighis, men and women associated with the organisation, were engaged in spiritual patrols across the globe. However, with the New Delhi event the organisation has been warped in an intense political controversy for its inconsiderate and casual approach towards public health.
What is interesting to see is the rise of Tablighi Jamaat - a variety of social Islam - to political prominence today with people visibly divided along religious lines. As opposed to Political Islam, the Tabligh's interpertation of Islam is solely driven by grassroots social reform that aims at achieving a higher level of spiritual enlightenment and proximity to God. Their immediate goal is to make progress in personal reform and societal regeneration. While Political Islam in its “top-down approach” calls for re-establishing both political and spiritual unity across majority-Muslim countries, Social Islam embarks on a “spiritual journey to preach self-reform”. Through missionary-style activism, it believes in the “bottom-up approach”.
Until recently, the Islam projected by the Tablighis had been a lesser-known entity in the wider public domain in India with most non-Muslims oblivious of its existence. This was a result of Tabligh’s conscious ‘apolitical’ bearing and strict confinement to the Muslim social sphere. The confinement to the social is seen as a complete revocation of the political, as the Tabligh does not aspire for state power. The abdication of the political is Tabligh’s core belief.
Ironically, the latest rounds of controversies and conspiracy theories have embroiled Tabligh in a completely politically charged environment, where the political right has gone as far as labelling them Corona Jihadis and calling for their interdiction. While the terminology is part of the political language of Hindutva that caricatures the Muslim ‘other’ as an inferior subject, the suggestion to proscribe Tabligh is impractical given the large number of Muslims who ascribe to its version of Islam.
The exaggerated anger of the right-wing brigade directed at Tabligh has done further damage to an existing delicate fabric of the Indian social landscape, which is deeply polarised on religious lines. Reduced to two political communities – the majority Hindus and the minority Muslims, neither of which are monolithic groups, the majoritarian politics and the political discourse in India has amounted to treachery of the minority groups, in particular the Muslims of India, who have been shunned by the state and the state apparatus.
In fact, the state machinery has been employed in brutalising the Muslim subject. This brutalisation is part of the Hindutva project – of remaking India into a Hindu Rashtra. The Hindu right has been emboldened since the victory of the Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 and then again with a thumping majority in 2019. This political victory is seen as the coming of the Hindu ‘messiah’, who is here to ‘liberate’ the nation from the ‘barbaric’ Muslims, who are not seen as equal citizens. In an interview with Vice News on April 2, Subramaniam Swamy, a senior leader of the BJP and a Member of Parliament, made bigoted remarks against the Muslim minority of the country on questions of citizenship and equality, saying that the Muslims do not deserve the same rights as everybody else in the country. Swamy, who has a history of spitting venom against the Muslims, said, “Muslims do not fall in the equal category” on questions of citizenship. This language of hatred by a sitting MP not only reflects the ideology of the party that he represents in the Parliament, but it gives legitimacy to the bigotry on ground that translates into dehumanizing of the Muslim subject.
Amidst this unabashed communal rhetoric, the ‘apolitical’ tabligh emerged as the new progeny of a political controversy. In this heightened politicisation of religious identities, it is important to take a look at the 19th and 20th-century India – a period of socio-religious reform. Directed towards faith renewal and purification of the Islamic practices, Tablighi Jamaat arose in 1926 British India as a reaction to global changes and as a response to local challenges in the form of competing religious identity assertions – the Christian missionaries and the Hindu Shudhi Sangathan. Globally, the fall of the Caliphate in 1924 and the transformation of Cairo University into a secular state university in 1925, had a deep impact on the Muslim psyche in India. Moreover, in the local context, the political vicissitudes of the time had a tremendous political, social and psychological impact on Muslim India. This gave them opportunities and reasons for vigorous religious expressions. It was a time when a variety of new influential and controversial religious reform movements, both Hindu and Muslim, were emerging within India with a desire to rediscover their lost glory.
In an attempt to revive loyalty to their past and reclaim ‘lost glory’, the tabligh arose to revive the then religiously estranged ‘ummah’. Since then, the tabligh has trodden the path of faith renewal of the ‘lesser’ Muslims through individual self-reform. However, it was later that tabligh evolved into a proselytising group, making some advances among non-Muslims. In pursuing this goal of revival, the tabligh eschewed politics. However, there are political implications, given its gender ideology of segregation and social and cultural separatism.
Emerging as a result of political deception and disenchantment in 20th-century India, the intimately interconnected social and political patterns that led to the formation of Tablighi Jamaat seem to reappear in the political public today, where nationalism and its language, its symbols, and idiom are all Hindu. Against the backdrop of political controversy and the aggressive Hindu revivalism taking place, will the organisation further retreat into the social realm or will it emerge as a political force to reckon with?
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to firstname.lastname@example.org