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Tablighis Law-abiding and Apolitical, Problems May Arise if Treated Unfairly: British Historian

Image for representation. Reuters

Image for representation. Reuters

London University professor Francis Robinson said the coronavirus outbreak has led to a halt in the Jamaat’s traditional way of functioning and there are elements in India who will seize any excuse to attack Muslims.

New Delhi: With a large number of coronavirus cases being traced to the Tablighi Jamaat gathering at Nizamuddin markaz in Delhi, there is much curiosity and controversy around the missionary organisation that was founded on the idea “Muslims, become Muslims”.

Followers of the missionary movement have been called irresponsible and unruly for the large gathering that took place in the national capital in mid-March. An FIR and charges under the stringent National Security Act (NSA) have been slapped against its leaders.

Even as senior members of the markaz (centre) tried to clarify their position and asked the administration de-congest the place by making proper arrangements for the large number of people in view of the lockdown and virus control measures, Muslim-bashing with Islamophobic hashtags have been trending over the last few days.

Several Muslims have also tried to distance themselves from the Tabligh, stating that the group doesn’t “represent the whole community”.

British historian and academic Francis Robinson, who specialises in South Asian and Islamic history, says the Tabligh is a law-abiding group and problems might arise if its members are treated unfairly.

In an exclusive interview with News18, Robinson, who received a CBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 2006 for his services to higher education and his research into the history of Islam, spoke on the peripatetic believers functioning in the congregation.

The London University professor said the coronavirus outbreak has led to a halt in the Jamaat’s traditional way of functioning -- travelling in groups for missionary work.

Edited Excerpts:

The global centre of Tabligh-e-Jammat at Nizamuddin markaz has turned into a hotspot for the coronavirus outbreak. How do you think the virus is going to impact the peripatetic believers who function in the congregation?

The first thing to remember is that the Tablighis are ordinary Muslims from different walks of life. If the state wishes to discourage people meeting in groups, they will suffer as other Muslims suffer. Indeed as other believers do.

Here, in the UK, church services have gone online as I believe also have Friday prayers for Muslims. It is the normal instinct of Sunni Muslims to obey the law of the land; I do not anticipate any difficulty here.

The one point at which the Tablighis will be affected is in their missionary work. Tablighis commit to doing so much Tabligh a year. This involves coming together in groups (Jamaats), usually of 10, and going out to preach. This activity will have to stop while the government restricts movement and assembly.

Overwhelming number of positive cases have been traced to the Tablighi gathering. With this, the social media was flooded with “Corona Jihad” and Islamophobic hashtags.

Unfortunately, in India, today, there are elements who will seize any excuse to attack Muslims.

The administration alleges the Tablighi Jamaat willfully disobeyed the notices served to them. On the other hand, representatives of the jamaat expressed their concerns as “citizens” of the country and extended their offer to cooperate. With this pandemic, were they caught between the faith and concerns of the world?

I know nothing of the details about the exchanges between the administration and the Tablighis in the Markaz. However, in principle I do not see the Tablighis caught between faith and worldly responsibilities. Have said earlier in the interview, Sunnis are generally minded to obey the law of the land, and I would expect them to do so in this case. This said, problems might arise if Tablighis felt they were being treated unfairly.

The Tablighi Jamaat came up in response to Shuddhi movement in India. How has it changed since then?

As far as I know, the Tabligh has not changed a great deal since the 1920s. This said, it is the most successful missionary organisation in the world with a presence in most of the places where Muslims live.

One change I am aware of is that initially all Tabligh messages were transmitted orally but over time, more and more messages have gone into print. Secondly, although, this has not to my knowledge been studied, as a historian, I find it unlikely that, as the Tabligh has established itself in different societies across the world, it did not make some adjustments to local circumstances.

Some Muslim voices also said, “Tabligh does not represent us”. How is Tabligh seen by the people of the same faith - Islam? Also how does it show Muslims are not monolith?

The Shias have no time for organisation at all. The Barelwis object to its attacks on inter-cessionary Sufism, which lies at the heart of their Islamic understandings. On the other hand, the Ahl-Hadith complain that it is not reformist enough. Moreover, they are suspicious of the way in which Tablighi elders arrogate authority to themselves as against that of the Quran and Hadith.

The Jamaat-e-Islami was initially supportive of the Tabligh, but has distanced itself from it because it realised the Tabligh did not share its ambition to establish an Islamic state, and secondly, it understood the Tabligh represented an increasingly strong competition.

There is lot of curiosity about its funding…

I am no expert on the funding of the Tablighi Jamaat, but I would be surprised if there was anything to be concerned about -- ‘foreign hand’. The jamaats of 10 that go on missions fund themselves. I don’t know how the markaz is funded, but I would expect it to be happening by contributions from members.

The Tabligh has been linked to terror incidents (Glasgow, London) in western countries. How do you see such incidents? Are they an aberration, a one of few cases or a growing trend, a cause to worry about?

I am aware that some Western intelligence agencies have come to regard the Tabligh as the threshold to radicalisation. This, however, seems to me more chance than outcome of Tablighi design. The Tabligh, as you will know, is resolutely apolitical. But this does not mean the impact of its missionary work cannot be felt in the political sphere.

So it is not impossible that an organisation that sets out to create good Muslims might under particular circumstances prepare some for jihadi activities. (However,) this is not Tablighi policy. This is the action of individuals who have had their desire to be saved on the Day of Judgement sharpened, and by their own assessment, and the influence of malign figures, have come to see terrorist action as a way of achieving that outcome.