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Tablighi Jamaat in Mewat-3: Early Success, Meos Had No Concern for Their Islamic Identity



By Yoginder Sikand

Early Success

Having devised or learnt, whether by divine or other means, the Tariqa-i-Tabligh, Ilyas called a meeting of Meos at Nuh in 1926 sometime after his return from his second Haj. Along with some of his Meo disciples and Deobandi 'Ulema from Delhi and elsewhere, he then set about visiting the neighbouring villages to spread his message among the Meos. Initially he seems to have met with considerable opposition. On several occasions people threw stones at him, beat him with sticks and chased him out of their villages. Yet, it is said, he did not for a moment relent.

'He accepted this persecution gracefully and thanked God that he had made him pass through the same trials and tests as the prophets had undergone in the past for the sake of spreading the din' (Mazhari 1972:40).

After Ilyas had managed to establish a firm base in the area around Nuh, he formed a Jama’at composed of six Meos—Hafiz Muhammad Ishaq and Numberdar Mehrab Khan of Ferozepur-Namak, Chaudhri Namaz Khan of Raisina and three children. The titles of the first three suggest that they, as in the case of the Jama’at referred to earlier, were influential local leaders and this is probably why they were chosen to join this first preaching party of what was to become the TJ. Ilyas instructed this group to spare a few days, travelling to neighbouring Meo villages to preach the Kalima and ritual prayers.

This Jama’at is reported to have faced considerable opposition from Meos in some villages, but they attempted to win their opponents over by humbling themselves before them. Thus, it is said that,

“They begged, with great humility, those who did not pray to follow them, so much so that they removed their own turbans and placed them at their feet, pleading that they should come to the mosque. This is how the work of Tabligh actually began” (Baliyavi n.d.:54).

The first Tablighi Jamaat’s tour lasted three weeks. They visited several villages, performing the Friday prayers on the way at Sohna, Taoro and Nagina, all in the Gurgaon district. Ilyas, along with some other 'Ulema, attended these congregational prayers, giving the missionaries advice and encouragement, and helping to strengthen their zeal for what they believed was a great divine mission.

After the successful tour of this Jama’at, Ilyas began to form and send to the Mewati countryside many more such teams of itinerant Meo preachers. In 1932, he went to the Hijaz for his third Haj, returning to India soon after, 'with renewed enthusiasm and a greater faith in his mission', his pilgrimage to the holy cities of Arabia firing him with added zeal (S. Nadwi 1983:34). Now, along with a large group of Meos and others, numbering over a hundred, he undertook two long tours of the Meo tracts in Gurgaon and Faridabad, each of duration of almost a month, preaching Islam and forming Jamaats. He had maps prepared of all the villages, noting details such as the distances between villages and the names of local leaders whose help would be needed in carrying out the work of the Jamaats. He now made a significant change in the content of the work that these Jamaats were expected to do. To begin with, the activists had been instructed to preach only about the Kalima and prayers, and 'respect for the 'Ulema' and 'knowledge and remembrance' were added shortly after. Now, two more points were added—'purification of intention' and the importance of every Muslim to actively engage in Tabligh (Ferozepuri n.d.c:40).

The western districts of the then United Provinces, with their large concentration of Muslims, had, by the early twentieth century, emerged as the epicentre of the Deobandi reformists. Ilyas now decided that the Meos should visit the Deobandi centres in this area, where they would be exposed to what he saw as a true Islamic environment (S.A. Haq 1972:115). Thus, from the late 1920s onwards, Jamaats of Meos began making regular visits to the region, preaching about the Kalima and ritual worship to local Muslims, while at the same time increasing their own knowledge of Islam from the 'Ulema of the Deobandi centres they visited. At first, some 'Ulema were dismissive of what they saw as 'ignorant' Meo peasants being so presumptuous as to preach Islam to others. However, the success of Meo activists in their preaching efforts among the local Muslims changed the opinions of many.

A Mewati man

In the winter of 1933, Ilyas took more than 200 of his Meo followers to Delhi, where he, along with the rector of the Deoband madrasa, Husain Ahmad Madani, addressed them on the importance of Tabligh work. The Meos were then divided into Jamaats and were sent to various neighbouring towns. After these Jamaats had finished their work, llyas formed another small Jama’at of eight persons. This Jama’at included Nambardar Mehrab Khan, Maulvi Abdullah and Hafiz Abdul Rahman of Ferozepur-Jhirka, Munshi Nasrullah of Nuh, Maulvi Ibrahim of Shyamaka, Haji Sadullah of Raisina and two others. Munshi Nasrullah was appointed the Amir of this group. The group was instructed to go to Thana Bhawan, a township in western U.P., the seat of the renowned 'Alim and Ilyas' own mentor, Ashraf Ali Thanwi. Apparently, when Thanwi came to know about the Jama’at he was initially apprehensive, for he thought that being uneducated peasants, the Meo missionaries might turn out to actually be a source of strife (Fitna). When he heard from a disciple that they were simply preaching the 'six principles' and enjoining the people to offer prayers, he sent word to them to join him for he following Friday's congregational worship (Hafizullah n.d.:21). After the prayers were over the Meos met the Maulana and explained to him the principles of Tabligh. They then took him along with them on a Gasht visit, in the course of which Thanwi discovered; much to his horror that the vast majority of the local Muslims were not regular worshippers and that a large number of them did not even know the Kalima. The Meos, however, tirelessly worked among these people, inviting them to the mosque and teaching them the Kalima. Thanwi is said to have been so amazed at the work of the Meos that, referring to them, he said at a congregation at Thana Bhawan, 'If you want to see how the [Prophet's] companions were, look at these people!' (Ferozepuri n.d.c:24-38).

Following this, the dispatching of Meo Jamaats to western U.P. soon turned into a routine affair. Jama’at were sent to wait upon such leading reformist Deobandi reformist Ulema as Maulana Abdul Qadir (d. 1962) at Raipur, Maulana Muhammad Zakariya at Saharanpur and Maulana Sayyed Suleiman Nadwi at Lucknow (Bakhsh 1995:78-79).

By 1934, the Meo agrarian uprising had spread all over the Meo-inhabited districts of Alwar, spilling over even into parts of British territory. Moreover, by this time the Arya Samaj had succeeded in converting to the Hindu fold tens of thousands of Malkana Muslims and was now making serious efforts to spread Shuddhi work to Mewat. This seems to have galvanised Ilyas' efforts to further strengthen his movement among the Meos, greatly worried as he was that otherwise they might go the Malkana way. He stressed that now that others had come to hear about the spread of Islam among the previously little-known and only nominal Muslim Meos, they might be provoked to attempt to bring them back to the Hindu fold before it was too late. To Miyanji Isa of Ferozepur-Namak he wrote, 'Till now your ignorance was protecting you and people paid no attention to you. Now, unless you protect yourselves with the fortification of religion [Islam] you might fall a victim to other peoples' (quoted in S. Nadwi 1983:41).

In order to strengthen his movement and to meet the Arya onslaught, Ilyas called a Meo panchayat at Nuh in August 1934. The assembly was attended by over a hundred Meo title-holders, large landowners and influential leaders. In inviting them to the assembly, it appears that Ilyas aimed to direct his movement through them, it being clear to him that it was only with their active support and involvement in Tabligh work that the common Meos could be won over. For, as the Meo writer Ashraf Khan (n.d.:34) notes, among the Meos, 'going against the command or advice of the Chaudhris is never tolerated even to the slightest degree.'

What is significant here is the background of these and other leading early TJ activists in Mewat—upwardly mobile individuals from families with generally above average land holdings, possessing a modicum of formal education, some of them local-level officials, and aspiring for leadership roles and higher social standing through access to the valuable resources of ashraf and Shari'at-centred 'high' Islamic culture. Having already experienced some improvement in their social standing, they seemed to have found further upward mobility effectively barred to them by stiff Hindu resistance. In such a situation, their growing assertion of an oppositional Islamic identity was, in some sense, a logical outcome.

Anwar-ul Haq writes that Ilyas made these Meo leaders pledge that they would observe and spread 'the principles of Islam', 'hold Panchayats to carry on the work of the call for religious renewal' and 'never give this up at any time of their life'. Besides, he also stressed to them the importance of the following points: (1) The Kalima; (2) ritual prayers; (3) acquisition and dissemination of religious knowledge; (4) adoption of Islamic appearance and dress; (5) seclusion of women; (6) performance of the Islamic form of marriage; (7) adherence to Muslim dress by Meo women; (8) non-deviation from Islamic beliefs and non-acceptance of any other religion; (9) protection and preservation of mutual rights; (10) participation of respectable persons in every public meeting; (11) no secular education for children before they receive basic Islamic education; (12) striving for the preaching of Islam; (13) adoption of Islamic ceremonies and rejection of non-Islamic practices; (14) observance of cleanliness; and (15) pledge to protect the dignity and respect of one another (S.A. Haq 1972:110).

These 15 points were then put down on paper and an agreement to observe them faithfully was signed by all those who were present at the panchayat.

The Nuh meeting gave a major boost to Ilyas' movement in Mewat. Large numbers of 'Ulema from Deoband as well as scholars from other similar Islamic centres of northern India now began, at Ilyas' invitation, touring Mewat, addressing Meo gatherings, and spreading the message of Islam. Alongside this, the activities of the Meo Jamaats, both in as well as outside Mewat, registered a great increase.- Soon, the movement had established itself so firmly among the Meos that at a very special meeting organised by Ilyas at the Madrasa Mo'in-ul Islam, Nuh, in November 1941, nearly 25,000 Meos, apart from many leading 'Ulema, took part. According to TJ sources, by Ilyas' death in 1944, the movement had sunk its roots deep into Meo society. One writer calls it a 'new revolution', with scores of Madaris, Makatib and mosques being set up in the Meo villages, a general 'hatred' for Hindu dress and a widespread approval of 'Islamic' clothing being established and with many Meos becoming regular worshippers, themselves going out of their homes to preach Islam to other Muslims (Falahi 1996:303). And, so it is claimed, Ilyas' most cherished dream of spreading awareness about Islam among the Meos had now, to a great extent, been fulfilled (S. Nadwi 1983:41).


That the Meos, whose Islamic identity had been of only the most nominal concern to them for several centuries, had, in a matter of just a few years, begun responding so enthusiastically to Ilyas' effort at spreading Islamic awareness is certainly remarkable and merits an explanation. We have already alluded to the increasing importance of Islamic symbols for the Meos as community boundary markers to differentiate themselves from the Hindus, whom they were increasingly coming to see as responsible for their worsening plight. To imagine, as almost all Tablighi writers do, that this growing identification with Islam reflected some sudden realisation of the truth of Islam on their part is simplistic in the extreme and hardly corresponds to the facts as they seem to have been, (This, of course, is not to deny that genuine conviction must have motivated many Meos to join Ilyas' movement). Nor will it suffice to offer such essentialist arguments that being an 'illiterate', 'ignorant', 'emotional', 'gullible' or 'simple' people, the Meos could easily be swayed into blindly submitting to the appeals of a charismatic leader, an allegation often heard today from Meo critics of the movement. Nor, again, will conspiracy theories, which attribute the success of the TJ in Mewat to as varied sources as the alleged machinations of the British or the duplicity of the Congress party or the Hindus, suffice, denying as they do autonomy and volition to the social factors involved. It appears that there were far more complex factors at work that were impelling the Meos towards increasing identification with Islam.

What seems to have particularly appealed to the Meos was Ilyas' sheer charisma and his central role as a charismatic leader. As one writer puts it, 'The people who were involved in Tabligh work in Maulana Ilyas' time were principally attracted to it by his personality' (Hasni 1989:201). The Meos seem to have been greatly moved by the love, kindness and concern he displayed in his dealings with them. Adding to Ilyas' powerful charismatic image were stories that soon spread far and wide of miraculous happenings associated with him, is in the case of the Sufi saints of yore. What is particularly striking about some of these stories is how they seem to have been responses to intensely felt needs and concerns of the Meos themselves. Thus, according to one such story, Ilyas helped save many Meos from the throes of debt at the hands of the Banias with divine assistance. He is said to have warned the Meos that dealing in interest was an enormous sin, for both the lender as well as the borrower, a crime the equivalent of 'having sexual intercourse seventy times with one's own mother'. When the Meos heard this they were aghast. They implored him to pray to God to release them from their debts. Ilyas obliged and made the Meos repent for their sins. As a result, it is said, God answered their prayers and 'the entire community was saved from this curse [of debt] in just a few years' (Ferozepuri n.d.a:30). The role that such stories must have played in building up the image of Ilyas as a true man of God requires no elaboration. In terms of more tangible benefits, Ilyas asked the Meos to curtail their lavish spending on festivals, marriages, births and deaths that often landed them deep into debt. He appealed to them instead to abide by the simple, austere rules of the Shari’ah, and seems to have struck a sympathetic chord among many of his Meo followers for whom their earlier religious traditions were proving to be an increasingly unbearable economic burden (Ali 1970:66).

Ilyas also seems to have played an important role as a mediator in intra-Meo disputes. Here, he was responding to an issue of immense concern to the Meos at a time when, faced with grave threats from without, the unity of the community was vital. Historically, the Meos lacked a fundamental sense of unity; they would often quarrel with each other over the most trifling of issues, and their gots and pals would carry on disputes over such matters as stolen women and animals over generations without their ever being resolved (M. Numani 1989:22). In the troubled early decades of the twentieth century, such internal dissensions boded ill for Meo social cohesion. A neutral leader and an impartial arbiter, one who could dispassionately mediate between the different groups and factions within the community was called for and Ilyas seems to have admirably fitted this role. Being a non-Meo as well as a religious leader, he was expected to be non-partisan and was seen as having no motive to side with one group against another. Thus, it came to be that the meetings that Ilyas organised from time to time in Mewat were also used as occasions for the resolution of intra-community disputes. According to one writer, 'Maulana Ilyas stopped all the internecine quarrels among the Meos. Because of this they began considering him a great man and started following his commands' (Hasni 1989:50).

What made the TJ particularly attractive to the Meos, as opposed, for instance, to the largely abortive efforts of earlier Muslim reformers in the region, was the particular mode that it sought to employ to incorporate Islam more fully into Meo society. This mode appears to have been well adapted to the exigencies of the then prevailing Mewati social context. Hence, the TJ's success. Ilyas' was a policy of gradual Islamic reform. The Meos were first asked to learn just the Kalima and the ritual prayers, and were only then to be gradually instructed in other religious matters. Meo institutions and social practices which the Deobandis considered un-Islamic, such as the got-pal system or the cults of the Sufi shrines, were not openly or directly attacked or opposed. Instead, Ilyas merely focussed on the cultivation of personal faith, in the hope that once this had been strengthened the Meos would themselves seek to order their lives according to the dictates of God. Consequently, Meo traditions did not come in for direct attack and, at least in the short term, an accommodation was achieved between the universal basic principles of Islam such as the Kalima and prayers, on the one hand, and Meo institutions and traditions, on the other, to the obvious satisfaction of most Meos. This was further facilitated by the TJ's refusal to directly deal with the Masa'il, other than those related to the 'Ibaadat, focussing instead, largely on the Faza’il alone.

What appeals to people who join a charismatic movement is not simply the personality of the leader but, equally importantly, the vision that he gives of an alternative society, wherein their trials and tribulations would be overcome. The prime purpose of the ascetic ideal preached by most charismatic religious leaders is to highlight the degeneration of the present and to constantly remind their followers that a glorious future awaits them if they participate in full faith in the movement and abide strictly by its commands.

This seems to have been the case with the TJ among the Meos. The Meos were repeatedly told that all their woes and miseries stemmed from a fundamental lack of faith in God and that if only they were to become true Muslims everything would be set right. 'Complete adoption of Islam and strict obedience to Muhammad', declared Ilyas, would bring the Muslims 'success in every field of life and thus lead them to triumph over every other community' (Nadwi 1983:158). By offering to the Meos promises of great reward, both in this world as well as in the world to come, and a new approach with which to seek to overcome their problems, Ilyas was playing a crucial role characteristic of the charismatic leader, enabling, in the process, his movement to endear itself to them.

This was especially significant since for many Meos at this time conditions were so bleak that there seemed to be no possibility short of superhuman intervention to end their sufferings. Ilyas' movement supplied them with a meaningful theodicy, helping them to make sense of and to cope with the grinding poverty and oppression that they were faced with, giving them hope for better days ahead. Thus, their oppression was explained as the torments that men of God, even the Prophet himself, have inevitably had to face from God's enemies. While they were woefully poor in this world, eternal comfort in heaven would await them if they sacrificed their all in this world in the struggle for Islam. In this sense, Meo participation in the TJ can be seen as a symbolic protest against social inequities and oppression, rather than simply a spiritual quest.

A significant aspect of Ilyas' Islamisation project in Mewat, and one which seems to have played no small role in the spread of the TJ in the area, was that for many Meos it came to be viewed not simply as a movement of spiritual reform, but, perhaps equally importantly, as a 'civilising mission'. Meos often stress that before the advent of the TJ, they were lawless 'dacoits' and 'cattle-lifters', constantly fighting among themselves. They were 'rough' and 'crude'. They worshipped dung-heaps (Gobardhan). They dressed 'primitively' and their womenfolk freely mixed with men. They were, in short, 'barbaric' and 'ignorant', all of which made them seem low in the eyes of others, both Muslims as well as 'high'-caste Hindus. All that, they say, began to change because of the influence of the TJ, and to it they attribute their having now become 'cultured' people and 'true human beings' (Sahih Insaan). On a visit to Mewat in 1939, Syed Abul ‘Ala Maududi, then a journalist but shortly to become the founder of the Islam is Tablighi Jamaat-i Islami, had observed that as a result of the efforts of Ilyas, 'a great change' had come about in Meo society, because of which the Meos, were 'no longer looked upon with contempt and suspicion' but were 'beginning to be held in respect by them' (Vellori n.d.:59).

Another great attraction that the TJ seems to have provided the Meos who came into contact with Ilyas was the access that it provided to symbols of 'high' Islamic culture—such as religious education and literacy in the Urdu language or 'Islamic' dress—which were formerly the preserve of the local Khanzada elite. In the changed context of the early twentieth century, the Khanzadas were no longer seen by the Meos as the menacing 'Other', and adopting aspects of the 'high' Islamic culture traditionally associated with them was now seen as a channel for upward social mobility. It was, however, not simply the 'pull' of 'high' Islamic tradition that began to draw many Meos to the TJ. Equally significant were the 'push' factors that were now drawing many Meos away from popular religion. The popular Meo religious tradition, centred as it was on the shrines of the saints, had represented a steep hierarchy of roles and functions. The shrines were controlled by religious specialists belonging to the Sayyed and Faqir or Diwan castes. Though they were dependent on the Meos for support and patronage, they tended to look down upon them as low-born. Implicitly opposed as it was to the cult of the shrines, the TJ must, then, have seemed particularly attractive for many Meos no longer willing to accept Sayyed claims to superiority.

1. Baliyavi (op. cit.:65) writes that at first Ilyas laid down 60 points that would form the basis for Tabligh work. However, he later reduced them to six, realising that to work on all 60 fronts would require too much time. The similarity of this story with that about the number of daily obligatory prayers being reduced by God for the convenience of Muhammad's followers is striking.

2. Hafiz Abdus Subhan, a Meo teacher at the Maktab attached to the Jamia Masjid Panj Piran, New Delhi, says that llyas would often pray to God, pleading, 'O Lord! Give me the respectable people of Mewat because, after they come, the rest will simply follow after them' (interview, New Delhi, 19 November 1994).

3. Thus, for instance, the then rector of the Nadwat-ul 'Ulema, Sayyed Abdul All, went off to Mewat to do Tabligh and on his return wrote an article in the madrasa's organ, al-Nadwa (March 1940) in fulsome praise of the TJ. (S.T. Khan n.d.:409-10). Among the other 'ulama who toured Mewat to spread the Tablighi message in response to Ilyas' appeals was another famous Nadwi scholar, Sayyed Abul Hassan Ali Nadwi (1913), who later emerged as a leading supporter among the ‘Ulema for the movement. For details, see his Karavan-i-Zindagi (vol. I), (1983:281-90)

4. Among the important 'Ulema who participated in this mammoth gathering were Maulana Khali! Ahmad from Saharanpur and Mufti Kifayatullah (1875-1952), leader of the Jamiat-ul 'Ulema-e-Hind.

An Urdu poet from Delhi was also present on the occasion and he recited 'stirring' Islamic verses to enthuse his audience. Ilyas, says Rahim Bakhsh, knew well the 'Meo mind' and, accordingly, instructed some Muslim poets to compose and recite verses that would 'charge their emotions' (Bakhsh 1995:69-70).

5. Husn-i-Ikhlaq, January 1995, pp. 43-44.

6. Ilyas' efforts also seem to have helped promote a better image of the Meos in general, at least in the eyes of other Muslims. Earlier, writes Wahiduddin Khan (1988:88), 'the Meos used to be called monkeys by others, but now they say that if you want to see the Prophet's companions, go and see the Meos'.

7. Interestingly, stories of miraculous happenings seem to have attached themselves to some of Ilyas' close Meo companions, who emerged as what may be called 'local charismatics' in their own right. Perhaps, the foremost of these was one Miyanji Musa (d. 1964) of Ghaseda, who was to become one of Ilyas' principal deputies in Mewat.

8. Today, many Meos consider the modicum of economic prosperity that has come to the region in recent years—though it has benefited just a few—as a gift of God for their involvement in the TJ.

9. Thus, a Tablighi activist writes that the Meos were even more degenerate than the Hindus because at least the latter 'worship beautiful statues bedecked with sparkling stones' (al-Furqan, April-June 1974, p. 209).


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