A MAULANA FOR OUR TIMES

https://www.dawn.com/news/1630280/a-maulana-for-our-times

Shy of getting too direct, South Asian poets often get lyrical about the various attires and garments of their real or imagined beloveds. One crucial part of the dress that never finds a mention in our poetry is the naarra or drawstring. A society where adab — respect or modesty — is a central value, any mention of the humble naarra is best avoided.

But the elusive naarra, usually well hidden in baggy trousers, suddenly found a prominent place in public discourse recently. Someone ‘discovered’ that a newly inaugurated store, carrying the brand name of Maulana Tariq Jamil, was selling naarras at a price that was 10 times higher than the normal market value.

In another twist to the tale, the naarra that had gripped the imagination of Pakistan’s social media users for over a week did not even exist. The store, MTJ-Tariq Jamil, clarified that they did not manufacture naarras and their website had “never placed any such article for sale.”

One of Pakistan’s most celebrated Islamic evangelists was under attack, yet again, after he had decided to lend his name as a brand to a clothing chain (this was hardly the first, or likely last, time the Maulana found himself trending on social media and on television). A religious scholar, said his detractors, should not be a commercial brand in today’s neoliberal marketplace. Many find his store upscale, catering only to the rich only, while he teaches a simpler way of life and the denial of luxuries day in and day out.

Maulana Tariq Jamil is an enigma to many. Millions look up to him and sing his praises as a tolerant man of religion. His detractors claim he is an orator rather than a scholar and is out to rake in fame, political influence and fortune. Can he be explained in easy terms?

According to Ahmet T Kuru, a well-known US-based Turkish scholar, during the golden period of Muslim societies (8th-11th century), most religious scholars were children of traders and funded their religious activities through their business activities. They used to be extremely shy of forming any bond with the state and its officials.

The Maulana, it appears, wants to have the best of both worlds. He wants to be a trader-religious-scholar, like those in the ‘golden age,’ but he also wants to enjoy close connections between the ulema, particularly himself, and powerful state officials. Incidentally, such an ulema-state alliance, according to Kuru, was a major reason for the decay of Muslim societies.

Many of Tariq Jamil’s opponents find it amusing — while his detractors find it downright outrageous — that he has transferred his carefully calibrated personal brand of a popular religious scholar to a retail marketing brand. He is certainly trying new things that many of his celebrated predecessors had kept away from.***

During the seven decades of our national life, we have had many kinds of maulanas. We had orators such as Ataullah Shah Bukhari, who would keep his audiences mesmerised with his speech for the whole night; we had scholars such as Syed Maududi, whose thoughts left a deep imprint on political Islamist movements all over the world; we had a rabble-rouser, the ‘red maulana’, Maulana Bhashani, who Islamicised socialism and mobilised the poor; we also had sectarian militant religious leaders such as Haq Nawaz Jhangavi, who fanned the flames of sectarian hatred in country. Last, but certainly not the least, very recently we had Maulana Khadim Rizvi, whose meteoric rise in religious politics and political legacy we are still trying to understand.

Though as popular as these glorious figures of the pulpit, if not more, Maulana Tariq Jamil belongs to a very different category. He is associated with the Tableeghi Jamaat, an international proselytising movement that has never produced a public figure before him — not because it did not have one, but because the group has always avoided the media limelight as an act of faith. But Tariq Jamil is not one to shy away from the limelight.

Tariq Jamil’s half-a-century-long relationship with the Tableeghi Jamaat defines his identity, ideas and style of oratory. He, however, is an unlikely Tableeghi in many ways, and there are signs that he has been evicted from the hallowed circle of the Tableeghi elders and is no longer welcome to deliver a speech at the group’s annual congregations.

He has tried to downplay this impression. “I have stepped back [only] due to my ill health,” he explained in a television interview. “[Otherwise], I have spent my whole life in Tableegh.” And quite a life it has been.

UNLIKELY BEGINNINGS

Unlike many religious scholars, Tariq Jamil was not born in a religious family and did not study at a madressah as a child. Belonging to a well-off upper-caste landholding family of South Punjab, he traces his ancestry to the 12th century near-mythical ruler of Ajmer, Prithviraj Chauhan, who was defeated by Sultan Mohammad Ghauri. His

later ancestors were far less eminent minor rajas of his native town Tulamba, before they were defeated by Sher Shah Suri.

His own father and forefathers were large landholders. In a speech at his madressah two years ago, a teary-eyed Maulana narrated how his elders used to mistreat members of the lower caste families. He contrasts this by then talking about a time in life when, in a willing act of renunciation, he would use a brick for a pillow and not change his dress for weeks in the hot month of June. Here one may find the universal formula of evangelist preachers, which emphasises a dramatic transformation.

Like children of many landholding families, Tariq Jamil was sent to a school in Lahore. From school he moved on to the prestigious Government College Lahore and then to Punjab’s most prestigious medical college, King Edward Medical College. (Both colleges are now universities). But rather than completing his MBBS, Tariq Jamil decided to hop on to the salvation train of the Tableeghi Jamaat.

The great transformation that Tariq Jamil went through is a legend among Tableeghi activists. Tariq Jamil joined a friend on a three-day preaching mission, called seh roza in the Jamaat’s language. Every serious Tableeghi is supposed to set aside three days a month for such a mission. During these missions, a group of Tableeghis stays at a community mosque, doing rounds in the neighbourhood and preaching at the mosque.

An equally important part of the mission involves peer learning within the group. Learning from the example of seniors and paying attention to prayers are the main path to transforming for newly recruited Tableeghis. Community members, who are the main target of the Tableeghi missions, are transformed when they also become part of the Jamaat and join similar missions. In a way, the Tableeghi Jamaat works like a ponzi scheme, new members recruit more members and the cycle of recruitment keeps growing.

Not many can match his influence and following. The subscribers on his two YouTube channels exceed 13 million. He has his own official apps on the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store. The Maulana’s services have also been officially recognised and he received the President’s Pride of Performance Award this year.

A much longer preaching mission is called a chilla, where a group of preachers leaves on a mission for 40 days. No Tableeghi is considered a serious part of the group unless he joins a chilla group every year. However, Tableeghis don’t stop at this. Those who want to dedicate themselves to the cause can go on a mission for four months, a year, or even dedicate their whole lives to the Jamaat.

Instead of returning back from the seh roza, Tariq Jamil went ahead and joined a four-month-long mission. This mission turned him into a dedicated member of the Jamaat and there has been no turning back after half a century, from his side at least. While returning from the mission, Maulana met a young man who advised him to become a religious scholar instead of a doctor.

“A doctor was a person of high stature in those days,” Maulana explained to a sizable audience in a February 2019 speech, “while a maulvi was past-tareen gandagi ka keerra [the lowliest worm of garbage] in society. In our rural set-up, a maulvi was a mere kammi — a low-grade menial worker — at par in status with an ironsmith, potter or washerman.” Still, Tariq Jamil decided to become a maulvi rather than a doctor. On the fateful day of November 23, 1972, his father evicted him from his house for a year for making such a horrible decision.

Leaving King Edward Medical College, Tariq Jamil joined the Jamia Arabia, a madressah at Raiwind, where he studied the Dars-i-Nizami curriculum that has been taught at South Asian madressahs since the 18th century. Maulana has not shared many details about the eight to nine years of his life at the madressah. Meanwhile, his brother Tahir Kamal completed his medical education and became a cardiologist, joining the high rank that the Maulana had rejected for the sake of religion.

TABLEEGH OVER SCHOLARSHIP

Maulana has never revealed what degree he received at the madressah. However, he is not recognised as a mufti or a serious aalim (scholar) by his fellow Deobandi scholars, some of whom criticise him for being a lightweight in religious learning.

Maulana does not disagree: “I read a lot but I did not become a mujtahid like you,” a smiling Maulana once told a group of religious scholars at a madressah. “[This is because] I did not question what I learnt from my teachers and I have the same attitude even today.” This mystic, anti-intellectual attitude is typical of a Tableeghi activist. Interestingly though, he has founded and supports an institute that offers a six-year multidisciplinary Alimiyyah (scholar) programme.

Still, even the Maulana’s most ardent supporters lament his lack of emphasis on authentic scholarly sources. “One [unfortunate] aspect of his glorious struggle is the fact that his understanding of the Holy Quran and Hadith is shallow,” notes one of his admirers from Srinagar, Imtiaz Abdul Qadir, in an article celebrating his achievements on an Islamic website. “Instead of these sources, we find an emphasis on unauthentic stories, wazaaif [chants], and non-authoritative topics and traditions.”

As a religious leader, Maulana Tariq Jamil carries the identity of a khateeb — an orator. This class of religious leaders are known for their art of speech rather than scholarly pursuits. Their source of charisma is rooted mainly in their art of public speaking. Ataullah Shah Bukhari (1892-1961) was perhaps the most celebrated member of this group, though he was also known for his religio-political activism.

On many occasions, Tariq Jamil has come under attack from leading Sunni scholars for “fabricating” or distorting religious stories. Sheikh Muhammad Khair Muhammad, popularly known as Sheikh Makki, a Hanafi scholar of Pakistani origin who teaches at the Masjid al-Haram that surrounds the Ka’aba, accused Tariq Jamil of being a charlatan for narrating the famous story of Prophet Yusuf incorrectly. “Everyone has become a maulvi,” he said in a speech deriding Tariq Jamil. “Anyone can put a piece of cloth around his neck, grow his hair and claim to be a maulvi, even if he has not read the qaida [alphabet primer].”***

Established in 1926 in India as an off-shoot of the Deoband movement, Tableeghi Jamaat is not about scholarship but transformation within the Muslim community. This transformation often happens through the tools that Tariq Jamil uses, not through the scholarly activities. During its small, as well as long, missions, the Tableeghi Jamaat relies on only one book: the Fazail-i-Aamal — a book that is full of the miracles of saints. For this reason perhaps, a different book — Riazus Saliheen — is taught to members of Arab origin. The Jamaat not only avoids scholarship but also scholars and scholarly debates, often angering the ulema who find their authority challenged.

The Jamaat’s single-minded focus on Tableegh, or proselytising, has earned it criticism even from some leading Deobandi scholars. According to these scholars, instead of proselytising the religion (Tableegh-i-Deen), the group has ended up creating a religion of proselytism (Deen-i-Tableegh). Political Islamists also criticise it for abandoning worldly attachments and preferring instead to surrender themselves to the mercy of God.

The late spiritual leader Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat (a former head of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and a graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband in India) summed up this criticism in the following words: “What I don’t accept about them is that they are too influenced by their history and their origin. [The] Tablighi Jamaat began in India and I find too many Hindu ideas and practices in their way of life, like begging and staying in mosques.”

But the Maulana does not conform to what he declares are stereotypes about the Tableeghi Jamaat. According to him, the Jamaat demands that you create a balance, it does not demand you to abandon the world. “If someone follows these things, it is his choice,” he explained in a recent television interview.

The Maulana is no Ibrahim bin Adham, the king of Balkh who abandoned the throne to become a Sufi saint. He is still a Rajput Sahu landlord with his SUV, large mansion-like house, entourage of servants and a comfortable way of life. This lifestyle may not match with many members of the Tableeghi Jamaat, but it does not differ much from many religious leaders who acquired their wealth after becoming prominent leaders.

MAKING A NAME FOR HIMSELF

The Maulana’s detractors try to portray him as a seeker of fame and fortune. Last year, he performed the nikah ceremony at what was termed the most ostentatious marriage in Pakistan’s history, where the two matchmaking business families allegedly spent some 2,000 million rupees, according to some reports circulated on the media. While the Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR) sent tax notices to the two families, the Maulana was also accused of having received 10 million rupees for gracing the occasion.

A furious Tariq Jamil called the media “Dajjal and Kazab” (the Antichrist and a false prophet) for making such allegations. The Maulana explained that he enjoyed a two-decades-long friendship with the families and did not receive any remuneration from them for performing the nikah ceremony. According to him, the families had spent only 100 million on the marriage. Though it was israaf (extravagance), according to the Maulana, it was not a very high amount considering that the two families were billionaires.

Tariq Jamil’s success in reaching out to the powerful elite was seen as an asset. And his huge popularity is clearly seen as an asset by state officials as well. His close association with them can be seen as a mutually beneficial relationship.

The Maulana also explained that he goes to all kinds of places and meets all kinds of people for the sake of his mission. “I don’t have any hesitation in going anywhere, because I have to convey my message. I have to convey the message of Allah. I disagree that one should not go to such events. Perhaps, you should not go as a participant, but one can go there for a cause.”

Maulana has certainly gone to places where no religious person would like to be seen dead.

He is admired and mocked in equal measure for his work in the red light area in his hometown. “There is a 200-year-old residential area of prostitutes [in Tulamba Town] that was set up in 1818 by Maharaja Ranjit Singh,” the Maulana once said. “I worked there tirelessly for 10 years. I started giving them stipends and helped them leave their profession. There were 235 girls in the profession and I used to give them four million rupees a month.”

For his detractors, Maulana’s association with women is his soft underbelly.

“He is the worst zindeeq [misinterpreter of religion] so far,” stated Mufti Zarwali in a speech. Zarwali was a Deobandi mufti, also popular on social media, who died recently. “He calls [actress] Meera his daughter. [In fact,] he has the same ancestry as Meera.” These comments made the Maulana cry in public and explain his family’s glories in many speeches.

In Pakistan, the Maulana also stands apart due to his apparent respect for all religions and denominations. He explains his attitude in these words: “Allah has given me wealth that I want to share before I die. I do not have hatred in my heart against anyone — on the basis of religion, denomination, caste or identity. I hate alcohol but not the one who drinks alcohol. I hate fornication but not a fornicator. I hate lies but not a liar. I hate wrong beliefs but not the person who holds wrong beliefs. I love everyone.”

Extending love to people of a different sect has been a no-go area for religious scholars in Pakistan. Many Deobandi scholars raise objections to the Maulana’s open acceptance of the Shia community and his Shia majlis-like speeches about the Karbala tragedy.

In 2013, when sectarian tensions were high in Gilgit city, the Maulana chose to visit the city’s largest Imambargah where he made a speech that is still appreciated by the city’s Shia community. “This speech was a turning point in sectarian relations in the city,” says Shabbir Mir, a Gilgit-based journalist. “Maulana in his speech proved that Shias were not only Muslims, but a superior sect of Muslims,” he adds with a smile.

The city’s most prominent Shia scholar reciprocated the gesture by attending the Tableeghi congregation for which the Maulana was in the city. “It changed the atmosphere in the city completely, and left a lasting impact. Such a thing had not happened for a long time,” says Mir.

THE INFLUENTIAL PREACHER

Though Maulana was popular among followers of the Tableeghi Jamaat for decades, the educated middle class noticed him only after the Pakistan cricket team came under his influence. It was quite a spectacle, when the nation’s star cricketers started growing beards and were spotted on Tableeghi missions. Even a Christian cricketer converted to Islam and soon started sporting a beard.

A wholesale conversion of cricketers to the Tableeghi Jamaat linked the cricket team’s performance with their newfound religiosity. It was reported that cricketers were performing badly because they kept awake at night to pray for their success rather than taking a good night’s sleep.

From star cricketers, the Maulana moved on to influence star politicians. The Tableeghi Jamaat does encourage members of the powerful elite to join its ranks. Many high-ranking state officials, including some prime ministers, have joined the annual Raiwind congregation on the last day, when hours-long duas (prayers) are made by a senior Tableeghi elder. The Jamaat has also succeeded in bringing some retired generals and bureaucrats into its fold.

Tariq Jamil’s success in reaching out to the powerful elite was seen as an asset. And his huge popularity is clearly seen as an asset by state officials as well. His close association with them can be seen as a mutually beneficial relationship. Maulana’s endorsement, even a picture with him, extends an aura of religiosity to members of Pakistan’s political elite, who have always used religion as a major source of their legitimacy. They also find him valuable in extending the state’s messages to the religiously inclined masses. It is hard to guess who benefits more from the relationship — members of the political elite or the Tableeghi Jamaat and its mission.

However, this is not what the reclusive elders of the Tableeghi Jamaat had bet on. The last straw came when the Maulana almost joined the current ruling party, extending divine endorsement to Imran Khan. “He is the first ruler who has presented the concept of Madina’s welfare state. I salute him,” the Maulana stated at a symposium attended by the prime minister in 2018.

“We have been blessed with a very good ruler. All of you should pray for him,” he stated at another event some months later, and repeated these sentiments many times. His teary bayaan (speech) and dua for Imran Khan during a live telethon for the Ehsaas programme last year made him a controversial figure among those who oppose the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). He has since been a regular visitor to the Prime Minister House.

The Maulana says he is not happy with receiving zakat to fund his madressah. He thinks that the income from his clothing brand — that he does not manage himself — will free him from the need for receiving donations.

This position has, once again, perplexed some religious leaders. “What is wrong in receiving alms? Darul Uloom Deoband and all madressahs run on donations,” Maulana Tanveerul Haq Thanvi said in a video, responding to Tariq Jamil’s statements. “Those who used to criticise maulvis for collecting donations, now collect donations themselves. Even our prime minister collects donations.”

But Tariq Jamil does not want to run his madressahs like a ‘lowly’ rural maulvi who collects grain from landholders at every harvest. He went out to convert celebrities to the mission of Tableegh, but became one of the country’s most influential celebrities himself.

Not many can match his influence and following. The subscribers on his two YouTube channels exceed 13 million. He has his own official apps on the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store. The Maulana’s services have also been officially recognised and he received the President’s Pride of Performance Award this year. In a way, he has become the Maulana Laureate of Pakistan.

The ‘lowly’ maulvi has achieved a far higher stature than his cardiologist brother. “I did not know that one day so many doctors would sit in front of me to listen to my speeches,” he says in one of his speeches shared on his YouTube channel.

If the Maulana’s father were alive, he would probably change his views about his son’s choice of career and accept him for what he is — a Maulana for our times.


The writer holds a degree in social anthropology from the University of London and works in the field of social development. He tweets @zaighamkhan

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 20th, 2021

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