Cameras are forbidden at the international headquarters of Tablighi Jama’at in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area. I managed to take a few photographs by hiding the camera under my jacket. Caught unawares at first by the curse of a young boy – he said I would die an unholy death for trying to capture another soul in my “black box” – I spent two hours in vain, trying to persuade them to allow me to photograph the windowless building. A heated exchange eventually put me back on the street, forbidden from entering the premises again. I spent the rest of my time across the road at the Nizami restaurant, seeking comfort in nihari, roti and milk tea. The place is famous for travellers from Bangladesh, Mongolia, Saudi Arabia, Siberia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
With ten million followers in over 150 countries, the Jama’at was founded in India by Muhammad Ilays Al-Kandhlawi in 1926 in this very neighbourhood. The Tablighi Jama’at is present in 150 countries including England, France, China and America. Tablighi Jama’at began as an offshoot of the Deobandi movement, and was a response to perceived deteriorating moral values and a supposed negligence of the aspects of Islam. It expanded from a local to a national to an international movement. However, Tablighi Jama’at members have been involved in politics in Pakistan, and in the West, a number of young men have passed through the group on their way to an extreme, militant interpretation of the religion.
Muslim men wear white salwar and kameez. Every Tablighi grows a beard with no moustache. The Uighers, with their distinct Mongolian features, grow a goatee which one can relate to the vague images of the medieval sultan Kublai Khan.
A locality that gets its name from the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, whose 13th-century tomb is a short walk from the Jama’at ’s headquarters, draws people of every faith. Thursday evenings in particular are immersed in music, with the divine strains of qawwali – a tradition that traces its origins to Auliya’s disciple Amir Khusro – renting the air. One of the Nizamis call it a multi-religious, multi-cultural movement trying to heal the minds and souls of Sufism followers.
When asked if they are concerned about their close proximity to the Tablighi headquarters, the answer that I got was: “Negative forces are everywhere and Sufis are good in neutralising jinns“. Women are not allowed inside the sanctum santorium of the tomb of Nizamuddin Auliya. They can only pray from outside.
At the evening bazaar of the area, it is impossible to tell who is Sufi and who is Tablighi.
All photos by Shome Basu.
A version of this article first appeared in Business Line in January 2015.