Maulana Muhammad Saad is the chief of Tablighi Jamaat, an apolitical, socio-religious movement, which has been in the eye of a storm after scores of its members tested positive for the Coronavirus. The Jamaat and its headquarters (Markaz) in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin have been in the spotlight for over a month now.
Saad rarely speaks in public, but in an interview to Outlook’s Qaiser Mohammad Ali, he defended his organisation and assured cooperation with the police for any investigation into the activities at the Markaz.
Tell us about the Tablighi Jammat event that was held in March in Delhi.
Programmes at Markaz Nizamuddin go around the year, without any break. Participants travel from all across the world and stay at Markaz for just a couple of days or more, depending on their travel plans. At any given point in time, there can be 2,000 participants and volunteers present in the Markaz, but numbers can go up when there’s a special programme. During the weekend of March 21-22, most participants were from Tamil Nadu who attended a special programme that started on March 20 and was scheduled to conclude on March 24. There were participants from other countries too, besides from other states in India. Most of them had their return/onward journeys planned after March 24. However, when Janata Curfew took place, we immediately and completely discontinued our proceedings and asked everyone to leave for their hometown.
Therefore, even before the lockdown was announced, we had closed our activities completely. All our programmes concluded on March 23 itself, but due to the lockdown, already announced by the Delhi government and subsequently by the Hon’ble PM, there were no transport facilities available for outstation participants and they got stranded at the Markaz. We arranged 17 vehicles and even requested the local authorities for special permission to ferry participants back to their locations, but the permission was not granted. Rail services were already curtailed and eventually domestic flights were also stopped on March 26, thus eliminating any possibility of the participants going back home.
Did the Markaz (or you) inform the police about the programme?
We were in regular touch with police and local administration and briefed them on the participants present in the Markaz. On March 24, our volunteers personally met the officials and presented to them a plan to evacuate the participants. A formal letter from us was also received by the authorities on March 25, and that is on record.
So you insist that Tablighi Jamaat has been transparent all through?
The Delhi Police, on a regular basis, request for details of participants at Markaz, and this information is always made available to them. They also conduct frequent and random verification of participants, both within the Markaz and of Tabligh participants (jamaatis) in other areas too. This is not something new and has been the practice for several decades. Markaz conducts all its activities transparently and with due permission of local authorities. Tabligh has millions of followers across the world, and a movement at such large scale cannot escape the attention of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.
People may not know, but for the last two-three decades, at the request of police authorities, Tabligh participants from Markaz Nizamuddin have also been visiting prisons for spiritual learning and reform of inmates.
Does the Markaz inform the police in advance about each programme to be held?
Programmes at the Markaz are conducted throughout the year. For large programmes, called ijtema, permission from local authorities and police is a prerequisite even before these are scheduled. Programmes are usually planned several months in advance and we always provide prior information to the police about programme schedule and expected attendance.
Did the Markaz inform the police about the number of visitors who attended the event held in March?
We have already shared the steps and measures we undertook in a press release on April 1, 2020.
There are allegations that you are inaccessible to the police…
So far, the police have served two notices and we have already responded to both. If, and when, the police require me or any volunteer to appear before them, it will happen without any delay. So far, there has been no such request from them.
Were you in self-quarantine?
Yes, as per the advice of doctors, I was in self-quarantine in Delhi.
Several Tablighi Jamaat members have tested positive for Covid-19…
It’s extremely unfortunate that some of our participants tested positive for Covid-19. Though basis the screening and testing of participants since last week, an overwhelming majority have tested negative. We do not track media reports and can only rely upon the testing data released by state health department. We do not have any additional information besides what is available in public domain.
I urge my friends from Tablighi Jamaat, who have been successfully treated by doctors and have now tested negative, to come forward and donate their plasma so that other patients who are still fighting this disease may benefit.
Why did the Markaz not cancel the event in March?
Ever since the Central/state governments announced measures, we started disbanding the congregation at Markaz. But since most were outstation participants, they could not arrange transport immediately. The subsequent lockdown and curtailment of rail/ air transport further eliminated any chances of their return. All through this, we kept the authorities informed but did not receive any support for facilitating their safe return. In such a scenario, we had no choice but to let these participants stay at Markaz, with the local authorities visiting Markaz daily since March 25. We couldn’t have rendered them without shelter on the streets of Delhi during a pandemic. All through this episode, Markaz has asked volunteers who attended the programme to cooperate with local health officials and undergo Covid-19 tests to eliminate any doubt or risk of infection.
What is the maximum period an individual stays at the Markaz?
Participants usually stay at Markaz for a very brief period, usually two-three days, foreigners may stay a bit longer on the basis of their travel dates, before they move out.
Do you agree that Tablighi Jamaat has possibly put Muslims in embarrassment, particularly with social media and section of the media putting the blame on the community for the spread of Coronavirus?
All through our history, Markaz has never commented on anything related to current affairs, or even on the state of the Muslim community, and how it is treated. It is the responsibility of state administrators to ensure media reports fairly and in the light of facts.
Who finances Tablighi Jamaat?
Markaz does not seek any financial support from any government or any public or private organisations. We do not associate ourselves with any commercial group or enterprise. All participants take care of their own expenses. Learning and spiritual effort requires an investment of one’s own time and money, without which it’s not of much use. We do not believe in Tabligh trips funded by others. Regarding the expenses of Markaz or local Tabligh centres, these are also taken care by volunteers and local community on a need basis, without any formal fund-raising. Markaz does not charge any fees to visitors, and all participation is purely voluntary.
There is a lot of confusion about what the Markaz at Hazrat Nizamuddin is all about. And what activities does the Markaz indulge in? Please explain.
Markaz Nizamuddin has been around since 1926 and serves as the global headquarters of Tablighi movement, which is a purely apolitical socio-religious movement. This is an effort to create spiritual consciousness amongst Muslims and encourage them to spare time for their spiritual learning and self-reform. We believe moral and social upliftment cannot happen without individual reform, and that’s why Tabligh movement works at a grass-root level and focuses on each Muslim, irrespective of where he/she comes from.