(The following is an extract from the recently-released book A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, Harper Collins-India.)
He was quiet as we drove to the Marriott Hotel. He asked for a corner table at the coffee shop. Except for his clothes, his beard grown, moustache shorn off, he still gave glimpses of the old confidence.
We settled to talk over cups of tea served in bland bone china, the strings of the tea bags hanging out of the pot.
‘Are you embarrassed?’ he queried as he poured out some of the beverage for me.
‘Being with me when I am like this?’
‘No, but did you come here to see people’s reaction?’
‘I am beyond that now.’
‘So you don’t feel any anger towards the American war against terror?’
‘Why should I not? Islam is not about offering the other cheek. See, the time I spent at the Tablighi Jamaat made me realise that I had been leading a false life. Do you know this movement started in India?’
‘Does everything need to have an Indo-Pak tint?’
‘I am asking you to realise the basic tenets of Islam; it is easier here, in India it must be tough.’
‘Isn’t it more valid then? Why do you need to spread the message of Allah in an Islamic society?’
‘We are imperfect creatures and we have to convey that beyond Allah there is nothing. Pakistani society is going through a phase where it is getting influenced by the West. We have to protect it. I know how destructive that influence is, having worked for a multinational company.’
‘You mean to say you would not have done what you did had you found God earlier?’
‘Maybe I would not even have felt the need.’
He then started telling me about the sacrifices that the Prophet and his family made. He had certainly been converted to take the message forward and to follow the basic principles. ‘Materialism is not a goal any more.’
‘Why are we then sitting at the Marriott listening to western music?’
‘It is all in the intent,’ he said.
He excused himself. ‘I hope you don’t mind but I will go and pray. It is time for isha ki namaaz (dusk prayers).’
The Tablighis are not small in number; there are almost 80 million spread across different parts of the world. Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was a follower and a few cricketers too got the message due to the Jamaat. Mushtaq had mentioned being at a camp and leading a life of basic sustenance.
When he returned from his prayers, I asked him about his house.
‘It has turned out well.’
‘And those eight bathrooms?’
‘Oh, they are there.’
‘So, you are back to where you started. This 80-day penance worked as a spiritual spa, did it not?’
‘It cleansed my spirit. What is wrong about that? And my wife was happy.’
‘Well, she knew where you were!’
‘That is true. Sometimes we do things for others.’
‘So this is not about your soul, it is about saving your marriage.’
‘Both. We are now expecting our fourth baby and I am still a firm believer in the principles imbibed at the Jamaat.’
What he did not realise was that he was part of a movement that was in fact denying an aspect of his existence. The Tablighi Jamaat is the ‘superior’ race born of the Wahabi-Deobandi movement. It looks down on the Barelvi need for a tangible devotion that has created symbols and saints. This is natural as Pakistan is an amputated nation, its limbs still carry the tissue and blood of its mixed tradition. The pure land had to become a pawn in the hands of a minority elite that had both religious fervour and money power. In a move that appears ironic, they declare themselves the ashraf, the high-born, even while discarding the lowly beliefs of the Barelvis, who are mostly converts from Hinduism. Ironically, Islam rejects the idea of class and the upholders of pure Islam are pushing that forward.
Several political considerations got meshed with the devotion. The Bengali Muslims were not wanted; the soft stance of modernism had to be rejected. Zia-ul-Haq became the natural hero. The barter system worked, it got them the necessary military training. It was perhaps one of the few times that madrassas were used for helping the Afghans fight the Soviets.
* * *
Questions have also been raised about the role of the Tablighi movement in sponsoring people who may not be above-board, including terrorists.
Mushtaq is unperturbed. ‘Not at all. If that is the case then why point fingers only at the Jamaats in Pakistan? What about those in India?’
‘I am not saying anything about Pakistan, it is a general perception.’
‘This general perception you people apply to our madrassas and everything we do. We are an Islamic society and we have to follow its tenets.’
‘Isn’t most of it superficial? You went and shaved off your moustache, but you still look attractive.’
‘Do you think so?’
He was clearly pleased. He had been accustomed to such comments earlier and women would openly express an interest in him, his marital status notwithstanding. Did that happen now?
‘No, even if they found me attractive, they would stay away. This is one of the results of my transformation, the way I dress and look acts as a barrier to such things.’
‘You have not controlled temptation, just prevented it from coming close to you. Where is your transformation?’
He shrugged. ‘I have found God, but I did not say I have forsaken the human in me.’
We were laughing on our way back as he drove at breakneck speed. He had the protection of his cap, my hair was flying all over my face. ‘Why don’t you cover your head?’ he asked.
‘It is God’s creation.’
FARZANA VERSEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org