As part of the master’s course in the School of International Studies of Jawaharlal Nehru University, we study minorities in the Middle East. Whenever opportunities occur, we also engage with experts on ethnic minorities. A few years ago, we had a Druze official from the Israeli embassy who spoke about the community, whose members live in the geographically contiguous Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. He clarified our curiosity regarding their religious beliefs and social structure, and the challenges in Israel.
However, our prime outreach activity has been visiting religious places of groups that have a sizable presence in the Middle East. More than a decade ago, we began this journey with the Baha’i House of Worship or the Lotus Temple and the Judah Haim Synagogue off Khan Market. Over time, we expanded our trips to churches and added Sunni and Shia mosques. Unfortunately, our efforts to engage with the Zoroastrians, whose faith originated in pre-Islamic Iran, were unsuccessful. A few years ago, someone advised me to write to an important functionary for help, but I never heard from them.
For the past six years, we have been visiting and engaging with the Sunni and Shia community leaders in their places of worship. Recent years were problematic; first was the protests over citizenship laws in Shaheen Bagh, not far from Jamia, and then came the pandemic. As things were slowly opening up, we restarted our engagements, and our mosque trip happened amidst the fasting month of Ramzan. While we hesitated over the timing, our hosts—Jama’at e-Islami Hind—were adamant. They were busy completing the repairs and expansion for the holy month and assured us that fasting by the believers would not be a hindrance for our engagement. So the mosque visit at the heart of Jamia Nagar was fixed for Saturday around noon time.
Only the front entrance remained in the old format, and the mosque area (within the Markaz) was expanded in all three directions. A few years ago, the mosque was a modest structure with a cramped section at the back for female worshipers and another small lane-like arrangement for the Quranic education of young kids. The present expanded prayer area at the centre of the mosque is large and could easily accommodate over a dozen long rows of worshippers.
Our prime outreach activity has been visiting religious places of groups that have a sizable presence in the Middle East. More than a decade ago, we began this journey with the Baha’i House of Worship or the Lotus Temple and the Judah Haim Synagogue off Khan Market. Over time, we expanded our trips to churches and added Sunni and Shia mosques
Greeting us at the entrance, the Jama’at officials took us into the mosque, and we were seated in two rows of chairs facing the simple altar. It was past noon and the Delhi weather was cruel; one of our hosts quickly handed out chilled water bottles and Tropicana juice to all of us. They never asked us about our faith, though our group had a few Muslims, and a couple of them are fasting. We were both stunned and uneasy; it was the fasting period and soon approaching mid-day prayer time, and we were sitting inside the prayer areas. Our hosts wouldn’t listen. “You are our guests, and we need to ensure your comfort,” came the polite reply. There was no formality or feigned courtesy. Nor were we asked to drink faster before the prayer time or move away to a closed area. People who were trickling in could easily notice that we were quenching our thirst inside a mosque. A simple and genuine human gesture.
Then we squatted on the floor, and one official took the mike and explained the basic philosophies of Islam, its practices, and nuanced differences between Sunni and Shia Islam. Headscarves, a major controversy these days, did not matter; a few non-Muslim female students of our group were covering their heads with dupattas, and one attired in Western dress forgot to bring her scarf. No one bothered. And as we were immersed in the conversation, we were photographed by a hijab-wearing functionary on her iPhone.
“Friends, noon prayers will start in 30 minutes; would you like to stay and observe?” we were asked. Naturally, no one wanted to miss the opportunity. Azaan was soon reverberating in the domed structure. Returning to our chairs near the entrance, we watched the slow trickle of the believers; a couple of Muslim students in our group joined the prayers while others chose to watch from behind. As the prayer approached, the female members of our team were taken to the large newly built balcony where women could freely pray without being disturbed. The cramped curtained area at the entrance was earlier the only space available for them; now, it is used to keep footwear and other accessories that the believers bring with them.
Watching the believers lining up to pray was an experience for us. Some chose their favourite places and squatted with their friends, but when the imam signalled the commencement of the Zuhr (noon) prayers, all gravitated towards the centre; latecomers were rushing from right to left to find a place in an existing row before starting a new row. Sitting at the back, we could observe the rituals and even take pictures without anyone bothering or cautioning us.
Once the prayers were over, we were curious about ablutions, the mandatory ritual washing before prayers. Proud of the new structure, one young pharmacist-cum-activist took us (including some girl students) to the newly roofed area containing a few dozen stone benches. Without any prompting, he sat on one of them and demonstrated the process and sequence of ablution.
Then we were taken to the main building, where Jamaat officials met us in a conference hall. Another round of refreshments, this time in boxes, awaited us. “But for Ramzan, we would have organised lunch for you,” one lamented apologetically. Our hosts were ready for the onslaught that JNU is famous for. Sharp but polite, none can dictate or control young minds, but one can shepherd their curiosity for knowledge. The conversation lasted close to 90 minutes, covering a host of issues that bother them; logic and practices of halal; space for dissent; acceptance of LGBTs; rights of women; role of education; Sunni-Shia differences; treatment of minorities in Islam; and of course, the headscarf.
S Ameenul Hasan, an engineer by profession and the national vice-president of Jamaa’t, took the floor. A fellow Tamil from Vaniyambadi, not far from Vellore where I graduated, he was down to earth in managing the volley of questions; while reiterating the higher teachings of Islam, he was more than willing to accept the follies of the believers and their leaders. He was ably helped by Rahamathunnissa, who manages the female wing and was the coordinator of our engagement.
What are our takeaways? Our knowledge of religion is limited, skewed and emotional than rational. We did not agree with everything that we heard, but we could not help but appreciate the openness with which Jamaa’t e-Islami Hind received, treated and allowed us to challenge some of the difficult issues facing Islam today. Knowledge is an ongoing process and sees or recognises no barriers.
P R Kumaraswamy
Professor, School of International Studies, JNU