As part of the MA course at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of International Studies, we study minorities in the Middle East. Whenever the opportunity arises, 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 regions of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. He clarified our curiosity about their religious beliefs and social structure, as well as the challenges in Israel.
However, our main outreach activity has been visiting the religious sites of groups that have a significant presence in the Middle East. Over ten years ago we began this journey with the Baha’i House of Worship or Lotus Temple and Judah Haim Synagogue near Khan Market. Over time, we expanded our church visits and added Sunni and Shia mosques. Unfortunately, our efforts to engage with the Zoroastrians, whose faith originated in pre-Islamic Iran, have been unsuccessful. Some years ago someone advised me to write to an important official for help, but I never heard from them.
Over the past six years, we have visited and engaged with leaders of Sunni and Shia communities in their places of worship. The last few years have been problematic; First there were protests against citizenship laws in Shaheen Bagh, not far from Jamia, then came the pandemic. As things slowly opened up, we restarted our engagements and our trip to the mosque happened in the middle of 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 the believers’ fast would not be an obstacle to our engagement. The visit to the mosque in the heart of Jamia Nagar was therefore fixed for Saturday around noon.
Only the main entrance remained in the old format and the mosque area (in the Markaz) was enlarged in three directions. A few years ago, the mosque was a modest structure with a cramped section at the back for worshipers and another small alley-like arrangement for the Quranic education of young children. The current enlarged prayer area in the center of the mosque is large and could easily accommodate more than a dozen long rows of worshippers.
Our main outreach activity has been visiting the religious sites of groups that have a significant presence in the Middle East. Over ten years ago we began this journey with the Baha’i House of Worship or Lotus Temple and Judah Haim Synagogue near Khan Market. Over time we have expanded our church trips and added Sunni and Shia mosques
Greeting us at the entrance, Jama’at officials led us into the mosque, and we were seated on two rows of chairs facing the single altar. It was past noon and Delhi’s weather was cruel; one of our hosts quickly handed us bottles of ice water and Tropicana juice. They never asked us about our faith, even though our group had a few Muslims and a few of them were fasting. We were both amazed and worried; it was the fasting period and was soon approaching the noon prayer time, and we were seated inside the prayer areas. Our hosts weren’t listening. “You are our guests, and we must ensure your comfort,” was the polite response. There was no formality or feigned courtesy. We were also not asked to drink faster before prayer time or move away to a closed area. People who trickled in could easily notice that we were quenching our thirst inside a mosque. A simple and authentic human gesture.
Then we crouched down on the floor and an official took the mic and explained the basic philosophies of Islam, its practices, and the nuanced differences between Sunni and Shia Islam. Headscarves, a major controversy these days, didn’t matter; a few non-Muslim students in our group covered their heads with dupattas, and one in western clothes forgot to bring her headscarf. Nobody cared. And as we were deep in conversation, we were photographed by a hijab-wearing official on her iPhone.
“My friends, the noon prayers will begin in 30 minutes; Would you like to stay and observe? we were asked. Naturally, no one wanted to miss the opportunity. Azaan soon echoed through the domed structure. Returning to our chairs near the entrance, we watched the slow trickle of believers; a few Muslim students in our group joined in 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 constructed balcony where the women could freely pray undisturbed. The cramped area of curtains at the entrance was previously the only space available to them; now it is used to store shoes and other accessories that believers bring with them.
Seeing believers queuing to pray was an experience for us. Some chose their favorite spots and squatted with their friends, but when the imam signaled the start of the Zuhr (noon) prayers, all gravitated towards the center; latecomers rushed from right to left to find a place in an existing row before starting a new row. Sitting in the back, we could observe the rituals and even take pictures without anyone bothering or warning us.
Once the prayers were over, we were curious about the ablutions, the obligatory ritual ablutions before the prayers. Proud of the new structure, a young pharmacist-activist took us (including some students) to the newly covered area containing a few dozen stone benches. Without any prompting, he sat on one and demonstrated the process and sequence of ablution.
Then we were taken to the main building, where Jamaat officials welcomed us into a conference room. Another round of refreshments, this time in boxes, awaited us. “But for Ramzan, we would have organized a lunch for you,” one of them lamented apologetically. Our hosts were ready for the onslaught for which JNU is famous. Sharp but polite, no one can dictate or control young minds, but one can guide their curiosity for knowledge. The conversation lasted nearly 90 minutes, covering a host of issues that bother them; logic and practices of halal; space for dissent; LGBT acceptance; womens rights; role of education; Differences between Sunnis and Shiites; treatment of minorities in Islam; and of course, the scarf.
S Ameenul Hasan, an engineer by profession and National Vice President of Jamaa’t, spoke. A fellow Tamil from Vaniyambadi, not far from Vellore where I graduated, he was down to earth to handle the volley of questions; while reiterating the higher teachings of Islam, he was more than willing to accept the follies of believers and their leaders. He was ably assisted by Rahamathunnissa, who manages the women’s wing and was our engagement coordinator.
What are our takeaways? Our knowledge of religion is limited, distorted and more emotional than rational. We did not agree with everything we heard, but we could only appreciate the openness with which Jamaa’t e-Islami Hind received, dealt with and allowed us to challenge some of the difficult issues facing Islam faces today. Knowledge is a continuous process and sees or recognizes no obstacles.
Professor, School of International Studies, JNU