By Tariq Jameel
A place of worship is primarily meant for carrying out ritual acts of prayer. For any religious community, these are important places, which also act as meeting places where members of a particular community gather once in a while. Given the hectic lifestyle of people these days, this secondary function of a place of worship also assumes significance.
In addition to serving as places where people carry out ritual worship and prayer, should these places of worship also serve the broader purpose of community service, upliftment and development? The Sikh community has shown how their place of worship, a Gurdwara, can fulfil this role of a vibrant community centre where people are served free food on a daily basis. The Sikhs have also set an example of how Gurdwaras can effectively be used in times of natural disasters to serve the victims.
In India, if one were to consider the case of a Masjid, it perhaps serves as one of the worst examples of the Muslim community’s indifference and non-innovative thinking in utilizing its assets in a more productive and worthwhile way. Muslims go to the Masjid, five times a day, every day, to offer congregational prayers. On an average, a Masjid remains open about two hours a day. Beyond the congregational prayers, a Masjid, however, much wealth is spent on its construction and upkeep, does not serve any “productive purpose”.
Though the Indian Muslim community has improved economically in the last few decades during which India has witnessed the growth of an aspirational middle class, it still remains resource deficient and poor. It still faces problems of illiteracy and backwardness. But the overall growth of Indian economy in recent years has also led to the growth of an aspirational Muslim middle class in India. An increase in both, numbers and material well being has resulted in more number of Masjids during this period.
New Masjids are coming up across India, which are mostly funded by contributions from individual Muslims. Many Masjids have also been constructed with the help of generous donations from abroad. A large number of these new Masjids have been constructed on a grand and ostentatious scale, consuming immense resources. Given the new found zeal for religiosity, more Masjids have come up, at many places, than would be normally warranted. At many places, new Masjids have come up just because of ideological rivalries between competing Muslim groups like Deobandis, Barelvis, Jama’at-e-Islami etc. Each of these sub-groups has taken control of the Masjids, which has led to a bizarre situation, where Masjids, which are a common asset of the whole Muslim community, have become fiefdoms of these groups. Not only is this trend splitting the community into smaller and narrow interest based groups, but also putting a severe strain on an already resource starved community.
In this backdrop, it becomes incumbent upon the Indian Muslim community to rethink how their Masjids can be better utilized, in addition to serving their primary function as places of worship. The community needs to use the Masjids as an active community centre where the problems in a given locality, like civic issues can be discussed on a weekly basis. It can also serve as a place where individuals and families in a locality facing problems like illness, failure to pay school or college fees etc can be identified and such people accordingly helped. The obligatory Zakah and other non obligatory charities that many Muslims pay, can thus be properly channelized and used for the well being of people in a locality and the upliftment of the entire community. The Masjid can act as a vibrant place for social interaction, exchange of ideas, community service and development.
Given that most Masjids are quite big and are not utilized for most part of the day, it would make sense if a small portion in these Masjids is converted into a library, where people, especially kids from the locality can come and read books. Every Masjid can have specified timings everyday where this service will be available to the people. It is not only a better utilization of resources, but can also help encourage a culture of reading among people. Many Masjids, especially the bigger ones can also be used to conduct free medical camps once in a while, where doctors can work on voluntary basis to provide basic medical services.
Over the years, not only have the Masjids become more ostentatious and many Muslims more pretentious, but a new nuisance has also been added in the form of loudspeakers. It is not difficult to imagine the scale of nuisance caused by the use of a loudspeaker. It disturbs the peace among people in a locality wherever it is used. In every residential locality, there are school kids, sick people and small children whose life can be thrown out of gear by the use of these loudspeakers. It is also not difficult to imagine the irritation and annoyance that a person, who is in deep sleep, must feel, when a loudspeaker is put at full volume before dawn. These are acts of gross ignorance, which can at times lead to unsavoury situations. Not only are loudspeakers “blatantly used” in Masjids, but there seems to be a competition among different Masjids in blaring out higher decibels. There was a time, not so long ago, when Muslim clerics and preachers would declare a loudspeaker as an innovation in religion, an act which was not permissible. But at some point, it struck some cleric that this was the perfect gift he could get. Nothing could have excited a preacher more than having a loudspeaker at his command to make speeches and sermons. It is time to realize that the use of a loudspeaker in a Masjids is not only uncivilized, but does not help anyone. It only adds to people’s consternation about the community. The community shouldn’t wait for any outside intervention or a PIL to have the loudspeakers removed from the Masjids. The community should take this sensible decision of its own volition. There is no reason why it should be difficult for Muslims in India to completely do away with the use of loudspeakers in Masjids. The right to freedom of religion shouldn’t become the right to create public nuisance.
There is also a need among Muslims to broad-base the subjects and topics spoken about in Friday sermons. As a start, the community should encourage Muslims from different walks of life to speak and share their experiences about community development and upliftment. It goes without saying that a diversity of thought will definitely help the community confront its problems better.
Waqf is another major institution of the Muslim community. It is unfortunately marred by rampant corruption. The lands managed by the Waqf are supposed to be used for the upkeep of orphans, widows and establishing charitable institutions. In terms of land holdings, the Waqf in India controls about four lac properties and six lac acres of land. This makes it the third highest holding of land in India after the Indian Railways and the Defence establishment. But most of this land has been encroached upon and illegally occupied because the Waqf authorities have been both negligent and complicit in this land grab. It seems there is connivance between the land mafia, politicians, religious figures and the Waqf authorities in various cases of illegal land grab and encroachment. The one acre property in Mumbai’s upmarket Altmount Road housing Mukesh Ambani’s 27 storeys, $2 Billion mansion, has been sold by the Waqf for a paltry Rs 21 Crore, when the market rate was Rs 500 Crore. Another prime property belonging to the Waqf in Bangalore worth about Rs 600 Crore was given to the ITC Group for its Five Star Windsor Manor Hotel, on a princely lease of Rs 12,000 per month. After the matter went to the court in 2005, the rent was revised to Rs 6 Lakh a month.
Many large Dargahs controlled by the Waqf have also become big dens of corruption. This brazen corruption and misappropriation of funds and other resources in the Waqf is public knowledge. It is surprising that this issue is rarely spoken about and addressed by the Indian Muslim community and its preachers and intellectuals. There is an urgent need for Muslims to show greater interest in the affairs of the Waqf and press for its professional and transparent management. If properly managed and professionally audited, the Waqf could provide meaningful resources for public good. It is time for Muslims in India to make better use of their community assets, make them more productive and contribute to public good by leveraging their places of worship.
Based in South Indian city of Bangalore, Tariq Jameel is an investment professional with interests in history, politics, sports and of course, financial markets.