Q/ What defines the Mahdi Bagh Institution, and on what principles was it founded?
A/ There is a Quran verse—unfortunately used only during bereavements or sad times: ‘To God we belong, and to him do we return’. This signifies the purpose of our existence.
We believe that God mercifully sent a series of prophets and books of revelations. We believe that throughout history, right from Adam, there have been 1,24,000 prophets who spoke different languages to different communities across the world. The basic purpose of the prophets was hidayat—preaching to the people. The very last prophet on earth was Prophet Mohammad.
But the command of God—amar, as we call it—has to continue…. We believe that it was Imam Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the prophet, to whom amar was transferred. After Imam Ali and his sons, Imam Hasan and Imam Hussain, the amar passed down from father to son. And there have been 21 imams on earth.
The 21st imam went into seclusion, more than a 1,000 years ago. But they left an organisational hierarchy—imams, followed by hujjats, who are people who do argumentations, and the daees, who give daawat (invitations). So the Mahdi Bagh Institution is a daawat—inviting people towards righteousness and piety.
Q/ How do you follow the teachings in practical life? Are they different for other Islamic sects?
A/ The underlying principles are the same…. Where we slightly differ from others is that our religious beliefs and teachings take the shape of manzum (a poetic form) and are converted into nazms (recitations). So in our spiritual gatherings, apart from the sermons, we also sing nazms.
Q/ Does the changing times, the internet especially, pose a challenge to your traditions?
A/ It certainly is a challenge in the 21st century. But right since birth, we imbibe this culture. Children sitting in a majlis (spiritual gathering), listening to zikr and nazm—it forms an indelible impression on their minds that sustains them. Even if they go overseas, they carry with them these moral values. It is difficult to erase them from one’s psyche, and that is what holds us all together.
The internet revolution has helped us hold the majlis online. For example, today’s majlis was broadcast all over the world to our community members.
Q/ Did you have to change your style, or the content of your sermons, with the changing times?
A/ Now I use a lot of English in my sermons. It is easier for many to understand and relate to it than fasih and nafees (eloquent and exquisite) Urdu and Arabic. I use modern terminologies. I even use PowerPoint presentations now, but the basic teachings remain the same.
There has also been some change attire-wise. This is our traditional dress (points to his kurta-pajama, headgear and jacket), which was strictly adhered to earlier. But now I often move about—except on spiritual occasions—in my golf T-shirts and pants, like everyone else. Similarly, about 30 years ago, women stopped using burqas.
Q/ In a tiny, close-knit community like yours, won’t intra-community marriages cause genetic issues?
A/ For the first 30 years after the foundation of the institution, new members joined. But about 100 years ago, as a deliberate decision, new entries were stopped. Now the membership is only by birth. But we haven’t faced any problem as yet. We haven’t seen any birth deformities. We feel we yet have a very diverse genetic pool.
Q/ Is there a special focus on women empowerment?
A/ Yes. After the daee (spiritual head), the highest spiritual ranking person in the community is a lady (Moulai Saheba Zainab Lamak). Even before her, that position was held by a lady. There is absolutely no [gender-based] discrimination. Women pray in mosques, pursue careers and get involved in all community activities.
Q/ How do you prepare your community to deal with communal problems that are increasingly becoming commonplace?
A/ Fortunately, our community has long been very well-respected. We have a good rapport with every political party. Jawaharlal Nehru was very close to the founders and even visited the settlement. At present, [Union Minister] Nitin Gadkari is a close friend. We also have close relations with [spiritual leader] Swami Avdheshanand; he has also prayed twice in our mosque. Everyone has so much regard and reverence for us; there is really no place for prejudice.