From humble beginnings the Tablighi Jamaat has become the largest Islamic missionary movement, lately attracting attention for all the wrong reasons.
A Tablighi is on a mission. He wants you to be a good Muslim. If you ever come across one, the first thing he says is this: “Brother, come let’s go pray in the mosque.” Then he’ll deliver a sermon on the virtues of a simple life and the importance of faith. You’ll get frustrated but he’ll persist and when you think the conversation is finally over, he’ll say this: “Brother, shall we go to the mosque?”
The Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) is a movement focused on proselytisation. But what sets them apart is that if you are a Hindu or a Christisan or a Jew or believer in any other religion, chances are a Tablighi won’t bother you. His efforts are focused on fellow Muslims, who have been distracted by worldly affairs.
Started by Maulana Muhammad Ilyas in 1926 around the Indian region of Mewat, it has spread to more than a hundred countries and is now the largest Muslim missionary movement. Experts tell TRT World it has millions of members with some estimates reaching as high as 80 million.
“I haven’t met a single Muslim from South Asia who doesnt have a firsthand experience of Tablighis,” says Barbara Metcalf, professor emeritus of history at the University of California.
“They say the Tablighis annoy me, they come to the door, all they want you to do is come say your prayers. Some time in their lives they have come across the movement. Some people say Tablighis are like a broken record.”
The media, the police and politicians usually don’t bother themselves with TJ activities. After all, TJ has an apolitical agenda — if we define 'politics' as taking part in a democratic process or operating as a political entity — it has no intention of imposing Sharia or creating an Islamic state. All it wants is for Muslims to become better Muslims.
“They generally imagine today to be the time (as for early Muslims) in Mecca. That is to say that their numbers are minute and that this is not the Medina moment yet, when Muslims have power and authority,” Metcalf tells TRT World.
She’s referring to the early 7th century when Prophet Muhammad and a few followers escaped to the Arabian city of Medina to avoid persecution.
“For Tablighis it doesnt matter that there are Muslim states or Muslim rulers. It’s just a detail. In terms of real Muslims, this world is actually a Mecca because there are so few real Muslims.”
In recent months, TJ activities and members have come under scrutiny in Pakistan, India, Malaysia and other countries. They face accusations of gathering in large congregations despite warnings that it might lead to mass transmission of coronavirus infections.
By far the biggest blowback came in India where more than 2,400 TJ activists, including foreigners, are facing charges for violating official lockdown orders.
On social media, rightwing Hindus have accused TJ members of carrying out a “Corona Jihad” by deliberately trying to spread the virus.
For the scholars who have closely studied the movement, such a reaction in India is no surprise. Under the Hindu nationalist government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Muslims have been on the receiving end.
The TJ gathering at its international headquarters in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, took place in early March. The lockdown was enforced later and violations by religious Hindu festivals attended by thousands were conveniently ignored by local media.
And one reason that Maulana Ilyas started the movement was to counter Hindu influence on Muslims
Muslim, in name
Undivided India was still a British colony when TJ emerged in the 1920s. It was a time when a few, but powerful, Hindu missionaries were trying to convert Muslims to Hinduism.
“One of the important historical drivers for the emergence of the Tablighi Jamaat was Hindu proselytisation movement, which was called Arya Samaj or Shuddhi, which is like a purification stem of the Arya Samaj,” says Dr Riyaz Timol, of Cardiff University’s Center for the Study of Islam.
A lot of TJ's initial effort was focused on the region of Mewat, which is spread between the Indian states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Meos or the residents of Mewat were Muslims only in name, and in some cases, not even that.
Over centuries Meo Muslims adopted several Hindi rituals, for example, circling around a fire during weddings became a common practice.
As a British colonial officer, Major Powlet, noted at the time:
“The Meos are now all Musalmans in name; but their village deities are the same as those of the Hindus...As regards their own religion the Meos are very ignorant. Few know the Kalima and fewer still the regular prayers.”
(The excerpt is from Zacharias Pieri’s book The Tablighi Jamaat and the Quest for the London Mega Mosque)
Arya Samaj argued that Indian Muslims were originally Hindus and so they should return to their native religion. The fact that Meos were half Hindu and half Muslims made them an easy target, says Timol, who is writing a book on TJ.
The early 20th century was also a time when size mattered for religious groups, in dealing with colonial overlords.
“There was a major constitutional reform right after World War One. The number of any population defined how many seats you got in the legislature. Mass politics was linked to numbers and there were particular segments that looked ripe for Hindu proselytising movements,” says Metcalf.
Today’s India is no different. The Meo Muslims are harassed by cow vigilantes — for Hindus, cows are sacred — and beaten for using beef in their meals.
In India these days, “any excuse to to attack Muslims is cultivated at the highest level,” says Metcalf.
But if history is a guide then TJ is unlikely to be deterred.
Can’t read? No problem. Welcome to TJ
A few years ago, when Dr Bulbul Ashraf Siddiqi decided to live with TJ members for a few weeks in Bangladesh to research his thesis, his father gave him solemn advice.
“Be careful about how you interpret Islam,” he said. Nothing unusual about that warning. For generations, Muslims have relied on learned men, the Ulema, to seek guidance about religion.
On the other hand, TJ is open to everyone. It invites into its fold an architect, a liposuctionist, and an engineer as wholeheartedly as it would an illiterate day-labourer. But it’s no Hotel California, you can leave whenever you want.
“For the Tablighi Jamaat, it’s all about learning by doing. So you don’t have to be an Aalim, you don't have to be an Allama, you don't have to be a scholar, to attend Tablighi congregation or preach like them,” Siddiqi, who now teaches at the North South University in Dhaka, tells TRT World.
That’s how Ilyas conceived the movement — it was all a matter of devotion of its members. The most important thing was time and money. The internal religious reform of a person has an edge over any intellectual awakening. That’s why he chose people from humble backgrounds to go on preaching tours.
Walking in the path of Allah is essential for a Tablighi. Sometimes for a few hours in a local neighborhood, or forty days or months. Regular members spend up to four months a year going from village to village and traveling to other countries.
But what motivates young and old men to spend so much time with TJ?
“I have seen people change. There was a local thug, he joined TJ and he became a different person. Now he comes and preaches me. I know he was a thief. But seeing him now like this pleases me,” says Dr Siddiqi.
TJ’s simple. Ilyas wanted Tablighis to embody six essential points, which include things like offering daily prayers, respect for fellow Muslims and spending time in the path of Allah.
I asked Metcalf to explain what it is about TJ that attracts so many people.
"So what’s its appeal? I don’t know. But it is effective for many and clearly serves to satisfy them."
She is one of the foremost scholars on Muslim movements in the Indian Subcontinent and is an authority on Deobandis, the Sunni school of thought where TJ has its roots. Almost every book and research article on TJ cites her prior work on the movement.
"In Pakistan, I knew people who were retired and who spent a lot of time with the Tablighi Jamaat. They’d say 'it’s a healthy life, simple food, we walk from village to village, we exercise, you know a great activity to keep us busy in retirement'.
"Now, a very pious person won’t put it that way. But that is one point of view."
TJ is easy to join. There’s no membership card, no registration, even though now at some places local leaders or ameers would sometimes seek brief references to check background.
While TJ is predominantly a male-driven movement, women also play a key role. They might not go on outdoor preaching tours, but within homes and Muslims circles they congregate and spread the message.
When someone joins TJ, he inevitably changes; both internally and visibly. Men grow beards, they tend to prefer more traditional dress to western clothes, at times you might see a miswak jutting out from their pockets.
Abdul Qadir, 27, from Kohat, Pakistan, is one of them. His day job is at the local police department but he claims to be a full-time TJ preacher as well.
“I was not a good Muslim. I wouldn’t say my prayers, shave my beard, and waste time watching movies,” he says. That all changed in 2010 when he went on a four-month TJ tour. He has been going on such preaching missions ever since.
A few years spent with the movement, cultivates a peculiar conviction and behaviour. A Tablighi seldom loses his temper, he won’t contradict you outright, and keeps bringing the conversation back to the significance of going out on proselytisation tours. More importantly, he will besiege you to express yourself.
"Unless you become part of an environment or come with us, you’d have misconceptions. What do you think, am I right?" he says when asked what’s the point of telling a Muslim to perform his daily prayers, a fundamental Islamic practice.
Or take the Halwa example he gave me in a recent interview over the phone. People know what ingredients go into making a Halwa, a South Asian sweet dish, and how it’s cooked. "But you wouldn’t know what it really tastes like until you eat it. Kya khyaal hai aap ka? (What do you think?)"
Qadir is among a newer generation of Tablighis who are slightly deviating from tradition. He’s a moderator of a Facebook page, which posts updates about TJ activities. TJ leadership doesn’t encourage spreading its message (dawah) on social media, it still wants followers to adhere to face-to-face interaction instead of using Facebook.
Arsalan Khan is an anthropologist based at Union College in New York who researches dawah as a religious and ethical practice in the Tablighi Jamaat. He explains: "Tablighis conceptualise dawah as a sacred practice that creates a ‘heart to heart’ connection between Muslims, drawing both the Tablighi and the addressee closer to Islam. In order to be efficacious, however, dawah must be conducted in the same manner that the Prophet and his pious companions conducted it."
Coming out of your comfort zone, making personal sacrifices and traveling are imperative parts of the TJ mission.
"Tablighis say that only face-to-face preaching can create this connection between Muslims. In an age or mass media, there is a lot of pressure to mobilise new communication technologies — and Tablighis do use them — but they believe these are a poor substitute for face to face communication because it does not create the same religious bonds between Muslims,” adds Khan.
A different kind of Jihad
Every Tablighi is supposed to pay for travel and accommodation expenses from his own pocket.
“One of the principles of the movement is that it's only when you spend your own money that you’ll be able to understand the level of sacrifice,” says Timol. “In the UK, when a TJ member stays at a mosque, he has to pay 10 pounds a night.”
Groups of men carrying sleeping bags travel from town to town, village to village, spending the night in local mosques. Trips are planned ahead of time to ensure that too many groups don’t overwhelm a local mosque or another place hosting the TJ members. International tours can be expensive. There’s no concept of organisational funding.
TJ as an organisation is a mysterious entity. While Nizamuddin in India is the international headquarters, there are competing centers of influence in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The history of all three countries is stained with each other’s blood. Muslim-majority Pakistan parted ways with India in 1947. Twenty four years later, Bangladesh, which was then known as East Pakistan, gained its own freedom after a brief war.
None of that seems to have had any impact on TJ. Neither is it nationalist nor pan-Islamist, instead it just wants a Muslim to say his prayers and follow the life of Prophet Muhammad.
Both Lahore in Pakistan, and Dhaka in Bangladesh claim to host the largest Tablighi gatherings attended by upwards of 2 million people, making them biggest Muslim congregations outside of Hajj.
With a crowd of that size converging from all over the world often comes trouble. For years, Islamophobic groups and individuals have tried to link TJ with terrorism.
It’s true that in some instances, a few militants might have used a TJ gathering as a cover but that doesn’t mean TJ is to be blamed, says Metcalf who has given expert testimony on behalf of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay whose only crime was attending a Tablighi congregation.
One thing that distinguishes TJ from other Muslim groups is how quickly it distances itself from any negative influence.
Ashraf recalls the time when a Bangladeshi group Hefazat-e-Islami, which called for implementing a blasphemy law, tried to penetrate TJ. “The TJ leadership very smartly distanced itself from Hefazet without anyone realising it.”
The latest example of quick adaptability was seen during the pandemic. TJ members are used to shaking hands, hugging, huddling together for discussions and prayers. Social distancing protocols seemed like an intrusion.
“But once the realisation set in, Tablighi elders themselves called for taking precautions and we have seen since how some members have come forward to donate plasma,” says Ashraf.
Other Muslim movements such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Hizb-ut-Tahrir have often criticised TJ for not ascribing to their ideology of political Islam.
“They are also criticised for substituting the word Jihad in Islamic lexicon which they replaced with Dawah (invitation). So when they talk about going in the path of Allah, they don't mean Jihad Fi Sabilillah (in the cause of Allah), what they mean is Dawah. So Muslims who believe that setting up Islamic state is more important, feel very upset,” says Timol.
TJ also differs from other Islamic movements in that it follows a hybrid Deobandi-Sufi tradition. Maulana Ilyas himself was a teacher at Darul Uloom Deoband but he adopted some of the Sufi teachings such as the belief in change of heart.
A TJ member won’t celebrate the anniversary of a saint but he will also not reject Sufism as the more orthodox Sunni Salafis or ‘Wahhabis’ do.
Yet, people are often rude or mean to them. It often happens that when a group of four or five TJ members comes knocking, you’d tiptoe to the door and quietly peek through the peephole. You’d ask your sister to go and say from behind the door that no man is at home. The Tablighi will leave, but he’ll be back again.