Tablighi Jama’at: An ‘apolitical’ Islamist movement preaching religious fanaticism

It cannot be denied that Islamist supremacism and exclusivity emanate from the retrogressive movements of preaching and proselytising like the Tablighi Jam’at (TJ) — the largest Islamic movement across the world, based in India.

Faith-Based Violence and Deobandi Militancy in Pakistan”, a ground-breaking book (edited by Jawad Syed, Edwina Pio, Tahir Kamran and Abbas Zaidi) explores various shades of the Tablighi extremism and its implications for faith-based militancy. “This dimension of radical Islam remains largely ignored or misunderstood in mainstream media and academic scholarship”, writes Arshi Saleem Hashmi who contributed a chapter in this book on the historical roots of the Deobandi version of Jihadism.

In her research work, “Terrorism in Southeast Asia: Implications for South Asia” Swati Parashar did a field study on how the students and the faithful at Lal Masjid were strict adherents to the principles of the Tablighi Jama’at, which she considers ‘the largest movement of Islamic preaching in South Asia, with strict adherence to the Deobandi sect of Islam’.

Founded in 1926 in an Indian province, Mewat, by a UP-based Islamist cleric Maulvi Muhammad Ilyas Kandhaulvi, the TJ aims at reverting what they call “misguided” or “deviant” (bid’ati) Muslims into ‘puritan’ believers. According to the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life, the TJ spreads across more than 150 countries with numbers ranging from 12 to 80 million. The TJ came into media limelight only after the central Asian countries Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, once part of the USSR, banned it accusing that the TJ preaches Islam with an extremist outlook.

Ideological Jihadism

An objective study reveals that the TJ has been spawning ground for various forms of a relatively soft-core jihadism in the subcontinent on an ideological level. The present-day violent jihadism dressed in Talibanism in Pakistan and Afghanistan has its theological roots in the Tablighi-Deobandi school of thought. Though, of course, Darul Uloom Deoband— the largest Islamic seminary in India— has been in the forefront organising anti-terror conferences.

Recently, Darul Uloom Deoband came up with a strongly-worded fatwa declaring the Tablighi Jama’at "misguided" and the “preacher of perverted views". Deoband seminary has also urged the current chief of the Tablighi Jama’at, Maulvi Sa'ad Kandhalvi to ‘repent in the court of God’. Accusing him of ‘an ideological perversion, misinterpretation of Islamic texts and desecration of prophethood’, the fatwa pronounced by the Deoband clergy has stated: “It is our religious duty to warn Muslims particularly those with the Tablighi jam'at that Maulvi Sa'ad Kandhalvi, the current chief of the Jama't, is misinterpreting Quran and Hadith”.

It is noteworthy that this fatwa was originally drafted for muftis (Islamic jurists), but it was leaked by an Urdu daily, Roznama Sahafat (Lucknow edition), as the front-page news report dated 6 December, 2016 tells us.

Inevitably, several messages and comments were circulated in the social media. Now the fatwa has been made public officially by the Darul Uloom Deoband, which has posted it on its website.

The Deoband seminary has cited a number of statements attributed to the Tablighi Jama’at’s chief. The fatwa alleges that Maulvi Sa'ad Kandhaulvi in his speech at the Tablighi Jama’at’s large-scale congregation (ijtema) recently held in Bhopal, spoke many things which went against the canonical understanding of Islam.

Fazail-e-A’amaal: the Tablighi textbook

One accusation is that Fazail-e-A’amaal (the virtues of Islamic actions)– the text book Tablighi Jama’at preaches to its followers, contains many things antithetical to the Quran. Such objections over the TJ and its preaching style have been repeatedly raised in the past as well. The Darul Uloom itself confessed that the seminary’s clerics have received such complaints earlier too, from various sources including those in Bangladesh and Pakistan, in which ‘the perverted views of the TJ chief’ were spelled out.

But one wonders why the TJ has been left unchallenged over its more grievous stands which are cultivating the ideological jihadism inherent in its curriculum. Like various texts of “Fazail-e-A’amal”, another textbook entitled “Taleem-e-Islam” (the teachings of Islam), contains pro-jihadism exhortations. But both textbooks are valued by the TJ followers as significant as the Quran and Hadith—the two primary Islamic texts. In fact, the common followers of the TJ literally place these books at a pedestal above the Quran.

 Tablighi Jama’at: An ‘apolitical’ Islamist movement preaching religious fanaticism

Representational image. Reuters

One of the founding ideologues of the TJ writes in the book "Teachings of Islam" explaining the Jihadi doctrine: “Jihad is spreading the kalima (word of God) and enforcing Allah's Commandments." In reality, spreading word of God is not confined to the TJ. All Islamic, Christian, Jewish and other evangelical organisations based on preaching and proselytizing are doing almost the same. But what is quite staggering is the TJ’s overt exhortations towards “enforcing Allah's Commandments”.

In the canonical Arabic etymology, kalima is the first article of Islamic faith which enjoins a Muslim to testify that “there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the last messenger". But it has got an antagonistic connotation after it has been weaved into a 6-point curriculum of the TJ as mentioned in its textbook ‘Fazail-e-A’amal’. “Muslims are in a constant state of Jihad in the sense of fight against evil. Their weapon is da’wa (proselytisation) and their battles are won or lost in the hearts”, reads a passage in the book.

Barring ulema and a few preachers associated with the Jama’at, nearly all TJ members have confined their job to reading out Fazail-e-A’amal to the common Muslims. The Tablighi preachers captivate their audiences—mostly uneducated and gullible Muslim youths—with whimsical tales and fabricated hadith reports falsely attributed to the Prophet. A considerable number of Islamic researchers have stated that the entire Tablighi curriculum in general and Fazail-e-A’amal in particular are replete with concocted Hadiths (maudu’aat).

The thrust of Fazail-e-A’amal is that leading a true Islamic life is not possible without harbouring hate and animosity towards this world. In fact, the entire life before death is considered futile and worthless. “This world (dunya) is similar to a toilet or a prison”, as is written in the book Fazail-e-A’amal. The gravity of this belief can be gauged by the fact that most Tableeghi preachers literally place this textbook at a pedestal above the Quran. Consequently, the TJ preachers pride themselves on the notion that they ‘talk only of what is in the heavens above or in the grave below and nothing at all about the world in between”.

Such thoughts of religious fanaticism are actually antithetical to the spirit of the Quranic verses that explicitly forbid asceticism (rahbaniyat).

Six-point curriculum

The entire edifice of the TJ is based on the six points which were propounded to initiate the “tahrik-e-iman” (faith movement). The points are: (1) iman (faith), (2) namaz (Islamic prayer), (3) ilm-o-zikr (the knowledge and remembrance of Allah), (4) ikraam-e-Muslim (respect for Muslims), (5) ikhlas-e-niyyat (sincerity of intention) and (6) tafarrugh-e-waqt (the sparing of time for the da’wah or preaching and proselytisation)”.

In the textbook, “Taleem-e-Islam” under the sub-heading "General Principles", the TJ writer comments on the six points: "No points of secondary importance should be discussed at any time. Confine all talk to the main points of the Tabligh…..There is no gain, honour, happiness, peace or tranquility in this life without adopting and firmly holding on to the work and system of the Tablighi Jama’at."

Thus, in its 6-point curriculum, the TJ declares its core objective as da’wa (proselytisation) which is based on an exclusivist notion of “enforcing Allah's Commandments”. The ideologues believed that Muslims joining the TJ would act upon the Quranic commandment of “enjoining good and forbidding evil” (Amr bil Ma'ruf wa Nahi an al Munkar). They derived it from the Quranic verse which reads: “Ye are the best of peoples, evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah” (3:110).

Tellingly, the way today’s literalist Islamists are enjoining “the right” and forbidding “the evil” is sometimes obnoxious. An instance can be seen in the recent incident in Mecca, Saudi Arabia which was lambasted in some progressive Saudi newspapers, though not in the mainstream media. On 11 March, 2002, the Mutaween—the Islamic police in Saudi Arabia—did not allow schoolgirls to escape a burning school, because ‘the girls were not wearing Hijabs or Abayas’, and were not ‘accompanied by a male guardian’. In this show of “enjoining right and forbidding evil”, fifteen young girl students died and fifty more were injured, as reported in the Saudi Arabic daily Okaz.

‘Apolitical’ 

It is widely held that the TJ is an ‘apolitical’ religious outfit. Scholars like Olivier Roy, a prominent authority on Islam at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and Barbara D. Metcalf have endorsed this perception. While Roy sees to the TJ as an “apolitical preaching-to-the-people movement of internal grassroots missionary renewal” (“The Columbia world dictionary of Islamism”, Columbia University Press. p. 430), Metcalf views that the TJ is “a quietist, apolitical movement of spiritual guidance and renewal” ("Islam and women: The case of the Tablighi Jama`at". Metcalf, Barbara, Stanford University, 27 February 1996).

But these studies are age-old. The former was conducted in 2007 and the latter in 1996. The recent developments have substantially evidenced that the TJ is advancing ahead towards the Indian politics in a bid to ‘correct the country’s course of actions with regard to the Muslims’.

An earlier Firstpost article depicted an instance of how the TJ’s six-point religious principles are being used to arouse the passion of Muslim voters during the UP assembly election campaigns. The recently-established political coalition of the Muslim parties in Uttar Pradesh known as “Ittehad Front” is garnering votes on the basis of religion. In his latest political promos, the Peace Party leader Ayyud Khan, a medical doctor-turned-politician staunchly exhorted to promote the Tablighi Jama’at in several front-page advertisements published in Inquilab, the largest Urdu daily in India.

Ayyub went to the extent of taking a resolution that if the Peace Party wins in the upcoming elections, he would ask all his party workers to go for Chilla or Khuruj—the 40-day tour of the Tablighi Jmaat for preaching and proselytizing.

Barbara Metcalf writes in her book, Traditionalist Islamic Activism: Deoband, Tablighis, and Talibs that the TJ encourages its adherents to follow the pattern of spending "forty continuous days a year and ultimately 120 days at least once in their lives engaged in the tablighi missions".

Even in its preceding history, the TJ maintained its recognition of being “apolitical” in a shrewd way. It was ‘apolitical’ when the Indian citizens were fighting the war of freedom from the British colonization. The TJ continued to remain an ‘apolitical’ onlooker when Pakistan carried out attacks on India in 1971. No words were minced from the TJ leaders in condemnation of the ghastly attack. Recently in the wake of the Uri attack, the TJ masterfully maintained its ‘apolitical’ status by declining to issue any statements neither in favour nor against. This is precisely what has earned the TJ the two great-sounding epithets: “apolitical” and “quietist”.

Similarly in Pakistan, the TJ members officially portray themselves as simple missionaries, but in the recent past, many cases have reported where militants sought accommodation and hideouts in the Tablighi Markaz at Raiwind, as this study shows.

The TJ preachers in Pakistan remain ‘apolitical’ when Tahreek-e- Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Hizbul Mujahidin or Jaish-e-Muhammad launch attacks on minority religions or sects. After every terror attack, they simply remain silent onlookers, loudly claiming to be “peaceful” and “non-violent”. The TJ chief preacher in Pakistan Maulana Tariq Jameel—the global Tablighi televangelist—never denounces the terrorist strikes of the TTP like the one recently launched at Bacha Khan University. This intrigued even the Pakistani defence analyst, Zaid Hamid who questioned him. “All terrorists in Pakistan greatly revere Maulana Tariq Jameel, but he never denounces terrorism calling the name of TTP and other terror outfits. The entire youth segment of Pakistani Muslims listens to Tariq Jameel’s sermons and hence follow his verdicts. But what kind of Ulama-e-Haq (rightful clergy) he is from that he has shut his mouth on the merciless slaughtering of innocent children?”, Hamid says in this video .

The author is a scholar of comparative religion, classical Arabic and Islamic sciences, cultural analyst and researcher in media and communication Studies. Views are personal. He tweets at @GRDehlvi and can be reached at grdehlavi@gmail.com

Updated Date: Dec 18, 2016 16:52:35 IST