Demystifying Tablighi Jamaat

While scores of Muslims are in awe of its work, a significant section believes it has reduced Islam to a set of rituals

By Author MR Narayan Swamy   |   Published: 1st Jun 2021   12:28 am

After more than 90 years of its existence and dramatic ballooning, the Tablighi Jamaat, reputedly the world’s — and certainly India’s — largest Islamic group, faces convulsions that are bound to cast a shadow on its future. And this has nothing to do with the mess it found itself in during the Covid-19 pandemic.

No Muslim organisation has aroused so much debate, defensiveness and dissent within Islam as the Tablighi Jamaat, says Ziya Us Salam, a journalist and author whose seminal study is largely critical of the group that today has an imprint across the world. Since its birth, the Sunni Muslim revival and reform body has flummoxed or won admiration from a large mass.

Questions, More Questions

And despite commanding millions of members around the globe, not much is known about the Tablighi Jamaat. Even within the Muslim community, there are questions and more questions about the outfit.

Founded in 1927 with the avowed objective of making Muslims better Muslims by making them look inwards, the Tablighi Jamaat is a strictly non-political body that takes no stand on any public issue even if it concerns Muslims. Be it Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule, Muslim personal law, Babri Masjid, attacks on Muslims, Urdu, Satanic Verses… you name it, and the Tablighi’s lips are sealed. It remains focused on introspection and isolation. Its members, mostly the poor, have no quarrel with the world. To them, life is all about internal cleansing.

According to Ziya Us Salam’s ‘Inside the Tablighi Jamaat’ (HarperCollins), the group does not maintain an account of its members, addresses, profession, family and other details. There are no card-holding cadres, just foot soldiers. People join of their own volition and leave when they want. Its present membership, by conservative estimates, is pegged at around 80 million.
Tablighi adherents pray five times a day but are not encouraged to discuss the Holy Quran. Instead, the group places far greater emphasis on its Fazail-e-Amal, a book put together between 1928 and 1948 and which is often treated like scripture by members.

The book is hugely controversial and is banned in Saudi Arabia. It prods its members into going on three-day trips to another mosque within their town or city, 40-day trips to mosques outside their region, and year-long trips abroad – with their own money. Tablighis set out in small groups every day of the year urging Muslims to come to the mosque and pray. This is their mission.

World of its Own

The Tabligh does not question the law of the land. It has no interaction with non-Muslims. It eschews conversion of people of other faiths. It shuns modern technology to transmit its message. By now, thousands of mosques, particularly in northern India, fall under Tablighi Jamaat’s ‘influence’. Here, the group virtually bans members of other Muslim groups from using them. “They try to ensure that it is their version of Islam that is practiced in as many mosques as possible,” says Ziya Us Salam.

Unlike other Muslim groups, the Tablighi Jamaat has stayed away from the field of education, refraining from opening schools, colleges or universities in its almost a century of existence. Women are mostly discouraged from attending mosques and, when young, are groomed as “obedient daughters, good homemakers and caring wives”. In the group’s worldview, women are mere appendages to men.

As Ziya Us Salam underlines, the Tablighi Jamaat has brought more Muslims to mosques than probably all other Muslim organisations combined. In a secular environment, it has fostered religious identity without breaking any law. Its proponents say it is because of Tablighi Jamaat that several poor Muslims who may have converted to other faiths have remained loyal to Islam.

Fights and Politics

But away from the public glare, the group is riddled now with internecine fights and politics, says the book. The body is yet to have a president from outside the family of Maulana Ilyas, the founder, making it a family enterprise. In 2017, there was a fall-out between Maulana Saad, the present head, and his rivals at its headquarters in Delhi, known as the Markaz.

Those who rebelled included two prominent members from Pakistan, one from Bangladesh and three from India. The breakaway wing is run from a mosque at Nerul in Mumbai. In 2018, Saad had to leave Bangladesh when Tablighis there protested against his presence at their annual congregation.

A split in England took the shape of a violent India-Pakistan row, with Bangladeshi members siding with their Indian counterparts. While Saudi Arabia is disdainful of Tablighi Jamaat, it has faced legal bottlenecks in parts of Central Asia. While the Tabligh was slandered, at times wrongly, over its Delhi congregation amid the pandemic last year, many admit that Saad made a mistake of not cancelling the event.

Today, while scores of Muslims are in awe of the work the Tabligh has done, a significant section of the community believes it has done a singular disservice by reducing Islam to a set of rituals to be performed for personal gratification. Read ‘Inside the Tablighi Jamaat’ should you want to know more.

(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)