:: Islam and Women The Case of The Tablighi Jama’at

Barbara D. Metcalf, University of California Davis

The Tablighi Jama`at is a quietist, apolitical movement of spiritual guidance and renewal that originated in the Indian subcontinent, whose networks now reach around the world. Today Tablighi Jama`at’s annual meetings in Pakistan and Bangladesh are attended by over a million people, and, even though meetings in India are smaller, participants may well be as many. Tabligh networks extend throughout the world, not only to places of Indo-Muslim settlement like North America and Britain, but to continental Europe, Africa, Malaysia, and elsewhere. Membership in the Tablighi Jama`at entails its male members leaving their homes in small groups, for varying periods of time, to teach correct Islamic practices to fellow Muslims and to invite them to join the Jama`at in the work of da`wa or tabligh [proselytizing].

Due to its absence from the political arena and low institutional profile, there are relatively few studies of the Tablighi Jama`at, and most of this literature is strikingly silent on the involvement of women in the Jama`at. Yet popular opposition voiced against the Jama`at, in subcontinental cities at least, often focuses on issues related to women: men who leave for proselytizing are often accused of failing in their masculine roles to care for their families and implicitly encouraging the cultivation of what are considered to be effeminate attributes (gentleness, humility, and modesty). In this paper, I examine gender relations in the contemporary Tablighi Jama`at in Pakistan by drawing on my long-term interest in the Deobandi scholarly movement from which the Tablighi Jama`at emerged.

history of the tablighi jama`at

In the period after the First World War in India, with the failure of the Khilafat movement and the exposure of the hollowness of British war-time promises, many Muslims turned from political action to the formation of voluntary associations focused on individual and community regeneration. Tablighi Jama`at, whose origin is typically dated to 1927, emerged as part of this larger movement. The Jama`at was first conceived by Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, a pious, learned religious leader based in Delhi, who died in 1944. The principal behind Tabligh work was that all Muslims could teach fellow Muslims key Islamic values and practices and that the process of instructing others would help the teachers learn and perfect their own practices. Thus, by going out to offer guidance to other Muslims, any sincere Muslim could, in effect, undertake what had heretofore been the province of men distinguished by education, saintly achievement, and, often, notable birth.

The central feature of the Tabligh movement is the tour, which consists of a jama`at, or party, of about ten men who travel to proselytize either for an evening, a few days, or a prolonged journey. Undertaking the tour occasions a radical break with all usual enmeshments, including the intense face-to-face obligations and hierarchies of family and work typical of everyday interaction. This break, Maulana Ilyas believed, would transform the proselytizer more than the audience because the journey, with its attendant tasks, inculcates a modest and humble disposition–a disposition of which prayer is an important part, since it renders a Muslim humble before God. Since proselytization is a situation in which each participant continually risks rebuff, it is meant to further instill humility in him. In this sense, travel is believed to encourage a state of permanent vulnerability and uncertainty in which one learns to be dependent on God, outside of one’s normal moorings.

Beyond these efforts, a range of practices fosters a leveling of socio-economic status among the participants, a leveling modified in principle only by degrees of fidelity and faith. In a society where dress is a clear marker of status and particularistic identities, for instance, all Tablighis alike dress in simple garments. In a society where any speech act may betray hierarchic gaps of economic and educational status (above all, that of English and vernaculars, and among the vernaculars, between elegant Urdu and simple language), all Tablighi Jama`at members cultivate simple language. Similarly, in comparison to the popular attitude of looking down on manual activity, everyone on a tour carries his own bag and performs the most menial tasks.

Since there are no criteria for entry or membership in the Jama`at, the very openness of the group further diminishes hierarchy. Any Muslim who seeks to join the Jama`at is welcome in a way that is virtually unknown in highly institutionalized and stratified societies. No priority is given to intellectualism and each person, by virtue of being born a Muslim, is assumed to be a potential participant worthy of respect. Each Jama`at member is considered to have the same capacity for full participation by the simple act of embracing readily accessible teachings and committing himself to spreading them.

Among those on a tour, the elimination of hierarchic distinctions is relentless. Decisions are made through a process of consultation known as mashwara. The amir [leader] is chosen by the group, and should ideally be distinguished by the quality of his faith, rather than his worldly rank. Consequently, even a peon or servant can be an amir, and authority, in principle, is not based on outward attainments or birth among the Tablighis. There are echoes in this practice of the Sufi conviction that the least likely person may be one of the spiritual elect.

Different roles are assigned to all members of a mission. Key to these roles, and to Tablighi thinking generally, is the concept of service or khidmat. Ideally, roles over the duration of a tour change so that the same person may act as a teacher or preacher on one occasion, and a humble cook or cleaner on another. Maulana Ilyas argued that to do service was in fact to attain two rewards: serving one’s companions and freeing them to engage in tabligh. As a result, all Tablighis learn to cook and serve food, to nurse the ill, and to wash and repair clothes. These are jobs that are commonly associated with women and with the lower-born in the society at large. Praise and admiration for this kind of service is expressed in a letter, preserved by Maulana Ilyas, that describes the khidmat of one Jama`at amir:

He looked after everyone’s comfort throughout the journey, carried the luggage of others on his shoulders, in addition to his own, in spite of old age, filled the glasses of water at mealtimes and refrained from sitting down to eat until everybody had been seated comfortably, helped others to perform [the ablutions] on the train and drew their attention to its rules and proprieties; kept watch while the others slept and exhorted the members to remember God often, and did all this most willingly. For a person who was superior to all of us in age, social status and wealth to behave as the servant of everyone was the most unforgettable experience of the tour.

In undertaking the journey, Tablighis ideally pay their own way so that no one is a patron and/or dependent. Tablighis thus strike a dramatic contrast against the structures of subordination and hierarchy that organize much of subcontinental life and stand apart from all its elaborate transactional arrangements. This is in stark contrast to a society where the careful calibrations of age, gender, and birth are learnt at an early age and displayed in a range of obligations, manifestations of deference, and expectations of respect in virtually every daily interaction. Boys are not only subject to the authority of elders within the family but, as they move into the public world, are expected to respond unquestioningly to the authority of teachers and spiritual leaders and to exercise control over women in their families.

Women in the Tabligh Jama`at

The fact that the literature on the Tablighi Jama`at is largely silent on women is not surprising, since it is men who go proselytizing, and it is men who are seen traveling in small groups by bus/train in Indian cities, going from door to door in college hostels and neighborhoods. It is men one sees, dressed in simple, white, loose pants, long shirt, and cap, modest bedding on their back, disappearing into a mosque where they often spend the night. Yet women are involved in the Jama`at, and it is important to consider the gendered context of social roles that both Tablighi women and men are expected to play.

The Tablighis, like the followers of the larger Deobandi reformist movement from which they derive, espouse an ideal of human behavior they understand to be exemplified by the Prophet. This ideal, in fact, resonates with qualities typically associated with femininity: everyone, male or female, is expected to be gentle, self-effacing, and dedicated to service to others. Men engaged in Tabligh activity, rich and poor alike, are meant to learn new ways of relating to other people and standards of humility by learning to cook, wash their own clothes, and look after each other. In this sense, Tabligh encourages, particularly in the experience of the tour, a certain reconfiguring of gender roles. The gentleness, self-abnegation, and modesty of the Tablighi men, coupled with their performance of tasks associated with women, marks them as inculcating values that are culturally considered quintessentially feminine, but which are also religious in this case.

In the course of da`wa, as practices of hierarchy are reconfigured, the hierarchical structure as a whole, which includes relations between women and men, is also modified. For example, I interviewed a young man who, as a father of two small children, felt that the personal traits he was honing in the Tabligh had made his family life more cooperative and harmonious. He criticized his society generally for widespread harshness, including physical punishment toward children. Another Tablighi member said he was less likely to be critical of his wife’s cooking, after learning to cook himself on a da`wa mission.

Tablighi women, although expected to conform to rules of modesty and seclusion, share in a common model of personal comportment as well as a commitment to tabligh. The women enjoined as models, in such cherished texts as the Hikayat- us-sahaba, are celebrated for the same attributes that men are to cultivate: humble, generous, pious, scrupulous in religious obligations, and brave in the face of persecution. Women, in the reformist tradition generally, are expected to become educated in religious teachings. In practical terms, just as men in the course of da`wa tours experience some redrawing of gender roles when they cook and wash, women left at home may also take on a range of typically male responsibilities in order to sustain the household. In addition, women’s lives are altered through involvement in the movement itself. Women in the Jama`at are encouraged not only to seek education and piety, but are also invited to engage in Tabligh, as long as they do not mix with unrelated men. They are expected to engage in da`wa work among other women and family members. Although unusual, women jama`ats do go out accompanying their men folk; some Pakistani women described to me visits not only from expatriate and other South Asian women, but also women from such distant countries as France.

Invariably, there are also jama`ats of women at the large annual meetings: one recent annual meeting in Bhopal, India was reportedly attended by groups of people from as far as the United Kingdom, Hungary, Cuba, Poland, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Russia, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. It was also reported that the meeting was well attended by women who held a day-long meeting at a separate mosque and were joined by Muslim women from the surrounding areas. Most important, and more common than such distant travels, are neighborhood meetings arranged by women which involve them in da`wa work, albeit in a manner that is not easily visible to outsiders.

Women’s da`wa meetings offer an unusual venue for women to congregate religiously, since women in South Asian Islam are discouraged from going to the mosque and, in some traditions, even prevented from visiting saintly shrines typically popular among women. Tablighi women, on the other hand, may also pray together in mosques. In Karachi, for example, women meet on Fridays at the Makki Masjid in the heart of the city between the noon and late afternoon prayer. At a meeting I attended in July 1991 at the Makki Masjid, a woman and a man addressed a crowd of approximately a thousand women over a loudspeaker: the warmth, gentleness, and simplicity of the discourse was palpable as women were reminded of their responsibility for their own piety, for guidance to their family, and for support to those going out on da`wa tours. Women listened, prayed, meditated, and, at the conclusion, chatted and visited as they gathered their wraps to depart. In these settings, women from humble backgrounds may take on roles of leadership and guidance for others: a practice that emphasizes the larger Tablighi principle of conferring authority based on personal work and qualities, rather than markers of birth and status.

In a sense, differentially favorable opportunities for men matter less in the Tabligh movement than in more politically oriented religious movements because neither male nor female members in the Jama`at seek prominence and status in public life. Just as social differences are erased for Tablighi men and women in the public sphere, Tablighi ethic eliminates whole arenas of customary ritual and ceremonial life which have been the purview of women. For example, participants in an annual Tabligh meeting told me that marriages are celebrated by proxy dozens at a time in such meetings. Since marriages in South Asia are typically occasions that entail elaborate social interaction and expenditure, Tablighis in their practice of simple marriage rituals opt out of such social enmeshments and obligations. Women’s status and prestige among Tablighis is, therefore, not to be measured by the number and kinds of participants who attend their ceremonies, nor by the lavishness of the hospitality they offer, but by their piety–especially in their ability to persuade male kin to join the Jama`at. Indeed, during the course of my work, I heard several stories about women who had inspired men in their families to join the Jama`at.

Perhaps the most serious criticism leveled against Tabligh participants is that the men neglect and mistreat their families, especially when on the da`wa tours, and are irresponsible toward their jobs. However, the participants argue that, from their point of view, everyone should be engaged in Tabligh, and that women and children are no more an impediment to men’s fulfillment of their duties than men and children are for women. The biography of Maulana Muhammad Ilyas’s son and successor, Maulana Muhammad Yusuf (1917-1965), describes Yusuf’s frequent absence from the side of his ill wife without condemnation. One is reminded of similar accounts in the biographies of other Tablighi leaders, such as Maulana `Abdul-Rahim Raipuri, who did not let his son’s illness distract him from accompanying his disciples to the Haj [pilgrimage to Mecca]. Women are also urged to follow similar models of behavior. A talk given at an annual Tabligh meeting, for example, reminded men that women also had a responsibility to Tabligh, and that men should not only refrain from objecting but should actively facilitate women’s participation by providing child care. The speaker reminded his audience that since the Prophet had said that women have the right to refuse to nurse should they want to, women certainly could decline to provide child care for a task as important as Tabligh. The same point was apparently made at the Bhopal meeting, noted above, when “community leaders told the women [participants] that their duties were not just confined to bringing up children.”

Tablighis remember that Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, the movement’s founder, had encouraged da`wa work among women from the very beginning of his mission. On his encouragement, the wife of Maulana `Abdus Subhan, one of the prominent men of his school at Nizamud-Din in New Delhi, began work among women in Delhi and formed a women’s jama`at whose members were accompanied by a close male relative. Although other religious elders had reservations about women undertaking Tabligh, Ilyas gradually won their support, including that of the respected Mufti Kifayatullah.


Unlike modern political Islamist movements, such as the Jama`at-i Islami founded in the 1920s, most Tablighis do not idealize women’s domestic roles and their supposedly unique feminine qualities. From the Jama`at-i Islami’s founder, Maulana Maududi, to its present leadership, the position and nature of women is systematically depicted as essentially different from men and assigns them a distinctive spiritual role in the domestic sphere. While there are some Tablighi writers who use the language of “opposite or complementary” sexes, the dominant attitude in the Tablighi Jama`at is an emphasis on a common nature and set of responsibilities shared by women and men. However, there is little scholarship on changes in Tablighi attitudes toward women and differential notions of gender roles over time in Tablighi history.

I would argue that the reason political Islamic movements (such as the Jama`at-i Islami in Pakistan) emphasize women’s domestic roles, in contrast to the Tablighis, is due to the distinctive status accorded to women’s roles and feminine nature in the discourse of modern nationalist politics and its accompanying notions of the private and public realms. Jama`at-i Islami is a movement forged in the context of the institutions of the nation-state, which examines and reconfigures Islam to adapt to the principles of a social order mandated by modern national politics. Issues related to women have occupied a central space in public discussions on law and politics in Pakistan, and the Jama`at-i Islami has played a critical role in formulating these discussions. Women have become a powerful public symbol for the institutionalization of what Islamists call an “Islami nizam” [Islamic order]. While the control of women has always been important to all male- dominated societies, the notion that women bear a special burden of embodying Islamic teachings and norms is traceable to the emergence of nationalist politics.

Tablighis, unlike Jama`at-i Islami members, are not involved in state politics and even abjure all debate with other Islamic movements. Their focus on religious practice, an arena where women and men are fundamentally on the same ground, may help explain their unique attitudes toward gender roles. Even though women are expected to stay at home, men, while they travel the world, devalue the public realm in which they participate. The popular criticism leveled against the Tablighis may in part be explained by the anxiety Tablighi men provoke through their reconfiguration of popular gender roles. Tabligh’s fundamental devaluing of everything that most of the society urgently seeks–wealth, success, rootedness–cannot but be threatening to those who stand outside the Jama`at. Accusations of Tablighi men’s mistreatment of women kin may be interpreted as a metonym for all the values that the simply dressed, non-instrumental itinerants implicitly undermine in terms of the bourgeois family, consumer culture, and nationalism. In its apolitical piety, Tabligh clearly offers men and women an alternative to these dominant ideals.

The Tabligh movement is similar to apolitical pietistic movements in other religious traditions that seek to minimize social distinctions and relations with the larger society in favor of cultivating personal piety and a shared religious community. Women, like other socially humble communities, may find in Tabligh a less hierarchic familial structure and means of resisting conventional social hierarchies. Scholars studying European societies have identified a range of opportunities presented to women through religious organizations and practices that have, in many cases, created alternatives and means of resistance to paternal or state authority.

Tabligh participants, in withdrawing from all physical or ideological contests and focusing on injunctions from the revelation, shape and interpret their behavior in ways that arguably bear no reference to the hegemonic nation-state-oriented ideologies that surround them. While critics in Pakistan may lump them with “fundamentalist” Islamic political tendencies, and critics in India may label them “communalist,” such categories conflate movements that forcefully instruct Muslims about Islam with the Tablighis, who consider themselves the most gentle of reminders. Labels such as communalism and fundamentalism also distort the distinctiveness of a movement that eschews political involvement in favor of cultivating religious piety among women and men.


:: Book Review : Travellers in Faith

A useful account of the travelling fraternity

By Abdar-Rahman KoyaTravellers in Faith: Studies of the Tablighi Jama’at as a Transnational Islamic Movement for Faith Renewal edited by Muhammad Khalid Masud.

Pub: Brill Academic Publishers, Boston, US, 2000. Pp. 268.Hbk: $103.00


Mention of the Tablighi Jama’at often conjures up images of ascetic Muslims with long beards and loose dresses. Such steoreotyping is not always inaccurate. Those who attend Tablighi groups have been unconsciously trained during their many gatherings in local mosques to dress and behave in a homogenous manner. Sadly, this outer appearance is about the only aspect of this Islamic movement that most outside the fold know. Its history, ideology and methodology are rarely mentioned at Islamic forums or studies.

:: Tablighi Jamaat and Hindu Revivalism

Yoginder Sikand

The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of a number of movements forreligious revival, revitalization and reform among Muslims all over the world. One of these, probably the largest Islamic movement in the world today, is the Tablighi Jama’at (TJ). Although it has its roots in the South Asian Muslim environment, with which it is still closely identified, the TJ is now said to be active in almost every country with a significant Sunni Muslim presence. Its founder, the charismatic alim, Maulana Muham-mad Ilyas (1885-1944) , believed that Muslims had strayed far from the teachings of Islam. Hence, he felt the urgent need for Muslims to go back to the basic principles of their faith, and to observe strictly the commandments of Islam in their own personal lives and in their dealings with others. This alone, he believed, would win for Muslims the pleasure of God, who would then be moved to grant them ‘success’ (falah) in this world and in the life after death.

Although not identified as a specifically Sufi movement as such, the TJ emerged from the reformist Sufi project represented by the renowned Dar ul-’ulum madrasa located in Deoband, a town not far from Delhi, it first took root in the mid-1920s in the area of Mewat, south of Delhi, among a community of Muslim peasants known as the Meos. The Meos continue to be closely involved in the work of the TJ, although their involvement has declined somewhat in recent years as the movement has assumed global proportions. Yet, as TJ ideologues and activists see it, Mewat is said to be the most successful experimental ground of the movement.

The TJ has its origins, as mentioned above, in the reformist Sufi project represented by the Dar ul-’ulum madrasa at Deoband. Established in 1867, the Deoband madrasa set in motion a powerful movement to reform popular tradition, exhorting Muslims to closely follow the Prophetic model and to abandon what it condemned as ‘un-islamic’ customs. This entailed a fierce attack on beliefs, customs and practices that were seen to have no sanction in the shari’ah and the practice of the Prophet, and which were consequently declared as bida’at or wrongful ‘innovations’. It also entailed the definition of what constituted ‘orthodox’ Islam. As the Deobandis saw it, ‘true’ Islam lay not simply and entirely in the classical scripturalist sources, including the Qur’an and the canonical collections of Hadith or Prophetic traditions, but also in the writings of the Hanafi ‘ulama. As strict muqallids, the Deobandis

insisted on rigid taqlid of the ‘ijma of the Hanafi ‘ulama, and even went to the extent of condemning inter-mazhab eclecticism. They were fiercely opposed to western culture, represented by the British colonial regime, which they saw as threatening the integrity of Islam and the Muslims’ commitment to their faith. They roundly condemned Muslim modernists who advocated reforms in the historical shari’ah in the name of ijtihad. Yet they did not oppose modern technology or forms of organization as such, and in fact willingly embraced modern methods of communication, such as the printing press, to spread their doctrines to a wider audience.

While insisting on the need for Muslims to closely abide by the shari’ah and internalize its norms, the ‘ulama of Deoband also sought to cultivate a rich inner life. Leading Deobandi ‘ulama also acted as Sufi shaikhs, serving as spiritual preceptors for many of their students, and initiating them into various Sufi orders. To summarize, the Deobandis were particularly concerned to reconcile the tariqat with shari’ah, the inner mystical journey with the exter-nalist path of the law. This entailed new definitions of what constituted ‘orthodox’, and hence acceptable, Sufism in the Indian context. Ilyas wrote almost nothing about his own project of reformed, shari’ah-centred Sufism, stressing that ‘practical work’ (‘amali kam) for the sake of Islam was more important than merely writing about it. Here he followed the path of the early Sufi masters, who insisted that Sufism was, above all, a practical, rather than simply an intellectual, discipline. Nevertheless some of Ilyas’ disciples collected his letters (maktu-bat) and utterances (malfuzat), which they published after his death. These are important traditional genres of Sufi writings and provide valuable insights into Ilyas’ own understanding of his work.

Ilyas’ malfuzat and maktubat reveal a man passionately concerned with the fate of the Muslim community–both its worldly conditions and what he saw as its digression from the Prophetic model. The community’s fortunes, ilyas was convinced, depended critically on strict observance of the shari’ah. As he saw it, the Muslims’ plight owed simply to their having strayed from the path of God’s law and having ‘adopted’ the ways of the ‘disbelievers’. Hence, he regarded the need to reform popular tradition as particularly urgent. In this view, of course, he was not alone. Early twentieth century Indian Muslim reformists of all hues, including the Deobandis as well as Islamists and Muslim modernists, rallied against popular customary practices, exhorting Muslims to ‘return’ to the path of the ‘authentic’ Islamic tradition. Although the ways that they envisaged Islamic ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘authenticity’ varied considerably, and were often mutually opposed, the reformists were united in their opposition to custom, which they roundly castigated as ‘un-lslamic’.

Yet, whatever their concern for ‘orthodoxy’, the entire effort seems to have been deeply influenced by an overriding concern on the part of Muslim reformers to draw rigid boundaries between Muslims and others (mainly ‘Hindus’) as part of a wider project of constructing an ‘imagined community’ of Muslims. This must be seen in the context of Muslim marginalization following the collapse of Mughal political authority, and the growing challenge of Hindu ‘nationalism’ that threatened to absorb the Indian Muslims into the Hindu fold. In ilyas’ particular case, it appears that the growing success of the Arya Samaj, a neo-Hindu revivalist group, in bringing into the Hindu fold large numbers of what were seen as ‘nominal’ Muslims (generally referred to as nau musalman or ‘new Muslims’) goaded him on to realize the importance of inculcating a deep sense of unity among Muslims of all classes based on a common commitment to the shari’ah. Only in this way, he believed, could Muslims stave off the Arya challenge and preserve their faith and identity intact.

In other words, the growing stress that late nineteenth and early twentieth century Indian Muslim reformists placed on shari’ah-centred Islam and their attacks on popular custom must be seen as intimately related to the particular political context of colonial north India, one characterized by growing and increasingly fierce rivalry between Hindu and Muslim elites. Here it is important to note the concern of Muslim elites with the shari’ah as a symbolic marker of identity, uniting Muslims while at the same time distinguishing them clearly from Hindus. This concern had much to do with the fact – which the reformists lamented – that the Muslims of India (like the Hindus) did not actually constitute a single community. Sharp divisions of language, locality, ethnicity, sectarian affiliation and even caste divided the Muslims of the country, and in no sense of the term could they be considered a single homogeneous, monolithic group. The attack on local customary practices, and their replacement by commitment to the universal, normative standard of shari’ah-centred scrip-turalist Islam, thus served as a powerful symbolic resource in the process of constructing a pan-Indian Muslim community transcending internal divisions.

At the same time, by attacking customary practices that were condemned as borrowings from ‘infidel’ Hindus, the reformers helped undermine traditions of popular religiosity and religious culture that brought Hindus and Muslims together in a shared cultural universe. Stressing the distinctions between Muslims and their Hindu neighbours, based on a firm commitment to shari’ah-centred Islam, reformists exhorted Muslims to remain deeply conscious of their separate communal identity, for only then could Muslims effectively meet the perceived threat of being absorbed into the Hindu fold by organized Hindu revivalist groups. This had its counterpart on the Hindu side as well, as Hindu reformers strongly condemned the visiting of Sufi shrines by Hindus and the widespread observance of what were seen as ‘Muslim’ practices. In turn, these attacks on popular religious traditions bolstered the process of constructing sharply defined Boundaries between Muslims and Hindus.

Ilyas’ reformed Sufism, as expressed in the form of the TJ, had crucial implications for the constitution of religious authority. By attacking popular custom, the TJ directly challenged the authority of the custodians of the Sufi shrines (sajjada nashin), who were seen as having a vested interest in preserving popular custom for their own claims to authority rested on these. Since a true Muslim was sought to be defined as one who carefully followed the shari’ah in his own life, the claims of the sajjada nashin to authority on the basis of their special links with the buried saints, generally as relatives or descendants, were effectively challenged.

In other words, attempts were made to transfer the locus of authority in the TJ from the deceased Sufi or the sajjada nashin to the charismatic community, the roving jama’at or preaching party of Tablighi missionaries. The Sufi discipline was to be cultivated within the jama’at, rather than in a Sufi hospice (khanqah) associated with a particular Sufi order (silsilah). God was believed to grant His blessings and even sometimes to arrange for suitable karamat, in the context of working in the jama’at. In a sense, then, the TJ represents a significant democratization of religious authority, at least in comparison to the closely controlled and steeply hierarchical cults of the Sufis centred on the shrines.

Ilyas’ reformist project was first launched in a culturally distinct region south of Delhi called Mewat, comprising large parts of the Alwar and Bharatpur districts of the present-day Indian state of Rajasthan and the Gurgaon and Faridabad districts of Haryana state. Mewat is the land of the Meos, a Muslim community who are for the most part peasants, and who today number some one million. The Meos were regarded, and in some sense continue to be seen, as nau-Muslims, although their first contact with Islam goes back several centuries. The Meos claim to be of ‘high’ caste Hindu Rajput origin, but although some of them may well be of Rajput stock, the vast majority of Meos appear to be descendants of ‘low’ caste and tribal converts, who now claim a ‘high’ caste origin for themselves.

The Meos are now all Musalmans in name, but their village deities are the same as those of the Hindus, and they keep several Hindu fasts… Meos, in their customs, are half Hindu. The Meo places of worship are similar to those of their Hindu neighbours… As regards their own religion [Islam] the Meos are very ignorant. Few know the kalima, and fewer still the regular prayers, the seasons of which they entirely neglect.

Reading of the Qur’an was less popular than reading the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Hindu shrines far outnumbered mosques in Mewat. Few Meos prayed in the Muslim manner, but most of them performed the puja – worship at the shrines of the Hindu gods and goddesses.

As an almost entirely peasant community, the Meos had few religious specialists of their own. Instead, they sought the help of Hindu pandits as well as Muslim faqirs, custodians of the Sufi shrines, for various ritual purposes. Meo religion was, above all, practical—rooted in specific life-cycle events and geared to the propitiation of deities. These included Allah, and a host of spirits and hidden saints for favours or to ward off misfortune. As for the way the Meos identified themselves, the notion of ‘Muslim’ as clearly excluding and being set apart from or against ‘Hindu’ was quite unknown.

From the late nineteenth century onward, and gaining particular momentum from the 1920s, a complex set of developments set in motion a process of radical redefinition of Meo self-perceptions, including religious identity. These developments included the introduction and spread of reified notions of religion and community identity popularized by colonial administrators, particularly census officers, as well as Muslim and Hindu elites; growing competition between Hindu and Muslim elites, leading to Hindu-Muslim conflict in large parts of northern India; a series of Meo peasant revolts in the context of the Great Depression of the 1930s that the Hindu rulers of the Bharatpur and Alwar states saw as ‘Islamic’ movements and accordingly sought to brutally crush; the role of external Muslim organizations and leaders in assisting the Meos in their revolt and articulating their grievances to a wider audience; and, finally, the role of Ilyas and his movement in the area from the mid-1920s, seeking to save the Meos from the threat of being absorbed into the Hindu fold at the hands of the Hindu revivalist Arya Samaj.

All of these developments appear to have fostered an increasing stress on the Islamic aspect of Meo identity. The TJ had a crucial role to play in this process. Its call for the Meos to identify with and observe the rules of the shari’ah struck a receptive chord among many Meos, who now sought to distinguish themselves clearly from their Hindu neighbours. Yet, the TJ really took off in a major way among the Meos only in the aftermath of the Partition of India in 1947, after the bloody rioting in Mewat in which tens of thousands of Meos were killed. Faced with the fierce hostility of their Hindu neighbours most Meos found in the TJ a source of strength, and its call to eschew ‘Hindu’ customs and beliefs were now certainly more acceptable than before.

:: Book review: Europe’s uneasy Muslims —by Khaled Ahmed

The Columbia World Dictionary of Islamism;
Editor Antoine Sfeir;
Translator from French;
Columbia University Press2007;
Pp430; Available in bookstores in Pakistan

This dictionary is a French angle on the whole idea of Islamism, which is trying to not only to observe the personal rituals of Islam but to seek to impose it on others. One of the contributors is Olivier Roy, which guarantees that there will be new insights that the Americans have either ignored or don’t believe are true. The book has personal entries that you would like to know about. It has also country-wise entries, which is helpful if you know the person you want to get information on is located in a country. Because the dictionary is recent it gives you information of the new actors appearing on the horizon of jihad.


France offers the most interesting picture as it contains the largest number of Muslims, around 6 million, according to the entry, and challenges the Muslim French citizens on their cultural expression because it clashes with the state law of keeping religion out of the public space. Out of the 6 million, 2 million are in the Paris region, thus making Paris the arena of the conflict between the increasingly religious Muslims and an increasingly scared secular state. Funnily, 40 percent say they are practising Muslims but 70 percent fast during the month Ramadan. There are hard-Islam organisations in France and Belgium that control them and make individual practice irrelevant.

Muslim Brotherhood or the Ikhwan dominate France but there is Tablighi Jama’at too which has its origin in South Asia and is strongly moored in Pakistan because of its Deobandi hinterland in the Pakhtun areas and the madrassa system funded by Saudi Arabia. The immigrant stream began after a 1974 law allowed Muslim spouses to be brought in. This gave rise to the second generation Muslims who adapted themselves to French culture and took over the small retail business in the cities, with strong links with religious institutions back home. Then in the 1980s came the third generation of French Muslims who saw their ‘home countries’ exploding with an Islamic upheaval.

The alienation of the French Muslims from their mother countries gave rise to an Islam that the third generation put together away from home. The religion they acquired in France was hard and forced them to disconnect first from their secularised parents and then from the French state. The mosque sprang up and through the mosque clerics of Brotherhood and Tablighi Jama’at controlled the Muslim population. It is here that the new generation heard of such Arab leaders as Abu Hamza al Masri of London’s Finsbury Park Mosque and made an icon out of him. So potent is the Salafi Islam coming from the Arab lands that it has overwhelmed the Deobandi brand of Tablighi Islam.

In 1989 France clashed with this new generation when it prevented Muslim girls from wearing scarves to schools and other public institutions. By 2005 there were 1500 mosques in France and all interconnected through salafi and other clerics. France has a 1905 law — brought against the Catholic Church — forbidding the state to financially support any religion, especially as it mobilises towards becoming a factor in community-based politics. In 2004, the girls wearing scarves were proceeded against and all religious symbols were removed from the public space. For some time the scarves were off and Muslims seemed to back down, but soon enough the violence began as radicalism among Muslims became sharpened.

Britain has 1.5 million Muslims, the largest chunk of them being from Pakistan and therefore whenever the Muslims clash with the state, mostly under salafi influence, it is Pakistan that becomes highlighted as home of extremist Islam. Pakistani majority came as Barelvis from Azad Kashmir in the 1950s where Deobandism had not yet trespassed and annihilated Sufism as it was to do during the state-sponsored jihad in the Indian-administered Kashmir. In Britain too Barelvi dominance gave way to Deobandism before merging with hard salafism with money to hand out for the 1,600 mosques all over the UK.

Tablighi Jama’at is the big symbol of hard Islam that Muslim Britons have embraced. It is building the biggest mosque in Europe in East London, scaring the Britons as Islam never did before. The mosque will be built over three storeys and when complete will be Britain’s largest religious building, capable of holding 40,000 worshippers, eclipsing Europe’s largest mosque which is in Rotterdam and holds 1,500 worshippers. This compares to a modest 3,000 for the UK’s largest place of Christian worship, the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool. The trauma of July 7, 2005, when mainly Pakistani Muslim Britons blew up the underground train and a bus in London, was inspired no doubt by Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack but nurtured by the 1989 agitation against Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses.

With the rise of Hizb al Tahrir of Syrian Umar Bakri (deported) and the open instigation to acts of violence by Egyptian Abu Hamza al Masri (jailed), the assimilationism of France began to look benign compared to the multiculturalism of Britain. Pakistani Muslims found themselves unemployed three times beyond the national average and the jails indicated that crime was also highest among them. A survey in 2007 found the Muslims interested in radical ideas, 12 percent admiring Al Qaeda, a majority saying women should wear the veil, and 60 percent blaming arrogance of the West for world problems. There were 1,600 British-born terrorists in Britain in 2007 claiming to have connections with Al Qaeda.


Holland has a million Muslims (mostly Moroccans) who began immigrating in the 1960s, but as the Dutch got scared and stopped the immigration in 1974, the law about spouses and family consolidation brought the total number to what it is now. The problem arose when Holland’s gentle secularism began to show signs of unease about the way the Muslims treated their women; and trouble exploded when a Moroccan killed a Dutch film-maker in 2004 on the subject with the help of a Somali woman, Hirsi Ali. Today Dutch Muslims are radicalised and almost 50,000 or five percent actually espouse extremist ideas under the apolitical umbrella of Tablighi Jama’at.

:: Plane ‘Plot’: Media Targets Tablighi Jamaat

By Yoginder Sikand

The Milli Gazette Online

19 August 2006

In the wake of recent reports about an alleged plot to blow up transatlantic planes in Britain, several newspapers have splashed stories about the possible involvement in this of the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), the largest Islamic movement in the world, with its global headquarters in New Delhi. That, as numerous other sources are now claiming, the alleged plot may have actually been masterminded by government intelligence agencies, backed by their political masters, in Britain, America and Pakistan, is something that is completely missing in these reports. But what is even more appalling is how the alleged plot is being used to target the TJ by writers who have little or no understanding of the movement.

The Dawah Movements and Sufi Tariqat:

Much has been written to date about Islam in Southern Africa (Amara 2001, Tayob 1999, Mandivenga 1991) and more particularly about South Africa (Haron 1997). However, whilst general social histories have been penned about the region and specific states located in this vast region, not much has been written about the Dawah movements nor about the Sufi Tariqas, which have either reinforced its earlier brotherhoods that had been established during the early part of the 20th century – if not earlier, or the new orders which saw this part of the world as a safe haven and potential growth area.

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