Travellers in Faith

Travellers in Faith: Studies of the Tablighi Jama`at as a Transnational Islamic Movement for Faith Renewal. Edited by Muhammad Khalid Masud (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2000), 278pp. Price HB DGL 185.11. ISBN 90-04-11622-2.

A new collection of essay such as this, on the world’s largest Islamic movement, is long overdue, and does much to remedy the relative academic neglect Tablighi Jama`at has suffered. The movement has often been cited as a counter-example of Islamic moderation in irenic studies of political Islam. Academic enquiry has often speculated quite wildly, in the absence of specific Tablighi comment, on the issues that have occupied Islamist movements, but without showing real interest in the origins and development of Tablighi Jama`at. Credit is due to the painstaking work of the editor, who succeeds in giving an overall sense of coherence to a somewhat disparate collection by contributing three historical reviews, two translations, and an excellent bibliography.

Masud’s introduction greatly enhances our understanding of the local Mewati context and the general political background of Tablighi Jama`at’s genesis. He points out that the Wali Ullahi and Deobandi reform movements viewed Mewati Islam as nominal, as did the British, thereby ignoring the long Sufic and educational history of the region, in particular the major influence of the Madariya order. By the 1930s, Mewati agriculture was economically depressed because of British tax increases and a remortgaging of land to Hindu landlords. The Meos rose up in popular protest, but because of their alliance with Congress, the Jam`iyyat `Ulama-i Hind supported the maladministration of the local Hindu ruler, the Raja of Ahrar.

At the same time, several apolitical Muslim groups were set up to counteract the Shuddhi movement of the Arya Samaj, including Ashraf Ali Thanawi’s Majlis Siyanatul Muslimin, but it was only the Tablighi Jama`at of Muhammad Ilyas (a Deoband alumnus) that truly succeeded, after a number of years of experimentation, because of its populist use of non-`ulama’. Masud draws our attention to immediate organizational influences on Ilyas: a Mewati tablighi movement that used the technique of gasht (preaching rounds) and his adoption of local village councils (panchayat) to organize the work. The prohibition of da`wa to non-Muslims under Ilyas (d. 1944) was perhaps a restriction designed to avoid confrontation with Hindu revivalism. In the context of the growing politicization of all `ulama’ in the first half of the twentieth century, Tablighi Jama`at appeared to recall the nineteenth-century emphasis of the Deoband movement on avoiding politics and concentrating on religious reform and revival. Masud correctly stresses the previously underrated but pivotal role of Deoband’s sister institution the Mazahirul `Ulum Saharanpur in shaping the apolitical ethos of Tablighi Jama`at.

Gaborieau’s review of Tablighi Jama`at under Muhammad Yusuf (d. 1965) charts the globalization of the movement under its second amir. He shows that Tablighi Jama`at, with the help of the `ulama’, particularly the Nadwa, spread first to the Hijaz, and then to the Arab world and the rest of the Muslim world. Gaborieau presents the development of three nodal centres – Delhi, London, and the Haramayn – in terms of strategic planning, but I am inclined to think that this was more opportunistic than anything else: contact with Britain and the Hijaz was relatively simple and made use of old and new transnational networks. Although Yusuf allowed preaching to non-Muslims, it was never emphasized, and the self-reform of Muslims has remained at the heart of Tablighi Jama`at’s mission.

Masud also gives us a brief outline of In`amul Hasan’s (d. 1995) leadership of Tablighi Jama`at, but, as Gaborieau remarks, the period between 1965 and 1995 is in need of further research as little is known about the movement’s continued globalization and retrenchment. These documentary difficulties arise because of Tablighi Jama`at’s reluctance to adopt formal organization and its eschewing mass media in favour of personal preaching of word of mouth. As such, Tablighi Jama`at is best approached when literary-historical research is complemented by fieldwork and interviews, a strategy best demonstrated in this volume by Metcalf’s essay.

Three studies by Metcalf, Masud and Talib deepen our appreciation of Tablighi Jama`at’s ideology and modus operandi, particularly the limitations under which it operates. Masud’s review of Tablighi Jama`at’s critics – albeit solely within the context of South Asian sectarianism – reveals that the movement is classed as a Deobandi offshoot, a fact that curtails its appeal among Barelwi Muslims born in South Asia and in the diaspora (Faust on the UK and Moosa on South Africa). It is seen by Barelwis not as a general revivalist but as a militant reform movement and as a direct descendant of the nineteenth-century Tariqat al-Muhammadiyya.

More significantly for Tablighis there has been a muted but increasingly vocal criticism from Deobandi `ulama’ over the years, who – partly in response to Ilyas’s implied criticism of the limits of madrasa-centred reform – stressed the point that the ignorant common man had illegitimately usurped the role of corrective preaching that the scholars took to be their sole responsibility. Tablighi Jama`at has suffered worldwide from the perception that only a few `ulama’ have joined its ranks and by the growing assumption among lay members that its mission supersedes all other religious-reform efforts, despite Ilyas’s understanding that Tablighi Jama`at was complementary to other endeavours.

From the late 1960s onwards it appears that Jama`at Islami were increasingly critical of Tablighi Jama`at’s apparent political neutrality (in particular its lack of interest in the common Pan-Islamic causes), and of its acquiescence to the secular status quo in Pakistan. Certainly, further analysis of the reception of Tablighi Jama`at in the rest of Muslim Asia and the Arab world is needed. There is evidence that ties Tablighi Jama`at to Islamic revival in North Africa in the 1950s. Today, the Arab Islamic movements appear to regard Tablighi Jama`at as limited in function to recruiting non-practising Muslims for the more ‘advanced’ Islamist and Salafi movements, as Kepel points out. With its limited study programme and emphasis on fada’il over masa’il, Tablighi Jama`at has been prone to co-option by Saudi Salafism in the Arab world and the Arab diaspora in Europe. This is certainly a departure from the pro-taqlid tradition of Deoband. Additionally, Tablighi Jama`at has been periodically banned in a number of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, where it has been categorized as a bid`ati Sufi group.

Metcalf’s and Talib’s papers are, in my view, the most revealing analyses because they both classify Tablighi preaching tours as a form of communitas, a liminal phase in which social norms are inverted: ordinary Muslims stand on the mimbar, breadwinners leave their families behind in an act of tawakkul, and ethnic and class distinctions are dissolved in the Prophetic act of preaching. They both rightly see Tablighi Jama`at as a repudiation of worldly conventions and everyday social hierarchies. The committed Tablighi sets his role as itinerant preacher above that of husband, father, son, and employee. However, this still privileges Tablighi ideology over Tablighi reality, and Talib is right to suggest the need for further anthropological study ‘to analyse those contexts of Tablighi lives which limit and constrain the world projected by them’. Metcalf gives us an insight into the critique of those who feel that familial responsibilities are neglected by Tablighi Jama`at.

Finally there are several country studies on Tablighi Jama`at in Britain, Germany, Belgium, France, Canada, South Africa and Morocco. It is apparent that work needs to be done on Gaborieau’s strategic centres, and on the rest of the Muslim world. Faust shows little awareness of Britain’s role as a spearhead for Tabligh in the Americas and Europe. Too much is made of the legal frameworks Tablighi Jama`at is placed under in different countries, as this has long been regarded as a bureaucratic nicety that has little impact on how the movement runs itself. It has kept to Ilyas’s dictum to retain a loose and informal structure: the antithesis of a Weberian bureaucracy. These studies argue that Tablighi Jama`at’s rigid simplicity may preclude it from appealing to future generations in Western countries. I think this is a premature judgement as Tablighis in the South Asian diaspora at least have combined preaching tours with setting up and running, in alliance with the `ulama’, all the key institutions of Islamization: mosques, madrasas, seminaries, and private Muslim schools. This ensures wide institutional support for Tablighi Jama`at, as Faust rightly points out.

As a populist movement of faith renewal, these country studies point to Tablighi Jama`at’s greatest strength: its uncontroversial insistence on the basics that gives it wide social adaptability. While in France and Belgium it seems to appeal to the first-generation unemployed, in South Africa it has been led by an alliance of wealthy merchants and `ulama’ in a relatively mature diasporic community. Tablighi Jama`at can be placed in many contexts and succeed because of its sphinx-like agnosticism of politics and economics: it can flourish equally in a mercantile or welfarist context.

This doctrinal and methodological simplicity is the key to understanding Tablighi Jama`at and its overall ethos. It is a movement that bureaucratizes Sufic virtue, democratizes religious authority and accepts the realpolitik of secularism. As Tablighis say, ‘The movement itself is the shaykh, and tazkiya (self-rectification) comes from involvement in its programme.’ Its politics are classically Makkan in methodology and Sufic in inspiration: it is only by the creation of a sufficient aggregate of pious individuals that God will intervene to transform adverse political fortunes; in this sense Tablighi Jama`at espouses the utopian politics of the pietist rather than those of the tactical crypto-Islamist. A key text on politics for Tablighi Jama`at has probably been Muhammad Zakariya’s Al-I`tidal fi muratib al-rijal.

This collection significantly advances our understanding of a hugely complex phenomenon and suggests several avenues for future research. At the same time, however, Tablighi Jama`at still awaits the writing of the authoritative monograph it so richly deserves, which I suggest will have to combine historical and anthropological approaches.

Jonathan Birt
Wolfson College

[This review originally appeared in the Journal of Islamic Studies, 12/3, September 2001, 373-376 and has been reproduced here by permission.]