Review: Inside the Tablighi Jamaat by Ziya Us Salam
It is an axiomatic tenet held by most believing Muslims that Muslims are not doing well in the world because they are not Muslim enough. On the other hand, most modern and progressive Muslims (read secular, scientific, educated) believe the community is backward because it is hopelessly hoodwinked by the mullahs and their regressive understanding of Islam. The mullahs, however, are convinced that the community is so steeped in carnal and material pleasure, now symbolised by the mobile phone, that it is indifferent to its true improvement. In order for Muslims to prosper, they aver, it is not enough for them to be more conscious of their Muslimness in matters of the world. They must practise a better Islam. True Islamic piety and glory in this world, it is asserted, go hand in hand.
These attitudes persist in spite of the fact that in the vast Muslim world today there are more mosques per capita, and more Muslims per mosque, than perhaps ever before in the history of Islam. More Muslims pray five times a day than have probably ever done before. This achievement owes much to the rise and influence of the Tablighi Jamaat. Founded in the 1920s by a Deoband-educated cleric Maulana Ilyas, it has been the Tablighi Jamat’s mission to make better Muslims of Muslims. Maulana Ilyas began his movement after he had a vision on a trip to Mecca that he must spread God’s word. He had his vision at a moment when undivided India was in the wake of intense religious wars spawned by the rise of revivalist movements such as the Arya Samaj. The Samaj propagated shuddhi and conversion to Hinduism, both new concepts, aimed at a general population rather than at individuals. The Arya Samaj believed, before the term ghar wapsi was invented, that most Indian Muslims were converts from Hinduism and they needed to return to the fold. But unlike the Arya Samaj, or other Muslim organisations, Maulana Ilyas steered clear of non-believers and concentrated on reforming Muslims alone. He inherited his well-off father’s madarsa at Nizamuddin in Delhi, where the Jamaat’s headquarters the Markaz now stands, and started sending his disciples out to different corners of India in order to acquaint Muslims with their faith and to call them to the mosque for prayer. His mission was simple: enlist men who would volunteer to travel to do dawa, to spread the word in modern missionary style, but he kept his focus on Muslims alone. They would teach uninformed or illiterate believers — the majority were both — the five basic principles of Islam, exhort them to emulate the Prophet’s exemplary life, and be regular in prayer and remembrance of God. If one feared and remembered God adequately, in the light of the practices of the Prophet, then no worldly privation would matter. From this humble beginning the Tabligh network has today grown so vast that it has an imprint in nearly 150 countries, including such faraway places as Japan and Brazil, with adherents and activists running into millions. It was the Tablighi ideology that made the Pakistani cricket team adorn the particular Tablighi look — long kurta, long beard, shaved moustache, skull cap — and attitudes for nearly a decade. It was the Tablighi mindset that made the Pakistani pop singer Junaid Jamshed give up his profession and devote himself to spreading the word. Thus it was that thousands of foreigners had landed at the Markaz in Nizamuddin in March for its annual gathering before the unfortunate events surrounding the lockdown and the infections they spread catapulted them to world notoriety.
Ziya Us Salam, the author of this book, a senior journalist with The Hindu, who, interestingly, started his career as a film critic, has written five other books on various aspects of modern Muslim life in South Asia. He narrates the origin and spread of Tabligh with an insider’s lucidity and has an excellent grasp of the psychology behind its success. Remarkably, he began this book after the Tabligh became mired in controversy in March and has finished it in no time. The haste has not impaired the quality of the book. Strictly speaking, as Ziya shows, the Tablighi Jamaat is not an organisation, unlike, say, the Jamat-e-Islami or the Jamiat-e-Ulema, the other two better known modern Muslim organisations of South Asia. It does not have a membership roll, it seeks no details from its adherents, it doles out no salaries. It is an entirely voluntary organisation and works in small groups that radiate across the world from the centre. It has a simple organisational principle: a few members will knock a few times on a brother’s door and exhort him to come to the mosque. When I lived in Delhi’s Batla house during my student days I had encountered many such visits. (At one time, in Aligarh University, such visits would provoke unresponsive students to lay bare posters of Samantha Fox and Brooke Shields in their rooms on the pious missionaries.) In the mosque, the believers are asked to stay back after prayer to discuss matters of faith. Once a brother has become a regular he is invited to visit another mosque for three days at his own expense as part of a group. This is followed by a 40-day visit to a different part of the country. The final rite of passage is a four month trip, within the country or abroad. Most such trips are self-sponsored. The volunteers stay at mosques, travel and live frugally, and maintain a spirit of egalitarianism, regardless of background. Women are kept out; their role is to be a good homemaker. Its membership includes Muslims from all walks of life, including university teachers, engineers and professionals. Many make such trips several times a year and for several years.
One of the reasons for the outstanding success of Tabligh is that it has kept its teachings very simple. It emphasises the correct way of performing ablutions, the correct way of dressing, the correct way of offering namaz, and the correct teachings of the Prophet. It has its own sets of books the Fazail-e Amal, a compendium of stories and anecdotes extolling the life of the Prophet and the early Muslims, and sets of prayers for different occasions such as illness, accident, job, marriage, business ad infinitum. The Tabligh doesn’t encourage its practitioners to read or reflect on the Quran, in fact it doesn’t much emphasise the Quran and instead gives primacy to its own book and to the emulation of the Prophet’s ways. As the scientist and science populariser Dr Aslam Parvez says, “the Quran teaches to question, to explore, to reflect, by over emphasising the Prophet and the Hadith they downgrade the Quran.”
Ziya us Salam and the other myriad modern Muslims he quotes in the book are deeply unhappy with the Tabligh and its ethos. The Tabligh is almost banned in Saudi Arabia. They are unhappy that the Jamaat has reduced Islam to a set of rituals. It has no interest in philosophy, in politics, in the deeper truths that the Quran offers. It has reduced the practice of Islam, an all-encompassing faith, to a set of rituals in a mosque, whereas for a good Muslim everything in life is an act of worship and remembrance of God. There is no separation of the realm of scripture and the realm of the world as such. The Jamaat also encourages belief in things that ‘true’ Islam abjures, such as the power and charisma of the graves of holy men. It wastes too much energy in disputations about the correctness of rituals. Entire theses have been written on the importance of wearing the right dress, washing up in the correct way, the correct area to gaze at while praying, and the correct way to raise your index finger. Its critics claim that it denies the true spirit of Islam by not allowing women inside mosques and by not encouraging their wider participation in civic and public life as shown in the early history of Islam. It has nothing to say on social and political questions affecting Muslims like the triple talaq or the Babri Masjid issue in India, and generally presents a conservative and unappealing picture of Islam to believers and non-believers alike.
VS Naipaul acutely noted in his travels through Islamic countries, many different kinds of anxieties beset the faith of modern practising Muslims. Unlike many other religions, worship in Islam is formal and rule bound. To pray is to pray correctly, otherwise one risks the non-acceptance of one’s prayers, irrespective of the spirit of the offering. While one offers namaz to Allah alone, there are enough human authorities who can intervene and say aapki namaz nahi hui ie the namaz was not performed properly, and hence will not be accepted. And since it is obligatory to pray five times a day, forfeiting any one of those could risk forfeiting one’s place in paradise. And it is paradise that one is after, since that it is all that matters, so one tries to earn enough merit, sawab, by praying correctly and praying enough and uttering the right prayers and incantations. This approach underplays the importance of good deeds. But in spite of its simplification, it is not easy to be a good Muslim, because there are so many things you could do wrong. Despite praying five times a day you could lack in charity, lack in piety, lack in humility, lack in compassion, lack in submission, lack in trust, lack in faith, lack in devotion, and lack in sincerity. The Quran’s lofty and majestic tone, its exhortation to reflect on God’s beauty, his wondrous creation, his immanence and universality is of no good here, because one is after being correct and that is why the life of the Prophet, his ways, his tradition, his utterances, the Hadith, in short, are of paramount importance. In practice, the Hadith is often much more important than the Quran. The fact is that few practising Muslims actually read the Quran or grasp its meaning. They are content with reciting it in Arabic, as they are content with praying in Arabic, despite not understanding anything, because what they are doing is the correct thing since, they maintain, the Prophet did it like this.
And so this approach centralises the life of the Prophet and therefore the primacy of many different kinds of compendia of Hadith and their various interpreters and the liturgy who then laid down dos and don’ts, which then necessitate intermediaries in the form of the Ulema, the clerics to instruct the lay believers on how to go about our religion. The Tabligh bypasses the Ulema to a significant extent by allowing everyone to find their own simplified version of Islam. But it does more than that. It lays down a path of prayer, piety and righteousness, since it is not this but the next world that is important. That is why it has succeeded in presenting itself as a kind of life coach to many wayward men around the world. Undoubtedly, the Tabligh, and now the internet, has helped democratise the practice of Islam as the nature of authority changes.
In many fundamental ways, the Islam that we now practise around the globe is the Tablighi understanding of Islam. But we must remember that Islam had begun to be purified and cleansed even before the Tabligh was born. The colourful Indic Islam with its pageants, its remembrances of local deities, its adherence to a local calendar had already been purified, and hence impoverished, by the more scripture-oriented, and very modern seminary of Deoband. Moreover, in its insistence on emulating the ways of the Prophet, the Tabligh is not alone. Many modern Islamic movements have emphasised a return to the basics, to the fundamentals of Islam as seen in the golden age of the Prophet and his immediate successors. The purity of the early founders is a constant source of inspiration and Islam’s early success and its quick spread is often seen as a validation of that purity and chastity. Many Muslims seem bewildered when faced with the liberalism of the Quran and the rigidity of the rules espoused by the orthodox scholars. But all seem convinced that there is a true Islam, an essence, that is somehow independent of its practitioners. They are quite emphatic that Islam is not what Muslims do, but many Muslims do what they think is Islam. What lies between the Quran and the believers is not just an alien language, or history, but also mediators, who are not easy to wish away, and that is where disagreements begin.
On one thing there is complete agreement between all the different kinds of Muslims in the world and all the others who condemn them: Muslims are desperately in need of reform. Moderniser, secularist, liberal, orthodox, radical, all shades of Muslims are unhappy with Muslims. This has been the state of affairs all over the world for the last 200 years at least. ‘The Muslims have a problem’ and ‘the Muslims are the problem’, this twin credo is shared by Islamophiles (Indian secularists in short), and Islamophobes alike. This internalisation of Islam’s shortcomings is not much different from many Hindu reformers’ deep dissatisfaction with myriad aspects of their religion. However, if religion could be wholly rationalised then why would one need faith? In our deep urge to reform everyone, in order to make them a model liberal subject as seen in the Camelot of western democracy, we often forget that religion exists not to make sense to rationalists but to provide meaning to its adherents. The popularity of Tablighi Jamaat seems to suggest that it has been doing a good job of that.
Mahmood Farooqui is a Delhi based writer who is best known for reviving Dastangoi. His last book was A Requiem for Pakistan: The World of Intizar Husain.
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