The 13th century Sufi Nizamuddin Auliya was and is revered by men, women and children of all religious persuasions who throng his tomb. Such divinity was associated with him that even noblemen and women, including a Mughal Princess, sought to be buried close to him to benefit from the holiness permeating the area. To be located in such a neighbourhood is ironic for the Tablighi Jamaat because the Jamaatis do not believe in Sufism and refuse to accept the divinity accorded to the sufi saints. Moreover, the entire neighbourhood of Nizamuddin West is redolent with all things that are anathema to the Tablighis but were the staple of the Sufis: devotional music, flowers, road side eateries and a general air of celebration of life. But ironies, such as these, are lost in the busy lanes (that criss-cross the headquarters) housing small shops selling a range of goods from raw meat, fruits and flowers to colourful caps and audio cassettes featuring songs and qawwalis associated with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, mainly composed by his most-devoted disciple Amir Khusro. All kinds of people swarm the lanes — locals, tourists and the visitors to the dargah. Yet, members of the Tabligh stand out because of their thick moustache-less beards, skull caps and white pyjamas, which ends just short of the ankles. For Tablighis all over the world, this is a uniform, a kind of an identification badge that sets them apart from the rest of the non-Tablighi world.
The Elusive Amir
Zuhar, the Friday afternoon prayer, is a busy time at Masjid Banglewali. Apart from the locals, Tablighis from all over India come here. The mosque is important, not only because it is the headquarters but also because Maulana Saad, the descendent of the founder of the Tablighi movement, Maulana Muhammed Ilyas Kandhalwi, and the current head resides here. Even though Maulana Saad is no longer called the Amir, the position was abolished after the death of Maulana Inamul Hasan a few years back, for most Tablighis praying at the mosque at least once in a lifetime and listening to the discourses of Maulana Saad holds a special place. Hence, on most Fridays, apart from the locals, many outsiders also come to the mosque for the afternoon prayer. Manzar Alam, a shopkeeper from Amroha, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, comes as regularly to Delhi to pray at the mosque as possible. “We live in bad times,” he says stepping out of the mosque, his face bend slightly with his eyes boring in the ground. Under the Tabligh’s regulation, he cannot look at any adult woman who is neither his first blood relation nor his wife. “There aren’t many holy men around to inspire one to stay on the path of righteousness. I come here because I find Maulana Sahib’s presence very illuminating. His bayaan (sermon) fills me with a sense of lightness,” he says. In his forties, Alam continues in this vein for a few more minutes occasionally playing with his beard, when he suddenly sees light. Turning away, he refuses to talk any further. “I am sorry, but you are making me commit a sin,” he explains hurriedly. “When the veil was made mandatory for women, even their voices were silenced. Hearing the voice of an unrelated woman is as much a sin as looking at her unveiled face.” Saying this he storms back into the mosque.
Looking completely conspicuous despite modest clothes complete with a headscarf, I skulk around the mosque looking for someone who could help facilitate an audience with Maulana Saad, who being the senior most member of the Shura, the governing council, and a descendent of the founder has assumed some kind of a leadership role. Since his sermon is going on, I am advised to go to his living quarters to confabulate with his wife. A teenaged Tablighi with barely-there beard, who probably has still not learnt that it is a sin to escort an unrelated woman into a lane helps me reach his residence behind the mosque but we are stopped by a burly, bearded Tablighi. Perhaps, out of the novelty of meeting a woman reporter or maybe because of the goodness of his heart, the teenager persuades the burly man to go inside and request the lady (Maulana Saad’s wife) to see me. Grumpily, the burly man goes in and comes back with a curt, “She does not want to see any press reporters.” But may I just come inside and wait for the Maulana to return from the mosque so that she can conduct a three-way conversation between us as the Maulana would not hear my voice, I plead. The teenager joins me in pleading with him. But the burly bearded man remains unmoved. Since his faith does not allow him to physically push me away, he remains at the gate, blocking the way with his eyes boring into the ground. “I have committed enough sin by talking to you. Please go away now. The Maulana does not like talking to the press,” he says, moving towards shutting the gate. The teenager shrugs helplessly and leaves. Turning back, I stumble inside a bookshop selling books on Islam just opposite the mosque. The shelves are lined with books in English, Hindi and Urdu on such subjects as Islamic jurisprudence, role and rights of women in Islam, Muslims’ relationship with Jews and Christians (the other people of the book), Islamic banking and so on. Right next to the door is a shelf full of books on Tablighi Jamaat and the teachings for Maulana Ilyas in a number of languages, including French, German and Spanish. I pick up an English language version. The shopkeeper says, “These translations are very popular among foreign Jamaatis who come here.” How often do they come here? “Very often,” he says, “Sometimes, once a month.” Where do they stay? “Inside the mosque. It is very huge and can accommodate a large number.”
It was a good thing that I did not get discouraged by the brief encounter outside Masjid Banglewali. Over the next few days, in places as diverse as Moradabad, Agra, Aligarh and Mumbai, I discovered Jamaatis of various hues and devotion. And not all unwilling to talk to a woman. Though many people discover religion in old age after having lived a full life, the most committed Tablighis are those who start early. According to Salim Khan, a Moradabad-based exporter and an occasional Tablighi, “The Tablighi members watch out for young boys who have finished their board examinations. It is not difficult to find out from the neighbourhood mosque as to which boys have taken the examination that year. Once the holidays begin, they start frequenting those houses, urging the fathers to send their young sons to the mosque. Since it is such an innocuous request and since most Muslims in any case pray at the neighbourhood mosque at least once a week, the youngsters do come too. Gradually, for want of anything else, they listen to the sermons as well.” However, the real initiation happens when the youngsters are persuaded to accompany a travelling party of Tablighis on a proselytising mission.
For Salim Khan, the initiation happened at the age of 15 and almost had an air of adventure. “It was the first time in my life that I was travelling outside Moradabad without my parents. A few of my friends also came along, so it was like an excursion. We visited villages, bathe at the tube-wells and ate sugarcanes in the fields.” The group went to a small place called Joya close to Amroha for a three-day proselytising trip. During such trips, the Jamaatis stay at the local mosques, do all their chores, like washing, cooking and cleaning themselves and whenever there is time from all this and praying they visit the houses of the local Muslims inviting (dawa) them to come to the mosque for some sermons. Probably because of his enthusiasm, Khan did not find the trip strenuous, though the elders in the group usually ensure that the boys are on their toes most of the time.
An ordinary day of the travelling proselytiser starts at 3am for a special prayer session called Tahajjud, after which those who want are allowed to go back to sleep while the rest continue to pray. Finally, everyone is required to get up by five in the morning for Fajr, the first prayer of the day. This is followed by a religious discourse or taalim for about 20 minutes. Then yet another prayer after sunrise called Ishraq after which breakfast is served. For the next one hour, the Tablighis are free to either rest or go out in the neighbourhood with a guide or rahbar to invite people to the mosque. More rest follows for an hour and a half, which doubles up as personal time. At 10, a group meeting is held to discuss the plans for the next 24 hours. Called mashwara or deliberation, here all members of the visiting Jamaat are free to give their suggestions about how best to rope in more and more local people. After the meeting, it is back to taalim for two hours which culminates in lunch just before the Zuhar prayer immediately after noon. Since many local people also come to the mosque for the afternoon prayers, they are requested to stay back for a 20 minute bayaan or sermon session with the Amir of the travelling Jamaat. Some rest followed by more taalim at 3pm both through religious books and a Tablighi Jamaat primer called the ‘Six Numbers’ which was evolved by Maulana Ilyas and fine-tuned by Maulana Zakaria Kandhalwi in his book Fazail-e-Amal. This lists six principals which all Tablighi members must adhere to. Borrowed from the basic principals of Islam in general, in the hands of the Tablighis, they acquire a missionary objective. The six principals are:
1. Kalimah, which is an article of faith for all Muslims exhorting that there is no God but Allah and Prophet Muhammad is His messenger.
2. Salaat refers to five compulsory prayers or namaz in a day: Fajr, Zuhar, Asar, Maghrib and Isha.
3. Ilm and Zikr literally mean knowledge and preaching of Islam. Zikr usually happens in the mosque after the namaz when a senior member of the Tabligh sermonises the assembled congregation.
4. Ikram-i-Muslim enumerates the responsibilities of Muslims towards co-religionists.
5. Ikhlas-i-Niyat refers to reforming oneself so that one leads a pious life in the service of Allah without any personal desires and ambitions.
6. Tafrigh-i-Waqt involves devoting time and efforts not only to leading a life of piety but also in inviting and encouraging others to do the same by travelling not only within the country but outside as well.
This session continues for over an hour after which the Jamaatis just have time to have a quick tea before the Asar prayer which is again followed by a bayaan and neighbourhood visits inviting people to come to the mosque to listen to the sermons during the next prayer Maghrib. More bayaan continues for nearly an hour with the locals who heed the call and come to the mosque. Post dinner, there is Isha namaz after which the group breaks off and goes on individual proselytising rounds in the area focussing on whom they think did not attend the bayaan. By 10 it is lights out as the next day would again begin at three.
Clearly, life in the Jamaat hardly leaves one with time for anything else. But then as Atiq Sheikh, a Mumbai-based member of the Jamaat says, “Jamaat recharges your religious batteries. As long as you are praying you are not sinning. So if you are a committed Tablighi you have less opportunity to sin.” If only the post 9/11 world had this simplistic view of the Tablighi Jamaat.
Though most analysts who have studied the Tablighi movement maintain that it is a benign and a quietist organisation, in the last few year members of the Jamaat have come under suspicion in different countries for different reasons. The trademark Jamaat dress code — ankle-exposing lower garment, moustache-less beard and a skull cap — that sets them apart now often causes suspicion. Last year, a Jamaat from Moradabad travelling to Brazil was detained at Delhi’s international airport. The airlines, Al Italia, which they were taking to the Brasilian capital via Rome, refused to board them. Though it did not specify why, but probably the appearance of the Jamaat members and the refusal of other passengers to board the same aircraft played a role. Their tickets were cancelled and though they were refunded on the spot, the Jamaatis had to wait in Delhi for a couple of days before they could take the South African airlines. This was not an isolated case. Following the bomb blasts on the local trains in Mumbai in July 2006, the Indian investigating agencies working on the Bangladeshi terrorist angle detained a group of bearded Muslims from Mumbai in Assam on the suspicion of being terrorists. After a few days of detention and interrogation they were allowed to leave as no evidence linked them to the blast. They were members of a Tablighi Jamaat from Mumbai who had gone to Assam on a proselytising mission. Similarly, when the Pakistani cricket coach Bob Woolmer was found dead in mysterious circumstances in his hotel room during the last Cricket World Cup, the most popular conspiracy theory being circulated was that a member of the Tablighi Jamaat may have killed him as Woolmer was not happy about the Jamaat’s influence over the Pakistani cricket team. Nearly half of Pakistani cricket team, including captain Inzamam-ul-Haq are members of Tablighi Jamaat and take prayer breaks even during play. It is another matter that subsequently it turned out that Woolmer was not murdered after all. But the controversy once again put the Tabligh under spotlight with speculations about their links with such terrorist groups as al Qaeda, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba.
Outside Asia also, members of the Tablighi Jamaat have frequently come under cloud. In the last few years, individual terrorists indicted in the US such as Richard Reid (shoe bomber), Jose Padilla (dirty bomber) and Lyman Harris who tried to blow the Brooklyn Bridge were all found to have been members of the Tablighi Jamaat at some stage. In Europe and North Africa, a large number of terrorists arrested for the Casablanca blasts of 2003 were also found to have had connections with the local chapters of the Tabligh. Yusef Fikri, the leader of the Moroccan terrorist organisation At-Takfir wal-Hijrah, who was sentenced to death for his role in the Casablanca attack by the Moroccan authorities, was also a member of Tablighi Jamaat. Basing their assessments on such examples, some analysts tend to portray Tabligh as a sinister organisation, a breeding ground for terrorists, whose ultimate objective in the words of French Tablighi expert Marc Gaborieau is nothing short of a ‘planned conquest of the world’ in the spirit of jihad. To support their arguments and to further their conspiracy theories, such analysts give the example of conversions to Islam taking place in the US. According to rough estimates, some 30,000 African-Americans convert to Islam in the US prisons every year. Writing in Middle East Quarterly in 2005, Alex Alexiev said that, “As a result of Tablighi and Wahhabi proselytising, African Americans comprise between 30 and 40 per cent of the American Muslim community, and perhaps 85 per cent of all American Muslim converts. Much of this success is due to a successful proselytising drive in the penitentiary system. Prison officials say that by the mid-1990s, between 10 and 20 per cent of the nation’s 1.5 million inmates identified themselves as Muslims.”
While such assessments are exaggerated and portray Tablighi Jamaat as a sinister body, the fact is that the nature of the organisation itself does nothing to allay these suspicions. Founded by Maulana Muhammed Ilyas Kandhalwi in the 1920s in India, the primary objective of the Tablighi Jamaat was to reform Islam, not in a progressive but a regressive way. In the early 20th century, Muslims in India were extremely backward, economically, socially and politically. The modernising movement of Sir Sayyid Ahmed, the founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, was encouraging Muslims to take to English education so that they could compete for government jobs. He and other liberals created a class of Muslims who were less conservative and more Westernised in their lifestyle. A majority of these Muslims had embraced secular values and were more inclined towards social mobility than ritualistic religion. All this deeply troubled Maulana Ilyas. In one of his early discourses, he said, “The evil and harm that goes with ‘Molvi Fadil’ examinations (MA, PhD etc degrees) offered by the government is not fully realised by us. These examinations are given so that the candidates may get certificates in order to find employment in English schools... There can be no greater injustice to religious education that the fact that those who are equipped with it, ultimately become instruments in serving the interest of the enemies of Islam.”
To save the souls of the fellow Muslims, Maulana Ilyas started the Tabligh movement. According to him, merely following the tenets of Islam, like prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage was not enough. Propagation of Islam was even more important and the glory of the religion would not be possible unless spread through personal examples. His emphasis was on anti-modern and a regressive form of Islam. He emphasised only on religious education shunning modern subjects and preached complete segregation of sexes. The Tabligh focussed only on religious obligations of individual Muslims, ignoring the social responsibilities, thereby not undertaking any social or charitable work. A Deobandi by belief, Maulana Ilyas’ inspiration was Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, which laid down a strict code of conduct for both men and women. But unlike Deobandis, he also envisaged a proselytising role for the Muslims, which by extension had controversial overtones. However, to enable the movement to grow it was important that it did not attract any controversies; hence Tabligh tried to remain completely apolitical in its approach. The only visible mark of the Jamaat was the dress code. Says Saifullah, an Agra-based Jamaati who became a Tablighi member three years ago, “What is wrong in having a visible identity, don’t the Sikhs have it too? Moreover, we are not blindly aping rock stars and film stars. We are only trying to copy the style of our Prophet.”
Right from the beginning, Tabligh tried to remain a secretive organisation, sometimes giving the impression of being almost amorphous. Yet, it had a proper structure, which over the years has been replicated in all the chapters of Tablighs throughout the world. At the top is the Amir or president, who heads the seven-member Shura (governing council) based in the international headquarters at New Delhi. The Tablighs are subsequently broken into regions, countries, districts, cities and localities, with each having its own shura and amir. There is substantial delegation of power and individual shuras generate their own resources and take their own decisions. The headquarters in Delhi is more of an inspirational rather than an executive body. However, according to Khan, from time to time the headquarters in Delhi summons amirs from different regions to review the progress of the movement. Regions which register poor performance get additional focus from the head office. This explains why Jamaats from all over the world visit Delhi periodically.
During the lifetime of Maulana Ilyas, the Tablighi Jamaat strengthened within India and parts of South Asia. However, once his son Maulana Yusuf took over as the second Amir in 1946, the group expanded its reach. With the Partition of India, a chapter was established in Pakistan and through the collective efforts of Jamaats in India and Pakistan the group started reaching out to Southwest and Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, initially working through the India Diaspora but subsequently through conversions as well. While Dewsbury in UK became the centre of activities for Europe, Al-Falah mosque in Queens, New York became the hub for the Americas. While the leadership of the Tabligh remained in the family of Maulana Ilyas, the office of the Amir was abolished after the death of Maulana Inamul Hasan, which is why the present incumbent Maulana Saad is not called the Amir.
At the most basic level, that of a city, the Jamaat is dominated by the elder members, buzurgwan, who form the shura. They appoint the Amir from among themselves on a rotation basis for that city who takes decisions by consensus. This body decides the travel (for proselytising) plans of the Jamaat and organises funds to support the travel. Each travelling member is required to meet his own expenses. The travelling or the chilla can be for three days, 40 days or four months. Only those Jamaatis who have travelled for four months at a stretch within the country, leaving their homes and businesses are eligible to travel abroad. However, these are not rigid rules, and those who can pay for their passage and stay and perhaps sponsor some fellow Tablighi as well can travel abroad for propagation of Islam. Summing up the thinking of a Jamaati, Usman Khan, Aligarh-based trader who has been committed to the Tabligh for the last 15 years and goes on a four months’ chilla every year says, “When you join the Tabligh you leave all your worries to Allah. He takes care of your family and work. When I travel with the Jamaat, I never worry about my wife and children because I entrust them to Allah.”
Areas of Concern
When the war on terror started, a large number of Islamic organisations, even those which have a passing allegiance with the Deobandi or the Wahhabi school of thought came under scrutiny, courtesy al Qaeda and its offshoots like Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Tabligh has evolved from the Deobandi school and propagates a very exclusive and conservative form of Islam which by its very idea suggests intolerance for other religions. Maulana Ilyas’ worldview comprised Muslims and enemies of Islam, and by definition enemy suggests conflict. Moreover, Tabligh preaches non-participation in social and political activities, which make Jamaatis misfits and almost outsiders in the society. An escapist vision of religion and fantasies of an Islamic utopia renders hardcore Jamaatis unemployable and hence easy fodder for anti-social activities.
Though Tabligh does not preach sedition, visions of an Islamic world or Islamic domination of the world frequently figure in their discourses. In response to a question on why Muslims were not granted leadership of the world, Maulana Ilyas had said, “When we do not fulfil the commandments of Allah and refrain from the forbidden in our personal lives over which we have full control… then how is it possible that we be entrusted with the governing of this world. It is only through the decision of Allah that the believers may be granted government on the earth so that they may seek His pleasure and establish His laws in the world.” (Malfoozaat: Discourses of Maulana Ilyas) Establishing a Muslim empire is a recurring theme throughout Tablighi preachings. Notwithstanding the historical inaccuracies, Saifullah says, “Three hundred years ago Muslims ruled the world, but then they started wavering from the path of Allah and lost power. If we strictly adhere to the right path, inshallah we will rule the world again.” Tablighi Jamaats do not propagate Jihad-e-Asghar (the struggle waged with sword), only Jihad-e-Akbar (the greater Jihad that one wages with oneself to lead a more upright and pious life), but their intense indoctrination which often starts at a very young age robs the person of individual thinking and the capacity for logical reasoning. By repeatedly emphasising on the superiority of Islam as opposed to other religions and by strict gender segregation, the Tabligh intensifies the intolerance level of the individuals. Gilles Kepel in his book The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, writes, “The intense indoctrination preached by the sheikhists reduces their flock’s capacity for personal reasoning, which makes these followers easy prey for a clever jihadists’ preacher.” Moreover, since committed Jamaatis travel with the groups for four months at a stretch, they clearly cannot hold regular jobs, which to some extent speak of their and their family’s economic security thereby adding to their overall vulnerability.
However, the biggest cause of concern is its slightly nebulous organisational structure which makes it vulnerable to exploitation by vested interests. According to Salim Khan, Tabligh has no mechanism for background checks of its members. Since it is entirely a voluntary project, members come and go as they wish. Besides, during chillas, anybody can come and attend the bayaan at the mosque. In fact, the annual Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Raiwind in Pakistan has become some kind of a fishing pond for terrorist groups like Jaish and Lashkar. At the 2006 congregation which was attended by nearly a million people, members of Jaish and Lashkar not only mingled with the Jamaatis freely but also addressed quite a few sessions. It is not certain how many members they managed to rope in for terrorist activities, but it is not difficult to imagine how people brought up on a staple of Islamic superiority would react when told about the sufferings of fellow Muslims at the hand of the enemies of Islam. This is particularly worrisome for India as in any case the normal rhetoric in Pakistan is anti-India; when combined with religious zeal and images of Muslim sufferings in Gujarat, Kashmir and other places it can be a lethal cocktail.
Yet, it would be a bit of an over-reaction to immediately jump up and impose restrictions on Tablighi Jamaat or proscribe it. Despite individual cases, there has not been a single instance so far of the involvement of Tabligh as an organisation in any terrorist activity. But given its nebulous structure and the complete absence of accountability it is important that the veil of secrecy be lifted. Even though it is difficult to do a background check on all its travelling members, but some form of internal screening should be put into place. Since Tablighi members travel in groups, their travel arrangements, including passports and Visas are issued as a group, where individual checks are often neglected. This makes Tabligh a good cover for terrorists and anti-social elements. There is also a need for better accountability in the areas of funding as well. At the moment, Jamaats keep no record of any money received or spent. They claim that they function purely on the donations of their members, but there is no mechanism to check if they receive donations from patrons abroad as well and how that money is spent. By abjuring social responsibilities and focussing solely of religious propagation, Tabligh creates intellectually stunted, selfish people who consider themselves outsiders in a society. A large group, running into millions, believing itself to be an outsider is certainly not good news for any society.