By Syed Jamaluddin Waqar
(Translated from Urdu by Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam)
In view of the number of activists and geographic expansion, the movement of Tableeghi Jama’at is seen as the largest proselytizing Islamic movement in the world. Founded in 1920 in Mewat in north India, the Jama’at embarked on its mission in almost every country where of Muslims live in considerable numbers. No doubt, the Jama’at has played a pivotal role in spreading the teachings of Islam and raising religious awareness at the grassroots level. Some years ago, I came into contact with some Tableeghi activists in Mumbai, a city of India. They exhorted me to take time off to travel for tableegh (Islamic preaching works). Later on, I took several Tableegh trips, travelling to remote villages and small towns, where I came across Muslim communities who knew of nothing about Islam. I also met some Muslims who did not even know the fundamental doctrine of Islam: “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”. However, the Tableeghi activists taught them the basic tenets of Islam such as the kalima shahada, the rules of prayers and fasting and so on. I took cognizance of the commendable role that the Tableeghi Jam’at was playing. They were helping the sections of the Muslim community whom no other Muslim organization or movement had reached out to.
Although I appreciate the important work that the Tablighi Jama’at is engaged in, I would say that the movement could play a more constructive role in the affairs of the community if it had incorporated certain corrections in its methods of working. But I know that some sections of the Tableeghi leadership are vehemently opposed to any changes, considering them as antithetical to their vested interests.
The Tablighi movement has a widespread network all over the country. The Tableeghi activists are massively active within India and abroad. In the course of their work, they come across vast numbers of people. One can imagine how deep impact this network could have left if it was aimed at promoting social awareness, the importance of modern education, women empowerment and the message of communal harmony, in addition to the basic Islamic beliefs and practices. On the contrary, the Tableeghi activists do not concern themselves with any such thing. Besides preaching the basic tenets of the Islam, their only work is to tirelessly repeat to their captive audiences fanciful tales and concocted stories which they falsely attribute to the Prophet (pbuh). Fazail-e-Amal, the basic Tableeghi curriculum written by the founding Tablighi ideologue, Maulvi Muhammad Zakariya, is replete with weak and fabricated Hadiths. This is the fact that several Muslim scholars have pointed out.
Fazail-e-Amal is the book which the Tableeghis place at a pedestal above the holy Qur’an in practice, if not in theory. The crux of this book is the exhortation for disdain and hatred for this world. The Tablighis often preach: “The world is like a toilet or a prison”. They take great pride in loudly claiming that they “speak only about what is in the heavens above or in the grave below and nothing at all about the world in between”. In other words, the motto of the Tableeghi movement is to promote the rahbaniyat (monasticism) which is explicitly prohibited in the Qur'an.
The Tableeghis’ hatred for the world causes them to remain oblivious to other people's sufferings. Typically, the Tableeghis explain people's sufferings as God's punishment for their misdeeds, which then conveniently absolves them of any responsibility to do anything to reduce human pain. Thus, they turn a blind eye to the actual source of oppression, playing into the hands of oppressors. For instance, I have heard numerous Tablighis explain the brutal killing of Muslims in Palestine, for instance, as a result of their having strayed from the path of Islam. To tackle the Zionist imperialism, Tablighis offer just one simple solution: If the Palestinian Muslims simply perform their daily prayers, brush their teeth with the Islamic tooth-brush (miswak) and go for regular Tableeghi tours, their sufferings will immediately vanish. No wonder then that while other Islamic movements are so harshly suppressed in Israel, the Israeli authorities give a cold shoulder to the Tablighis, who work to promote apathy and indifference among the Muslims.
Even at a very local level, where efforts to prevent sufferings do not run any risk of life or wealth, I have found Tablighis disinterested and completely alienated. However, there may be exceptions, but they share this attitude in common. To better understand my viewpoint, take the case of the Alami Markaz (the global headquarters) of the Tablighi Jama’at, based in the Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin in New Delhi. Scores of physically disabled people, leprosy patients and drug addicts assemble outside the Markaz every day, pathetically begging for alms. I asked a Tablighi leader who spends most of his time at the Markaz what the Tablighi leaders were doing to help the suffering people living at their very doorstep. He gave me a tough look and said: “What nonsense! Can't you see that we are gifting the people the greatest wealth possible? We are teaching them the basics of Islam, which will bestow them direct entry into heaven after death. There, they will rejoice all bounties and pleasures living in big palaces with plenty of servants and will have thousands of houris as their wives. What more wealth can one give them?”
I rendered patient hearing to his outburst, but then reminded him of some verses of the Quran as well as the Prophetic traditions that stress the need to help the poor in material terms, not simply building pies in the sky and imaginary castles in heaven for them. He rudely interrupted me and said: “You want us to start a school for them, set up a business to help them? Things that the Christian missionaries do? But we believe that all this is of no value at all. We bestow them the wealth of the hereafter, compared to which what the Christians offer is a pathetic pittance.
The Tablighis consider the region of Mewat, the birthplace of their movement, as their most successful experimental ground. The land of the Meo tribe, Mewat, is a culturally distinct area that includes parts of the Gurgaon, Faridabad districts of Haryana, the Alwar and Bharatpur districts in Rajasthan. The Tablighi movement has been actively engaged in the region since the mid-1920s. As a result of the movement's work, the Meos have undergone considerable change. They have given up their local customs and beliefs and established numerous mosques and madrasas in the region. This speaks volumes of the untiring efforts of the generations of Tableeghis.
While the Tablighi Jama’at has brought about radical reforms at the religious level among the Meos, it has made no tangible achievement at the social level. Meo women continue to toil hard like chattel in the fields. They don’t receive their religious right and share in property. Dowry is rampant. The literacy rate among the Meos is a mere 10 per cent and only two among a hundred Meo girls are literate. In fact, the community as a whole is steeped in poverty and illiteracy. But the Tablighis, rather than playing a role in ameliorating the pathetic plight of the community, have only worsened their conditions with their preaching of hatred for worldly affairs. Even now when a number of NGOs have reached out to Mewat to promote literacy and economic development, Tablighis have shown no interest at all. Interestingly, the Mewati Tablighis often speak out that the Meos were righteous and God-fearing when they were poor and illiterate, but now when some of them are better off they have forgotten God. Although it may be the case with the Meos, it also shows how the Tablighis view the religion of Islam. They consider Deen (religion) as something diametrically different from and vehemently opposed to Dunya (the world). To my view, it is obviously an un-Islamic way of thinking about religion as well as secular worldly affairs.
Islam gives paramount importance to the service of the poor, as we all know. Merely preaching the virtues of Islam and the comforts of heavenly abode is not sufficient enough. The Tableeghis, who are particularly obsessed with the pleasure of houris in heaven, should assist the poor in financial terms too. For Islam exhorts Muslims not only to fulfil their duties to God (Huquq Allah) but also their duties towards God's creatures (Huquq al-Ibad). It is appreciable the Tablighis are doing a wonderful job by preaching the former, but they are turning a blind eye to the latter. They do preach the virtues and obligations of helping others as enshrined in Islam, but miserably fail to do anything of the sort in practice. Imagine the impact on its image if the Tablighi Jama’at at its global headquarters in Delhi could set up a model school disseminating secular as well as Islamic education, or a hospital for the poor or an industrial training centre for the unemployed. Hundreds of thousands of Tablighi members who visit the Nizamuddin Markaz every year could witness social and ethical Islamic teachings being actually practiced. They would be encouraged to engage with similar projects when they would go back home. However, as I mentioned earlier, Tablighi leaders at Nizamuddin headquarters have no such interest at all. It clearly suggests that they simply don’t concern themselves with the pathetic plight of the community as well as the humanity living just next door to them.
My own study of the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet (pbuh) apprised me of the reality that the path to salvation in Islam does not simply lie in endless prayers and supplications (as the Tablighis do). Rather, while fulfilling the ritual duties, we need to work for the material as well as spiritual betterment of the poor, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. However, it does not imply that we should distribute charity to the poor who don’t strive to remove their poverty, but only reinforce it further. In fact, service to the poor in Islam means to help them stand on their own feet so that they, too, move on to serve people more needy than themselves in times to come. However, this logic seems totally alien to the Tablighi mindset. According to many Tablighi members, the path to salvation or heaven is secure if one regularly goes on Tablighi tours, grows a long beard, regularly counts one's beads and uses the miswak (Islamic tooth-stick) to brush one's teeth as the Prophet is reported to have done. They are in a misconception that merely imitating the external forms of the Prophetic sunnah in trivial matters of personal life will earn them an abode in heaven.
Recently, I came across a book by a Pakistani Tablighi author who loudly claims, without any reliable source, that if one were to regularly take Tablighi Jama'at tours, he would be assured entry into heaven, where, among other delights, he would enjoy 300,000 beautiful houris as wives. Such petty bribes are held out to common Muslim masses to instigate them to join the Tabligh Jama’at. Understandably, this can be the major reason behind the massive growth of the movement worldwide.
The Tablighis believe entry into paradise is assured by constantly performing the most basic external ritual actions. With heaven being secured so cheaply, naturally few of them take any interest whatsoever in working for the poor and the oppressed, which, I think, is the actual way to secure God's mercy, both in this world and in the hereafter. The Qur'an repeatedly exhorts the believers to follow the ideals of the Prophet (pbuh) to attain salvation.
The Tablighis do not disagree with it, but simply reduce the Prophetic Sunnah to the performance of a few external practices. They insist that one can go straight to paradise simply by following them. Therefore, Tablighi nisabs (curriculums) and other text books are replete with the exhortations for imitating the way the Prophet ate, smiled, washed, brushed his teeth, put on and took off his shoes, clipped his moustache and grew his beard, etc. It seems as if the Sunnah of the Prophet consisted only of these daily routines. By reducing the Sunnah to these external practices, they rob it of its basic spirit.
It is too unlikely for the present Tablighi leadership to show any signs of self-criticism or willingness to change their methods of working. Since the Jama’at’s methods of working (what they call tariqa-e-tabligh) and its foundational text, the Fazail-e-Aamaal, have become its definitional features, the Tablighi ideologues would be reluctant to allow any changes in these, for fear of diluting the identity of the Jama’at. It would, in turn, only undermine their claims to authority. Tablighi leaders and ideologues repeatedly insist that their tariqa-e-tabligh (preaching method) is not a human invention but rather divinely inspired through ilham (divine inspiration) to the Jama’at’s founder, Maulana Ilyas Kandhaulwi. Therefore, they claim that any change in it would be tantamount to the opposition to the Will of God. Obviously, this is the best way to keep away from any introspection, self-criticism or calls for reform.