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Islamic Ideology ( 17 Jun 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Tablighi Jamaat’s Contested Claims to Islamicity

By Yoginder Sikand


In most existing studies Islamic movements tend to be seen in isolation from other, competing Islamic groups. The intra-Muslim debate over the 'Islamicity' of a given Islamic movement has not been given the attention that it deserves. Competing Islamic movements engage both in internal debate, contesting each other's interpretations of Islam, as well as in external contestation, reformulating relations and boundaries between Muslims and non-Muslims. It seems that by ignoring this very crucial issue of the competing claims to 'Islamicity' among various Islamic groups, scholars of Islam have tended to help perpetuate the myth of a Muslim monolith and of Islam as a fixed, well-defined body of beliefs, principles and practices and not something that is constantly in the process of construction, negotiation, debate, development and redefinition.


In the case of the TJ we are fortunate to have a number of tracts and books on the movement, mainly in Urdu, written mostly by Indian scholars representing various other Islamic groups, in particular the defenders of the cults surrounding the shrines of the Sufis, the so-called Barelwis,18 the Ahl-i-Hadith or the so-called Indian Wahhabis19 and the Jama'at-i-Islami. Even though these groups are fiercely divided among themselves, each considering itself to represent 'true' Islam, all of them reject the TJ's own claims to true 'Islamicity'. Had not the Prophet himself declared that following his demise his ummah would split into 73 quarrelling groups, out of which only one would be destined for heaven, the rest to be marched off to hell (Hughes 1988:567)? Each of these many groups claims that it alone is that one chosen jama'at and that all the rest are in error. While this further compounds the problem of deciding what 'true' Islam really is—and this is a question that can be answered on the basis of faith alone—it is to these intra-Muslim wrangling that we owe much of what little literature exists on the TJ, sharply polemical though much of it may be. These angry outpourings can be seen as responses to the growing threat which other Muslim groups have come to face with the increasing popularity of the TJ in the post-1947 period in South Asia. This corpus of literature by Indian scholars is an invaluable source of Muslim critique of the TJ, bringing to the fore the often overlooked fact that, despite its expansion over much of the globe, not all, or even, most Muslims would look at the TJ with complete favour, even in purely 'Islamic' terms. For the purpose of our analysis we shall select some of these texts to see how the TJ's claims to 'Islamicity' have been challenged by other Islamic groups.




In large parts of South Asia, and elsewhere where significant numbers of Muslims of South Asian origin live, the TJ faces stiff opposition from the 'ulama and followers of the so-called Barelwi tradition centred  on the intercessionary cults of Sufi saints. Given the Tablighi belief, which is shared with other reformists such as the Deobandis, that these cults border on heresy and shirk or associationism, it is not surprising that as the TJ has expanded all over South Asia it has had to face stern opposition from Barelwi quarters. It is not uncommon for Tablighi activists to be physically assaulted if they attempt to preach in Barelwi-dominated villages. Numerous tracts have been written by Barelwi 'ulama vehemently denouncing the TJ. Their sheer number, as well as the passion that informs their scathing critiques, are probably a reflection of the growing success of the TJ among the Muslim masses. Barelwi wrath against the TJ can possibly be seen as a response to the increasing threat to the Sufi elite from the challenge of, in a sense, a more democratic form of Islam as represented by the TJ. Tablighi assertion that it is the responsibility of all Muslims to engage in tabligh and spiritual instruction is sharply at variance with the beliefs of the hereditary custodians of Sufi shrines, who see this as solely their privilege, being descendants of decreased Sufi saints from whom they claim to have inherited special spiritual powers.


Texts by Barelwis denouncing the TJ invariably begin by alleging that the movement is but a thinly disguised front of the Wahhabis, the followers of the Arabian puritan, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-92). The Wahhabis, in turn, are portrayed as the most inveterate foes of Islam for their fierce opposition to, among other things, the cults of the shrines of the Sufis and their alleged disrespect to the Prophet and to the imams of the schools of Sunni jurisprudence. Their repudiation of the taqlid of the imams in the name of reopening the 'gate of ijtihad' is said to be nothing but a conspiracy to set up 'the rule of man' in place of 'the rule of Allah' (Rizvi 1994:12). But for the Barelwis what is probably the most heinous of the alleged Wahhabi crimes against Islam is their strident opposition to the adoration of Muhammad that they brand as shirk (associationism) and bid'a. For the Barelwis this is consummate disbelief.


Arshad-ul Qadri, a well-known Indian Barelwi scholar, cites references in numerous texts wherein Tablighi leaders are quoted as having paid glowing tributes to certain Wahhabi teachings and openly claiming allegiance to crusaders against popular South Asian Islamic tradition. He argues that the TJ is actually   'a  movement   of  anti-Islamic   conspirators'    (Qadri n.d.:91-97). The TJ and the Deoband movement to which its founder was affiliated, are, he alleges, actually agents of the Wahhabis in their war against 'the friends of God'—the Sufi saints—and the Prophet himself.20 While the Wahhabis openly preach against the cults centred around the Prophet and the saints, the TJ and the Deobandis are said to do so covertly (Qadri op. cit.:128—29). Voicing the same view, anotherIndian Barelwi   scholar,   Turab-ul   Haq  Rizvi,   declares   that,   like Wahhabism, both the TJ as well as the Deoband movements were actually launched with just one aim in mind, to 'destroy the love' that Muslims have for Muhammad (ishq-i-mustafa) (Rizvi   n.d.:7).   Another   Barelwi   scholar,  Muhammad   Rizvi, makes the same point with equal force, adding that the TJ, like the Deobandis, merely makes a pretence of being Sunni and of upholding  taqlid,  while  its  actual  motive  is  'simply  ... [to capture]   power   for   the  Wahhabis   by   building  up   a   mass following for them' (Rizvi 1994:60).


The Wahhabis, Arshad-ul Qadri contends, are only the juniorpartners of what he sees as a global anti-Islamic conspiracy. The TJ, he says, was actually propped up by British imperialists in order to create dissensions in the ranks of the Muslims and to blunt their spirit of radical jihad. In this regard he refers to a report quoting a leading 'alim of Deoband, Maulana Hifzur Rahman, as having acknowledged that in the initial stages of the TJ, Ilyas used to be paid a regular sum of money by the British Indian authorities to carry out his work (Qadri op. cit.: 99-102).21 Writing at the peak of the cold war, Qadri says that the British have been replaced by the Americans as masters of the TJ, who are now using it, through the Central Intelligence Agency, in their global war against Communism. It is, he says, probably American dollars, in addition to Saudi Wahhabi riyals, that keeps the massive global TJ machine working (Qadri op. cit.: 111—12). Besides the Americans and the Saudis, fiercely anti-Muslim Hindu groups in India, too, are, he writes, actively promoting the 'other-worldly', 'world-renouncing' TJ so as to turn Muslims away from challenging their hegemony (Qadri op. cit.: 103-05). The TJ's aloofness from worldly affairs, inparticular the struggle for political power, is said to play straightinto the hands of these 'enemies of Islam'. Thus, writes Muhammad Rizvi, TJ leaders insist that, 'the Muslims should not even protest when Muslims are killed in Hindu riots [sic.]' and that 'there should be no resistance to the Israelis' (Rizvi op. cit.:60). Similar views were voiced by Mumbai-based Barelwi groups on the occasion of a large Tablighi ijtima in the city in 1997. Reacting to the news that Bal Thackeray—leader of the extreme right-wing Shiv Sena, notorious for its bloody anti-Muslim pogroms in recent years in which thousands have been killed—had gone out of his way to make elaborate arrangements for the congregation, Muhammad Sayyed Nuri, secretary general of the Raza Academy, issued a statement urging Muslims to boycott the ijtima, alleging that TJ leaders were 'stooges of the government'. Maulana Quddus Kashmiri of the 'Ulama Council, another Barelwi body, accused the TJ of being 'agents of the Shiv Sena'.[1]


On the basis of their own reading of statements made by variousTablighi leaders, both Qadri as well as Turab-ul Haq Rizvi allegethat far from having anything at all to do with Islam, the TJ isactually a completely new religion by itself (Qadri op. cit.: 138;Rizvi n.d.:26), with Ilyas being no less than a prophet in the eyes ofTablighi activists (Qadri op. cit.:47-48). In concluding their essays both writers quote numerous prophetic traditions that refer to the appearance towards the end of the world of a jama'at of the Devil and the Anti-Christ against whom the Prophet had exhorted Muslims to wage violent jihad, great heavenly reward being promised for their slaughter. They see the jama'at portrayed in these traditions as bearing a striking resemblance to none other than the TJ itself (Qadri op. cit.:185-99).23



If the   Barelwis  accuse  the  TJ  of being  a  hidden  front  of Wahhabism, many among the Indian counterparts of the puritan Arabian   Wahhabis,   the Ahl-i-Hadith,   contend   precisely  theopposite. Ahl-i-Hadith critiques of the TJ seem to have come intoprominence only after the death of Ilyas. In an incisive critique ofthe   TJ   published   in   1988,   the   Indian  Ahl-i-Hadith   scholar Habib-ur Rahman Salafi vehemently denies the claims of Tablighileaders as inheritors of the legacy of Shah Waliullah, arguing instead that the spread of traditional Sufism, and not Waliullahi reformism, forms the core agenda of the TJ. Donning the mantle of Shah Waliullah, the TJ is, he alleges, actually promoting the very same degenerate   Sufism,'consisting   ofrenunciation   ofthis  world, personality  worship,   false   miracles   and   customary,  un-Islamic practices, that Shah Waliullah had devoted his life to fighting. The TJ's complete silence on the munkar and its refusal to openly denounce bid'a and shirk, he says, show the hollowness of its claims to reformism. Such great stress is laid in TJ circles on the utterances of the Tablighi elders, he adds, that they tend to displace the Qur'an and the traditions as source of authority, which leads to them becoming nothing less than a new shari'at, taking the place of the shariat-i-muhammadi (Umri 1988:6-9).


In his critical and well-documented study, another noted Indian Ahl-i-Hadith scholar, Abdur Rahman Umri, sets out the Ahl-i-Hadith position on the TJ in an effort to prove not just that the TJ does not accord with the teachings of Shah Waliullah but that, in fact, it is un-Islamic. He alleges that in the name of propagating Islam, the TJ is actually promoting a form of world-negating monasticism, something that the Prophet is himself said to have sternly warned against. This only helps the 'foes of Islam' in their all-out war against the Muslims (ibid.: 13). He dismisses the stories of miracles attributed to Ilyas and Yusuf as completely fabricated (ibid.: 11—12) as also the theory of the intiqal-i-nisbat (the 'reallocation of attributes') through which Ilyas is said to have transferred his authority to his son while on his death-bed (ibid.:54-55). Ilyas' own claim of having learnt the method of tabligh through kashf(illumination) or khwab (dream) is, he writes, a flagrant denial of the Qur'an and the traditions. It is, in fact, a step in the direction of claiming prophethood for himself and a negation of the finality of the prophethood of Muhamad, for, only the prophets can get divine knowledge directly from God. Ilyas' TJ then is quite plainly a new fitna, source of dangerous chaos. It is working to spread not Islam but, as Ilyas had himself confessed, the teaching of the Deobandi'alim, Ashraf Ali Thanawi, another alleged 'imposter' who, like Ilyas, is said to have moved in the direction of making claims to prophethood for himself (ibid.: 15, 21).


The Faza'il-i-'Amal, Maulana Zakariyya's collection of stories that occupies such a central place in the TJ, is, alleges Umri, full of 'fanciful tales' that far surpass the imagination and make a complete mockery of the Qur'an and the Prophetic traditions (ibid.:69—97). Ordinary Muslims are beguiled into believing that it is a book of Prophetic traditions, whereas it is actually only with great difficulty that one can find any authentic traditions in it (ibid.; 103). Despite this, he says, in the TJ the book is given a clear preference over the Qur'an itself. In Tablighi gatherings only the Faza'il-i-'Amal is allowed to be read out. According to Tablighi elders the Qur'an is meant for the understanding of only the 'ulama. Ordinary Muslims who do not possess the necessary skills in the Arabic language must rest content with just the Faza'il-i-'Amal or with merely reciting the Qur'an without understanding its meaning (ibid.: 100), since proper translation of the word of God into other languages is impossible.


All this, writes Umri, conclusively proves that the TJ is by no means the true Islamic movement that it claims to be. It is, in fact, an unambiguous bid'at-i-zalalat, a grossly reprehensible innovation, God's punishment for which is burning in the fires of Hell (ibid.:49).



The Jama'at-i-Islami, the South Asian Islamist political organisation set up in 1941 by Sayyed Abul 'Ala Maududi, one of the most influential Muslim thinkers of modern times, has, over the years, been forced to reconsider and revise its attitude towards the TJ in response to what it sees as a marked dilution in its Islamic character. In Ilyas' own time Maududi saw in the TJ great potential for the spreading of Islamic consciousness at the popular level. He even visited Mewat in 1939 in order to see for himself the TJ in action (Nasr 1996:39). On his return he wrote a lengthy article in his Tarjuman al-Qur'an in fulsome praise of the movement, hailing it as a major milestone in the onward march of Islamic revival.[2] Ilyas is said to have later reciprocated this gesture by declaring that the 'real work' of Islam was what Maududi was engaged in—establishing Islam as a complete way of life in its all-embracing wholeness (iqamat-i-din), modestly adding that his own efforts were just the 'initial work' (ibtida'i kam) (Nadwi 1986:44). In a letter to a disciple, Zaheer-ul Hassan, Ilyas sought to rebut those who thought that his movement was simply concerned with ritual worship, stressing that the TJ was intended to revive Islam in its entirety (quoted in Falahi op. cit.:309).


It was after Ilyas' death that the Jama'at-i-Islami's differences with the TJ started to become increasingly visible, culminating in the publishing of Maulana Zakariyya's bitter attack on the former with the provocative title of Fitna-i-Maududiyat ('The Divisiveness That is Maududism') (1979). As its title suggests, the book sought to argue that what Maududi preached was not Islam at all. Rather, it was a completely new ideology—what it branded as ‘Maududism’.


The Jama'at-i-Islami's growing estrangement with the TJ seems to have, at least in part, been fuelled by what it saw as a gradual, though distinct, transformation of the TJ itself under Ilyas' successor, Maulana Yusuf. There may, however, have been more pressing political factors for the growing estrangement between the two Islamic groups. For one thing, it seems that in independent India, and certainly in Pakistan, the growing popularity of the TJ gradually began being viewed as a threat to the political fortunes of the Jama'at-i-Islami. The TJ's politically quiescent brand of Islamwas increasingly seen as a major hurdle to the Jama'at-i-lslami'scrusade for the setting-up of an Islamic state. Authorities in Pakistan, in fact, seem to have noted this as well, and president Ayub Khan reportedly sought to actively patronise the TJ in an effort to counter the Jama'at-i-Islami's radical political appeal (M. Ahmad 1991:58).


According to one writer associated with the Jama'at-i-Islami, in the years following Indian independence, Yusuf increasingly began to see in the Jama'at-i-Islami a powerful rival to his own leadership over the Muslims, which led him to ban TJ activists from reading literature written by Maududi and other Jama'at-i- Islami leaders, afraid of a widespread desertion in TJ ranks (Nadwi op. cit.:52—54). This growing hostility of the T] leadership towards other Islamic groups—which, it was said, made a mockery of their much-vaunted commitment to their principle of 'respect for all Muslims'—is alleged to have developed alongside another significant transformation in the character of the movement—the re-definition, or, what the Jama'at-i-Islami saw as the complete distortion, of Islam itself.


A standard Jama'at-i-Islami charge against the present-day TJ is that it has taken what Ilyas himself saw as the 'initial work' (ibtida'i kam) to be the 'real work' (asal kam), the 'establishment' of Islam in its entirety (iqamat-i-din). The 'initial work' consists in instructing Muslims in the 'six principles', obligatory rituals, moral behaviour and matters related to personal behaviour or the realm of the personal law, says Qasmi (1992:2-3). Taking this for 'real work' is conflating the medium with the message itself. Instead of seeing the rituals as a means, albeit an indispensable one, to the higher goal of die 'establishment of Islam in its entirety', TJ leaders and activists after Ilyas, it is alleged, began seeing them as ends in themselves, ignoring the Islamic imperative of establishing Islam as a complete system covering not just worship but social relations, the economy and the polity (Nadwi op. cit.:55-56). This is seen as paralleling what some Isla mists term 'American Islam'. For the TJ, as the former head of the Jama'at-i-Islami of Bangladesh, Ghulam Azam, alleged, the Prophet is seen not as the head of the Medinese Islamic state but, 'wrongly', as 'merely a religious leader' (R. Ahmed 1994:670-71). Consequently, it now places matters that are not obligatory, such as the supererogatory prayers, over such important religious duties as the 'condemning of what is evil' (nahi an al-munkar) (Mahdi op. cit.:22). A Muslim woman, in a letter to the editor of the Bangalore-based Dalit Voice, expresses this widespread view thus:


“It [the TJ] is only a devotional movement with major emphasis on rigid ritualistic observances. It prescribes very long and complicated rituals which Islam does not permit. The Tablighi movement strongly discourages the masses from studying Koran because the Tablighi leadership is afraid of its revolutionary message. It brainwashes its followers with the medieval, monastic philosophy and stories of fictitious and stupid saints not found in Islam. It is ever busy creating unthinking idiots, lulling their minds to sleep with sweet stories, providing opium and a route of escapism from challenges.”[3]


While  Ilyas  may have found his own  method of tablighparticularly suited to his missionary efforts among the Meos, thebelief in Tablighi circles after his death that only this method should be used for tabligh and that it alone is the prophetic method is, writes a scholar affiliated to the Jama'at-i-Islami, itself a denial of the Prophet's sunnat because Muhammad is himself said to have employed a number of different methods for tabligh work (M.S. Qasmi op. cit.:13). Likewise, the 'six principles' that Ilyas laid down to guide the work of activists in the initial stages of his movement have now, this scholar alleges, been turned by his followers into the new 'pillars of the faith', replacing the 'five pillars' of Islam (M.S. Qasmi op. cit.:4). Furthermore, argues another Jama'at-i-Islami scholar, by restricting its activities only to those who are Muslims by birth the TJ is ignoring the Islamic duty of extending 'the invitation of the faith' to non-Muslims as well. Islam, he says, 'is not the inheritance of Muslims alone' but is 'meant for the whole world' (Falahi 1996:309).


The Faza'il-i-'Amal, which today plays such a central role in the TJ, has come in for critical scrutiny in the writings of a number of scholars associated with the Jama'at-i-Islami. One of these, Tabish Mahdi (n.d.), devotes an entire book to an examination of its contents, finding in it much that grossly violates 'true' Islamic teachings,28 Mahdi (n.d.: 19) alleges that 'most of its stories are incapable of being believed and are completely fabricated'. He observes that the book contains many traditions that are of doubtful veracity or are plainly concocted.[4]


He cites several instances in this regard, including one which is, he suggests, not just patently false but also profoundly derogatory to Islam and the Prophet as well. This 'fabricated' tradition has it that, according to the Prophet, for each obligatory prayer that a Muslim were to miss, he would have to spend die period of one aqb, or, in earthly terms, 28,800,000 years, in hell even if he were to make up for it later on. Mahdi writes that it is common knowledge mat the Prophet himself missed his obligatory prayers on at least two occasions—during the Battle of Khandaq and on his return from the Battle of Khaybar—but compensated for them later. Does this, then, mean, he asks, that the Prophet shall also be consigned to hell (Mahdi n.d.:53-55)?


A major charge that Mahdi levels against the Faza'il-i-'Amal is that it tries to absolve Muslims of their duty to wage jihad against oppressive unbelievers. This, he says (op. cit.:87), it has sought to do by distorting the very meaning of jihad, because now in TJ circles the primary jihad has come to be understood as more or less synonymous with going out on jama'at.30 Mahdi sees in this complete watering down of the actual concept of jihad a 'Jewish hand' at work. The Jews, he alleges, 'have always, in every age been plotting to destroy [Islam's] spirit of jihad'. Earlier, he contends, they tried to do this, among other means, by 'propping up' Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement, who fiercely opposed the idea of jihad as actual physical war. The Mirza's subsequent claims to prophethood, however, brought him into disrepute with the Muslims, and so, following their failure to use him to destroy jihad, the Jews have now made the Faza'il-i-'Amal the 'next focus of their conspiracy'. The Faza'il-i-'Amal is said to fit the bill exactly as it claims to be a book of Prophetic traditions, and, therefore, of religious authority. According to the Faza'il-i-'Amal, one can earn the reward of engaging in jihad by reciting some simple Arabic verses. Consequently, many TJ supporters come to believe that there is no need for them to actually fight against their oppressors. This, says Mahdi, plays right into the hands of the 'Jewish mission' (op. cit.:56-57), helping 'the unbelievers' and 'the devil' himself in their 'war against Islam' (op. cit.:79). In this regard, another Jama'at-i-Islami scholar writes that it is instructive to note that the Faza'il-i-'Amal contains no section on the 'rewards of jihad' (Qasmi op. cit.:2-3). In a similar vein, ordinary Jama'at-i-Islami activists in India often accuse the TJ of being in tacit alliance with forces inimical to the Muslims, for it allegedly enjoins upon its followers that far from retaliating against instigators of anti-Muslim violence they should not even protest or lodge complaints with the authorities, but must simply place their faith in God and pray for His help (M. Ahmad 1991:520).


Citing numerous references from the Faza'il-i-'Amal, Mahdicontends that it, and the TJ more generally, actually promotes a soulless ritualism, focussing on the letter rather than the spirit, promising all manners of heavenly rewards for the performance of even the simplest of ritual acts. Thus, he writes, the Faza'il-i-'Amalholds out the prospect of great reward for the recitation of the Qur'an, but remains strangely silent on the teachings of the holy book itself and the practical demands that it makes upon the lives of believers (Mahdi n.d.:85). Likewise, another Jama'at-i-Islami scholar writes that the Faza'il-i-'Amal promises an easy road to heaven for every sinner by just mechanically reciting a few Arabic supplications without even having to know what they mean. In this way, he alleges, it is encouraging Muslims to ignore their worldly Islamic responsibilities, thus helping the 'foes of Islam'.[5]


Like Maulana Umri, the Ahl-i-Hadith scholar referred to earlier, several Jama'at-i-Islami activists are critical of the great importance that is placed in the TJ on the narration of stories from the Faza'il-i-'Amal, claiming that the book has assumed greater practical importance for many involved in the TJ than the Qur'an itself, with little concern even for the recitation of the holy scripture in Tablighi ta'lim sessions. Mahdi (n.d.:15), for instance, alleges that in mosques where earlier the Qur'an used to be recited, on coming under Tablighi control this practice has been stopped, and in its place die narration of stories from the Faza'il-i-'Amal has been instituted. The Faza'il-i-'Amal, he claims, is now assuming the status that rightfully belongs to the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet for many of those who are involved in the TJ (Mahdi op. cit.:98). This, writes Shams Pirzada (1992:9-11), a leading Indian Jama'at-i-Islami scholar, is patently un-Islamic, denying 'the light of the Qur'an' to ordinary Muslims, drowning them in 'the worship of the elders'.