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Islamic Ideology ( 13 May 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Tablighi Jama‘at and Politics: A Critical Re-Appraisal

By Yoginder Sikand


The twentieth century has witnessed the emergence of a number of movements for religious revival, revitalisation and reform among Muslims all over the world. Much has been written about this phenomenon by various scholars. Of particular concern in writings on the global Islamic revival has been what is referred to in the literature as ‘Islamist’ movements, movements whose principal goal is the establishment of an Islamic state or states based on theshari‘ah. On the other hand, Islamic movements that prefer to steer clear of direct involvement in the affairs of the state or those which do not explicitly aspire to acquire political power for themselves in the immediate future have been generally ignored by scholars. One of these, probably the largest Islamic movement in the world today, is the Tablighi Jama‘at (TJ).[1]


The TJ was launched in the mid-1920s in colonial north India and today has a presence in virtually every country where Muslims live.[2] Its founder, the charismatic ‘alim, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas (1885-1944), believed that Muslims had strayed far from the teachings of Islam. Hence, he felt the urgent need for Muslims to go back to the basic  principles of their faith, and to strictly observe the commandments of Islam in their own personal lives and in their dealings with others. This alone, he believed, would win for the Muslims the pleasure of God, who would then be moved to grant them ‘success’ (falah) in this world and in the life after death.


Ilyas’ own political views have been the subject of considerable debate. Most writers on and critics of the TJ, as well as TJ authorities themselves, tend to see the TJ as completely apolitical. They have taken the movement’s aloofness from direct involvement in party politics as adequate proof of the movement being allegedly apolitical. Thus, for instance, Faruqi opines that the TJ advocates a ‘complete and deliberate isolation from politics’.[3] Likewise, Sadowsky asserts that while the TJ is not ‘secularist in the Western sense’, it does not, in contrast to Islamist groups, advocate a ‘totalitarian conflation of religion and politics’, believing that Islam does not specify ‘an ideal political system’ or a ‘universal and timeless blueprint for a political utopia’.[4] TJ activists and leaders also insist that they have nothing to do with politics. ‘We concern ourselves only with what is in the heavens above and the grave below’ is a favourite Tablighi refrain. While several scholars have indeed questioned the Tablighis’ claim to being apolitical, with one even accusing it of ‘hiding its true political aims in order to protect itself from repression’[5], no detailed analysis of what Masud calls the TJ’s ‘political vision’[6] has as yet been undertaken.


The TJ’s ‘political vision’ is not explicitly stated by the movement’s leaders and can only be uncovered through an examination of the various political roles that it has played in different spatio-temporal contexts. This, however, is no easy task. For one thing, the TJ has no official literature of its own in which the stand of the movement on political affairs is articulated. In the words of a Tablighi activist, the movement’s policy is ‘no literature, no talk, no expenditure’ (na parcha, na charcha, na kharcha).[7] This is said to be not only a reflection of Ilyas’ own belief that Islamic missionary work was, above all, a practical activity, and not something to be simply written or talked about, but also a strategy to avoid coming to the notice of government authorities which might seek to interfere with the activity of the movement. As another Tablighi activist puts it, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie. Why wake them up when we are still weak?’.[8]


Another major difficulty in analysing the TJ’s attitude towards political affairs is that statements of its leaders can be interpreted in different, indeed contrary, ways to suggest either a total disavowal of politics or advocacy of a ‘true’ Islamic form of politics. Thus, for instance, Anwar ul-Haq quotes Ilyas as having said that, ‘The aims of modern political authority and Islam do not coincide’, and that ‘if Islam were to make any progress it must be divorced from politics’.[9] On the other hand, Sa‘eed Ahmad Khan, a leading Indian Tablighi ideologue, insists that ‘In order to turn the hearts of the people towards Allah you need the politics of the Prophet. Through the politics of the Prophet people develop the qualities of inner reliance and piety’.[10]


In order, then, to examine the TJ’s political vision, one needs to move beyond an examination of TJ verbal discourse to an understanding of the various political roles that its activists have played in different contexts. These roles may often seem contrary to each other, such as, for instance, promoting a de-politicised understanding of Islam in some cases and thus effectively countering the appeals of Islamist groups, while in other cases promoting a climate of heightened Islamic awareness conducive to the emergence and growth of Islamist movements or even participating in militant struggles or assuming key posts in state structures. In effect, these various political roles that the TJ plays in different contexts point to the fact that overall political vision of the movement is determined by the basic requirement for the movement to survive and expand and to sustain a commitment to Islamic activism.


This paper seeks to argue that contrary to what TJ leaders and activists insist, the movement does indeed have a political vision, and is, through the various political roles that it plays, deeply engaged in questions of power, legitimacy and authority which are the very stuff of politics. While it is true that the movement’s immediate focus has been on the reform of the individual rather than the capture of state power, this does not mean that the TJ has nothing at all to do with politics, for this is to take a very narrow and restrictive view of the political. If we shift our attention from the affairs of the state alone and see politics in more comprehensive terms, as the dynamics of power in society as a whole, the notion that anything can be apolitical in a political world strikes one as simply absurd.  As Imtiaz Ahmad notes of the TJ, ‘Even staying aloof from party politics or even such personal acts as growing a beard or donning a veil are themselves powerful political acts, political statements that have their own political implications’.[11]  And, as Mumtaz Ahmad remarks, individual choices to remain aloof from direct involvement in party politics, when added together, have their own share of political consequences because, ‘For religion and for politics, whether the original choice is neutrality or activism the result is equally political’.[12] In this sense, then, the TJ can hardly be said to be apolitical at all. As this paper argues, individuals associated with the TJ have been playing major political roles in various contexts. Further, the movement’s activities have their own share of broader political implications, which have not received the critical attention by writers on the movement which they deserve. In other words, the TJ does indeed have a long-term political vision of its own, which must be seen as distinct from its immediate objective of the reform of individual believers, exhorting them to become ‘true’ Muslims and strictly abide by the commandments of Islam in their personal lives.


Like other movements, the TJ has undergone a process of transition over time, and along with this, its attitude towards questions of power has also witnessed a subtle shift, which is not immediately noticeable to activists in the movement, for it projects itself as faithfully following in the footsteps of its founder. This article also looks at how the movement’s stance on questions of power and politics has gradually changed over time, with the death of Maulana Ilyas in 1944 marking a crucial watershed in this regard. The shifts in the political stance of the movement are then sought to be linked to the changing political contexts in which the movement has had to operate after Ilyas’ death.

Maulana Ilyas and His Approach to Politics


Maulana Muhammad Ilyas was born in 1885 at the town of Kandhla in the Muzaffarnagar district of the then United Provinces. His family was particularly noted for its piety, and for its commitment to the cause of Islamic reform spearheaded by the noted eighteenth century scholar of Delhi , Shah Waliullah (1703-62). Faced with the rapid decline of Muslim political power, Shah Waliullah had insisted that Muslims should strictly abide by the teachings of their faith, for this alone would win for them the grace of God, who would then be moved to grant them political strength in the face of the growing power of their non-Muslim foes. Shah Waliullah spawned a powerful movement of Islamic revival which spread over much of north India . ‘Ulama inspired by the Waliullahi tradition began to crusade against what they saw as the pervasive non-Islamic practices of the Indian Muslims, urging a strict practice of the teachings of the faith. Faced with the growing power of the British, Shah Waliullah’s son Shah ‘Abdul ‘Aziz (1746-1824) declared India to have become a ‘land of war’ (dar ul-harb). One of Shah ‘Abdul ‘Aziz’s leading disciples, Sayyed Ahmad Shahid (1786-1831), along with Shah Isma‘il, grandson of Shah Waliullah, and several thousand followers, went further and declared an armed jihad against the Sikhs in the Punjab, hoping to establish an Islamic state in the North-West Frontier Province. The local Pathan Muslims did not, however, take kindly to the forcible imposition of the shari‘ah by the mujahidin and rose up in revolt. Sayyed Ahmad and Shah Isma‘il lost their lives fighting the Sikhs at Balakot in 1824. Yet, themujahidin movement that they had launched refused to die out, and sporadic uprisings led by followers of these two heroes continued till after the British take-over of the region in the 1870s, after which they were forcibly crushed by the colonial authorities.


Although in the face of colonial power, Muslims soon realised the futility of attempting to reinstate Muslim rule through force of arms, the dream of an Islamic state in India refused to die out, continuing to inspire many. ‘The stories of Hazrat Shah ‘Abdul ‘Aziz and Sayyed Ahmad Shahid’, writes one author, ‘were constantly on the tongues of the men and the women of the family of Maulana Muhammad Ilyas’. Ilyas’ mother and the other women in the family, we are told, would regale the children ‘with stories not about parrots and mynahs but about these brave and great leaders’.[13] The memory of Muslim political power and the struggles to revive it thus played a seminal role in the formation of Ilyas’ own personality from childhood itself, as it did in the case of numerous other Muslim leaders of his time.


Ilyas was given a traditional Islamic education. At the age of twelve he was sent to Gangoh to study under the reformist ‘alim Maulana Rashid Ahmad (1829-1905), where he spent nine long years. After this, in 1908, he proceeded to the Dar ul-‘Ulum at Deoband, the leading Islamic reformist seminary in India . The founders of the Dar ul- ‘Ulum saw themselves as preservers of the Islamic sciences from the onslaught of the forces of modernity, westernisation and materialism. Ilyas’ years at the madrasa exercised a seminal influence on his own thinking. While at the madrasa he is said to have taken an oath of jihad against the British from the leading Deobandi scholar Maulana Mahmud ul-Hasan, who himself was to play a leading role in mobilising the Muslims of India against British rule.[14]From Deoband, Ilyas proceeded to the Mazahir ul- ‘Ulum at Saharanpur , a sister institution of the Dar-ul ‘Ulum. In 1910 he was appointed as a teacher here, a post that he occupied till 1917, when he shifted to Delhi to take charge of a madrasa run by his elder brother, Maulana Muhammad, who died in that year. Ilyas had intended to make teaching his career, but the rapidly changing political conditions of the times forced him to change his plans and to launch what was to go on to become one of the largest Islamic movements of modern times. As we shall see, the very genesis of the movement that Ilyas launched lay in his response to what many Muslims saw as the menacing political challenge of aggressive Hindu organisations at the time. In this sense, in its very origins the TJ can be said to have been a response to a complex political situation that the Indian Muslim community was faced with, in the context of growing Hindu communalism and the emergence of Islamic revivalist movements and movements for the promotion of Muslim communal interests, such as the Muslim League. To argue that Ilyas had no concern whatsoever for political developments that were now posing grave challenges to the community is, therefore, completely misleading.


By the early 1920s Hindu-Muslim conflict, which had been steadily growing with the onset of British rule, witnessed a sudden upsurge, with the emergence of numerous aggressive communal bodies and movements. British policy had all along been to encourage these differences so as to shore up imperial rule. In an effort to win the support of Muslim and Hindu elites, from the closing years of the nineteenth century onwards the British began allowing for a limited, although growing, participation for Indians in the colonial administration. Access to junior government posts was apportioned for various communities defined on the basis of religion. By the second decade of the twentieth century, such opportunities for Muslim and Hindu elites were considerably increased, as a result of mounting pressures and demands on the colonial state. Increasing the numbers of their co-religionists now assumed a particular urgency for Hindu and Muslim leaders, for numbers now crucially mattered in the struggle for power. In 1922, the Hindu revivalist Arya Samaj launched a well-organised campaign to bring into the Muslim fold a large number of Muslim groups that had still retained many customs and practices associated with their pre-conversion Hindu past. In a few months they claimed to have made several hundred thousand such converts. Muslim leaders reacted with panic at the news, and several efforts were launched for tabligh, or Islamic mission, aiming principally at bringing back the apostates into the Muslim fold and to prevent further conversions to Hinduism by spreading Islamic awareness among nau-Muslims (‘new Muslims’), Muslim communities who had still retained many of their earlier Hindu customs. The TJ was only one of several such Islamic missionary groups that were launched at this time in response to the Arya challenge, but it was the only one to outlive its founder and grow into a global movement.[15]


Ilyas believed that the loss of the political power of the Muslims and their increasing marginalisation at the hands of non-Muslim forces, in India as well as elsewhere, owed entirely to Muslims having abandoned the path of the faith. Hence, he insisted, if Muslims were to strictly practice Islam in their personal lives they would earn God’s grace, and God would then enable bless them with ‘success’ (falah) both in this world and in the life after death. God would be moved to grant Muslims political power as his khulafa or deputies if only they would go back to the path of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. Muslims were promised that if they faithfully followed the example of the Prophet in their personal lives they would ‘dominate over non-believers’ and would be ‘destined to be the masters of each and every thing on this earth’.[16]  ‘Political power’, Ilyas declared, ‘can never be’ the objective of a true Muslim. However, ‘Walking in the path of the Prophet’, he said, ‘if we attain political power then we should not shirk the responsibility’.[17] Hence, political power, Ilyas insisted, was not to be shunned, but neither was it to be directly struggled for. Rather, it would be granted as a blessing by God to the Muslims once they returned to the path of Islam, after which the Islamic state and social order would be established.[18] The immediate task before the Muslims, therefore, was to strictly practice Islam in their personal lives and to abide by its basic principles, which Ilyas presented in the form of what were later to be called as the chhe baten or the ‘six principles’: kalima shahada (the Islamic creed of confession, ‘There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah’), namaz (ritual worship) ‘ilm-o zikr (knowledge of the basics of the faith and constant remembrance of God), ikram-i muslim (respect for other Muslims),tashih-i niyyat (purification of the intention) and tafrigh-i waqt (sacrificing time for missionary work).[19]


Ilyas saw the chhe baten as a means to gradually develop an Islamic awareness among the Muslim masses, particularly the nau-Muslims. By abiding by these strictures, ordinary Muslims would gain a sufficient understanding of Islam and commitment to the demands of the faith. This would then inspire them to abide by the teachings and rules of Islam in their collective affairs. Once sufficient numbers of Muslims began to pattern their personal as well as collective affairs in accordance with the laws of Islam, God would bless the Muslims with political power, and eventually an Islamic state based on the shari‘ah would come into being. In this regard, it is interesting to note, Ilyas did not differ with Islamist activists as to the final goal. Rather, where he departed from them was on the appropriate means of attaining the goal of an Islamic state and society in the specific Indian context of his times. In contrast to the Islamists, who called for the capture of political power and control over the state in order to establish Islamic rule, Ilyas advocated a bottom-up approach, working in a gradual manner, encouraging individual Muslims to strictly abide by the teachings of Islam in the belief that ultimately an Islamic society, crowned with an Islamic state, would come into being.


That the ultimate acquisition of political power in the future was of central importance to Ilyas’s own vision of Islam is clearly evident in the reports that we have of his association with other Islamic leaders of his times. Mumtaz Ahmad writes that while Ilyas saw his movement as geared particularly at ordinary Muslims, inspiring them with a dedication to Islam, he was not opposed to other contemporary movements which were struggling for Muslim political power. In fact, he was of the view that the TJ and such Muslim movements were complimentary to each other, rather than rivals, as both had an important role to play, albeit operating in different spheres and using different methods. ‘There should be no competition or rivalry between them’, Ilyas insisted.[20] According to Manzur Nu‘mani, (d.1997) a close disciple of Ilyas, once Ilyas, in a conversation with a group of Indian Muslim politicians, confessed that he was under great obligation to them on two counts: firstly, because they were ‘engaged in trying to improve the worldly conditions of Muslims’; and secondly, because by their involvement in politics they had ‘diverted the attention of the British [colonial] authorities towards them’, thereby leaving him free to carry on with his own work without interference from the state.[21] This suggests that Ilyas’ understanding of individual reform and his distance from matters related to the state can be read as reflecting an underlying, unwritten division of labour—the TJ focussing on the individual, while other Muslim groups working in the political sphere. This point is acknowledged by an Indian Muslim ‘alim whose sympathies lie with both the TJ and the Islamist Jama‘at-i Islami, who claims that the TJ’s aloofness from overt political involvement is simply a temporary ‘pious pragmatic policy’ (mukhlisana hikmat-i ‘amali) to enable it to carry on the work of promoting Islamic consciousness even in situations where governments may place Islamist groups under strict control. The TJ, he says, has no differences with Islamist groups on the ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic political order. Its immediate focus is, however, on individual reform simply because one organisation cannot perform all the many tasks involved in the struggle to set up an Islamic system.[22]


In other words, according to this reading of the history of the TJ, the movement was intended to complement the efforts of Islamist groups working in the political sphere to establish the Islamic system. This belief is strengthened by the fact that Ilyas himself shared a common vision and commitment with numerous Islamic activists who were deeply involved in the struggle for political power. Ilyas is said to have remarked on numerous occasions that his movement aimed at implementing the teachings of the renowned Deobandi ‘alim and advocate of a separate Islamic state of Pakistan , Ashraf ‘Ali Thanwi, albeit using its own unique methods. Ilyas’ close association with leading pro-Congress Deobandi scholars, such as Hussain Ahmad Madni, who were at the forefront of the struggle against the British, and whom he accepted as his mentors, suggests that he shared with them the aim of acquiring political power for the Muslims, although, as in the case with Thanwi, he felt that his own methods of working were more suitable to working among the nau-Muslims. This is also the case with Ilyas’ association with Maulana Sayyed Abul ‘ Ala Maududi, the founder of the Jama‘at-i Islami, the leading South Asian Islamist movement. In 1939, Maududi visited Mewat, the area south of Delhi which Ilyas had specially chosen for his work, and wrote a lengthy article in his Tarjuman ul-Qur’an in fulsome praise of Ilyas’ work, hailing it as a major milestone on the onward march of Islamic revival in South Asia .[23] Ilyas reciprocated this gesture by declaring that the ‘real work’  (‘asal kam) of Islam was what Maududi was engaged in—working to establish Islam as a complete way of life and social system in its all-embracing wholeness (iqamat-i din), modestly adding that his own efforts were only the ‘initial work’ (‘ibtida‘i kam).[24] In a letter to a disciple, Zahir ul-Hasan, Ilyas rebutted those who thought that his movement was concerned only with ritual worship, arguing that the TJ was intended to revive Islam in its entirety (iqamat-i din), sharing this goal with Islamist groups. The chhe baten were intended to be simply a means for iqamat-i din particularly suitable to the Indian context, where Muslims were a minority and where un-Islamic practices were widespread among the Muslims, particularly the nau-Muslims.[25] 


The TJ and Politics After Ilyas


A distinct shift seems to have been witnessed in the TJ and its approach to questions of power and politics after Ilyas’ death in 1944, a trend that seems to have been particularly noticeable in the aftermath of the Partition of India in 1947. In post-47 India , with Muslims having been rendered a vulnerable and beleaguered minority, the aggressive communal politics of groups such as the Muslim League that had characterised the earlier decades were no longer a feasible option for the community. Any separate political assertion by Muslims would have invited stern Hindu reprisals. The Muslim League wound itself up in most parts of the country, with many of its leaders opportunistically joining their one-time inveterate foe, the Congress Party. Most Muslims transferred their allegiance to the Congress, seeing it as the only bulwark against the looming threat of Hindu militancy. In a context of Muslim insecurity and the growing strength of Hindu revivalism, the TJ began presenting itself as completely apolitical. It is difficult not to agree with the assertion that this was itself a well thought-out political strategy to accommodate itself to the new political context. Keeping aloof from involvement in political activities, the TJ leadership, under Ilyas’s son, Maulana Muhammad Yusuf (d. 1965), believed that this was the only way in which that the movement could carry on with its activities without provoking the state and aggressive Hindu revivalist forces. Hence, in the post-1947 period, the TJ began being characterised by an increasing insularity from not just political involvement, but from other worldly affairs as well. Its claims of having nothing to do with politics now came to be asserted with pride, as if political involvement itself were a grave sin.


Despite claims of being completely apolitical, the TJ’s activities themselves continued to have serious political implications. Indeed, there was no way in which this could not have been the case, in that its concern with Muslim identity, faith and commitment have had a crucial bearing on how Muslims relate to the broader society in which they find themselves. In such a situation, even the decision to remain aloof from politics, as conventionally understood, has crucial political consequences. As the movement began to spread, from the early 1950s onwards, outside the confines of South Asia to which it had till then been restricted, the political implications of TJ work in different contexts became increasingly clear. In some cases it enabled Muslims to pragmatically adjust to secular polities, while in other contexts it played an important role in assisting Islamist movements in their opposition to incumbent regimes. In both cases, the TJ has been, in crucial senses, an important political actor, its claims to being completely apolitical notwithstanding.


The TJ and Secularism


In contrast to Islamist groups, the establishment of an Islamic political order is not an immediate objective of the TJ. While Ilyas did see an Islamic state as an ultimate goal of his movement, he believed that it would come about after Muslims began to lead their personal lives in full accordance with the teachings of Islam. However, given human weakness and the propensity to falter, as well as the almost impossibly high standards of piety that Ilyas laid down for Muslims to follow, the emergence of a critical number of committed Muslims that would move God to grant Muslims political power over others and establish an Islamic political system was effectively postponed into the indefinite future. Till then, Muslims would need to engage in constant striving to pattern their own personal lives in accordance with the teachings of Islam, while living under a non-Islamic political order. This pragmatic adjustment to the reality of the absence of an Islamic political order enabled Muslims active in the TJ to come to terms with the existence of secular or non-Islamic regimes, while remaining true to the demands of their faith. For the Muslims of India this meant that they could adjust to a system of non-Islamic rule, and to what was, at last in theory, a secular political system, while hoping that by faithfully abiding by the dictates of their faith and engaging in missionary work among others, the day might dawn when God would grant Muslims political power.


Under Maulana Yusuf this pragmatic accommodation to the political context in which the Indian Muslims found themselves an increasingly marginalised minority grew more pronounced. While Ilyas had refrained from condemning Muslim political groups, seeing them as co-workers for the same divine cause, albeit using different methods and working in different fields, the TJ now began to consciously distance itself from groups such as the Jama‘at-i Islami and its agenda of iqamat-i din. The most significant event in this regard was the publication in the early 1950s of a diatribe against the Jama‘at-i Islami by the leading Tablighi ideologue and nephew of Ilyas, Maulana Muhammad Zakariya. Titled Fitna-i Maududiyat (‘The Chaos that is Maududism’) the book insisted that Maududi’s understanding of Islam was wholly wrong.  Further, under Yusuf and Zakariya, the TJ’s stance on political involvement, indeed on worldly involvement as such, began undergoing a distinct transformation. Thus, in the eyes of its critics, instead of seeing the chhe baten as a means for the iqamat-i din, as Ilyas himself is said to have envisioned it, it now grew into an end in itself. Hence, some allege, the quest for the iqamat-i din, including the establishment of an Islamic political order, was replaced by the chhe baten as the ultimate objective of the TJ.[26] Along with this, critics argue, a strict distinction began to be made in Tablighi discourse and practice, which has no sanction in Islam, between din (religion), on the one hand, and duniya (worldly affairs), on the other. The duniya began being looked upon with scorn and hatred, and TJ activists were encouraged to remain aloof from worldly involvement, including, of course, all political affairs.


This shift in the movement’s stance on politics must be seen as a response to the increasingly threatened position of the Muslim minority in post-1947 India , enabling the movement and its participants to come to terms with a situation of Hindu rule, under a theoretically secular dispensation. For the movement’s activists, its silence on political affairs enabled them to support secular political parties of their choice and to make pragmatic decisions unhindered by the ideological constraints that bind members of groups such as the Jama‘at-i Islami. In this regard, Masud’s contention that the TJ is vehemently opposed to secularism and that it ‘would not support secular political parties’ needs to be qualified.[27] While the movement is undoubtedly opposed to secularism as understood as hostility or indifference to religion, and while its leaders do not explicitly advocate the cause of any particular political party, it allows for its followers vote for parties of their own choice. By remaining silent on issues related to party politics, seeing this as a ‘worldly’ affair and hence not within the purview of religion (din), it has enabled Muslims associated with the movement to conduct their politics on pragmatic lines. Thus, for instance, in India , most Tablighi activists, like other Muslims, vote for secular parties, and in the Britain , for the Labour Party.


The movement’s growing aloofness from direct involvement in political affairs in post-1947 India has helped the TJ flourish in an environment characterised by considerable and, in recent years, growing anti-Muslim hostility. Thus, for instance, in the period 1975-77, when the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency and banned several religious organisations, including the Jama‘at-i Islami, the TJ was spared and was allowed to carry on its activities unhindered. It is a mark of the markedly politically quiescent theology of the TJ which is quite acceptable to the Indian state that the TJ continues to have its global headquarters in the very heart of Delhi . As the movement has expanded to other countries where Muslims live as minorities, and where Muslim political involvement would be looked upon with suspicion, such as in Europe and America, the TJ’s disavowal of any political aims has enabled it to function relatively free of state control. The TJ’s silence on political affairs may be thus seen as an implicit support for ruling establishments. It has, in this way, worked as a powerful weapon for social control, which has made for political elites in several countries to directly or indirectly support it to counter assertive Islamist movements as well as threats from leftist forces.


The TJ has enabled its followers to come to terms with the secular state by, in a sense, personalising Islam, making a de facto distinction between religion and politics, din andduniya. In the absence of Muslim political power, it is each Muslim individual who is seen as the repository of Islam, and it is thus the individual Muslim that is its target of reform in the immediate sense. The TJ sees present-day Muslims living in a situation that similar to that of what it calls the Prophet’s ‘Meccan period’ (makki daur), when the Prophet’s followers in Mecca were still learning about their faith. This is contrasted with the later ‘Medinan period’ (madani daur) when, in Medina , the Muslims were now so committed to Islam that the Prophet could establish a full-fledged Islamic state.[28] In this way, while not denying the centrality of the Islamic state, the TJ effectively postpones its establishment into the indefinite future, when Muslims would become so firm in their faith as to bring back to life the days of the Companions of the Prophet in Medina . For the present, however, it allows for Muslims to adjust themselves to a situation of non-Islamic rule, analogous to the Meccan situation, while remaining committed to their faith. This accommodation to secularism is, however, ambiguous and not free from tension. The TJ’s advocacy of global Muslim unity is an implicit critique of the nation-state system.[29] Likewise, its efforts at building a sense of Muslim identity, bringing Muslims all over the world together in a common mission, while ignoring national, sectarian, ethnic and class barriers, maintaining a strong sense of separate cultural identity and superiority, condemning the popular culture that Muslims in local contexts share with others and refusing to even countenance the possibility of inter-faith dialogue with others has important political consequences in religiously plural societies like India. There is little doubt that the sense of cultural separatism and heightened identity consciousness fostered by the TJ can be taken advantage of by more assertive Islamist groups that have a more explicit political agenda. Herein lies the crucial importance of the politics of culture, religious identity and civilisational differences, a phenomenon which, if Samuel Huntington is to be believed, is all set to dictate the terms of international political discourse.[30] 


The politically quiescent nature of the TJ has won for it sharp criticism in some  Muslim circles, who see this posture as calculated to serve the political interests of what are described as the ‘enemies of Islam’. Some Muslims see the TJ as a tool in the hands of ‘anti-Islamic’ forces by helping to de-politicise Muslims by preaching otherworldliness and disdain for power. Thus, a Malaysian Islamic activist, Nik ‘Abdul Rahman, remarks that the TJ has made Muslims ‘docile, fate-oriented and has [made them] shun active involvement in real life things like politics and society’.[31] Similarly, Amir ‘Ali writes that by opposing participation in politics and insisting on separation of religion from politics—de facto secularism—the TJ has emerged as the new ‘dream of anti-Islamic forces’, for the ‘enemies of Islam’ dread the prospect of Muslims’ acquiring political power which alone can challenge their hegemony.[32] In a similar vein, Arshad ul- Qadri, a leading Indian Barelwi[33] ideologue alleges that the TJ was, in fact, set up by the British colonial rulers of India to create dissension in the ranks of the Muslims and to blunt their spirit of jihad. During the Cold War years, he alleges, the movement was used by the American Central Intelligence Agency, along with the Saudis, in their global war against communism. In India , he says, the TJ is being indirectly supported by militant, anti-Muslim Hindu groups, who see this ‘world-renouncing’ movement as working to prevent Muslims from struggling for their rights and opposing Hindu hegemony, including mass murders of Muslims by Hindu mobs.[34] Another Indian Barelwi ‘alim, Muhammad Rizvi, writes that the TJ is working to only further strengthen the political foes of the Muslims, for the movement insists that Muslims should not protest when they are attacked and killed in pogroms instigated by militant Hindu groups in India, or by the Israelis in Palestine.[35] Likewise, according to another Barelwi source, the TJ is ‘a deviant sect’ which is ‘being used by the enemies of Islam to help them in their continuing battle to prevent governance by the laws of Allah from being re-established in the world’.[36] In other words, these writers see the TJ as deeply involved in politics, one that is calculated to strengthen the ‘enemies of Islam’, despite its claims to the contrary.


Some Islamists have seen the TJ in similar terms. Tabish Mahdi, a leading ideologue of the Jama‘at-i Islami of India accuses the TJ of working to further the designs of the forces of ‘falsehood’ (batil) because of its silence on political affairs. He writes that by ignoring the importance of jihad against oppressors, the TJ promotes the interests of anti-Islamic powers. The TJ, he says, has misinterpreted the concept of jihad by projecting it as more or less synonymous with going out on Tablighi missionary tours. In this way, he says, the TJ plays straight into the hands of such inveterate foes of Islam as the ‘Jewish Mission’, the ‘Unbelievers’ and the Devil himself in their ‘war against Islam’.[37] In a similar vein, a Pakistani Ahl-i Hadith activist accuses the TJ of having ‘killed the spirit of jihad by sword among the Muslims’.[38] Another Islamist supporter also accuses the TJ of remaining silent on the importance of jihad, while focusing simply on ritual matters.[39] Its aloofness from politics is traced back to its early origins, and it is said to have been a ‘brainchild’ of the British to ‘pacify’ the Muslims in order to ‘distract them from their duty to upheld (sic.) and defend the Islamic state’.[40] In this way, these writers insist that the TJ is actively engaged in politics, albeit of a sort that is calculated to harm the interests of Islam and its followers.


The variety of the political roles that the TJ has played in different social contexts has been determined by the exigencies of survival and expansion of the movement. In some cases the TJ has acted to counter the influence of Islamist groups and to enable Muslims to come to terms with the reality of non-Islamic state structures, while in others it has lent support to Islamist groups, indirectly, by promoting an environment in which Islamist groups can flourish, as well as more directly. In such cases, participation in the TJ and a firm belief that the world has strayed far from the path of God can be seen as expressing, in symbolic terms, a powerful critique of existing political systems. At the same time, it represents an implicit questioning of the very legitimacy of corrupt ruling elites with their ‘un-Islamic’ ways. In this regard, as Dasetto notes, the TJ goes ‘to the heart of the problem of power[…] without touching it’[41], thus making the movement a vehicle for symbolic social protest, a ‘weapon of the weak’ or ‘an everyday form of resistance’ in Scott’s terms[42], a role particularly important in countries where democratic dissent and opposition are banned. In this way, by at times working to support secularism, while other times assisting Islamist groups in their struggle for an Islamic political order, the overall political role of the TJ has been ambiguous.


The TJ and Politics in Muslim Majority Countries: Some Empirical Instances


The diverse political roles that the TJ has played, an indication of what we have called its ‘political vision’, can be seen in the dynamics of its relations with the state, on the one hand, and Islamist forces, on the other, in several Muslim countries. In Pakistan, where it has strong presence, the TJ, Mumtaz Ahmad writes, has been indirectly encouraged by the authorities as a counter to the Islamist Jama‘at-i Islami, which, with its campaign for an Islamic political order, poses an increasingly powerful political challenge to ruling elites. Ahmad writes that in addition to Pakistan, in other Muslim majority countries such as Bangladesh and Malaysia, where the TJ is strong, it has played an important political role in ‘de-politicising a large number of religiously inclined people by casting them as itinerant preachers’, and thus effectively weakening the appeal of Islamist movements and helping those in power.[43] In these and other cases, it has, as Moosa says, played an eminently political role in ‘defending the status quo’.[44]


In some cases, on the other hand, involvement in the TJ has been a means for Islamist activists to carry on their work free from state repression, enabling Muslims to express their commitment to their faith in a manner that is not seen as politically threatening or potentially subversive. In this way, the TJ has helped promote an environment of heightened commitment to an activist vision of Islam which is conducive for the growth of Islamist movements. Thus, for instance, in Bangladesh , as ‘Alam notes,


Immediately after the emergence of Bangladesh , Islamic political parties stopped their activities. It was necessary for many Islamic political leaders to go underground or flee away (sic.) from the country in order to save their skin (sic.) and even their lives. It was only the muballigs [missionaries] of the Tablighi Jama‘at who continued their work without any interruption. Their objective was not to enkindle Pakistani sentiment, but to keep Islamic sentiment alive. It was the silent and unpublicised work of the muballigs which created conditions for the underground Islamic leaders to appear on the surface.[45]



Likewise, ‘Alam tells us, in the aftermath of the Bangladeshi Liberation War (1971-72), when Islamist organisations were banned and severely repressed for their alleged involvement in abetting the Pakistani Army, numerous Jama‘at-i Islami activists sought cover under the TJ in order to escape arrest and to carry on their work unhindered. Recognising the supportive role that the TJ might play in relation to Islamist movements, ‘Alam writes that the TJ is silently preparing Muslims all over the world for a goal that he sees it as sharing with Islamist groups—to engage in the ‘lesser jihad’ or physical warfare against the ‘enemies of Islam’ in case the need so arises. The initial groundwork is being done by training its activists to sacrifice their money and time on missionary work. However, he says, ‘if occasion arises and if the policy is changed’, ‘Tableeg is the Islamic movement which can call upon its dedicated followers not only to donate their time and money but also their lives in the cause of Islam’. Tabligh activists, ‘Alam writes, have apparently been so well trained that ‘in the battle against the enemies of Islam’, which might actually involve ‘using swords and weapons’, they shall ‘not desert the amir’ and will plunge into the battlefield fired by the zeal of the Prophet’s grandson Imam Husain, ‘who drank the nectar of martyrdom in the field of Kerbala’.[46] In the same vein, another TJ sympathiser writes that by focusing on the chhe baten, the TJ has been ‘merely laying the groundwork for a much greater mission’, which includes physical jihad, in case the need so arises, and the struggle for the establishment of an Islamic polity, a goal central to the agenda of Islamist movements as well. In both tabligh and jihad, he says, one can ‘perceive a congruence of aims and objectives’, both being ‘manifestations of the same impulse’.[47] 


Another important manner in which the TJ has acted to promote the aims of Islamist groups and has thus played a crucial political role is evidenced by the significant number of individuals associated with the TJ being inspired by involvement in the movement to take to more assertive political positions as members or leaders of Islamist organisations. Thus, several leading Islamist activists have had their first exposure to Islamic reform and revival in the TJ. These include Prof. Ghulam ‘Azam, amir of the Jama‘at-i Islami of Bangladesh[48], Rachid Ghannoushi, leader of the Tunisian Islamic Tendency Movement[49] and Farid Kassim, senior leader of the Hizb ut-Tahrir in the United Kingdom.[50] A more sensational case is that of one Muslih al-Shamrani, who, along with three other men, was accused of having planted a bomb at an American military base in Saudi Arabia that resulted in the death of seven people. al-Shamrani had started off as an activist of the TJ. Then, one year later, fired by an irrepressible zeal for the cause of Islam, he travelled to Afghanistan and then to Bosnia to participate in the jihad against the Russians and the Serbs.[51] In these cases, in addition to scores of others less well known, involvement in the TJ provided the early inspiration for Islamic activists to commit themselves to working for the cause of Islam and global Muslim unity, after which they have moved on to more assertive Islamic political movements. Some TJ activists, while remaining within the movement, have, in their personal capacity, begun to advocate armed jihad and Islamist-style politics, though this is not the official policy of the TJ leadership. Thus, for instance, Ayub Patel, a TJ activist, insists that the movement is geared to ‘revive everything that the Prophet came with […] including politics [and] jihad’ as well as the Islamic khilafah (Caliphate).[52]


Islamists, thus, enjoy an ambiguous relationship with the TJ. While, as we have seen, some condemn it for allegedly being apolitical and thus helping, inadvertently or otherwise, the ‘enemies of Islam’, others welcome its role in promoting a general Islamic awareness among Muslims and thus helping the cause of Islamist movements. Thus, for instance, some Muslims associated with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which, like the TJ, has its roots in the Deobandi reformist tradition[53], see the TJ as playing a complimentary role. A website advocating the cause of the Taliban also advocates the cause of the TJ.[54] Likewise, another Muslim website, based in Europe, sees participation in the TJ and involvement in armed jihad as complimentary to each other, both essential tasks in the process of establishing the ‘supremacy’ of Islam. Thus, in a significant fatwa it announces that ‘Religious education,tabligh [through participation in the work of the TJ] and jihad are different ways of discharging this collective responsibility [of da‘wa or ‘invitation to Islam’] and they are all important in their own right’. It is but natural, it goes on to say, that there should be a division of labour between TJ activists, working for promoting Islamic awareness and commitment, and fighters engaged in jihad against unbelieving ‘enemies’.[55] Such co-ordination between armed militants and Tablighi preachers is not limited to the world of cyberspace, however. Reports speak of active involvement in the work of the TJ of the militant Pakistan-based Islamist group, Harkat  ul-Mujahidin (HM), which has been a key actor in conflicts in Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechenya and Tajikistan. A HM spokesman is reported to have claimed that, ‘Our people are mostly (sic.) impressed by the TJ. Most of our workers come from the TJ’.[56] It has also been alleged that TJ activists have been involved in armed uprising in Uganda against the government of President Yoweri Museveni.[57]


In some Muslim countries, the TJ counts among its activists several senior government officials, who play an important role in furthering the aims of the movement and promoting a gradual Islamisation of state structures and civil society institutions. In this way, too, the TJ has served important political functions. Thus, In Bangladesh, the TJ is active among the country’s armed forces.[58] Likewise, in Chechenya, several members of the Cabinet, including the Chechen Deputy Prime Minister, have been active in the TJ.[59] In Pakistan , TJ activists have gone the furthest in assuming active political roles. Muhammad Rafiq Tarar, a senior TJ activist, served as President of Pakistan for a considerable period till he was deposed in June 2001 by the country’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. While President, Tarar is believed to have played a key role in the introduction in the Pakistani Senate of the Shari ‘ah Bill that sought to impose Islamic law in the country. Among the reasons for his appointment as President is said to have been a concern to counter the radical appeal of the Jama‘at-i Islami and its campaign for an Islamic political order in Pakistan .[60]Tablighi activists in Pakistan have not desisted from active involvement in electoral politics either. Thus, Mufti Mahmud, khalifa (deputy) of the leading Tablighi ideologue, Maulana Muhammad Zakariya, rose to become Chief Minister of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, and later went on to play a leading role in the agitation for the ‘Prophetic System’ (nizam-i mustafa) which led to the toppling of the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Zulfiqar ‘Ali Bhutto.[61] Another senior TJ activist, Lt. Gen. Javed Nasir, served as the head of Pakistan ’s Inter-Services Intelligence, being responsible for the formulation of Pakistan ’s policy in the Afghan war. Nasir is also alleged to have provided covert military support to militant Muslim groups in about a dozen countries.[62] The TJ is said to have several supporters among Pakistan ’s top army brass. In 1995, the Pakistani army arrested several army officers and civilians associated with a break-away faction of the TJ based at Taxila on charges of allegedly plotting to assassinate the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.[63] Yet another way in which leading TJ activists have actively intervened in politics is the patronage that they accept from state authorities on occasion. Thus, for instance, the former Prime Minister of the country, Nawaz Sharif, once arranged for Maulana Tariq Jamil, senior Tablighi leader, to address members of his cabinet on ‘the responsibilities of rulers in the light of Islamic teachings’. In his lecture, the Maulana is said to have appealed to Sharif to ‘enforce an Islamic system’ similar to that in neighboring Afghanistan under the Taliban.[64] Mumtaz Ahmad writes that in the 1960s Pakistan’s President Ayub Khan actively sought to court the TJ through various forms of patronage, using it as a counter to the Jama‘at-i Islami which was vehemently opposed to his regime.[65] In this way, TJ activists have not desisted from occupying important political posts and using their access to power to further the cause of their movement.


As this general survey has sought to indicate, an examination of the various ways in which the TJ and its activists have been deeply implicated in politics, demands a considerable reconsideration of generally-held views of Tablighi ‘apoliticalness’. A more sensitive and nuanced understanding, one that goes beyond the level of verbal discourse of Tablighi ideologues to reveal the different and complex political roles that it has played and political functions that it has served, clearly suggests that many in the TJ are indeed impelled by a long-term political agenda, one which, for fear of repression, they deliberately choose not to explicitly articulate. Whether or not the leaders of the movement share these perceptions is difficult to say, however, but the fact that they have remained silent on the matter might suggest a tacit approval.



In various different spatio-temporal contexts, as we have attempted to show, the TJ has played a variety of political roles and its activities have had political consequences of far-reaching political importance. In this sense, one can indeed speak of a long-term political vision of the TJ. This vision is not explicitly articulated by TJ authorities in official declarations or texts but is readily apparent in the political implications of the TJ’s activities in different situations. In this light of this, it is difficult to agree with Mumtaz Ahmad’s assertion that, ‘In fact, the Tablighi Jama‘at detests politics and does not involve itself in any issues of sociopolitical significance’.[66]


The different political roles that the TJ has played have been determined essentially by the needs for survival and expansion of the movement and the impulse to carry forward the movement’s agenda of promoting Islamic awareness and consciousness. In countries where Muslims are a minority or in Muslim majority countries where Islamist opposition movements are heavily suppressed, the TJ has enabled Muslims to come to terms with a de factoseparation of religion from politics. This pragmatic accommodation to the secular state does not mean a whole-hearted acceptance of secularism as an ideology, however. Rather, it has meant, in effect, toleration of what seems, in the immediate future, to be an unchangeable situation, with the hope and belief that ultimately God would bless the Muslims with political power, and that they would then be able, once their faith is sufficiently strong, to establish an Islamic polity to enable Islam to be ‘implemented’ in its entirety.


By pragmatically accommodating itself to a secular dispensation, the TJ is seen by many ruling regimes as a counter to more assertive Islamist opposition groups. With its concern for the life after death and its disdain for worldly affairs, the TJ is seen as a powerful supporter of thestatus quo. Not surprisingly, in many countries, both Muslim as well as other, while Islamist movements have been heavily repressed, the TJ has been allowed to function with few or no restraints, and has been indirectly patronised by governments. This political role of the TJ has won it sharp criticism from several Islamists, some of whom go so far as to condemn it for what they see as its serving the interests of the ‘enemies of Islam’, variously described as Western imperialists, Zionists and Hindu fascists.


On the other hand, there is evidence to show that the TJ has, in some situations, worked to the advantage of Islamist groups struggling for the establishment of a normative Islamic political order in their own countries. Its work at the grass-roots level in promoting Islamic awareness and consciousness provides fertile ground for Islamist movements to take root, and several noted Islamist leaders have, in fact, had their first exposure to Islamic activism in the TJ. In addition, as we have seen, in countries like Pakistan , Afghanistan and Chechenya, some TJ followers have assumed clearly political roles, both as government officials as well asjihad activists, making their position on politics hardly distinguishable from that of the Islamists. In both capacities they have been concerned to advocate and the advance the cause of an Islamic vision that is inseparable from an Islamic state, sharing this vision with Islamist groups.


The political vision of the TJ, then, is dictated by the needs of the movement to survive and expand in different situations. Despite its apparent rigidity, in practice the movement displays a remarkable flexibility that allows it to flourish in different contexts, its political roles in each context being determined by the overall imperative to expansion while remaining free from state repression. As we have attempted to show, the understanding that the TJ has nothing whatsoever to do with politics is completely misplaced, being based on a superficial reading of statements of Tablighi leaders. As this article has sought to suggest, in order to uncover the political vision of the TJ one needs to move beyond a simple acceptance of the statements of TJ leaders, the level at which most analysis of the TJ has hitherto been restricted, to examine the actual political consequences of TJ activity in different contexts.  

[1] For a detailed study of the Tablighi Jama‘at, see Yoginder Sikand, The Origins and Development of the Tablighi Jama‘at (1920s-1990): A Cross-Country Comparative Study Orient Longman, New Delhi , 2002.

[2] Zia ur-Rahman Faruqi, ‘Ulama-i Deoband: Kaun Hain, Kya Hain?, Dar ul-Kitab, Deoband, 1992, p.43.

[3] Ziya ul-Hasan Faruqi, ‘The Tablighi Jama‘at’, in S.T.Lokhandwala (ed.), Islam and Contemporary India, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla, 1971, p.60.

[4] Yahya Sadowsky, Just a Religion: For the Tablighi Jama‘at, Islam Is Not Totalitarian,

[5] Elke Faust, ‘Close Ties and New Boundaries: The Tablighi Jama‘at in Britain and Germany ’, in Muhammad Khalid Masud (ed.) Travellers in Faith—Studies of the Tablighi Jama‘at as a Transnational Islamic Movement for Faith Renewal, E.J.Brill, Leiden , 2000, p.150.

[6] Muhammad Khalid Masud, ‘Ideology and Legitimacy’, in Muhammad Khalid Masud (ed.) Travellers in Faith—Studies of the Tablighi Jama‘at as a Transnational Islamic Movement for Faith Renewal, E.J.Brill, Leiden , 2000, p. 97.

[7] Interview with Muhammad Qasim, Dewsbury, 11 November, 1995.

[8] Interview with Hussain Ahmad, Gurgaon, 10 June, 1996.

[9] M.Anwar ul-Haq, The Faith Movement of Mawlana Muhammad Ilyas, George Allen & Unwin, London , 1972, p.170.

[10] Sa‘eed Ahmad Khan, Ek Qimati Mashwara Maktaba Subhaniya, Punahana, n.d., p.24.

[11] Interview with Imtiaz Ahmad, New Delhi , 5 February, 1996.