What is the Tablighi Jamaat?
By Jenny Taylor
8 Sep 2009
The threat of Islamist terrorism was not recognised at the time but the ideology of the supremacy of Islam was present in Kysar’s fundamentalism and “no compromise” attitude.
The problem with this 'extremist' sect is not that it proselytises, but it seems to have so little contact with the outside world.
The Times has "revealed" today that the leader of the airline bomb plot, Abdullah Ahmed Ali, worshipped at the Queen's Road mosque in Walthamstow. This, the reporter says, is a mosque controlled by the Tablighi Jamaat. Given that most mosques in the east end of London, according to sources, are Tablighi Jamaat, that's not surprising.
Sean O'Neill, the Times Crime and Security Editor, writes that he visited the Queen's Road mosque in 1989, when it was controlled by the then leader of extremist group al-Muhajiroun, the subsequently banned so-called Tottenham Ayatollah, Omar Bakhri Mohammed. He writes:
The mosque is currently under the control of Tablighi Jamaat, an ultraorthodox Islamic sect which preaches that Muslims should replicate the life of Muhammad and tells them it is their duty to travel the world converting non-believers to the one true faith.
He's right in that the Tablighi Jamaat copy Muhammad in all his customs, even it is reported, eschewing beds for sleeping and toothbrushes for cleaning teeth; they use a twig. But he is wrong about their interest in non-believers, indicating the serious religion "blind spot" that bedevils coverage of world affairs now.
If it were the duty of the Tablighi Jamaat to convert non-believers, there might be a freer debate than there is. The cut and thrust of open engagement might encourage a truer encounter between neighbours. As it is, the Tablighi Jamaat is a revivalist group – interested only in other Muslims and therefore particularly inward-looking – which accounts for their danger to gullible young men.
The Tablighi Jamaat is the most successful of the many such groups to form after the Mutiny (known to India, where it comes from, as the Uprising) in the mid-19th century. Eighty million-strong today, the group shuns the harsh outside world, and creates an atmosphere of spirituality, solidarity and purpose among themselves that proves extremely compelling. Deobandi-inspired, adherents are interested only in reviving the faith of weaker Muslims, and thus helping to ensure either a passport to paradise, or the rule of Islam on earth, whichever comes soonest.
Neither is the Tablighi Jamaat "ultraorthodox" – in fact rather the opposite. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, founder of the Muslim Institute and godfather of the Quilliam Foundation, is against the huge 12,000-capacity mosque the sect wishes to build in Newham because, as he told me, he believes they peddle "fairy tales".
Their reliance on unorthodox stories of mythical heroes, their other-worldliness and pietism, their veneration for the founder and his family, and their ritualisation of certain select scriptures and practises like the chilla – a 40-day preaching tour all are obliged to undertake annually – has led one scholar to conclude that they function like a sufi order, something that the "ultraorthodox" Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia for example completely condemn.
It is because they are not activist enough that frustrated young zealots become fodder for the shadowy jihadi-groomers who infiltrate their ranks, say some.
Anthropologist Roger Ballard has for many years accused policy-makers and journalists of "protestantising" Hinduism and Islam in Britain. In their avowed intent to render all religions "equal", they also render them all the same – and thereby betray their ignorance about very real and urgent differences. Christianity reaches out to others and thereby saves itself the corrupting effects of the ghetto – privatisation, stagnation and paranoia. Islam in Britain too often wants to remain aloof, uncontaminated – and unreal.
To have harboured terrorists does not necessarily mean that Tablighi Jamaat is therefore a hotbed of terrorism, but it does mean we need to take it much more seriously. We should not allow this strange parallel world to continue. Newham Council has for two years failed to enforce planning requirements on the Tablighi Jamaat mosque next to the Olympic stadia – the very mosque which organised gatherings attended by Abdullah Ahmed Ali.
Instead of patronising and protestantising the Tablighi Jamaat, Christians in particular need to acknowledge the spiritual hunger of young men yearning for meaning, identity and a heroic role in life, as indeed is happening at the Springfield Project in Birmingham, opened by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Where secular Britain fails is where Tablighi Jamaat wins. One Muslim responding to a blog post on my website about the Tablighi Jamaat says: "TJ is the best thing that ever happened to me." We need to understand why that should be so. And that means engaging with real Muslims as friends, and real Islam as an accountable social entity. It means getting mosques registered for civil marriages for instance, and enforcing the same planning controls as for any other building.
I realized quite suddenly that I was in love with India. It had been building up, from admittedly inauspicious beginnings. The suffocating yellow dust of Delhi, the huddled poor in filthy rags sitting by miserable little fires on every patch of waste ground; the scabby dogs and dying puppies; the way nothing ever seems to be finished off, or final; the traffic that careens crazily along pitted highways; the way no one, literally no one, can drive in a straight line, or give way. Yet in twenty years, India has changed. Once you get tuned in, it dawns on you that India is doing what I once thought beyond imagining: changing for the better. The slums are not as big as they were. People actually queue for things, rather than simply barge past you to reach their objective. There is a Metro that is clean, efficient and safe (all bags are searched politely and thoroughly, with a booth for women). Poverty may be all around, but the mental illness one might assume it would cause is no greater per head of the population than in UK, where incomes are seventy times higher. Even the cycle rickshaw wallah, a village escapee, peddles his creaking load with gusto, mopping his brow triumphantly with the rag he wears around his head, and grinning as if he had just won the marathon.
I am leaving after six weeks travelling all over the country, from the Dalai Lama’s mountain home-in-exile in the northwest, to the jungles of Orissa in the central south east. And what I will miss is the human contact, the kindness, the strangely intimate comradeship of a shared struggle, the belief everyone has in the national project. The humility of the Delhiwallah is astonishing and redemptive. He gets on with his lot, however meagre, with a strange resolve. I will miss the way catastrophe is so often averted right at the last minute, when all seemed hopeless, by people who ultimately look out for each other. I love the way, even if catastrophe does strike, people just get going again: the 126 people who were knocked off the roof of a train by overhanging branches in Andra Pradesh, will get back on their feet and back on some other train roof despite the three deaths, because that’s what you do with no money, and a need to travel. And no one has it in them to deny at least hope to the poor.
I love the all-night sound of the community’s chowkidar, the night watchman, banging his sticks and blowing his little whistle as an ‘all’s well’ that lulls me to sleep. I’ll miss the monkey man who beats his drum down our street for a penny. I’ll miss the love-starved, half-feral puppies on every garbage heap who go weak and fall into your hands if you so much as stroke them. The cows that wander past my suburban balcony, munching the shrubbery; and the pregnant cows that just get on and give birth in the middle of the traffic. I’ll even miss the cowpats on the sidewalks – because of what it represents. India hates boundaries, endings, things that belong here and not there. The sacred is co-existent with the secular and everyone is deeply religious. Sikh men chant the guru’s book together in a circle in the park in the early morning as they do their exercises. The best restaurant in town is in the same filthy alley as the biggest Muslim prayer hall. Anyone can wander into the famous Jama Masjid and photograph the up-ended bottoms of the faithful at dusk. Everything is mixed up with everything else and almost anything is possible.
History is never history in Delhi; the past lives on with the present, as William Dalrymple has so poignantly observed in City of Djinns. Nonetheless change is coming. MacDonalds sells tikka-burgers and fries, and as our populations merge, it could be Wood Green. The old mission station in Diptipur, west Orissa has a red-and-white Vodaphone mast towering over it. A self-made entrepreneur from a severely deprived village background is building a whole new futuristic suburb in Bhubaneshwar on a bank loan – and educating 7,000 tribal children on the strength of it. Someone else is developing a vaccine for salmonella.
But my love affair with India became official the evening I took tea with the Tablighi Jama’at. They’re the other-worldly Islamic missionary sect whose markaz or international headquarters is in the teeming old basti or slum of Nizamuddin. The name means ‘preaching party’. They are expected to devote up to 80per cent of their lives travelling from mosque to mosque, evangelising the disciplines of reformist Islam, and renewing the faithful in preparation for the life hereafter.
Totally unannounced, and with a brazenness that staggered even me, I wandered uninvited through the open gateway and asked for an interview with Maulana Saad, the great grandson of the founder Maulana Muhammad Ilyas. The alarming reputation of this sect in Britain had daunted me, and I had needed all the professional courage and personal faith I could muster to surmount the threshold. But as I had no phone number, and I was leaving Delhi within two days, it was do, or die.
The TJ is said to have 80 million followers around the world and wants to build a so-called mega mosque in Newham, east London. A combination of factors has caused increasingly alarm in Britain about the Tabligh.
What I wanted to know was why they were building a new ‘global headquarters’ – as it’s been called - in London, presumably moving from their historic location in Nizamuddin that, with its surrounding tombs of poets and warrior kings, reeks of a peculiarly Indian Islam whose Mughal heritage fascinated the British for centuries. Surely we need to understand the cultures that shaped our migrants if we are to have any meaningful relationship with them? What can a dislocated Dewsbury or Newham kind of Islam do for us, with all its huffing and puffing about equality and its justified or unjustified taint of terrorism? Would not a rekindled sense of Indian Islam’s continuity with the complex couplets of the nineteenth-century Mughal poet Ghalib who lived nearby, and the architectural achievements of Humayun whose bones lie entombed a hundred yards from the TJ markaz, help us a hundred times more? Would not an understanding of the Hindu persecutions of the Meo tribe, the first Tabligh converts, put things in a helpful new perspective?
So there I was, without a word of Urdu, with only two names on a piece of paper gleaned from Wikkipedia, and a mobile phone if I got abducted or worse. A fine-boned young man in a startling white turban waved me in and on – and I found myself standing next to a shrieking green parrot in the homely hallway of Maulana Saad’s family, being looked at silently by several females of varying shapes and sizes, all draped in shawls or burqas, who must have thought I was some kind of apparition.
But undaunted, the lovely bespectacled woman who turned out to be Mrs Saad bade me remove my shoes and come in – to what turned out to be the zenana, the women’s quarter of the large and spacious house at the side of the huge concrete complex. Muslims who want to get closer to God in prayer come here from all over the world, to be taught by the descendants of one of the leading Islamic reformers of his day. The TJ was the most enduring of the many reform movements that sprang up in response to the Hindu shuddhi or purification movement from 1875 onwards. The Arya Samaj had alarmed Muslims by its success at ‘re-converting’ nominal Muslim tribals to the so-called ‘mother religion’ of India, when numbers became a political issue after the British introduced a religion census in 1871. TJ is avowedly a-political. It longs for heaven, and anticipates victory for Allah, but all bets are on it happening in the hereafter, not now in India or Pakistan – or Newham.
As I sat cross-legged on floor cushions, a young woman in several layers of black and a nose stud joined me, and we quizzed one another in halting English. I showed her the photos of my half-Indian nieces, assuring her their father was Muslim, even though I was not. They brought me fruit juice, almonds, cashew nuts, dates from Medina and tiny yellow sultanas. Then they brought me sweet chai with hot milk in little stainless steel teapots on a tray. After piecing together who I was, and what I wanted, Mrs Saad, with great simplicity, once more ushered me forward, this time to sit adjacent a door kept just ajar enough for me to be addressed by two bearded men, whom I knew instinctively I should not turn and look at. For as TJ Mufti Bulandshahri says: ‘Women should not come before strangers. They may give to strangers a short reply to their questions from behind a screen.’
Thus protected from certain danger, there began the most extraordinary conversation. My interlocutor told me he was none other than Professor Sana’a Suhan, the famous statistician from Aligarh University, who did his PhD at the Sorbonne in France. His answers to my questions were subtle, thoughtful and interesting. But on one thing he was absolutely adamant. He repeated it in different ways throughout the 15-minute encounter as if there were already considerable debate going on about it within the establishment. There will be no markaz in London. It will just be a mosque, and possibly a school, to cater for the number of Muslims who want the training and cannot get to Delhi. ‘Personally, for me, they should construct a mosque according to the need of that area and whosoever says this is a markaz should never tell it like this. Maulana Sa’ad does not agree with this idea so whosoever says it is a markaz you may freely tell: “I have been to Nizamuddin and there is no markaz.”
Then he says it again. ‘This is simply the idea of some enthusiastic people that this is a markaz.’
And again. ‘These are not sincere people who name it a markaz. It should be named a masjid [mosque] and that’s all.’
I put to him local concerns about cohesion and integration caused by a 12,000 capacity building and he says: ‘This is for the government in England. They have to see whether there is a need for such a big mosque.’
He said that Nizamuddin was the pioneer mosque, the ‘markaz of the whole world’ – but not a place where global strategy was worked out. It was a place of prayer, and a place to learn more about prayer.
As if to address my unspoken concerns about the hijacking of an other-worldly movement by those with a more secular agenda, he added: ‘Prayer is a pivotal worship in Islam around which the whole of Islam revolves. If a Muslim is not performing the prayer in such a way as to build the Islamic character, he may claim to be Islamic - as more than 50 per cent Muslims claim - but if they don’t perform the prayer, then they are not.’
Then, abruptly, he was gone, back to his praying. And he took my card so I could be followed up by a tabligh, a preacher, in Britain, who could give me some books.
Then the women came and enfolded me in shawls for the evening prayer and Qur’an recitation, spoken with hands cupped to heaven, and amin whispered again and again in response to the words intoned by Sa’ad himself over the loudspeakers built into the walls of the zenana. Asma said she could not do the Qur’an reading because she had her period. Neither could she pray the salaat.
Before I could go into that delicate subject, it was time to go. But not before the gentle Mrs Saad had loaded me with gifts: a huge box of dates from Medina; several large books on tabligh; and most incongruous of all, a large bottle of Cartier Déclaration eau de toilette.
We kissed one another goodbye.
And that’s when I knew my love affair with India was for real. Jenny Taylor's blog
Airline bomb plot: mosque has been recruiting ground for 20 years
September 9, 2009
Queen's Road Mosque in Walthamstow, London was a regular place of worship and meeting place for central figures from the airline plot terror cell
Sean O'Neill, Crime and Security Editor
A mosque frequented by the leader of the airline plot terrorist cell has been a recruiting ground for extremists for more than 20 years.
The Queen’s Road mosque in Walthamstow, northeast London, where Abdulla Ahmed Ali met his associates, is controlled by the ultraorthodox Tablighi Jamaat. Intelligence services around the world believe that Tablighi’s fundamentalism makes some of its follower’s easy prey for terrorist recruiters.
Two decades ago the same mosque was hosting talks by followers of Omar Bakri Mohammed, one of the first Islamic clerics in Britain to preach jihad. The disclosure of the mosque’s history indicates that, despite the focus on the Pakistan-based terrorist threat, the roots of Islamist radicalisation are deeply embedded in Britain.
The men involved in the fertiliser bomb plot of 2004, the July 7 and July 21 bombings of 2005 and the airline plot were all radicalised in Britain.
Their initial contacts with the al-Qaeda network were through fundraisers and recruiters in Britain and Rashid Rauf, who has been identified by security sources as a key link man in Pakistan, was from Birmingham.
Ed Husain, of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist think-tank, said the first contact with radicals for many young Muslims was at British colleges and universities. “In the 1990s it was Arab political refugees, not Pakistanis, that helped radicalise many British Muslims,” he said. “Pakistani militants provide training for would-be violent Islamists. But they go out radicalised and willing — it is folly to think that visits to Pakistan are points of first contact with extremism.”
Ali, who will be sentenced for the airline plot next week, was heavily influenced by a suspected al-Qaeda facilitator who is known to the authorities. That man, who has not been arrested and lives freely in East London, claims that he has no links to terrorism and is a Tablighi missionary. But long before the Walthamstow mosque came under Tablighi influence, it hosted “study circles” led by Bakri Mohammed’s followers. I attended one of those meetings as a reporter in August 1989 and heard young men decry the evils of drink, discos and “free intermingling of the sexes”. One called Kysar, then aged 19, told me: “Islam isn’t a religion where you can only adopt part of it. You have to adopt the whole Islamic viewpoint on society. There can be no compromise with the divine system revealed to us.”
The threat of Islamist terrorism was not recognised at the time but the ideology of the supremacy of Islam was present in Kysar’s fundamentalism and “no compromise” attitude.
Bakri Mohammed, a Syrian who had arrived here after being expelled from Saudi Arabia, later set up al-Muhajiroun, which he used to radicalise young men. His followers included the two Britons who carried out a suicide bomb attack on a Tel Aviv bar in April 2003. Bakri Mohammed now lives in exile in Lebanon but his followers in Britain persist in advocating jihad.
That the airline bomb plot was based in Walthamstow has shocked residents of this northeast London suburb. The area prides itself on having a mixed and well-integrated community and, unlike in many areas of East London, there are no ghettos. But the plot has revealed that Islamist extremism is deeply rooted in elements of the large Muslim population.
Many of the people whom Ali tried to recruit to his terrorist cell were his Walthamstow school friends and his bomb factory was an upstairs flat in the busy Forest Road. In the flat, Ali — who had lived almost all his life in Walthamstow — experimented with bottle bombs and liquid explosives and recorded martyrdom videos. Bomb making components were disposed of in the rubbish bins across the road in Lloyd Park, once the garden of the philanthropist William Morris.
Afzal Akram, the local councillor whose brief includes “community cohesion”, insisted that Queen’s Road mosque itself was not part of the problem. “It’s got nothing to do with the imams or the mosque — some of my friends and family pray there, I’ve been there myself,” he said. “None of the mosques here have been used to preach extremism. Individuals may have met at particular mosques and individuals may live within a stone’s throw of the mosque. But I wouldn’t put two and two together.”
Mr Akram says that extremism locally is little more than youngsters “mouthing off” and “spouting conspiracy theories”. But the Government is spending £90,000 in the borough to teach “leadership” to young Muslims.
The Queen’s Road mosque declined to comment, despite approaches made through the Muslim Council of Britain. However, two years ago Tablighi Jamaat set up a website, to publicise its plans for a giant mosque next to the Olympic site, on which it said: “We do not teach an extremist line, but we clearly can’t speak for every single one of those who have ever attended our mosques — there are several thousand people at our weekly gatherings.”
They added: “We utterly refute any links to terrorism or terrorists.”
One community leader, who is involved in interfaith work in Walthamstow, said the Muslim community did not recognise that extremism was a problem.
“I don’t want to add fuel to the fire, but the problem is within the Muslim community and its attitude to the extremists,” he said. “You speak to the community elders and they smile and say, ‘It’s not a big problem, if we ignore them they’ll go away’. That seems a dangerous attitude to me and the wrong one to take.”