Friday, August 25, 2006

Deconstructing the Tablighi Jamaat

But What Do They Preach?

by Zafar Anjum

The Tablighi Jamaat ("group of preachers") has been in the limelight since 9/11 for all the wrong reasons. Britian’s MI5 and America’s FBI have been alleging that it is the recruiting ground for wannabe Islamic terrorists. The organization has once again come into sharp focus after the recently foiled plot to blow up transatlantic airliners. UK’s security services have found that at least seven of the 23 suspects under arrest on suspicion of involvement in the transatlantic airliners plot may have participated in Tablighi events. The organisation was also found to be linked with two of the July 7 suicide bombers. The jailed shoe bomber Richard Reid had supposedly attended its sessions.

In their defence, the Tablighis completely disavow any links from anything other than Islam. The Guardian ("Inside the Islamic group accused by MI5 and FBI", Augsut 18) reported a Tablighi defend the organization in these words (when asked about the association between Tablighi Jamaat and terrorist groups): "Tablighi is like Oxford University. We have intelligent people - doctors, solicitors, businessmen - but one or two will become drug dealers, fraudsters. But you won't blame Oxford University for that. You see, it does not matter if someone speaks in favour or against this effort. Everything happens with the will of God."

Though Olivier Roy, the French scholar on Islam, has described Tablighi Jamaat as "completely apolitical and law abiding," is it really an innocuous religious organization as is claimed by its followers? Or is it a silent and hidden breeding ground of Islamic terrorism? To assess this, we need to look at its background and activities.

The Tablighi Jamaat was an offshoot of the Deoband movement and it represented a commitment to individual regeneration apart from any explicit political program. According to American scholar Barbara Metcalf, the movement began in the late 1920s when Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi (d. 1944), whose family had long associations with Deoband and its sister school in Saharanpur, Mazaahiru'l-`Ulum, sought a way to reach peasants who were nominal Muslims being targeted by a Hindu conversion movement.

The basic strategy of the movement is to persuade Muslims that they themselves, however little book learning they had, could go out in groups, to remind the lay Muslims to fulfill their fundamental ritual obligations. Participants were assured of divine blessing for this effort. Tablighis not only eschewed debate, but also emulated cherished stories, recalling Prophetic hadith, and of withdrawing from any physical attack. A pattern emerged of calling participants to spend one night a week, one weekend a month, 40 continuous days a year, and ultimately 120 days at least once in their lives engaged in tabligh missions. The thrust of the movement is not clearly on conversions but on bringing the "wayward" Muslims back to the fold of practicing Islam.

This does not mean that all is well with the Tabligh movement. Its ambitions might be noble but sometimes it harms the interests of the Muslim community in no ambiguous terms. This may not be deliberate, but it nonetheless has deleterious effects.

And now with the Jamaat’s emphasized association with terrorism, it is facing its strongest moment of criticism, though it has been on the radar for some time now.

More here in The Outlook Magazine's website.

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