New Delhi: The Tablighi Jamaat has come under the spotlight amid the Covid-19 crisis, emerging as the “largest known viral vector” of the disease in South Asia, including in India.
As of the time of publication of this article, nearly 100 people who either attended or were close contacts of those who attended a mid-March event the Jamaat organised at the Alami Markaz Banglewali Masjid in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
According to the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life project, the Tablighi Jamaat had in 2010 over 80 million followers spread out over more than 150 countries. The exact numbers are difficult to track, because the Jamaat doesn’t follow a centralised system.
Here is a look at what the Tablighi Jamaat is, and what it does.
What is Tablighi Jamaat?
Tablighi Jamaat (society for spreading faith) is a non-political global Sunni Islamic missionary organisation with its roots in India.
The movement was started in 1927 by Muhammad Ilyas al-Kandhlawi.
Its goal is to create the “golden age” of Islam (Khilafat) through invitation (tabligh) to nominal Muslims to return to the six pillars of Islam, as espoused by Prophet Muhammad, according to an article published by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center.
Tablighi Jamaat focuses on urging Muslims to return to primary Sunni Islam, particularly in matters of rituals, attires, and personal behaviour.
It has been called “one of the most influential religious movements in 20th century Islam”.
Started as a counter to Hindu revivalists in India
According to the Pew Research Center article, the movement began as an effort to counteract the activities of Hindu revivalists in India who, at the time, were attempting to convert Muslims to Hinduism.
“Worried that existing Islamic educational institutions were not capable of fending off the Hindu challenge, Ilyas envisioned a movement that would send missionaries to villages to instil Muslims with core Islamic values,” it says.
Despite its origins in inter-religious tensions, the Tablighi Jamaat had been, for decades, a generally apolitical and pacifist movement, the Pew report said, adding this helped the group expand its membership beyond the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere.
Even though the Tablighi Jamaat is an Islamic missionary movement, it does not aim to convert non-Muslims. It focuses more on the revival of the Muslim faith.
The six pillars
Tablighi Jamaat focuses on six pillars — kalima (belief in the oneness of Allah), salah (daily prayers), ilm and zikr (remembrance of Allah and fellowship), ikraam-e-Muslim (to treat fellow Muslims with respect), tas’hih-i-niyyat (to reform and devote one’s life to Islamic ideals), and dawah (to preach the message of Allah).
The focus on dawah has prompted some to describe Tablighi as “Muslim Jehova’s Witnesses”.
Typically, adherents will go on a 40-day mission, or chillah, during which they preach to other Muslims, encouraging them to attend prayers at their mosques and listen to sermons. They do not seek to convert non-Muslims, the Frontier newspaper of Myanmar said in an article on the spread of the movement in that country.
The group encourages its followers to undertake short-term preaching missions away from home, known as khuruj. These missions can last from a few days to a few months.
Lifestyle of Tablighis
Male followers grow beards and wear long kurtas, their pajamas end above the ankles.
Women cover themselves in public and are generally confined, typically, to family and religious life.
Inside their homes, followers prefer a very simplistic design, and generally prefer to have carpets and cushions to sit on rather than plush sofas. They also desist TV and music.
Famous adherents of the Tablighi Jamaat include many Pakistani celebrities, including singer Junaid Jamshed, cricketers Shahid Afridi, Saeed Anwar, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mushtaq Ahmed, Saqlain Mushtaq and Mohammad Yousuf (formerly Yousuf Youhana).
Lt Gen. Javed Nasir, former chief of Pakistan’s ISI, and Pakistan Army General Mahmud Ahmed are members of the Tablighi Jamaat.
The Tablighis often are severely criticised by orthodox religious authorities (ulema), such as Sunni Wahhabi ulema in Saudi Arabia, who have issued fatwas prohibiting the Tablighis from preaching in the country and banning Tablighi literature from being imported into the country, according to an article in Stratfor.
While there is no direct involvement of the group in terror activities, some of its members and others who have attended meetings have been accused of them.
Some believe the movement is a fertile recruitment ground for extremists.
“In fact, it has been called the ‘antechamber of fundamentalism’, and ‘supremacist movement’ that promotes isolationism, mostly because the organisation doesn’t have any constitution or formal registration, which obviously means no one knows who gets in or out of it and no one keeps a track of the past or future of the members,” Mint had reported in 2013.
Kafeel Ahmed, one of the suspects from India arrested for the failed attack on the Glasgow airport, happened to be associated with the movement, the Mint report said.
Two of the 7/7 London bombers, Shehzad Tanveer and Mohammed Siddique Khan, had also prayed at a Tablighi mosque in Dewsbury, which did not proved in any way that the Tablighi Jamaat was involved, but added to the suspicion, the report added.
It also quoted the book, Islam on the Move, published in 2012 and written by Malaysian political scientist Farish Noor, which said the Sudanese member of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hamir Mohammad, had tried to secure for himself a visa into Pakistan as a Tablighi member.
Similarly, Somalian Muhammad Sulayman Barre had tried to enter Pakistan from India by adopting the same guise.
“Abu Zubair al Haili, commander of the Mujahedeen Battalion of al Qaeda in Bosnia Herzegovina, travelled from Bosnia to Pakistan under the guise of being a Tablighi while Saudi national Abdul Bukhary who was on the watch list of numerous countries had managed to get himself into the Tablighi markaz in Nizamuddin, Delhi, while claiming to be a Tablighi too,” the Mint report said.