Islamist Networks: The Case of Tablighi Jamaat

Published: 
October 12, 2006
By: 
Nicholas Howenstein

Policy analysts and Islamist scholars are fiercely divided in their assessments of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist organization that has spread from its origins in India in the 1920s to the broader Muslim world. What accounts for these starkly different accounts, and how can one resolve some of the deeply perplexing questions surrounding this important and secretive organization?

Policy analysts and Islamist scholars are fiercely divided in their assessments of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist organization that has spread from its origins in India in the 1920s to the broader Muslim world.

Policy communities, for their part, have depicted the Tablighi Jamaat as a “gateway to terrorism” and contend that the organization poses numerous, underestimated security risks. The group appeared peripherally in such high-profile cases as those of Jose Padilla, Richard Reid and John Walker Lindh, all of whom allegedly used the group as their stepping stone to radicalism. However, the Islamic studies community tends to depict Tablighi Jamaat 1, which roughly translates to “group to deliver the message of Islam,” as a revivalist organization that eschews politics in its quest to reform society. What accounts for these starkly different accounts, and how can one resolve some of the deeply perplexing questions surrounding this important and secretive organization?

In an attempt to better understand this movement and its social, political, and potential security implications, the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the U.S. Institute of Peace hosted Eva Borreguero, visiting Fulbright Scholar at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, to present some of the key findings of her ongoing research on the Tablighi Jamaat. This talk drew on Borreguero’s recent fieldwork in India and Pakistan, two important centers for the Tablighi Jamaat. This USIPeaceBrieing highlights Borreguero’s arguments, as well as some of the important issues that arose during the discussion that followed her presentation.

Tablighi Jamaat: Gateway to Terrorism?

In Britain, France, and the United States, the Tablighi Jamaat has appeared on the fringes of several terrorism investigations, leading some to speculate that its apolitical stance simply masks “fertile ground for breeding terrorism.” 2 While acknowledging the involvement of the movement’s individuals, Borreguero discounted the claims made against the organization itself.

Borreguero began her assessment by providing an historical overview of this complex movement. Maulana Muhammad Ilyas founded the Tablighi Jamaat in 1925, against the backdrop of the British Empire and a waning Muslim identity in South Asia. Believing that social, political, and economic hardships beset Muslims in India, Ilyas sought a return to a pristine form of Islam from the heterodox variants flourishing in South Asia. For nearly two decades, the Tablighi Jamaat operated mainly within South Asia. With the ascent of Maulana Yusuf, Ilyas’ son, as its second emir (leader), the group began to expand activities in 1946, and within two decades the group reached Southwest and Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Initially it expanded its reach to South Asian diaspora communities, first in Arab countries then in Southeast Asia. Once established, the Tablighi Jamaat began engaging local populations as well. Although the group first established itself in the United States, Britain is the current locus of the group in the West, primarily due to the large South Asian population that began to arrive there in the 1960s and 1970s.

Structure, Composition, and Work

Despite its secretive nature, Borreguero offered some insights into the organizational structure of the Tablighi Jamaat. The general conception of the group is of a nebulous collection of loosely affiliated, itinerate jamaats. While this is one major component of the group, there is a fixed, hierarchical network of elders and mosques, and the two components do overlap. According to Borreguero, the core of the organization is comprised of “full-time” Tablighis who comprise the shura (council) and who are usually the elders of the mosques affiliated with the group.

In addition to this core, there are the traveling Tablighis who undertake proselytizing missions over varying durations. Formed into jamaats of approximately ten people, these Tablighis’ missions last three days, forty days (chilla), four months, or one year. The jamaat’s destination and desired area of focus generally determines the length of these missions. Those who go for three days concentrate on a local city, while a jamaat traveling for a month will do so throughout their country. The longer tours of four months to one year generally take the Tablighis abroad.

During these tours, the jamaat—under the leadership of its emir—stays at a local mosque, which serves as its base for the duration. Four or five members of the group conduct daily ghast, during which they visit neighborhoods (or neighborhoods with large Muslim populations if in a non-Muslim country) and homes, asking the men of the household to attend mosque for Maghrib (sunset) prayers. Those who attend are offered the dawa (invitation) as the Tablighis outline their six principles and encourage attendees to form their own jamaat. Members voluntarily work for the organization and there is no registration process in the group. Participants are free to leave the movement at any time. Consequently, Tablighi Jamaat has a loose, informal recruitment process and attracts members of varying commitment. For example, some members only engage in group activities episodically, while others will do so annually. All of these factors contribute to the uncertainty regarding Tablighi Jamaat’s membership numbers.

Tablighis in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have competing claims as to which comprises the movement’s international headquarters. Those in India contend that Nizamuddin (India) is the base, since the movement grew out of the Deoband school of Islam and it is in Delhi that the group was founded. However, elders in Raiwind (Pakistan) and Tongi (Bangladesh) dispute Nizamuddin’s final authority, citing their countries’ majority Muslim populations and claiming that the organization can operate more openly.

South Asia is by far the most significant region for the group, with Mecca and Medina also serving as important geographical symbols. The organization is diverse and includes persons from nearly every sector of society across the countries of South Asia and beyond. Within South Asia, members of the lower-middle class and the business community have joined the group and some members even hold government posts. In the West, second and third generation Muslim diaspora make up the main pool of Tablighis. This demographic usually has little knowledge of Islam but are also not fully assimilated to culture in the West. According to Borreguero, the Tablighi Jamaat “is a source of re-Islamization that provides an alternative to religious institutions.” These individuals tend to be well-educated, multilingual, and have lived in both the West and a Muslim country. She noted that the Tablighi Jamaat also has some appeal to marginal members of society (petty criminals, drug abusers, and so on) who are looking for a renewed identity that submerges them in a community of piety.

Keys to the Success of the Tablighi Jamaat

Borreguero sees several salient features which explain the Tablighi Jamaat’s successful transformation from a local South Asian movement into a robust transnational phenomenon, including its simple message, its non-political character, the authority of its leadership, and its policy of secrecy.

TABLE 1 - The Six Principles of the Tablighi Jamaat3

Kalimah An article of faith in which the tabligh accepts that there is no god but Allah and the Prophet Muhammad is His messenger
Salaat Five daily prayers that are essential to spiritual elevation, piety, and a life free from the ills of the material world
Ilm and Dhikr The knowledge and remembrance of Allah conducted in sessions in which the congregation listens to preaching by the emir, performs prayers, recites the Quran and reads Hadith. The congregation will also use these sessions to eat meals together, thus fostering a sense of community and identity
Ikram-i-Muslim The treatment of fellow Muslims with honor and deference
Ikhlas-i-Niyat Reforming one’s life in supplication to Allah by performing every human action for the sake of Allah and toward the goal of self-transformation
Tafrigh-i-Waqt The sparing of time to live a life based on faith and learning its virtues, following in the footsteps of the Prophet, and taking His message door-to-door for the sake of faith
  • A Simple Message: Tablighi Jamaat’s simple message is compromised of six basic principles formulated by Muhammad Ilyas in 1934 (See TABLE 1). With its easily understood literature, the organization reaches a wide population, varying in education and knowledge of Islam. Eschewing abstract debates on doctrine, the group focuses on the need to reform the individual spirit.
  • Distance from Politics: While some current and former Tablighis occupy government posts in South Asia, the Tablighi Jamaat asserts an avowedly apolitical stance. Rather than seeking to improve the well-being of society as a whole, the group focuses on transforming the individual. Borreguero argued that this approach allows the group to remain adaptable to diverse socio-political contexts and has facilitated its expansion. By remaining apolitical (unlike the Muslim Brotherhood), the Tablighi Jamaat avoids political confrontation, allowing it to exist in countries from Latin America to Africa to the Middle East without fear of proscription. However, Borreguero emphasized that this does not completely separate the movement from political authority: some members of Tablighi Jamaat have held government positions in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the group tends to keep close and peaceful ties with governments in South Asia.
  • Respect for Authority: Tablighi Jamaat respects political authority, perhaps because the group itself is hierarchical in nature and emphasizes the authority of group elders.
  • Absolute Secrecy: An important key to the group’s transnational appeal is the near absolute secrecy with which it operates. Very little is known about the group’s inner workings because it does not hold official records of its membership and leadership ranks, nor does it keep formal financial books or minutes of shura decision-making. Other than Muhammad Ilyas’ “Six Principles” there is no other overarching doctrine to which the group adheres. According to Borreguero, maintaining secrecy stems not from a concern that authorities will uncover any nefarious dealings within the movement. Instead, it is ostensibly a shield against charismatic personalities creating internecine squabbles and splinter factions.

Outstanding Concerns

Borreguero addressed the persistent question of how a group so devoted to proselytizing a pristine form of Islam and inner spiritual transformation can coexist with modern society, and specifically whether such a group warrants scrutiny because of its revivalist beliefs.

While recognizing the numerous reports that link Tablighi Jamaat to militancy in various forms, her fieldwork yielded little evidence to support the most sweeping of these claims. During her interviews with Tablighis, they tended not to opine on politics. However, she conceded that for some Tablighis—as individuals—this might not be enough. She claimed that there is no evidence thus far that the group as a whole is involved with militant groups, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, while acknowledging the potential role that individual Tablighis may have played in them. She claimed that the Tablighi Jamaat remains neutral on these groups, neither condemning nor supporting their actions.

To some analysts, this neutrality is enough to make them culpable. Borreguero admits that militant groups may try to infiltrate the Tablighi Jamaat in order to gain a cover for obtaining visas and traveling abroad. Also, individual members may come to find that the movement’s principles are too apolitical and neutral for their liking. Members of militant groups often attend the Tablighi Jamaat’s Ijtima (congregation) in Raiwind, where they hand out recruitment pamphlets. It is thus possible that a flame sparked and fueled by Tabligh could begin to burn out of control.

Borreguero, however, stressed that once this extreme position is taken, the individual relinquishes his or her membership to the Tablighi Jamaat. She also believes that any overt connection with these groups is not in the best interest of the Tablighi Jamaat. As stated above, the movement’s neutrality allows cordial relations with authorities, or at least keeps them from incurring official harassment. Any collusion with militant outfits would likely invite official proscription, especially in Western societies.

While much light was shed on the Tablighi Jamaat, many questions still remain. To some, its official secrecy and peripheral links to some nefarious individuals have nullified its choice to remain outside politics. But, as scholar Barbara Metcalf writes, “Islamic movements [like the Tablighi Jamaat] may have many goals and offer a range of social, moral, and spiritual satisfactions that are positive and not merely a reactionary rejection of modernity or ‘the West.’ Quite simply, these movements may, in the end, have much less to do with ‘us’ than is often thought.” Borreguero’s insights provided a gateway to better assess the group’s motives and machinations. It may well be that the study of the Tablighi Jamaat as an apolitical traditionalist movement gives an alternate lens through which security concerns over Islamist groups’ hostility toward the West can be viewed.

Notes

1. There are several translations of the word jamaat, including “group,” “alliance,” “union,” etc. In the context of Tablighi Jamaat, the word is sometimes translated as meaning “cell.” While the literal definition of “cell” has no negative connotations, in the study of Islamism the word has become a de rigueur description of small terrorist cadres. Therefore, the more apt translation in this case is “group.”

2. See Craig S. Smith, “French Islamic group offers rich soil for militancy,” International Herald Tribune, April 29, 2005; Susan Sachs, “A Muslim Missionary Group Draws New Scrutiny in U.S.” New York Times, July 14, 2003; and “Mosque pleads for calm after being linked to eight suspects,” Sunday Times (UK), August 13, 2006.

3. Jan Ali, “Islamic Revivalism: The Case of the Tablighi Jamaat,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 23, no. 1 (April 2003), pp. 176-7.

 

 

 

 

 

This USIPeace Briefing was written by Nicholas Howenstein, senior program assistant in the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Institute, which does not advocate specific policies.

 

The United States Institute of Peace is an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress. Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide. The Institute does this by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by directly engaging in peacebuilding efforts around the globe.

October 12, 2006