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A useful account of the travelling fraternity
By Abdar-Rahman Koya

Travellers in Faith: Studies of the Tablighi Jama’at as a Transnational Islamic Movement for Faith Renewal edited by Muhammad Khalid Masud.
Pub: Brill Academic Publishers, Boston, US, 2000.
Pp. 268.
Hbk: $103.00

Mention of the Tablighi Jama’at often conjures up images of ascetic Muslims with long beards and loose dresses. Such steoreotyping is not always inaccurate. Those who attend Tablighi groups have been unconsciously trained during their many gatherings in local mosques to dress and behave in a homogenous manner. Sadly, this outer appearance is about the only aspect of this Islamic movement that most outside the fold know. Its history, ideology and methodology are rarely mentioned at Islamic forums or studies.

A book like Travellers in Faith is therefore a welcome contribution. It brings together observations and studies by several social scientists about the Tablighi phenomenon as a transnational movement. There have not been many such writings on the Tabligh, although the fact that the movement is one of the largest in the world should warrant it more attention. Available accounts are almost all by the Tablighis themselves or opponents and critics of the movement.

Many would be surprised to learn that the Tablighi movement has no formal structure or organization, yet is considered the largest Muslim missionary group in the world, with followers in more than eighty countries. It will come as no surprise that the Jama’at originated in Delhi, India, the birthplace of many other colourful movements as well, and has millions of adherents in the Indian subcontinent. An annual Tablighi congregation in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh attracts large crowds of Muslims from around the world, second only to the Hajj.

As in the Subcontinent, so elsewhere: Tabligh discussion-groups and meetings are followed with equal vigour growing in silence despite the ‘unglamorous’ image it possesses compared to other Islamic groups. In many Muslim countries, the Tabligh movement attracts everyone from hawkers to medical students and businessmen to weekend-gatherings held in mosques and Islamic centres. Despite this, Tablighis always keep a low profile and therefore attract little public attention and controversy. Having said that, the chief minister of one Malaysian state imposed a ban on Tabligh activities in his state, calling it ‘deviant’ and ‘detrimental to the well-being of one’s family’, especially when the breadwinner goes on months of ‘retreat’ for his Tabligh activities. (Ironically, the minister later resigned after being accused of rape by an underage girl.)

The general belief is that the Tablighis are apolitical, with members giving all their attention to matters of faith and religious learning, and orienting Muslims toward an Islamic pattern of individual lives. This dimension of life, according to them, is the easiest to control. This view has attracted the accusation that the Tablighis are just ‘pseudo-sufi’ escapists who seek God for inner peace. This is partly true, yet highly debatable: it is perhaps because of its apolitical nature that the Jama’at and its activities are tolerated, indeed encouraged, by almost every Muslim regime that suppresses Islamic organizations in Muslim countries in the name of political stability. Even its transnational nature, the main subject of this book, does not make it a significant threat to the secular nation-states, as other Islamic movements are. But to equate it with retreating from the world and ignoring it would be unfair.

It is amazing that despite having no formal structure, the Tabligh’s activities and methods around the world are almost uniform - from the way they dress to the way that they attract more people to come into its fold. The Tabligh’s typical modus operandi is to invite people to come to the mosque for religious lectures, often by a visiting ‘senior’ Tablighi member from overseas. Unlike other movements, the Tablighis’ targets are Muslims; they rarely preach to non-Muslims. The atmosphere in a Tablighi meeting is reasonably egalitarian; members organize themselves into small missions (jama’ats), and normally learn from and encourage each other. They quietly pay visits to Muslim homes near mosques, inviting them to join their gatherings. The Tabligh’s distinguishing mark is that Tablighis are asked to volunteer their time rather than just their money, to travel to different towns, cities and countries.

The opening chapter on the evolution of the Tabligh — for the movement as it is today is an evolution, not an overnight formation — will benefit those who know little or nothing about the group. With a detailed explanation of the movement’s founders, Mawlana Ilyas and others, and their early activities, Khalid Masud sets the mood for the other issues facing the movement, most of which, oddly enough, have to do with the movement’s image. In chapter three he studies the Tabligh ‘ideology’ and literature.

Barbara Metcalf’s observation of the ‘absent’ dimension of the Tablighis — the female — is eye-opening. One point that she, a westerner, rightly notes is the preoccupation with the question of women’s participation among the critics of Tabligh. It has always been fashionable, not only among orientalists but also among ‘pro-women’ Muslim critics who, as she notes, ‘talk about women a great deal... Indeed, one sometimes thinks they talk about nothing else.’ Metcalf dismisses the idea that women have no role in the movement, saying: ‘Women are encouraged to engage in Tabligh and go out, so long as they do not mix with unrelated men.’ Just as men are supposed to mix with men, so too women have their own jama’ats, meeting in their own circles and neighborhood. She also suggests, although this could be an exaggeration, that the Tabligh offers South Asian women the opportunity to gather for occasions other than weddings and deaths. In another interesting observation, Metcalf notes that the men in their Tabligh journey, whether rich or poor, are expected to develop a new standard of humility, as is traditionally expected of women by the menfolk. Men learn to cook, wash their clothes and look after each other; thus the Tabligh encourages a certain redistribution of gender roles. She further explains: ‘[The Tablighis’] undertaking a range of activity associated with women’s work, marks them as inculcating what may be core religious values but are also culturally defined as quintessentially feminine’ (p.50). Part two is the thematic centre of the book, on the Tabligh as a transnational movement. It begins with a general introduction to the modus operandi of the Tabligh’s activities, with South Asians playing an important role in transforming it into a transnational movement. A study of the Tabligh in different parts of the world then follows. These studies were made by researchers and social scientists from both Muslim and western backgrounds, and cover Europe, Canada, South Africa and Morocco. However, Asian (other than South Asia) and Arab countries are not covered, which is a major failing as transnationalism is the main focus of the book.

Having said that, the book does give a useful account of how Tabligh movement developed and spread to different parts of the world, along with an examination of the variety of political as well as cultural challenges facing the movement, even if the country-by-country analyses of Tabligh groups is incomplete.

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