Understanding the tabligh movement beyond Covid-19

Indonesian members of tabligh arrive at a Surabaya port to attend an international gathering in Magetan in East Java, in 2004. (Reuters pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: Among Muslims, the mention of the Tablighi Jama’at, a loose organisation of Muslim missionaries who preach to fellow Muslims, often conjures up images of ascetic Muslims with long beards and loose dresses.

Such stereotyping is not always inaccurate. Those who attend Tablighi groups have been unconsciously trained during their many gatherings at local mosques to dress and behave in a homogenous manner.

More recently, followers of tabligh have become the focus, with some attacking them in social media groups after a gathering attended by tens of thousands at the Sri Petaling mosque was identified as the base for a spike in Covid-19 cases.

The Sri Petaling mosque, built entirely with donations as well as the engineering expertise of members, is the tabligh group’s main base in the country where weekly and monthly religious discourses are held.

In the past, their monthly congregations at Masjid India in Kuala Lumpur would attract thousands of people from all walks of life.

So who are the tablighis?

The external appearance of its members is about the only aspect of the Tablighi Jamaat that most outside the fold know. Its history, ideology and methodology are rarely mentioned, even at Islamic forums, and their existence is rarely, perhaps never, a case study at Islamic universities.

The Sri Petaling Mosque, the base of the tabligh movement in Malaysia, was built entirely with members’ donations and their own engineering expertise.

One academic attempt at studying the group was compiled in a book, “Travellers in Faith”, published by prominent Dutch academic publisher EJ Brill some 20 years ago.

It brings together observations and studies by several social scientists about the tabligh phenomenon as a transnational movement.

Many would be surprised to learn that the tabligh has no formal structure or organisation, yet is considered the largest Muslim missionary group in the world with followers in more than 80 countries.

It will come as no surprise that the Jama’at originated in Delhi, India, the birthplace of many other colourful movements, 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 haj.

As in the subcontinent, so elsewhere: tabligh discussion-groups and meetings are followed with equal vigour in other parts of the world, 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 at mosques and Islamic centres. Despite this, members always keep a low profile and therefore attract little public attention and controversy.

Some two decades back, then-Melaka chief minister Abdul Rahim Thamby Chik 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.

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 towards 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 they are “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 group and its activities are tolerated, indeed encouraged, by almost every Muslim regime that suppresses dissent in Muslim countries in the name of political stability.

Even its transnational nature does not make it a significant threat to secular nation-states, as other Islamic movements are.

But to equate it with retreating from the world and ignoring it would be unfair.

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 they attract more people into the fold.

Its 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, they target Muslims; they rarely preach to non-Muslims. The atmosphere in a tabligh meeting is reasonably egalitarian; members organise 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 followers are asked to volunteer their time rather than just their money, to travel to different towns, cities and countries.

In the book mentioned above, US history professor Barbara Metcalf notes the absence of females within the tabligh fraternity.

But she 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 neighbourhoods. In fact, she states that the tabligh offers South Asian women the opportunity to gather for occasions other than weddings and deaths.

She 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.

Metcalf explains: “[The tablighis] undertaking a range of activities associated with women’s work marks them as inculcating what may be core religious values but are also culturally defined as quintessentially feminine.”