Tableeghi Jamaat(TJ) is a Muslim reform movement originating in 1920s in the region called Mewat, south of Delhi. An innovative approach to reform with trips to faraway mosques, face to face preaching and learning with other Muslims and impressing others’ hearts personal piety and patience are the hallmarks of this movement. During the following decades, the movement spread throughout the subcontinent and eventually throughout the world. While there have been many religious reform movements, of political or non-political orientation, the huge popularity of TJ with the number of jamaatis running into millions is exceptional.
Missionary activity has always been central to propagation of Islamic faith. The act of da’wa, (da’wat in its South Asian form) which simply means call or invitation is enjoined by Qur’an and is supposed to have been the way of the prophets throughout history. Call to the correct path has been more specifically described by the Qur’an as the twin duties of ‘commanding good’ and ‘prohibiting wrong’. Da’wa hence is an integral part of the faith. Tableegh, derived from Arabic root meaning ‘reach’, literally means ‘intimate’, and has been one of the terms associated with preaching historically. A tradition of the Prophet uses the same word while enjoining the faithful to transmit from him, even if one verse. Expectedly, such an understanding of tableegh blurs the strict binary of internal reform and external conversion. Whoever is deemed to be wayward has to be brought back to the right path, be it nominal Muslims themselves. However, within the colonial context, the process of internal reform has taken precedence, and TJ is one of the many such movements which emerged in this period.
In pre-colonial times, there were broadly two kinds of religious classes among the Muslims. Although there is a rejection of the formal category of clergy in Islam, the class of learned scholars, ulema (sing. alim) has traditionally acted as the guardian of religious knowledge, interpreting the holy book, and deriving laws based on the canonical texts of Islam. During the Mughal period the ulema partook in the administration, acting as qazis, muftis and teachers in madarsahs being supported by powerful Muslim patrons. The other class of religious notables were the Sufi pirs, who had been instrumental in the propagation of Islam, established khanqahs throughout the subcontinent, often received official patronage, commanded veneration of Muslims as well as Hindus and promoted relatively syncretic ideas. The Sufi khanqahs or the tombs of great pirs emerged as important pilgrimage centers, are often attributed with magical and healing power and are frequented by thousands seeking cure. The pir-murshid relation developed into an institution with the pir acting as a guide or an intermediary to God, or both. It is worth recalling that the sacred text in Arabic was untranslated and hence inaccessible to the masses at large.
With the collapse of Mughal state and consolidation of British power in the subcontinent in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, these two religious classes went through different and complicated forms of transformation depending on the local factors. For instance, in Punjab, the great Sufi shrines were integrated into the imperial framework, and more generally, the ulema as well as the pundits were hired by the colonial state. However, devoid of state support, the traditional structures of Islamic education slowly collapsed. A section of ulema played an active role in the 1857 rebellion, and engaged in anti-colonial activities. With the collapse of Delhi, the rise of reformist madarsah in Deoband in Western UP based on public and decentralized funding is recorded. Organized as a modern institute and aided by the print revolution, and teaching in Urdu instead of Persian, Deoband became the center of scores of similar schools throughout the subcontinent. It is within this context that the figure of Maulana Ilyas, who went on to found the TJ, emerged.
The colonial endeavor to classify Indians according to their religions provided the basis of future political communities. And its policy of non-intervention in the realm of personal laws provided a space to natives to carry on debates internal to a particular religious tradition. To add to that, the census and statistical data regarding the religious communities heightened the communal sensibilities. The suddhikaran movement undertaken by the reformist Arya Samaj in the early twentieth century with its mobilization on communal lines demonstrates this point. The movement aimed at reconverting the nominal Muslims whose ancestors had been converted to Islam, but retained many or most Hindu traditions. The case of Malkana Rajputs around Agra in 1923 was highlighted, and it generated insecurity among the Muslims. The Meos living in Mewat south of Delhi fell into the category of halfMuslims whom the Arya Samaj were targeting. This caste consisted of peasants, who claimed Rajput ancestry, practiced untouchability, didn’t practice purdah and commanded a position within the local Hindu caste hierarchy, but had Muslims in name. The region was prone to severe droughts, and the Meos fell into debt to the banyas and other money-lending classes. With the fall of neighboring Muslim powers who could have exploited them, the changing socio-economic context facilitated the identification of Meos with the Muslims. The few men who came to Aligarh or other institutes came to relate themselves to the larger Islamic community of north India. Another argument is that the landowning small peasantry could hope for upward mobility by attaching itself to the traditional symbols of high Islamic culture when the antagonism with the other Hindu castes was on the rise.
Maulana Ilyas hailed from a respected family with an old tradition of religious scholarship. His father had set up a maktab in Basti Nizamuddin south of Delhi. Maulana Ilyas studied in Deoband and was teaching at the famous Mazahir Uloom in Saharanpur when his brother passed away in 1917 and he took charge of his father’s school and settled in Basti Nizamuddin. After years of maktab and teaching experiments, Maulana Ilyas was not satisfied with the results. An interesting episode is narrated in sources, where on seeing a hafiz graduating from his maktab who was dressed in a ‘Hindu’ attire, Ilyas is said to have regretted the futility of his efforts. The physical symbols – beard, dress etc – are very important in such an understanding of Islam. It is by differentiating onself from the overwhelming non-Muslim majority that one establishes his Muslim-ness. To look alike, to adopt the symbols of Muslim culture (what would now be called Islamicate) becomes an act of faith in itself. More importantly, he felt that unless the daily environment of the Meos are changed considerably, there is no way of bringing them to the correct path of Islam. It is in this insight that the novelty of TJ is to be found.
The sources have proposed various theories explaining the origins of gashts or trips, the most important methodical innovation of TJ within the traditional framework of Islam. It is probable that it was developed by some Meos working for Ilyas, who later learnt it from them. The TJ members, on the other hand, claim that it was divinely inspired. But as Maulana Wahiduddin Khan points out, the central concern was changing the environment for the Meo men for some days, so that they could immerse in the right Islamic life for that period, something which would not be possible in their heterodox homes, and it is this realization that explains the zeal with which Ilyas promoted this method. The second and equally important aspect was using the Meos for preaching among their brethren through such gashts, and despite the fact they were unlettered, this proved to be very successful. The innovative approach that Ilyas evolved for preaching didn’t involve rational discourse or appeals to the minds the used appeals to the hearts with infinite humility and selfless behavior. Many anecdotes record Ilyas dealing with the stubborn Meos who are not ready to send their children to his maktab. It is recorded that once a Meo punched him, and the small Maulana fainted, but after recovering continues to appeal to him by saying: ‘you have done your work, let me do mine now’. The listener was impressed and converted to his cause immediately.
Maulana Ilyas built a complicated network of maktabs and followers within Mewat. He would roam around, often walking for huge distances, with a map of the region, organizing jamaats for trips throughout the region. Each jamaat comprised a mu’allim or a teacher, an amir or the commander. They would go and reside in rural areas, and teach the people the basic tenets and rituals of Islam – classified by TJ as the six principles: i) kalimah (faith in God and Prophet), ii) namaaz, iii) ilm and zikr (knowing and remembering God), iv) ikram e muslim (honoring Muslims), v) ikhlas e niyat (sincerity of intention) and vi) da’wat o tableegh (inviting and preaching). The disarming simplicity and humility was instrumental in this transfer of knowledge. This method initially invoked angry reactions from the ulema contemptuous at the illiterate peasant teaching Islam. But the reaction changed when this proved successful. Ilyas sent some of his followers to Deoband and other important institutions so that the ulema could see the progress, or at least be alarmed at the state these Muslims were in. The change of environment, and the stay in a distant mosque did facilitate easing into an Islamic pattern – praying five times a day is much easier when you live in a mosque. Such trips strengthened the faith of many and many returned with a reformed life.
The agrarian crisis in Mewat worsened and the Meos of Alwar rebelled against the Hindu Raja in 1933-4. The conflict took over a communal color and spilled over to the British India, and the aggrieved Meo community identified itself more with as north Indian Muslim community. This gave a boost to the popularity of TJ in the region. Maulana Ilyas had been received as a charismatic leader, arbitrating disputes among the Meos and maintaining their unity in these difficult times. Ilyas’s panchayat at Nuh in 1934 against the backdrop of intensifying Arya Samaj activities is a significant development. A 15 point agreement was signed which made the Meo leaders pledge that they observe and spread the principles of Islam. It involved reforms in the status of women, emphasis on purdah, Islamic forms of marriage but it is significant that the inheritance which Meos denied to their women is absent. Moreover, any explicit reference to politics never appears in these agreements. Besides the fact that this mobilization would serve political ends in future, TJ has been aloof from politics during most of its 90 years career. The position of TJ was further strengthened by the partition riots when the Meos were subjected to immense cruelty. It is said that TJ got at least nominal identification on the part of the majority of Meos after the partition riots. This region has been the base of TJ as it expanded into the subcontinent and the world in the second half of the twentieth century.
After Maulana Ilyas’ death in 1944, his son Maulana Yusuf succeeded him, and his nephew Maulana Zakariya composed the basic reading for the group: Fazail e Amaal. This text is a collection of traditions, each one with added explanations and morals. It is categorized into stories of companions of the Prophet, the virtues of namaaz, the virtues of the Qur’an, the virtues of remembering God, the virtues of tableegh and the virtues of Ramazan. This text is read aloud in every meeting of the jamaat by one of the members to others. This coupled with face to face preaching and public speaking helps the new recruits to improve and practice their knowledge of Urdu, and improve their self-confidence as well. The Meos continued to be the core of the movement centered in Basti Nizamuddin, till late twentieth century, when the movement gained international presence. It has been noted by Yoginder Sikand that recently the top leadership of the movement in India has been increasingly dominated by richer business communities, creating some resentment among the Meos. But the increasing strength of TJ is demonstrated by their annual ijtima organized throughout the subcontinent which attract hundreds of thousands of people. The international reach of TJ has facilitated the spread of Deobandi madrasahs in Europe and Africa. Strange stories can be read in the karguzaris or records of a gasht, a source mentions an interesting gasht of a group of Malegaon preachers to a Chinese mosque. The Indian Muslims were horrified at the cultural differences between them and their Chinese co-religionists.
TJ is completely apolitical in its project. It is in marked contrast not just with other reformist movements such as Jamaat e Islami founded by the ideologue Maulana Maudoodi, but with other groups of Deobandi persuasion such as Taliban as well. The latter believe in seizing the political power and affecting the change in society from above, bringing them into line with the right Islamic path. In contrast, TJ works with a bottom up plan. If every individual is reformed and brought to the correct path, the society itself, with all its institutions will be reformed. The tenets of TJ lie very much within the boundaries of conservative interpretation of Islam, are not overtly critical of any traditional school of thought, don’t get into sophisticated or intellectual arguments, however, they have been successful in creating thousands of mobile and temporary maktabs, where people have experienced a distinct order of life which has transformed them. They have created an army of preachers, who have become a common sight in the subcontinent with their white topi and kurta-pajama, and their beds rolled on their backs. They have reached to remote corners of the Muslim society, often residing in slums and providing religious education to inspiration to the most downtrodden. I was once part of a gasht to a scrap-dealers dwelling in slums in Mumbai. Besides being objects of such gashts, I have met people from very low economic strata, like hawkers, manual laborers who fervently take time out of their busy lives to go on gashts for weeks or months. However, despite their immense effectiveness, their non-political approach to religion is challenged and criticized by many Muslims, and the quietest attitude they seem to promote is termed un-Islamic.
Written by Saquib Salim, who is a historian and chief editor at Heritage Times. The views and opinions in this article belong to the author.