A QUIET GRANDEUR: A CRITICIAL (read ‘Sympathetic’) APPRAISAL OF THE TABLEEGHI JAMAT
My attempts at landing upon an official Tableeghi Jamat statement on the attacks on a Tableeghi centre in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (Pakistan) and on Tableeghi Jamat members in Karachi fell in vain. I ceased to wonder when I chanced to meet a lady who was an acquaintance of one of the victims of the mosque target-killing in Karachi. With remarkable serenity and a muted delight on her face that was almost transcendental, she mentioned how the deceased from South Africa had always harboured the hope to die in Pakistan- the place where the work of Tableegh had been revived after the first generation of Muslims (salaf), and upon the same model.
It was one of those moments one feels so foolish, one does not have anything to say as one tries to grapple with a sublime yet humbling understanding. I understood why my attempt to look up Tableeghi Jamat’s ‘official statement’ on the targeting of its associates was incredibly unintelligent and utterly in vain.
In my search for an anchor and handhold in this Roller-coaster Ride to Nowhere that life sometimes seems to become, I had been in and out of a dizzying variety of religious groups and organizations: big and small, spiritual and political, militant and pacifist, sectarian and pluralist... yet it never seemed a final Homecoming, and I was always an unsettled, restive maverick- desperately seeking, perpetually and hopelessly unfulfilled. But the long, exhausting and frustrating journey was never in vain_ because I read the pointers all along the way. I experienced, I learnt, I understood...
Travelling on life's winding ways eventually afforded a rare opportunity for close, firsthand observation of a phenomenon I had always had a blind spot towards: the silently grandiose project of the Tableeghi Jamat. The work of Tableegh hinges on fundamental Islamic ethics and values, and demonstrates great spiritual discipline. The Tableeghi Jamat operates with mindboggling organization and efficiency which becomes even more awe-inspiring given the fact that it is entirely autonomous with no source of external funding or even any necessary financial contribution from workers. In fact, there does not even exist any rigid organizational structure, any formal administrative hierarchy or even a membership procedure. This is also why there is no official record of the number of workers in Tableegh- Wikipedia estimates it at 120 million, but it is highly likely for the numbers to be much vaster- the footprint of the work of the Tableegh is literally everywhere- from the remotest areas in rural Pakistan to nations abroad- with workers ranging from every social class, group and ethnicity, striving for personal spiritual purification and that of fellow beings. A tableegh associate from the US observes: ‘Unlike Christian missions with millions of dollars of funding these people include the likes of people I have heard about who polished shoes in a bazaar in Pakistan, sold their clothes and walked on foot in East Africa with barely any food- to call people to Allah.’
During my years of self discovery and my informal study of Islam I had often wrestled with obstinate questions for which answers often remained elusive. The stunningly simple, incredibly straight, quiet and consistent way of the Tableegh addressed and even resolved most of those.
I used to wonder why I, having been raised in Islam should have a privilege over those raised in other faith traditions, when my choice to be born with the Islamic faith handed down to me was not a witting one. So how can eternal salvation depend upon an inherited faith or a privilege of upbringing as we self-righteously damn those denied the same. I began to see faith less as a privilege and more as an enormous trust and responsibility that had to be shared_ and that mankind’s deprivation from the sweetness of Eeman is the burden of those entrusted with it. Tableeghi Jamat, with its simple emphasis on ‘Dawah’ (Invitation to Faith) and reinvigoration of faith through sharing and including concedes to the idea that faith is a responsibility towards mankind and the world, and that the misguidance and evil of this world is our problem; and that for the purgation and salvation of mankind every iota of individual effort must be spent. This intense spiritual drive is not born out of religious chauvinism or self righteous, narcissistic proselytism, but out of a sincerity that is inherently humane and compassionate (khalis) towards fellow beings; a selflessness that beautifies. The characteristic humility and heartwarming gentility of those working in the path of the Tableegh thus stands explained.
Many who proclaim religious association use it for a comfortable sense of self-righteousness that lulls and dulls the self-reprimanding conscience; or for other selfish purposes, since religiosity is highly venerated in this society. Yet the demand and the right of religion on us is that it be submitted to; that we give ourselves to it and in the process learn to give up all that is profane and degenerate. The essence of faith is submission, which is attained when we learn to let go of the self and forego its selfishness. The highest expression and evidence of this submission is sacrifice. The work of Tableegh in the path of God and His people is essentially a sacrifice every step of the way, requiring precious time, energy, financial contribution and distance from one’s nearest and dearest. It requires dealing with adverse and hostile circumstances and with all kinds of people while keeping one’s poise and spiritual largesse for the sake of Allah. This is in the footsteps of the first generation of Islam. Walking in this blessed path means that in turn one receives spiritual bounties, rising to a higher station of spirituality.
The Tableegh brings together a rare and perfectly blended mix of individualist and communitarian approaches. While the prime focus is the tazkiyah (inner purification) of every individual, and individuals rather than groups are reached out to, yet there is a strongly communitarian dimension. The work involves connecting and bonding with others for naught else but compassion and a shared faith and vision. The purity and selflessness of this bond gets people together indissolubly. The beauty of the connection can only be experienced.
A particularly interesting regular Tableegh activity is the weekly ‘Gasht’- walking on foot door to door to invite others to pray in the neighbourhood mosque and to stay for a short religious sitting afterwards. A Pakistani-American approached by some participants of a Tableeghi Gasht says, ‘The knock of a few simply dressed men asking me to come pray in the mosque right across my house may have been the very way to the corridor to change I wished for...’ He goes on to add: ‘In all major cities in the US they do some work- very humble, peaceful and honest people who have doors slammed on their faces but do not get discouraged. May Allah protect the sisters and brothers associated with it.’
But while the Tableegh is primarily a spiritual enterprise, it strongly bears upon society and politics with its characteristic quiet persistence. While many contemporary religious groups prioritize political ascendancy and power, making all else conditional upon that, the Tableegh has a sounder basis more in tune with the Prophetic method.
The understanding is based upon the idea that our collective affairs are a sum of our individual states, therefore the means to purge and mend society is through spiritual purification at the personal level. Through this individual spiritual revival all levels of society can be impacted and dented into. With this bottom-up approach, individual moral purification radiates towards the echelons of power and authority as the work of tableegh quietly pervades.
Restraint from direct involvement in the business of power politics also brings the additional advantage of safe operation without raising suspicion and alarm. Some months ago when the Interior Minister Rehman Malik accused the Jamat of harbouring terrorists, prominent politicians from a number of parties with no religious associations denounced the statement and defended the activities of the Jamat as purely a moral-spiritual project. The widespread support from all sections of society that the Jamat garnered in the wake of the recent heinous attack at its centre in Peshawar is overwhelming and something to speak of, as no other contemporary religious group in Pakistan can match this level of deep-rooted acceptance and appreciation among the masses.
The Tableegh’s enthusiastic renunciation of ideological/political associations or any sectarian posturing and its exclusive emphasis on basic religio-spiritual values make its approach an antidote to virulent sectarianism gnawing into this society. It even serves as an effective antidote to militant Salafism which rejects traditional Islamic scholarship in favour of a literalist, inflexible and revisionist interpretation. By holding on to traditional sunni Islam interpreted by the Hanafi school of thought, the Tableegh dissociates itself from contemporary Salafism. The Hanafi madhab is largely followed in the subcontinent, which is why the Tableegh has become well-entrenched in the society, owned by the generality of the population, and capable of the mass appeal it has garnered.
On the question of Jihad, the Tableeghi Jamat believes the option of using military means cannot be used when the spiritual and social project of Islam has not been taken up effectively and the mission to convey the Message completely and universally (itmam ul hujjah) not yet fulfilled. Moreover, with the prevailing moral degeneracy in Muslim societies, Jihad in the field is irrelevant and self-defeating. Ignominy and oppression will crush Muslim subjects as long as there is no genuine effort at moral and spiritual uplift, as Allah says: ‘God does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in themselves.’ Contemporary Salafist Jihadism (other than in isolated instances of self-defence against direct oppression) is thus in vain. This understanding is also inspired by a humane concern and compassion. Jihad against the infidel without having tried to present the Message in its entirety and pristine character is a poor substitute for the more compassionate overture towards the enemy_ that is, winning him over to faith through upstanding moral conduct, sincerely reaching out and striving for the establishment of peace and justice. A senior of the Tableegh is said to have remarked something to this effect to someone seeking clarification on the Jamat’s stance on Jihad: ‘You Jihadists help fill up the hellfire with infidels while we change hearts to get candidates for paradise.’ Contemporary Jihadists, according to the Tableeghi Jamat, betray the gradualism of the Prophet (SAW)’s way.
Yet the Tableeghi Jamat is part and parcel of the societies it is engendered in and operates in. The patriarchal social structure of society in this part of the world has sought religious cover in the ranks of many religious groups, the Tableeghi Jamat being no exception. The work of Tableegh primarily involves and addresses men_ their wives, daughters, mothers and sisters are provided with a ‘parallel universe’ in which selected tableegh activities are replicated within a strictly closed, segregated environment. The mainstream fieldwork of Tableegh as well as the mass instruction is dominated by men, with their women relegated to a subsidiary role. Besides, the gender segregation to an extreme degree deprives women of a holistic and wholesome experience of life and the world and limits their sphere to the domestic and familial alone. This has resulted in a narrowness of perspective and superficiality of insight characterizing women of the Tableeghi Jamat. This is particularly so in second and third generation Tableeghis who have had cloistered upbringing and few opportunities for self development through education and experience. Besides, second and third generation tableeghis inherit the religious lifestyle without having the liberty to make personal choice, often taking up Tableegh and religious practice as habit and ritual rather than as actions of the heart.
The literature used for religious instruction and tazkiyah (purification) as well as the methodology with which it is delivered is dated from the earlier half of the previous century. While it has inspired millions and continues to do so, the outmoded language and style limits its outreach and appeal to the younger generation and fails to address their dilemmas and questions about religion, modernity and secularity in this day and age. There is an absence of content that can present an alternative discourse to respond to or even recognize the innovations and challenges of the current milieu.
An insurmountable problem with Muslim education in the subcontinent is the disconnect between ‘maqulat’ (the rational sciences) and ‘manqulat’ transmitted knowledge). Religious education has entirely jettisoned the ‘maqulat’ as secular and profane, and this in turn has sharpened the artificial cleavage between ‘Deen’ (the religious worldview and way of life) and ‘Dunya’ (the secular/worldly domain) in society. As a result, the religiously educated are consigned solely to the business of the seminary and pulpit whereas those with a modern secular education become the movers and shakers of society- a sort of privileged elite. The disconnect between the religiously educated conservative Muslims and the secularized therefore runs along the lines of social class. As a result, the religious are generally viewed as a lower social group deprived of social prestige, disengaged from decision making and opinion leadership, pigeonholed into the narrow realm of strictly religious affairs with little to do with the business of the world. Unless groups take up militancy to shake this off, most do begin to reflect this relegation of ‘deen’ to the unworldly and otherworldly. In the process they become insular, islandic and static utopias in a rapidly changing, complex world. The malaise infects all religious groups and its repercussions are visible in the rank and file of Tableeghi Jamat in Pakistan.
The Gulen Movement in Turkey shares with the Tableeghi Jamat its non sectarian, non ideological spiritual and social project. It shares the all-embracing mass appeal and loose structure giving individual space and freedom, as well as the refusal to politicize and confront. Very insightfully, both movements refuse to ghettoize religion under a narrow, exclusivist, parochial banner. However, the Gulen Movement has chosen to do some things differently. It has taken on modernity and its exigencies, risen to its challenges while ensuring the relevance of religious ethics as the panacea for the evils of materialistic, permissive, libertarian secular societies. The Gulen Movement promotes social activism and rights advocacy as religious causes and is dedicated towards healing, harmonizing, building bridges and problem-solving. It makes issues of social justice, rights and liberties the business of religion- a sacred calling of the faith. This, alongwith the contemporaneity of language, style and content has given the Gulen Movement a progressive outlook and an incredible popularity among Turkey’s younger population_ a monumental achievement for any essentially religious movement in this day and age. It is an example we have much to learn from.
Given the Tableeghi Jamat’s vision, direction, spiritual appeal, inclusiveness and wide outreach, it has tremendous potential and promise. It can and ought to lend itself to the project of chiselling faith-inspired minds in positions of leadership and decision making in the academia, public administration, economics, media and politics. For this it must engage itself with the intellectual challenges that impede the spiritual journey of many bright young minds privileged with education in institutions for the English-speaking urban elite who are trained into critical inquiry. Any religious movement aiming for the establishment of Islam and its values in society which feels that it owes a debt to the future must prioritize leadership development among Muslim youth. For this, the concerns and questions of young minds with leadership potential need to be explicitly and directly addressed.
An unwillingness to adapt to the exigencies of the times is symptomatic of stagnation and regression which characterize the length and breadth of modern Islamic movements in the Muslim world, with few exceptions. This leads to an intellectual stuntedness that repels our brightest and most promising minds as these groups fail to answer their questions about the role and engagement of religion with the world, life and society. Dr. Muhammad Iqbal resented this stasis as a result of a stubborn refusal to win space in the medley of competing ideas. He sees it as a harbinger of perpetual irrelevance. He writes, ‘The claim of the present generations of Muslim liberals to interpret the foundational legal principles in the light of their own experience and the altered conditions of modern life is in my opinion perfectly justified. The teaching of the Quran that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation- guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors- should be permitted to solve its problems.’