Book Review: Islam on the Move, The Tablighi Jama’at in South East Asia by Farish A. Noor

Though I had read this book sometime back, actually speed read it, the recent incidents involving the Tablighis’ in the Chinese Wuhan virus episode made me go back and read this book again. This is considered to be an important work, deals with the rise and spread of the Tablighi Jamat in south east Asia. My main takeaways;

1. The book provides a detailed historical account of the growth and spread of the Tablighi Jamat in south east Asia, their foundational texts as well as theirpocket literature. He tries to answer this fundamental question if something like a ‘Tablighi identity’ or “Tablighi mindset” exists. The book also tries to provide an overview as to how other Muslims who are not Tablighis, view this movement.

2. It needs to be understood that the problem that Islam faced after the death of Prophet, was that the unifying principle of the Umma then shifted from the personality of the Prophet to his message. This message was obviously subject to various interpretations in the backdrop of the absent lawgiver. So now the Muslim community needed those who could reconstruct what the absent lawgiver would have done when confronted with this or that situation – so it was only in the absence of the Prophet that Islam became the nodal point of the Muslim community. Seen in that context, what did it mean to be a Tablighi? Explained in simple terms Noor defines the TJ as a ‘fundamentalist literalist movement that seeks to restore to the Muslim society a sense of pristine perfection of Islam at the foundational moment, when Islam was directly transmitted to the first community of believers from the Prophet itself….the core of the movement’s work lies in its missionary practices that focus primarily on the teachings of proper Muslim conduct in emulation of the life of the Prophet Mohammad and his companions (Sahaba).’ This makes up for the bulk of the TJs foundational literature. These include works by Tablighi’s founder leaders, Maulana Md. Ilyas Khandhalawi, Maulana Yusuf Khandhalawi and Maulana Md. Zakaria Khandalawi. At the heart of the corpus of foundational texts lie the 6 fundamental principles which outline the proper mode of religious conduct for the members of the movement. So the TJ is a missionary movement which seeks to ‘convert’ other Muslims to what they believe is the ‘true’ Islam. So, they believe that they alone are ‘authentic’ Muslims and others are Muslims only at the ‘nominal’ level. Apart from the foundational texts Noor also provides an insight into the pocket literature produced by the members of the Tablighi Jamat. These booklets provides important glimpses into the ‘mindset’ of the Tablighi Jaamatis. Some of the themes that find regular recurrence in these pocket books are ones like the presentation of the Salafis as regular bugbears for the Tablighis, highlighting how the world is inhabited by humans, Djinns and the Satan, and the struggles one needs to wage against the Satan, lest the temptations induced by these may derail all attempts by the Tablighis to lead a pious life.

3. In the course of his fieldwork, Noor finds two recurring themes in his interaction with people who became Tablighis. One was the wasteful and empty life they led with non Muslims and as slave to materialism before they became Tablighis and second that becoming Tabhligis was Allah’s call which saved them and drew them to the movement.

4. Seeking to imitate the Prophet has become an obsession with the Tablighis and according to them poverty and rejection of all materialism is a virtue, so is the rejection of all worldly temptations. The devil for them resides in toilets, cinemas, discos, nightclubs and other items of entertainment, poetry and fiction. They shun all new technologies and medicine as well as politics (though there are exceptions to this as the writer shows in the Singaporean Cabinet minister Sidek Saniff). Imitating the Prophet they stress on ‘dakwah’ which takes them on missions to propagate ‘true’ Islam around the world (khuruj).

5. Interestingly (more so in the light of what happened at the Markaz, Nizamuddin), India occupies a very important place in the life of the Tablighis. In his field work he found Tablighis regularly mentioning of the joy and spiritual solace that they witnessed when they visited India and during their stay there. May be this has to do because the movement originated in India.However, in none of their literature does he find reference to the fact that India is a Hindu majority country. India is presented as the centre of the world, the centre of Islam too. It is the place where Adam first set foot. Critics (mostly other Muslims who are not Tabhligis) highlight this primacy accorded to India rather than Arabia, the stress on poverty, becoming mendicants and living of alms etc a result of the corrupting Hindu influence on the Tablighis. They also condemn them for neglecting their families, especially their womenfolk and proceeding on their missionary missions (khuruj), a practice the critics argue is again influenced by Hindu sadhus. The political Islamists condemn their disinterest in politics and quietude as influences which stand in the way of Muslim acquiring political power. Noor quotes Nik Aziz, a leader of a radical Islamist party who criticises the Tablighi disinterest in politics thus, ‘They say things like ‘Muslims should only pray and leave the world to God’. That means that Muslims should avoid politics too. That is an Indian idea, all this denial of the world. If you deny politics, give up the world, then how will the Muslims ever come to power?’

6. Lastly, Noor deals with the issue of the TJ and its association with Islamic terrorism. In the recent years many former TJ associates have been found to be involved in radical Islamic terrorism. The author quotes B. Raman who argued that the movement had been at the forefront of Jihadi organisations and had been assisting radical Islamic groups. The author argues that this needs to be seen in the light of the fact that anyone can join the movement and that travelling on ‘khuruj’ provides them with a convenient camouflage to travel without getting noticed by the authorities. So many radical Islamists pretend to be Tablighis and may not be genuinely associated with the movement. While this may be true that it does not support terrorism and Islamic radicalism directly, however it cannot be denied that TJ believes and preaches that there is only one true religion i.e Islam, it also projects non believers as people who are ‘dirty’ and incapable of redemption. Inculcation of such beliefs and teachings amongst its followers does end up creating a sense of Islamic exclusivity and superiority, which in turn may/does provide a fertile ground on which seeds of Islamic radicalism and terrorism can be sown more easily.

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