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6. New Medinas

The Tablighi Jama‘at in America and Europe

Barbara D. Metcalf

The Tablighi Jama‘at

The Tablighi Jama‘at is a quietist movement of spiritual renewal that originated some seventy years ago in British India. The movement has spread widely in areas of Indo-Pakistani migration, among Muslims of North African origin in Belgium (Dassetto 1988) and France (Kepel 1987), and thence to North Africa (Tozy and Etienne 1986), as well as to many countries of Africa and to Malaysia.[1] A succinct summary by a British Muslim reviewing “Islam in Britain” might serve as an introduction to the movement, as well as an illustration of how Tablighis are often viewed:

The founder of the Tablighi Jamaat in India was Maulana Muhammad Ilyas (1885–1944). A student of Deoband [a reformist theological institute founded in 1867], he became disillusioned with [conventional education] and wanted to project Islam in an extroverted manner. His main thrust was to do missionary work.…The Tablighis…travel in groups on gasht (tour) to bring other Muslims round to their way of thinking. They have been quite successful in this but [N.B.] like the Deobandis they are non-political.

The center of the Tablighi Jamaat in Britain is Dewsbury [in West Yorkshire]. They are spread all over Britain through the mosques and are well organized. They are polite, courteous and well behaved, and can easily be spotted in the streets. They wear a cap, a beard, a long shirt which goes below the knees, and a pyjama or trousers which is shortened to be above the ankles. They might also wear a jacket and sneakers. They keep very much to themselves. (Raza 1991: 14–15)

The rationale behind the program described by Raza, as conceived by Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, was imitation of the practice of the early community of the Prophet, not only by following his sunna in general terms, but specifically by conducting “campaigns” to spread Islam. For Ilyas, the critical qur’anic teaching was that Muslims were “the best community” only insofar as they “enjoined the good and forbade evil” (Qur’an, sura Al Imran, 3:110). Although military forays were impossible, active preaching was equally a “struggle in the way of God,” a jihad. Muslims were to go out on patrols (gasht) and excursions or forays (khuruj); and they were to be led by an amir, a ruler or chief, who need not necessarily be a teacher or spiritual guide. Every time they left home “in the way of God,” they undertook a hijra, recalling the move to Medina.[2] The most distinctive dimension of Muhammad Ilyas’s teaching was that the duty to preach was incumbent on all Muslims, not only on the learned or spiritual elite. Outsiders labeled them the “community” (jama‘at) of “informing” or “notifying” (tabligh), in reference to this earnest preaching.

Since there are no formal criteria for membership, it is impossible to measure the spread or depth of Tabligh activity with any precision. Even participation in missions is a limited measure of the movement’s influence: thus a recent doctoral dissertation on a Muslim community in Bombay attributes a radical change in religious style over recent decades to Tabligh preaching despite the fact that very few participate in the weekly gatherings, let alone the missionary tours (Fazalbhoy 1990). Tabligh includes many levels of participation, from those who have virtually no other activity, to people engaged in household or paid employment who yet manage to meet the movement’s standards for participation in gatherings and travel, to those who join an occasional mission, to those who may occasionally or regularly pray where Tablighis congregate and listen to their discussions. The annual gatherings, drawing participants worldwide, are one measure of the movement’s growth. In the subcontinent, the numbers attending the meetings in Raiwind (Pakistan) each November and Tungi (Bangladesh) each January are widely estimated to be over one million; similar numbers participated in meetings in India, but because of fears of anti-Muslim violence, such mass meetings have in recent years been suspended there in favor of smaller gatherings.[3]

Tabligh Abroad

The beginnings of Tabligh activity overseas are precisely remembered by activists today. Thus the first tour in Britain is dated to 1946; in the United States, to 1952; in France, to 1962. The change came under the leadership of Maulana Muhammad Yusuf (1917–65) as the movement’s amir, a role he succeeded to upon the death of his father, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, in 1944. From the very beginning, he encouraged a worldwide vision of the spread of the Tabligh message; that spirit continues, so that even if the traces are slight, it is important to activists that their brethren have traveled everywhere, whether to China or Alaska. It was, however, with the substantial labor, student, and professional migrations to Europe and North America, beginning in the 1960s, that a network of support and a core audience for preaching appeared and substantial Tabligh activity began.

There have, however, been other networks utilized by Tabligh missions (Gaborieau 1993: 17). A key occasion for Tabligh activity has been hajj travel, when the pious use the unavoidable companionship of travel to persuade their fellows; once in the Hijaz, they turn their attention to Arabs and others they encounter. Hence diaspora Muslims might hear the Tabligh message while on hajj or might themselves undertake the pilgrimage as part of a Tabligh mission.

A second network has been that established by students and scholars of Islam, especially those associated with the academy known as the Nadwatu’l-‘Ulama, located in Lucknow in north India, which has a strong tradition of Arabic scholarship and links to the Arabic-speaking world. Maulana Abu’l-Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi (1914–), a distinguished scholar and international Islamic figure, who identified himself for a time with the Tabligh program, has been particularly influential among the Nadwa ‘ulama.[4] Again, this influence has reached beyond the Arab world itself in a variety of ways—for example, in the interest ‘Ali Miyan, as Maulana Nadwi is known, took in Muslims in Europe.[5] A third important network has been that established by trading communities, particularly Gujaratis, whose effectiveness in the diaspora may be linked to their previous experience in culturally and religiously plural societies (van der Veer 1994), an experience less true of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Gujaratis dominate the European center at Dewsbury (Lewis 1994: 90–94) and are prominent among active participants elsewhere. Tabligh activity has also been stimulated among North African immigrants in Belgium and France who have responded to missions from the Indian subcontinent.

Certain key figures and moments stand out in the history of early Tabligh expansion to the West. One almost legendary figure was ‘Abdu’r-Rashid Arshad, a telecommunications engineer from Peshawar (in Pakistan) whose influence spread participation in Tabligh throughout the federal government’s Post and Telegraph Department. Arshad not only traveled in the Indian subcontinent but also joined an early mission to England; then, thanks to overseas appointments, he was able to carry his missionary work to Japan, to the United States, and, finally, to Saudi Arabia, where he died in 1963 in an accident (Gaborieau 1992: 9).

Cherished events in the early years of Tabligh activity in Europe include the participation in a mission in London in 1946 of Dr. Zakir Husain, scholar and president of the Republic of India (1967–69), who had come to Britain for a scholarly conference. According to Maulana Muhammad Yusuf’s biographer, “because of Dr. Zakir’s high rank and his worldwide reputation, people paid attention to him” (Muhammad Sani Hasani n.d.: 257–58). Also significant were the visits to Britain in 1979 and 1981 of Maulana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhalawi (1898–1982), the author of the movement’s guiding books and pamphlets (Metcalf 1993a), at the invitation of his disciples engaged in founding the seminary at Dewsbury (Gaborieau 1992: 20).

Tablighis were not the first organized Muslim missionaries from the Indian subcontinent to spread to America and Europe, however. That role was played by the Ahmadis, a controversial modernizing movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century around the figure of a charismatic teacher, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (183?–1908). The first mosque in Britain, established at Woking in 1889, was associated with Ahmadi activities for some years (Lewis 1994: 12). Ahmadis continue to be active throughout the world today, at a time when they are severely curtailed in some core Muslim areas because of the Pakistani-generated move in 1974 to label them “non-Muslims” (cf. Haider, this volume). In the United States, many African-American Muslims, who may no longer be affiliated with the Ahmadis, first heard about Islam from Ahmadi missionaries (Beverly McCloud, personal communication). Ahmadis use the same vocabulary for their work as do Tablighis, not least the non-qur’anic term tabligh, as did a number of ephemeral movements of the 1920s, however different the content of their teachings.[6]

Although the goal of the Tabligh movement has been to permeate mainstream Muslim life, using all mosques as bases, particular institutions have in fact come to be associated specifically with Tabligh activity. In Britain, the Dewsbury seminary, established in the early 1980s, now has some 300 students, of whom 15 percent are from overseas: the mosque of the seminary dominates the neighborhood of modest row houses, many inhabited by immigrants, in the town (fig. 21). The students follow a six-year course, spending one year at the original center of Tabligh work, the Banglewali Masjid in the Nizamuddin section of New Delhi; a new five-story building adjoining the original mosque was built primarily to house members of overseas missions.[7] The central Tabligh mosque in London, the Markazi Masjid, is housed in a former synagogue, whose interior is wholly utilitarian. In Belgium, a Tabligh association and mosque were formally established in 1975 under the leadership of a Moroccan who had gone to Bangladesh on a mission; a dozen other Tablighi mosques were built during the 1980s (Dassetto 1988: 164). In Paris, the Mosquée Omar, shown in figure 22, is a bustling center of Tabligh activity (Kepel 1987: 192–201). In Canada, the Al Rashid Islamic Institute, set up in 1987, now educates fifty boys and has a Toronto mosque of its own as base (Azmi 1989). In the United States, a recent survey showed some twenty-five mosques under the control of “a group of ‘evangelical’ missionary Muslims called Jamaati Tableegh” (Haddad and Lummis 1987: 21).

Figure 21. Street in a Muslim area of Dewsbury, Yorkshire, with the Tabligh mosque and seminary in the distance. Photograph by Barbara D. Metcalf.
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Figure 22. The Mosquée Omar, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, Paris. Photograph by Isabelle Rouadjia.
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Lack of involvement in politics does not mean that Tablighis wholly eschew utilization of facilities offered by the state. They do indeed turn to government at every level, of necessity, to negotiate permits for buildings and meetings, visas for travel, and so forth. In Belgium, Tablighis chose to organize as a voluntary association and have, apparently, wanted to make themselves visible through a council of mosques, claiming a “nonfundamentalist” voice in relation to the state (Dassetto 1988: 165–66). In Britain, Tablighis have utilized the opportunities offered to religious schools to gain local education authority support for instruction in the Dewsbury seminary (Lewis 1994: 91). The Tabligh in the West, given the exigencies and opportunities presented by state recognition, seems to have adopted a higher institutional profile than that common in India or Pakistan.

The first general annual meeting, or ijtima‘, of the Tablighi Jama‘at in North America was held in Detroit in 1980, and similar meetings have followed—for example, one in Chicago in 1988, with attendance estimated at 6,000, which would make it the largest gathering of Muslims ever held in North America (Ahmed 1991b).

A major ijtima‘ was held in Belgium, at Charleroi, in 1982 (Dassetto 1988: 164). The Dewsbury meeting, held each June, now attracts several thousand participants, who are lodged in the main mosque and private homes. In addition to participants from Europe and North America, mission groups come to Dewsbury from countries such as South Africa, as well as from old Muslim areas. Although the proceedings are in Urdu, translation is provided into English, French, and Arabic in various corners of the meetings rooms.[8] When I visited the Dewsbury ijtima‘ in 1991, I met or heard about British-born Muslims of Indo-Pakistani origin; South and East Africans, mostly of Gujarati background; Indians and Pakistanis; Canadians; British converts; and Americans. I met an African-American U.S. Army sergeant based in Germany who had converted to Islam and to Tabligh activity through the influence of another American Tablighi in Munich: he had adopted the name of one of the humble Mewati peasants won over by Maulana Ilyas in the very earliest days of Tabligh, Muhammad Musa. He was accompanied by his wife, a former Jehovah’s Witness from Philadelphia. I also met a large jama‘at of South African men and women on a chilla, a forty-day tour that included the hajj, this ijtima‘ in Dewsbury, and an ijtima‘ in Los Angeles. Tabligh networks link diverse populations and far-flung geographic areas.

Most descriptions of Tabligh, like Muhammad Raza’s above, implicitly define the movement as one of men—for example, by describing missionary tours, residence in mosques, and characteristic dress. In Dewsbury, I joined a gathering of women assembled in the home of a family of active participants located near the mosque where the men were gathered. Bedroom walls had been removed to turn the upper story into a single open space; mats spread on the floor allowed large numbers to gather for sitting, sleeping, and participating in discussions and talks. Women in the diaspora and elsewhere meet regularly—in Dewsbury every afternoon—for the kind of study and prayer shared by men. Women are responsible for guiding their families and other women, and, when I asked the assembled group if they had come to know Tabligh through the men in their families, they were indignant at my failure to recognize how often it was women—dating back to the Prophet’s day—who had offered correct guidance to men.[9] Women travel only when accompanied by men and typically stay in homes, while men stay in mosques.

Tabligh involves fundamental reconfigurations of gender boundaries as part of its overall deemphasizing of hierarchy, evident above all in the insistence that every Muslim, poor or rich, learned or not, can participate (Metcalf 1993b). At Dewsbury in 1990, for example, one session was given over to the importance of women’s participation. The preacher enjoined men to share child care in order to make this possible, citing a hadith that women were permitted to refuse even to nurse their children. If women could refuse to nurse, he argued, men were not in a position to require them to do anything. Women, therefore, could prefer to do Tabligh rather than care for children. A further mark of changes in social roles is the fact that many marriage contacts were concluded at the ijtima‘, presumably blessed for being undertaken on such an occasion (Syed Zainuddin, personal communication). To the extent that this meant eliminating the elaborate gifts, visits, and transactions customarily entailed in celebrating weddings, it also meant a new basis for social relations and a diminution of traditional roles defined by gender and hierarchy.

Tablighis insist on the priority of face-to-face encounters, and relationships, for communicating their message. Even in the West, they eschew the powerful new media, including cassettes and videos, that have been so effective in so many other movements. They do utilize print, however, although they emphasize a narrow range of books and use them, typically, in oral settings. A book publisher and distributor, the Idara Ishaat-E-Diniyat (Institute for Disseminating Works on Religion), adjoining the Banglewali Masjid, has been particularly important in publishing, translating, and disseminating Tabligh-related materials. Visitors to its shop typically find the aisles crowded with crates destined for countries around the world. It translates extensively into English and, to a lesser degree, into Arabic and French (Metcalf 1993a).

In accounting for the effectiveness of Tabligh, the constitution of a new basis for social relationships, perhaps particularly felt in situations of social dislocation like immigration, is clearly significant. Ideally, Tabligh groups operate on principles unlike those of the everyday world, stressing mutuality, a nonjudgmental quality, and intense, yet typically transitory, relationships, as jama‘ats group and regroup in ways that reconfigure customary patterns of hierarchy and gender. Also important to Tabligh success both in old Muslim areas and in the diaspora is the relentless apoliticism of the Tabligh: it is thus inconspicuous and regarded as at least harmless and at most, by some regimes, as beneficial and stabilizing.[10] Keeping aloof from politics has become all the more important with increased international travel and the need to secure visas to countries often suspicious of anyone who even looks like a Muslim.[11] Also powerful is the Tabligh resistance to “Western” culture in favor of presumed authentic Islamic values and imperatives, a resistance that fosters the conviction that ultimately it does not matter where one is.

Three Conversations

Many of these themes are evident in the three fragments of conversations that follow, not least the spatial mobility of many engaged in Tabligh and the spatial conceptions that inform this movement. In the following three anecdotes, for example, the British Bengali funeral director was on the verge of leaving for the annual Tabligh meeting in Tungi, Bangladesh. The Pakistani scientist, while now based in Pakistan, has spent considerable time abroad and is immersed in international networks. The Canadian-born Muslim student had studied for two years in Medina and told me this story in Britain. Although brief, the fragments signal something of the coherence and autonomy of Tabligh conceptions. The first two conversations suggest how readily non-Tablighis (in this case, myself) fail to see this distinctiveness.

Conversation 1

December, 1991. We enter the modest, bustling office of an elderly energetic British Bengali, resident in Britain since he was shipwrecked as a sailor in World War II. Shortly after his arrival, having encountered Tabligh missionaries from the subcontinent seeking a place to pray, he himself became active in Tabligh. I am accompanied by a colleague, a Bangladeshi historian. Our host has dedicated his career to two essentials of Muslim life in the diaspora: halal provisions and Muslim burial arrangements. He described his many tours undertaken for Tabligh, and, being a Californian, I spoke up when he mentioned my home state to ask about the ethnic composition of the tour that went there. (The humor of his answer rests in part on the pride Bengalis typically have in their beautiful, cultured homeland.)


Were you all Bengalis who went on the tour to California?


Why do you ask that? Allah said, “I created men and jinn that they might worship me.” He did not say I created Bengalis and Californians! It’s not my fault I’m a Bengali.

Conversation 2

July 1991. A comfortable sitting room in a house in a quiet urban residential area. I have come to meet a fortyish scientist who has participated in Tabligh, and whose family, including some in the United States and in Britain, have been active in the movement. He reminds me that we met at a dinner party in Berkeley some ten years back. I am accompanied by a longtime woman friend who is a cousin of this person’s wife (who is also a professional). Although all four of us are present, the conversation is largely between myself and the scientist. It is intense and focused on my proposal to write about Tabligh. He challenges my topic on two grounds: first, the implications of writing about a movement whose members do not seek publicity and do not want to be documented, and, second (the point in the exchange below), that as an outsider in a movement that is predicated on experiential, not intellectual, understanding, I cannot be accurate in my presentation.


Why are you interested in Tabligh?


Well, for starts, the Tablighi Jama‘at is very unusual. It is a transnational institution but communicates something very different from the consumer culture, Westernization, whatever we usually associate with “transnational institutions.” I’m interested in countering monolithic views of “Islamic fundamentalism.” I’m intrigued by the organization of Tabligh, which is so intrinsic to its goals.


Then why not study some international social science organization? You are missing the point completely in your analysis. The only appropriate analysis of Tablighi Jama‘at puts God at the center and sees that all else rests on His grace.

Conversation 3

The Medina Mosque, a Tablighi mosque, in Toronto. A Muslim graduate student chatting to a young Canadian Tablighi:


How do you feel as a Muslim about living in Canada?


Where I am, there it is daru’l-islam.

The three conversations above suggest critical parameters of what could be called a Tabligh apprehension of human society, the Divine presence, and history. The first conversation insists that national and ethnic identities do not matter. The second refuses, inter alia, to conclude as a result that we are dealing with “transnationalism.” How can transnationalism be the point if nationalism is irrelevant? What is at stake are issues of a different order completely: the experiential realization of Divine grace. And in the third, what we generally take to be some vision of an Islamically organized society, “the abode of Islam,” turns out to be available to any individual who—in any place, in any time—relives the prophetic example of Medina.

Beyond History and the Nation-State

The issues of history and the nation are closely conjoined. If we think of modern history and its implicit assumptions, nothing has been more significant to its shaping than the nation-state. Just look at any college catalogue of courses to see the way historical study is organized in terms of nation-states, typically using that geographical framework for periods long before the nation-state existed. We smile at a book title like Five Thousand Years of Pakistan, but what seems implausible on the face of it is only an extreme example of the project of historical writing to shape national identities.

In the 1920s, at a time when politically oriented Muslims in British India were shaping stories about themselves, typically ones that focused on periods of past greatness, current decline, and a vision of progress and greatness once India was free, Maulana Ilyas and those associated with him chose to focus on a different kind of history, one that gave no room to national boundaries (of any kind) or to nationalism. A widespread debate of the period was over which term should be used for Indian Muslims, the chief contenders being qaum, with its emphasis on ethnic ties, and millat, a term associated with juridical arrangements established by the state. Ilyas’s only term for Muslims was the ideal, apolitical umma, which includes all Muslims everywhere. It is striking that in letters to Maulana Muhammad Yusuf dating from the early years of work in the diaspora, the writers speak of their homeland—for example, in trying to encourage residents in America and Europe to travel there to participate in missions—as “hind-o-pak,” India-Pakistan, as if the area were (still) one country (Muhammad Sani Hasani n.d.: ch. 11). Tabligh history is history without the nation-state and with no concern for worldly progress. It is what has been called “typological” history of nonlinear time created by patterns of moral significance.[12] The issue for Tablighis is not to trace linear change and causality but to identify moments when individuals have followed the pristine example of the Prophet; the goal, then, is to relive his time. All such moments are the same in essence, and contingencies of time and place are irrelevant. The importance of transcending particular space in favor of the umma is the theme of a talk given by Maulana Muhammad Yusuf shortly before his death in 1965: “Remember! The words, ‘my nation, my region, and my people’ all lead to disunity, and God disapproves of this more than anything else” (quoted in Wahiduddin Khan 1986: 47).

Historians of the Indian subcontinent have in recent years become deeply interested in the themes that have shaped the historical and social thought of subordinate groups who did not themselves write history (Guha and Spivak 1988; Chatterjee 1986; Chakrabarty 1992). In this quest for “subaltern histories” that do not fit the dominant narratives, whether colonial, Marxist, or nationalist, historians have sometimes seemed to search for an untouched or authentic cultural expression. In many cases, however, it is clear that the subaltern voice is in fact responding to and shaped by colonial or nationalist cultural norms.[13] In the case of Tabligh, the underlying assumptions do in fact seem to be fundamentally independent of British or nationalist concerns. At the same time, one must see the extent to which the context of British rule stimulated the movement and the fact that certain assumptions—not least the starting point of Muslim decline, decadence, failure—were shared in common.

Contemporary observers, however, write Tabligh into the dominant narratives. In Muhammad Raza’s account above, intended as a value-free catalogue of movements and sects, the word but suggests the common criticism that Tablighis do not participate in politics as they should, whether for the sake of the state or the sake of Islam. A recent, insightful scholarly account of Tabligh makes the same judgment: that Tabligh isolates from politics significant segments of the population that might otherwise be drawn to Islamically oriented positions (Ahmed 1991b). Other critics have insisted that whatever Tablighis may think they are doing, they have contributed to ethnic separatism that can be destructive of social goals. The significance of Tabligh is thus weighed in relation to the state, a perspective of no relevance to Tablighis’ own view of their activities.

Manzil-i Leila: Reaching Heaven

Tabligh preaching stresses over and over again how transitory this world is in contrast to the world to come. Thus, in a sermon recorded at the Mosquée Omar in Paris, the preacher sought to turn his listeners away from the ambitions and comforts of this world—perhaps all too scarce for many of them in any case—in favor of remembering judgment and the blessings they could win then:

There are people who come and say to me, “Brother, they don’t let me pray at work!” They don’t let you do it, pray, at work? So? Is work God as far as you’re concerned? So who provides for you? Well? When you are here, with us, you say, “God,” but to your boss [using the French word chef] you say, “Boss! I’ll drop praying so you don’t get angry!” Well, just wait for the anger of the Lord of the Heavens and the Earth.

And continuing, not about the French boss, but about other Muslims who denounce those who pray, learn the Qur’an, go on missions (al khuruj fi sabil illah, expeditions in the path of Allah), call others to faithfulness, and spend their nights in remembering God (dhikr) as “dervishes,” he says: “Soon, they will learn, they will see the ‘dervish’ who will be the first to enter Paradise!” And, he adds, the man successful in this life in worldly affairs, will be the first to enter hell (Kepel 1987: 197–98).

But what is most striking about this emphasis on Paradise is the conviction permeating Tabligh discourse that Paradise is not only in the future but now. Maulana Ilyas, the movement’s founder, made that promise: “[The servant of God] will find, in this world, the pleasures of Paradise” (Troll 1985: 171). And Tablighis today insist on the same. Thus an academic, currently based in Delhi, who shifted from being a “cultural Muslim” to a faithful Tablighi while doing a Ph.D. in English literature at a British university some ten years back, used exactly that language in describing to me the intensity of the pull to missions—that to go out on them was an analogue of Paradise.

The letters printed in Maulana Yusuf’s biography are permeated with the Sufi discourse that turns on the passion of the soul for the Beloved, who is ultimately God. Certain classic stories are allegories of that relationship—for example, that of the Leila referred to in the subheading above, the dark Arab beauty in pursuit of whom Majnun, his very name describing his maddened state, wanders the Arabian desert. In spatial terms, the Sufi quest is a journey, and the goal is a series of manzil, or stages. Muhammad Sani Hasani’s chapter on the spread of Tabligh to Europe, America, and Japan is introduced with the poetic couplet “O believer, let us show you / A display of the Divine, inside the house of idols” (Muhammad Sani Hasani: 516). Places like America and Europe are houses of idols (butkhane), but, just as the young Canadian Tablighi mentioned above insisted, daru’l-islam can be anywhere. Indeed, the greatest and most abiding pleasure, the divine encounter or manzil-i leila, may be found in the very context of infidelity, even if one is lured there by the deceptive (majazi) beauty of material gain.

The presence of the Divine for those engaged in Tabligh in the diaspora is not expressed abstractly but in terms of extraordinary interventions and experiences. A key teaching of Maulana Ilyas was that the work of guidance was the responsibility, not of learned scholars and Sufi shaikhs alone, but of every Muslim. This radical transformation of the role of religious leaders is at the heart of Tabligh organization (Metcalf 1993b). Moreover, ordinary people now not only fulfill the duties of guiding others but also receive the blessings, including those of “openings” (kashf) that, as Tablighis have explained to me, come almost immediately to those who go out on missions, in contrast to those who simply follow a Sufi path and must endure years of effort.

Hagiographies of pious ‘ulama are filled with stories of the miracles (karamat) God works through them (see, e.g., Metcalf 1982: 176–79). Stories of Tablighis, by contrast, are filled with accounts of miracles worked through everyone. A classic pattern in such stories is that of the English literature professor noted above: people were appalled when he set out on a four-month mission, leaving his ill father behind with inadequate resources; when he returned, the father was cured. Muhammad Sani Hasani begins his account with a story he identifies as a key to the character of Tablighis:

A small jama‘at of four people set out for the United States. On ship, they went to ask permission from the captain to give the call to prayer and to pray. He demurred, saying that people would be bothered by the noise. Nonetheless, they did give the azan and pray, and people came and watched them, inviting those on the ship who were Muslims to join them. The captain was very impressed by their ethical teaching. When the ship docked, he said that it was only because of them that God had spared the ship a storm since this was the very first time he had ever sailed that route in quiet weather. (paraphrased from Muhammad Sani Hasani n.d.: 518)

In a classic Sufi account, it would have been a saint’s charisma that controlled the elements.

Similarly resonant of the stories of the saints is an account of a terrible car accident that occurred during travel to an ijtima‘ in Detroit. On that occasion, even with others grievously wounded around him, one faithful Tablighi astonished the ambulance attendants by registering completely normal blood pressure. This was a mark, I was told, of the complete peace, sukun, known to participants who put their trust in God. The trope of an outsider dumbstruck at a saint’s marvelous achievement is common in the stories of the saints, and here appears in the story of an ordinary Tablighi.

Tablighis cite moments of divine intervention that change the course of everyday life. At the time of the Gulf War in 1991, for example, the African-American U.S. Army sergeant mentioned above was posted in Kuwait. He was deeply troubled about engaging in a war against the Iraqis, his fellow Muslims. He turned to a Muslim elder, also in the army, who advised him to follow his military duty but to pray for help. He “prayed hard.” On the verge of crossing the border into Iraq, his tank broke down and remained inoperable for the duration of the fighting. He saw no action in the war.

Travel and migration set a context for such happenings. The accounts of early Tabligh missions in Europe and America reveal an extraordinary opportunity to travel in complete dependence on God, which is always their goal. The missions arrive with no place to go, perhaps only scant knowledge of the language. A characteristic approach has been to proceed to a phone book and seek out Muslim names to set up appointments. As recounted in these letters, both the Tablighis and those they find experience the satisfactions and peace vouchsafed to the spiritually advanced: sukun,rahat,luzzat,zauq.

Writing of an ijtima‘ held in Manchester in 1962, one participant recalled that in twenty years of activity, he had never encountered such faith and fear of God as in that week. He described the sight of Manchester filled with Tablighis as a veritable Bhopal (site of many large Tabligh ijtima‘ in India) (Muhammad Sani Hasani n.d.: 525). This same participant was transfixed with admiration for converts; for example, in describing an ijtima‘ in London where there was an American jama‘at en route to Pakistan, including two converts, he said, “Our faith is not one-tenth of theirs” (ibid.: 524). Similarly, a Pakistani, assigned to translate for an Australian convert who had come on a mission to Pakistan, rejoiced in how much he had learned from the convert’s faith, as exemplified in a comment he had made. When asked why he had come, the Australian answered, “My home is on fire,” an answer the Pakistani still pondered years later. Tablighis in the diaspora and Tablighis in the homelands mutually sustain one another.


The worldwide spread of Tabligh has transformed the movement in significant ways. It has reinforced a change in the context of preaching to emphasize Tabligh as a counter to all that is summed up by “the West”—materialism, neglect of family, sexual promiscuity—instead of simply Tabligh as a challenge to Muslims’ own forgetfulness. For those resident in Europe and North America, Tabligh insists that, whatever their original motives in coming may have been, they can choose to live out a different story than that of material advancement, assimilation, and identification with a new nation-state. In Tabligh thinking, the very fact that they have traveled is rendered positive. Tabligh assuages the ambiguities associated with materialist motivations, residence in a place associated with a secularism and consumerism they deplore, even the fact that instead of achieving worldly success, they may find themselves unemployed.

What turns out to be at stake is not space, the new place where they have chosen to live, but time, in which the past and future converge in the present (cf. Schubel, this volume). In Tabligh, participants seek to relive the highest moment of human history, the Prophet’s society in Medina, and in so doing to taste the joys of the eternal happiness promised to them in Paradise ahead. Far from being on the periphery, they can make any place a center. Whatever the spiritual links to Nizamuddin may be, it is in the end ideally only the local jama‘at, and ultimately the individual alone, that matters. Long ago Maulana Ilyas told Tablighis that each jama‘at was to be a “traveling hospice or academy.” Instead of travel or pilgrimage to a center, the center is where one is.

Tabligh can be seen as one response, that of drawing boundaries and reasserting absolute truth, in the context of the pluralism engendered by our increasingly integrated global society and ever more intrusive modern states. Tablighis reject the kind of ecumenicism that invites non-Muslims to grace their proceedings: not for them the Lord Mayor at their assemblies (cf. Werbner, this volume). Ideally, non-Muslims are not constituted as an “other” but, ultimately, rendered invisible, although, a Tablighi would insist, treated with respect. The end result, of focusing on one’s own and one’s community’s religious life and avoiding religion in public life, converges with a secular approach to politics and religion.

If Tabligh thus seems able to deal with the problem of cultural and religious pluralism, it also offers an implicit response to the racism and disdain that pluralism often entails. The power of that racism to shape an individual’s self-image is shown at its most extreme, in Salman Rushdie’s Saladin Chamcha, who wants to be an Englishman, but turns into a goat: “They describe us.…and we succumb to the pictures they construct” (Rushdie 1989: 168). Tabligh ideology gives participants in the diaspora a powerful script unlike those the dominant society offers—they are reliving Medina and they are concretely blessed. In embracing that picture, the space they inhabit becomes their own.


1. See the forthcoming volume under the editorship of Muhammad Khalid Masud on Tabligh activities throughout the world, in particular, the articles by Marc Gaborieau, on the international spread of Tabligh; S. H. Azmi, on Tabligh in Canada; and Philip Lewis, on Britain. The volume is based on a workshop on the Tablighi Jama‘at organized by the Joint Committee on the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies of the Social Science Research Council / American Council of Learned Societies and convened by James Piscatori at the Royal Commonwealth Society, London, June 1990. [BACK]

2. For general background to the Tablighi Jama‘at in the Indian subcontinent, see Haq 1972, Lokhandwala 1971, Metcalf 1982, Nadwi 1948, Troll 1985, and Wahiduddin Khan 1986. [BACK]

3. For an attempt to use scientific precision in estimating participation at the Raiwind meeting, see Qurashi 1986. [BACK]

4. In this regard the forthcoming work of two doctoral students is particularly important. Mariam Ghalmi is currently preparing a dissertation at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales on the subject of the relationship of the Nadwatu’l-‘Ulama to the Tabligh. Ahmed Mukarram, at Oxford University, is studying Maulana Abu’l- Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi himself. [BACK]

5. See among Maulana Nadwi’s writings Na’i dunya men saf saf baten (Speaking Plainly to the West) (Lucknow: Majlis-i-Tahqiqat wa Nashriyyat-i-Islam, 1978) and Muslims in the West: The Message and Mission (Leicester, Eng.: Islamic Foundation, 1983). [BACK]

6. For references to other “tabligh” movements, see Siddiqi 1986. On the Ahmadiyya, see Friedmann 1989. Both Khalid Masud and Marc Gaborieau have pointed out that no one has studied the possibility of Ahmadi influence on other transnational movements. [BACK]

7. I am grateful to Philip Lewis for arranging my visit to Bradford and accompanying me to Dewsbury in June 1991. [BACK]

8. I am grateful to Syed Zainuddin (Aligarh University, India) and Muhammad Talib (Jamia Millia, New Delhi, India) for their firsthand descriptions of the ijtima‘ they attended in 1990. [BACK]

9. At issue in a more extensive study of women participants would be the question of whether women’s themes and interpretations differ systematically from those of men. For a study of the differing ideologies of women and men in a (far different kind of) religious movement, see Bacchetta, forthcoming. [BACK]

10. In the 1960s, for example, President Mohammed Ayub Khan is reported to have directed his officials to cooperate with Tabligh activities, regarding them, unlike those of the politically oriented Islamic movements, as desirable. [BACK]

11. The inability of Westerners to distinguish among Islamic groups is exemplified by the case of Lieutenant General Javed Naser, an active participant in Tabligh, who was appointed head of Inter Services Intelligence in Pakistan in March 1992, but was removed some months later as part of Pakistani efforts to ensure that the United States, apparently on the verge of declaring Pakistan a terrorist state, did not panic at the sight of his beard (Newsline, March–April 1992, p. 97). With thanks to Syed Vali Nasr for this and other clippings. [BACK]

12. For a study of typological or mythical thinking within the Christian tradition, see Frye 1982. [BACK]

13. It would, for example, seem plausible to argue that in the late-nineteenth-century chronicle Pandey discusses (1990), the zamindar was in fact very much a product of the colonial culture. We know that he was involved in conversations taking place at the local middle school, and we can speculate, at least, that he was directing his account to local officials and representing himself and his class as the people who had the town’s interests at heart. Similarly, the weaver, author of a diary Pandey studies, far from being untouched, is himself the head (sardar) of an upwardly mobile crafts group identifying themselves no longer as julaha (“weaver,” a category so humble that the term is also glossed “blockhead”) but as nurbaf (“weaver of light,” a positive term of Persian, hence learned, etymology). [BACK]

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