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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.

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