Tableeghi Jamaat: all that you know and don’t
Yes, they are here. They waylay you, when you least expect it. Are they God’s spies? They certainly act as if they were. Are they the answer to the armed mullah or are they another throwback to times past? Are they the Muslim version of Bible-Belt evangelism? Are they political? Are they the Freemasons of Islam? Are they a sect or are they something else?
In short, all that you ever wanted to know about the Tableeghi Jamaat but were either afraid or too lazy to ask was in the public domain this week in Washington, when Dr Eva Borreguero, professor of political science at the University Complutense, Madrid, who is currently a visiting Fulbright Scholar at the Centre for Muslim and Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, spoke about the Tableeghi Jamaat at the US Institute of Peace. Pointing out that the Tableeghi Jamaat’s annual meetings in Raiwind, Lahore (thanks to the munificence at public expense of the House of Ittefaq) and Dhaka are the most well-attended Muslim gatherings in the world after the Hajj, she said the Jamaat’s unique modus operandi, which stays away from political activism and use of violence, has allowed it to spread discreetly and peacefully all over the world, finding minimal resistance from foreign governments.
The Tableeghi gathering at Raiwind, at which every politician, good and bad, in or out of power, makes a point of appearing (and getting noticed) ends with a prayer so long that it must even tax the Almighty’s patience, who has a great deal of other business to take care of. Prayer works, but it hasn’t worked for Kashmir or Palestine or for Muslims to see the light of reason. The mammoth prayer marathon is an astonishing scene where you can tell who the sinners are by ticking off those who are crying the loudest. That delightful poet, Abdul Hamid Adm, once wrote: Isqadar bojh tha gunahoon ka: Hajiyon ka jahaz doob gya (So laden with sins was the ship carrying the hajis that it sank).
Dr Borreguero, whose research was carried out in Pakistan, said that the ideological orientation of the Tableeghi Jamaat is Deobandi, which places its adherents into the ultra orthodox category. They would want society to be reconstituted on the lines of 7th century Arabia. That makes them a retrogressive, as opposed to a progressive, movement. The Jamaat has a loose but pyramidal organisational structure. Like the Masonic order, there are various levels and degrees of membership. There is no compulsion on joining it or leaving it. Members or volunteers receive no financial benefit and they are not asked to make a commitment. There are occasional Tableeghis and then there are 24×7 Tableeghis. Missions are undertaken both in Pakistan and abroad. Asked what she knew about the Jamaat’s finances, Dr Borreguero replied that it was difficult to know how they were raised or met, but it would seem they came through donations. The Jamaat operates no bank account, nor does it own property, except the Raiwind headquarters and grounds, thanks to Mian Nawaz Sharif, whose father was a great supporter of the Jamaat, just as he is. The green signs on metal plates that went up all over Pakistan — and still exist — exhorting people to do “good deeds” were put up by the Tableeghis and, I have little doubt, were paid for by the Sharif family. God has little interest in the topsy-turvey of politics, otherwise the hijacking of the Musharraf plane would have been executed successfully.
Asked if women play any role in the Jamaat’s higher echelons, Dr Borreguero replied, “None at all.” She recalled that the various Tableeghi women she interviewed in Pakistan had to seek their men’s permission before saying yes. She said the women observe the completest purda — hijab, niqab and even gloves so that their hands were not exposed in flesh. So obviously the Tableeghi Jamaat can be no revolutionary movement because under its aegis, women are strictly subservient and second string. The Spanish scholar said that the number of Tableeghis in France has grown form 5,000 a few years ago to 100,000. They are also very active in South Africa. The world headquarters are in India but the Pakistani and Bangladeshi chapters appear to operate autonomously. The Jamaat is non-sectarian and takes no side on any issue, political or otherwise. The membership is entirely Sunni. In North America and Europe, it draws in immigrants who have little knowledge of Islam and who are insecure or guilt ridden over living in a permissive society. The Tableeghis keep their message simple. They hope to transform society in some distant future through the “inner reform” of the individual.
The Tableeghi Jamaat is secretive and keeps no record of its inner meetings. One of its biggest supporters was former ISI chief Javed Nasir, whom most sensible people consider “over the top”. Former President Tarar is also a Tableeghi (how he squares that with that infamous trip to Quetta with a briefcase full of greenbacks, only he can explain). The Tableeghis do not believe in charismatic leaders, only in keeping a low profile. They are a transnational phenomenon, Dr Borreguero said. The life of a true Tableeghi, she added, is a “permanent ritual”. They believe in a “binary reality”. They view Muslims as being under the “threat” of modernisation. They don’t like Pervez Musharraf but for reasons different from those motivating Benazir Bhutto. The Tableeghis do not collaborate with other religious groups, but they don’t fight with them either. They do not support Jihadi Islam but they do not oppose it either. It has been argued that by not criticising radical Islam of the Al Qaeda type, the Tableeghis are indirectly lending it sustenance and support. After all, if you choose neutrality when the rights and wrongs of an issue are clear, you are, in fact, supporting the latter.
Yes, last but not least, the Tableeghi Jamaat, which came to birth in 1934, did not support the Pakistan Movement. Dr Borreguero was asked if the Tableeghis have a following in the Pakistan Army. “The lower ranks perhaps,” she replied, then added, “And maybe some in higher ranks.”
When a Tableeghi group knocked at Ahmed Faraz’s door and asked him if he could please recite the kalima, Faraz said, “Why, has it changed?”
Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent