New Delhi: Maqbool Khan steps out of his house at 4.45am wearing a white kurta-pyjama and an off-white skull cap over his tightly cropped hair. He sports a beard but no moustache and is heavily doused in attar (perfumed oil). The polished black button on his grey waist coat strains against his middle-aged paunch as he joins several others for fajr, the morning prayer. He lowers his gaze whenever he sees a woman approaching. He doesn’t listen to music and is least concerned about politics. He tries to avoid any fights, and mostly keeps to himself except when he is talking to fellow Muslims about Islam.

Khan is part of the fast-growing proselytizing Islamic movement, Tablighi Jamaat (group of preachers), which was started in 1926 in Mewat province by Islamic scholar Maulana Muhammad Ilyas.

Unlike other proselytizing groups, Tablighi Jamaat is an itinerant movement that does not aim at converting non-Muslims but instead tries to revert what they call ordinary Muslims into believing Muslims and revive the faith. Even though there is no official count, the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life project states that their number ranges from 12 to 80 million, spread across more than 150 countries.

Tablighi Jamaat finds itself in the news because earlier this year several central Asian countries that were once part of the USSR—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan—banned it, largely because they interpret its back-to-basics approach to Islam as extremist.

A Wikileaks document released in 2011 suggested that al-Qaeda operatives used the Tablighi Jamaat’s headquarters at Nizamuddin in New Delhi as a cover to obtain travel documents and shelter. Some believe the movement is a fertile recruitment ground for extremists.

In fact, it has been called the “antechamber of fundamentalism", and “supremacist movement" that promotes isolationism, mostly because the organization doesn’t have any constitution or formal registration which obviously means no one knows who gets in or out of it and no one keeps a track of the past or future of the members.

Kafeel Ahmed, one of the suspects from India arrested for the failed attack on Glasgow airport, happened to be associated with the movement. Two of the 7/7 bombers, Shehzad Tanveer and Mohammed Siddique Khan, had also prayed at a Tablighi mosque in Dewsbury, which in no way proved that the Tablighi Jamaat was involved, but added to the suspicion.

“The Sudanese member of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hamir Mohammad, had tried to secure for himself a visa into Pakistan as a Tablighi member; the Somalian Muhammad Sulayman Barre had likewise tried to enter Pakistan from India by adopting the same guise, Abu Zubair al Haili, commander of the Mujahedeen Battalion of al Qaeda in Bosnia Herzegovina, travelled from Bosnia to Pakistan under the guise of being a Tablighi while Saudi national Abdul Bukhary who was on the watch list of numerous countries had managed to get himself into the Tablighi markaz in Nizamuddin, Delhi, while claiming to be a Tablighi too," says Malaysian political scientist Farish Noor in his book Islam on the Move, published in 2012.

Much of this could arise from the low-profile and secretive nature of Jamaat.

“There is a culture of secretism in the organization, which develops suspicion," says Ajit Doval, former director of India’s Intelligence Bureau. “The movement was never viewed adversely by the government."

“It has been accepted by India as a religious proselytizing organization with no direct contribution to terror, but what has been found is that some people who were part of it have ended up in radicalization formations. It is an international organization with intimate links to the Pakistan Tablighi Jamaat. People are brought in from Pakistan as proselytizers which creates a potential for suspicion. This puts into question the general orientation of the organization. Deep immersion in any religion, not just Islam, can lead to radicalization," says counter-terrorism expert Ajai Sahni.

Back to basics

The Jamaat tries to replicate the way Muslims lived in the time of Prophet Muhammad. They dress the way Muslims did then—the men sport beards of a certain length, and they use miswak (teeth-cleaning twig) instead of a toothbrush. Nothing that this Deobandi-inspired movement preaches is not taught in Islam, but the movement just prefers to be selective in terms of which parts of the religion it focuses on.

Tablighi Jamaat claims to be totally apolitical, something Mushirul Hasan, former vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, says is a “very convenient" statement.

“No movement is apolitical. Every movement has an objective," Hasan says.

Some of the suspicion around Tablighi Jamaat may also have to do with its source of funds. No one knows how much money comes in and from where, if at all it does. A member of Tablighi Jamaat says people donate whatever they want to but the figures are never huge. All the money is used in the Nizamuddin markaz (centre), langar (community kitchen) and other local activities, added this person who asked not to be identified. He claims that no foreign funds are accepted by the Jamaat. Hasan says, “The money movement within the organization is a mystery to me."

Khan says Tablighi Jamaat doesn’t need to raise funds. Everyone has to pay for his or her own expenses. “When someone hits your car, you feel bad. Why? Because you have spent your money to buy it," says Khan. “Jamaat asks you to spend your time and money on learning about your religion so that you don’t let it go. You wouldn’t when you have spent your money and time, would you?"

In an article published in 2005, analyst Alex Alexiev wrote: “While Tablighi Jamaat’s financial activities are shrouded in secrecy, there is no doubt that some of the vast sums spent by Saudi organizations such as the World Muslim League on proselytism benefit Tablighi Jamaat.

As early as 1978, the World Muslim League subsidized the building of the Tablighi mosque in Dewsbury, England, which has since become the headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat in all of Europe."

However, his claims have not been substantiated.

The beginnings and the benefits

Tablighi Jamaat began among the Meo peasants in educationally and economically backward Mewat in 1926. The Meos, who were Muslims, mostly followed several Hindu traditions. They practised pheras during marriage, believed in the gotra system, and celebrated Holi the same way as they celebrated Eid.

There’s a theory that its birth was motivated by a desire among some Muslims to ensure that progressive Hindu movements and organizations (such as the Arya Samaj) did not succeed in converting Muslims to Hinduism. It propagated a return to the ways of the world and an itinerant preaching philosophy.

Maqbool Khan was 26 when he was introduced to the Tablighi Jamaat. Khan, in his late 40s now, was a student of commerce at Delhi University. His family was Muslim by birth, offered prayers, paid zakaat (alms to charity), but that would end at that. He says Tablighi Jamaat introduced him to Islam.

A year later, Khan and six other men went on a three-day khurooj (mission). Tablighi Jamaat members leave the comfort of their homes for 3-4 months to serve Allah. During these self-financed treks, the members travel to different cities, villages or towns, stay at a mosque there and go from door to door reminding Muslims to study Quran and pay more attention to Islam.

“After this, your desires for the worldly pleasures start waning. It almost goes away. You think about the world hereafter. That is eternal. This world will end soon," says Khan. Still, he maintains that Jamaat prepares people to balance both worlds.

“How can we abandon the world? Who will feed us? Who will feed our families? Both my sons and daughter are studying in universities but at the same time they are a part of the Tabligh. We need to balance the two out," says Khan. By day, Khan runs a business in Nizamuddin basti. His evenings are devoted to Tablighi Jamaat.

The Tablighi Jamaat has a hierarchical network. There is an ameer whose advice is sought by everyone. The full-time members, who are generally the elders, comprise the shura or the council. Younger members travel in missionary bands and go to destinations preaching what they have been taught. There is a daily mashoora (gathering) in the mosque for planning the religious life of the members.

Still, even other Muslims aren’t convinced about the Tablighi Jamaat’s ways.

“Tablighi Jamaat teaches you the ABC of the religion but to understand a language, you have to learn more than just the ABC. They are not involved in socio-political movements," says Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, member of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. “I believe isolation is not right. Muslims cannot be aloof from the world. You have to criticize whatever wrong is happening around you."

Zafarul Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, a group of Muslim organizations in India, says the Tablighi Jamaat is a grassroots movement to correct the beliefs of Muslims but its scope is limited.

Yet, Tablighi Jamaat has its advocates too. “All the propaganda about Tablighi Jamaat is wrong. They have done a lot of good work. The popularity of the movement shows Islam cannot be spread using force but through good virtues," says Ahmed Bukhari, Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid in Delhi.

It is not just men who travel on missions to spread the word of Islan, but the women too, albeit on shorter trips.

In a big hall at the Nizamuddin centre, the women sit in small circles, 4 to 6 in a group. Grey coloured, metal-slotted angle racks are placed on two sides of the room, filled with baggage, blankets, and pillows. The room has wooden almirahs with multiples copies of the Quran, Fazail-e-Amaal, Muntakhab Al Ahadees—literature that the group consults and reads every day.

In small groups, these women discuss in their own languages what they have learnt during their stay. Unless one is sitting really close to them, all one can hear is a murmur of the whispering voices.

“We not only learn how to offer prayers, we also understand how our religion teaches us to be good human beings. We are taught not to ever steal, not to lie, to be patient, to forgive and seek forgiveness and not to envy anyone," says 38-year-old Fatima.

Fatima says that before joining the Jamaat eight years ago, even though she had everything in life—money, really good academic degrees—she felt everything was meaningless. The more she had, the more she wanted. And she was never happy. “Now Alhamdulillah (Praise to God), I am content. I am at peace," she says.

At around 10.30am, Apa, one of the women in the group, who is not a scholar but has been associated with the Tablighi Jamaat for long, begins the taleem (instruction). She sits on a wooden stool, at a position slightly elevated from where most of the women sit listening to her very keenly. She talks about jihad (holy war) but a jihad which is quite contrary to what the world is obsessed with. It is jihad al-nafs, a fight with an individual’s own desires, a struggle against the self. There are many things in the world that are very tempting, she preaches, so tempting that people forget the hereafter.

That’s a common refrain in the Tablighi Jamaat’s philosophy.

Islamic scholar Akhtarul Wasey, whose parents sent him on a 10-day khurooj when he was in his teens, says: “I always tell my students that when you meet a Life Insurance Corporation agent or a Tablighi Jamaat member, both will begin their conversation with the same line—start thinking about what will happen after you die."

After the day prayer dzuhr, the group with Indians in the first floor and Arabs, Algerians, Tunisians and Indonesian on the second, slips into the hallway, heading to another room for lunch. Plastic sheets are spread on the floor and plates filled with food are distributed to the Jamaat.

Tablighis are supposed to spend the least time on food, sleep, and gossip. Quickly the gathering finishes eating and heads for a brief siesta which is again followed by Quranic recitation.

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