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EFSAS Commentary

Saudi Arabia’s decision to ban the Tablighi Jamaat has sent ripples across countries in South Asia


Over the past two weeks, news of Saudi Arabia banning the Islamic religious revivalist movement the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ – Society for Spreading Faith) and branding it a terrorist group has elicited much interest in the media across South Asia, the motivated reporting of sections of which has also created much confusion about it. This interest is not surprising given the roots of the TJ in pre-partition India and its spread across the region. The confusion stemmed mainly from Pakistani reports that sought to sow the idea that it was not the TJ but a Nigerian terrorist group called Al Ahbab that Saudi Arabia had banned. The attempt to divert and mislead, whatever its motivation, was soon swept away. The reaction of countries such as Pakistan, which condemned the Saudi decision to ban the TJ, and of several Muslim religious bodies and personalities across the sub-continent, that also took umbrage to it, left little doubt that the ban was on none other than the TJ. The Saudi ban threatens to adversely impact the TJ’s sizeable presence and its activities in South Asia, and some governments of the region could, taking into account the sensitivity of the matter, be tempted to consider following the lead of a country that lays claim to leadership of much of the Islamic world.      

In a tweet on 6 December, the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs informed that “His Excellency the Minister of Islamic Affairs, Dr.Abdullatif Al Alsheikh directed the mosques’ preachers and the mosques that held Friday prayer temporary to allocate the next Friday sermon 5/6/1443 H to warn against (the Tablighi and Da’wah group) which is called (Al Ahbab)”. The tweet added that the minister had directed that the sermon specifically mention the prominent mistakes of this movement, and cover topics including declaration of “the misguidance, deviation and danger of this group, and that it is one of the gates of terrorism, even if they claim otherwise”. He also directed that it be mentioned that the group was a “danger to society”, and that affiliation with partisan groups “including (the Tablighi and Da’wah Group) is prohibited in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.

As per an article in The Week, Saudi religious leaders have for long viewed the TJ as “deviants”. Part of the reason for the ban was that the TJ does not see eye to eye with the kingdom's own established revivalist movement, popularly referred to as Wahhabism. Saudi Arabia, however, is not the only country to ban the TJ. In 2013, Kazakhstan had banned the movement and designated it as extremist. The movement is also prohibited in other Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia.

A Sunni Islamic missionary movement, the TJ was founded in Mewat in 1926 by Maulana Mohammed Ilyas Khandelwi with the aim of spiritually reforming Muslim society. The Maulana exhorted Muslims to return to a pure form of Islam by practicing their faith and stressing on matters of ritual, dress and personal behaviour. He famously coined the slogan “Oh Muslims! Become Muslims!” Most TJ adherents follow the Hanafi School of jurisprudence. The roots of the TJ movement can be traced to the Deobandi tradition, which originated from the Darul Uloom madrassa in Deoband in the Uttar Pradesh state in India.

According to the Pew Research Center, most followers of the Tablighi Jamaat are primarily interested in matters of personal piety and spiritual self-renewal. A 2013 article published by the Jamestown Foundation asserted that the TJ had “traditionally eschewed politics and concentrated its efforts on reinforcing the faith of Muslims”. Pew, however, noted that while the TJ movement was connected to the Deobandi movement of Sunni Islam, “it has much in common with the Wahhabi style of Islam that is associated with Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment. However, Deobandi doctrine tends to be more flexible than Wahhabism and is more accepting of other Islamic approaches, such as Sufism”. Pew pointed out that because of its identity, some Muslim schools of thought view the TJ as having a worldview different from them and have therefore developed apprehensions about the movement. The ruling sect of Saudi Arabia, for example, opposes the Tablighis and accuses them of being “grave worshippers”.

Nevertheless, with the passage of time, the TJ expanded and acquired a global footprint. It today claims to have over 400 million followers spread across 150 countries. In South Asia, Pakistan alone has more than 20 million. Ironically, it was Saudi money, among other factors, that fuelled TJ’s growth and expansion. The movement, however, has come under closer scrutiny in recent years. The move towards “pure” Islam has been linked by some to fundamentalism, and this has attracted the attention of law-enforcement agencies in several countries. The TJ’s insistence on puritanism and austerity has also been seen as facilitating radicalization. The Pew Research Center, for example, drew attention to the fact that some TJ followers have been accused of having ties to radical networks. As per Pew, for instance the “Shoe bomber” Richard Reid, who in 2001 tried to set off a bomb on a commercial aircraft, and John Walker Lindh, the American citizen captured by United States (US) forces with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in 2001, spent time in TJ circles. The United States Institute of Peace noted that in nations such as the United Kingdom (UK), France, and the US, the TJ “has appeared on the fringes of several terrorism investigations, leading some to speculate that its apolitical stance simply masks ‘fertile ground for breeding terrorism’”. The 2013 Jamestown Foundation article, on the other hand, pointed out that while many followers of terrorist and extremist groups have reportedly attended meetings run by the TJ, widespread jihadist preaching and ties to terrorist activities have not been identified yet.

Pakistan was quick to react to the Saudi ban, and it adopted a rather confrontational tone towards a patron nation that it is still working on mending frayed relations with. The assembly of the Pakistani province of Punjab, in which Prime Minister Imran Khan's party is in majority, unanimously adopted a resolution calling the TJ a force for good. The resolution said, “Tablighi Jamaat is a global organisation. It has nothing to do with terrorism. History has shown that these people have never been involved in such activities. They are earning goodwill for Pakistan with the preaching of Islam all over the world”. The same Punjab assembly, intriguingly, had in 2016 banned the TJ from universities and mosques surrounding universities because lawmakers thought the movement was sympathetic towards extremist outfits and could try to mislead young students. Subsequently, on 21 December, Imran Khan’s Special Representative on Religious Harmony Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, accompanied by religious scholars, called on Nawaf bin Said Al-Malki, the Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan, and briefed him on the activities of the TJ and its global spread. Interestingly, the TJ’s Pakistan headquarters at Raiwind has opted to stay silent on the Saudi move.

Islamic clerics and scholars in Bangladesh and India were less circumspect, and they voiced strong opinions on the Saudi decision. Mahmudul Hasan, chairman of Al-Hayatul Ulaya Lil-Jami'atil Qawmia and president of Befaqul Madarisil Arabia Bangladesh, felt that the decision had shocked Muslims in Bangladesh, and that the people “who oppose Islam around the world” were likely to benefit from it.  The Darul Uloom Deoband, the ideological parent institution of the TJ, in a press note signed by Rector Maulana Abdul Qasim Noumani asserted that the Saudi charges against the TJ were baseless and that the Jamaat’s role was to spread deen (faith). Mufti Yusuf Asad, a prominent Islamic scholar from Mumbai and founder of the online Islamic University Al Ilm Academy, said that the hundred-year history of TJ was witness to the fact that the movement had never harmed anyone. He added, “This decision is proof that the Saudi government is a slave of the West”.

In a video message from the UK, Sameeruddin Qasmi, spokesperson of the Tablighi Jamaat of Hazrat Nizamuddin Markaz, said that the TJ has no connection with terrorism and that it actually condemns all forms of terror. He said, “It is a big allegation on the Tablighi Jamaat. It has no connection with terrorism. Tablighi Jamaat is the group that stops terrorism, condemn terrorism and disowns terrorism. We don’t allow anyone to speak against any religion, community and country. We talk only for five pillars of Islam, none of our men has ever been found involved in any terrorist activities. The Saudi government might have been misled”.

The merits or otherwise of the Saudi decision notwithstanding, the ban will certainly impact upon the TJ’s activities in South Asia. In addition to the Saudi regime’s dislike of the TJ as brought out afore, the winds of change that are flowing through the Kingdom may also have played their part in the decision being taken. A phase of reform in the erstwhile highly conservative Saudi society and politics has generated many firsts – theatres have opened up in Saudi cities and women have been allowed to drive cars and visit markets and shopping malls without a male chaperon, to name just a few. Whatever be the Saudi reasoning behind the ban, Muslims in the Indian subcontinent must be awake to the reality that Saudi Arabia will only do what it deems will serve its national interests best.

Just as much, it may serve their interests better if Muslims of the subcontinent were to focus on cementing their South Asian roots and infusing pride into their sub-continental identity and heritage rather than looking up to and aping the Arab world as they have, by and large, been doing.