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Just “”A Religion””: For the Tablighi Jama’at, Islam is not totalitarian

Communism may be dead, but, according to a small but influential group of foreign policy pundits, Western civilization remains under siege. From Iran and the Sudan to the suburbs of Paris and the World Trade Center, Muslim fanatics, with their stern faith and militant ideology, are forming into a new wave of totalitarian movements—the next great threat that America must confront. Islam, the critics warn, is in some ways a natural heir to Marxism, and Muslims are poised to replace Bolsheviks as the primary force of world revolution.

A leading American Orientalist, Daniel Pipes, has argued that Islamic revivalists incline toward totalitarianism because they see “Islam as the basis of a political system touching every aspect of life. . . . Whatever the problem, ‘Islam is the solution.’ In their hands, Islam is transformed from a personal faith into a ruling system that knows no constraints. They scrutinize the Koran and other texts for hints about Islamic medicine, Islamic economics, and Islamic statecraft, all with an eye to creating a total system for adherents and corresponding total power for leaders.” Pipes warns that those who believe Islam is a “total way of life,” like followers of other totalistic ideologies, tend to be “by nature anti-democratic and aggressive, anti-semitic, and anti-Western.” To counter this threat, he urges that Washington encourage the forces of secularization in the Muslim world, by embracing not just the Kemalist regime in Turkey but also controversial figures like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nisrin, who want to eliminate all traces of Islamic influence in politics.

This argument about the totalitarian essence of Islam seems credible to many Westerners partly because of a common misunderstanding. If they know anything about Islam, they probably have heard the epigram “Islam is not just a religion, it is a total way of life.” All religions, of course, may imply a total way of life inasmuch as they define a believer’s most fundamental values and thereby shape their influence within the family, the economy, and the polity. But Islam, supposedly, is different. It goes beyond indirect influences on behavior and provides an elaborate code of religious law that amounts to a blueprint for a specific social order. Other religions have also developed elaborate legal codes, but Islam, alone among the world’s religions, seems to demand that the faithful create an Islamic state to enforce the holy precepts.

Some very prominent Muslims, such as Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, would endorse the idea that the proper practice of Islam requires creating an Islamic state. But, although Westerners seem to hear only one side of the debate, the issue evokes great controversy among Muslims. Most of Iran’s other Ayatollahs disagreed with Khomeini on this issue. In fact, there is evidence that a majority of Muslims do not endorse the call for an Islamic state.

The Tablighi Jama’at, one of the largest organizations in the Muslim world, explicitly rejects the idea that Islam prescribes a specific political blueprint. The Tablighi Jama’at, or (Values) Propagation Societies, developed in northern India in the 1920s under the leadership of Muhammad Ilyas, who came from a distinguished family of sufis (Islamic mystics). Ilyas grew up in Mewat, a rural area where knowledge of Islam was often only superficial, and he developed a lifelong passion for fostering consciousness of the Islamic creed and promoting the practice of Islamic ritual. As the vehicle for this crusade, Tabligh was originally (and remains) a missionary organization—but one that focuses entirely on promoting piety within the Muslim community rather than on converting non-Muslims.

Tabligh’s approach to this task was unusual. Fundamentalist movements concerned with similar problems usually raised money from their adherents to build new mosques to attract distinguished ulema to preach and combat the rustic traditions that had seeped into local practice. But Tabligh reversed this formula, asking its members to volunteer time, not money, and organizing them into missions (jama’at), whose original purpose was to travel to cities so that they could learn from the ulema. But over time participants discovered that they could acquire a more eVective Islamic education by instructing and encouraging each other: they discovered it was more important to live Islam than to study it. Internally, the missions sought to create an egalitarian atmosphere in which members emulated the dress, speech, and habits of the Prophet Muhammad. Externally, they emphasized not preaching but practice: much of their energy was focused on encouraging other Muslims to assemble in community prayer, quietly inviting passersby to join them either in large outdoor rallies or at smaller gatherings in public buildings such as airports (rather like Hare Krishnas). Increasingly, Tabligh missions stressed the importance of faith and dedication rather than formal learning as the foundation of religious life.

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Tabligh does not, superficially, look like the kind of Islamic movement Westerners would “approve of.” With its stress on action rather than analysis, it has produced no major intellectual works. It places an almost magical emphasis on ritual: Tablighis think that each act of reciting the Islamic credo or praying makes a defined contribution to an individual’s salvation. Former members have described the organization as a giant “prayer machine.”

Yet Tabligh’s emphasis on faith and spirit, rather than the external trappings of religious learning, has had important implications for the relationship of its members to politics. Barbara Metcalf, the foremost Western expert on Tabligh, notes that although the movement’s aim is to remake adherents’ lives, the sought-for transformation “is not viewed instrumentally, that is, by the expectation that the transformation of individuals will ultimately produce a just society. On the contrary, the concern is wholly with orienting Muslims toward an Islamic pattern in individual lives, the one dimension of life over which one appears to have full control. The shape of the larger world is simply left to God.” Tablighis do not believe that Islam specifies an ideal political system; in fact, they are studiously apolitical. The fundamentalist dream of creating an Islamic state that compels people to perform their prayers or to fast during Ramadan appalls Tablighis: without the power of an individual’s faith and conscience behind them, such prayers and fasting would be worthless.

In part precisely because it is so apolitical, governments from Tunisia to Pakistan have not only tolerated but encouraged Tabligh’s spread. After putting down strong roots in India, it grew rapidly across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka into Southeast Asia. It is one of the three movements that led the Islamic revival in Malaysia and plays an important role in Indonesia as well. It is highly popular among Muslim minorities in the West, including America, England, and France. It has a firm foothold in parts of the Middle East as well, though it has not yet spread as widely there as in other parts of the Muslim world.

Contrary to Western stereotypes, only a minority of Muslims are Middle Easterners. Roughly 30 percent are Arabs, Turks, or Persians. Tabligh is most popular in those regions where half the world’s Muslims live: South Asia and Southeast Asia. It has branches in more different countries than any other Muslim mass movement. Although precise membership statistics are not available, it probably dwarfs the next largest multinational Islamic organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose membership is confined to the Arab countries.

Ironically, it is precisely because the Tablighis are apolitical that they have passed largely unnoticed by the West. Tabligh was already one of the largest Islamic movements in the West Bank by the early 1980s, yet studies of Islam among the Palestinians generally neglect to mention it and focus instead on much smaller groups like Islamic Jihad. Yet the Tablighi attitude toward politics is probably much more common among Muslims than that of either the fundamentalists or the Westernized intellectuals who denounce Islam as a socially retarded superstition.

Individual members of Tabligh, when provoked or angry, may go to the polls to vote with the fundamentalists; but they might equally vote for secular governments if they thought the latter served the interests of the community. In this respect, they epitomize the views of the great majority of Muslims: their political inclinations are not entombed in the Qur’an but are rather daily reshaped by judgments about who is most likely to provide justice and development. The Tablighis and the great, mostly-silent majority of Muslims are not secularists in the Western sense, but neither do they make a totalitarian conflation of religion and politics. For them Islam is a way of life only in the mundane sense that every religion is: it provides a system of values, often heavily colored by local culture and conditions, rather than a universal and timeless blueprint for a political utopia.

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