Giving Voice to Muslims Who Support Peace: Tablighi Jamaat
Giving Voice to Muslims Who Support Peace: Tablighi Jamaat

(For the first article in this series, click here.)

Rabbanit Adina Bar Shalom, founder of the Haredi College for women in Jerusalem, winner of the Israel Prize 2015 and daughter of the late Rishon LeTzion Rav Ovadia Yosef, facilitates dialogue between Arabs and Jews at her college. She stated passionately in a small meeting I attended, “if Arabs and Jews do not learn to live together in this country, we will be in a Gehinnom.”

Part of that learning to live together is learning about the variety that exists within the Muslim world.

It took some time to write this article. Members of the Tablighi Jamaat are Muslim apolitical pacifists whose relationship to the media mirrors that of, say, the Amish or the Yerushalmi residents of Meah Shearim – it just is not on their radar. For kindness’ sake, Sheikh Abu Ibrahim agreed to be interviewed, but he would not have initiated media attention himself. Pacifist Muslims? Yes, and there are an estimated 80 - 100 million of them world wide.

Before we met, I did my homework. Tablighi Jamaat (society for spreading the faith, tablighi is pronounced “tabliri”) was founded by Muhammed Ilyes al Kandhlawi in India (1927) in response to what he saw as the lessening of Muslim moral values. The movement is notable for its insistence on total severance from political action. Their position on total non-confrontation means that when they attracted Muslim followers in Israel, they refused to have any headquarters in Jerusalem so as not to offend Jewish sensitivities. Sheikh Ibrahim states simply, “Jews see Jerusalem as their eternal capital. It would not be right for us to have headquarters there. When the Mahdi (Mashiach) arrives, he will set our differences aright; there is no need to do anything that can be seen as offensive.”

Their emphasis is on improving the devotion of individual Muslims first, their founder’s slogan was “O Muslims, become Muslims!" And no member is to missionize (give dawah, literally “call”) non-Muslims until he or she is on a high enough level of good personal characteristics and devotion. Without a certain level of self-improvement, any outreach done will not surpass the level of the one doing the outreach.

Their annual itjema (gathering) in various countries is remarkable for its huge attendance –at time in excess of two million. One gathering in Pakistan boasted as much as three times the amount of attendees than a meeting of politically active and high profile Muslims that took place that same night[1]. This, without media accoutrements or publicity. And here is their view of what perhaps concerns non-Muslims most of all – the Islamic concept of jihad, which for them, exists exclusively and only “in the hearts of men.”

Sheikh Ibrahim is a calming presence. Thoughtful and deliberate in his speech, you give him time and space in formulating his answers. It is as if he has another tape running in his mind – the Tablighi ethic of constant self-improvement.  I turned the conversation to their pacifistic concept of Jihad, and despite his laid back manner, I was determined to push him for solid answers.

Tablighi Jamaat on Jihad

“It is true that Muslims are enjoined to fight non–Muslims if the government forbids dawah – proselytizing. If a state allows us to preach Islam, then we have absolutely no allowance to fight. The United States and Israel are two examples of states that allow dawah. We have TJ centers there – in Israel, our centers are in Lod, Gaza, Hebron, and other parts of the West Bank, so the commandment to fight the non-Muslims has no value whatsoever.” He stressed that only under totalitarian empires in which Islam could not be spread was there a call for military jihad, and in addition, since there is no Islamic Caliphate, military jihad is strictly forbidden.

The Sheikh was not saying that jihad has no military connotation, it does. He was saying that as long as dawah is allowed, Muslims cannot interpret jihad militarily.

TJ’s view on the modern application of jihad is not unique. Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, Pakistani theologian and former advisor to the Pakistan Parliament on Islam, has declared his views on military jihad: after the time of Muhammed the obligation to jihad in order to propagate Islam ceased, jihad could only be used to end oppression when other means failed. Even in this case, jihad can only be waged by an Islamic state and not by individuals. [2] Dr Ghamidi has been vociferous in his condemnation of acts of violence against non-Muslims.

Nobody is whitewashing the concept of jihad, merely contextualizing it. In the above footnoted article by Dr. Ghamidi, you can see the application of over forty verses from the Qur’an vis a vis jihad. Qur’anic passages about jihad must be put into context. And certainly we cannot fail to support those Muslims who strictly limit the interpretation of military jihad.

Political neutrality

In their book, “Fundamentalisms Observed”, authors Marty and Appleby note TJ’s political neutrality. Its apolitical stance has allowed it to flourish worldwide, regarded as politically unthreatening; but more than just a way of getting along in societies where the majority are not Muslims, TJ leaders disagree with the assertion put forth by Islamists that Islam is rival system to capitalism or socialism.  Islam is food for the soul, not another political party. Imagine people striving to be their best and do the maximum for their fellow regardless of what political or economic system they live under. Would the “system” matter as much?

The late Seymor Lipsets, professor of sociology and political activist, echoes the frustration of the Muslim websites who condemn TJ, in his assertion that when fundamentalists ignore the political realm, energies are drained off that would have otherwise been put into political action. TJ members respond that indeed, political action can itself become a form of ‘ibada (worship, like the Hebrew “avodah”)  a replacement for true religious devotion.

We are aware of the adage, “the personal is the political” - personal cirumstances have political consequesnces and can be reformed via political activism. There are admittedly political consequences to the presence of tens of millions of pacifist Muslim who abstain from politics. Notably, it means a smaller base of support for politically active Muslim groups who wish to introduce Islamic law into modern states. They have been credited, or blamed, depending on your political orientation, for assisting the advancement of secular law in regions of India that may have leaned towards Islamic law if TJ had lent its support to such endeavors.[3]

Two Muslim websites take issue with TJ’s political neutrality. Concerning it having been founded under British rule: “(The British) saw that instead of the Jamaat's directing their energies outwardly towards their… Kaafir (apostate) enemies, was now directed inwardly towards the rest of the Muslims. Therefore, it was a group that was allowed to flourish…” the blogger fumes: “….the doctrine of (military) Jihad was totally absent from this movement.”

But isn’t it clear that thay should have condemned South African apartheid? To others, it is clear that they should be condemning the Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria. Apolitical they have been for nearly a century, and thus they will remain.

Maksoom Hussein is a Muslim businesswoman, originally from Pakistan and residing in England, and has been involved with TJ. She is well aware that TJ is resented by Muslims who wish them to be politically active. She insists: “Tablighi Jamaat does not believe that government can solve most of society’s challenges– instead, every individual needs to conduct him or herself according to God’s commandments, then encourage those who are near, then it spreads further a field. It has to grow organically from ground up not imposed from top down.”

Marty and Appleby also note the virtual lack of explanatory literature or organizational structure – “no full time workers…no institutional network….despite the fact that this work has expanded to over one hundred countries.” They go on to state that its lack of bureaucracy and hierarchy adds to the movement’s spontaneity and vitality, with its outreach to other Muslims as its inspiration rather than any organizational structure. TJ’s emphasis on devotion and missionary work by lay people has not only challenged any emphasis on politics, but also challenged Islamic legalism and the elitism of some of the ulema (scholars).

Outreach – only to Muslims

Outreach to other Muslims focuses on personal contact and less on scholarship (kitabi ‘ilm), this has been criticized by those Muslims who favor a more scholarly approach to Islam, by those who insist that outreach must take place outside the fold, and by Muslims who get miffed at being approached for soul-saving. One blogger claims that they disrupt non-TJ mosques by showing up after prayers to recruit. Apparently feeling insulted by such overtures, he vents, “…all other Muslims are considered by them to be misguided!”

Sheikh Ibrahim emphasizes the TJ ethic on unity – he observes the rulings of the Hanbali school of Islam, other TJ members are part of the three other Islamic schools, there is no pressure to conform to any madhab (legal school).

Many have taken issue with TJ’s vision of giving dawah only to Muslims. One reknowned Muslim speaker notes,“Muhammed sent his sahaba (companions) outside of Arabia to preach to leaders in different countries, was this dawah only to other Muslims?” [4]

Women in Tabhlighi Jamaat

Although TJ women wear full hijab, the movement is notable for the blurring of gender roles, both in expectations of personal conduct and piety, and most notably via dawah pilgrimages. Barbara Metcalf of Stanford University notes the egalitarian nature of the call to dawah, which both men and women are expected to engage in. When women undertake such a journey, reaching out to other women, their husbands take over household responsibilities and child care. Likewise, when men embark on these tours, they need to fend for themselves, cooking for themselves and, in the cultivation of personal humility, for others. One man quips, “I appreciate my wife’s cooking more after returning from a pilgrimage!”

The call to dawah has the effect of not only blurring gender roles, but societal hierarchies. The one engaged in dawah is in a form of exile, away from home and routine; to approach others in outreach can risk rebuff and be a humbling experience. Their dress is simple, and they are encouraged to shy away from modes of speech that would distinguish them as part of higher echelons of society. [5]

Maksoom Hussain comments on her family’s involvement with TJ: “My father was introduced to Tablighi Jamaat in the 1960s, my mum told me that it made him a much better person and their marriage became much more peaceful as a result. He consulted his family in important matters and focused much more on being a better husband and father then on any of the things that normally used to annoy him. Mum loved the results so much that she told other women to send their husbands to Tablighi Jamaat to make them better husbands.

“Tablighi Jamaat gatherings emphasized simplicity and equality. Men and women stayed in separate dwellings. Class barriers were broken as I met women from all strata of society from professionals to housewives. I learned about the women of Arabia at the time of prophet Muhammad (pbuh) who took an active part in society, not just as supportive spouses and family members to their male relatives.

“I was told that best way to serve our creator was to serve His creations - and His creation does not just include Muslims. TJ emphasizes personal responsibility to make the world a better place starting with yourself. The highest form of jihad is the effort and struggle within yourself to improve your character, develop good manners, have integrity, and…” she continues, showing the fundamentalist nature of her devotion: “follow in the footsteps of Muhammed (pbuh) who was called sadiq and ameen (righteous and trustworthy).”

Others Reflect

Dr. Omer Salem, graduate of Yale divinity school and Al Azhar University, Cairo reflects – “the Tablighi people are the best friends of the G-d fearing Jews. They study the Qur'an with hearts full of mercy and compassion towards all people. They respect the Jews who respect their faith. In my humble experience with TJ, many Arabs return from TJ encounters with less nationalism and a more universal outlook.”

Emad Saada, an Israeli-Arab kablan from the Negev and newcomer to TJ, radiates kindness, which put me at ease enough to ask him some questions that I admit were pretty offensive, but I figured you would have wanted me to. He began by describing his love for all of G-d’s creations. “It is forbidden to hurt anyone whom Allah loves, and He loves all His creations. On the Day of Judgment we will be held accountable for any pain we have inflicted. I respect Rabbis - my eyes were bothering me one day at work; my Jewish coworker took me to his Rabbi in Netivot. The Rabbi put his hands on my head like this,” and he mimed the Rabbi’s gesture, “and it completely cured me.”

I figured this was my chance and I ran with it, he was young, suavely dressed, wearing jeans and a fancy shirt, coiffed short-cropped hair, no skullcap - I threw a stereotype at him: “why did you get involved with TJ? Did any of your comrades try to get you involved with violence against Israel, with some ‘action’?” and I mimed some rock throwing.

“A person evaluates his life, and Allah guides him. I just saw that I wanted to live by these teachings. Some Arab leaders preach violence, but my friends do not listen, most Muslims do not like it.”

“Are you afraid of other Muslims?”

“I am only afraid of Allah. Most other Muslims respect us.” The whole time, Emad radiated a special warmth, even in the face of my frankly offensive questions, and even when he mentioned that his young son is undergoing medical treatment in the States. The Sheikh waved my shock away, “we beleive it is all from Allah.”

One more note on Jihad

As long as Islam is associated with terror, even a pacifist movement will be suspect. Is there a chance that TJ members could take a more militant turn? Fred Burton and Scot Stewart, in their article, “Tablighi Jamaat: An Indirect Line to Terrorism”, give examples of Muslims who feigned affiliation with TJ in order to try to enter Pakistan and attend mititant Jihadist training camps. The Pakistani authorities caught on the to gimmick; now, claiming TJ membership is not enough to obtain a visa to Pakistan. However the authors do  bring an example that is close to home for Americans:

 “John Walker Lindh — an American who is serving a prison sentence for aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan — traveled with Tablighi preachers to Pakistan in 1998 to further his Islamic studies before joining the Taliban.” Although even they concede that a TJ member would have to “jump” or “break orbit” in order to leave the TJ group and join a militant one.

They conclude, “TJ… is not an intentional propagator of terrorism.” And the fact that some tried to feign membership in TJ to appear pacifistic indicates how devoted the TJ movement really is to its apolitical stance.

CIA official Graham Fuller states that TJ is “peaceful and apolitical.” [6]

It is not that TJ members are totally cut off from society, they assert that they do indeed care about reforming the world, it is just that their activism takes place exclusively on the individual level. Societies are composed of individuals; only if the individuals who compose society are striving for self-perfection will reforms have meaning. Tablighi Jamaat followers also insist that they are not a movement. They are fundamentalist Muslims in full hijab simply devoted to personal improvement first.

This emphasis on the individual raises many important questions. How many of us have encountered so-called peace activists who seem totally uninterested in their own charactaristics or how they treat others interpersonally?

On the flip side, the late Rav Noach Weinberg zt”l stated that kiruv is needed to improve the frum community as well as bring back the assimilated Jew. If we can remember Rav Weinberg’s injunction that kiruv is a form of self-improvement, then it will be seasoned with the humility needed in guiding others along a new path.

You may feel that hearing it from one of our venerated Rabbis is enough, but there is something refreshing about hearing truths from another culture. Other parallels that I assume you have noticed without me pointing them out:  the hassidic movement challenged the authority of the scholar in its emphasis on the devotion of the simple Jew; the lack of hierarchy of the Neturei Karta movement, in which their Rebbe’s children are considered equal in “yiches” to other members of Neturei Karta and given no special priviledge;  the lack of organizational structure of the Bialy and Breslov hassidic movements. Seeing truths reflected in other cultures bestows a certain confidence; the shock of recognition is always welcome.

Rabbi is Elijah Benamozegh was a kabbalist and rabbi, Italy, late nineteenth century. He declared the necessity of the diversity of humanity, comparing our national and religious differences to groups of craftsmen who gather to build a palace for the King. Each nation and religion has its specialty, and each should encourage members of other groups to perfect their unique roles, working in harmony.  Thus, the quiet but persistent presence of a world wide pacifist Muslim movement, which has a dose of feminist egalitarianism, nearly a century strong, should be welcome information.

Jews are welcome to contact the Tablighi Jammat Center in Lod where they can learn more about the movement, rest assured you will not be proselyzed.  08-925-3132




[3] Fundamentalisms Observed, Marty and Appleby, University of Chicago Press

[4] Dr Zakir Naik

[6]  Graham Fuller, “The Future of Political Islam”