Before coronavirus, there was a ring of suspicion around Tablighis

Topics Coronavirus

Hundreds of Covid cases in India are linked to a Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi. Photo: PTI
WikiLeaks memos, based on the interrogation of al-Qaeda operatives detained at Guantanamo Bay, quoted them as saying that they used a New Delhi-based organisation, Tablighi Jamaat, as cover to obtain travel documents and shelter. The leaked memos said at least three detained persons stayed at the organisation’s facilities in Delhi and around.

The Tablighi Jamaat is in news recently after a congregation at its Nizamuddin Markaz in New Delhi led to a sudden rise in the number of positive coronavirus cases across India. Similar events in several countries in Southeast Asia led to many Covid-19 cases there.

The records revealed by WikiLeaks contain interrogation reports and analysis of 779 inmates of the US military prison in Cuba.

The US records identify the Jamaat Tabligh (as the name appears in the records; JT) as a “proselytising organisation that willingly supports terrorists”. Also, according to reports, al-Qaeda used the JT to facilitate and fund international travels of its members.

Tablighi Jamaat authorities denied the charge and said that their facilities were open to all. Questioning the authenticity of the WikiLeaks records, it said: “It is known that such statements are forced to be made under duress”.

What we know
When it started, the Tablighi Jamaat was neither engaged in supporting nor promoting Islamic radicalism. It was, in fact, a reformist organisation. Academics describe it as an apolitical devotional movement stressing individual faith, introspection, and spiritual development. But somewhere along the way, the organisation veered away from its original purpose.

We know that the Tablighi Jamaat was begun by prominent Deobandi cleric and scholar Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi (1885-1944) in 1927 in Mewat, not far from Delhi. Part of Ilyas’ impetus for founding the Tablighi Jamaat was to counter the inroads being made by Hindu missionaries. They rejected modernity as antithetical to Islam, excluded women, and preached that Islam must subsume other religions. Apart from the Qu’ran, the only literature Tablighis are required to read are the Tablighi Nisab, seven essays penned by a companion of Ilyas in the 1920s.

A lesser-known fact about the Tablighi Jamaat is that it’s not a monolith: One subsection believes they should pursue jihad through conscience (jihad bin nafs), while a more radical wing advocates jihad through the sword (jihad bin saif), says Alexander R Alexiev, one of the best-known experts on the organisation. Why it captured the Islamic imagination (when it seems, superficially, to be no different from the Wahhabi-Salafi doctrine followed by most Sunnis) seems to have been its austerity, emphasis on conversion, and spirit of service. Saudi Arabia could’ve seen the movement as a threat but instead co-opted it, funded it and praised its spirit, advising others to emulate it.

Jamaat’s growth and development
The real impetus the Tablighi Jamaat got was from ruling families in Pakistan, especially Nawaz Sharif, whose father was a big supporter of the organisation. Its facility at Raiwind, Pakistan, is a well-known recruiting ground for military training after the recruits finish their missionary training.

Alexiev’s interviews and research on the organisation reveals that the Tablighi Jamaat was instrumental in founding Harkat ul-Mujahideen. Founded at Raiwind in 1980, almost all the Harakat ul-Mujahideen’s original members were Tablighis. Infamous for the December 1998 hijacking of an Air India passenger jet and the suicide attack on a bus carrying French engineers in Karachi in 2002, Harkat members make no secret of their ties.

“The two organisations make up a truly international network of genuine jihadi Muslims,” one senior Harakat ul-Mujahideen official is quoted by Alexiev as saying. A spinoff of the Tablighi Jamaat, according to Alexiev, is the Harkat ul-Jihad-i Islami. Founded in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, this group has been active not only in Jammu & Kashmir but also Gujarat, where the Jamaat’s extremists have taken over perhaps 80 per cent of the mosques previously run by the moderate Barelvi Muslims.

Alexiev claims perhaps 80 per cent of the Islamist extremists in France come from Tablighi ranks, prompting French intelligence officers to call Tablighi Jamaat the “antechamber of fundamentalism”. US counterterrorism officials share this view. “We have a significant presence of the Tablighi Jamaat in the United States,” the deputy chief of the FBI's international terrorism section said in 2003, “and we have found that the al-Qaeda used them for recruiting now and in the past.”

Little is known about the stewardship of the organisation, except all its leaders since Ilyas have been related to him by either blood or marriage. Upon Ilyas’ death in 1944, his son, Maulana Muhammad Yusuf (1917-65), assumed leadership of the movement, expanding its reach and influence. Yusuf and his successor, Inamul Hassan (1965-95), transformed the Jamaat into a truly transnational movement with a renewed emphasis on conversion of non-Muslims, a mission that continues to this day.

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