By Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
September 9, 2018
Tablighi Jamaat [Conveying Group] is a
Muslim missionary and revival movement. Their activities are not limited to the
Leaders of Tablighi Jamaat claim that the
movement is strictly non-political in nature, with the main aim of the
participants being to work at the grass roots level and reaching out to all
Muslims of the world for spiritual development.
Tablighi Jamaat seeks to revitalize Muslims
around the world. It is claimed that their ideology and practices are in strict
accordance with Quran and Sunnah.
Despite their affiliation and influence of
the prominent scholars of Deoband, they do not focus any particular sect or
community. It gathers its members and aids in community activities such as
mosque building and education.
Tabligh maintains an international
headquarters, the Markaz, in Nizamuddin, Delhi and has several national
headquarters to coordinate its activities in over 80 countries. Throughout its
history it has sent its members to travel the world, preaching a message of
peace and tolerance. It organizes preachers in groups [called Jamaats, meaning
Assembly]. Each group, on average, consists of 10 to 12 Muslims who fund
themselves in this preaching mission.
The second largest gathering of Muslims
after the Hajj [the pilgrimage to Mecca] is known as Bishwa Ijtema, a non
political gathering of Muslims from all over the world hosted by the leaders of
“International Tabligh Jamaat”. It takes place in Tongi which is on the
outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The Tablighi Jamaat was founded in the late
1920s by the well known scholar Maulana Ilyas [Maulana Muhammad Ilyas
Kandhalvi] in the Mewat province of India. The inspiration for devoting his
life to Islam came to Ilyas during his second pilgrimage to the Hejaz in 1926.
Maulana Ilyas put forward the slogan, ´Aye Musalmano! Musalman Bano´
[Urdu] which translates ‘Come O Muslims! Be Muslims’ [in English]. This
expressed the central focus of Tablighi Jamaat, which has been renewing Muslim
society by renewing Muslim practice in those it feels have lost their desire to
devote themselves to Allah and the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.
Maulana Ilyas was a prominent member of the
movement and throughout Tabligh’s history there has been a degree of
association between scholars of Deoband and Tablighi Jamaat. Tabligh was formed
at a time in India when some Muslim leaders feared that Indian Muslims were
losing their Muslim identity to the majority Hindu culture.
In 1978, construction of the Tablighi
mosque in Dewsbury, England commenced. Subsequently, the mosque became the
European headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat.
Ameer [Emir] or Zimmadar are titles
of leadership in the movement. The first Ameer, also the founder, was Maulana
Ilyas [1885-1944], second was his son Maulana Muhammad Yusuf Kandhalawi and
the third was Maulana Inaam ul Hasan. Now there is a Shura which includes
two leaders: Maulana Zubair ul Hasan and Maulana Saad Kandhalawi.
In Pakistan the duties of the Ameer are being served by Haji Abdul Wahhab.
Maulana Muhammad Zakariya al-Kandahlawi is also among the prestigious
personalities of the Jamaat, as he compiled the famous book Fazail-e-Amal.
With the ascent of Maulana Yusuf, Ilyas´
son, as its second emir (leader), the group began to expand activities in 1946,
and within two decades the group reached Southwest and Southeast Asia, Africa,
Europe, and North America. Initially it expanded its reach to South Asian
diaspora communities, first in Arab countries then in Southeast Asia. Once
established, the Tablighi Jamaat began engaging local populations as well.
Although the movement first established
itself in the United States, it established a large presence in Europe during
the 1970s and 1980s. It was especially prominent in France during the 1980s.
The members of Tablighi Jamat are also represented in the French Council of the
Muslim Faith. Tabligh’s influence has grown, though, in the increasing
Pakistani community in France, which has doubled in the decade before 2008 to
However, Britain is the current focus of
the movement in the West, primarily due to the large South Asian population
that began to arrive there in the 1960s and 1970s. By 2007, Tabligh members
were situated at 600 of Britain’s 1350 mosques.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in
1991, the movement made inroads into Central Asia. As of 2007, it was estimated
10,000 Tablighi members could be found in Kyrgyzstan alone.
By 2008 it had a presence in nearly 80
countries and had become a leading revivalist movement. However, it maintains a
presence in India, where at least 100 of its Jamaats go out from Markaz, the
international headquarters, to different parts of India and overseas.
There Are Many Celebrated Personalities
Associated With This Movement:
These include the former Presidents of
Pakistan, Muhammad Rafiq Tarar and Farooq Leghari [Sardar Farooq Ahmed Khan
Leghari], and former President of India, Dr. Zakir Hussain who was also
associated with this movement. Major General Zia ur Rahman, former President
and Chief of Army Staff of the Bangladesh Army, was a strong supporter and
member of Tablighi Jamaat, and popularized it in Bangladesh.
Lieutenant General [R] Javed Nasir of the
Pakistan Army and former head of Inter-Services Intelligence along with former
Prime Minister of Pakistan, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq have also been linked
with the movement.
Other well-known politicians such as Dr.
Arbab Ghulam Rahim the former chief minister of Sindh, and Muhammad
Ijaz-ul-Haq, former Pakistani Federal Minister for Religious Affairs have
strong ties with the Tablighi activities.
Many well-recognized writers and scholars,
such as Dr. Nadir Ali Khan [famous Indian writer] and others are deeply related
Among Pakistani cricket professionals,
Shahid Afridi, Saqlain Mushtaq, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mushtaq Ahmed; and the former
Pakistani cricketers Saeed Anwar, Saleem Malik are active members. It is also
widely believed that Pakistani middle order batsman Mohammad Yousuf embraced
Islam with the help of the Tablighi Jamaat. Others include South African
batsman Hashim Amla.
This movement also includes eminent
directors and producers including Naeem Butt.
Former renowned singer and pop star Junaid
Jamshed has close links with Jamaat, and his departure from professional
singing career is attributed as the result of his inclination towards this
Many famed actors and models including Moin
Akhter, Hammad Khan Jadoon and many others are strongly affiliated with the
Several business men, industrialists,
millionaires are actively serving in the movement.
Tabligh Jamaat Terror Connection:
Policy analysts and Islamist scholars are
fiercely divided in their assessments of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist
organization that has spread from its origins in India in the 1920s to the
broader Muslim world.
Policy communities, for their part, have
depicted the Tablighi Jamaat as a “gateway to terrorism” and contend that the
organization poses numerous, underestimated security risks. The group appeared
peripherally in such high-profile cases as those of Jose Padilla, Richard Reid
and John Walker Lindh, all of whom allegedly used the group as their stepping
stone to radicalism. However, the Islamic studies community tends to depict
Tablighi Jamaat, which roughly translates to “group to deliver the message of
Islam,” as a revivalist organization that eschews politics in its quest to
reform society. What accounts for these starkly different accounts, and how can
one resolve some of the deeply perplexing questions surrounding this important
and secretive organization?
In an attempt to better understand this
movement and its social, political, and potential security implications, the
Centre for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the U.S. Institute of Peace
hosted Eva Borreguero, visiting Fulbright Scholar at Georgetown University’s Centre
for Muslim-Christian Understanding, to present some of the key findings of her
ongoing research on the Tablighi Jamaat. This talk drew on Borreguero’s recent
fieldwork in India and Pakistan, two important centres for the Tablighi Jamaat.
This USIPeaceBrieing highlights Borreguero’s arguments, as well as some of the
important issues that arose during the discussion that followed her presentation.
Tablighi Jamaat: Gateway to Terrorism?
In Britain, France, and the United States,
the Tablighi Jamaat has appeared on the fringes of several terrorism
investigations, leading some to speculate that its apolitical stance simply
masks “fertile ground for breeding terrorism.” While acknowledging the
involvement of the movement’s individuals, Borreguero discounted the claims
made against the organization itself.
Borreguero began her assessment by
providing an historical overview of this complex movement. Maulana Muhammad
Ilyas founded the Tablighi Jamaat in 1925, against the backdrop of the British
Empire and a waning Muslim identity in South Asia. Believing that social,
political, and economic hardships beset Muslims in India, Ilyas sought a return
to a pristine form of Islam from the heterodox variants flourishing in South
Asia. For nearly two decades, the Tablighi Jamaat operated mainly within South
Asia. With the ascent of Maulana Yusuf, Ilyas´ son, as its second emir
(leader), the group began to expand activities in 1946, and within two decades
the group reached Southwest and Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and North
America. Initially it expanded its reach to South Asian diaspora communities,
first in Arab countries then in Southeast Asia. Once established, the Tablighi
Jamaat began engaging local populations as well. Although the group first
established itself in the United States, Britain is the current locus of the
group in the West, primarily due to the large South Asian population that began
to arrive there in the 1960s and 1970s.
Structure, Composition, and Work:
Despite its secretive nature, Borreguero
offered some insights into the organizational structure of the Tablighi Jamaat.
The general conception of the group is of a nebulous collection of loosely
affiliated, itinerate Jamaats. While this is one major component of the group,
there is a fixed, hierarchical network of elders and mosques, and the two
components do overlap. According to Borreguero, the core of the organization is
comprised of “full-time” Tablighis who comprise the shura (council) and who are
usually the elders of the mosques affiliated with the group.
In addition to this core, there are the
travelling Tablighis who undertake proselytizing missions over varying
durations. Formed into Jamaats of approximately ten people, these Tablighis’
missions last three days, forty days [Chilla], four months, or one year.
The Jamaat’s destination and desired area of focus generally determines the
length of these missions. Those who go for three days concentrate on a local
city, while a Jamaat travelling for a month will do so throughout their
country. The longer tours of four months to one year generally take the
During these tours, the Jamaat—under the
leadership of its emir—stays at a local mosque, which serves as its base for
the duration. Four or five members of the group conduct daily Gasht,
during which they visit neighbourhoods [or neighbourhoods with large Muslim
populations if in a non-Muslim country] and homes, asking the men of the
household to attend mosque for Maghrib [sunset] prayers. Those who attend are
offered the Dawa [invitation] as the Tablighis outline their six principles and
encourage attendees to form their own Jamaat. Members voluntarily work for the
organization and there is no registration process in the group. Participants
are free to leave the movement at any time. Consequently, Tablighi Jamaat has a
loose, informal recruitment process and attracts members of varying commitment.
For example, some members only engage in group activities episodically, while
others will do so annually. All of these factors contribute to the uncertainty
regarding Tablighi Jamaat’s membership numbers.
Tablighis in India, Pakistan, and
Bangladesh have competing claims as to which comprise the movement’s
international headquarters. Those in India contend that Nizamuddin [India] is
the base, since the movement grew out of the Deoband school of Islam and it is
in Delhi that the group was founded. However, elders in Raiwind [Pakistan] and
Tongi [Bangladesh] dispute Nizamuddin’s final authority, citing their
countries´ majority Muslim populations and claiming that the organization can
operate more openly.
South Asia is by far the most significant
region for the group, with Mecca and Medina also serving as important
geographical symbols. The organization is diverse and includes persons from
nearly every sector of society across the countries of South Asia and beyond.
Within South Asia, members of the lower-middle class and the business community
have joined the group and some members even hold government posts. In the West,
second and third generation Muslim diaspora make up the main pool of Tablighis.
This demographic usually has little knowledge of Islam but are also not fully
assimilated to culture in the West. According to Borreguero, the Tablighi
Jamaat “is a source of re-Islamization that provides an alternative to
religious institutions.” These individuals tend to be well-educated,
multilingual, and have lived in both the West and a Muslim country. She noted
that the Tablighi Jamaat also has some appeal to marginal members of society
[petty criminals, drug abusers, and so on] who are looking for a renewed
identity that submerges them in a community of piety.
Keys to the Success of the Tablighi
Borreguero sees several salient features
which explain the Tablighi Jamaat’s successful transformation from a local
South Asian movement into a robust transnational phenomenon, including its
simple message, its non-political character, the authority of its leadership,
and its policy of secrecy.
Borreguero addressed the persistent
question of how a group so devoted to proselytizing a pristine form of Islam
and inner spiritual transformation can coexist with modern society, and
specifically whether such a group warrants scrutiny because of its revivalist
While recognizing the numerous reports that
link Tablighi Jamaat to militancy in various forms, her fieldwork yielded
little evidence to support the most sweeping of these claims. During her
interviews with Tablighis, they tended not to opine on politics. However, she
conceded that for some Tablighis—as individuals—this might not be enough. She
claimed that there is no evidence thus far that the group as a whole is
involved with militant groups, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba in
Pakistan, while acknowledging the potential role that individual Tablighis may
have played in them. She claimed that the Tablighi Jamaat remains neutral on
these groups, neither condemning nor supporting their actions.
To some analysts, this neutrality is enough
to make them culpable. Borreguero admits that militant groups may try to
infiltrate the Tablighi Jamaat in order to gain a cover for obtaining visas and
travelling abroad. Also, individual members may come to find that the
movement’s principles are too apolitical and neutral for their liking. Members
of militant groups often attend the Tablighi Jamaat´s Ijtema [congregation] in
Raiwind, where they hand out recruitment pamphlets. It is thus possible that a
flame sparked and fuelled by Tabligh could begin to burn out of control.
Borreguero, however, stressed that once
this extreme position is taken, the individual relinquishes his or her
membership to the Tablighi Jamaat. She also believes that any overt connection
with these groups is not in the best interest of the Tablighi Jamaat. As stated
above, the movement’s neutrality allows cordial relations with authorities, or
at least keeps them from incurring official harassment. Any collusion with
militant outfits would likely invite official proscription, especially in
While much light was shed on the Tablighi
Jamaat, many questions still remain. To some, its official secrecy and
peripheral links to some nefarious individuals have nullified its choice to
remain outside politics. But, as scholar Barbara Metcalf writes, “Islamic
movements [like the Tablighi Jamaat] may have many goals and offer a range of
social, moral, and spiritual satisfactions that are positive and not merely a
reactionary rejection of modernity or ´the West.´ Quite simply, these movements
may, in the end, have much less to do with ´us´ than is often thought.”
Borreguero´s insights provided a gateway to better assess the group´s motives and
machinations. It may well be that the study of the Tablighi Jamaat as an
apolitical traditionalist movement gives an alternate lens through which
security concerns over Islamist groups´ hostility toward the West can be
Every fall, over a million almost
identically dressed, bearded Muslim men from around the world descend on the
small Pakistani town of Raiwind for a three-day celebration of faith. Similar
gatherings take place annually outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Bhopal, India.
These pilgrims are no ordinary Muslims, though; they belong to a movement
called Tablighi Jamaat [“Proselytizing Group”]. They are trained missionaries
who have dedicated much of their lives to spreading Islam across the globe. The
largest group of religious proselytizers of any faith, they are part of the
reason for the explosive growth of Islamic religious fervour and conversion.
Despite its size, worldwide presence, and
tremendous importance, Tablighi Jamaat remains largely unknown outside the
Muslim community, even to many scholars of Islam. This is no coincidence.
Tablighi Jamaat officials work to remain outside of both media and governmental
notice. Tablighi Jamaat neither has formal organizational structure nor does it
publish details about the scope of its activities, its membership, or its
finances. By eschewing open discussion of politics and portraying itself only
as a pietistic movement, Tablighi Jamaat works to project a non-threatening
image. Because of the movement’s secrecy, scholars often have no choice but to
rely on explanations from Tablighi Jamaat acolytes.
As a result, academics tend to describe the
group as an apolitical devotional movement stressing individual faith,
introspection, and spiritual development. The austere and egalitarian lifestyle
of Tablighi missionaries and their principled stands against social ills leads
many outside observers to assume that the group has a positive influence on
society. Graham Fuller, a former CIA official and expert on Islam, for example,
characterized Tablighi Jamaat as a “peaceful and apolitical
preaching-to-the-people movement.” Barbara Metcalf, a University of California
scholar of South Asian Islam, called Tablighi Jamaat “an apolitical, quietist
movement of internal grassroots missionary renewal” and compares its activities
to the efforts to reshape individual lives by Alcoholics Anonymous. Olivier
Roy, a prominent authority on Islam at Paris’s prestigious Centre National de
la Recherche Scientifique, described Tablighi Jamaat as “completely apolitical
and law abiding.” Governments normally intolerant of independent movements
often make an exception for Tablighi Jamaat. The Bangladeshi prime minister and
top political leadership, many of whom are Islamists, regularly attend their
rallies, and Pakistani military officers, many of whom are sympathetic to
militant Islam, even allow Tablighi missionaries to preach in the barracks.
Yet, the Pakistani experience strips the
patina from Tablighi Jamaat’s façade. Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif
[1990-93; 1997-99], whose father was a prominent Tablighi member and financier,
helped Tablighi members take prominent positions. For example, in 1998,
Muhammad Rafique Tarar took the ceremonial presidency while, in 1990, Javed
Nasir assumed the powerful director-generalship of the Inter-Services
Intelligence, Pakistan’s chief intelligence agency. When Benazir Bhutto, less
sympathetic to Islamist causes, returned to the premiership in 1993, Tablighis
conspired to overthrow her government. In 1995, the Pakistani army thwarted a
coup attempt by several dozen high-ranking military officers and civilians, all
of whom were members of the Tablighi Jamaat and some of whom also held
membership in Harakat ul-Mujahideen, a U.S. State Department-defined terrorist
organization. Some of the confusion over Tablighi Jamaat’s apolitical
characterization derives from the fact that the movement does not consider
individual states to be legitimate. They may not become actively involved in
internal politics or disputes over local issues, but, from a philosophical and
transnational perspective, the Tablighi Jamaat’s millenarian philosophy is very
political indeed. According to the French Tablighi expert Marc Gaborieau, its
ultimate objective is nothing short of a “planned conquest of the world” in the
spirit of jihad.
Origins and Ideology:
The prominent Deobandi cleric and scholar
Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi [1885-1944] launched Tablighi Jamaat in 1927
in Mewat, India, not far from Delhi. From its inception, the extremist
attitudes that characterize Deobandism permeated Tablighi philosophy. Ilyas’s
followers were intolerant of other Muslims and especially Shi´ites, let alone
adherents of other faiths. Indeed, part of Ilyas’s impetus for founding
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 all other religions. The creed grew in importance after
Pakistani military dictator Zia ul-Haq encouraged Deobandis to Islamize
The Tablighi Jamaat canon is bare-boned.
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.
Tablighi Jamaat is 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]. But, in practice,
all Tablighis preach a creed that is hardly distinguishable from the radical
Wahhabi-Salafi jihadist ideology that so many terrorists share.
Part of the reason why the Tablighi Jamaat
leadership can maintain such strict secrecy is its dynastic flavour. All
Tablighi Jamaat leaders since Ilyas have been related to him by either blood or
marriage. Upon Ilyas’ 1944 death, his son, Maulana Muhammad Yusuf [1917-65],
assumed leadership of the movement, dramatically expanding its reach and
Following the partition of India, Tablighi
Jamaat spread rapidly in the new Muslim nation of Pakistan. Yusuf and his
successor, Inamul Hassan [1965-95], transformed Tablighi Jamaat into a truly
transnational movement with a renewed emphasis targeting conversion of
non-Muslims, a mission the movement continues to the present day.
While few details are known about the
group’s structure, at the top sits the emir who, according to some observers,
presides over a Shura [Council], which plays an advisory role. Further down are
individual country organizations. By the late 1960s, Tablighi Jamaat had not
only established itself in Western Europe and North America but even claimed
adherents in countries like Japan, which has no significant Muslim population.
The movement’s rapid penetration into
non-Muslim regions began in the 1970s and coincides with the establishment of a
synergistic relationship between Saudi Wahhabis and South Asian Deobandis.
While Wahhabis are dismissive of other Islamic schools, they single out
Tablighi Jamaat for praise, even if they disagree with some of its practices,
such as willingness to pray in mosques housing graves. The late Sheikh ´Abd al
´Aziz ibn Baz, perhaps the most influential Wahhabi cleric in the late
twentieth century, recognized the Tablighis good work and encouraged his
Wahhabi brethren to go on missions with them so that they can “guide and advise
them.” A practical result of this cooperation has been large-scale Saudi
financing of Tablighi Jamaat.
While Tablighi Jamaat in theory requires
its missionaries to cover their own expenses during their trips, in practice,
Saudi money subsidizes transportation costs for thousands of poor missionaries.
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. Wahhabi sources have paid Tablighi missionaries in Africa
salaries higher than the European Union pays teachers in Zanzibar. In both
Western Europe and the United States, Tablighis operate interchangeably out of
Deobandi and Wahhabi controlled mosques and Islamic centres.
Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing:
The West’s misreading of Tablighi Jamaat
actions and motives has serious implications for the war on terrorism. Tablighi
Jamaat has always adopted an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam, but in the
past two decades, it has radicalized to the point where it is now a driving
force of Islamic extremism and a major recruiting agency for terrorist causes
worldwide. For a majority of young Muslim extremists, joining Tablighi Jamaat
is the first step on the road to extremism. Perhaps 80 percent of the Islamist
extremists in France come from Tablighi ranks, prompting French intelligence
officers to call Tablighi Jamaat the “antechamber of fundamentalism.” U.S.
counterterrorism officials are increasingly adopting the same attitude. “We
have a significant presence of Tablighi Jamaat in the United States,” the
deputy chief of the FBI’s international terrorism section said in 2003, “and we
have found that Al-Qaeda used them for recruiting now and in the past.”
Recruitment methods for young jihadists are
almost identical. After joining Tablighi Jamaat groups at a local mosque or
Islamic centre and doing a few local Dawa [proselytism] missions, Tablighi
officials invite star recruits to the Tablighi centre in Raiwind, Pakistan, for
four months of additional missionary training. Representatives of terrorist
organizations approach the students at the Raiwind centre and invite them to
undertake military training. Most agree to do so.
Tablighi Jamaat has long been directly
involved in the sponsorship of terrorist groups. Pakistani and Indian observers
believe, for instance, that Tablighi Jamaat was instrumental in founding
Harakat ul-Mujahideen. Founded at Raiwind in 1980, almost all of the Harakat
ul-Mujahideen’s original members were Tablighis. Famous for the December 1998
hijacking of an Air India passenger jet and the May 8, 2002 murder of a busload
of French engineers in Karachi, Harakat members make no secret of their ties.
“The two organizations together make up a truly international network of
genuine jihadi Muslims,” one senior Harakat ul-Mujahideen official said. More
than 6,000 Tablighis have trained in Harakat ul-Mujahideen camps. Many fought
in Afghanistan in the 1980s and readily joined Al-Qaeda after the Taliban
defeated Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet mujahideen.
Another violent Tablighi Jamaat spin-off is
the Harakat ul-Jihad-i Islami. Founded in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion
of Afghanistan, this group has been active not only in the disputed Indian
provinces of Jammu and Kashmir but also in the state of Gujarat, where Tablighi
Jamaat extremists have taken over perhaps 80 percent of the mosques previously
run by the moderate Barelvi Muslims. The Tablighi movement is also very active
in northern Africa where it became one of the four groups that founded the
Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria. Moroccan authorities are currently
prosecuting sixty members of the Moroccan Tablighi offshoot Dawa wa Tabligh in
connection with the May 16, 2003 terrorist attack on a Casablanca synagogue.
Dutch police are investigating links between the Moroccan cells and the
November 2, 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.
There are many other cases of individual
Tablighis committing acts of terrorism. French Tablighi members, for example,
have helped organize and execute attacks not only in Paris but also at the
Hotel Asni in Marrakech in 1994. Kazakh authorities expelled a number of
Tablighi missionaries because they had been organizing networks advancing
“extremist propaganda and recruitment.” Indian investigators suspect influential
Tablighi leader, Maulana Umarji, and a group of his followers in the February
27, 2002 fire bombing of a train carrying Hindu nationalists in Gujarat, India.
The incident sparked a wave of pogroms victimizing both Muslims and Hindus.
More recently, Moroccan authorities sentenced Yusef Fikri, a Tablighi member
and leader of the Moroccan terrorist organization At-Takfir wal-Hijrah, to
death for his role in masterminding the May 2003 Casablanca terrorist bombings
that claimed more than forty lives.
Tablighi Jamaat has also facilitated other
terrorists’ missions. The group has provided logistical support and helped
procure travel documents. Many take advantage of Tablighi Jamaat’s benign
reputation. Moroccan authorities say that leaflets circulated by the terrorist
group Al-Salafiyah al-Jihadiyah urged their members to join Islamic
organizations that operate openly, such as Tablighi Jamaat, in order “to hide
their identity on the one hand and influence these groups and their policies on
the other.” In a similar vein, a Pakistani jihadist website commented that
Tablighi Jamaat organizational structures can be easily adopted to jihad
activities. The Philippine government has accused Tablighi Jamaat, which has an
11,000-member presence in the country, of serving both as a conduit of Saudi
money to the Islamic terrorists in the south and as a cover for Pakistani jihad
There is also evidence that Tablighi Jamaat
directly recruits for terrorist organizations. As early as the 1980s, the
movement sponsored military training for 900 recruits annually in Pakistan and
Algeria while, in 1999, Uzbek authorities accused Tablighi Jamaat of sending
400 Uzbeks to terrorist training camps. The West is not immune. British
counterterrorism authorities estimate that at least 2,000 British nationals had
gone to Pakistan for jihad training by 1998, and the French secret services
report that between 80 and 100 French nationals fought for Al-Qaeda.
A Trojan Horse for Terror in America?
Within the United States, the cases of
American Taliban John Lindh, the “Lackawanna Six,” and the Oregon cell that
conspired to bomb a synagogue and sought to link up with Al-Qaeda, all involve
Tablighi missionaries. Other indicted terrorists, such as “shoe bomber” Richard
Reid, “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, and Lyman Harris, who sought to bomb the
Brooklyn Bridge, were all members of Tablighi Jamaat at one time or another.
According to Robert Blitzer, head of the FBI’s first Islamic counterterrorism
unit, between 1,000 and 2,000 Americans left to join the jihad in the 1990s
alone. Pakistani intelligence sources report that 400 American Tablighi
recruits received training in Pakistani or Afghan terrorist camps since 1989.
The Tablighi Jamaat has made inroads among
two very different segments of the American Muslim population. Because many
American Muslims are immigrants, and a large subsection of these are from South
Asia, Deobandi influences have been able to penetrate deeply. Many Tablighi
Jamaat missionaries speak Urdu as a first language and so can communicate
easily with American Muslims of South Asian origin. The Tablighi headquarters
in the United States for the past decade appears to be in the Al-Falah mosque
in Queens, New York. Its missionaries—predominantly from South Asia—regularly
visit Sunni mosques and Islamic centres across the country. The willingness of
Saudi-controlled front organizations and charities, such as the World Muslim
League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth [WAMY], the Haramain Foundation, the
International Islamic Relief Organization [IIRO] and others, to spend large
amounts of money to co-opt the religious establishment has helped catalyze
recruitment. As a result Wahhabi and Deobandi influence dominate American
This trend is apparent in the activities of
Tanzeem-e Islami. Founded by long-term Tablighi member and passionate Taliban
supporter, Israr Ahmed, Tanzeem-e Islami flooded American Muslim organizations
with communications accusing Israel of complicity in the 9/11 terror attacks. A
frequent featured speaker at Islamic conferences and events in the United
States, Ahmed engages in incendiary rhetoric urging his audiences to prepare
for “the final showdown between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world,
which has been captured by the Jews.” Unfortunately, his conspiracy theories
have begun to take hold among growing segments of the American Muslim
community. For example, Siraj Wahhaj, among the best known African-American
Muslim converts and the first Muslim cleric to lead prayers in the U.S. Congress,
is also on record accusing the FBI and the CIA of being the “real terrorists.”
He has expressed his support for the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World
Trade Centre bombing, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, and advocating the demise of
Tablighi Jamaat has appealed to African
American Muslims for other reasons. Founded by Elijah Mohammed in the early
1930s, the Nation of Islam was essentially a charismatic African American
separatist organization which had little to do with normative Islam. Many
Nation of Islam members found attractive both the Tablighi Jamaat’s anti-state
separatist message and its description of American society as racist, decadent,
and oppressive. Seeing such fertile ground, Tablighi and Wahhabi missionaries
targeted the African American community with great success.
Tablighi sympathizer explained, The Umma [Muslim community] must remember that
winning over the black Muslims is not only a religious obligation but also a
selfish necessity. The votes of the black Muslims can give the immigrant
Muslims the political clout they need at every stage to protect their vital
interests. Likewise, outside Muslim states like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and
Pakistan need to mobilize their effort, money, and missionary skills to expand
and consolidate the black Muslim community in the USA, not only for religious
reasons, but also as a farsighted investment in the black Muslims’ immense
potential as a credible lobby for Muslim causes, such as Palestine, Bosnia, or
Kashmir—offsetting, at least partially, the venal influence of the powerful
Not only foreign Tablighis but also the
movement’s sympathizers within the United States enunciate this goal. The
president of the Islamic Research Foundation in Louisville, Kentucky, a strong
advocate of Tablighi missionary work, for instance, insists that “if all the
Afro-American brothers and sisters become Muslims, we can change the political
landscape of America” and “make U.S. foreign policy pro-Islamic and Muslim
friendly.” As a result of Tablighi and Wahhabi proselytizing, African Americans
comprise between 30 and 40 percent of the American Muslim community, and
perhaps 85 percent of all American Muslim converts. Much of this success is due
to a successful proselytizing drive in the penitentiary system. Prison
officials say that by the mid-1990s, between 10 and 20 percent of the nation’s
1.5 million inmates identified themselves as Muslims. Some 30,000 African
Americans convert to Islam in prison every year.
The American political system tolerates all
views so long as they adhere to the rule of law. Unfortunately, Tablighi Jamaat
missionaries may be encouraging African American recruits to break the law.
Harkat ul-Mujahideen has boasted of training dozens of African American Jihadists
in its military camps. There is evidence that African American Jihadists have
died in both Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Tablighi Jamaat: The Future of American
Tablighi Jamaat has made unprecedented
strides in recent decades. It increasingly relies on local missionaries rather
than South Asian Tablighis to recruit in Western countries and often sets up
groups which apparently model themselves after Tablighi Jamaat but do not
acknowledge links to it.
In the United States, such a role is
apparently played by the Islamic Circle of North America [ICNA]. Founded in
1968 as an offshoot of the fiercely Islamist Muslim Student Association, ICNA
is the only major American Muslim organization that has paid open homage to
Tablighi founder Ilyas. The monthly ICNA publication, The Message, has praised
Ilyas as one of the four greatest Islamic leaders of the last 100 years. While
the relationship between ICNA and Tablighi Jamaat is not clear, the two
organizations share a number of similarities.
They both embrace the extreme Deobandi and
Wahhabi interpretations of Islam. ICNA demonstrates disdain for Western
democratic values and opposes virtually all counterterrorism legislation, such
as the Patriot Act, while providing moral and financial support to all Muslims
implicated in terrorist activities. An editorial in the ICNA organ, The Message
International, in September 1989 bemoaned the “uncounted number of Muslims lost
to Western values” which was a “major cause for concern.” In 2003 and 2004,
ICNA has collected money to assist detainees suspected of terrorist activities,
participated in pro-terrorist rallies, and mounted campaigns on behalf of
indicted Hamas functionary Sami al-Arian.
Like Tablighi Jamaat, ICNA initially drew
its membership disproportionately from South Asians. As with Tablighi Jamaat,
ICNA demands total dedication to missionary work from its members. Because many
ICNA members spend at least thirty hours per week on their mission, their
ability to independently support themselves is unclear. Many cannot hold
full-time jobs. ICNA’s recruitment efforts have borne fruit, though. All ICNA
members are organized in small study groups of no more than eight people,
called NeighborNets. As in a cult, these cells provide support and
reinforcement for new recruits, who may have sought to fill a void in their
lives. Its yearly convocations, patterned on the annual Tablighi Jamaat
meetings in South Asia, now attract some 15,000 people.
The estimated 15,000 Tablighi missionaries
reportedly active in the United States present a serious national security
problem. At best, they and their proxy groups form a powerful proselytizing
movement that preaches extremism and disdain for religious tolerance,
democracy, and separation of church and state. At worst, they represent an
Islamist fifth column that aids and abets terrorism. Contrary to their benign
treatment by scholars and academics, Tablighi Jamaat has more to do with
political sedition than with religion.
U.S. officials should focus on reality
rather than rhetoric. Pakistani and Saudi support for Tablighi Jamaat is
incompatible with their claims to be key allies in the war on terror. While law
enforcement focuses attention on Osama bin Laden, the war on terrorism cannot
be won unless al-Qaeda terrorists are understood to be the products of Islamist
ideology preached by groups like Tablighi Jamaat. If the West chooses to turn a
blind eye to the problem, Tablighi involvement in future terrorist activities
at home and abroad is not a matter of conjecture; it is a certainty.
The Tablighi Role in the Global
However, there are indeed some links
between Tablighis and the world of Jihadism. First, there is evidence of
indirect connections between the group and the wider radical/extremist Deobandi
nexus composed of anti-Shiite sectarian groups, Kashmiri militants and the
Taliban. This link provides a medium through which Tablighis who are
disgruntled with the group´s apolitical program could break orbit and join
One apparent manifestation of this nexus
was a purported militant offshoot of TJ, Jihad bi al-Saif [Jihad through the
Sword], which was established in Taxila, Pakistan. Members of this group were
accused of plotting a coup against former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir
Bhutto in 1995. Yet, because of the organization´s extreme secrecy, little is
known about it other than that it is believed to have developed in reaction to
the TJ´s apolitical, peaceful stance.
The TJ organization also serves as a de
facto conduit for Islamist extremists and for groups such as al Qaeda to
recruit new members. Significantly, the Tablighi recruits do intersect with the
world of radical Islamism when they travel to Pakistan to receive their initial
training. We have received reports that once the recruits are in Pakistan,
representatives of various radical Islamist groups, such as
Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Taliban and al Qaeda, are said to woo them actively —
to the point of offering them military training. And some of them accept the
offer. For example, John Walker Lindh — an American who is serving a prison
sentence for aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan — travelled with Tablighi
preachers to Pakistan in 1998 to further his Islamic studies before joining the
Because of the piety and strict belief
system of the Tablighis and their focus on calling wayward Muslims back to an
austere and orthodox Muslim faith, the movement has offered a place where
jihadist spotters can look for potential recruits. These facilitators often
offer enthusiastic new or rededicated Muslims a more active way to live and
develop their faith. Although the TJ promotes a benign message, the same
conservative Islamic values espoused by the Tablighis also are part of jihadist
ideology, and so some Muslims attracted to the Tablighi movement are enticed
into becoming involved with jihadists.
Additionally, because of its apolitical
belief system, TJ seems to leave a gap in the ideological indoctrination of the
individual Tablighi because it essentially asks the novice to shun politics and
public affairs. The problem in taking this belief system from theory to
practice, however, is that some people find they cannot ignore what is
happening in the world around them, especially when that world includes wars.
This is when some Tablighis become disillusioned with TJ and start turning to
jihadist groups that offer religiously sanctioned prescriptions as to how “good
Muslims” should deal with life´s injustices.
Once a facilitator identifies such
candidates, he often will segregate them from the main congregation in the
mosque or community centre and put them into small prayer circles or study
groups where they can be more easily exposed to jihadist ideology. [Of course, it
also has been shown that a person with friends or relatives who ascribe to
radical ideology can more easily be radical].
Examples of people making the jump from TJ
to radical Islam are the two leading members of the cell responsible for the
July 7, 2005, London bombings — Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shahzad Tanweer.
Both had life-changing experiences through their exposure to TJ, though by 2001
the men had left the Tablighi mosque they had been attending in the British
city of Beeston, because they found it to be too apolitical. They apparently
were frustrated by the mosque’s elders, who forbid the discussion of politics
in the mosque.
After Khan and Tanweer left the Tablighi
mosque, they began attending the smaller Iqra Learning Centre bookstore in
Beeston, where they reportedly were exposed to frequent political discussions
about places such as Iraq, Kashmir and Chechnya. The store’s proprietors
reportedly even produced jihad videos depicting crimes by the West against the
Muslim world. Exposed to this environment, the two men eventually became
radicalized to the point of travelling to Pakistan to attend a terrorist
training camp and then returning to the United Kingdom to plan and execute a
suicide attack that resulted in the death of them both.
TJ also is used by jihadists as cover both
for recruiting activities, as discussed above, and for travel. Like Khan and
Tanweer, many jihadists desire to travel to Pakistan for training, while others
want to get to Afghanistan, Kashmir or other places to fight jihad. However,
the travel environment is far different today than it was in the early 1980s,
when 747 jetliners packed with jihadists from Saudi Arabia and other places
flew into Pakistan en route to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Foreigners travelling to Pakistan today
cannot enter the country without a visa, and Pakistani authorities are no
longer inclined to issue visas to jihadists, as Jeffrey Battle and the other
members of the Portland Seven had to learn the hard way. Shortly after the U.S.
invasion of Afghanistan, the friends travelled to China with the intention of
entering Afghanistan by way of Pakistan. Once at the Chinese-Pakistani border,
however, they found they could not enter Pakistan without a visa. After
spending a frustrating month trying to obtain visas from the Pakistani Embassy
in Beijing, the seven aspiring jihadists decided to go their separate ways.
Battle, who reportedly once served as a
bodyguard for Black Panther leader Quanell X, later attempted to obtain a visa
to Pakistan by saying he was affiliated with TJ. The Pakistanis, probably
recognizing him from his prior [and apparently somewhat vocal] visa attempts,
denied him again, though he was able to get a visa to travel to Bangladesh
using the feigned connection to TJ. Unable to make his way from Bangladesh to
Pakistan or Afghanistan, however, Battle returned to the United States, where
he was later arrested. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison after pleading
guilty to charges of seditious conspiracy and waging war against the United
Similarly, in the spring of 2001 the
members of the so-called Lackawanna Six cell travelled to Pakistan under the
pretext of studying the Islamic religion and culture at the TJ training centre.
In reality, the men travelled through Pakistan to Afghanistan, where they
attended training at the al-Farooq camp, a training site being run by al Qaeda.
Again, the men used TJ as cover for travel, though there is no indication that
TJ played any real part in their alleged plot.
Although the TJ organization
unintentionally serves as a front for, or conduit to, militant organizations
such as al Qaeda, there is no evidence that the Tablighis act willingly as a
global unified jihadist recruiting arm. Rather, such activities appear to occur
without the knowledge or consent of TJ leaders. Additionally, because of the
very size of the organization and it activities in Muslim communities in the
West, a great many Muslims have had some sort of contact with the group. TJ
itself, however, is not an intentional propagator of terrorism.
Investigation on Terror Connection of
Tabligh Jamaat in Pakistan:
Prominent amongst the Wahhabi-Deobandi
organisations active in the CARs, Chechnya and Dagestan are the
Harkat-ul-Mujahideen [HUM–formerly known as the Harkat-ul-Ansar], the Markaz
Dawa Al Irshad and its militant wing, the Lashkar-e-Toiba detailed paper on the
HUM was disseminated on March 20, 1999, and on the Markaz and its Lashkar on
July 26, 1998.
This paper deals with the Tablighi Jamaat
[TJ], which is the mother of all the Pakistan-based Jihadi organisations active
not only in the CARs, Chechnya and Dagestan, but also in other parts of the
In an investigative report carried by the
“News” [February 13, 1995], Mr. Kamran Khan, the well-known Pakistani
journalist, brought to light for the first time the nexus between the TJ and
the HUM and their role in supporting Islamic extremist movements in different
He quoted unidentified office-bearers of
the HUM as saying as follows: “Ours is basically a Sunni organisation close to
the Deobandi school of thought. Our people are mostly impressed by the TJ. Most
of our workers do come from the TJ. We regularly go to its annual meeting at
Raiwind. Ours is a truly international network of genuine jihadist Muslims. We
believe frontiers can never divide Muslims. They are one nation. They will
remain a single entity.
“We try to go wherever our Muslim brothers
are terrorised, without any monetary consideration. Our colleagues went and
fought against oppressors in Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Burma, the
Philippines and, of course, India.
“Although Pakistani members are not
participating directly in anti-Government armed resistance in Egypt, Algeria,
Tunisia and Jordan, many of the fighters in those Arab States had remained our
colleagues during the Afghan war and we know one another very well. We are
doing whatever we can to help them install Islamic governments in those
The report also quoted the office-bearers
as claiming that among foreign volunteers trained by them in their training
camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan were 16 African-American Muslims from various
cities of the US and that funds for their activities mostly came from Muslim
businessmen of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UK.
The February 1998, issue of the “Newsline”,
a monthly of Pakistan, quoted workers of the TJ as saying that the TJ had many
offices in the US, Russia, the Central Asian Republics, South Africa, Australia
and France and that many members of the Chechen Cabinet, including the Deputy
Prime Minister of Chechnya, were workers of the TJ and participated in its
proselytising activities. . One of them, merely identified as Khalil, said: ”
It is possible that France may become a Muslim state within my lifetime, due to
the great momentum of Tablighi activity there. “
According to the “Newsline”, the TJ was
started in the 1880s to revive and spread Islam. Its annual convention held at
Raiwind in Pakistani Punjab in November every year is attended by over one
million Muslims from all over the world. This is described by the “Newsline” as
the second largest gathering of the Muslims anywhere in the world after the Haj
in Saudi Arabia.
Dr.Jassim Taqui, an Islamic scholar, wrote
in the “Frontier Post” of Peshawar of January 15, 1999, as follows:
The TJ has been able to establish contacts
and centres throughout the Muslim world. [Comment: By “Muslim world” he does
not only mean Islamic countries, but all countries where there is a sizable
It has thousands of dedicated and disciplined
workers who never question any order from the high-ups. What has helped the TJ
to expand [without creating alarm in the security agencies] is its policy of a
deliberate black-out of its activities. It does not interact with the media and
does not issue any statements or communiqués. It believes in human
communication through word of mouth. [Comment: It does not bring out any
journals or other propaganda organs to explain its policies and objectives. All
explanations to its workers and potential recruits are given orally].
During its training classes, it claims to
have frustrated the efforts of the US Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] to
penetrate it and succeeded in converting the CIA agents to Islam.
The TJ claims that it never accepts money
from anybody and that all its workers who volunteer to go on preaching mission
have to spend their own money.
Even though the TJ claims to be apolitical
and disinterested in political or administrative influence, many of its active
members have come to occupy important positions. Examples are Lt.Gen. [Retired]
Javed Nasir, who was the DG of the ISI during Mr. Nawaz Sharif’s first tenure
as the Prime Minister, and Mr. Mohammad Rafique Tarar, the President of
Pakistan, who has been an active worker of the TJ for many years.
“Those who are close to the inner circles
believe that the Tablighis were the brain who bailed out Nawaz Sharif from the
constitutional crisis. Tarar is believed to be the brain behind the Shariah
Bill [which could not be passed by the Senate] and the concept of speedy
justice through military courts [the military courts were declared
unconstitutional by the Pakistan Supreme Court]. However, the contacts of the
Tablighis had always been with Mr. Mohammad Sharif [father of former Pakistani
Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif] and not with the son. Mr. Nawaz is well aware
of the “Tariqah” [the path advocated by the TJ]. He has been with the
Tabligh for a fairly long time. He takes part in their meetings on a regular
basis. He donates money to their welfare projects. As usual, the Tablighis
never publicise the donors or the projects or the beneficiaries. All are
committed to remain silent.”
Writing in the “Frontier Post” of January
27, 1999, Dr. Mumtaz Ahmed, another Islamic scholar, said: “Despite its
enormous significance as a mass-based religious movement that has influenced
Asian, African, Arab and Western Muslims alike, the Tablighi Jamaat has
received scant attention in the literature on modern Islam. Maulana Ilyas, the
founder of the Tablighi Jamaat, was of the view that the Tablighi movement and
politically-oriented Islamic groups, although operating in two different
spheres, were complementing each other’s work. Hence, there should be no
competition and rivalry between them.”
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is the editor of Blitz. He is a Zionist and
multi award winning anti jihadist journalist, as well as a counterterrorism
specialist. He can be contacted at: email@example.com