The Heaven’s Caravan – OpEd
Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity. – (Quran 3: 104)
The Muslim world is in crisis and a biased media has added its own biased colour to it. The negative stereotyping has created an impression that everything Muslim is evil.
However, away from public glare, there is a silent revolution that has Prophet Muhammad’s mission placed on the top of all priorities – the spreading of the authentic message of Islam. Called da‘wah – the concept of propagation of Islamic faith- a humongous army of preachers is silently striving to make Muslims better practitioners of their faith.
Religions have jostled with each other for millenniums. Many missionaries of today are returning to practices of proselytizing that were long ago abandoned by the mainline missionaries. Armed only with sleeping bag backpacks, and a simple message, da’wah activists are going door-to-door in more than 200 countries. They can be easily recognized, and most are unfailingly polite. This mission evokes tales of Prophet Muhammad’s companions who trekked hundreds of miles and braved bandits and armies to spread the word of Islam back in the 7th century. Historically, missionary da’wah accompanied commercial ventures or followed military conquests.
Now, in the modern digital world, the hardships are fewer, but challenges and prejudices are much stronger. However, if the Prophet’s companions could sacrifice their lives for propagating Islam if hard times, surely present age Muslims can emulate them.
Da‘wah means the issuing of a call or invitation. It is an important duty of every Muslim to invite people to their faith or to recall nominal or lapsed Muslims to a deeper faith. A Muslim who practices da‘wah, either as a preacher, religious worker or someone engaged in a faith- building community work is called a da’I,plural du’at.
Islam’s propagation remains a cardinal duty of every Muslim. This is particularly relevant in modern times where negative stereotyping of Muslims has brought a bad name to the faith. It also underlines the importance of the participation of educated Muslims because the knowledge explosion requires more sophisticated intellectual equipment to navigate the complex environment.
For Islamic civilization, moral conduct is the rationale for its existence. It is this fundamental trait that distinguishes it from any other civilization in history. The argument that other civilizations, too, have a moral core is countered by the fact that Islam is a way of life — ad-deen — and not simply a religion. Our values shape our lives; they are the qualities that define us. They make us who we are and guide us in our life choices, what we believe in and what we commit to. It is finally our conduct that will influence the perception of others about us.
Islam has a simple but highly effective evangelical message that boils down to five points to mirror Islam’s five cardinal pillars of practice: Grasp the true meaning and implications of the credal statement that there is no deity except Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger; pray conscientiously five times a day; acquire learning and engage in the frequent remembrance of God; honor fellow believers; and participate in missionary work (da’wah) by spreading awareness of Islam. Da’wah is God’s way of bringing believers to faith.
The “invitation”, or call, to accept Islam has to be extended not just to non-Muslims, but also to Muslims who do not observe Islam in its fullest form. Calling non-Muslims and “inconsistent” Muslims to Islam is considered by Muslim theologians to be an unconditional duty of every Muslim. Every Muslim is considered a missionary of Islam.
The da’wah message is nonviolent and harbors no hatred for other faiths or peoples. Instead, it seeks to show Muslims that the injustice and oppression they face are symptoms of their waning morality. It insists that the solution lies in spiritual renewal.
The aim is less about conversion and more about propagating their view of correct Qur’anic teachings about sin and salvation.
The most accomplished modern missionary is Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi (1885-1944), a puritan, religious scholar. When he began his revivalist movement called Tablighi Jamaat (“Proselytising Group“) in a rural setting in Mewat in northern India in 1927, it was a response to a dominant Hindu culture that was influencing Muslims and their way of life. However, the seeds were germinated in British-ruled India, emerging from the Islamic Deoband movement active in South Asia. From its inception in 1867, the Deoband movement fused some aspects of Sufism with the study of the hadith and strict adherence to sharia, as well as advocating non-state-sponsored Islamic da`wah (missionary activity). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Muslim minority in British India felt caught between the resurgent Hindu majority and the small but British-supported Christian missionary agenda.
Kandhlawi graduated from the central Deoband madrassa in 1910 and, while working among the Muslim masses of Mewat, India (just south of Delhi) came to question whether education alone could renew Islam. He eventually decided that “only through physical movement away from one’s place could one leave behind one’s esteem for life and its comforts for the cause of God.” Indeed, some have even described his movement as the missionary arm of the Deobandis.
Other Muslim groups in the subcontinent, notably the Barelvis, had previously developed the idea of itinerant missionary work—tabligh—in order to counter Hindu (and Christian) conversions of Muslims, but it was Ilyas’s genius to teach that tabligh should be the responsibility of each and every individual Muslim. He aimed to recapitulate the piety and practice of Muhammad and his companions in the 7th century A.D., and as such was concerned not just with Hindu or Christian inroads into the Muslim community but with stemming the rising tide of Westernization and secularisation.
Unlike other contemporary Islamic revivalists, Ilyas did not believe that Islam could be reconciled with Western science, technology, and political ideologies.
Ilyas wanted to take his teachings from the classroom to the common people. The mission was meant to devote itself largely to the business of preaching, The Meos, the community in which Ilyas began his work, were Muslims but mostly followed several Hindu traditions. The movement grew out as an offshoot of Deobandism, a socially conservative school of Islam. The adherents of the movement are popularly known as “tablighis”. The tablighis lead spartan lives, shunning the outside world. They strive to create an ambiance of spirituality, solidarity, and purpose that is extremely compelling to the youth.
By the mid-1930s, Ilyas was promulgating a more detailed program of belief and praxis.
This new doctrine went beyond the five pillars of Islam12 and belief in the usual Islamic doctrinal staples, to include:
Islamic education (especially of children, at home),
Modest Islamic dress and appearance (shaving the mustache and allowing the beard to grow long),
High regard for other Muslims and protecting their honor,
Rejection of other religions,
Self-financing of tabligh trips,
Lawful means of earning a living, and
Strict avoidance of divisive and sectarian issues.
What began as a revivalist movement has over the past century transformed into a global phenomenon. It has seen a massive surge in recent time, heightened by a strong religious zeal in the new generation of Muslims. According to analysts, it has around 25 million members proselytizing around the globe. The Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life project states that their number ranges from 12 to 80 million, spread across more than 150 countries. The Jamaat’s annual conventions in Raiwind, Pakistan, and Tongi, Bangladesh, attract more than a million members from all over the world.
A number of influential personalities have joined the movement, including some popular Pakistani singers and several members of Pakistan’s national cricket team. Although its members are from diverse backgrounds, all share one key common interest—the propagation of Islam for the salvation of souls. The movement has an amazingly well-oiled machine which nets hundreds of thousands of new followers every year.
Barbara Metcalf, a University of California scholar of South Asian Islam, called Tablighi Jamaat “an apolitical, quietist movement of internal grassroots missionary renewal”. 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.
The six principles of the Tablighi Jamaat are:
Kalimah-An article of faith in which the tabligh accepts that there is no God but Allah and the Prophet Muhammad is His messenger.
Salaat-Five daily prayers that are essential to spiritual elevation, piety, and a life free from the ills of the material world
Ilm and Dhikr – The knowledge and remembrance of Allah conducted in sessions in which the congregation listens to preaching by the emir, performs prayers, recites the Quran and reads Hadith. The congregation will also use these sessions to eat meals together, thus fostering a sense of community and identity
Ikram-i-Muslim – The treatment of fellow Muslims with honor and deference
Ikhlas-i-Niyat – Reforming one’s life in supplication to Allah by performing every human action for the sake of Allah and toward the goal of self-transformation
Tafrigh-i-Waqt – The sparing of time to live a life based on faith and learning its virtues, following in the footsteps of the Prophet, and taking His message door-to-door for the sake of faith
The core teachings of the organization are embodied in Tablighi Nisab (Tablighi Curriculum), which is the only book which every tablighi uses as a daily guide. The thrust of the book is on” six points “. Every Muslim must be able to make a correct declaration of faith, know how to perform ritual prayers correctly, inculcate a habit of remembering God, respect other Muslims, behave honestly and decently and should spend some time in passing on this message to other Muslims.
Every day, thousands of groups of da’wah followers go on kharooj. Like Jehovah’s Witnesses, they trawl through the day with the aim of saving souls and finding new converts for their faith. During these tours and sojourns (Chilla) 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 people door-to-door ghast (“rounds” in Persian) going to those Muslims who live near a mosque give a two-minute speech, offer a blessing to the people they visit, and make one request: that they join them for Maghrib (sunset) prayers and a brief lecture at the neighborhood mosque for a lecture on Qur’an. Those who attend are offered the dawa (invitation) as the Tablighis outline their six principles and encourage attendees to form their own jamaat.
Instead of adopting the frayed coarse discourses, the da’is use interesting anecdotes from the Islamic scriptures to enthuse the initiates. With the enlightened elders, they also engage in deep theological discussions.
In their lessons, drawn from Quranic verses and the recorded sayings of Prophet Muhammad, da’wah supporters lay out two simple aims. First, they encourage fellow Muslims to return to what they believe are the standards and morals of the prophet’s companions. Second, they recruit members to join da’wah and take part in kharooj (preaching tours). Kharooj is a designated mission defined by the number of days involved in the spiritual journey, typically 3 days, 40 days, or four months. The object of the exercise is to lure the weak ones into the mosque, where they can be repeatedly subjected to the ‘six points’ program. Tablighi Jamaat acts as a beacon to those lost in jahiliyyah (the state of ignorance of guidance from God), but it just stops here.. it is time it designs and embarks on Mission 2.0 so that the journey completes a full Islamic cycle in every respect As Travelers in Faith puts it:
“Man is a ship in tumultuous sea. It is impossible to repair it without taking it away from the high seas where the waves of ignorance and the temptations of temporal life assail it. Its only chance is to come back to land to be dry-docked. The dry-dock is the mosque of the jamaat.”
Many proselytizing groups have seen a theological trend toward good works, such as improving education and healthcare as an addon activity of proselytizing. But the tablighis practice purely preaching and propagation of their faith knowledge. They focus on reviving the faith of weaker Muslims, and thus help to ensure either a passport to paradise, or the rule of Islam on earth, whichever comes soonest.
Transnationalism and travel are two distinct characteristics of this movement. It adopted transnational travel and physical movement as a means of da’wah. The most important and frequent activity of an adept of the Jamaat is going out for God’s sake. A combination of time and space, ‘travel’ has a special meaning in the tablighi discourse. Tablighi Jamaat members leave the comfort of their homes for 3-4 months to serve God.
During these self-financed treks, the members travel to different cities, villages or towns, stay at a mosque there and go from door to door reminding Muslims to study Qur’an and pay more attention to Islam. Intoxicants are off limits but missionaries are also expected to shun gossip and vain talks to concentrate their mind on the task in hand, the group promotes grassroots preaching and is avowedly apolitical, something which enabled it to flourish across much of the Muslim world because it was not seen as a threat to the ruling classes.
The movement is comparable with the concept of hijra, both in the sense of migration and withdrawal. It is travel within one’s self. One temporarily migrates from dunya (worldly pursuits) to din (religious concerns), a favorite dichotomy among the tablighis.
It is a migration from corruption to purity, drawing away from worldly attachments to the Path of God. A spiritual period in da’wah work, in other words, reduces the desires for worldly pleasures and sets the individual on an authentic moral and spiritual path.
The tablighis are ubiquitous, are doggedly persistent in their work and their simple message resonates with nascent minds. The secret of their success lies in direct, personal appeals and the emphasis on rituals. That is why they are most successful among the young. The members are committed, highly motivated and spend their own resources for the work of the Jamaat.
The Tablighi Jamaat is not “ultraconservative” as most outsiders believe – in fact it is rather the opposite. Their reliance on unorthodox stories of mythical heroes, their other-worldliness and pietism, and their ritualization of certain select scriptures lends credence to the belief that they have closeness to Sufi orders, something that the “ultraorthodox” Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia for example completely condemn.
An important point a da’i must emphasize is that the Islamic concept of spirituality differs from that of other religions. In contrast to the renunciation of the world and physical self denial, the Islamic concept of spirituality lays stress on being in the midst of life, facing all the difficulties and hardships, and performing all the activities with the sole objective of seeking the pleasure of God. Man is God’s vicegerent and must fulfill the specified duties and obligations
Far from proselytizing and inducing others to change their religion or way of life against their free will, Islam does not permit use of coercive, aggressive or violent means. To set an example, da’wah followers attempt to emulate the social practices of Muhammad in all aspects of life, ranging from which foot should exit the mosque first to which direction to face when sleeping at night. They eat from communal platters on the ground, men sport beards of a certain length, and they use miswak (teeth-cleaning twig) instead of a toothbrush as did the Prophet’s companions.
The Qur’an has made it explicitly and repeatedly clear that the method of both Islamic call (da’wah) and preaching (balagh) should be fair, balanced, moderate, peaceful and non-violent to attract listeners to their pitch. The Qur’anic term “balagh” means “to convey the message”, and” not to convert”. It involves wisdom and prudence on the part of the preacher. The missionaries are expected to approach their audience with respect and treat them with love.
Before they start on Qur’anic matters, they must connect with people as humans. They should inquire about their families, their lives, their troubles. They must avoid being pedantic. These two Qur’anic verses are lodestars for the missionaries:
“You cannot guide whoever you please: it is God who guides whom He will” (Q28:56)
“It is not up to you to guide them, but Allah guides whom He wills.” (Q2:72)
The proselytization movement needs to guard itself against arrogance that bedeviled such movements in the past .The missionaries need to inculcate the highest ethical standards while staying on course with the guiding practices enunciated in the Qur’an. They must also use creative ways of leveraging business, humanitarian or educational platform through which they can be an incarnation witness and share the “gospel”.
What we need in today’s complex world are innovative missionaries who are trained in strategic thinking to devise multiple ways of communicating the “gospel” through cultural filters and societal barriers. The overarching objective must finally to see that people have a purer faith that can serve as a moral template that can help them navigate the vicissitudes of everyday life.
(Author Moin Qazi began his early career as a development journalist. While still at college he began writing on Issues relating to the plight of child labourers. He did his post graduation in English and English with distinction from Nagpur University in 1980 and obtained his PhD in English from Los Altos University in 1989 and in Economics from Nagpur University in 2012. An accomplished poet, he has contributed to Indian Pen, The Independent, The Illustrated Weekly of India, Kavya Bharati, The Muse etc. His poems have also been set to music by Hollywood companies. He received Hon D Litt at the World Congress of Poets held at Istanbul in 1989. He has contributed articles to Indian and foreign publications including The Times of India, Statesman, Indian Express, The Economic Times, Financial Express, The Hindustan Times, Business Standard, The Hindu, Mainstream, Asian Age, Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek (Hong Kong) Daily Sabah (Turkey), Moroccan Times, Chicago Monitor, Sudan Vision and Times of Malta.He has authored several books on religion, rural finance, culture and handicrafts.)
(Muslim prayer beads. Photo by Muhammad Rehan, Wikipedia Commons.)