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Women and the Tablighi Jamat

Women and the Tablighi Jamat

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Published by: mzislam1 on Apr 01, 2009
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Women and the Tablighi Jama‘at
Yoginder Sikand
From its origins in early twentieth-century north India, the Tablighi Jama‘at (TJ) has now growninto what is probably the single largest Islamic movement of contemporary times. Writing in1992, one scholar observed that the movement had a presence in around 165 countries (Faruqi1992, 43). It would not be wrong, then, to say that the TJ is today active in almost every countryin the world where Muslims live. Despite the obviously great influence that the TJ has on thelives of millions of Muslims throughout the world, scholars have hitherto devoted little attentionto it
. Even within the existing limited corpus of writings on the TJ, almost no mention has beenmade of the participation of women in the movement. This paper is an attempt to address thisserious lacuna in our understanding of the role of women in the TJ. It does not claim to be acomplete account, though, for given the nature of the movement, the subject of women in the TJcan only be properly studied by a female researcher, preferably a Muslim, with access to femaleTablighi respondents who rarely appear before ‘strange’ (ghayr) men.In exploring the question of the role of women in the TJ, this paper begins by tracing thehistorical context within which the movement emerged. It then moves to a discussion of theportrayal of the ideal Islamic woman in Tablighi tracts. The Tablighi agenda for women followsfrom this. In the concluding section of the paper we turn our attention to what implicationsTablighi work might actually have for Muslim women, both activists in the movement as well asothers.
The decline of Muslim political power in South Asia towards the end of the eighteenth centurywitnessed the emergence of several reformist ‘ulama, crusading against the widespreadobservance of local customs, often seen as ‘Hinduistic’, and calling for Muslims to abide strictlyby the shari‘a instead. For these reformists, the decline of the fortunes of the Mughals was aresult of Muslims’ straying from the path of the shari‘a. Hence, they stressed, Muslim powercould only be salvaged if Muslims were to begin to govern their own lives according to thedictates of Islamic law (Ikram 1963, 14). In pursuit of this aim, they began increasingly devotingtheir attention to ordinary Muslims who were seen as the bastion of ‘un-Islamic’ customs andpractices. This represented a noticeable shift from past precedent, for at the height of Muslimpower in the subcontinent the ‘ulama seem to have been primarily concerned with the rulingelite, remaining distinctly aloof from common Muslims.The growing power of the British, culminating in the overthrow of the Mughal dynasty after theaborted revolt of 1857, saw the Indian ‘ulama making new efforts to cultivate links with theMuslim masses who, with the Mughals now gone, increasingly began to be viewed as the new
repositories of Islam. With the eclipse of Muslim political authority, from now on it was to beordinary Muslims who came increasingly to be seen as the ‘protectors of Islam’. Purged of localcustoms, beliefs and practices, the reformed Muslim man, and later, woman as well, was to bethe new defender of the faith. This concern was best exemplified by the movement spawned bythe Dar ul-‘Ulum, a seminary established at the town of Deoband, near Delhi, in 1867.By training ‘ulama, by issuing opinions in matters of religious law (fatawa) and, most of all, bytaking advantage of new printing technology by publishing popular books and tracts in thevernaculars, the Deobandi ‘ulama sought to disseminate the message and teachings of reformistIslam among ordinary Muslims. Of particular concern to them was the religious instruction of ordinary believers in the fundamentals of the faith, including basic rituals practices and beliefs(‘aqa‘id). Marketing a distinct departure from the past, they began paying increasing attention toMuslim women, who they saw as bastions of ‘Hinduistic’ customs and traditions. The reformedMuslim woman was now seen as playing a central role in the project of reforming the Muslimfamily and, in the process, the Muslim community as a whole. This concern for women on thepart of the Deobandi reformists was most strikingly illustrated with the writing of a voluminoustext specially for women, the Bahishti Zewar, by the leading Deobandi ‘alim, Maulana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi (d. 1943) in the early years of the twentieth century
. This book, more than anyother, grew into the most popular reformist tract for the proper religious instructions of Muslimwomen in India, a distinction that it enjoys till this very day.As a product of the Deoband madrasa and a student of Maulana Thanawi, Maulana MuhammadIlyas (d. 1994), the founder of the TJ, was particularly concerned to popularize the teachings of the new Islamic reformists among ordinary Muslims, including both men and women. The firsttarget of Ilyas’ early tablighi (missionary) efforts, starting in the mid-1920s, were the tribe of nominal Muslim converts known as the Meos who lived in the region of Mewat, to theimmediate south of Delhi. In the course of his work in Mewat, he strove to encourage the Meosto cultivate faith (iman), to improve their knowledge of the basic beliefs of their region, and toabide strictly by the rituals of Islam. From its humble origins in Mewat, the TJ gradually grewinto the vast international movement that it is today.In the early years of the TJ, the movement was directed almost entirely at men. Once hismovement had established a significant presence in Mewat, Ilyas seems to have realized that hismission would remain incomplete if he did not bring women into active involvement in it.Accordingly, he approached some leading Deobandi ‘ulama with a proposal to start Tablighiwork among women. The ‘ulama, however, initially recoiled at the prospect, arguing that thiswas ‘an age of great disorder’ (fitna ka zamana), with women going out of their homes withoutcovering themselves ‘properly’, and that Tabligh tours might actually be used by women as an‘excuse’ for ‘turning towards freedom’.Despite the ‘ulama’s initial hostility to his proposal, Ilyas kept up his pleas for women to beallowed to participate in Tabligh work, until the noted Deobandi ‘alim, Mufti Kifayatullah,
finally relented and gave him his consent. Thereafter, Ilyas approached a close disciple of his,one Maulana ‘Abdus Subhan, who was persuaded to let his wife begin missionary work amongMuslim women in Delhi, where Ilyas lived and where the TJ currently has its globalheadquarters. This woman is said to have, under Ilyas’ instructions, formed a small group of women who went off for a few days to Mewat in the company of their husbands and, under thesupervision of one Maulana Daud, started preaching among the Meo women of that region. Afterthat, we are told, women’s participation in the work of the TJ gradually picked up in many otherparts of the world as the movement began to expand outside the confines of South Asia(Ferozepuri n.d., 105-7).This is one of the only references we have in the available literature to the actual work of womenin the TJ, and even here they remain faceless, nameless people about whom we are told but little.We do know, however, what they and other TJ women activists were, and still are, taught andlearnt as participants in the movement, and to that we may now turn.
As in the case of Muslim men, the TJ sees every Muslim woman as playing a central and activepart in the effort for the revival of Islam. The method in which this is to be done – the tariqa-itabligh – is, for the most part, common to both men and women. Ordinary Muslim women areencouraged to take time off and form a women’s group or masturati jama‘at that travels tovarious places to do Tabligh work, preaching the message of reformist Islam among the Muslimwomenfolk in the areas they visit. To begin with, ideally, they should spend three days at astretch every two months in this way. After they have gained enough experience they should startto go on fifteen–day jama‘ats. Thereafter, this should be increased to a chillah, or forty days at astretch, or even longer, during the course of which they should be encouraged to visit othercountries to carry on Tabligh work there
.Only married women may go out on a jama‘at, and they always be accompanied by a malerelative. This should preferably be the husband. If, for some reason, the husband is unable toaccompany a woman, she must have her son, brother, father grandfather or some such mehramrelative with her
. The male mehram should, if possible, be one who has already spent a chillahdoing Tabligh work. In addition, he must have a beard, testifying to his commitment to Islam(Wali ul- Islam 1996, 17).Ideally, the jama‘at should consist of ten women and ten male mehram relatives (Ibid., 16).While on a Tabligh tour, all decisions regarding the working of the jama‘at are to be taken by themen folk accompanying the women. The head (amir) of the jama‘at must in all cases be a man.In consultation (mashwara) with the other men he is to oversee the working of the group.Decisions taken by him are relayed to the women through the medium of a woman whom thewomen choose among themselves. This woman is told of the amir’s decisions by her ownhusband or mehram relative who is accompanying her, and she, in turn, conveys this informationto the other women in her group (Ferozepuri n.d., 108).

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