Cont Islam (2011) 5:225–247 DOI 10.
Piety among Tablīghī women
Jan A. Ali
Published online: 1 July 2011 # Springer Science+Business Media B.V . 2011
Abstract Islamic piety in Muslim women has been on the rise in the last three decades around the world. Much of it involves formerly nominal Muslim women becoming observant of Islamic rules, rituals and practices and taking their faith seriously. For these women, it is a journey of spiritual elevation. It is a new endeavour of Islamic awakening and self discovery. All this is occurring in an era characterized by a modernity which claims, among other things, that religion is the basis for women’s oppression in society. Thus, western and western-educated scholars and feminist theorists have argued for the “unveiling” of Muslim women as part of the process of weakening the hold of Islam and allowing women to become free thinking, liberal and independent. This article is an attempt to explore the continuous growth of Islamic piety in Muslim women around the world. Using the Tablīgh Jamā‘at in Australia as a case study, the article seeks to understand the role of Islamic piety in Muslim women. The article argues that Islamic piety in Muslim women is an attempt by Muslim women to find a religious response to modernity. Keywords Tablīgh Jamā‘at . Women . Australia . Islam . Revivalism . Piety
Introduction Piety among Muslims in a range of Muslim societies and communities has been on the rise in the last three decades around the world. Embodied in contemporary resurgence of Islamic forms of social behaviour as part of a larger project of reinstating orthodox Islamic virtues or pristine Islamic practices (Mahmood 2005), piety has become a tool for Al-amr bi-l-ma‘rūf wa-l-nahy ‘an al-munkar (‘enjoining the good and preventing the forbidden’) in the lives of many Muslims. Although this form of Islamic social behaviour is often studied in the context of male practices, this
J. A. Ali (*) Centre for the Study of Contemporary Muslim Societies, University of Western Sydney, Sydney, Australia e-mail: Jan.Ali@uws.edu.au
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article looks at the less-studied rituals of piety among women, specifically female members of the Tablīgh Jamā‘at1 in Australia. In the context of the Tablīgh Jamā‘at, piety has found a strong hold on its female members. It involves practices and rituals such as bayān (religious talk), dhīkr (knowledge and remembrance of Allāh), khurūj (preaching tour), tablīgh (a call towards religion), ta‘līm (education), wearing the burqā2 and gender segregation. Piety among the Tablīghīs is seen as a necessary component of Islamic virtue or being a true believer because it both expresses ‘true Islam’ and is the means through which knowledge and practices of ‘true Islam’ are acquired. The observation of Riaz Hassan (2008) about Muslim piety sheds important light on the concept. He notes that: Religion provides the means to create a morally coherent and meaningful life… As religion is the essence of Muslim identity, religious commitment is both the evidence and the expression of this identity. An analysis of Muslim religiosity or religious commitment can provide vital insights into the nature and character of Islamic consciousness and the role it plays in shaping the political and social organization of Muslim societies (Hassan 2008: 62). In light of this fact, this article is a modest contribution, through a preliminary investigation into piety among Tablīghī women, to understanding why many Muslim women are returning to Islam in an era characterized by a modernity which claims, among other things, that religion is the basis for women’s oppression in society. It will show how contemporary Islamic forms of social behaviour are re-orientating Muslim women towards maintaining moral standards and transforming the self with direct and indirect consequences on the broader moral and social milieu. The article contends that piety among Tablīghī women is part of a larger project of Islamic revivalism that seeks to return Muslims to orthodox Islamic virtues and practices of worship and to mount a defence against the Western ideologies of secularism, liberalism and materialism. The article argues that the acquisition of piety by the Tablīghī women is motivated by their need to increase their faith (īmān) as a basis for self-fulfilment and happy living. Lavishness and material extravagance are shunned because they are believed to fail in providing self-fulfilment to the extent that inwardly directed piety does. Tablīghī women find the vocation of discovering God more fulfilling and rewarding than participating in the consumer culture of material capitalism.
The interviewees The study is based on a small sample of four unstructured interviews conducted between January and March 2009. Each interview was approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes long. All the interviewed women lived in Sydney in the state of New South Wales in Australia. Their membership of the Tablīgh Jamā‘at ranged from a
1 The Tablīgh Jamā‘at or ‘group for propagation [of Islam]’ is an Islamic organisation that originated in India in the 1920s and is now active in many countries around the world (Sikand 2002; Ali 2006). 2 A loose outer garment for women, covering the whole body including the head, face and torso.
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minimum of 4 years to a maximum of 25 years. The interviews were conducted in the Tablīghī women’s homes by a female researcher. In this article, I shall refer to the four interviewees as Aiesha Abdullah, Samar ElMasri, Fatima Ibrahim and Asma Hussein.3 Aiesha Abdullah, the first, is a 41-year-old homemaker. She is an Australian citizen but was born in England, and her ethnic background is Pakistani. She is married, has one child and has been involved with the Tablīgh Jamā‘at since 1990. Samar El-Masri, whose ethnic background is Egyptian, is 30 years old and describes herself as a home-schooling educator. She was born in Australia. Samar is married with children and has been involved with the Tablīgh Jamā‘at since she was 7 years old when she started accompanying her parents on various preaching tours, which are known as khurūj. Fatima Ibrahim is a 20-year-old homemaker. She was born in Australia, and her ethnic background is Lebanese. She is married, has one child and has been involved with the Tablīgh Jamā‘at since 2006. Asma Hussein is a 47-year-old housewife who also attends university part-time. She is an Australian citizen but was born in Lebanon and, therefore, has Lebanese ethnicity. Asma Hussein is married with four children and has been involved with the Tablīgh Jamā‘at since 1985. Before considering some of the material from their interviews, it will be useful to present some further background to the Tablīgh Jamā‘at.
Islamic revivalism in the modern era Islamic revivalism is a sociologically significant phenomenon in the modern world. Constituted by a large diversity of revivalist movements, Islamic revivalism is a complex and heterogeneous reality. As Dekmejian observes, the movement to return to pristine Islam or the development of Islamic revivalism “is at once spiritual, social, economic, and political in nature” (Dekmejian 1985: 7). Though Islamic revivalism is by no means a monolithic phenomenon, there is a common thread between these disparate movements that binds them together. For the earlier movements, it is the Muslims’ direct experiences of colonialism, while for more recent movements, it is the consequences of these experiences and the ideology of a defensive reaction to the crisis of modernity. The literature on contemporary Islamic revivalism point to the colonial experiences of the people of the dār al-Islām (abode of Islam)4 as the catalyst for Muslims returning to their faith with great zeal and enthusiasm. The encounter of the West with the people of the dār al-Islām was intense, less than amicable and ultimately led to the downfall of the Muslim world (Esposito 1983; Hunter 1988). Thus, in the last 150 years or so, revivalist ideas and motivations have surfaced essentially in direct response to the challenges and experiences generated by Western influence and intrusion, particularly European expansion on Islamic life. The
All names have been changed for reasons of confidentiality. The interviews took place in the Sydney suburbs of Blacktown, Auburn and Greenacre between January and March 2009. 4 This term refers to regions of the world where Islam was freely practised under Muslim rule.
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European conquests of Muslim territories, which began in the sixteenth century, overwhelmed Muslim societies with new Western technologies, methods of economic management, political systems and ideology (Bagader 1994). Muslims, who had reigned supreme for many centuries, quickly came under Western domination by the nineteenth century, and their societies were confronted with a multiplicity of challenges (Bagader 1994). The advent of colonialism broke up the traditional Islamic political order, especially the Mughal dynasties and the Ottoman Empire, and challenged its traditional beliefs and norms, causing a major crisis in Islamic authority and Muslim identity (Bagader 1994). Under Western influence and colonial rule modernity “found its way” into the dār al-Islām bringing sweeping changes to the Muslim world (Rahman 1982; Esposito 1983; Hunter 1988). The processes of secularization, urbanization and modernization undermined and challenged old myths, doctrines, institutions, social structures and social relationships. Muslim societies underwent radical socio-economic, cultural and political changes (Rahman 1982). The development of contemporary Islamic revivalism as a significant political phenomenon, according to Sidahmed and Ehteshami (1996), grows out of the experience of decolonization and continued underdevelopment in much of the Muslim world. Many Muslims felt a strong sense of being socially, economically and politically eclipsed and deprived of the benefits of modernization. Islamic revivalism emerged in response to the perceived failure of secular models of development on the one hand and a lack of social and political initiatives and reforms by Muslim authorities and elites on the other. Social dislocation resulting from or accompanying economic “development,” rapid urbanization, destruction of traditional institutions, expansion of education, and social mobility had resulted in the growth of deep social tensions and discontent. This environment was compounded by the growing inability of the states to provide necessary services for their subjects as a result of mounting economic crises (Sidahmed and Ehteshami 1996:7). As Hunter notes, the process of modernization has generally been carried out in an unbalanced and unfair manner, with the economic and social benefits of modernization distributed unevenly among the Muslim populations. In addition, many Islamic leaders have used the paradigm of modernization to justify and legitimate their arbitrary rule (Hunter 1988: xiii). Scholars of Islamic revivalism have frequently argued that the revival of Islamic forms of social behaviour, such as men sporting beards, women donning the burqā or hijāb, increased observation of daily ritual prayers, strict observance of gender and dietary rules and the proliferation of mosques and prayer halls in various Muslim communities and societies can probably be best explained as an expression of resistance against the process of westernisation and a response to the negative consequences of the modernising project undertaken after the end of colonial period by Muslim regimes (Ali 2006; Burgat and Dowell 1997; Esposito 1992; Roy 1994). From this perspective, the success of reviving orthodox Islamic practices depends on mounting a resistance against modernist secular-material teachings—teachings
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whose supporters are thought to be postcolonial secular modernist Muslim political powers that co-operate with Western hegemonic authorities. Contemporary Islamic revivalism is, therefore, a struggle against the forces “hostile” to religion and aspects of traditional and religious life. The Islamic revivalists who subscribe to this ideological approach see Islamic revivalism as the last hope for bringing about Islamically useful and acceptable changes in their societies. For these revivalists, the return to pristine Islam is the solution to existing problems. Through personal and social reform and Muslim unity, they seek to strengthen Islam and present it as the alternative to Western order. The significant surge in Islamic consciousness and activities among both male and female Muslims in the last three decades in Muslim countries, as well as in nonMuslim countries where a considerable number of Muslims live such as in India and even in the Muslim diaspora, needs to be understood in this complex context. Contemporary Islamic revivalism as a significant global phenomenon highlights the ongoing importance of religion in the modern epoch. It is not only Muslim men who are devoting themselves to religious convictions and engaging in religious rituals and practices of worship at an ever increasing rate. Muslim women also, the focus of this article, are becoming increasingly conscious of their religious identity and are freely expressing themselves in religious terms. Saba Mahmood, who did an important ethnographic study of piety among the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, highlights this fact. She says: According to participants, the mosque movement had emerged in response to the perception that religious knowledge, as a means of organizing daily conduct, had become increasingly marginalized under modern structures of secular governance. The movement’s participants usually describe the impact of this trend on Egyptian society as “secularization” (‛almana or ‛almāniyya) or “westernization” (tagharrub), a historical process which they argue has reduced Islamic knowledge (both as a mode of conduct and a set of principles) to an abstract system of beliefs that has no direct bearing on the practicalities of daily living. In response, the women’s mosque movement seeks to educate ordinary Muslims in those virtues, ethical capacities, and forms of reasoning that participants perceive to have become either unavailable or irrelevant to the lives of ordinary Muslims. Practically, this means instructing Muslims not only in the proper performance of religious duties and acts of worship but, more importantly, in how to organize their daily conduct in accord with principles of Islamic piety and virtuous behaviour (Mahmood 2005: 4). This brings the claim of secularisation theory that in the face of modernization, the influence of religion will diminish markedly under intense scrutiny. It raises the broad sociological question of the compatibility of religion with modernity. In fact, it raises the sociological question of why religion continues to play a vital role in the modern epoch. Perhaps this is due to the fact that modernization as a multidimensional process with its urbanization and state formation, rationalization of the economy, differentiation of social structure, individualization and disenchantment of the worldview has weakened if not destroyed peoples’ anchorage and sense of community. Many people feel fragmented and lost and reverting to religion is possibly a way of establishing roots and finding the ultimate meaning of life. We will
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see later on in the article that this is precisely what the Tablīghī women are trying to achieve through their involvement in the Tablīgh Jamā‘at. Origins and growth of the Tablīgh Jamā‘at Founded by Muhammad Ilyās in 1927, the Tablīgh Jamā‘at emerged in Mēwāt, India, in a direct response to the rise of Hindu Arya Samaj sect. From this sect emerged two proselytizing movements of shuddhī (purification) and sangathan (consolidation). They were engaged in large-scale efforts to ‘win’ back ‘strayed’ Hindus who accepted Islam during Muslim political hegemony in India. The Arya Samajis claimed to be the new defenders of Hinduism, which they alleged had become a forgotten faith and slipped into decadence at the hands of the Brahmans. In order to counter Arya Samaj proselytizing amongst the Meos, the Tablīgh Jamā‘at emerged to embark on the mission of Islamic faith renewal and awakening among the Meos of Mēwāt and beyond in India. Muhammad Ilyās, who died in 1944, had gained his Islamic qualifications from the Dār al-Ulūm, the well-known seminary founded in 1866 in the small town of Deoband in Uttar Pradesh at a time when the British were at the zenith of their rule in India, which emerged as the leading force in a reformist movement in British India in the violent context of the aftermath of 1857 mutiny.5 The Tablīgh Jamā‘at argued that the true teachings of Islam had been grossly neglected by Muslims everywhere and not just in India. It saw the Muslim bourgeoisie as overly comfortable in the lap of luxurious living and had generally given up their obligation to Allāh (God) in totality. It argued that the ’ulamā (Islamic scholars) were paying too much attention to knowledge construction within the confines of educational institutions and mosques and not paying enough attention to encouraging the majority of lay Muslims to practice Islam in their daily living. This created a gap between the learned and the lay Muslims and consequently led many ordinary Muslims to question the validity of Qur ’ānic teachings. Such a trend only threatened further decline of Islam. Based on this, the Tablīgh Jamā‘at declared Muslims to be in crisis and embarked on the mission of faith renewal. To tackle the threat to Islam and overcome Muslim crisis, Ilyās argued that practical measures were needed. He suggested reviving Islam. He stressed that the responsibility of reviving and spreading Islam was not confined to the ‘ulamā but was incumbent on every Muslim—men and women alike. He, therefore, founded the movement whose aim, since its inception, has been to purify Muslims from religious
The Deoband movement is a part of Sunnī Islam and is based on the Hanafī jurisprudential school of Islamic thought. Its members strictly follow Islamic orthodoxy and have always taken inspiration from the Saudi Arabian based Wahhābi movement, the Muslim revivalist movement founded by ‘Abdūl Wahhāb in Saudi Arabia in the eighteenth century. The founders and initial scholars of the Deoband movement were also vehement opponents of the Mu‘tazilites, a school of Islamic thought that holds that Islamic teachings are open to rational discussion. The Deoband movement’s cultural style has been text-based and it is uncompromising and confrontational towards bida‘ (impermissible innovation). The Deoband movement emphasizes the importance of the Hadīth literature, which it argues is the most important text of Islam after the Qur ’ān. Its efforts are directed towards re-establishment of “true Islam”, and it has regularly clashed with the Barelwīs, a group who also follow Sunnī Islam but have a strong Sūfī devotional tradition.
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syncretism and ‘remake’ them into ‘better Muslims’ or ‘model citizens of the world’ for the rest of humanity to emulate. He developed six foundational principles, which I will discuss next in detail, to keep his movement together and operational. The six principles of the Tablīgh Jamā‘at The activities of the Tablīgh Jamā‘at revolve around its six principles, and both men and women observe them in their pursuit of the Tablīghī path of religious living. For Tablīghīs, this constitutes the foundation of their piety. These principles are: Shahādah (article of faith) Like other Muslims, Tablīghīs accept that there is no god but Allāh and that Prophet Muhammad is His messenger. Salāt (ritual prayer) Again, similarly to most other Muslims, Tablīghīs believe that all Muslims should offer their five daily prayers. Tablīghīs emphasise this practice of worship very much arguing that five ritual prayers are essential to spiritual elevation, piety and a life free from the afflictions of the material world. ‘Ilm and Dhīkr (knowledge and remembrance of Allāh) Tablīghīs emphasize that the knowledge and remembrance of Allāh is important for spiritual growth. They, therefore, regularly conduct sessions in which a congregation listens to the recitation of Qur ’ān and preaching by an ‘āmir (leader), and they perform superrogatory prayers and read Hadīth (accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and deeds). Ikrām i-Muslim (respect for every Muslim) Tablīghīs place a strong emphasis on treating fellow Muslims with honour and deference as this builds good solid personal and social relationships. Ikhlās i-niyāt (emendation of intention and sincerity) This principle is to encourage Muslims or Tablīghīs specifically to perform every human action for the sake of Allāh leading to self-transformation. Tafriq i-wāqt (sacrifice of spare time) This is the sparing of time to learn dīn (religion) and to impart the knowledge gained to fellow Muslims. For this, Tablīghīs are instructed to invest 3 days in a month, 1 month in a year and 3 months in each life time to exit from the normal everyday rhythm of life to develop and improve faith, learn the virtues of dīn and Prophetic traditions and take His message door-todoor for the sake of Allāh. The Tablīghī worldview and Islamic revivalism The Tablīgh Jamā‘at holds a common orthodox view of the world. For them, the world has changed in a radical way from the time of the advent, success and dominance of Islam until the present day. The world has become modern. It is
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characterized by modern mass society. Modern mass society is secular because religion is not the source of moral order or the basis for the social, economic and political order. The “will of the gods” is no longer applied to legitimize power and personal gain is the norm, requiring no further legitimation. The aim and purpose of life is not spiritual enlightenment or meeting the demands of a supernatural being for a good life but the material pursuit of present happiness. Modern mass society functions through the efforts and initiatives of human individuals both individually and collectively. Through rational purposive actions and the utilisation of science and technology, efforts and activities find meaning and efficacy thus permitting human beings to be in control of and shape their own lives. This naturally mitigates the need to be dependent on any outside force or power and so human beings become masters of their own world. Wilson puts all this neatly together saying: All one time functions of religion have declined in significance as human involvements have ceased to be primarily local, and as human associations have ceased to be communal. Industrial society needs no local gods, or local saints; no local nostrums, remedies or points of reference. … Personal gain is the common sense of modern life, needing no further legitimation, whilst material provision, not spiritual solace, is what society now offers the poor (1982: 159–60). For the Tablīgh Jamā‘at, all this is problematic. First and foremost, it sees the world as being not in a state of peace and prosperity but in a state of self-service, bitter rivalry and ungodliness—the state of jāhilīyah (ignorance). What Toennies (1955/1889) describes as a positive transformation of the society from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, and Durkheim (1974) as a transition from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity, Tablīgh Jamā‘at describes exclusively in negative terms. Tablīghīs suggest that such a transformation has produced a modern civilization upon which is based the entire current organization of the world which no longer represents the unity of people within society. The development and the spread of nation-states across the globe is a good example. Tablīghīs see the development of nation-states as the epitome of modern civilization. The modern civilization, Tablīghīs suggest, is not like the Islam in which sovereignty rests with God, whom acts as a central unifying force. While this political sovereignty unified under belief in God existed only for a brief period in Islamic history, it can be achieved again, since Islamic history has shown that it is possible. The modern world is ideologically as well as politically fragmentary and divided into many nation-states. These nation-states are based on different “man-made” sets of rules and regulations and have their own separate socio-cultural, economic and political structures and separate geographical boundaries with the right to self-determination. Tablīghīs claim that, given the fact that human beings are created by Allāh and are not creators themselves, it is then only prudent and logical to base life on an already prescribed legal framework—sharī‘ah (Islamic law)—rather than invent one, which only leads humanity into inventing more rules and regulations which in turn constantly set people against each other and draw them into disputes and conflicts. Tablīghīs argue that while the notion of development is of central concern in the nation-state, its focus is material improvement, not spiritual development. It is the absence of connection between spiritual development and material improvement,
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Tablīghīs argue, that is the key source of all prevailing problems facing humanity. Tablīghīs find support for their view in the verse: “V erily never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves” (Qur ’an 1938 13: 11). Thus, Tablīghīs suggest that social and material development is God’s work and His reward for spiritual improvement. Tablīghīs argue that the spiritual cultivation of the good side of a person helps to create self-discipline against evil. This has the benefit of contributing to a person’s well being and to the social and material development of the community of believers (ummah), within which good is pursued and evil is forbidden. Tablīghīs argue that when “peoples” or societies and states do not fit as one community guided by and governed under a single source of rules and regulations like the sharī‘ah, development is hampered and there emerges a potential crisis and challenge to the “unity” of the nation-state. The Tablīghīs argue that the boundaries of the nation-state and the “monopoly of force” within it have been challenged over the years by sub-nationalist movements seeking self-determination. They oppose nationalism, which they see as evil and a cause of division amongst people. The social solidarity of the ummah, not of the nation-state, is the Tablīghīs’ central focus. The ummah is analogous to internationalism, not nationalism, where the sense of identity is an important aspect but equally important for the preservation of the ummah are aspiration, loyalty and devotion. Thus, for Tablīghīs, nationalism is perceived as a “man-made” and parasitic ideology because it is often difficult, even impossible, to identify a single characteristic common to all members of national society. All this implies that the idea of religion has changed and people can make their own religion, which instead of reflecting the community spirit, reflects the individual’s own private quest for reality. The things that have replaced religion are now focused on the individual, on the self and the modern mass society has become a self-absorbed entity. To change the situation and save the world from drifting further into the state of jāhilīyah, the Tablīgh Jamā‘at suggests that Islam has to be revived and reestablished as a dominant global belief system. For the Tablīgh Jamā‘at, this is a desirable yet practically distant prospect. What is immediately achievable is the Islamic awakening among the Muslims themselves. With a return to the basics of Islam approach, the Tablīgh Jamā‘at sees an immediate impact made on the process of reviving Islam. The philosophy that resonates with the Tablīgh Jamā‘at here is that of saving oneself before saving others. Salvation can only reach others if one first saves oneself. Therefore, Muslims themselves need to first and foremost enter totally into the fold of Islam and base their entire life on the Qur ’ān and the sunnah (sayings and practices of Prophet Muhammad). But what does the Tablīgh Jamā‘at exactly mean by this? Does this mean an abandonment of the material world in what has been described as “world-rejecting new religion” (Wallis 1984) or does it mean what I would like to call “inner-worldly focus”? “Inner-worldly focus” refers to the notion of “inward concerns” for the purpose of improving, reforming and developing oneself internally in terms of Islamic practices and rituals. It draws on Weber ’s concept of “inner-worldly asceticism” (1966) and Wallis’s concept of a “world-accommodating new religion” (1984). The Tablīgh Jamā‘at as a movement is neither inner-worldly asceticism nor a
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world-accommodating new religion, but an inner-worldliness sect, because it encourages living as part of the general community, not outside of it, but at the same time, it emphasizes a cautionary approach to terrestrial and materialistic affairs. Total entry into the fold of Islam, in Tablīgh Jamā‘at parlance, does not denote adopting a “world-rejecting new religion” but rather an inner-worldly focus. Allāh created the world so the Tablīgh Jamā‘at sees it as always deserving of human attention and respect, despite its current jāhilī (pre-Islamic) state brought about by none other than human beings themselves. Allāh created the world for human living and use, and by the virtue of this fact, the material world remains essential for the pursuit of human living. The inner-worldly focus in terms of total entry into the fold of Islam in the context of the Tablīgh Jamā‘at denotes a cultivation and re-infusion of Islamic values and cultures in individual living and in one’s immediate (domestic and familial) environment. The broader outside world is not rejected, but a cautionary approach to it is taken because it still remains part of the total embodiment of life.
Gender relations Tablīghī women observe strict gender rules, and unlike mainstream Muslim women, who generally exercise only limited restrictions in their interactions with men, their conservatism generally leads them to avoid interacting with men beyond their 6 mah Á ārim. As Metcalf notes, “Women are encouraged to engage in Tablīgh and to go out, so long as they do not mix with unrelated men. They are expected to engage in Da‘wa within their own sphere of women and family members” (2000: 50). Similarly, Sikand observes: Only married women may go out on a jamā‘at, and they must always be accompanied by a male relative. This should preferably be the husband. If, for some reason, the husband is unable to accompany a woman, she must have her son, brother, father, grandfather or some such mihram relative with her (1999: 43). This distance between the two genders is further enhanced by the practice on the part of the majority of Tablīghī women of wearing the burqā. Tablīghī women avoid interaction with non-mah Á ārim and clad themselves in burqā. They see these practices as part of taqwā (piety) and often as linked to ‘ibādāt (worship). Of course, these practices alone do not epitomise the model Islamic womanhood, but nonetheless, from the Tablīghī women’s perspective, they reinforce the image of proper Islamic womanhood in a very potent and important way. However, from the perspective of mainstream Muslims, and from certain academic positions, such strict observation of gender rules and the wearing of the burqā do not necessarily translate to piety and worship. For Y oginder Sikand (1999), for example, Tablīghī gender rules and the practice of donning the burqā is part and parcel of “traditional Islamic understandings of the role of women as wives and mothers” (1999: 46) in Muslim communities and perhaps has little, if anything, to do
Mah Á ārim (singular mih Á rām) are close male kin, before whom one can appear without observing h Á ijāb (veil), and whom one cannot marry.
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with piety and worship. He sees that the Tablīghī discourse surrounding woman’s agency places her within the confinement of “the four walls of her home” (Sikand 1999: 46). Thus, “Domestic work alone is the proper sphere for women” (Sikand 1999: 47). Such an interpretation of Tablīghī women’s bodily behaviour is derived from looking at these women and their movement from outside in. Whilst there is nothing inappropriate about such an approach, it is important to realise that if we wish to give the subjects, in this study, the Tablīghī women, their own voice, it is absolutely critical to better understand their agency and subjectivity and how they go about the routines of everyday life. Also, it is imperative that we appreciate the subjective meanings the Tablīghī women assign, as we will see below, to their natural environment of daily life and ‘real’ social processes. This kind of appreciation of Tablīghī women’s bodily behaviour and their engagement with reality construction is undoubtedly rich sociologically. The debate surrounding the legitimacy of burqā, gender segregation and other Islamic virtues in the context of the Tablīgh Jamā‘at is only a minor part of the much larger argument raging today not only in the Muslim world but also wherever Muslims live, including in the countries of the West, amongst traditionalists, modernists and secularists regarding ritual performative behaviour articulated in the tradition of contemporary Islamic revivalism. Whilst this is a complex and long discussion, I want to argue that Tablīghī women’s own interpretation of their bodily behaviour is absolutely critical. Their rituals of piety are not just about how they are enacted but explain the way they are embodied and expressed experientially in an attempt to construct a new religious-oriented identity. Hence, Tablīghī women’s commitment to various Tablīghī a‘māls (good deeds) is part of the bodily behaviour that is at the very centre of their proper realisation of “true Islam.” Mahmood reinforces this point in her exploration of the relationship between what she calls “…body learning and body sense…” (2005: 158). She argues that: in this program of self-cultivation is that bodily acts—like wearing the veil or conducting oneself modestly in interactions with people (especially men)—do not serve as manipulable masks in a game of public presentation, detachable from an essential interiorized self. Rather they are the critical markers of piety as well as the ineluctable means by which one trains oneself to be pious (2005: 158). This can be seen more clearly at an experiential level in Tablīghī women when we turn to our interview material. Thus, Aiesha Abdullah, who has been a Tablīghī for 10 years, illustrates: I prefer segregated gathering. I am more confident and relaxed in these gatherings. […As for wearing burqā or hijāb] I wear only a scarf and modest clothing. I feel proud of those women who can wear the abayā [a robe-like dress] and nīqāb [a veil which covers the face] because they have so much love for the first women of Islam. They are the ultimate feminists. They emulate the best women. I choose not to wear these garments because I don’t have the degree of taqwā [piety] in me that was present in those women. The garments would definitely make me feel more pious.
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Samar El-Masri, who has been with the movement since she was 7 years old, says: With men of the family there is no difference. However, with other men I have always been courteous but not over friendly. I will not befriend anyone and invite him to a cup of tea between the ages of 10 years and 60 years. Levels of piety I believe change and goes up and down as time goes on. But again this is not something I would consider no matter how low my piety—no male friends. I have been around for a while as have been my parents and have lived through so much with friends and even strangers who ask for advice. Most of the time the problems have come about, I believe, because of mixing between the genders too freely. Therefore, veil helps maintain the separation between men and women. It doesn’t stop the communication. I wear the face veil and to me it is a step closer to Allāh. There are many things I am unable to do but others can. This is the area in religion I am able to do for Allāh. Fatima Ibrahim, who joined the Tablīgh Jamā‘at in 2006, says that: The way I am dressed makes a man lower his gaze; makes a man respect a woman more. This is because I wear the burqā. The burqā is a part of me. Wearing it is ‘ibādāt [worship]. I really love it and I can’t imagine leaving the house without it. I really felt humble and peaceful when I first wore it. Yes, I do feel more pious because I wear the burqā and I think men respect me more and I feel like an example for younger girls. Through the exploration of Tablīghī women’s bodily behaviour—their rituals of piety—we are able to gain a more precise understanding of the operational functions of the Tablīgh Jamā‘at and by extension the phenomenon of contemporary Islamic revivalism. In new migrant urban settings or modern urban spaces such as Sydney, Tablīgh Jamā‘at offers Muslim women occasions for new prospects of selfhood to be discovered, modelled and projected. As we saw above, the Tablīghī women model new selves which are seen to be in line with Islam and an important and visibly potent way in which the self manifests itself is in attire. Tablīgh Jamā‘at promotes and encourages the adoption of visible symbols of piety in everyday living, which for women are strict observance of gender segregation and the donning of burqā. The practice of donning what may be construed as “Islamic” attire is a product of the teachings of Muhammad Ilyas, which began initially in Mēwāt with his program of Tablīgh. Ilyas introduced this practice, not necessarily as a new approach but as a practical measure, to respond religiously to the Hindu accretion that had seeped into the everyday practices of the Mēwātis. He encouraged and taught Muslims the importance of outer appearance, which was in concordance with Islamic clothing rules, and many Muslims took to this in earnest (Ali 2006). Wherever Tablīghis live in the world today, this practice of wearing identifiable “Islamic” attire is clearly prevalent revealing the potency of the teachings of the founder of the movement in matters of Muslim inner and outer bodily comportments. For Muslims, both males and females, living in modern urban spaces, the adoption of distinct and ostensibly identifiable appearances are through which a newly constructed selfhood is projected. For many Muslims living in Sydney, for instance, “Islamic” attire or even ethnic clothing does not constitute normative bodily practice. In fact, many
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Muslims’ outer bodily appearances conform to modern contemporary styles such as the wearing of jeans and t-shirts. For those influenced by the Tablīgh Jamā‘at, the situation is different. For Tablīghis, wearing identifiably “Islamic” attire, such as jubā for men and burqā for women, in particularly modern spaces can be easily construed as proselytisation. Such clothing selfconsciously identifies oneself as pious, as we have seen above, and functions as a selfhood. However, not all Tablīghī women wear burqā. There is a small percentage of women in the Tablīgh Jamā‘at who do not wear the burqā and who interact with men comparatively less conservatively. Some of these women are new to the movement whilst others are mere sympathisers of the movement who engage in the rituals and practices of the movement in a haphazard manner. In the broader context of everyday living, Tablīghīs argue that strict observance of gender rules and gender segregation neither restrict Tablīghī women’s physical movements nor confine them to the domestic sphere, as some academic literature may have us believe. They say that after all Tablīghī women do frequent the market place, travel to places, visit family and friends, drive and generally participate in the ordinary everyday processes. Asma Hussein explains: “Not mixing with men doesn’t stop me from doing all the things I need to do. I drive myself to shops and to university”. Samar El-Masri echoes Asma’s point and says: For me wearing the face veil and being particular about gender rules sets me apart as an individual who is judged first for her behaviour and brain rather than her appearance. I feel safe, secure and so independent as someone who wears the face veil and observes gender rules. I am me, and I am free as an individual. Of course, there are always difficult and complex situations in which Tablīghī women find themselves, and gender relations and rules have to be then meticulously negotiated and executed. For example, women and children eat first followed by men when a Tablīghī family honours a dinner invitation to a friend’s house. In a more complex situation, such as going through visa clearance at the airport when travelling overseas, a Tablīghī woman would reveal her face even to the male attending officer by removing her face cover which is normally attached to the burqā and then putting it back on. In this case, because it is a legal requirement by the apparatus of the state for security purposes, Tablīghīs accept that women revealing their faces to and interacting with a male attending officer does not constitute a breach of gender rules or the sharī‘ah (Islamic law). Tablīghī ethos is mindful of the fact that avoiding male and female interaction in certain social situations may prove to be a practical impossibility and permits it as long as vigilance is exercised. From all this, we can readily see that the Tablīghi women demonstrate the need to bring the outcomes of personal development of “positive” bodily behaviour back into their membership of a larger ummah. Since the shift in global culture in the last 100 years, where change away from communal living, from Toennies’ Gemeinschaft7 or Durkheim’s mechanical solidarity,8 has accelerated remarkably, there is an awakening for a renewed sense of belonging. For many centuries before the advent
A close-knit group of people with the same or similar values and cultural traditions who identify closely with each other. 8 A term referring to a situation where the behaviour and conduct of a small population are governed by religion and individualism is absent.
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of modernity in which this change took place, human beings belonged to a community and did not need to ask “who am I”? People were born in a community and were for the community. They had an unambiguous sense of belonging. Of course, this shift in world culture, this remarkable change, has produced significant development in individual awareness. It has given rise to individualism resulting in “freedom” and the ability to do away with religion and the familial bond. However, this compartmentalisation and disconnecting of parts, which is a very West-centred way of making sense of the life-world, has produced a particular kind of cognition, eventuating in a particular kind of self-awareness and self-understanding. Thus, the loss of community of the “sacred space”, in this case, Muslim communal milieu, has resulted in isolation, hopelessness and anger. The Tablīghi women demonstrate the unprecedented task of discovering ways to re-enter the sacred space, to establish clear membership to the whole, that is, to the ummah, and to be distinctively themselves within it. Strict observance of gender rules and gender segregation or the bodily acts need to be understood in this way. Tablīghī women see these as acts of ‘ibādāt. However, these are not the only way Tablīghī women acquire piety. In fact, rituals of piety extend beyond strict observance of gender rules and women avoiding interaction with non-mahārim. This is demonstrated in the following discussion.
Tablīghī women and the rituals of piety Tablīghī women can engage in all the rituals of piety of the movement as long as gender rules are observed when performing them. These rituals have both individual as well as social dimensions, and they all revolve around the Six Principles of the movement. The Tablīghī rituals of piety are as follows: Bayān (religious talk or speech), whether long or short, always revolves around the six fundamental principles of the Tablīghī Jamā‘at: Dhīkr (remembrance of Allāh) involves reciting the Qur ’ān, reading hadīths (accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and deeds), offering numerous units of nafl (supererogatory) prayers in the day and doing tasbīh (human observance of extolling God's praise) which involves softly repeating Subhān Allāh (glorious is Allāh), Al-hamdu lillāhi (praise be to Allāh) and Allāhu Akbar (Allāh is greatest) for a period of time. Also, it involves making a special effort to perform Tahajjūd (night vigil spent in prayer). Yoginder Sikand claims that these efforts appear to encourage most regular attendees to remain in the movement (Sikand 2002). Khurūj (preaching tour) is the ‘engine’ that drives the Tablīghī Jamā‘at. Women undertake this in the company of their mah Á ārim. Bayān, jolā (preaching mission, which women undertake in each other ’s company), and ta‘līm are the three key activities that punctuate khurūj. In the context of the movement, khurūj is an institutionalized form of worship in which efforts are harnessed to experience Allāh through spiritual enlightenment and abandoning material pursuit of peace and happiness. Khurūj helps in the reformation process of oneself as well as others.
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Khurūj generally involves forming a group and embarking on a preaching tour, for a set time—3 or 40 days or 4 months—to learn dīn (religion of Islam) in order to reform oneself and then help others embrace dīn in their lives. At a time when human living is globally dictated by the imperatives of material capitalism, it is therefore particularly important to exit9 from this form of living for a short while and engage in pure spiritual behaviour.10 Tablīgh (to communicate or call towards religion) is viewed by Tablīgh Jamā‘at as an obligatory duty incumbent on all Muslims and an act of virtue. Muslims, by virtue of their declaration of the oneness of Allāh, are naturally obliged not only to submit themselves to the Will of Allāh but invite others to submit to the Will of Allāh. As one of the tenets of Islam, tablīgh in the context of the Tablīghī Jamā‘at acts as a tool for proselytization. Ta‘līm (education or teaching) is undertaken to arouse a desire for righteousness and good deeds. It focuses on reading the Faza’il-e-Ama’l (Tablīghī text), a talk revolving around the six points and tajwīd, the practice of reciting the Qur ’ān with proper intonation.
Piety as an inner-worldly focus Tablīghī women’s piety is inwardly directed; it has an inner-worldly focus. This resonates with all Tablīghīs, men and women alike. Such piety does not require the renunciation of life or the world but rather the renunciation of worldly desires and attachment to worldly actions. The approach to the broader outside world within piety of inner-worldly focus is cautionary and this is because the Tablīgh Jamā‘at sees the contemporary world as one that has departed remarkably from God’s directions. It believes that human beings have abandoned God and spiritual living and, in search of material satisfaction, have successfully polluted the world. The world, it claims, has become a site for human conflict in which greed, exploitation, mistrust and despair abound. Vice-ridden societies have emerged in which individuals treat one another with a deep sense of use and as means rather than as ends. The urban modern secular societies and their values, particularly the idea of individual success which is measured by material possessions, wealth and the ability to actively participate in the consumer culture, it views as overly materialistic and essentially devoid of meaningful humanism and spirituality. In this connection, Samar El-Masri, one of our interviewees, says: I believe it is of paramount importance to be pious in today’s society. The reason being that there is so much uncertainty and lack of morality in society today, a person needs a personal moral code to follow. To know that whatever one does their creator can see them. Therefore before any action a person must stop and think. It brings back a central focal point to ones purpose in life which is earning through ones actions the pleasure of Allāh. So whatever I am doing in life should be in line with the moral code of Islam.
Suspend worldly engagements. Time devoted to the service of Allāh and His true religion.
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Another interviewee, Aiesha Abdullah, notes that: The only way to be successful in this world as well as the afterlife is through practising dīn [religion]. It is more important than money, property, school, jobs etc. It is the most important thing. How much of this world and all it contains am I willing to give up is a measure of piety. The real success is not hoarding wealth but when you can see what is unseen clearly. Seeing the world in crisis, the Tablīghī women take upon themselves as an act of piety to rid the world of its problems. They see it as their obligation to transform the world in accordance with the Islamic ideals and, therefore, assume the role of rational reformers. But social transformation is never actively and consciously sought. It is merely expected. After all, a typical Tablīghī woman is never someone of conspicuous social engagement. She is never driven to re-build the world. Wherever Tablīgh (a call towards religion) work has produced communal action or social change, it has come about not by conscious design but largely as a consequence of inspirational da‘wah (preaching) work. Samar El-Masri explains: As women who try to propagate Islam to non-practicing Muslim women, Tablīghī women need to be role models and therefore, yes, they need to train themselves to be more pious. Otherwise they are no good as role models. Again it depends on the individual way of coming across to others. Some women are very influential across all sectors of the Muslim community. Asma Hussein explains this further and says: I personally think that the Tablīghī women’s role is a great and majestic role— preaching, teaching, role modelling, etc. I also think that being pious and at the same time getting to meet other women in the modern society is also majestic and necessary. We get to know each other and make some difference. Fatima makes a similar observation, saying that “Tablīghī women are dā’ī: [preachers]. Yes, they…influence other people by their behaviour, their words and their actions. We influence other women and our own menfolk”. The idea of members of a religious group participating in rituals together and from which emerges, rather naturally, some form of communal action or solidarity can be seen happening in other religions and is not something unique to Islam. However, albeit unintended, the social consequences produced by group rituals and practices are inevitable. Weber makes this point in his analysis of the mystical notion of the Eastern Christian church: [the] Christian brotherly love, when sufficiently strong and pure, must necessarily lead to unity in all things, even in dogmatic beliefs…men who sufficiently love one another…will also think alike and, because of the very irrationality of their common feeling, act in a solidarity fashion which is pleasing to God (1966: 176). Among Tablīghīs, the concept of piety is very important. It manifests one’s commitment to Islam and devotion to Allāh. It embodies all actions that are sanctioned by the sharī‘ah and are part of Islamic culture. Hence, according to the Tablīghī teaching, performing five daily salāt (Islamic prayers) is an act of piety as well as removing an obstacle from the path of an elderly person. Saba Mahmood
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(2005) explains that these acts cultivate piety. She argues that cultivation of piety occurs not only when Muslims carry out their religious obligations (al-farā’id) but also when they testify to their faith by incessantly engaging in good activities (al-a‛māl al-sāliha) and practising virtues (fadā’il). Mahmood further argues that acts of worship and virtuous deeds that cultivate piety are not natural but created out of a series of disciplinary acts. In other words, desire is not the basis for doing good and engaging in moral actions but is a product of this experience. She explains that: The techniques through which pious desires are cultivated include practices such as avoiding seeing, hearing, or speaking about things that make faith (imān) weaker, and engaging in those acts that strengthen the ability to enact obedience to God’s will. The repeated practice of orienting all acts toward securing God’s pleasure is a cumulative process, the net result of which is, on one level, the ability to [engage in acts of worship] and, on another level, the creation of a pious self (Mahmood 2005: 126). All acts of piety, therefore, have personal benefits or rewards some of which Tablīghīs claim can be felt and enjoyed in this world and some or most of it is reserved for the life in the Hereafter. Take the benefits of performing ritual salāts, for example, which Tablīghīs purport makes livelihood easy here and secures a place in heaven in the Hereafter. However, some acts of piety have both personal and social benefits, for instance, dhīkr (knowledge and remembrance of Allāh). The performer of dhīkr11 gets the benefit or reward as well as those listening to it, albeit the doer of dhīkr is entitled to greater portion of the benefit or reward because of his or her literal effort. In this case, doing dhīkr and listening to it both become acts of piety. Hence, dhīkr as an act of piety has both personal as well as social benefits. Aiesha Abdullah sheds some light on the concept of piety based on personal experience when she says: I have a strong theoretical piety but my struggle is always putting it into practice. I want and intend to put it into practice and sometimes succeed but not as well as I know that I can. Hijāb and modest clothing, yes. Sending my husband for khurūj, yes. Praying, fasting, yes. Charity, yes. However, I see the world and all that it contains clearer than the unseen. Also, socialising with pious people has affected my own piety. Over time the peace and tranquillity these people have in their lives and self became obvious to me and it became desirable. That is why I choose to associate mostly with pious women. I also strive to increase my knowledge and have spiritual goals that I struggle towards albeit slowly. I attend weekly ta‘līm [education] meetings and having to prepare the six points for a discussion helps to cement the things I read. Having to explain to other people helps me to understand things better and clearer.
11 According to the Tablīgh Jamā‘at, dhīkr is an act of piety and the benefits or rewards may not be seen or felt, like many other acts of piety, either by the performer or the receiver of the dhīkr. Nevertheless, both the parties are entitled to a reward or rewards, if not here then definitely in the Hereafter.
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Piety immediately brings peace into the home and into relationships. It protects family members from harmful worldly excesses, habits and harmful activities. It gives a feeling of belonging to a big family. It provides a strong social support network. It gives you an anticipation of success. It makes you feel complete as a person. There is a sense of security, being protected by Allāh, and a sense of independence from other people. Similarly Samar El-Masri offers her own experience and understanding of piety: I believe for each person it would be different. For myself I feel contentment with piety. I believe an essential aspect of piety is surrendering to Allāh. So when something good happens I am happy and thankful and when something doesn’t go my way, or a calamity happens I have someone to turn to for help. I maintain my piety by having weekly gatherings (ta‘līm) [education] where we read Hadīths—sayings of the Prophet, someone gives a talk, meeting up with other Tablīghī women regularly to revise and pass on any new information and stories we have heard. This constant networking helps to keep one strong, or pull you up when you are down on piety. Doing Islamic research and being active in da‘wah [preaching] reminds us to change for the better and that there is always more that can be done. The goal of the Tablīgh Jamā‘at as a whole is to reform Muslims at the personal level and encourage spiritual development, not a systematic transformation of the mundane order. It is due to this teaching that the women seek self-purification, inner struggle and individualistic ascetic trance as a way of discovering God. The pursuit of reordering the social system is neither desired nor forms the objective of Tablīghī women. The attitude of rejection towards the mundane world and its material attractions seem to create a sense of deep asceticism. Samar El-Masri explains: I believe the Tablīghī Jamā‘at focuses on changing ourselves and those around us as the first step to bettering humanity as a whole. The main change is in bettering our degree of worship and connection with Allāh—which translates eventually into piety. I believe, therefore, that piety is the degree of awareness you have of your creator. Once a person has the true understanding of the qualities of our creator and his ever watchfulness, this prevents a degree of wrongdoing which becomes piety: to have hope in His great mercy and keep away from actions that would displease Him as much as possible; to worship Allāh as if you see Him because even though you may not be able to physically see him, He sees you. Hence, it follows that transforming society is dependent on reproducing reformed or better Muslims. The source of personal and social problems and sufferings, the Tablīgh Jamā‘at claims, lies within oneself and not in the social structure. Therefore, the individual should take responsibility for social ills that pervade society and for transforming it. The Tablīghī philosophy teaches that the responsibility lies with the individual. Hence, adopting the Tablīghī lifestyle, which is simple and non-materialistic,
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is the best way of making a direct contribution towards social and environmental improvements. For instance, Tablīghīs use resources very scrupulously such as food, shelter and clothing and during khurūj live on meagre provisions so that a disciplined consumption pattern can be achieved and subsequently incorporated into everyday living. In this regard, Metcalf (1994: 715) comments: Most important, the impact of self-financing shapes relations by eliminating the bonds of patron and dependent, minimizing the reciprocity and exchange true of so many dimensions of everyday social interaction. If Tablighis stay in a mosque, they are scrupulous about not using resources that are not theirs…. They implicitly stand apart from all the elaborate transactional arrangements that organize so much of [contemporary] societies. This scrupulosity in material goods is a central theme of one pattern of guidance given those leaving on a tour. The underlying assumption, here, seems to be that once a large number of Muslims adopt the Tablīghī lifestyle and when they start to lead the populace by example, that a more simple, humane and spiritual social order will emerge. The basis of this assumption is in the Tablīghī belief that the world is ameliorable and the evidence of this is in the expectation of the arrival of the Mahdī (messiah). Ills and problems can be overcome, therefore, the Tablīghī women do not cut themselves off from the world, which is in contrast with Sūfī mystics who do. The Tablīghī women’s response to the world is one of inner-worldly focus, that is, that society can be transformed from within—not through social and institutional reforms but rather through individual self-improvement and moral and spiritual renewal. Asma Hussein sheds some light on this point by saying: My life is very much affected by Tablīghī women and the Tablīghī work. I call myself a Tablīghī and I am so proud. Our work is a da‘wah—call Muslims to practice the Islamic faith according to the way of Prophet Muhammad. We don’t try to fix the world. Inshā Allāh [God permitting] our world will slowly become a good place with all the da‘wah. The aim is to remind Muslims about some rules about religious practices. It is to remind ourselves and our Muslim brothers and sisters to become good Muslims. Improve our īmān [faith]. Similarly, Aiesha Abdullah notes: Every Sunday I spend two hours with Tablīghī women during our weekly ta‘līm sessions. Some are very good friends while others are simply sisters in Islam to respect, help and socialise with on occasions when we meet. I have hosted a jamā‘at [group] of women at my home and it was a good experience. The ladies were from Sri Lanka and I learnt a great deal from them. It made me realise and I continue to reflect on it every time that we have to become good Muslims and improve our faith by learning more and more about our dīn [religion]. I think the state of our society is the way it is because of our weak faith and our poor efforts. I think if we continue to improve ourselves and our faith then Inshā Allāh [God permitting] our surroundings will be so good and we all can enjoy good life. I think we have to first focus on ourselves. Although the Tablīgh Jamā‘at places strong emphasis on the individual rather than society, in relation to piety, most of its activities (which the movement considers to
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be acts of piety) are socially oriented. As noted earlier, ta‘līm sessions involve group reading of the Faza’il-e-Ama’l, talks revolving around the six points and tajwīd or Qur ’ānic recitation. Other such group activities are salāt, dhīkr, tablīgh, khurūj, bayān, jolā and mushāwara (discussion or consultation). These could be described as social piety, and these are important because they attract greater reward than personal piety. Hence, the Tablīghīs encourage the performance of rituals and practices of worship such as salāt and dhīkr in a group because they argue that these attract far greater reward being performed in a group than individually. According to Tablīghī teaching, piety is a genuine moral virtue and a very powerful path to discovering God or being close to Him. Tablīghī women, in pursuit of discovering God, therefore, believe that they have to acquire piety by performing those particular acts of worship which are obligatory such as salāt as well as doing virtuous deeds such as dhīkr. They seem to believe that obligatory duties (al-farā’id) as well as virtuous deeds (fadā’il) are particularly important in securing God’s pleasure. This kind of conceptualisation of piety is not unique to the Tablīgh Jamā‘at and resonates with other Islamic piety groups and movements. For example, Saba Mahmood (2005) notes this to be true among the women’s mosque movement in Egypt. She notes that: The women I worked with described the condition of piety as the quality of “being close to God”: a manner of being and acting that suffuses all of one’s acts, both religious and worldly in character. … a pious comportment entails a complex disciplinary program, at a fundamental level it requires that the individual perform those acts of worship made incumbent upon Muslims by God … as well as Islamic virtues and acts of beneficence that secure God’s pleasure (Mahmood 2005:123). Piety not only means renunciation of sins but also consists of possessing an internal energy and power of self-restraint, which are achieved by undertaking continuous rigorous self-discipline and making one obedient to God's Commandments. The self acquires such strength that it shows resistance and steadfastness against unlawful whims and passions. Every act of abstaining from sinning is pious as well as an act of doing a virtuous deed. Hence, the Tablīghī women’s push is always towards adopting piety because it is seen as the safest way to salvation and the best support for Islam. Being pious is a position of honour and pious pursuits bring peace and contentment. Tablīghī women consider piety to be one of the best and most effective factors of insight, enlightenment and conscientiousness. It is responsible for enhancing the sense of insight—the practical aspects of reason and ability to diagnose duties. The most important effect of piety, considered by Tablīghīs, is that it overcomes the difficulties of daily life. A pious person, according to Tablīghī women, is familiar with and confident about God and the Hereafter. Therefore, the calamities and hardships of day-to-day life do not disturb their state of ease and tranquillity. These hardships, calamities and tragedies in essence are not painful. Instead, it is the anxiety and intolerance of the self which makes them uncomfortable. Thus, Tablīghī women suggest, most of the severe problems and catastrophes in life are the result of moral indecencies, self-whims, passions and the domination of satanic desires. For example, Tablīghī women believe that family problems are
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created because of a failure on the part of the husband, wife, or both, in controlling their passions. Moral vices such as jealousy, vengefulness, stubbornness, prejudice, egotism, greed, lust, extravagance and arrogance are responsible for causing problems and hardships for human beings. The best and most effective thing that could prevent such catastrophes is piety. Tablīghī women claim that with tranquillity of the heart and enlightenment, a pious Muslim lives a peaceful life. Love for the world is seen by them as the root of all evils, and whilst some Muslims easily succumb to earthly temptations, the pious Muslim resists becoming infatuated with such allurements and charms. Piety is seen as the key solution for all human problems and the rescuer from disasters and destruction. It is the most formidable shelter for human beings. Therefore, piety does not deprive or create limitations, rather it revives human personality and frees a human being from the imprisonment of carnal desires, vengefulness, prejudices, stubbornness, greed, egotism, gluttony and desire for fame and publicity which is perceived to epitomise the contemporary secular world.
Conclusion The growth of the Tablīgh Jamā‘at is part of a larger project of contemporary Islamic revivalism, which in essence is a response to the crisis of modernity.12 Tablīghī women’s piety finds its trajectory from this context and is not related to identity or rights per se, although these are important. Rather, it is about the practice of one’s belief and its orientation towards maintaining ethical moral standards and transforming self to reorder directly or indirectly the moral and social milieu. First and foremost, Tablīghī women who seek piety are motivated by the need to increase their īmān (faith) through Tablīghī a‘māls (good deeds). For them, donning burqā and avoiding interaction with non-mahārim, for instance, does not reproduce their subordination to men or gender inequality. Their struggle is inwardly directed. It is a process of self-cultivation linked to self-improvement. From the outside, this may seem to be an instance of internalising certain standards of gender-specific female behaviour, but this barely helps us to understand agency as experienced by Tablīghī women. However, instead of conceptualising agency as a struggle against social norms, we are here concerned with how action is formed and acted out. This kind of understanding of agency raises some important questions about the type of relationship created between the subject and the norm, and most importantly between action and inner nature. What is critical here is to appreciate that instead of inner nature or inner desire drawing out outward appearance of performative behaviour, it is the chain of rituals and performances, as I discussed above, with which an individual engages that gives meaning to one’s feelings and desires. Thus, for Tablīghī women, agency is expressed through engaging with the various Tablīghī rituals of piety—
By the crisis of modernity I do not just mean people suffering from the failure of the promises of modernity—unemployment, poverty, inequality, injustice, discrimination, etc.—but also the failure of modern luxurious living to provide “real” happiness and a genuine sense of satisfaction.
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bayān, dhīkr , khurūj, tablīgh, ta‘līm, and of course donning burqā and avoiding interaction with non-mahārim. To put this in another way, the various Tablīghī rituals of piety as a collection of behavioural actions do not emanate from desires and emotions but in fact produce them. It is by engaging in recurring rituals and practices that Tablīghī women train themselves or their desires, emotions and minds to be able to operate within the boundaries of established standards of Tablīghī comportment.13 In examining the prominent role that Tablīghī rituals of piety play, their effects on the self, particularly the female self, and different structures of moral–ethical action which contribute to the creation of particular Muslims or in this case Tablīghī women, we have been able to see how Tablīghī embodied actions are achieved. Our analysis of rituals of piety and Islamic virtues has revealed the social and cultural effects that Islamic revivalist movements generate amongst Muslim women and enhanced our understanding of inner-worldly focus piety as part of the broader project of Islamic revivalism’s response to the crisis of modernity.
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