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Tablighi Jamaat : 1000 years of revenge


Two contradictions are evident. Through April and May this year, the government vilified Tablighi Jamat, a social organization that claims to be apolitical but has deep religious roots. The health minister claimed that with 4,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases discovered among the people who gathered around its headquarters, the Nizamuddin mosque in Delhi, it accounted for 30 per cent of the then 14,000- odd patients. The number looks irrelevant now with 5.50,000 cases in India.Four days after the March 25 lockdown, the most powerful non-political individual in the country, National Security Advisor Ajit Kumar Doval, personally visited the mosque. He was there to urge the Emir of the institution, Maulana Saad, to allow the testing, and possible quarantine, of the members. It was an act of appeasement at the highest level. It hinted at the clout of the Emir, not just in India but across the world. Even Doval could not simply storm into the mosque.However, what transpired between the government and Tablighi is not about COVID-19. It is about two essential facts that we invariably forget because of the biased blinkers that we wear, or the myopic vision that we have. The first relates to the global and multiple-level ramifications and implications of socio-religious organizations. Even if they claim to be non-political, they willy-nilly emerge as major actors, and actively influence governance, geopolitics, and diplomacy.The second is about the fact that government agencies – in areas such as intelligence, security, military, economic offences, and immigration – are completely aware of the range of activities of such organizations. They have the information, insights, and sources. But either by default or deliberately they fail to take proper measures to control and monitor such non-state players. This is true, not just of this government, but the past regimes controlled by different political parties.

Institutions like Tablighi, as was the case with Rome, are not built in a single day or year. They evolve, mature, and become full-fledged influencers over decades, and a century. They operate freely, and with impunity. Let us not look at this as an Islamic problem. This is as true for Hindu and Christian organizations. To understand them, one needs to look at them, and in a holistic manner. One needs to understand their history and social context in which they were nurtured.

This mammoth story on Tablighi Jamat, based on a three-month investigation by Sadia Rehman & Vivek Mukherji, is a mere chapter, a case study, to showcase the reach of these socio-religious institutions. It is an attempt to help the reader understand how history shapes us, and we become subconscious participants in historical events. The origins of Tablighi Jamaat lie in the British Empire, and traverse across several Indian states, enemy neighbours, and countries in Europe and North America.

However, remember another crucial fact. What is left untouched, either deliberately or otherwise for vested interests, inevitably comes to haunt us, stare us in the face, and terrorise us. The British now face the wrath of the forces they unleashed a century ago, and which led to the birth of Tablighi Jamaat, at their doorstep. America confronts the ill-effects of slavery, racism, and Christian white supremacy today. India too has gone through such travails. Maybe it is time to stop this madness.

IN the wee hours of March 29, around 2 am, a short bespectacled man with a fairly receding hairline with a posse of discreet security men in civilian clothes, knocked on the heavy door of the Markaz at Banglewali Masjid housed inside the congested lanes of Nizamuddin in South Delhi.

He knocked on the door several times without eliciting any response from inside. He then pulled out his mobile phone and dialled a number. In a matter of minutes, the Markaz door swung open. The man who stepped inside the building was none other than India’s National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Kumar Doval. The man he went to meet in the dead of the night was none other than, Maulana Saad, the Emir of Tablighi Jamaat.

Doval went inside the Markaz to convince the potentate of the orthodox religious order to open the gates of the Markaz so that the guests who were holed up inside since the global congregation that was held from March 13-15 could come out for getting tested for Covid-19 and be quarantined if necessary. Five days prior to Doval’s night-time rendezvous with Saad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a country-wide lockdown with just three-and-a-half hours notice to contain the spread of Covid-19 virus.

The NSA’s personal intervention in a seemingly trivial matter raised many eyebrows. After all, why did Doval exert himself in the middle of the night to visit a relatively unknown mosque in the heart of South Delhi? What are his link with the head preacher of an orthodox religious order? Was the issue so serious that it was a threat to national security?

AS the story unfolded, it turned out that a significant number of more than 1,500 people who were holed up inside the Banglewali Masjid were carriers of the Corona virus. It was a matter of considerable religious sensitivity since Maulana Saad has cultivated a certain amount of political clout with various regimes at the Centre, including the BJP-led, NDA-3 government.

What is Tablighi Jamaat ?

The Emir of Jamaat, Maulana Saad, is no ordinary man. His outfit, Tablighi Jamaat, is networked in more than 150 countries, where it reportedly enjoys influence among approximately 180 crore Muslims and is entrenched in the power structures in those countries. The Jamaat has presence in Dewsbury (England), has deep roots in Chicago (USA), Malaysia, Indonesia and several African countries.

tablighi prayer

The Tablighi Jamaat was not built in a day. The spread and influence of the deen took less than 100 years to reach in positions of influence. It’s also the story of a simple Maulana, who was genuinely interested in educating the illiterate Muslim nomads in India and faraway lands. Maulana Ismail, the founder of the order, was indeed a learned and pious man and was held in high esteem as a religious teacher.

As the story goes, Ismail was a man of great piety. His life’s philosophy was shaped by the teaching of hadith. He displayed great compassion in attending to the needs of the poor, whom he considered as Allah’s bondsmen. In those days, Nizamuddin was more of a thick forest of trees and bushes, instead of the concrete jungle that it has now become. Nizamuddin was considered as the gateway to Mewat.

Sifting through the layers of Ismail’s story reveals some intriguing subtext linked to a concerted plan for Islamisation of Mewat, which was then a part of the princely state of Alwar and had an uneasy relationship with the Mewatis, who were Meo Muslims

Every day, Ismail would venture out of the mosque to check if there was anyone who needed his help. One of the stories seems to suggest that one day he met some labourers who were searching for work. During the course of the conversation he came to know that they were Muslims from Mewat. He also realised that they had no knowledge of Islam and held on to their Hindu past.

Disillusioned by the lack of knowledge of Islam among the labourers, the righteous Maulana decided to take matters in his hand. He felt compelled that the only redemption lay in teaching the Mewatis the rules and principles of Shariat and Islam in general. Ismail asked the labourers how much they earned in daily wages and made an offer of to match their daily earnings, provided they accompanied him to the mosque.

There he started teaching them how to offer namaz and read Quran. The labourers would receive an amount equivalent to their wages at the end of the day. The Maulana imparted daily lessons of deen (religion). Once they learnt to offer their regular salaat (prayer), the daily payment was withdrawn with mutual consent.

THIS gave birth to the madrasah (seminary) at the Banglawali Masjid. It became a residential school for providing instructions in Islamiyat to the poor Mewati labourers. Meals for the students were provided by Mirza Ilahi Bakhsh, who was a closely related to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last of Mughal Emperor, through the marriage of one his daughters to Mirza Fakhru, the son of the last Mughal king.

Banglewali Maszid
Banglewali Maszid

Bakhsh’s dwelling was near the tomb of Hazrat Nizamiddin, which was then considered as the outskirts of Delhi. Adjoining the baithak (parlour) of Bakhsh’s bangla (house) was a small mosque, which due to its proximity royal residence got named Banglewali Masjid. This mosque was in the custody of Maulana Mohammad Ismail.

Maulana Mohammad lived in a house located nearby, on top of the Red Gate of the historical building called Chaunsath Khamba (64 pillars). The Maulana was a pious man and a respected religious teacher. Bakhsh revered him, because his sole occupation in life was worship, Zikr and propagating the teachings of the faith and Quran. Ismail returned the favour by teaching the children of his royal patron.

But sifting through the layers of Ismail’s story reveals some intriguing subtext linked to a concerted plan for the Islamisation of Mewat, which was then a part of the princely state of Alwar and had an uneasy relationship with Mewatis, who were Meo Muslims.

By the late 19th century, the power balance in the sub-continent was undergoing radical transformation. The British Empire was on the rise, while the Muslim identity, derived from the Mughal Empire in the immediate and preceding Muslim regimes starting in the late 13th century, was waning. It was also the period when the Hindu revivalist movement called the Shuddhi Movement (purification movement) founded by Dayanand Saraswati was picking up steam. The aim of this movement was to draw those who had converted to Islam back into the folds of the Hindu religion. It was against this backdrop that a parallel Islamic consolidation movement was taking its roots in Mewat. Maulana Ismail played the most significant role in giving life to this movement.

Dewsbury Masjid, London

AFTER Ismail’s death in 1898, his eldest son, Maulana Muhammad, took the charge of the madrasah in Nizamuddin until his death in 1918. Following the death of Muhammad, the followers in Delhi and Mewat urged Maulana Muhammad Ilyas to take up residence at Nizamuddin to fill the void caused by the death of his father and brother. They stressed upon Ilyas that awareness of Islam among the Mewatis was primarily due to the efforts of his father and brother and if they were left on their own, they would again slip back into Hinduism.

Wahabism and the British Empire

Memoirs of Mr. Hempher, The British Spy to the Middle East or Confessions of a British Spy is a document purporting to be the account by British agent, Hempher, of his instrumental role in founding the conservative Islamic reform movement of Wahhabism, as part of a conspiracy to corrupt Islam. It first appeared in 1888, in Turkish, in the five-volume Mir’at al-Haramayn of Ayyub Sabri Pasha. Hempher has listed the complete details from the beginning of 1710 A.D. right from when Britain delegated him to collect information for bracing the ways to break Muslims and control their land in Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, and AI-Hijaz.

As per his documents Ottomon was the mighty empire that covered southeast Europe, northern Africa and western Asia. Even the holy lands of Mecca and Medina were under its jurisdiction. As India became vital for the British economy, the imperial government desired to have a safe, secure, and direct land and sea route between India and Britain. The region ensuring such passage was under the control of Ottomons. Hence gaining control over the Ottomon lands became mandatory for Britain.


Second, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina also gained strategic importance for the colonial power. Every year millions of Muslims from all over the world gathered there for hajj. In this religious congregation exchanges of all types took place including the exchange of pan- Islamism and anti-colonial ideas.

Britain never wanted to exert direct control over these lands, as they rightly feared that such a move could be deterrent to millions of their Muslim subjects worldwide. It applied various means for achieving its goal. They apart from providing monetary and military resources for inciting small rebellions of the states within the Ottomon Empire also established an efficient espionage system.

The British government held many conferences attended by diplomats and religious men from Britain, France, and Russia. In these conferences the ways and means for ripping apart the Muslims were discussed with the focus on stripping them of their faith and beliefs.

Mr. Hempher was the trained spy. He was sent to the city of Baghdad in Iraq to create disorder between the Sunni and Shiites. He was also assigned the duty of finding weak point of Muslims which can be used for diffusing the unity of Islam. Also, his mission in this trip was to identify the conflicts among Muslims and create an atmosphere of disagreement, expiation, and mistrust among them. He was also directed to make up different faiths and form fake colonial religions enabling the Britishers to divide Muslims instead of eliminating Islam.

In 1710 A.D. the British Colonies Ministry assigned 10 spies with the espionage duty. These spies were provided with sufficient money and information, possible maps, names of governors, scholars, tribes and family chiefs. In order to pretend Muslims, the spies carefully studied Quran and Hadith, learnt ablution and prayer. They were made familiar with the social and political sites in the Islamic societies and their extreme trends. These spies were taught Turkish, Arabic and Persian languages.

The British colonizer handed over to its spies organized and well evaluated plans suitable to the intellectual background of the different classes of Muslim. The spies were directed to spread fake and made up beliefs among the four groups of Sunni in order to create extreme differences and disputes so that each group would claim that they represent the true Islam and the others are renegades and infidels and must be ushered on the right path. After training, these spies were sent to Egypt, Iraq, Tehran, AI-Hijaz, and Estonia to gather information beneficial for tearing apart the Muslim Community.

They mixed up with men of religion to discuss the Islamic rules. They short-listed some names, one of them being Mohammad bin Abdal-Wahab, a Islamic scholar of Jewish lineage. They started following him step by step. They found in Muhammad ‘Abd-al-Wahab many attributes such as the love of glory, immorality and extreme views. They realized that he is the person the British government is in search of for establishing the group.

After spying for a period of two years in the Islamic countries they received orders from the Ministry to go back to London. The ministry listened to their reports, evaluated them. Hempher who was taught Persian, Turkish, and Arabic in London was named Mohammad and was sent to a mosque in Turkey for the purpose of mastering these languages and learning Islamic science.

After two years he was sent to Basra where he worked as a carpenter claiming to be from Azerbaijan. The people believed him because of his looks and his Turkish language.

As directed, he met Muhammad bin’Abd-al-Wahab in AI-Basra and befriended him. Humfur found Bin ‘Abd-al-Wahab to be an ambitious young man irritable and resentful of the Turkish rule. He explained Koran in the light of his own views, different from the views of Caliphas and Imams. This is where he came under Humfur’s control. Humfur who by now has developed substantial and intimate relationship with him started fanning his ego and poisoning his thoughts. Hence Wahab fell into mistakes and committed sins. On finding the right opportunity Hempher pointed out to Wahab to introduce what according to Wahab was the correct version of Islam.

Hence, Hempher, the spy stirred Muhammad bin ‘Abd-al-Wahab the way the British intelligence chose to. When Muhammad ‘Abd-al-Wahab was in Isfahan, Hempher openly approached him to work for the interest of British Government. It is reported that he agreed. He was directed to run the Wahabi Movement in return for Britain protecting him from other governments, and scholars. He was reportedly provided with money and weapons and promised to have an emirate on the outer skirts of Najd.

Years after the ‘Abd-al-Wahab began his work; the British official circles, were able to win a Muslim chieftain of Jewish origin Muhammad bin Su’ud, and asked him to work along with Muhammad bin ‘Abd-al-Wahab.

The spy Hempher was designated by the government to inform both, Muhammad bin ‘Abd-al-Wahab and Muhammad bin Su’ud that Wahab will assume religion while Su’ud will assume authority. Hence the first Saudi State was formed.

According to pact the it is alleged and reported that Britain started secretly supplying the duo with sufficient money and servants. These servants were in fact the best British intelligence officers trained in Arabic language and desert fights. As thought, the Wahabi Saudi ordeal proved beneficial for the imperial British.

They also promised to make monthly donations to the madrasah. Ilyas, after discussing the matter with Maulana Khalil Ahmad, took leave from his job as an instructor at Mazaahir-ul-Uloom in Saharanpur to take charge of the madrasah at Banglewali Masjid.

It’s believed that donations received from well-wishers were meagre and there was no regular source of income. Ilyas, on many occasions, used his own money to keep the madrasah functioning. However, the financial situation of the seminary remained precarious, often forcing the students to starve.

Faced with continuous shortage of money, Ilyas would occasionally tell the students to fend for themselves and they were free to leave the madrasah if they so wished. But the moral and spiritual teachings held such a sway over the students that none of them left the seminary. They were content to eat wild berries and fruits picked from the forests that surrounded Nizamuddin and collected wood to bake chapatis, which they consumed with pickle.

For a few Mewati and non-Mewati students, life revolved around the small brick mosque, a shed, a small settlement to the south of the mosque that housed the attendants of the tomb and a basic living quarter.

After completion of the course, Ilyas would send the students back to Mewat where they would start indoctrinating the locals into the ways of the faith. Once some devotees of his father and brother invited him to Mewat to renew the spiritual allegiance, Ilyas went a step ahead, suggesting establishing maktabs (primary learning centres) and madrasahs in the village so that Islamic influence could spread among a wider population. He thought of it as an effective step towards bringing the Meos closer to a purer version of Islam.

He (Maulana Ilyas) held a firm belief that people will become good Muslims not by reading books, but through people-to-people contact and active participation in da’wah (proselytisation work). The cornerstone of his thought process was that the responsibility of spreading Islam should not be confined to the ulemas (scholars) only, but should be moral obligation of every Muslim

When he discussed his plan with those who came to invite him, he found out that the Mewatis were reluctant and was told that establishing primary learning centres and seminaries in the region was next to impossible. The locals felt given the acute poverty of the people in the region, sending children off to religious schools would mean depriving helping hands at work and loss of wages.

Tablighi Jamat Madrasa Mewat

Ilyas, however, remained invested in his idea of establishing a seminary in Mewat. To achieve his purpose, he resorted to the formula of his father and brother by asking his followers to provide him with pupils in exchange of money, as compensation for lost wages, that the children would have to forego.

The plan worked as 10 maktabs were opened during the visit. Soon more seminaries and primary learning centres were established in the Mewat region. The preacher, however, was unsatisfied since they were not spreading the deen (religion) of Allah amongst Meos at the desired pace.

Interestingly, every time Ilyas returned from hajj, he would tweak his strategy. Upon his return from his second hajj in 1926, he coined the slogan, Aye Musalmano! Musalman bano (Come O’ Muslims! Be Muslims). He moulded his fledgling spiritual organisation according the tenets of Sunni version of Islam. It was during this period that the formal contours of the Tablighi Jamaat started to emerge.

Mewat: the springboard for the Jamaat

The first expeditionary Muslim invasion of India took place in 711 CE, when the Caliph of Damascus sent Mohammad bin Qasim in search for new lands to the East that led to the capture of Baluchistan, Sindh and Multan. This was followed by almost a lull for approximately 300 years until the arrival of Mahumad of Ghazni, who plundered the Rajput kingdoms in North India. He set up his base in Punjab from where he launched the conquest of the Kathiawar coast, including the destruction of the Somnath temple.The decisive blow against Hindu rule in North India was delivered in 1192 CE when Prithviraj Chauhan lost the second Battle of Terrain to Muhammad Gori, laying the ground for the subsequent Muslim rule in India for almost 700 years, starting with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 CE, spanning over five prominent dynasties: Slave dynasty (1206-90), Khilji dynasty(1290-1320), Tughlaq dynasty (1320-1413), Sayiid dynasty (1414-51) and Lodhi dynasty ((1451-1526).It was during the reign of the Delhi Sultanate, lasting for a little more than 300 years, that the process of Islamic conversion started in North India. It gathered momentum during the Tughlaq and Lodhi dynasty rules.
However, despite conversion, there was a clear division in hierarchy. Those from Arab, Turkish and Afghan lines of descent were considered ashrafs (noble), while the neo-coverts were referred to as ajlafs (low category). At that time, the clergy and the scholars were drawn from the upper category and were considered as the true repositories of Islamic teachings and values. The unintended consequence of this class divide was that the neo-converts were not staunch followers of Islamic practices and maintained their connections with the Hindu traditions. Among the early converts were the Meos of the Mewat region. Since they fell in the lower category of Muslims, many of their customs and traditions continued to reflect Hindu traditions and customs.

Though, Meos were mostly land owners, they remained extremely poor and borrowed heavily from the bania (traders) moneylenders at exorbitant rates. Over a period of time, from being land owners they became indentured labour on their own land and were forced to pay high taxes to the local Hindu chieftains on almost every economic activity such as animal tax, grazing tax, tail tax on different types of animals and religion tax.JAMA MASJID MEWAT

In 1933 when Jai Singh Prabhakar took over as the ruler of Alwar— Mewat was under the jurisdiction of Alwar—he quadrupled the taxes on land. This led to a revolt by the Meos, but it was quelled by him with the help of the British.

It was against this backdrop that a chance meeting of a few labourers from Mewat with Muhammad Ismail in Nizamuddin, opened the doors for the poor Meos to find solace in religion to mitigate the hardships of daily life, made unbearable by the oppressive regime of the Rajput king of the region. This search for finding their Muslim identity took stronger roots when Muhammad Ilyas took over the small mosque at Nizamuddin, laying the firm foundations of the Tablighi Jamaat.

Following the Meo uprising of 1933, the Jamaat movement gathered steam with the help of carefully crafted plans of Ilyas to spread Islam in the region. Over the next few decades, the Tablighi Jamaat movement fanned out from Mewat to different parts of North India, giving it the shape of a religion order.


HE held a firm belief that people will become good Muslims not by reading books, but through people-to-people contact and active participation in da’wah (proselytisation work). The cornerstone of his thought process was that the responsibility of spreading Islam should not be confined to the ulemas (scholars) only, but should be a moral obligation of every Muslim. To carry forward his idea, he formed a small group of eight preachers comprising ulemas and common Muslims.

The group set out from the village of Ferozepur Nanak early in the week to reach Sohna by Friday. The first Friday congregational prayers were offered at Sohna and over the next two Fridays prayers were held at Taoru (Rajasthan) and Nagina (Gurgaon). This was called the Tablighi Jamaat and the first iteration of the movement was launched. And, Ilyas became first Emir of one of the largest Islamic organisations in the world.

In what is now known as the First War of Independence, the Muslim clergy rose in unison alongside the revolting sepoys against the British East India Company. Thirty-four Islamic scholars, drawing inspiration from Shah Waliullah and his predecessors, issued a fatwa, calling on Muslims for jihad against the British

Dynamics of the movement

After returning from his third hajj, Ilyas further refined his approach to adopt a more systematic approach. He got the locals to prepare a detailed map of the Mewat region with names of roads and villages, population figures and influential Meos in the region. This speeded up his work as he started sending out jamaatis far and wide, bringing the Mewatis into his interpretation of Islam.

Tablighi Jamaat Amir Moulana Saad Kandhlavi (praying) inside the Holy Prophets MosqueHaram Sharif Masjid al-Nabawiin the Holy City of Madinah, Saudi Arabia. Source Facebook
Tablighi Jamaat Amir Moulana Saad Kandhlavi (praying) inside the Holy Prophets MosqueHaram Sharif Masjid al-Nabawiin the Holy City of Madinah, Saudi Arabia. Source Facebook

In 1938, when Ilyas went on hajj for the fourth time, he made attempts to extend his work in Saudi Arabia. However, monarchical protocols and bureaucratic processes presented obstacles to his call for missionary preaching in the Arabian Peninsula. He returned and remained focused on spreading his work in India and in the region until his death in 1944.

To understand the dynamics of the Tablighi movement, the clock needs to be turned back to the sepoy revolt of 1857. In what is now known as the First War of Independence, the Muslim clergy rose in unison alongside the revolting sepoys against the British East India Company. Thirty-four Islamic scholars, drawing inspiration from Shah Waliullah and his predecessors, issued a fatwa, calling on Muslims for jihad against the British.

SOME of the most prominent spiritual leaders of the time who joined the revolt of 1857 were Imdadullah Muhajir Makki and his anti-colonialist ulema followers, Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi, Rasheed Ahmad Gangohi and Muhammad Yaqub Nanautawi.

On May 10, 1857, local Muslims under the ulemas gathered at Thana Bhawan, a small town in Shamli district in current-day Uttar Pradesh, around 120-km from Delhi, to stage a violent protest against Company Raj. The clergy won the day in what came to be known as the Battle of Shamli. But they would eventually lose the war, due to the treachery of some among the ranks.

As soon as the native soldiers and the clergy revolted against the British, they activated their espionage network. Over the years, the British East India Company had built an efficient network of spies drawn from the local population. Without an efficient espionage network at its disposal, the British rule would have ended in India prematurely. One of the persons who spied for the British was Mirza Ilahi Bakhsh—the patron of the Madrasah Banglewali Masjid. In fact, due to his close relationship with the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was the figurehead of the revolt, he gained access to a lot of information about the plans of the mutineers. Bakhsh played a significant role in the fall of Delhi in 1857 that led to the exile of the last Mughal emperor to Rangoon in British-controlled Burma

Road to become a Jamaati

A new entrant into Tablighi Jamaat has to perform three chillas (40-day period) to learn about the various guiding principles and tenets of Islam and the discourse of preaching. During the initial phase, they undergo indoctrination for reforming themselves to be of service to Islam. After a new entrant has been initiated, it’s mandatory for him to perform at least one chilla every year.


Those who successfully complete the chilla are sent on khuruj (tour), which is central to the process of da’wa (preaching) for which eight to ten men form a travelling group called jamaat that goes to different parts of the country spreading the values of Islam, moving from house-to-house in a particular locality. They also call upon the people to attend the evening prayers at the local mosque.

The new jamaatis are made to study the Fazail-e-Amal—a book written by Maulana Muhammad Zakariya al-Kandahlawi in the 1930s about the values of Islam.

Following the collapse of the 1857 revolt, the British retaliated brutally, holding the Muslim clergy responsible for the uprising. Most of the scholars were executed, though some managed to escape or go underground. Hajji Imdadullah sought refuge in Mecca, while his associates went underground.

AFTER the uprising of 1857 was quelled, the imperial British government, representing the Crown, took over from the East India Company. It marked the beginning of the British Raj that would last until 1947. Under the new political system, rights of Indian Muslims were significantly curtailed. In order to face this challenge, some of the Muslim scholars led by Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanotavi focussed their attention towards reforming Islamic education. They rallied together for creating social awareness among the sub-continent’s Muslims. Their aim was to safeguard Islamic education from the influence of Christian missionaries as the British started putting greater emphasis on English as the medium of instruction in schools.


On May 30, 1866, an Islamic madrasah called Darul Uloom was established in Deoband. In a departure from the past, the new seminary, despite employing a traditional approach towards Islamic sciences, was quite modern by prevalent standards. The new seminary made a conscious effort to maintain a distance from any direct political engagements, yet its curriculum promoted resistance against colonial rule through Islamic education

On May 30, 1866, an Islamic madrasah called Darul Uloom was established in Deoband. In a departure from the past, the new seminary, despite employing a traditional approach towards Islamic sciences, was quite modern by prevalent standards. The new seminary made a conscious effort to maintain a distance from any direct political engagements, yet its curriculum promoted resistance against colonial rule through Islamic education.

Though, Darul Uloom adopted an arm’s length approach to politics, the scholars felt it was necessary to participate in the political movement against British occupation. During the period from 1919 to ’45, quite a few Deobandi religo-political parties came into existence. Some of the prominent parties that came out of movement were Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (1919), Majlis-e-Ahrar-e-Islam (1929) Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and its Indian offshoot, Jamaat i-Islami (1941), among others. The Tablighi Jamaat too began as the non-political offshoot of the Deobandi movement.

Though, the majority of Deobandi parties of that time were against the idea of partition, a faction of Deobandi scholars were vociferous supporters of the Indian Muslim League’s demand for a separate nation to be carved out on religious lines, which resulted in the formation of Pakistan in 1947. Similarly, after the partition, several Deobandi political parties sprouted in Pakistan.

Once the British consolidated their hold on power in the Indian sub-continent, they successfully deployed the “divide and rule” policy to keep the native anti-colonial political movements in a state of constant simmer.For this purpose, the section of Muslim clergy and scholars, who were in favour of a separate state, was exploited to drive a deep wedge in the freedom movement.

This wasn’t an entirely new tactic adopted by the British in India. They had successfully used the divide and rule policy to bring down the mighty Ottoman Empire, which shifted the balance of power in the Arabian Peninsula in favour of Muslims, giving them control over two of the holists shrines of Mecca and Madina. It was under the patronage of the powerful clergy that a more stringent variant of Islam, which came to known as Wahhabism (Salafi), firmly took roots in Saudi Arabia. The rise of the House of Saud, which continues to rule modern Saudi Arabia even today, also traces back to the cataclysmic machinations that included wars, treachery, shifting alliances and jostling for power that culminated in the end of more than a 700-year-rule of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. The hardening of Wahhabism in the Arabian Peninsula and the rise of the Deobandi movement in the Indian sub-continent mirror each other, as the latter derived its philosophical core from the former.

THE Soviet invasion of Afghanis-tan in 1979, and the subsequent occupation until 1989, was another cataclysmic event of the last century that altered the DNA of many offshoots of Pakistani Deobandi parties that took part in the holy war to the west of the Durand Line. The influx of Saudi money and a strong streak of Wahhabism and American arms that fuelled the jihad against Afghan occupation left behind a toxic cocktail of fundamentalism that gripped the various offshoots once the Soviets retreated across the Friendship Bridge over Amu Darya.

In the fertile soil of discontent, caused by the sudden withdrawal of resources by international sponsors of the Afghan jihad like the USA and Saudi Arabia, outfits such as Sipah Sahaba (1980), Taliban (1994), Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (1996), Jaish-e-Muhammad (2000) and Islamic Jehadi Union (2002) among many others took roots. These outfits, representing the Deobandi School of Islamic thought, morphed into full-fledged terrorist organisations. Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Muhammad, with the active support of the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), carried out terrorist activities in the Kashmir valley. Further, the close cooperation between Jamiat Ahle Hadith and Darul Uloom graduates, drawing on the influence of the Salafi movement, morphed into Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Jamaat’s International Expansion

The core theological philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood is propagation of Islam across the world. This made the Tablighi Jamaat a natural ally of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since Muslim population is widely spread out in the world, the Jamaat took upon itself the holy duty to render its services for propagating Islam around the world.

The international expansion of the Jamaat is attributed to Mualana Muhammad Yusuf, who took over the movement following his father’s demise in 1944. For the next two decades, Tablighi Jamaat remained focused on South Asia.

Any religious movement needs financial backing to expand. In the case of the Tablighi Jamaat, it was mainly financed through contribution from Gujarat. In fact, Yusuf launched the international operations of the Jamaat with help from wealthy Gujaratis living in Africa, Australia, Europe and the United States. To spread the word, Yusuf undertook many international trips.

According to the book, Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe, edited by Barbara Daly Metcalf, the Tablighis reached Britain in 1946, the United States in 1952 and France in 1962. Today, the Tablighi Jamaat has established its presence in 165 countries. However, the organisation remains banned in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Though international expansion of the Jamaat could be traced back to the 1940s, it gained momentum in the 1960s, when a sizable South Asian population migrated to Europe and the US. The strong presence of the Jamaat in South Asia helped in spreading it in the western world.

Maulana Ibrahim Dewla
Maulana Ibrahim Dewla

But this migration came with its attended problems. The lack of Islamic institutions in the West in the ’60s and ’70s meant that those who migrated felt rootless and were yet to be fully integrated into the culture of their new world. The next generation of these migrants were even further removed from their religious roots. It’s in this vacuum that the Tablighi Jamaat stepped in with the purpose of bringing the diaspora back into the fold of the religion just like Yusuf’s great-grandfather and Ilyas had done for the Mewatis close to a century back.

STARTING in the ’60s for the next three decades, Tablighi Jamaat sent Urdu-speaking preachers to Europe and the US to connect with Muslim migrants and teach them the way of Islam. The Jamaatis are the largest group of proselytisers of any faith. By keeping a low-profile, avoiding the media and staying away from any overt political activity or movement, the Tablighi Jamaat has managed to remain under the radar and avoid harsher scrutiny of its activities. It has also helped them to develop cordial relations with people in the government in host countries.

It is reported that Mian Muhammad Sharif, father of multiple-term Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif and founder of the Ittefaq Group, was one of the prominent supporters of the Tablighi Jamaat. He was just one in the line of influential patrons of the Jamaat that includes Muhammad Rafique Tarar, the former President of the country and Javed Nasir, former Director General of the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence

Though, the Jamaat doesn’t directly engage in political activity, its political beliefs are antithetical to the concepts that define modern of societies. It rejects the ideas of secularism, democracy and self-determination, while promoting a lifestyle and a belief system that demands strict allegiance to a narrow definition of the Wahhabi school of thought. The core of Jamaat’s ideological philosophy is that the ummah, or the entire Muslim world, is under threat due to the impact of westernisation, which promotes jahiliya (ignorance) and other heterodox forms Islam that have flourished in the sub-continent and South Asia. The Jamaat feels that it’s their moral obligation to promote a pristine form of Islam, defined by narrow orthodoxy, over any other forms of the religion or faith.

Maulana Saad in centre with son, Maulana Yusuf (right) at a hotel city of Makkah, KSA
Maulana Saad in centre with son, Maulana Yusuf (right) at a hotel city of Makkah, KSA

The Gujarat Connection & the split

Since the ’40s, the expansion of the Tablighi Jamaat was underwritten by wealthy Gujarati Muslims. Even now, Gujarati Muslims continue to hold influential positions in the movement. Maulana Ahmed Lad of Surat and Maulana Ibrahim Dewla of Bharuch, have had a long association with the Jammat and the Chelia community from North Gujarat, are at the forefront of Jamaat’s work in the state, Maharashtra and Mumbai.

But in 2016, a power struggle broke out when Maulana Saad, without consulting the shura (supreme council) declared himself as the Emir of Tablighi Jamaat. The 90-year-old Lad and Dewla (82) were in favour of the shura and rejected the authoritarian-style power-grab by Saad. This led to a vertical split, with the two influential Gujarati members of the movement moving out of the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz (headquarters) at Nizamuddin to set up their base at the Faiz Ilahi Mosque at Turkman Gate inside the walled city in Old Delhi. The rival faction operates from there as the headquarters of the shura, which claims to enjoy the support of 60 per cent of Jamaatis in India and Pakistan-based Maulana Tareeq Jameel.

Among the major centres, the Saad faction controls UP and Telangana, while the Gujarati faction controls the Mumbai, Gujarat and Maharashtra operations. The London centre is with the shura of Pakistan and Dewsbury centre in the UK reports to Saad besides exercising control over the Chicago (US), Malaysia and Indonesia operations. The rival faction, on the other hand, holds sway in most of the African countries.

Interestingly, several news reports indicate that the congregations planned by the Lad and Dalvi faction in March in Delhi and Mumbai, similar to the one organised by Saad at Nizamuddin which went ahead from March 13-15, were voluntarily cancelled when Covid-19 cases started rising in India.

The Modus Operandi

The Tablighi Jamaat is an extremely secretive organisation. It does not issue any communiqués, does not publish any journals, does not publicise its membership figures, its financial statements are not in any public domain and it does not engage with the media or explains its objectives or policies. It does not even have a formal organisation structure. In short, top leadership of Tablighi Jamaat ensures that the organisation and its work remain under the radar, devoid of any public scrutiny. Its preferred mode of getting any message out is through word of mouth, using people-to-people contact. Explanations and answers to new recruits are given orally. This strategy gives the Jamaatis the flexibility to use words to suit any purpose or occasion.

There is an undocumented but fixed organisational hierarchy which passes down the instructions through various levels to the lowest of functionaries. No one is encouraged to question any decision or instruction passed down the chain of command. The structure of the Jammat is such that it doesn’t fit any conventional definition of organisations. It prefers to stay as a loose collective of the devout, owing their allegiance to the Emir and the shura. The amorphous hierarchy of Tablighi Jamaat is drawn from various mosques affiliated to the Jamaat. The “full-time” elders of the movement make up the shura or the supreme council, which advices the Emir on various matters.

The Tablighi Jamaat propagates its ideology with the help of travelling preachers in groups of 8 to 10 Jamaatis. These travelling preachers undertake proselytising missions ranging from three days to 40 days (chilla) to four month to one year. The short three-day tours are focused on local areas, while during the longer 40-day tours, they try to cover as many places as possible within the country. For longer duration tours of four months to a year, the preachers travel overseas. On these missions, they usually stay in mosques in the area, which serves as their base. During the day, four to five members of the party perform ghast (moving around) in the neighbourhood, going from house-to-house asking the men to attend the local mosque for maghrib (sunset prayers). Those who attend these prayers are extended a da’wa (invitation), where the attendees are taught the Jamaat’s six principals and are encouraged to form their own jamaat (group of preachers).

MOST of the Jamaatis offer voluntary service and the participants are free to leave the movement anytime. Since there is no formal registration process, it is difficult to estimate the exact number of Jamaatis in any country. The Tablighi Jamaat publically claims that it doesn’t accept money for its work and the volunteers spend their own resources on preaching missions. The Tablighi Jamaat has zealously guarded the source of its finances, despite being one of the largest religious organisations in the world. The shrouded secrecy surrounding its financial network has given wind to many theories about its involvement with the underbelly of hawala transactions, which is suspected to be a major source of its finances.

The Tablighi Jamaat of Pakistan

It is reported that Mian Muhammad Sharif, father of multiple-term Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif and founder of the Ittefaq Group, was one of the prominent supporters of the Tablighi Jamaat. He was just one in the line of influential patrons of the Jamaat that includes Muhammad Rafique Tarar, the former President of the country and Javed Nasir, former Director General of the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence. It is also been speculated in Pakistan that when Benazir Bhutto, far less sympathetic to hardline Islamic beliefs, ascended to power, the Jamaat conspired with the ISI in an attempt to overthrow her regime. Over the years, periodic accusations against Jamaat members of being involved in deep-state activities have surfaced in Pakistan. Yet, Tablighi Jamaat continues to enjoy the patronage of influential people embedded high up in Pakistan’s power structure.

The Jamaat has assiduously cultivated an image of it being an apolitical religious order, but the truth in Pakistan is quite far from this perception. The shared conservative Islamic values of jehadi organisations and the Jamaat lead to a convergence of core philosophies. This makes the Jamaat congregations a rich recruiting ground for jehadi terrorist organisations. And the standard operating procedures of the Jamaat aid and abet this process.

Jamaatis, who accomplish a few local da’was (proselytising missions) are treated as stars at the Tablighi headquarters in Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore. It’s here during the congregations that the various paths to radical Islam, some of which lead directly to various Pakistan-based terrorist organisations, intersect each other, where young Tablighi recruits are lured by outfits like the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Taliban and Al Qaeda among host of other terrorist organisations that keep changing their names to avoid international sanctions.

Once the interns are recruited by any one of the terrorist organisations, all overt links with Tablighi Jamaat are severed, though it helps these recruits in getting the necessary documentation and paperwork for travel.

Over the years, intelligence agencies around the world have found evidence of links between terrorist organisations and Tablighi Jamaat. The extremist group Salafia Jihaiya, according to Moroccan authorities, were found distributing leaflets to it members urging them to join Tablighi Jamaat in order to conceal their “true identity” and “work openly”.

Links with Terrorist Outfits

In December 2004, eight members of Tablighi Jamaat were charged by the Uzbek authorities under Article 244 of Uzbek Criminal Code for their links with the terrorist organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir, that carried out a series of bombings earlier in year in Uzbekistan. The Tablighi Jamaat, which arrived in Uzbekistan in 1975 through the Bangladesh chapter when it was still Soviet Union, was subsequently banned and declared a terrorist organisation in the country. Uzbek authorities also accused Tablighi Jamaat of recruiting 400 Uzbeks for terrorist training in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The British and French intelligence have repeatedly flagged the Tablighi Jamaat as a front recruitment organisation for various Islamic terrorist organisations in the world, including Al Qaeda. In September 2016, British-born Pakistani and a well-known member of Tablighi Jamaat, Anjen Choudary, went on to head the Al Mujajiroun network that radicalised and recruited British Muslims for various terrorist organisation, was sentenced to a five-year sentence for his links with the London bombers. The French intelligence has called the Jamaat as an “antechamber of fundamentalism.”

JTF-GTMO Detainee Assessment

According to a report on a Bangladeshi website called The Weekly Blitz, which quoted Robert Blitzer, FBI’s first head of Islamic counterterrorism unit, around 2,000 American Muslims were recruited by Tablighi Jamaat to join various terrorist organisations in the 1990s. The reports further states that the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, the “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, and Lyman Harris, who tried to bomb the Brooklyn Bridge, were all members of the movement at various points in their lives. The Jamaat operates from the Al Falah mosque in Queens, which serves as its US headquarters. The US chapters continue to receive liberal donations from various Saudi Arabia-based charities. The report further states that a long-time Tablighi member, Israr Ahmad, was instrumental in giving life to the conspiracy theory that Jews were behind the 9/11 World Trade Centre terror strikes.

According to a classified Department of Defense memo dated January 27, 2008, available on Wikileaks, reveals that a known Al-Qaeda and Lashkar-E-Taiba (LET) operative, Amir Muhammad, lodged in Guantanamo, admitted to be a Tablighi Jamaat member. After arriving in India from Sudan, he stayed at the Markaz in Nizamuddin before going to Pakistan for terrorist training in handling firearms, explosives and rocket launchers.

“In early 1991, detainee flew from Sudan to India via Kenya. On the flight to India, detainee met a representative of the Tabligh movement who told detainee about a large Tabligh center in New Delhi, where he could go for assistance. Detainee misrepresented himself as an interested Tabligh candidate in order to obtain a Pakistani visa (sic),” reads the memo.


It further states that, Amir carried out terror activities on behalf of LET in the Kashmir valley. “Responding to a fatwa (religious order) in 1993, detainee travelled to the Kashmir region for three months to participate in hostilities against Indian forces with members of the al-Birq and jihad forces. Detainee returned to the Topshi Training Camp for the last time in early 1994, after traveling to Kashmir to join the LT and Markaz-ud-Dawa-wal-Irshad (MDI) for jihad. Detainee spent approximately two years at the camp with Abu Ikhlas al-Masri. (sic)”.

INDIAN intelligence agencies have repeatedly flagged the Pakistani operations of the Tablighi Jamaat as a recruiting ground for terrorists, who have wreaked havoc in Kashmir at the height of terrorism in the 1990s. Even the current breed of terrorists have been found to be indoctrinated in fundamentalist Islamic beliefs at various congregations organised by the Pakistani wing of the Jamaat.

Given the history of Tablighi Jamaat in India, the intelligence agencies keep a close watch on its activities. Doval being an intelligence veteran, who has also served in at the Indian High Commission Pakistan before going to head the Intelligence Bureau, has developed links with the top functionaries of the movement. When the news broke that over a thousand Jammatis were holed up inside the Markaz, he was deputed to resolve the stalemate. After all, the Jamaat in India derives its influence from its equations with power structure through a low-profile give and take relationship.

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