Book Review: Inside the Tablighi Jammat



Author: Ziya Us Salam     Publisher: HarperCollins India

Year of publication: 2020, Pages:260    Paperback  $ 12.73    399.00


In an Islamophobic age, it is increasingly becoming dangerous to be a Muslim, more so if one lives in an authoritarian regime and belongs to the minority community as well.  The exactly the same thing happened, as members of the Tablighi Jamaat, the world largest Muslim organization, in particular, and Muslims, in general, had to bear silently with pain and anguish,  the opprobrium of being responsible as carriers and spreaders of Covid-19 in India and it was described as terrorism and jihad by other means.

Zeeya us salam, a veteran journalist and social critic associated with a Frontline magazine, has done a yeoman’s service by scribbling about what actually happened at Bangalwale Masjid in New Delhi, the headquarter of  Tablighi Jammat when its members were held responsible for spreading Covid-19 in India. Not only this, but the book is also scathing in its critique of the major flaws from which the organization is suffering.

Author Ziya Us Salam

Author Ziya Us Salam is an associate editor, The Hindu, and Frontline.


Hinduism faces a peculiar problem when it comes to deciding the status of those who convert into it; Sanatani Hindus refuse to regard converts as their co-equals. This problem was solved by Swami Dayanand Saraswati,  the founder of Arya Samaj, who focused on block conversions and allowing them to retain their own status, ritual, and creating their own sub-society by starting the Shuddi movement.

It was Maulana Ilyas Khandhalvi, in whose mind an idea transpired that mostly those who don’t know about their religion were susceptible to Shuddi process. Therefore, he turned inwards and focused on internal reforms within Islam. However, the word ‘reform’ in his case, has to be taken with a pinch of salt. He just aimed to focus on a single issue and made it an only plank of his newly formed organization which remains so and indeed a major criticism of it. It is deeply a conservative organization in all facets of social, and cultural lives and remains unaffected with the enlightenment age.

Very few know this fact that the organization has been a family affair from the outset with the successors of Khandalhvi, working its presidents. No doubt it is affected by the authoritarian environs of the country ranging from political parties of India, business to the cinema.  But despite this flaw, it has remained intact, and it is only with the elevation of Maulana Saad, as premier of the organization, it has developed cracks and disputants have emerged, denying Maulana Saad’s premiership. However, it has a semblance of democracy at the lower levels.

Some organizations within Islam seem to be hell-bent to ensure to control over mosques and Jammat is one of them, although it can be argued, it has slightly increased the daily attendance of devotees at prayer time in mosques under its control.  However, as the author rightly notices, when the status of the Muslims has degenerated even below the Scheduled caste in India, it can’t remain unaffected and has to make provision for women to allow them to offer prayer in the mosques.  It is one thing not to have space, but quite another to deny the space to womenfolk. Its denial is based on sordid philosophy and defenses even weaker, ranging from a monthly cycle to the denial of an agency to them. By this thinking, they are assigned domestic roles, notwithstanding the fact that it was not so in the time of the Prophet himself.   They are not allowed to visit mosques to learn, or even seek religious knowledge for which the organization makes them dependent on their husbands, fathers. They can’t learn or seek themselves.  It discourages the translation and commentary of the Qur’an into a native language and there has been no commentary on the Qur’an from this organization. According to the author, understanding Qur’an is the task of the ulema, not everyone’s cup of tea, and they have the onus to explain it to others.

It is not an argumentative organization; its members did not hold lengthy discussions about the happenings either of the world or on Qur’an but focus on prayers and introspection. Its over-simplistic thinking makes them believe that by offering prayers, God will be induced to act.  The author makes a point that the concept of prayer needs wider interpretation ranging from offering prayers within the mosque to all good deeds done outside it fall within the ambit of prayer. Well, Prayer is the onset of the journey, not destination. In Islam, the world and religion are interrelated; Jamaat is yet to bridge it.

It is alleged that it has done a disservice to Islam by reducing it to a set of rituals, and some say it is better to cleanse at hand rather than what is beyond. This becomes all the more important in the case of Muslims in India who faces a plethora of problems.

The absence of the Qur’an from the Tablighi Jammat meetings, explains its inability to take a cohesive stand on subjects ranging from triple talaq to Delhi riots of 2020.  It is not aimed at the establishment of a caliphate, nor is the imposition of Islamic laws its urgency, it eschews the conversion of people, his mum on the oppression of Palestine people.  During the Delhi violence, it didn’t open up its mosques for violence-hit people while Sikhs did.

It is not aimed at the establishment of a caliphate, nor is the imposition of Islamic laws its urgency, it eschews the conversion of people, his mum on the oppression of Palestine people.  During the Delhi violence, it didn’t open up its mosques for violence-hit people while Sikhs did.

By refusing to stay away from the political field, it has neither solution nor is it trying to evolve. In sharp contrast to what other organizations are doing, it lacks a complete focus on education. It refrained to establish or operate schools.  The organization believes regular school education is a doorway to the material world; it does not hold any discourse with non-Muslims.  The organization lives within the world as defined by Ilyas and is frozen in time.

While largely apolitical in India, it is quite political in Pakistan and has been closely connected, according to the author with Prime Minister of Pakistan like Nawaz Sharif. It helped to have Muhammad Rafique Tarar, elected as President in 1988. Interestingly, Jamaat is banned in Kazakhstan as well as in Uzbekistan on the ground of being extremists.  South Asian  Muslim diasporas’  helped it to establish a base in North America,  where it has been forced to give up its orthodoxy as mosques there function as meeting points, a place to learn Qur’an and about Islam.

It has come to develop deep contradictions across the world in It’s functioning. While it does not allow space to women in its mosques across South Asia but allows them in North America, while it is apolitical in India, political in Pakistan. While in most States, it is considered moderate but extremist in others. One thing quixotic about the organization has no basis in Saudi Arabia, as its sourcebook is considered as replete with stories and anecdotes not supported by the Qur’an and hadith.

While the book is not an academic one, but the critique is quite sharp. The book is a passionate plea for the need to take a holistic understanding of the flaws it suffers from and take course correction. Indeed the organization can’t engender passive members, waiting for divine intervention without doing their pie. In fact, the organization has the critical mass number which if handled in a holistic approach can make a change.


Reviewer is Lecturer in Political Science