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The Tabligh Challenge – Dr. Timothy R. Furnish

February 16, 2013

The Tabligh Challenge

Timothy R. Furnish

Tablighi Jama`at is almost certainly the world’s largest Islamic missionary group. Having originated in the Indian subcontinent early in the 20th century, Tablighi Jamaat, or TJ, is now active in some 165 nations, and its annual gathering in Tongi, Bangladesh, is exceeded in size only by the hajj to Mecca.[1]

Because of its blend of Islamic ideology and missionary methodology, TJ poses a unique challenge to American analysts and policymakers. It does not fit neatly into the categories of “radical/extremist” and “moderate” so beloved of the Obama and Bush administrations. Nor is it amenable to the usual range of foreign policy, security and defense approaches. Herewith, a primer on what is perhaps the least appreciated challenge posed by ideological Islam.

Origins and development

TJ is a product of the Deobandi strain of Islam that originated in the north of India in the mid-19th century as a reaction to British rule of India and the subsequent Christian and Hindu missionary activity there. The Deoband movement combined Sufism (Islamic mysticism) with rigorous study of hadiths (Islamic traditions) and adherence to Islamic law.[2] TJ’s founder, Mawlana Muhammad Ilyas (1885-1944), graduated from the central Deoband madrassa in 1910 but eventually developed the idea that a Deobandi-style education, while necessary, was insufficient to revitalize Islam. In his view, “only through physical movement away from one’s place could one leave behind one’s esteem for life and its comforts for the cause of God.”[3]

Ilyas combined this concept with that of tabligh, an idea he borrowed from another Islamic sect in India, the Barelvis. The result was the novel idea, enshrined in TJ ideology at the group’s official inception in 1934, that dissemination of Islam should be the duty of each and every Muslim, rather than the exclusive province of the spiritual elites.[4] And while TJ shared the Deobandi-derived hatred of other faiths’ inroads into the Muslim community, there was an even stronger concern about the deleterious effects of Westernization and secularization.

The resulting belief system mandated for members of TJ is standard issue in most regards. It advocates a Sunni dogma that includes adherence to doctrinal staples (Muhammad’s prophethood, the authority of the Qur’an, Islamic eschatology), observance of veiling for women, an emphasis on daily prayers, and the teaching of Islam in the home to children. But TJ adds several additional wrinkles to this orthodoxy, promoting `ilm, “[book] knowledge,” and dhikr, “remembrance,” a Sufi practice of prayer recitation supposed to lead to a mystical state of union with Allah. It also stresses respect for other Muslims, regardless of sect, firmly rejects other religions, and espouses an obsessive observance of Islamic rites and rituals.[5]

Most important of all, however, are TJ mission trips. Members of the organization must spend at least three days each month, and 40 days per year, on these self-financed tabligh treks, where they enter a town or city, stay at a sympathetic mosque or home, and go door-to-door summoning Muslims to Quran study, prayer and classes on Islamic doctrine–to, in effect, re-inject piety into their lives.

Between 1947 (the date of Indian independence and partition) and the end of the Cold War, under the leadership of Ilyas’ son, Mawlana Yusuf, TJ expanded its geographical area of operations out of South Asia (India and Pakistan) to most of the rest of the world, and also expanded its methodology to include attempting to convert non-Muslims to Islam.[6] TJ emissaries spread mainly to majority-Muslim countries in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. Two secondary TJ hubs, in Mecca and Medina and in London, were also established. After the U.S.SR’s collapse in 1991, the organization moved into former Soviet Central Asia. In countries with a majority, or substantial, Muslim population, TJ’s target list starts with the ulama, then moves to the intellectuals and professionals, followed by influential merchants and, finally, hoi polloi. This approach obviously has worked, since TJ is now, according to the few experts on the group,[7] the most-followed Islamic program on the planet; indeed, it may well be the most influential transnational Islamic organization, bar none.

TJ in Africa

Responding to TJ is quickly emerging as one of the most significant–and unexpected–challenges confronting the newest U.S. Combatant Command, AFRICOM, which is responsible for the entire African continent save Egypt. TJ is known to be active in at least 35 of Africa’s 54 countries, but its activities are well documented in only a handful.

Gambia is a tiny country in West Africa, surrounded on all sides by its larger neighbor Senegal. However, Gambia’s 1.5 million people are 90 percent Muslim, and despite its small size and population it may very well be the hub of TJ activity in West Africa.[8] TJ has had a presence in Gambia since as early as the 1960s, but did not make much headway there until the 1990s. The reasons were primarily twofold: 1) its missionaries there preached in En-glish, the lingua franca of the country (as a former British colony), and 2) the global Islamic resurgence made many Gambians receptive to different interpretations of Islam. What is most striking about TJ in Gambia is its appeal to the indigenous Muslims, particularly youth. This state of affairs contrasts greatly with the situation in South and East Africa, where TJ’s greatest concentrations are among Africans of South Asian descent (on which more below).

The latest data indicates that only about 1 percent of Gambia’s Muslim population–perhaps 13,000 people–are involved with TJ. However, the group is punching far above its weight, promoting strict Islamic ritual observation there with considerable success. In fact, an unnamed member of Gambia’s Supreme Islamic Council fears that within a decade [from 2006] TJ will dominate, and even destroy, the country.[9] TJ’s appeal to youth contains an element of rebellion against their parents’ typically African Muslim attachment to Sufism, and counterintuitively it is the youth who assume modest dress and demeanor, over against the perceived un-Islamic libertinism of the older generation.

Morocco’s 31 million people are 99 percent Muslim, almost entirely Sunni, and while the country shares Islam as the majority religion with Gambia it is in many ways a world apart, being Arab and Berber in culture. TJ was introduced into Morocco as Jamaat al-Tabligh wa-al-Dawah (JTD) in 1960, and officially recognized by the government in 1975.[10] JTD has focused on the need for individual Muslims to reform their lives and avoid the corruption of the world–in this they are rather analogous to an evangelical/fundamentalist Christian denomination. One seemingly novel practice of JTD members is to not only visit Muslim homes in the vicinity of mosques, but also make calls upon hospitalized Muslims. The group’s greatest focus is on ritualized conduct, controlled in detail so as to accord with the presumed practice of Muhammad–to include eating, drinking, preparing for bed, sleeping, visiting a graveyard or the market, and bathing. Such activities help foster a sense of synchronized religious community, which–while not overtly associated with any jihadist groups–may mean that TJ in Morocco is functioning as “a kind of crossroads for future Islamists.”[11]

TJ likewise is active in the West African Saharan countries of Mali, Mauritania and Niger–particularly in Mali,[12] which has 12 million people, 90 percent of them Muslim. (Mauritania’s three million people are officially 100 percent Muslim, while Niger’s 11 million are 80 percent Muslim, but with significant minorities of Christians and adherents of traditional African religions.) TJ members, like Salafis, are far ahead of U.S. forces in that, being Muslim, they more easily fit into the regional Islamic context. Thus, TJ has become one of the three most important outside players in the Saharan region stretching across Mauritania, Mali and Niger, the others being the U.S. military and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The region is poor, smuggling is an integral part of the economy and everyone has “illegal” weapons–all of which makes this an extremely volatile area. Yet TJ actually lost popularity in the region after 9/11 because the African Saharan peoples realized that TJ’s South Asian Muslim origins made them possible American targets. In fact, the Malian government extradited 25 members of TJ not long after 9/11.[13] Since then, TJ connections among some of the Touareg leaders in Mali have surfaced, although the group’s leaders have repeatedly said that TJ’s activities in the region are totally unconnected to the global jihad.

South Africa would seem a strange venue for TJ activity: the country’s 49 million citizens are 80 percent Christian. But thanks to centuries of British rule, there is a substantial minority–some 2 million people–of South Asian descent in Africa’s most advanced and economically powerful nation, of whom perhaps half are Muslim, providing a ready-made audience for TJ missionaries.

The organization’s popularity in that country stems from three factors: 1) its “Sufi-lite” orientation, which appeals to South Asian Muslims; 2) its Deoband origins, since South African Islam has a heavy Deobandi tint; 3) the two Deoband Islamic seminaries in the country that promote TJ as positive for Muslims. The disconnect between TJ and the larger Sunni community in South Africa is evident in the separate mosques built in many South African Muslim communities. However, many Muslims have become disenchanted with majority black rule because of its tolerance for abortion, prostitution, pornography and other immoral activities. Almost undoubtedly, TJ has had a role in this increased social conservatism among Muslims, as it has fostered increased piety and an larger numbers of South Africa’s Muslims sending their children to Islamic schools, more and more women wearing head and body coverings, increased patronage of Islamic banks, and so forth. TJ clearly has had a large hand in polarizing South Africa’s Islamic community.

But TJ is perhaps most active in the eastern environs of Africa, particularly in Tanzania and Uganda.[14] Tanzania’s 44 million population is at least one-third Muslim, while Uganda’s 32 million populace is 84 percent Christian and some 12 percent Muslim. Uganda’s Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Muslim separatist group, is alleged to have recruited from TJ. But it is in Tanzania that the TJ-terrorist nexus truly developed. Islamic identification runs high particularly on the island of Zanzibar, which in the 18th and 19th century was the capital of the Omani Sultanate, ruling over much of East Africa, as well as on the twin island to the north, Pemba. It’s not surprising, therefore, that not only TJ but Wahhabi/Salafi preachers have found fertile soil there. In fact, in Tanzania, there seems to be a conflation of Wahhabi fundamentalism and TJ-style reformism, at least in the popular mind. An example of a Wahhabized, militant TJ member is Zahor Issa Omar, who travels from Pemba to mainland Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda on regular preaching missions, allegedly supported by Saudi money; it is also alleged that Saudi clerics send these itinerant preachers preferred khutbah (“sermon”) advice.[15] More traditionalist Zanzibari Muslim leaders consider the TJ missionaries intruders, even a threat; one such cleric is Maalim Mohammed Idriss, who has stated that TJ and Wahhabism both pervert Islam and pose a threat to the ancient Sufi traditions of East Africa.[16]

Indeed, two of the indicted terrorists involved in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi–Khalfan Khamis Mohammed and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani–were Zanzibaris who had been initially involved with TJ before “graduating” to the al-Qaeda network.[17] It would seem that in Tanzania–or at least in Zanzibar and Pemba–TJ is fulfilling the alarmist prophecy of providing at least some of jihad’s willing legionnaires, if not quite legions, as some have posited.[18] But elsewhere in East Africa, Salafi/Wahhabi Muslims are not so well-disposed toward TJ. In August 2009, the Somali group al-Shabaab attacked a mosque and killed at least five TJ members[19] in the central Somali town of Galkacyo. So rumors of automatic TJ-jihadist cooperation in Africa remain (pending more data) at least somewhat, if not greatly, exaggerated.

TJ in comparative perspective

Just what kind of Islamic group is Tablighi Jamaat? The answer depends to some extent on the analytical paradigm that is brought to bear. In the last two centuries, Islamic societies have three broad responses to the perceived encroachment of Western ideas and culture: 1) emulation; 2) fusion of Western concepts with Islamic institutions; 3) total rejection of Western ideas and things in favor of Muslim ones.[20]

The first mode was practiced by Ottoman-era reformers like Muhammad Ali of Egypt and the Ottoman Turks with their Tanzimat reforms. These were mainly attempts in the military and educational realms. The ultimate example of this category was Kemal Atatأ¼rk’s wholesale jettisoning of Islamic traditions and practice (among them the Ottoman Arabic script and the idea of the caliphate) in favor of Western ones, such as a European alphabet and a separation between mosque and state.

The second pattern was predicated on the idea that there was no inherent contradiction or conflict between the ideas and things of the West and of Islam. Thinkers such as the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh argued that Islam was perfectly compatible with Western science and even democracy–a belief which motivated the short-lived attempt to turn the Ottoman empire into a constitutional, democratic monarchy in the 1870s.[21]

The third response, rejectionism, was exemplified in the past by the Wahhabis, whose founder, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, repudiated not only anything Western but beliefs and practices of other Muslims, such as the Sufis and Shi’a, deemed insufficiently devoted to the absolute, transcendent unity of Allah. Tablighi Jamaat would seem to fit into this third category, its teachings rejecting Western concepts and modernity as a danger to Islam, and focusing on a return to Islamic roots.

But despite its official pacifist stance, is TJ nevertheless a “gateway” or “crossroads” to violent jihad? Some analysts certainly think so. Alex Alexiev even goes so far as to argue that TJ constitutes “jihad’s stealthy legions.” He maintains that “all Tablighis preach a creed that is hardly distinguishable from the radical Wahhabi-Salafi jihadist ideology” and that, more concretely, TJ involvement has not only been instrumental in the backgrounds of prominent Islamists such as Richard Reid, John Walker Lindh, the Lackawanna Six and Jose Padilla, but that terrorist group recruiters scout TJ’s Raiwind, Pakistan, training complex looking for prospects.[22] Much the same indictment of TJ is shared by Fred Burton and Scott Stewart of STRATFOR.[23] By contrast others, mainly academics, argue that TJ not only ostracizes any members who join jihadist groups[24] but also that its (alleged) privatization of faith makes it compatible with modernity.[25] Analysts such as these also point out that TJ preaches jihad as “personal purification,” not holy war; many Islamist groups openly criticize TJ for its apolitical and non-violent teachings; and Wahhabi online fatwas include TJ in a list of heretical groups, in the same category as Shi`is.

The evidence from TJ activities in Africa–Gambia, Morocco, Mali, South Africa, and Tanzania–strongly supports the contention that the organization reinforces Sunni group solidarity and increases adherence to conservative Islamic norms. However, evidence of TJ serving as a gateway to jihad is more limited, and only clearly seen in Tanzania, with the Dar es Salaam and Nairobi bombers.

The more pressing issue, then, is that of TJ’s alleged role in grooming future jihadists. While it may be hyperbole to say that TJ preaches the same creed as Wahhabis and Salafis, it does promulgate a literalist reading of the Qur’an and strict emulation of Islam’s founder, Muhammad–both of which are problematic. Not only are the “sword,” or jihad, verses of the Qur’an numerous–numbering some 164 by one count[26]–but under the doctrine of naskh, “abrogation,” they supersede all of the Qur’an’s apparently peaceful verses. In addition, TJ members are taught to emulate Islam’s prophet unswervingly. Thus, when some learn about Muhammad leading armies in battle or ordering the execution of theological and political opponents, they may decide that the jihadist groups are more faithful followers of their prophet than TJ itself–and so make the transition. Thus, the key issue is not whether TJ is actively inculcating jihadist thought, per se. What is more important, and disquieting, is that the organization is instilling Qur’anic literalism and Muhammadan emulation, both of which are also staples of violent jihadist groups.

And there’s no arguing with TJ’s success. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations may castigate the organization for its disengagement from politics and for its lack of popular welfare and education programs, but one could argue that Tabligh is better than its detractors at keeping its eye on the real prize: renewing piety among Muslims and indoctrinating them with a strong sense of Islamic community that is global in scope.

Dividing and conquering

Viewed through a realpolitik lens, the very characteristics that make TJ a potential security concern could also make it a fulcrum for an American policy that aims to exploit sectarian cleavages within the Islamic world, particularly in Africa. For example, TJ is deemed too Sufi by strict Wahhabis/Salafis and not nearly Sufi enough for Barelvis and many African Muslims. Strategic communications programs could play up theses cleavages, should TJ come to be considered a threat in certain countries or regions of Africa. TJ’s anti-Shi`ite beliefs could, alternatively, be accentuated in order to help confound Iranian Shi`i inroads into Africa; while TJ’s comparatively mild communal religious programs could be used to provide an alternative to the Saudi-funded Wahhabi groups active in Africa.

As the Army Counterinsurgency Manual made famous by General David Petraeus points out:

A feature of today’s operational environment deserving mention is the effort by Islamic extremists, including those that advocate violence, to spread their influence through the funding and use of entities that share their views or facilitate them to varying degrees. These entities may or may not be threats themselves; however, they can provide passive or active support to local or distant insurgencies.[27] (Emphasis added.)
TJ clearly does support al-Qaeda and similar groups, albeit indirectly and passively (and, it might even be argued, unintentionally). As a transnational, yet non-violent organization, Tablighi Jamaat presents a sui generis challenge to American foreign, defense and counterterrorism policy–one not amenable to Predator strikes or other kinetic solutions. Yet opposing TJ could be seen as tantamount to opposing the spread of Islam itself–a prospect that may give many pause. The key to a constructive approach, then, lies in understanding what makes TJ tick–and thereafter harnessing it as a tool to promote American interests.

Dr. Timothy R. Furnish works as an analyst and author specializing in Islamic eschatology, Mahdism and sects. He blogs on these topics at the History News Network (as Occidental Jihadist) and his own site, His new book,The Caliphate: Threat or Opportunity?, is due out in 2011.

1.Yoginder Sikand, The Origins and Development of the Tablighi-Jama`at, 1920-2000: A Cross-Country Comparative Study (Hyderabad, India: Orient Longman, 2002), 2-13.

2.According to Ira Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 725-6.

3.Muhammad Khalid Masud, “The Growth and Development of the Tablighi Jamaat in India,” in Muhammad Khalid Masud, ed., Travelers in Faith: Studies of the Tablighi Jama at Movement as a Transnational Islamic Movement for Faith Renewal (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 7.

4.Sikand, The Origins and Development of the Tablighi Jama’at, 48.

5.Masud, “Growth and Development,” 10-11, 21-24.

6.Marc Gaborieau, “The Transformation of the Tablighi Jama at Movement into a Transnational Movement,” in Masud, Travelers in Faith, 121ff.

7.Most notably Yoginder Sikand and Muhammad Khalid Masud.

8.This section derives from Marloes Janson, “The Prophet’s Path: Tablighi Jamaat in The Gambia,” Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World Review 17 (Spring 2006), 44-5.

9.Ibid., 45.

10.Mohamed Tozy, “Sequences of a Quest: Tablighi Jamaat in Morocco,” in Masud, Travelers in Faith, 161-173.

11.Ibid., 171.

12.Baz Lecocq and Paul Schrijver, “The War on Terror in a Haze of Dust: Potholes and Pitfalls on the Saharan Front,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 25, no. 1 (2007), 141-166.

13.Ibid., 151.

14.Gregory Pirio, African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa (Trenton, N.J.: The Red Sea Press, 2007).

15.Ibid., 167-68.

16.Ibidem, 168.

17.Ibidem, 157-58, 175.

18.Alex Alexiev, “Tablighi Jamaat: Jihad’s Stealthy Legions,” Middle East Quarterly 13, no. 1 (Winter 2005), 3-11,

19.“Somalia Islamic Militants Behead Four Christian Orphanage Workers,”, August 13, 2009,

20.A clear exposition of these three modes is presented in Albert M. Craig et al., eds., The Heritage of World Civilizations. Volume II: Since 1500. Seventh Edition (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice-Hall, 2006), 812-816.

21.See the author’s article “Are Islam and Democracy Incompatible? Some Reflections from Ottoman History,” History News Network, June 26, 2006,

22.Alexiev, “Tablighi Jamaat: Jihad’s Stealthy Legions.”

23.“Tagblighi Jamaat: An Indirect Line to Terrorism,” STRATFOR, January 23, 2008,

24.Nicholas Howenstein, “Islamist Networks: the Case of Tablighi Jamaat,” United States Institute of Peace Peace Brief, October 2006,

25.Barbara Metcalf, “âÄòTraditionalist’ Islamic Activism: Deoband, Tablighis, and Talibs,” Social Science Research Council/After September 11, November 1, 2004,


27.FM 3-24, “Counterinsurgency” (U.S. Department of the Army, 2006), section 1-90.

This article was first published by the Journal of International Security Affairs, Fall/Winter 2010 – Number 19.

The link to the original article is:

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