Sunday, October 07, 2007

A much-maligned but harmless group ...

Tonight I found myself amongst a group of people I haven’t shared company with for years. The last time I saw them, few people outside South Asian and/or religious Muslim circles knew these people even existed.

Today these people are demonised in many different parts of the world. They are accused of all sorts of ccrazy things – sheltering terrorists, plotting to spread extremism, following Saudi-style cultish Islam etc.

But I’ve always known the Tabligh Jamaat (TJ) as being a harmless bunch of blokes who take their religious observance very seriously.

Politics and the TJ? What moron thought that one up? The TJ are about as interested in politics as I am in lawn bowls. My own dealings and experiences with the TJ have led me to know that they have little interest in jihadist or Islamist groups, even during periods when these groups were being sponsored by the West against communism.

Back in the mid-1980’s, I read in the Minaret magazine(published occasionally by the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils or AFIC) that the TJ had caused controversy at one of their annual ijtima’s (as they used to call their national gatherings) in Melbourne. An executive member of the Islamic Council of Victoria had asked the TJ leadership if the Australian representative of one of the Afghan mujahideen groups could say a few words about the Western-backed jihad against the Soviets. The TJ leadership refused, citing their aversion to political discussion at their gatherings.

He correspondent who wrote about this incident in the Minaret included in his story words to the following effect: “We allow these people to use our mosques, yet they won’t allow us to discuss the Afghan jihad in their gatherings!”

I also remember one Bangladeshi imam once tell me that he used to have run-ins with the TJ at university. He used to urge them to support the Jamaat-i-Islami (a major Islamist group founded by Syed Maududi) but they would refuse. He once told me: “These people would rather vote communist than for JI”.

The TJ generally don’t allow discussion in their gatherings that goes over and beyond the 6 points of tabligh. The word tabligh literally means admonition or warning. The TJ’s theory is that their scholars have studied the lives of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions and have extracted 6 basic principles. If Muslims focus on these principles and put them into practise, they will start to show traces of the Prophet’s companions.

One important principle is ilm wa dhikr (seeking and gaining knowledge together with maximising the remembrance of God). The TJ say that both must go together. If a man gains knowledge of religion but doesn’t purify his heart, his knowledge could do little but boost his ego and make him arrogant. If he remembers God excessively but doesn’t supplement it ith knowledge, he might lose his sense of balance.

Another major principle of the TJ (though not identified as one of the 6 points) is to visit Muslims. Many Christian churches refer to this as ‘pastoral’ work. The churches are active in this work, but sadly most Muslim religious organisations ignore it. The TJ play a very important role, visiting Muslims all over Australia, especially those in isolated areas.

One person recently told me of an occasion he was with the TJ. They were staying at a regional mosque and once drove some three hours just to visit one Muslim living in an isolated area.

Tonight a group from the TJ were gathered at an inner-city Melbourne mosque. They were breaking their fast when I saw them. Amongst them was a fellow I hadn’t seen for some 10 years and who used to live in Sydney but was now based in Adelaide.

It saddens me that in the UK the TJ are being demonised as extremists. I can say much critical about the TJ. I think their insistence on the more conservative interpretations of Islam in some areas render their methodology argely irrelevant in Australia. I think their menfolk spend too much time on the road, neglecting their families. But to desbribe them as following an Islamist political cult is absurd.

At a time when even harmless groups like the TJ are being aligned as extremists, I don’t think the time is far off when Jonathan Freedland’s words might turn into a true prophesy ...

Right now, we're getting it badly wrong -
bombarding Muslims with pressure and prejudice, laying one social problem after
another at their door. I try to imagine how I would feel if this rainstorm of
headlines substituted the word "Jew" for "Muslim": Jews creating apartheid, Jews
whose strange customs and costume should be banned. I wouldn't just feel
frightened. I would be looking for my passport.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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