The role of Sufi orders in the life of Muslims: The Ṭarīqa of the Tablīghī Jamā’at.
رہ گی رسمِ اذاں روحِ بلالی نہ رہی
فلسفہ رہ گیا تلقینِ غزالی نہ رہی
The Adhān yet sounds, but never now
Like Bilal’s, soulfully;
Now mourns its Ghazālī,
Ṣūfī orders play a significant role in the life of Muslims from differing ṣufī ṭarīqas, however little attention has been given to modern innovative transnational ṭarīqa – The Tablīghī Jamā’at. Hence I will explore how the Tablīghī Jamā’at transforms the ṣūfī notion from iṣlāḥ of the self to iṣlaḥ of the ‘umma. How certain innovative practices within the Jamā’at are compared with ṣūfī practises; how personal experience in this path is the source of salvation and spirituality for the tablīghī; and the notion of sharing ‘dhikr’ with the other. I will also compare the ṣūfī notion of maqāms to a similar structured idea within the jamā’at and conclude by looking at certain ṣūfī terminology used within the jamā’at.
I will explore Tablīghi Jamā’at from the perspective of it being a modern innovative ṭarīqa, and how it builds onto the ṣufī notions of iṣlāḥ (self-rectification) and transforms the understanding of sheikh / pīr. I believe it now significant to study the spiritual aspect of the Jamā’at, as it is too often categorised merely under the Islamist umbrella. The reason for my idea of defining the spiritual aspect of the Jamā’at could also be traced back to its founders and amīrs; Muhammad Ilyās, Yusuf Kandehlawī and In’āmul Ḥasan, all of whom were associated to the chishtiyya ṣufī order. However, this ṭarīqat evolves the idea of pīr and murīd beyond the realm of individuality towards a broader sense, which views the path of this Jama’at as the ‘pīr’ and the ummah at large as its murīd. Muhammad Ilyās, the founder of the Jamā’at, once explained:
“A special aim of this movement of ours is that by dominating the desire of deen over all the other desires of Muslims and unifying their aims in this way, and by promoting social intercourse on the principle of ikrām-e-Muslim, all the people be made the picture of the ḥadith: The Muslims are like one body”.
‘Molana Muhammad Jameel gave a commonly understandable example in respect of mutual love and unity. He said: “While cutting a fruit the knife was in the right hand. The thumb of the left hand got wounded by the knife. All parts of the body are seeing that the right hand has cut the thumb, but it never happens that the left hand files a court case against the right hand. This is the call of that ḥadīth in which it is said that, The Muslims are like one body.” Hence, one finds such quotes flowing among the Tablighis, یہ کام، کام سکھاے گا ۔ یہ کام ہمارا پیر ہے – this path (ṭarīqa) itself will teach you the ṭarīqa, and also, this struggle itself is our pīr (spiritual guide).
The Tablighi Jamā’at, however, moves aside from the notion of escapism and builds upon Muhammad Iqbal’s idea of khūdī. As the earlier Persian ṣūfī idiom in Iran instilled by Sa’dī, “zamānā bāṭin-o-sāzad tū bāzamānā basās” (if the era is at war with you, escape from it!), was later replaced by Iqbal’s innovative idiom, “zamānā bāṭin-o-sāzad tū bāzamānā satīs”(if the era suppresses you, be at war with it!). The Jamā’at does not prescribe leaving of the home for individual growth, rather for the spiritual growth of the ummah. It is also said in the circles of Tablīgh, ابنے دل کو سامنے رکھ کر دوسرے کے دل میں ضرب لگاو- hitherto put your own heart in front of you and make the ḍarb (the dhikr of Allah aimed at the heart) on the heart of the ‘other’. The ṣifa (quality) of iḥsān too is built upon the notion of being in the path of Allah, hence at all times He is with you, listening and watching – this perception is extracted from Prophet Mūsā (Moses) and Hārūn’s path to the Pharaoh calling him towards the Divine. As it is said to them both on this path inna nī ma’a kumā asma’u wa ‘arā, hence the tablighi builds upon iḥsān in all his worship through one of the six points of tablīgh, ikhlās – as is also stressed by Bulleh Shāh, a ṣufī saint of the sub-continent:
“If the divine is found through ablutions
surely frogs and fish would find him first
if the divine is hidden in jungles
the cattle would have discovered him by now
O Bulleh, the divine is found by those
with pure and true heart.”
Also stress is given upon the gasht / jolah (going from person to person; door to door), and is viewed by tablighis as also a form of iṣlāḥ, it is said, “یہ گشت ذلت کو عزت سے بدلنے کے لے ہے – the purpose of gasht is to transform dhillat into ’izzat. As they believe it seems degrading going from house to house begging, urging and persuading the Muslims to also leave their homes to purify themselves. The quote is reminiscent to Bāyazīd Bustāmī’s iṣlāḥ (rectification) of another of Bestām’s disciple-saint, who boasted of his thirty years of constant ṣawm (fasts) and tahajjud (night prayer):
“This very hour go and shave your beard and hair. Take off these clothes you are wearing, and tie a loincloth of goat’s wool about your waist. Hang a bag of nuts around your neck, then go to the marketplace. Collect all the children you can, and tell them, `I will give a nut to everyone who slaps me.’ Go round all the city in the same way; especially go everywhere people know you. That is your cure.”
However, it is essential to understand that persuasion rather than intellectual exchange is the methodology used by the Tablighi. As Barbara Metcalf quotes, ‘Tabligh [insist] that preaching must be done face to face, that intellectuality and argument are irrelevant to influencing lives, and that what counts is a meeting of hearts. As mentioned earlier, for the tablighī, speaking of Allah is similar to dhikr, shared with the other Muslim, who too is need of it, hence the tablighī is constantly passing by maqāms similar to that of the ṣūfis. Due to this constant cycle of going out and calling others to leave their homes to focus their attention on their souls, yet at the same time calling others to do the same makes it difficult for an ‘outsider’ to fully understand the structure of the Jamā’at. As the one describing it is unsure of which perspective to initiate with.
However, I also believe that there is a well structured system of maqāmāt similar to mainstream Sufism. Here, however, one begins with leaving his family, work and business for three days a month, and as it is constantly instilled within him to go for forty days, he sees that as the next maqām to reach. Within the 40 days, he intends to spend the ultimate 4 months, keeping in mind this would mean a struggle with family and specially work, he is then classified as ‘purānā’ – literally meaning old (worker). Here, one discovers Ghazāli’s notion of dividing the people into three categories ’ām, khāṣṣ and khāṣṣ al-khāss, this is also noted in the jamā’at with the term ‘khuṣūṣī’. For instance those who have spend forty days in exile from their normal lives will not have, according to the tablighis, arrived at the level (maqām) of the ‘four monther’. Hence, annually there will take place ijtimā’ (gatherings) specific for those who have spent forty days and specific for purānas.
Metcalf, notes that tablīghis also use a diverse number of ṣūfī terminology to describe within their circles:
Muhammad Hanif (1997), for example, used such terms as luṭf (joy, grace), kaif (exhilaration), and sukūn-i-qalb (peace of heart) to describe the spiritual experience of his jamā’at. The 1950 account spoke of being granted the light of insight (nūr-i baṣīrat) and of the gnosis (ma’arifat) and revelations (inkishāf) accorded those who participated. Story after story, like those described above, illustrate how a jama’at becomes a vehicle for what are essentially the karāmāt, or miracles, gained in classic Sufi accounts by a particular holy man who enjoys God’s favour.
She also ascertains, ‘if Tablighi ideology, despite its fundamentally different program, shares certain assumptions and symbols with political Islam, it also draws on a second language, evident in the accounts as in much Tabligh language. This is a Sufi idiom. Tablighis believe themselves able to receive, through divine blessings granted on account of their work, the high spiritual state and charisma accorded to Sufis. The Sufis gain their blessings through lives devoted to disciplines, meditation, and moral purification coupled with the powerful charisma of succession transmitted through the elder to whom they pledge allegiance. These states can now to be gained by participation in the charismatic community of the jama’at. Thus, the participant gains through his experiential states in this life the assurance that what he is doing is receiving divine blessing.
In conclusion, I believe it significant to explore the tablīghi jamā’at’s spiritual order, as it has now spread to over 160 countries, with one of their amīr’s ranked sixteen in Esposito’s ‘The 500 Most Influencial Muslims in the World’. It is important to note the influence Ḥājī ’Abd al-Wahhāb has on the Diaspora South Asian Muslim community, which makes up the majority of Muslims living the UK. Esposito further exclaims, ‘In Pakistan alone, Abd al Wahhab’s influence has won the allegiance of prominent politicians, actors, and athletes. Despite his influence over key Muslim leaders from various fields of social power, Abd al Wahhab is consistent in his assertion that the organization is wholly apolitical—identifying the work of the Tablighi Jamaat as a spiritual revivalist movement.
I initiated by illustrating how the Tablīghī Jamā’at transforms the ṣūfī notion from iṣlāḥ of the self to iṣlaḥ of the ‘umma by implying that the ‘umma is one united body which represents the murīd and the ṭarīqah (path) of Allah to be the pīr. I then compared and contrasted a diverse number of practises with ṣūfi ones, especially of the sub-continent. I also looked into the idea of dhikr, as speaking of Allah to the other for the tablīghī is a transformed reminiscence of ṣūfī forms if dhikr. I also looked at the tablīghī version of the maqām idea in ṣūfism, and concluded as to why more attention needs to be afforded to the spiritual aspect of the tablīghi jamā’at as opposed to Islamism, as indeed the Tablighī Jama’āt holds the second largest Muslim annual gathering in the world after the Ḥajj.
The Qur’an: A New Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem
Esposito, J. and Kalin, I. et. al (2009). The 500 Most Influencial Muslims in the World. The Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
Iqbal, M. (No Date). Bāng-e-Darā (The Call of the Caravan). Trans by. Abd Al-Qadir.
Accessed online [22.03.2011] :
Metcalf, B. (2003). ‘Travelers’ Tales in the Tablighi Jamaat’. Annals of theAmericanAcademy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 588, Islam: Enduring Myths and Changing Realities (Jul., 2003), pp. 136-148
Metcalf, B. (1993). ‘Living Hadith in the Tablighi Jama`at’. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Aug, 1993), pp. 584-608
Nasr, S. H. (1997). Islamic Spirituality: Manifestations. The Crossroad Publishing Company: New York, USA
No’mānī, M. M. (2001). Words and Reflections of the Revivalist of the Work of Tableegh: Hazrat Maulana Muhammad Ilyas. Bukhari Academy: Multan, Pakistan
Accessed online [22.03.2011]
(Musings on the Britannic Crescent. Review of Travellers in Faith: Studies of the Tablighi Jama’at as a Transnational Islamic Movement for Faith Renewal.
Accessed online [22.03.2011]
 Followers of the Tablīghī Jamā’at feel the loss of spirit and soul within the current state and practise of the umma, hence I see this poem unites their idea regarding a revival esoteric and exoteric notions of Islām. As in this they would see themselves to bring the soul of Bilal in their call and trying to revive this spirit as did Ghazālī amidst chaos and havoc that was determining the fate of the Muslim world.
 Iqbal, M. (No Date). Bāng-e-Darā (The Call of the Caravan). Trans by. Abd Al-Qadir. see. ‘Jawāb-e-shikwa’
 Pīr is the Persian/ Urdū equivalent to shaykh (spiritual guide) and murīd his disciple. And since the Tablīghī jamā’at movement began in the sub-continent I have used the Urdū terms as opposed to Arabic.
 No’mānī, M. M. (2001). Words and Reflections of the Revivalist of the Work of Tableegh: Hazrat Maulana Muhammad Ilyas. p.177
 Ibid., see footnote 2
 Bulleh Shah’s (1680-1758)poem. [Accessed online 22.03.2011]:
 Story taken from “Memorial of the Saints” of Fariduddin Attar. [Accessed online 22.03.2011]:
 Metcalf, B. (2003). ‘Travelers’ Tales in the Tablighi Jamaat’. Annals of theAmericanAcademy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 588, p.140
 ibid., p.145
 Esposito, J. and Kalin, I. et. al (2009). The 500 Most Influencial Muslims in the World. p. 58