Bulbul Ashraf Siddiqi *
Dhaka, August 13 (2014) Alochonaa: I was introduced to the Tablighi Jamaat when I was in college in 1995. One of my friends managed to motivate me to spend two days and a night in the ijtema, known as the second largest Muslim congregation in the world after the Hajj. That was my first experience with the Tablighi Jamaat. Since then, many followers of the Tablighi Jamaat tried to motivate me to participate in an ijtema and go out for a dawah journey, but I never felt any urge to respond and participate.However, as part of my PhD research on the Tablighi Jamaat, I participated in the Tablighi dawah (chilla- spending 40 days in a mosque) and the ijtema during the period of 2009, 2010 and 2011. Based on my observation, in this article, I would explain why the Tablighi Jamaat has become so successful in Bangladesh.
What is the Tablighi Jamaat?
The Tablighi Jamaat was founded by Moulana Muhammad Ilyas (1885-1944) in the 1920s in India with a desire to turn the Muslims into “true Muslims”. The word Tabligh means transmission or communication of a message or revelation; fulfilment of a mission. In contemporary usage, it is interchangeable with dawah (propagation of the faith). Jamaat signifies a group of people. Thus, going by the literal meaning of the words, the Tablighi Jamaat is a preaching group, which invites and communicates with people to strengthen their faith in Islam. This is how followers of the Tablighi Jamaat explain what they are practising and the reason Masud (2000) refers to the Tablighi Jamaat as a ‘faith renewal movement’.
In another word, the followers of the Tablighi Jamaat want to achieve spiritual purification through the renewal of their faith. Dawah is a central concept for the Tablighi Jamaat as for Islamic reform movements in general. This term literally means ‘call’ or ‘invitation’, with the specific meaning of calling people back to what is perceived as proper Islamic observance. For the Tablighi Jamaat, dawah is regarded as Allah’s way of bringing believers to faith.
Tablighi Jamaat followers stay in mosques, in isolation from their family and their regular life style, and dedicate their entire time for dawah. During their dawah journeys, male Tablighi Jamaat followers stay in local mosques in the areas they visit for the number of days committed to the journey (three days, forty days, or four months). Moulana Ilyas provided a series of recommendations for how long one should spend on dawah journeys. For example, Tablighi Jamaat followers are instructed to go on a journey of three days once each month, on a chilla (a journey of forty days) once a year and on three successive chillas once in a lifetime. The chilla is considered as a fundamental training period for the beginner.
Social Implication of Dawah: Participation in Chilla
Many Tablighi Jamaat followers describe the chilla as a life changing experience, which has transformed their ‘ordinary’ life in a Tablighi Jamaat life. My participation in the chilla provided me with the opportunities to witness how some of the new Tablighi Jamaat followers decided to choose the Tablighi Jamaat after participating in the chilla. The followers of the Tablighi Jamaat say that they choose this life to increase their faith and they believe that Tablighi Jamaat is the right way of practicing Islam. My field data suggests that involvement with the Tablighi Jamaat has a positive effect on their lives. It is a key area to take into account in order to understand the social implications of the Tablighi Jamaat in Bangladeshi society.
Transformation, Communitas and Chilla
Transition to a sacred phase of life is the expected outcome for Tablighi Jamaat followers. People go out for dawah journey for a longer time and many of them return with a new vision of life, which in turn changes and transforms their way of lives as a whole. This is particularly true for many new followers of the Tablighi Jamaat. Chilla and dawah bring significant changes to the life of many beginners of the Tablighi Jamaat. One of my respondents told me that he was frustrated for a number of reasons and he joined the Tablighi Jamaat to get peace of mind as a last hope. Religion acted as the place of complete submission for him and finally, it transformed his life.
A similar experienced was shared by another respondent from the chilla that I participated. He told me that the life after coming back from dawah is different from the previous life, which refers to the transformation of everyday life into a ‘disciplined’, ‘religious’ and ‘pious’ life. This does not mean only being religious or pious; rather, it is the transformation of entire lifestyle.He thought that his existing job might not allow him time to carry out regular dawah tasks. Therefore, he left the job and established his own business. He motivated his wife to follow Islam properly. He started to eat together from the same plate with his wife and young daughter on the ground.
Eating on the ground over a clean cloth is a Sunnah. He also changed his dress, and wears long payjama and panjabi- perceived as Islamic attires, which is again a part of the Sunnah. This means that he entered into a new phase of life and moved from one stage to another in terms of his practice and belief. During my participation in the chilla, three followers decided to complete three consecutive chillas, who attended the chilla for the first time. After one chilla, they decided to complete three chillas. They were motivated enough to adapt the Tablighi lifestyle for the rest of their lives. When I met one of them after his two chillas at the Kakrail mosque in Dhaka, he told me that what Allah was doing was the best for his life. This realisation emerged because of the change in his lifestyle with the motivation of adopting the Tablighi lifestyle.
I noticed that there were changes in his attitude, dress, and behaviour. He looked calm and quieter than when I seen him previously. He stopped shaving since his first chilla and kept a beard permanently. I asked him, what was the role of three chillas in motivating you to transform your life? He told me that fear of Allah is now very strong inside him. He also felt the necessity of learning religious knowledge. A Search for knowledge (rihla) is also evident in religiously inspired travel in Islam (Eickelman and Piscatori, 1990). The chilla helped him to realise the importance of learning Islamic knowledge.
In this context, the research of Dickson (2009) shows that the ‘shift of priorities’ of Tablighi Jamaat followers is important. Transformed members from the chilla have shifted their priorities towards dawah and started to follow Islamic guidance properly. In the past, they might have placed enormous importance on worldly benefits, for example, getting a good job, maintaining a family, community, or friends. Now they are happy to lead a religious life that follows the lifestyle of the Prophet. It is a transition from one state to another.
Furthermore, experience of less hierarchical relationship during the chillas act as a motivator in their transformation as dedicated Tablighi Jamaat followers. All followers have to go through and abide by the Tablighi norms and values, which is different from the normal society they live in. During the chilla, Tablighi Jamaat followers lived in an environment that followed Tablighi norms and values at least for forty days where many social norms and values of the existing society were insignificant, that in a sense, may have been one of the reasons behind the popularity of the Tablighi Jamaat in Bangladesh. In addition, it also can be linked with the idea of communitas supported by Victor Turner.
Turner develops the idea of communitas during his research in an African community (Turner, 1969 and 1973). He linked up his concept with the ‘liminal phase’ of rites de passage of Arnold van Gennep (1960). Turner adapted the idea of liminality to develop the concept of communitas. For Turner (1969: 97), ‘liminality implies that the high could not be high unless the low existed, and he who is high must experience what it is like to be low’. Liminality represents a negation of many of the features of preliminal social structure (Turner, 1973). Thus, this concept leads to a situation where social hierarchy and status becomes unimportant; rather, it refers to a state that is opposite of everyday social structures. This is why Turner says, ‘communitas emerges where social structure is not’ (1969: 127).
The Tablighi spiritual journey imparts to them an experience of temporary communal life at regular intervals. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Tablighi Jamaat followers repeatedly come back to participate in a chilla and dawah to experience the hierarchy-free environment for a short period. It may not abolish the hierarchy absolutely but it attenuates the existing class and the notion of stratification much as Turner explains.
Communitas offers a hierarchy-free space to act on at least during a chilla. It is expected that Tablighi followers should implement their learning of hierarchy-free communal life in the society. Now the question arises, to what extent can they implement this, when they come back to their respective society? For the Tablighi followers, it is nearly impossible to live a hierarchy-free life when they get back to their respective societies because they do not get an opportunity to live as they did during a chilla. During a chilla or other types of dawah journeys, participants live in isolation both from their society and from family. It allows them to create a hierarchy-free society for a short period. When I visited some participants after the chilla in Dhaka, they were living within the existing societal norms and values. That suggests that the idea of communitas does not exist during their everyday life.
The spiritual journey provides the participants with an opportunity to experience a hierarchy-free atmosphere and transform them into religious lives. The expectation of a hierarchy-free or less-hierarchical society and the idea of transformation towards the Tablighi oriented life attract many men to follow the Tablighi Jamaat seriously. At the same time experience of dawah journey has been useful to mix up with people from all classes that to some extent act as the motivator for the participants from the lower and lower middle class.
*Bulbul Ashraf Siddiqi is an anthropologist who has recently completed PhD from Cardiff University, UK. He is affiliated with the research centre on the Body Health and Religion based at Cardiff University. He is the author of Reconfiguring the gender relation: The case of the Tablighi Jamaat in Bangladesh Prior to begin his doctoral research at Cardiff University, Mr Siddiqi obtained MA on Global Citizenship, Identities and Human Right from the University of Nottingham, UK. He is now working as Research Specialist at Dnet-a social enterprise based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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