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SEHR, volume 5, issue 1: Contested Polities
Updated February 27, 1996

islam and women

the case of the tablighi jama`at

Barbara Metcalf

The Tablighi Jama`at is a quietist, apolitical movement of spiritual guidance and renewal that originated in the Indian subcontinent, whose networks now reach around the world. Today Tablighi Jama`at's annual meetings in Pakistan and Bangladesh are attended by over a million people, and, even though meetings in India are smaller, participants may well be as many. Tabligh networks extend throughout the world, not only to places of Indo-Muslim settlement like North America and Britain, but to continental Europe, Africa, Malaysia, and elsewhere. Membership in the Tablighi Jama`at entails its male members leaving their homes in small groups, for varying periods of time, to teach correct Islamic practices to fellow Muslims and to invite them to join the Jama`at in the work of da`wa or tabligh [proselytizing].

Due to its absence from the political arena and low institutional profile, there are relatively few studies of the Tablighi Jama`at, and most of this literature is strikingly silent on the involvement of women in the Jama`at. Yet popular opposition voiced against the Jama`at, in subcontinental cities at least, often focuses on issues related to women: men who leave for proselytizing are often accused of failing in their masculine roles to care for their families and implicitly encouraging the cultivation of what are considered to be effeminate attributes (gentleness, humility, and modesty). In this paper, I examine gender relations in the contemporary Tablighi Jama`at in Pakistan by drawing on my long-term interest in the Deobandi scholarly movement from which the Tablighi Jama`at emerged.[1]

history of the tablighi jama`at

In the period after the First World War in India, with the failure of the Khilafat movement and the exposure of the hollowness of British war-time promises, many Muslims turned from political action to the formation of voluntary associations focused on individual and community regeneration.[2] Tablighi Jama`at, whose origin is typically dated to 1927, emerged as part of this larger movement. The Jama`at was first conceived by Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, a pious, learned religious leader based in Delhi, who died in 1944. The principal behind Tabligh work was that all Muslims could teach fellow Muslims key Islamic values and practices and that the process of instructing others would help the teachers learn and perfect their own practices. Thus, by going out to offer guidance to other Muslims, any sincere Muslim could, in effect, undertake what had heretofore been the province of men distinguished by education, saintly achievement, and, often, notable birth.[3]

The central feature of the Tabligh movement is the tour, which consists of a jama`at, or party, of about ten men who travel to proselytize either for an evening, a few days, or a prolonged journey. Undertaking the tour occasions a radical break with all usual enmeshments, including the intense face-to-face obligations and hierarchies of family and work typical of everyday interaction. This break, Maulana Ilyas believed, would transform the proselytizer more than the audience because the journey, with its attendant tasks, inculcates a modest and humble disposition--a disposition of which prayer is an important part, since it renders a Muslim humble before God.[4] Since proselytization is a situation in which each participant continually risks rebuff, it is meant to further instill humility in him. In this sense, travel is believed to encourage a state of permanent vulnerability and uncertainty in which one learns to be dependent on God, outside of one's normal moorings.

Beyond these efforts, a range of practices fosters a leveling of socio-economic status among the participants, a leveling modified in principle only by degrees of fidelity and faith. In a society where dress is a clear marker of status and particularistic identities, for instance, all Tablighis alike dress in simple garments. In a society where any speech act may betray hierarchic gaps of economic and educational status (above all, that of English and vernaculars, and among the vernaculars, between elegant Urdu and simple language), all Tablighi Jama`at members cultivate simple language. Similarly, in comparison to the popular attitude of looking down on manual activity, everyone on a tour carries his own bag and performs the most menial tasks.

Since there are no criteria for entry or membership in the Jama`at, the very openness of the group further diminishes hierarchy. Any Muslim who seeks to join the Jama`at is welcome in a way that is virtually unknown in highly institutionalized and stratified societies. No priority is given to intellectualism and each person, by virtue of being born a Muslim, is assumed to be a potential participant worthy of respect. Each Jama`at member is considered to have the same capacity for full participation by the simple act of embracing readily accessible teachings and committing himself to spreading them.

Among those on a tour, the elimination of hierarchic distinctions is relentless. Decisions are made through a process of consultation known as mashwara. The amir [leader] is chosen by the group, and should ideally be distinguished by the quality of his faith, rather than his worldly rank. Consequently, even a peon or servant can be an amir, and authority, in principle, is not based on outward attainments or birth among the Tablighis. There are echoes in this practice of the Sufi conviction that the least likely person may be one of the spiritual elect.

Different roles are assigned to all members of a mission. Key to these roles, and to Tablighi thinking generally, is the concept of service or khidmat.[5] Ideally, roles over the duration of a tour change so that the same person may act as a teacher or preacher on one occasion, and a humble cook or cleaner on another. Maulana Ilyas argued that to do service was in fact to attain two rewards: serving one's companions and freeing them to engage in tabligh.[6] As a result, all Tablighis learn to cook and serve food, to nurse the ill, and to wash and repair clothes. These are jobs that are commonly associated with women and with the lower-born in the society at large. Praise and admiration for this kind of service is expressed in a letter, preserved by Maulana Ilyas, that describes the khidmat of one Jama`at amir:

He looked after everyone's comfort throughout the journey, carried the luggage of others on his shoulders, in addition to his own, in spite of old age, filled the glasses of water at mealtimes and refrained from sitting down to eat until everybody had been seated comfortably, helped others to perform [the ablutions] on the train and drew their attention to its rules and proprieties; kept watch while the others slept and exhorted the members to remember God often, and did all this most willingly. For a person who was superior to all of us in age, social status and wealth to behave as the servant of everyone was the most unforgettable experience of the tour.[7]

In undertaking the journey, Tablighis ideally pay their own way so that no one is a patron and/or dependent. Tablighis thus strike a dramatic contrast against the structures of subordination and hierarchy that organize much of subcontinental life and stand apart from all its elaborate transactional arrangements.[8] This is in stark contrast to a society where the careful calibrations of age, gender, and birth are learnt at an early age and displayed in a range of obligations, manifestations of deference, and expectations of respect in virtually every daily interaction.[9] Boys are not only subject to the authority of elders within the family but, as they move into the public world, are expected to respond unquestioningly to the authority of teachers and spiritual leaders and to exercise control over women in their families.

women in the tabligh jama`at

The fact that the literature on the Tablighi Jama`at is largely silent on women is not surprising, since it is men who go proselytizing, and it is men who are seen traveling in small groups by bus/train in Indian cities, going from door to door in college hostels and neighborhoods. It is men one sees, dressed in simple, white, loose pants, long shirt, and cap, modest bedding on their back, disappearing into a mosque where they often spend the night. Yet women are involved in the Jama`at, and it is important to consider the gendered context of social roles that both Tablighi women and men are expected to play.

The Tablighis, like the followers of the larger Deobandi reformist movement from which they derive, espouse an ideal of human behavior they understand to be exemplified by the Prophet. This ideal, in fact, resonates with qualities typically associated with femininity: everyone, male or female, is expected to be gentle, self-effacing, and dedicated to service to others.[10] Men engaged in Tabligh activity, rich and poor alike, are meant to learn new ways of relating to other people and standards of humility by learning to cook, wash their own clothes, and look after each other. In this sense, Tabligh encourages, particularly in the experience of the tour, a certain reconfiguring of gender roles. The gentleness, self-abnegation, and modesty of the Tablighi men, coupled with their performance of tasks associated with women, marks them as inculcating values that are culturally considered quintessentially feminine, but which are also religious in this case.

In the course of da`wa, as practices of hierarchy are reconfigured, the hierarchical structure as a whole, which includes relations between women and men, is also modified. For example, I interviewed a young man who, as a father of two small children, felt that the personal traits he was honing in the Tabligh had made his family life more cooperative and harmonious. He criticized his society generally for widespread harshness, including physical punishment toward children. Another Tablighi member said he was less likely to be critical of his wife's cooking, after learning to cook himself on a da`wa mission.

Tablighi women, although expected to conform to rules of modesty and seclusion, share in a common model of personal comportment as well as a commitment to tabligh. The women enjoined as models, in such cherished texts as the Hikayat- us-sahaba,[11] are celebrated for the same attributes that men are to cultivate: humble, generous, pious, scrupulous in religious obligations, and brave in the face of persecution. Women, in the reformist tradition generally, are expected to become educated in religious teachings. In practical terms, just as men in the course of da`wa tours experience some redrawing of gender roles when they cook and wash, women left at home may also take on a range of typically male responsibilities in order to sustain the household. In addition, women's lives are altered through involvement in the movement itself. Women in the Jama`at are encouraged not only to seek education and piety, but are also invited to engage in Tabligh, as long as they do not mix with unrelated men. They are expected to engage in da`wa work among other women and family members.[12] Although unusual, women jama`ats do go out accompanying their men folk; some Pakistani women described to me visits not only from expatriate and other South Asian women, but also women from such distant countries as France.

Invariably, there are also jama`ats of women at the large annual meetings: one recent annual meeting in Bhopal, India was reportedly attended by groups of people from as far as the United Kingdom, Hungary, Cuba, Poland, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Russia, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. It was also reported that the meeting was well attended by women who held a day-long meeting at a separate mosque and were joined by Muslim women from the surrounding areas.[13] Most important, and more common than such distant travels, are neighborhood meetings arranged by women which involve them in da`wa work, albeit in a manner that is not easily visible to outsiders.

Women's da`wa meetings offer an unusual venue for women to congregate religiously, since women in South Asian Islam are discouraged from going to the mosque and, in some traditions, even prevented from visiting saintly shrines typically popular among women. Tablighi women, on the other hand, may also pray together in mosques. In Karachi, for example, women meet on Fridays at the Makki Masjid in the heart of the city between the noon and late afternoon prayer. At a meeting I attended in July 1991 at the Makki Masjid, a woman and a man addressed a crowd of approximately a thousand women over a loudspeaker: the warmth, gentleness, and simplicity of the discourse was palpable as women were reminded of their responsibility for their own piety, for guidance to their family, and for support to those going out on da`wa tours. Women listened, prayed, meditated, and, at the conclusion, chatted and visited as they gathered their wraps to depart. In these settings, women from humble backgrounds may take on roles of leadership and guidance for others: a practice that emphasizes the larger Tablighi principle of conferring authority based on personal work and qualities, rather than markers of birth and status.

In a sense, differentially favorable opportunities for men matter less in the Tabligh movement than in more politically oriented religious movements because neither male nor female members in the Jama`at seek prominence and status in public life. Just as social differences are erased for Tablighi men and women in the public sphere, Tablighi ethic eliminates whole arenas of customary ritual and ceremonial life which have been the purview of women. For example, participants in an annual Tabligh meeting told me that marriages are celebrated by proxy dozens at a time in such meetings. Since marriages in South Asia are typically occasions that entail elaborate social interaction and expenditure, Tablighis in their practice of simple marriage rituals opt out of such social enmeshments and obligations. Women's status and prestige among Tablighis is, therefore, not to be measured by the number and kinds of participants who attend their ceremonies, nor by the lavishness of the hospitality they offer, but by their piety--especially in their ability to persuade male kin to join the Jama`at. Indeed, during the course of my work, I heard several stories about women who had inspired men in their families to join the Jama`at.

Perhaps the most serious criticism leveled against Tabligh participants is that the men neglect and mistreat their families, especially when on the da`wa tours, and are irresponsible toward their jobs. However, the participants argue that, from their point of view, everyone should be engaged in Tabligh, and that women and children are no more an impediment to men's fulfillment of their duties than men and children are for women. The biography of Maulana Muhammad Ilyas's son and successor, Maulana Muhammad Yusuf (1917-1965), describes Yusuf's frequent absence from the side of his ill wife without condemnation.[14] One is reminded of similar accounts in the biographies of other Tablighi leaders, such as Maulana `Abdul-Rahim Raipuri, who did not let his son's illness distract him from accompanying his disciples to the Haj [pilgrimage to Mecca].[15] Women are also urged to follow similar models of behavior. A talk given at an annual Tabligh meeting, for example, reminded men that women also had a responsibility to Tabligh, and that men should not only refrain from objecting but should actively facilitate women's participation by providing child care. The speaker reminded his audience that since the Prophet had said that women have the right to refuse to nurse should they want to, women certainly could decline to provide child care for a task as important as Tabligh.[16] The same point was apparently made at the Bhopal meeting, noted above, when "community leaders told the women [participants] that their duties were not just confined to bringing up children."[17]

Tablighis remember that Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, the movement's founder, had encouraged da`wa work among women from the very beginning of his mission. On his encouragement, the wife of Maulana `Abdus Subhan, one of the prominent men of his school at Nizamud-Din in New Delhi, began work among women in Delhi and formed a women's jama`at whose members were accompanied by a close male relative. Although other religious elders had reservations about women undertaking Tabligh, Ilyas gradually won their support, including that of the respected Mufti Kifayatullah.[18]


Unlike modern political Islamist movements, such as the Jama`at-i Islami founded in the 1920s, most Tablighis do not idealize women's domestic roles and their supposedly unique feminine qualities. From the Jama`at-i Islami's founder, Maulana Maududi, to its present leadership, the position and nature of women is systematically depicted as essentially different from men and assigns them a distinctive spiritual role in the domestic sphere. While there are some Tablighi writers who use the language of "opposite or complementary" sexes,[19] the dominant attitude in the Tablighi Jama`at is an emphasis on a common nature and set of responsibilities shared by women and men. However, there is little scholarship on changes in Tablighi attitudes toward women and differential notions of gender roles over time in Tablighi history.

I would argue that the reason political Islamic movements (such as the Jama`at-i Islami in Pakistan) emphasize women's domestic roles, in contrast to the Tablighis, is due to the distinctive status accorded to women's roles and feminine nature in the discourse of modern nationalist politics and its accompanying notions of the private and public realms. Jama`at-i Islami is a movement forged in the context of the institutions of the nation-state, which examines and reconfigures Islam to adapt to the principles of a social order mandated by modern national politics. Issues related to women have occupied a central space in public discussions on law and politics in Pakistan, and the Jama`at-i Islami has played a critical role in formulating these discussions. Women have become a powerful public symbol for the institutionalization of what Islamists call an "Islami nizam" [Islamic order]. While the control of women has always been important to all male- dominated societies, the notion that women bear a special burden of embodying Islamic teachings and norms is traceable to the emergence of nationalist politics. [20]

Tablighis, unlike Jama`at-i Islami members, are not involved in state politics and even abjure all debate with other Islamic movements. Their focus on religious practice, an arena where women and men are fundamentally on the same ground, may help explain their unique attitudes toward gender roles. Even though women are expected to stay at home, men, while they travel the world, devalue the public realm in which they participate. The popular criticism leveled against the Tablighis may in part be explained by the anxiety Tablighi men provoke through their reconfiguration of popular gender roles. Tabligh's fundamental devaluing of everything that most of the society urgently seeks--wealth, success, rootedness--cannot but be threatening to those who stand outside the Jama`at. Accusations of Tablighi men's mistreatment of women kin may be interpreted as a metonym for all the values that the simply dressed, non-instrumental itinerants implicitly undermine in terms of the bourgeois family, consumer culture, and nationalism. In its apolitical piety, Tabligh clearly offers men and women an alternative to these dominant ideals.

The Tabligh movement is similar to apolitical pietistic movements in other religious traditions that seek to minimize social distinctions and relations with the larger society in favor of cultivating personal piety and a shared religious community. Women, like other socially humble communities, may find in Tabligh a less hierarchic familial structure and means of resisting conventional social hierarchies. Scholars studying European societies have identified a range of opportunities presented to women through religious organizations and practices that have, in many cases, created alternatives and means of resistance to paternal or state authority. [21]

Tabligh participants, in withdrawing from all physical or ideological contests and focusing on injunctions from the revelation, shape and interpret their behavior in ways that arguably bear no reference to the hegemonic nation-state-oriented ideologies that surround them. While critics in Pakistan may lump them with "fundamentalist" Islamic political tendencies, and critics in India may label them "communalist," such categories conflate movements that forcefully instruct Muslims about Islam with the Tablighis, who consider themselves the most gentle of reminders. Labels such as communalism and fundamentalism also distort the distinctiveness of a movement that eschews political involvement in favor of cultivating religious piety among women and men.

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The reflections in this paper were stimulated by a conference on Tablighi Jama`at organized by James Piscatori (University of Wales, Aberyswith) under the auspices of the Joint Committee on the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies (SSRC/ACLS, New York), held at the Royal Commonwealth Society, London, June 7-8, 1990.

1. See Barbara Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982). Also see Barbara Metcalf, Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf `Ali Thanawi's Bihishti Zewar (Berkeley: U California P, 1991).

2. Barbara Metcalf, "'Remaking Ourselves:' Islamic Self- fashioning in a Global Movement of Spiritual Renewal," Accounting for Fundamentalisms, eds. Martin Marty and Scott Appleby (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994).

3. For the Indian origins of the movement, see Anwarul Haq, The Faith Movement of Maulana Muhammad Ilyas (London: Allen, 1972), which is based on S. Abdul Hassan Ali Nadwi, Hazrat Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Aur Un ki Dini Da`wat [Hazrat Maulana Muhammad Ilyas and His Call to Faith] (Lucknow: Tanwir, 1964). See also Christian Troll, "Five Letters of Maulana Ilyas (1885-1944), the Founder of the Tablighi Jama`at, Translated, Annotated, and Introduced," Islam in India: Studies and Commentaries 2: Religion and Religious Education, ed. Christian Troll (Delhi: Vikas, 1985) 138-176. Articles in S. T. Lokhandwala, ed. India and Contemporary Islam: Proceedings of a Seminar (Simla: Indian Inst. of Advanced Studies, 1971) are also useful, especially Zia-ul Hasan Faruqi, "The Tablighi Jama`at"; Maulana Said Ahmad Akbarabadi, "Islam in India Today"; and Waheeduzzafar, "Muslim Socio-Religious Movements." For the late-nineteenth-century origin of the Deoband movement, see Metcalf, Perfecting Women. 4. Mohammad Zakariyya Kandhlawi, "Six Fundamentals," Teachings of Islam (New Delhi: Ishaat-e-Islam, n.d.) 23. 5. Altaf Husain Qasimi, Safarnama-i Haramain [A Travel Account to the Two Holy Places] (Gorakhpur, 1968) 14.

6. Qasimi 36.

7. S. Abdul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Life and Mission of Maulana Mohammad Ilyas (Lucknow: Acad. of Islamic Research and Publications, 1983) 150.

8. Metcalf, "'Remaking Ourselves.'" 9. See Metcalf, Perfecting Women. First published at the turn of the century, the Bihishti Zewar, as a social guide for girls and women, is an excellent source for understanding hierarchy in reformist Islam, of which the Tabligh is an important part. See, for example, the sample letters in "Book One," where a girl learns the appropriate diction for writing to superiors, inferiors, and equals; the letters review such issues as appropriate names for elders and behavior before them. At the same time, however, the book points to the kind of training necessary in order to transcend conventional hierarchy that the Tablighis also seek.

10. See the essay on the Prophet's character in Metcalf, Perfecting Women 255-258. It is significant that the Prophet's life is suggested as a model for both women and men.

11. Muhammad Zakariyya, Tablighi Nisab [The Tablighi Curriculum] (Lahore: Malik Brothers, 1960).

12. See my introduction to Metcalf, Perfecting Women, where I contrast this inclusive conception of women among the Tablighis with Jama`at-i Islami's discussion of women, which elaborates a more differentiated view of women as "complementary to men" or as the "opposite sex."

13. Sanjeev Majupuria, "100,000 Muslims Meet in Bhopal," India Abroad (January 1994).

14. Muhammad Sani Hasani, Sawanih-i Hazrat Maulana Muhammad Yusuf Kandhlawi [The Life of Hazrat Maulana Muhammad Yusuf Kandhlawi] (Lucknow: Nadwat-il Ulama, n.d.).

15. Metcalf, Islamic Revival 168.

16. I am grateful to Syed Zainuddin, Aligarh University, for describing this and other experiences when he attended a Tabligh ijtim`a [gathering] in Dewsbury, June 1991.

17. Majupuria.

18. See Muhammad `Isa Firozpuri in S. Abdus Shakur Tirmizi, Da`awat-o-Tabligh ki Shar`ai Haisiyyat [The Moral/Legal Status of Mission and Invitation] (Lahore: Idarah-i Islamiyyat, 1981) 105-106.

19. Miyani Muhammad `Isa Firozpuri, Tabligh ka Maqami Kaam [The Local Work of Tabligh] (Delhi: Rabbani Book Depot, n.d.) 102-107; also see my introduction in Metcalf, Perfecting Women.

20. See, for example, Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993).

21. See, for example: Natalie Z. Davis, "City Women and Religious Change," Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1975); Caroline W. Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: U of California P, 1987).