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Bulbul Siddiqi, Becoming ‘Good Muslim’. The Tablighi Jamaat in the UK and Bangladesh, Springer, Singapore, 2018
Although the pietist Islamic proselytizing movement known as Tablighi Jamaat is very widespread at an international level, the number of ethnographic studies on it is rather limited. Written by Bulbul Siddiqi (currently professor of Anthropology and Sociology at North South University in Dhaka, Bangladesh), Becoming ‘Good Muslim’ fits into the context of a renewed academic (as well as journalistic) interest in this reality, which came into existence to the south of Delhi, around the missionary activity of the Indian sheikh Muhammad Ilya in 1927.
Putting his Muslim and Bangladeshi identity to good use, Siddiqi has built a well-structured text that is complete and easy to read. It is based on lengthy fieldwork carried out between Cardiff and Bangladesh, where he followed local communities during their main religious activities. These included the typical 40-day missions (chilla), the daily study sessions (ta’leem) and the weekly preaching (gasht, which constitutes “the backbone of the Tabligh Dawah”, as one of the book’s chapter titles states).
Beginning with a basic, but complete, overview of the literature preceding his study, Siddiqi introduces the reader to the social practices and discourses around which the Tablighi Jamaat movement is constructed in greatly differing contexts. This he does in a style far removed from every kind of post-modern experimentalism and the result is an excellent text for those who are approaching the subject for the first time.
Indeed, the author describes the religious practices in which Tablighi Jamaat followers take part and to which they submit and he emphasises a certain “global unity”. It is precisely this aspect that appears fundamental for the construction of an imaginary transnational identity founded on replicable rules having the purpose of allowing believers in every part of the world to cultivate their own individual purification journey within a group. This thanks to a constant personal engagement in da‘wa (i.e. inviting others, in line with the Qur’an, to “command right and prohibit wrong,” something that becomes concrete in practices that differ according to the group of reference, the historical period and the context).
For example, in the fourth chapter, entitled “Undertaking a Chilla: Becoming a Tablighi Follower,” Siddiqi describes very clearly how the three preaching journeys lasting forty consecutive days are the key to building an experiential religious knowledge, which is, in turn, the key to fully understanding the six principles underpinning the movement (and testifying to an initial Sufi inspiration): Kalima (faith in one, sole God), salāt (prayer), ‘ilm and dhikr (knowledge and constant recalling of God), ikrām al-muslim (respect for all Muslims), ikhlās i-niyyat (sincerity of intention) and the work of da‘wa. Originally formulated by the movement’s founder, these six points have the purpose of helping its members to reproduce, or perhaps it would be better to say “become part of” the ideal community of the Sahāba, the Prophet’s Companions.
Continuing his analysis, Siddiqi sets out clearly some of the features most closely linked to the construction of the social capital and social meanings characterising the Tablighi experience. These include the possibility of negotiating one’s own status through religious empowerment, the reconfiguration of gender relations and the creation of a genuinely new form of Islamic pilgrimage. The whole of the sixth chapter is dedicated to the Bishwa Ijtema (literally, “gathering”) in Tongi, to the north of Dhaka, which is the biggest international pilgrimage in the world after the hajj to Mecca. The chapter was inspired by the author’s double experience of participation; in 1995 as a believer and in 2010 as a researcher.
The second part of the book, on the other hand, concentrates on the reality of the English Tablighi Jamaat. The latter has its point of reference in the mosque at Dewsbury, which is a place of annual ijtema in its own right and the focal point for the whole Tablighi Jamaat movement in Europe. After pointing out the co-operation connection with the Deobandi mosques present in the territory, Siddiqi concentrates on describing the movement’s daily preaching practices. He emphasises how the “work” is carried out in a manner that seeks slavishly to follow the directions of the founder, Muhammad Ilyas; even in an environment in which the Muslim presence is a minority one.
The centrality of the mosque as the fundamental place of education reveals, on the one hand, the importance that the Tablighi Jamaat followers attach to the education of the second generations in a diaspora situation and, on the other, the value of the daily activities of preaching, collective study and mashoara (meeting).
The forming of a transformative type of global identity capable of turning the believer into a “good Muslim” by way of a series of rules of conduct and a few, fundamental books results in local experiences of transnational groups that are basically egalitarian, bound together more by their religious identity than by their ethnicity and based on a fluid internal organization that has a charismatic basis.
If the construction of a separate Tablighi community (a term of which the Tablighi Jamaat followers themselves disapprove because it conveys an idea of “separation” from the rest of the umma) promotes a particular Muslim identity, it creates at the same time an isolation from British society that exposes the movement to accusations of “isolationism”, a lack of transparency and an inability to keep its own members under control. Accusations that thus risk frustrating the efforts made by the said Tablighi Jamaat followers to build a good image of themselves and the movement in the English context, amongst both non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
To cite this article
Gabriele Maria Masi, “The Good Muslim’s Missionary Vocation”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 134-6.
Gabriele Maria Masi, “The Good Muslim’s Missionary Vocation”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/the-good-muslim-missionary-vocation