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Anticipating Past Futures

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Every year, hundreds of thousands of Muslims attend the Bishwa Ijtema (Global Congregation), which occurs in Tongi, near Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Likely the largest annual gathering of Muslims in the world, the event is sponsored by the Tablighi Jamaat (Society for Religious Propagation). This movement started in the city of Mewat, British India (now in Haryana state, India), in 1926. By 2020, it was thought to be the largest association of Muslims in the world, with affiliates said to number over eighty million, spread throughout the world where there are Muslim communities. The Bishwa Ijtema near Dhaka has occurred since 1967 and has grown large enough to require the government to provision special buses, trains, and flights that pour people into the area from around the country as well as abroad.

The Tablighi Jamaat organizes congregations all over the world during the year. As a movement, it claims to be apolitical and is known for being focused on members’ personal conduct and their commitment to travel near and far to propagate the religious message. Men who are committed to the movement are attuned to what they regard as the habitus of Prophet Muhammad and his companions, including bodily practices as well as social etiquette and the cultivation of qualities such as generosity and avoiding anger.

Members are expected to share the message with others, including one’s immediate family, social circle, and strangers encountered during regional, national, and international group tours undertaken at regular intervals in life. Grand social gatherings such as the Bishwa Ijtema are places to make connections for smaller-scale expeditions that are constantly underway through connected communities of Tabligh followers all around the world.

The Tablighi Jamaat is focused on proselytizing to other Sunni Muslims. While some internal stories mention conversions of non-Muslims to Islam, these are presented as accidental benefits. In its origins story, the movement is said to have been motivated by alarm over the degradation in Muslims’ adherence to religious norms in life under modern conditions. At the time the movement came to the fore in the early decades of the twentieth century, Islamic reform was a transnational rallying cry among Muslims, with particular attention to anticolonial struggles, codification of law, opposition to Christian and other missionizing, and the challenge of responding to European ideas.

Amid a highly energized field, the Tablighi Jamaat took the distinctive position that true Muslimness can be revitalized only by concentrating on individual behavior rather than large-scale social or political reconstitution. This was to be accomplished in a distinctive way, focused on correlating between the past and future. Tablighi Jamaat proponents’ thematization of time is relevant for understanding the temporal perspective of the spectrum of modern Muslim movements known under the umbrella term salafi, meaning those devoted to the practice of the pious ancestors (al-aslaf).

Future Driving the Past

Observing Tablighi actions and perspectives, one notices a high commitment to citationality. The way men dress, for example, is meant to recreate the habits of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions (sahaba). Other recommended acts of the body and the mind refer back similarly to idealized precedents. On the surface, this may seem like the past exerting pressure on the present. However, the fund of ideas and practices that Tablighi Jamaat followers treat as the valued past was packaged into a particular form quite recently. Moreover, Tablighi literature is focused singularly on what the precedents say regarding living in the here and now.

With the important exception of the Prophet himself, there is little to no cultivation of understanding the pious ancestors’ lives in the form of biographical narratives. All that matters is to know what they did in particular circumstances, which provides instructions for the here and now. The only past that matters, then, is one that can help to ameliorate apprehensions regarding the present and the future. This results in a perspective that brims with references to the past but is, simultaneously, profoundly ahistorical.

In self-articulation, the Tablighi Jamaat is motivated by the desire to correct negatively valued modern conditions. This requires returning to a curated past time, limited to the period of the life of the Prophet and his immediate companions. History of Islam and Muslims during the approximate period 700–1900 CE is almost entirely absent in this discourse. Life patterns presumed to go back to the prophetic age are amplified to fill all spatiotemporal experience. A composite version of this time is deemed a crucial resource for the immediate future of every individual Muslim. All aspects of life, from the seemingly utterly trivial to broad ethical principles, are made to conform to the lifestyle modeled, first by the Prophet and then by those who saw and knew him personally.

To explain how the temporal perspective of the Tablighi Jamaat (and other Salafi movements) works, I highlight summary points from the movement’s vast, heavily repetitive literature that is available in dozens of languages. I focus on a small primer in Urdu, the North Indian language in which the movement’s founder first spread his message, and on a foundational work in Arabic, the language through which the movement reaches much of its worldwide Muslim audience.

The anonymous Urdu pamphlet entitled Rahnuma-yi tablighi safar awr che nambar (The Guide to Tablighi Travel and Six Numbers) is like dozens of other such works sold in very a cheap format. It describes the major problem of modern life as the narrowing of the sphere in which religious topics can be discussed:

Today people say that if one talks about religion at home, the wife and children get upset; if at the shop, then clients turn away; if at the office, then the boss is annoyed; if among friends, their condition turns unpleasant; and if during discussions of marriage, then kinfolk get angry. Now tell me: how can a religion that is suppressed by wife and children, clients, bosses, friends, and kinfolk become the cause of gaining honor? Today Muslims speak out about human beings’ rights. The greatest human being is the noble Messenger. His rights must be attended to first of all (125–126).

The Tablighi solution to this problem of the present is to advocate that, in the future, every Muslim works upon oneself and one’s social circle to execute the religious duty one owes to the Prophet. This can be done only by emulating him in all possible ways. The emulation must, by logical necessity, work from externality to internality since one has no direct access to the Prophet’s mind. Access to the Prophet is mediated through what has been reported about him. If one’s observable habits become like that of the Prophet, the interior will follow without fail.

The program to be followed on this score is conveyed through a six-part formula presented in numerical order (74–126):

  1. Profession of faith (kalima): a public affirmation of being Muslim that must be repeated and heard constantly
  2. Daily five-time prayers (namaz): signifies dedication to transforming daily routine
  3. Knowledge and remembrance (‘ilm va zikr): knowing the right way to do things and participating in personal and communal recollection of God, the Prophet, and one’s duties
  4. Respect of Muslims (ikram-i muslim): correct etiquette and respectful behavior toward other Muslims
  5. Correction of intention (tashih-i niyyat): periodic self-evaluation to ensure that actions remain tied to correct intentions
  6. Invitation and religious propagation (da’wat va tabligh): conveying the religious program to others by inviting them to consider the truth and providing them the necessary knowledge

These six principles are meant to replicate the Prophet’s own practices. For number three, however, there is a difference between the Prophet and everyone else. His knowledge came to him directly from God in the form of revelation. For everyone else, what he spoke (when ventriloquizing the Quran as well as when speaking as himself) and did constitutes knowledge. This leads to the paramount significance of the literature known as hadith and reports on Muhammad’s companions. The Tablighi Jamaat’s version of this information is provided in a synthesized form that is particular to the movement’s needs.

All the Past One Needs to Live

To understand how the Tablighi Jamaat’s aims are inculcated, it is instructive to look at what is likely the longest literary product created under the movement’s aegis. This is a work entitled Hayat as-sahaba (The Life of the Companions) composed by the movement’s second leader, Muhammad Yusuf Kandhlawi (1917–1965). Spanning more than 2,800 pages in one printed edition, this work showcases the author’s encyclopedic knowledge of all manner of literature that contains comments on Muhammad and his companions.

The work contains no introduction or conclusion in the author’s own voice (the edition I am citing does include short prefaces by other scholars), and, literally, everything one reads is being cited from other sources. But the author is a critical force in the work because of its organization. In essence, he took a lifetime’s worth of erudition in complex religious sources and reorganized the material into categories tied to the Tablighi Jamaat’s mission to proselytize to the ordinary Muslim person.

The work forefronts inferences to be gained from reading the material, grouping reports under topical headings that take the reader step by step into becoming familiar with granular details of what is preserved about the Prophet’s life. The progression of topics is keyed to the putative reader’s priorities: the first chapter is on the invitation to God and His Prophet, the second on the religious oath, the third on actions in the path of God, and so on. Matters such as differences of opinions, theoretical rumination, and analogies that are usually the bread and butter of Islamic scholarly writings have all been eliminated.

The message is that the academic matters are irrelevant for ordinary Muslims who simply need to model their lives on the Prophet. The author does make sure to meticulously cite the sources from which the stories he provides are taken, and someone knowledgeable about the source base can therefore judge the work. But such a specialist reader (who is clearly not the work’s intended audience) would also suffer vertigo to see sources spread over 1,300 years being broken into parts and reassembled in a novel topical arrangement without reference to chronology, genre, scholarly genealogy, or place of writing.

Song “Time Waits for No One,” featuring Junaid Jamshed (d. 2016), a Pakistani pop star who joined the Tablighi Jamaat and died in an air crash while returning from a Tablighi tour.

Even with the simplification of the academic apparatus, the Hayat as-sahaba is much too extensive to be consumable by most readers. It has worked as a kind of mother lode from which other authors have created shorter excerpts, often with commentaries focused on particular aspects of life. But its vast volume makes the life of Muhammad, as lived by him and emulated by his immediate successors, appear like a bottomless well. One can, in effect, spend a lifetime working through this text, especially if one is leading, as is usually the case, a nonscholarly life while being a part of the movement. A relatively short timespan in the past, spread between Muhammad’s birth and the death of the last of those who knew him personally (ca. 570–700), thus becomes all the past needed to fashion one’s future as a good Muslim person.

The Hayat as-sahaba represents a kind of democratization of religious knowledge that is meant to provide Tablighi Jamaat members a clear, yet complex and inexhaustible, plan for the future. The egalitarian impulse is emphasized in expressions such as the following response to imagined scholars who would say that they are like wells, filled with water of knowledge but the thirsty do not come to them to gain benefit:

Why are you a well, why not be a cloud that rains on the world? One who invites [to the religious path] is like: a river that carries water to the world without any recompense; the sun that delivers the light of right belief without fee; a doctor who provides spiritual therapy through [painful but beneficial] injections [reminding of] the grave and resurrection; a spiritual chauffeur who drives people to paradise in the vehicle of the inviting process; a fruit tree that gives fruit even after being pelted with stones, meaning that it speaks the sweet talk of faith [even when rejected].

The one inviting [to the faith] sketches out the lines so that every person, becoming like the pure Prophet, forsakes material life and wealth for the cause of spreading religion. [S/he] migrates for this purpose and invites by going around village by village, country by country, clime by clime, telling others to take up the same work as well.

Those who have done their assignments should think of foreign countries. Three forty-day circuits in life, one in a year, three days in the month, two turns every week, keeping to [observances on] Friday nights, teaching every day at home and in the mosque, thinking deeply every day for two and a half to eight hours, and daily asking people if they are ready for this work (Anonymous, Rahnuma-yi tablighi safar awr che nambar, 126–127).

The exacting schedule laid out at the end of this statement marks how the Tablighi Jamaat requires spending considerable time and money. The payback is both the purported spiritual reward in the future and the chance to be part of a globally networked community.

Rich Futures, Impoverished Pasts

The Tablighi Jamaat’s emphasis on physical travel causes a dislocation from one’s ordinary situation in life. Enacted at regular intervals, the spatial displacement removes the person to the community’s distinctive sociality as an alternative norm that gradually becomes a kind of second habitation. I would suggest that the grand edifice of the life of the Prophet and his companions that is presented in a work like the Hayat as-sahaba is a kind of time-related displacement that parallels the spatial imperative to tour. As one absorbs the minutiae of the Prophet’s life, these absorb into one’s own past and present. This is a message stated explicitly again and again: the only valuable past for Muslims is the life of the Prophet, which should define the future. Once this past becomes utterly intermingled with one’s day-to-day life, one has, in a sense, come to live in the company of the Prophet.

The fixation on the prophetic life is also, I believe, a sign of temporal impoverishment. This is not in the sense that being concerned with only one life would put one at a disadvantage. The level of detail available in works like the Hayat as-sahaba is such that one can see it as being a complex universe of ideas and practices quite sufficient to cultivate a vivid imagination through one’s adult life. There is something to be said for the fact that a temporal package such as the life of the Prophet has accreted so much to itself over the centuries that it can claim an encompassing universality. My point is that the exclusion of concern with the twelve centuries that intervene between the Prophet’s companions’ deaths and the twentieth century makes a vast amount of Islamic experience utterly irrelevant to the movement’s adherents.

One way to signify the magnitude of the choice is that, for fully committed proponents of a movement such as the Tablighi Jamaat, most what I am treating as the Islamic past would be understood as irrelevant by the group. This points to the self-enclosed nature of the movement’s model of time. If this seems ironic considering the insistence on travel, it should not because the movement’s investment in dislocation pertains to forming boundaries of the self rather than touristic notions of expanding the mind by seeing new places and meeting new people. Leaving one’s ordinary life to be in alien circumstances is supposed to force one’s mind to the Prophet’s present time rather than one’s own.

There is no denying the Tablighi Jamaat’s great worldwide success as an Islamic intellectual and social form. While the movement itself does not participate in politics, it has considerable political influence due to the ability to mobilize people to agitate or act as a vote bank in elections. Moreover, since it is entirely voluntary, the significance of its perspective seeps far beyond the dedicated core in societies where it holds significance. People can attach and detach easily and may adhere to some, but not all, aspects of the message.

By limiting the past that matters to a certain period and narrative corpus, the Tablighi Jamaat also offers a future that is comforting and secure. This may be especially meaningful in a worldwide situation that is otherwise economically and sociopolitically insecure. I believe this may be true for some members of the movement, although local variables must always be kept in mind. The success of a movement estimated to have eighty million adherents, spread to every corner of the world, cannot be accounted for through monocausal explanations.

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