Tablighi Jamaat and its links with islamist terrorism
Dr Farhan Zahid
Dr Farhan Zahid (Pakistan), Ph D, is a Counter-Terrorism and Security Analyst.
Tablighi Jamaat – or Proselytizing Movement – is another system driver and integral element of Islamist Violent Non-State Actors internal dynamics. The Tablighi Jamaat could be identified as one of the agents responsible for Islamist activities. In many cases it has acted like a nursery for indoctrinating Islamist terrorists.
After experiencing defeat while waging armed struggle against the British rulers in 1857, many local Indian Muslim scholars, inspired of newly emerged Arabian Wahabi, thought and attempted to try the very idea in Indian Sub-Continent. Their idea failed at its inception as an overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims either belonged to Shia sect or Sufi-Sunni Islam was angry because of the destruction of Muslim holy sites by Saudi Wahabis in areas under their control in 19th century.
The Wahabi-inspired Ulemas (clerics) who were part of the failed 1857 armed struggle against the British, then managed to establish a seminary Darul Uloom at Deoband, a small town in northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 1867. The Deobandi movement, comprising of Wahabi inspired version of Islam, somehow managed to act covertly and professed its message in the name of "Islamic reformation." The program worked well with the new generations of Muslims and resulted in establishment of a chain of madrasahs across India and present day Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Deobandi Movement's founders earlier had struggled against the British and knew very well about futility of any further armed struggle against them. They accepted their rule but continued to plan and reinvigorate ‘glory of past Islamic rule'; same ideas that present day Islamist groups propagate.
On the question of proselytizing the masses, Maulana Mohammad Ilyas parted ways with main stream Deobandi movement and established Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) in 1926 to spread the creed of Deobandi Islam on Catholic missionary lines and to reconvert the Muslims, who according to Tablighi notions ‘have gone astray'. The movement was in fact from the beginning considered as an extension of Deobandi movement's preaching and proselytizing arm.
At present TJ has an enormous network, spread over in every country in five continents with millions attending its annual congregations every year in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Lahore, Pakistan. Although TJ does not want to be known or associated with any particular sect of Islam, but by virtue of its content its links with Pakistani Deobandi Jamiat-e-Ulema Islami (JUI) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) appear to be close. TJ's links with Saudi Arabian Wahabi clerics also signifies its cooperation with the fundamentalist Saudi regime. TJ, like other Pakistani Deobandis and Islamist parties want to be known as ‘Islamic reformist movement' which is very much similar to Maududi and other Islamist ideologue's insistence of reconverting the Muslims to ‘true Islamic values.'
Ideology of TJ is based upon six basic principles, all related to preaching and proselytizing Muslims and non-Muslims and to brief them about the real message of Islam. Nicholas Howenstein explains these as :
– "Kalimah: An article of faith in which the tabligh accepts that there is no god but Allah and the Prophet Muhammad is His messenger ;
– Salaat: Five daily prayers that are essential to spiritual elevation, piety, and a life free from the ills of the material world ;
– Ilm and Dhikr: The knowledge and remembrance of Allah conducted in sessions in which the congregation listens to preaching by the emir, performs prayers, recites the Quran and reads Hadith. The congregation will also use these sessions to eat meals together, thus fostering a sense of community and identity ;
– Ikram-i-Muslim: The treatment of fellow Muslims with honor and deference ;
– Ikhlas-i-Niyat: Reforming one's life in supplication to Allah by performing every human action for the sake of Allah and toward the goal of self-transformation ;
– Tafrigh-i-Waqt: The sparing of time to live a life based on faith and learning its virtues, following in the footsteps of the Prophet, and taking His message door-to-door for the sake of faith".
Neither of the mentioned above has any violent connotations but on the other hand, TJ never condemns suicide bombings and Islamist terrorism anywhere in the world, and in a way plays the role of recruiter and sympathizer. TJ's congregation allows radical Islamists worldwide to meet and discuss matters related to violent activities and provides them with best opportunity to coordinate. The teachings of TJ are not violent but many of its followers have dual and overlapping memberships with jihadist groups that the TJ never discourages by deed. Its ultra-orthodox nature and calling Muslims to adapt to puritanical form of Islam indeed reflects its agenda which is far from moderation. "At face value, TJ is a peaceful, egalitarian and devotional movement that stresses individual faith and overall spiritual development. In a sense, TJ is a widespread training system that urges average Muslims to examine their own lives and become involved in calling their fellow Muslims back to orthodox Islam."
With its connections to Islamist terrorist organizations, TJ has now been considered as ‘gateway to terrorism.' Since 2001, traces of links have been found between TJ and Islamists involved in perpetuating acts of terror. Shoe bomber Richard Reid for attempted transatlantic airline bombing (2001), Jose Padilla for attempted dirty bomb manufacturing (2002) in New York City, Barcelona terror plot (2008) and arrest of American Taliban John Walker Lindh in Afghanistan (2001), all had one way or other connected to TJ and its proselytizing activities. Moreover TJ-recruited radicalized groups of western Muslims were found involved in planning of terrorist attacks in the US, such as Portland Seven (2002), and Lackawanna Six (2002).
In many cases the Islamist terrorists attended TJ congregations and radicalized due to indoctrination of TJ ideology at mosques. French authorities have repeatedly blamed TJ for promoting extremism as they found involvement of TJ in more than 80 percent of cases.
Pakistan is considered hub of TJ activities because of penetration of TJ's followers at high levels in Pakistani civil and military bureaucracies. TJ's annual congregation at Raiwand, Lahore is second only to annual Hajj pilgrimage by attendance. Several high ranking politicians have also been associated with TJ. Former Pakistani president Rafiq Tarrar, during Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff's second term (1996-99) was an active participant along with PM Shariff's father Mian Mohammad Shariff was another regular visitor to TJ congregations.
Former Pakistani intelligence chief (DG-ISI) Lt General Javed Nasir was an active member of TJ during his tenure (1995-97) and remained active in rendering support to extremist Muslim groups in Bosnia and Kashmir.
Several members of 1995 attempted military coup in Pakistan against the government of PM Benazir Bhutto were members of Tablighee Jamaat. During PM Benazir Bhutto's second term (1993-96), a group of Islamist officers in collusion with HuJI made an attempt to topple her government in 1995. It was later found that the Islamist officers were influenced by Jihad bi-al Saif (Jihad by Sword) an offshoot of TJ.
Links with Pakistani Islamist Violent Non-State Actors
Several mainstream Islamist violent non-state actors in Pakistan have taken their roots from TJ's indoctrination and the initial platform provided by TJ missionaries. It is the Deobandi ideology of TJ which provides the potential jihadists a crucial link. Afghan War of 1990s coupled with General Zia's Islamist policies, financial benefits from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states with tacit support from the US during that period allowed Deobandism in Pakistan to take its roots. TJ's missionaries were allowed to visit Pakistan Military Academy during 1980s, to indoctrinate and convert the officers to Deobandi brand of Islam.
It was during the same period that TJ came to known as recruitment center for Islamist radicals for Afghan War. HuJI was founded by former TJ members Qari Saifullah Akhter and Fazal ur Rehman Khalil along with others. It was from the platform of HuJI that other jihadist organizations such as HuM, JeM and SSP/LJ came into being.
JI and JUI factions also have close interaction with TJ. Many of their activists have overlapping membership. TJ's annual congregations are regularly attended by these parties' leaders.
TJ's silence over consistence suicide attacks in Pakistan is another proof of its covert nature and never ever the TJ clerics and missionaries during the congregations condemned suicide attacks. TJ's apolitical nature is also a matter of great debate. It has always called itself an apolitical and missionary organization with a non-violent agenda. The policy changed during 2002 general elections when TJ announced its support for Muthaida Majlis-e-Amal, the alliance of Islamist parties. The Islamist alliance MMA managed to form provincial government in KPK province and implemented its Islamist agenda, resulting in resurgence of Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan and formation of loosely net Pakistani Taliban or the TTP.
TJ's involvement may not have been directly but its ideology must have provided an impetus for many of its members to join Islamist terrorist groups or act as lone wolves. Many cases of terrorism could be pointed out here, involving TJ, such as arrest of ‘American Taliban' John Walker Lindh, Jose Omer Padila, David Hook ‘the Australian Taliban', and Richard Reid ‘the Shoe Bomber'.
The suspicious nature of TJ's activities raises eyebrows. There are serious issues related to its discreet support for Islamist militant groups. It never condemns violent acts, its members found involved at occasions, backed Islamist parties alliance, and above all its ideology which is quite identical with global Islamist movements involved in violence. Tariq Pervez, former Director-General of National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) in Pakistan describes TJ as, "Tablighi Jamaat attracts youth and brings them into the mosque, but, then, cannot control them. In the mosque people associated with jihad and sectarian groups, and, in some cases, their networks are also present. Most vulnerable are the new entrants to the Tablighi fold."
-  Troy S Thomas, Stephen D Kiser, and William D Casebeer, Warlords Rising: Confronting Violent Non-State Actors, Lexington Books, 2005, p. 228.
-  The Great Rebellion, Sepoy Mutiny, and War of Independence are different names of one armed movement against British rule in India in 1857.
-  "Pilgrimage to Karbala: Sunni and Shia: The Worlds of Islam", PBS News, March 26, 2007, available at:
-  Sufi traditionalist Islam based upon Sufi Orders.
-  Jerome Taylor, "Why don't more Muslims speak out against the wanton destruction of Mecca's holy sites?", The Independent, October 28, 2012, available at:
-  Rasheed Ahmed Gangohi and Muhammad Qasim Nanotvi were founders of Deoband madressah in 1867. The madressah helped establish Wahabi-inspired Deobandi version of Islam in South Asia. The founders were earlier involved in 1867 war against the British.
-  Tahir Kamran, "Evolution and Impact of ‘Deobandi' Islam in the Punjab", Government-College University Lahore, p.4-5, available at: http://www.gcu.edu.pk/FullTextJour/Hist/V3N205/P28-50.pdf
-  Murad Ali Baig, "The virulent Wahabi virus", Hindustan Times, April 10, 2009, available at:
-  "Deoband Islam", Global Security, available at: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/intro/islam-deobandi.htm
-  Muhammad Amir Rana, "Tablighi Jamaat: Discourses and Challenges", Conflict and Peace Studies, April-June, 2009, Pakistan Institute of Peaces Studies, Islamabad, p. 2.
-  Nicholas Howenstein, "Islamist Networks: The Case of Tablighi Jamaat", United States Institute of Peace, October 2006, available at: http://www.usip.org/publications/islamist-networks-case-tablighi-jamaat
-  Fred Burton and Scott Stewart, "Tablighi Jamaat: An Indirect Line to Terrorism", Stratfor Global Intelligence, January 23, 2008, http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/tablighi_jamaat_indirect_line_terrorism, retrieved on 20/5/12.
-  Timothy R Furnish, "The Tabligh Challenge", The Journal of International Security Affairs, Fall/Winter 2010-No 19, available at: http://www.securityaffairs.org/issues/2010/19/furnish.php
-  Interviews with JI members and sympathizers in Karachi and Islamabad Pakistan.
-  Nicholas Howenstein, "Islamist Networks: The Case of Tableeghi Jamaat", United States Institute of Peace, http://www.usip.org/publications/islamist-networks-case-tablighi-jamaat, retrieved on 22/5/12.
-  Fred Burton and Scott Stewart, "Tablighi Jamaat: An Indirect Line to Terrorism", January 2008, Stratfor Global Intelligence, http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/tablighi_jamaat_indirect_line_terrorism, retrieved on 24/5/12.
-  Jane Perlez, "Pakistani Group, Suspected by West Jihadist Ties, Holds Conclave Despite Ban", The New York Times, November 19, 2007, available at:
-  Kathryn Haahr, "Spanish Police Arrest Jamaat al-Tabligh Members in Bomb Threat", Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 6, February 13, 2008, available at:
-  Susan Sach, "A Muslim Missionary Group Draws New Scrutiny in US", The New York Times, July 14, 2003, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/14/us/a-muslim-missionary-group-draws-new-scrutiny-in-us.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
-  William Langley, Roya Nikkhah, James Orr, David Bamber, and Massoud Ansari, "Army of Darkness", The Telegraph, August 20, 2006, available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1526793/Army-of-darkness.html
-  Op Cit, Howenstein.
-  Ibid, Burton and Stewart, p. 2.
-  According to Riaz ul Hassan, former PM Nawaz Sharif during his second tenure (1996-99) visited Tabligi congregation at Raiwand, Lahore and had requested Tablighi Jamaat's leader Omar Palanpuri to convince Sipah-e-Sahaba and its splinter group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) to end their violent anti-Shia terror campaign. The Tablighi leader replied, "there should always be a hot wire along with a cold one to light up the bulb', according to Hassan, the reply made PM speechless. For details see Raiz ul Hassan, "An insider's account", View Point Online, available at: http://www.viewpointonline.net/an-insiders-account.html
-  Mujahid Hussain, "Tabligh and Terrorism", View Point, Online Issue No 135, available at: http://www.viewpointonline.net/tabligh-and-terrorism.html
-  Khaled Ahmed, What did Husain Haqqani write?", The Express Tribune, June 2, 2012, available at: http://tribune.com.pk/story/387841/what-did-husain-haqqani-write/
-  Saba Imtiaz, "Tabligi cleric's political meetings raise eyebrows", The Express Tribune, August 22, 2011, available at: http://tribune.com.pk/story/236730/tablighi-clerics-political-meetings-raise-eyebrows/
-  Op Cit, Burton and Stewart.
-  For detail analysis see Shuja Nawaz, Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army and the Wars Within, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2008.
-  Alex Alexiev, "Tablighi Jamaat: Jihad's Stealthy Legions", The Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2005, pp.3-11
-  "Tablighee Jamaat announces support for MMA", Daily Jang October 12 2002, Karachi.
-  Muhammad Amir Rana, "Tablighi Jamaat: Discourse and Challenges", Conflict and Peace Studies, April-June 2009, Volume 2, Number 2, Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, p. 79.
-  Ibid, Rana, 79.