Saudi Ban On Tabligh Shows That 'Apolitical' Fundamentalism Is Still Fundamentalism

R Jagannathan

Dec 13, 2021, 12:23 PM | Updated 12:19 PM IST

Participants at a Tablighi Jammat event.
Participants at a Tablighi Jammat event.
  • The Saudi ban on the Tabligh is hypocritical for it is not very different from the Wahhabism it has been financing over the last half-century, but it does highlight the problems we face with religious fundamentalism.
  • There is no such thing as peaceful fundamentalism.
  • The Saudi ban on the Tablighi Jamaat, on the ground that it misguides Muslims and opens “the gates of terrorism, even if they claim otherwise”, is interesting. It is like the pot calling the kettle black. Saudi Arabia is the home of Wahhabi/Salafist Islam, the strictest and most fundamentalist form of Islam, while the Tabligh is a movement to tell Muslims to stick to the purity of their faith, including its five fundamental pillarsshahada, declaration of faith, salah (prayer), zakat (charity), sawm (fasting during Ramzan), and Haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca).

    While the Tabligh claims to be apolitical, the fact is Islam is more political than most other religions. The Prophet certainly did not make any effort to separate his religious identity as founder of the faith from his political and military stewardship of the new community. The Prophet was largely unsuccessful as a preacher in Mecca, but this changed once he packed his preaching with political and military underpinnings in Medina. So, any organisation that claims that is apolitical cannot escape the reality that those who follow the fundamentals, and especially accept the Prophet’s life and actions as guiding principles, may not ultimately remain apolitical.

    The Deoband seminary and the Tablighi Jamaat in India have hotly denied the Saudi linkage of the Tabligh with terrorism, but the point is fundamentalisms of any kind, even the peaceful variety, cannot ultimately lead to peace.

    Let’s start with the five pillars of Islam which the Tabligh emphasises. The first pillar, the shahada, is simple and straightforward. It says that “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” This statement is absolutist, and not just about those who believe in Islam. It implies that those who disbelieve, or believe only partly, cannot be Muslim. This was the problem the pre-Islam tribal religions of Mecca had with the Prophet’s version of the new faith. Allah existed before the Prophet, but once the Prophet came into the picture, all the previous faiths had to go. When the Prophet came back in triumph from Medina to Mecca, he had all the previous idols and faith forms destroyed. The shahada (belief on specific god) is not problematic when it is an individual who believes this; it becomes problematic when it becomes a group belief and no deviation is possible. It ultimately pits one community against the other, the momin (true believer) against the kafir. And in the Quran, the kafir is not just a non-believer (in the way we have astiks and nastiks in dharmic systems), but someone whose destruction Allah himself will seek.

    The second pillar, prayer, is unobjectionable as long as it is about the individual in private spaces. But the requirement for prayer sometimes becomes an imposition on others in mixed societies, when calls to prayer (azaan) are blared over loud-speakers and the Friday requirement of congregational worship involves taking over public spaces for one community’s religious requirements. Nobody would have any problem with the second pillar if it was practised in private spaces (homes, mosques, etc), but this pillar is erected right in the middle of a public space. Even airports now seek to create places for namaz.

    Similarly, the third pillar — charity — is a laudable objective, but only if it is about helping the poor. Once zakat is used to preach and proselytise, it is no longer about practising one’s faith. It is about predatory designs on other people’s faiths.

    The two pillars over which no one can have any problem is fasting and the Haj. These pillars do not impact anyone outside the world of the true Muslim, and hence are of no concern in a multi-religious society. It is the first three pillars, where faith intersects with public life, that are problematic.

    However, the Tabligh is about more than just educating Muslims about the five pillars. It is also a missionary movement, which may include conversions. It believes in removing syncretic practices among Muslims practising their faith in mixed societies. The effort to remove “shirk” and “kufr” involves making the faith a puritanical one, which ultimately leads to extremism and separation from the larger society in which the faith operates.

    The simple truth is there is no such thing called a pure faith (or race or ethnicity, for that matter). All ideas and peoples have mingled and borrowed and lent their practices to one another. Trying to remove syncretic practices is thus an extreme form of exclusivity that can ultimately only lead to social strife. For it converts a simple difference between two communities into an unbridgeable moat that effectively others the rest. Terrorism is one possible outcome of de-sycretisation and exclusivity.

    The Saudi ban on the Tabligh is hypocritical for it is not very different from the Wahhabism it has been financing over the last half-century, but it does highlight the problems we face with religious fundamentalism. There is no such thing as peaceful fundamentalism.

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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