By Ameer Ali –
The Wahhabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recently proscribed TJ and rationalized its action by branding TJ as a gateway to Muslim terrorism. One wonders whether this is another instance of pot calling kettle black and whether the kettle is as black as the pot. The origins and history of Wahhabism in the Arabian Peninsula is replete with episodes of violence and extremist teachings. This eponymous 18th century ideology rooted in the literalist monotheism associated with (a) 7th century Kharijism, “the stem of Islamic fundamentalism” (b) the rigidly orthodox Hanbali school of jurisprudence, and (c) teachings of the 13th century obstreperous Damascene scholar and intellectual, Ibn Taymiyyah, ended up as a state ideology because of a political pact in 1744 between the patriarch of the Saudi dynasty Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud and the religious preacher Abd Al-Wahhab.
As the French professor of comparative literature and writer Abdelawahab Meddeb opines, Wahhabism is “probably the most impoverished interpretation known in the theological and doctrinal history of Islam”. It arose as an uncompromising and militant religious response to the destabilizing effects of modernity experienced in many parts of the Muslim world including the then declining Ottoman Empire. As the liberal reformist scholar Khalid El-Fadl points out, it “exhibits an extreme form of distrust of all forms of social theory and considers intellectualism a form of devilish sophistry”. Wahhabism’s language, according to a Saudi born woman American professor Madawi Al-Rasheed, “was that of purging, purifying, obliterating, and eradicating difference, especially that emanating from faith, tribalism, regionalism and cultural practices”. Extremism is in the very womb of Wahhabism and there is no need for injections from other sources like TJ to make it strong.
Over the last few decades Wahhabism has become the surrogate mother of several Islamist movements, including Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, Jabhat an-Nusra, Jama’a Islamiyya, ISIS and so on. One should not also forget the fact that the gang of extremists led by the Bedouin preacher and former Saudi National Guard corporal Juhayman Al-Utaybi, who laid siege to the Holy Mosque in Mecca in November 1979 and occupied it for fifteen days demanding Saudi rulers to quit, until the occupiers and hundreds of other innocents were killed by French mercenaries, were not the products of TJ but Wahhabism. Similarly, of the nineteen men who highjacked two jet airplanes and crashed them on the World Trade Centre in New York, killing almost 3000 innocent men and women in the S11 terror act, fifteen were from the Wahhabi Kingdom. They were all Wahhabi inspired and not TJ schooled terrorists. Also, the Taliban that rules Afghanistan for the second time today is the product of Wahhabi dollars and US weapons that entered thousands of Pakistani and Afghani madrasas in the 1970s and 1980s. It is therefore makes no sense to accept the Saudi rationale of extremism as reason for proscribing TJ. After all, Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) the Wahhabi Crown Prince who authored this ban was also the man who masterminded the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Extremism is in the blood of Wahhabi ideology. Does this mean that TJ has no case to answer?
Unlike Wahhabism, TJ was founded in British India by Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalwi who was influenced by the conservative Darul Uloom Deobandi movement. Ilyas never preached violence and neither he inspired violence among his followers. TJ’s philosophy could be captured in that slogan, “O Muslims! Become (true) Muslims”. TJ’s primary concern was not to convert non-Muslims to Islam, but to transform nominal Muslims into devout Muslims. The movement’s simplicity and peaceful nature have allowed it to grow into a worldwide movement with millions of Muslims adhering to its preaching and philosophy.
It is a very conservative movement, but the problem with TJ is its overarching obsession with life in the Hereafter at the expense of life in the here and now. Because of the transient nature of earthly life and a belief in the certainty and permanency and excellence of life in the Hereafter, otherworldliness grips the thinking and attitude of Tablighi followers. To a TJ follower, time spent in prayer and meditation inside a mosque for example, is more meritorious than time spent inside a library or laboratory.
This type of preaching and practicing of a mainly ritualistic Islam has become a problem to governments in Muslim majority countries. This was why when Pakistan was created, its architect Jinnah and its spiritual father Iqbal were critical of the mullahs there who were shepherding their flocks into the mosques and around mausoleums while the nation remained starved of educated and skilled citizens to administer and develop the new country. Similarly, in countries like Saudi Arabia, which are blessed with petroleum resources and plenty of capital there is a dearth of highly skilled and talented cadre of local personnel. On top of this scientific and intellectual poverty if citizens were to become otherworldly and lose interest in hard work and creative engagement, economic development would become a problem once oil runs out foreign talent dries out. This is where TJ’s philosophy of detachment with affairs of this world becomes a problem. TJ’s “true Muslim” is not the Muslim who could fit into the competing claims of a modern complex society.
MBS is also initiate a series of modernizing reforms in Saudi Arabia especially on the cultural side. Under his cultural modernization program women are allowed to drive and go shopping without male chaperon, female singers are given public arena to perform, and cinemas and entertainment venues are being opened. All this no doubt has enraged the theological hierarchy of Wahhabism. Like Wahhabism, TJ also has no interest at all in the aesthetic side of human life. It is this commonality between the two that must have worried MBS. While keeping the local resisters under control MBS could not afford to allow TJ to preach their anti-aesthetic philosophy. Therefore, the ban on TJ should be viewed as part of MSB’s cultural modernization reforms rather than to close the gateway to extremism.
It appears that the Saudi ban has provoked Islamophobes in Sri Lanka to agitate for similar ban against TJ. If these demagogues really understood TJ’s mission and philosophy, they would urge the government to encourage that movement rather than proscribing it and allow TJ to do what it does best to keep Muslims detached from mundane matters and remain hallucinated with doses of heavenly concoctions. After more than seventy years of TJ indoctrination Muslim community needs a radical overhaul of its understanding of Islam. Therefore, it is from within the Muslim community and from its post-Badi generation of intelligentsia that agitation against TJ indoctrination should emanate and not from Islamophobes.
However, one obvious reason for the Islamophobic attack on TJ is the fear of another Zahran. Had Zahran been a sincere student of TJ he would never have done what he did, but he became a Wahhabi adherent and fell into its literalist monotheism. Sri Lanka to him and his followers became the land of infidels and deserved purification. Multiculturalism is anathema to Wahhabism. Fortunately for Zahran and his gang of murderers there were other vested interests in the local politics of the time requiring their services. It was that combination of ideology and politics that led to the Easter Sunday massacre, which of course is another saga yet to be fully explored.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia