The organisation behind plans to build a giant mosque in Newham is one of the lesser known and most misunderstood Muslim revivalist movements that came out of north India at the turn of the last century. Tablighi Jamaat began as an offshoot of Deobandism, the deeply socially conservative school of Islam which movements like the Taliban also trace a theological lineage to. But they espouse none of the violent militancy of their ideological cousins who continue to blight Afghanistan and much of tribal Pakistan.
Founded in the 1920s by Maulana Muhammad Ilyas in India’s Mewat province, the organisation places enormous emphasis on returning Muslims to what they believe is the correct interpretation of Islam. They promote grassroots preaching and are avowedly apolitical, something which enabled them to flourish across much of the Muslim world throughout the mid-twentieth century precisely because they weren’t seen as a threat to the ruling classes.
Much like Jehovahs Witnesses and Mormons, Tablighi volunteers spend their time going door to door spreading dawah (preaching Islam). They usually try to emulate the Prophet Muhammad, dressing in white robes and growing long beards. Some followers take emulation so seriously they reject beds and replace their toothbrushes with twigs.
But while they are a deeply proselytising organisation, Tablighi Jamaat concentrates almost exclusively on netting new Muslim followers and rarely preach to non-believers. In predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods they are regular door knockers but outside of those areas it would be rare to come across them.
Some law enforcement officials, particularly in the States and France, have accused Tablighi of being a “gateway” organisation to more militant or violent groups. Some of the July 7 attackers and failed shoe bomber Richard Reid frequented Tablighi mosques though there is no suggestion they were radicalised there.
Tablighi have long argued that this accusation is unfair given their view that earthly politics should be avoided and that they have been routinely criticised by more militant Islamist groups for not being political enough. They have millions of followers around the world and, they say, cannot be held responsible for the actions of every one.
Where Tablighi can be more fairly criticised is their often isolationist views which might not raise too many eyebrows in places like India and Pakistan but cause difficulties in western societies where immigrant communities need to integrate.
There is little doubt that Tablighi Jamaat is at the socially conservative end of the Islamic spectrum. Women are generally confined to traditional domestic roles, usually adopt extensive hijab and are not found in senior leadership roles. The organisation does not have a very good track record at encouraging followers to integrate with the non-Muslim community. Towns like Dewsbury, where Tablighi have a significant presence and their European headquarters, are often held up by critics as examples of where communities remain acutely divided.
Whatever decision Newham makes on the mosque, Tablighi and the controversies surrounding them are here to stay.