Islam on the Move: The Tablighi Jama'at in Southeast Asia (eBook)

FARISH A. NOOR (b. 1967 – ) is a political scientist and historian and is an Associate Professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Amsterdam University Press (First Published, 2012)
255 pages including Bibliography and Index

This eBook was republished courtesy of the OAPEN, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 3.0) license.


Islam on the Move: The Tablighi Jama’at in Southeast Asia set out to offer something more than simply an account of the arrival, spread, and development of the Tablighi Jama’at—arguably the biggest lay Muslim missionary movement in the world—in and across Southeast Asia. It seeks to examine the Tablighi Jama’at closely, and in the process of doing so raises a host of other questions that pertain to any study of Islam and Muslim society in general. The approach the author has taken is one that combines the study of the history of a religiously influenced mass movement with a more analytical and philosophical approach to fundamental questions of identity, subject-positioning, and representation.

For what the author seeks to do in this book is not merely to account for the Tablighi’s phenomenal success in the region but also to answer questions that are on the one hand far more basic and on the other hand more crucial to our understanding of normative Muslim religious praxis itself: what is the Tablighi Jama’at? How can we speak of there being such a thing as a Tablighi identity and subjectivity? How is the world of this Tablighi subject constructed and what are the ways and means through which such an identity can be perpetuated and reproduced over time and space? Such questions are, admittedly, more philosophical, but they are nonetheless crucial questions that need to be asked, for these are the questions that allow us to make knowledge-claims of a social phenomenon that should not be reduced to a handful of essentialist presuppositions or superficial generalizations.

Such an approach is also necessary as a result of the developments we have seen in the field of Islamic studies over the past decade, where rigor-ous interrogation of social-religious phenomena has at times been sacrificed for the sake of political expediency and the need to provide quick answers to a Muslim/Islamic question that has been reduced to the level of pathology. The framing of Islam and Muslims as a question that needs to be answered or solved is perhaps the root of the problem itself, for it could be argued that no serious study of any society, political party, mass movement, or belief system can be achieved successfully if it has been tainted by prejudice or anxiety.

The Tablighi Jama’at—perhaps because of its global outreach and visibility—has suffered from this. Some of the studies and reports on the subject, particularly by some sections of the media and the security community, have been guilty of exaggeration and hyperbole. Even worse—from an academic perspective—has been the tendency among some reporters and scholars to assume the presence of such a thing as a unified and homogenous Tablighi, held together by a closely-knit network of uniform subjectivities that see the world through a singular lens and are guided by a singular purpose. Nuance and variability have been lost in the process of this reductivist analysis, and we are all the poorer for it.

Having said that, one of the aims of Islam on the Move: The Tablighi Jama’at in Southeast Asia is to raise the question of what the Tablighi Jama’at is. But the framing of the question will be such as to preclude the possibility of easy or convenient answers, not least for the reason that the Tablighi Jama’at is a complex phenomenon that deserves a complex accounting of itself.

A Note on Proper Names and the Spelling Used in This Book

Brother Bismillah and My Introduction to the Tablighi Jama’at

I. At Home Across the Sea: The Arrival of the Tablighi Jama’at and Its Spread Across Southeast

A network among many: Locating the Tablighi Jama’at in an overcrowded Southeast Asia
Landfall and homecoming: The Tablighi arrive in Southeast Asia
Touchdown in Jakarta: The arrival and spread of the Tablighi Jama’at across Java
Go east, Tablighi: The Tablighi Jama’at’s expansion to Central Java, 1957-1970s
Go further east, Tablighi: The Tablighi Jama’at’s expansion to East Java, 1990 to the present
A home to call their own: The Markaz Besar of Temboro and the building of the Kampung Madinah
Today Java, tomorrow the archipelago: The Tablighi Jama’at spreads out
Kampung Madinah, again: The Tablighi’s centres in Jala and Sri Petaling
Unity in dispersion: The Tablighi Jama’at network at a glance
Movement and piety: The Tabligh’s aim of reconstituting the ideal Muslim society

II. Learning to Be: The Foundational Literature of the Tablighi Jama’at and Its Role in Defining the Movement

The discursive economy of the Tablighi Jama’at: The foundational texts of the Tablighi and the quest for Islamic authenticity
From text to discourse: The discursive construction of the Tablighi worldview with the Prophet and his companions as the model Muslim community
Approximated mimesis and the impossibility of perfect imitation
Drawing the discursive frontiers of the Tablighi Jama’at: What it is, and what it is not
Another discourse, another mindset? The foundational texts of the Tablighi Jama’at as a window to the Tablighi worldview

III. Learning on the March: The Portable, Reader-friendly Literature of the Tablighi Jama’at and Its Role in the Self-identification and Reproduction of the Movement

It’s great to be poor: Ustaz Abdurrahman As-Sirbuny’s Untung Jadi Miskin
A necessary (though fictitious) evil: Ustaz al-Bama’s cautious use of fiction for the higher good
Joy in work: Ustaz al-Enjoy’s report card on the Tablighi Jama’at
The commandos of God: Ustaz Fahim’s strategy to defeat the Komando Iblis
Onward to India: Ustaz al-Hidayah and the centrality of India
The power of the vernacular: Assessing the merits of the Tablighi Jama’at’s portable literature
Uniformity of form and mode of production
Regularity in presentation and content
Oppositional dialectics and the avoidance of direct confrontation
A different discourse, a different form of life?

IV. The Stories We Tell: The Conversion Narratives of the Tablighi Jama’at and the Internalisation of Tablighi Identity

‘Then I prayed, “Oh God, please make me happy like them”’: The conversion narrative of Ustaz Talib Zulham
‘Oh how the girls were screaming for me!’: The conversion narrative of Ustaz Haji Ataullah Muhammad Ramzan
‘I realized I was Indian as well’: The conversion narrative of Ustaz Dr. Murshid Ali Khan
‘No, the Tablighi never forgets us’: The conversion narrative of Ustaz Imam Abdullah Suparsono
‘All that we do, we do for Allah, with the Prophet as our model’: The conversion narrative of Cikgu Sidek Saniff, former cabinet minister of Singapore
Speaking (and reading, writing and reproducing) a common language-game: The discourse of the Tablighi Jama’at as a form of life
Valuing the (Tablighi) present and devaluing the (non-Tablighi) past
Sacrifice and the Spartan spirit: A return to authenticity the hard way
Proximity to God and salvation: The personal piety of the Tablighis

V. Learning to Be Tablighi: The Rule-governed World of the Tablighi and the Disciplining of the

The normative world of the Tablighi Jama’at: Stage-setting, and the rites and rituals of mutuality and association
Dress matters: What you wear is what you are in the world of the Tablighi
Body matters: The disciplining of the body as part of the cultivation of the self among the Tablighi
Contempt for the body: Beyond the body and into the self of the Tablighis
Why hasn’t the Tablighi Jama’at fragmented?
What do change and conversion mean for the Tablighis?

VI. How We Look and What We Are: The Tablighi Jama’at Framed in the Eyes of Others

The view from the outside: How the Tablighi Jama’at figures in the perspective of political Islamists
Enemy at the gates: The construction of the Tablighi Jama’at as a security threat in the discourse of anti-terrorism
Worlds within worlds: The Tablighi Jama’at in the age of the war on terror

VII. Finally, a Summing Up: The Tablighi Jama’at as the Complex Thing That It Is






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