1885 Mawlana Muhammad Ilyas was born Aktar Ilyas in his maternal grandmothers house in a small town of Kandhla in Utar Pradesh, India.

1896 Ilyas, at the age of 10 years, moved to Gangoh where his elder brother, Mohammad Yahya, lived and began receiving teaching lessons on Islam from him.

1908 Ilyas enrolled in Darul Uloom Deoband to study the Qur’an, Hadith, and Islamic Jurisprudence.

1918 After the death of his elder brother Muhmmad Yahya, Ilyas was made the imam at the Nizam u’d-din mosque.

1926 The Tabligh Jama‘at movement was formed.

1941 (November) The first Tablighi conference was held in Basti Nizam u’d-din and was attended by 25,000 people.

1944 (July 13) Mawlana Muaammad Ilyas died.

1944 The leadership of the Tabligh Jama‘at passed on to Muhammad Yusuf, the son of Ilyas, after Ilyas’s death in 1944.

1926-2012 Tabligh Jama‘at grew to become the world’s largest transnational Islamic revivalist movement, with a membership of eighty million people present in more than 200 countries covering all five continents.


The founder of the Tabligh Jama‘at (Convey [Message of Islam] Group), Mawlana Muhmmad Ilyas, was born Aktar Ilyas in 1885 and was the youngest of three sons. His father was Mawlana Muhammad Ismaill, a learned and pious man who was an esteemed religious teacher. He taught the Qur’an to the children of Mirza Ilahi Bakhsh, who was related by marriage to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal ruler of Delhi. His home was a small building over the red gate near the tomb of Hazrat Nizam u’d-din Awliya in the south of Delhi. Ismail was also the imam (leader) of the Banglawali Masjid (which stood in the Nizam u’d-din complex) and practised Sufism (Islamic mysticism).

Ilyas grew up in Kandhela where his mother was born. However, he also spent some portion of his childhood in Nizam u’d-din. His mother, Bi Safiya, was a pious women with a remarkable memory who was renowned for reciting, with great ease, the entire Qur’an several times over during Ramadan (Muslim month of fasting). Like his two elder brothers, Ilyas got his education from the maktab (grade school), and his schooling entailed Qur’anic studies and religious instruction. He committed the entire Qur’an to his memory at a very young age and was very particular in offering his five daily salats (ritual prayers). His family surroundings were not only friendly, but charged with spirituality and godliness. His pious mother and grandmother often narrated stories of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions to him and “the atmosphere of piety in which he lived illuminated by the events and incidents in the lives of remarkable men and women he had known or heard about fanned this spark” (Haq 1972:82).

Ilyas’s first real Islamic education began during his ten developmental years under Mawlana Rashid Ahmad Gungohi. Because of serious illness, however, Ilyas had to suspend his studies (Hasni n.d.), but he resumed them after recovering and when Gungohi passed away, Ilyas found a new teacher in Mawlana Khalil Ahmad, under whose guidance he completed the levels of su‘luk ( Sufi mystic journey to God) (Azzam 1964) and became a follower of the Nakshbandiyya Sufi order. Subsequently, he went to Deoband (north of Delhi, now in the Saharanpur district, Utthar Pradesh) where he studied Tirmidhi and Sah ih al-Bukhari (books of hadiths) under Mawlanas Mahmud-u’l-Hasan Deobandi, Ashraf Ali Thanawi and Shah Abdur-Rahim Raipuri, who were Gungohi’s successors. Ilyas received the bay’at (oath of allegiance) from Mawlana Mahmud-u’l-Hasan Deobandi.

The Deoband madrasa played a significant role in shaping Ilyas’s intellect, particularly in Islamic theology. The Deoband madrasa was founded in 1867 as a reformist Islamic institute at a time when the British were at the zenith of their rule in India. The Deoband madrasa was a direct Islamic response to the approach taken by the British government in employing Christian missionary books which instructed students in the principles of Christianity. Deoband madrasa as a reformist Islamic institute had its grounding in Sunni Islam with a Hanafi jurisprudential approach and gradually became a prominent reformist movement representing a “purified” Islam in South Asia (Metcalf 2005).

Many of the ‘alims (Islamic scholars) at Deoband adopted a simple ascetic lifestyle that attracted many students who sought initiation into losing themselves to the Divine Love. However, as reformists, the Deobandis (Muslims who follow the methodology of the Deoband Islamic movement founded in Deoband itself in 1866), understood the mundane problems well and thus embarked on the path to imitate the practice of the earlier period of Islam of instructing Muslims in their mission of transmitting Allah’s word to both the impious and the ignorant. They were well-versed in the Qur’anic scripture and used their power of knowledge to denounce syncretic customary practices. These included celebrations and life-cycle rituals, saint worship and traditions of the Shi‘ah (the Islamic religio-political grouping whose adherents believe that ‘Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was Muhammad’s successor), such as the taziyah (a Shi’ah re-enactment of the passion and death of Hussein – Prophet Muhammad’s grandson), as inauthentic Islamic practices. Ilyas was an integral part of this intellectual phenomenon and later in his life annexed knowledge with practice to launch what became the Tabligh Jama‘at of spiritual renewal.

It was in 1918, after the death of his eldest brother Muhammad, that Ilyas was made the imam at the Nizam u’d-din mosque and started teaching at the madrasa (Haq 1972). Although he had held teaching positions in the past, such as at Mazahirul Ulum seminary in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, this appointment at Nizam u’d-din mosque took him to new heights in his career. The madrasa was physically and financially in very poor shape and there were only a few poor Meo and non-Meo students enrolled (Haq 1972). The task of running the madrasa with limited resources was difficult, and Ilyas on many occasions used his own money to facilitate the continuous running of the madrasa while remaining optimistic (Haq 1972). He continued his efforts in Islamic teaching and preaching and established a number of small scale madrasas (Marwah 1979).

“ However, he soon became disillusioned with the madrasa approach to Islamisation” (Ahmad 1991:512) and being aware of the slow spread of the fundamental principles of Islam in Mewat and the presence of syncretic elements in Meo living, Ilyas embarked on the quest for a better way of reforming the Meos who had abandoned basic Islamic principles. In 1926, during his second h ajj (pilgrimage to Makkah, which all Muslims are obliged to make once in their life time, if they are able), Ilyas’s intuition was directing him to a greater divine course, and upon returning to India this manifested in the form of the Tabligh Jama‘at .

The Tabligh Jama‘at emerged in Mewat in a direct response to the rise of Hindu ‘ Arya Samaj sect. From this sect emerged two proselytising movements of Shuddhi (Purification) and Sangathan (Consolidation). They were engaged in large-scale efforts to “win” back Hindus who had accepted Islam during Muslim political hegemony in India. The ‘ Arya Samajis who claimed to be the new defenders of Hinduism, which they alleged had become a forgotten faith and slipped into decadence in the hands of the Brahmans, concentrated primarily on “winning back” marginal Muslims. The marginal Muslims were those who, even though they had accepted Islam previously and adopted many Islamic rituals and practices, never completely gave up the quintessential practices of Hinduism and were therefore seen as Muslims in name only.

In order to counter the ‘ Arya Samaj’s proselytising amongst the Meos, the Tabligh Jama‘at embarked on a mission of Islamic faith renewal and awakening among the Meos of Mewat and the broader Muslim population of India. The Tabligh Jama‘at realised that the true teachings of Islam had been grossly neglected by Muslims, particularly those living in India. It felt that the Muslim bourgeoisie was too comfortable in the lap of luxurious living and had generally given up their obligation to Allah in totality. Also, it claimed that the ‘ulama (Islamic scholars) had focused excessively on knowledge construction within the confines of educational institutions and mosques and had neglected preaching to the majority lay Muslims. The ‘ulama’s neglect created a gap between learned and lay Muslims, which led to many Muslims “questioning the validity of Quranic injunctions” (Marwah 1979:88). This trend threatened a further decline of Islam in India.

To counter this division between learned and lay Muslims, Ilyas invoked the fundamental principles of Islam in these communities. He argued that the responsibility of spreading Islam was not confined to the ‘ulama but was incumbent on every Muslim. He reiterated what numerous other ‘alims had asserted that, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, who was the last in the chain of prophets, no other prophet would descend on earth to spread the word of Allah. Therefore, the discharging of the ‘prophetic responsibilities’ was the obligation of every Muslim; each should encourage the praising of Allah and invite Muslims to do good and refrain from doing bad. In this sense, the aim of the Tabligh Jama‘at centred on purifying the Muslims from religious syncretism and not on converting non-Muslims. Nonetheless, conversion occurred incidentally, not programmatically, and continues to occur from time-to-time in different contexts.


The Tablighi ideology centers on the relationship between the faithful and Allah (God). Its central claim is that nothing is as important and worthwhile as establishing, and then cherishing, this relationship. According to the Tablighi ideology, Islam consists firstly of certain beliefs, such as believing in one unique God, the existence of angels, believing in God’s revelations and in prophets, the Last Day and the next life. Equally important is the manifestation of these beliefs in the form of worship such as salat (prayer), charity and fasting, all of which relate to the faithful’s relationship with Allah. Second, Islam consists of a framework of morality that relates to human beings’ relationships with each other and that manifests in particular institutions and laws, such as family, marriage and social and criminal laws. However, the basis of this faith, the spirit that gives it meaning and life, is the faithful’s relationship with Allah. Worship, outwardly expressed in terms of rituals and practices is the physical medium of this relationship. This relationship is responsible for the source, the importance and the final approval of the values of morality and their incorporation into a distinct socio-cultural and legal structure. If the inside is in direct communication with Allah and draws guidance and inspiration from Him, then this compares to the spirit within the essence of the outer religion. However, if this diminishes, becomes weak, or disappears totally, the outer appearance or the outer essence of the faith becomes meaningless and the relationship between the faithful and Allah remains merely in name. In other words, it is the faithful’s inner relationship with Allah which gives meaning and value to his or her outward expression of belief and the performance of his or her religious obligations. All of life, according to the Tablighi ideology, rests on this relationship. For this reason, the faithful tenaciously embrace the notion that an “Allah–friendly” attitude can be evoked and life can be oriented towards Allah’s commands. The attitude of the faithful towards Allah should be inspired by love, gratitude, patience, self-sacrifice and complete devotion. The faithful should feel the constant nearness of Allah. This is the inwardness of belief. The relationship with Allah makes the faithful’s daily experience full of joy. The faithful then seek Allah’s “grace” through fulfillment of a variety of obligatory routines and rituals. In the context of the Tablagh Jama‘at, in “the relation between a tablighi and Allah, an alter and an ego are interlocked as in any social relationship in the secular world” (Talib 1998:312).

The relation between the Tablighi and Allah is embedded in a certain common socio-physiological basis, which in itself is social. A Tablighi achieves this through his initiation into the movement and subsequently into the tabligh routines and rituals through which he learns about Allah, gets to know about His omniscience and omnipotence, and ultimately through pure spiritual devotion feels a constant nearness of Allah. The command for tabligh (convey) can be understood as an invitation to join the Tabligh Jama‘at and participate in its routines and rituals to practice the faith in the omnipresence of Allah, who is always with the faithful. The faithful are ordered to comply with the commands of Allah in practice so that they can get a real sense of Allah’s ontology and truly appreciate Him.


The Tabligh Jama‘at is established on six principles of which the first two are part of the five pillars of Islam. They are: shahadah; salat; ‘ilm and dhikr; ikram i-Muslim; ikhlas i-niyat; and tafriq i-waqt.

First is the shahadah, or the Article of Faith, which is an assertion that there is no deity but Allah and that the Prophet Muhammad is His messenger. The Article of Faith has two aspects: one is the acceptance of the existence of Allah and His greatness and oneness, and the other is to testify to the Prophethood of Muhammad and obedience to Him.

The second is the five ritual salats (prayers). These are most crucial to a practical life and they are seen to open the door to spiritual elevation and piety in actions.

The third principle is ‘ilm and dhikr (knowledge and remembrance of God). A short time in the morning after the ritual salat and a little time in the evening after the salat are to be spent for these purposes. In these sessions held at a mosque, apart from listening to the preaching by the ‘amir (leader), the congregation performs nafl (supererogatory) prayers, recite the Qur’an and read hadiths. They also have their breakfast and dinner together, and throughout this session one can easily see a sense of Islamic brotherhood, solidarity and humility expressed openly among the congregation. All of this encourages most regular attendees to remain in the movement (Sikand 2002).

The fourth principle is ikram i-Muslim (respect every Muslim). Honor and deference need to be demonstrated toward fellow Muslims. In the case of young Muslims they should be treated with kindness and affection by the elder Muslims, and in respect to elder Muslims, they should be shown reverence and deference by young Muslims.

The fifth principle is ikhlas i-niyat (emendation of intention and sincerity). A Muslim must perform every single human action for the sake of Allah. This is linked with the purpose of life as being a permanent servitude to Allah.

The sixth is tafriq i-waqt (to spare time). The sparing of time is connected with the notion of khuruj (preaching tour). Participating in khuruj is central to the tabligh or da‘wah (preaching) efforts where jama‘ats (groups) of ten men (sometimes more or less depending on the size of the original jama‘at) journey from house-to-house and place-to-place preaching and inviting Muslims towards righteousness and Islamic practices. The Tabligh Jama‘at ideology advocates that a new member should initially spare time for three chillahs (40 days make one chillah) to learn about Islam, for the tabligh work, and to reform oneself for personal as well as for collective benefit. Once one has accomplished this, then one should at least spare time for a chillah every year and go out on a three-day khuruj each month in order to sustain the knowledge and practice thus acquired. The normal practice of the Tablighis, however, exceed these times and many spend prolonged periods, while others devote their entire life to tabligh work.


Approximately twenty minutes drive from New Delhi lies the suburb of Nizam u’d-din, where the headquarters of the Tabligh Jama‘at is situated. The headquarters was once a small mosque known as the Bangalawali Masjid, but today, after structural renovation and extension, it has become a large seven-story building that can house approximately ten thousand Tablighis at a time. Several structural changes have taken place around and on the top of the old Bangalawali Masjid, leaving most of the old structure intact.

Within this large seven-story building lie the movement’s Madrasa Kashf-ul ‘Ulum, a number of rooms for important guests and visitors, a few conference rooms and small rooms for resident scholars and senior preachers. Also located in the building on the ground level next to the old Bangalawali Masjid are two fenced graves belonging to Mawlana Ilyas and Mawlana Zakariya.

The headquarters was always administered by a single ‘ amir, although since 1995 it has been headed by two ‘amirs, Mawlanas Sad and Zubair. At one stage the ‘a mir received the assistance of twenty senior Tablighis and fifty volunteers, each with different responsibilities (Durrany 1993:24). At the present, however, available information suggests figures as high as a couple of hundred workers. The Nizam u’d-din headquarters is an all-year round center of activity with jama‘ats coming and going all the time. They come to learn the tabligh work from senior Tablighis and scholars, discuss with officials the Tablighi activities in their own areas or countries and receive directives from the leaders.

Apart from worship, such as ritual prayers, supererogatory prayers, recitation of the Qur’an, remembrance of Allah and reading the h adiths, Nizam u’d-din headquarters provides accommodation to at least two thousand Tablighis at any given time, as well as three daily meals. It also organizes visa requirements for both local and foreign Tablighis and organizes transportation requirements, particularly for its foreign members.

At the headquarters, all decisions are made by the shura (consultative committee) during the mushawara (discussion or consultation) which takes place daily. For instance, a small matter such as a Tablighi member wanting to break his khuruj for half a day to attend to a personal matter requires the approval of the shura. The mushawara is held daily as many different issues arise that require resolution because of the large number of members present. Ordinarily, the mushawara is convened by any shura member, unless an ‘amir is present to assume the role. Shura members are still required to do tours and for this reason, the daily mushawara is not always graced by the presence of all the members.

Within India, the Tabligh Jama‘at has regional headquarters in the capital cities of almost all states. Unlike the elaborate Nizam u’d-din headquarters, these are simple arrangements usually in the small back rooms of those mosques whose members have cordial relationship with the Tablighis or are tolerant of tabligh work. Each Indian state has its own ‘amir who operates under direct instructions from Nizam u’d-din headquarters. At district, suburb and town levels the same organizational structure exists. This model is reproduced in countries where the Tabligh Jama‘at is an established organization. For example, in Australia, the Tablighi organizational structure resembles the Nizam u’d-din headquarters at state and territory levels, at regional levels and at small city levels.

The Tabligh Jama‘at has always focused on the expansion of its organisational network rather than on consolidation. In order to maintain its expansionary pursuits, the movement for over 80 years has not diverted from its original recruitment strategy of Tablighi workers who go out on khuruj. The fluidity of the leadership, grounded in the notion of shura and localism, has helped the Tabligh Jama‘at continue its activities without any association with political or social institutions.

Although the Tabligh Jama‘at is a very large organization, it does not have paid staff or a structured and well-defined bureaucratic hierarchy. The administrative or organizing work is essentially performed by Tablighi helpers, some of whom offer their service free on a full-time basis.

With the trans-nationalization of the movement, the need for a coordinated organizational approach is fast growing. Therefore, an international directory is now available containing details and addresses of Tabligh Jama‘at centers in the world. At the local level within individual countries, the need for further planning and a more structured organizational approach has been emerging and centers are now keeping journal entries of the tabligh work in general, and khuruj activities more specifically. This not only facilitates a coordinated coverage of the targeted local Muslims for recruitment and preaching, but also helps in the organization of the tabligh work with effectiveness and efficiency.


The Tabligh Jama‘at, with its focus on Islamic revivalism is concerned with the negotiation and reconstruction of a separate Muslim identity in the broader structure of the society (Ali 2012). In this era of post-modernity, identities that provide individuals with a sense of who they are have become fluid and porous. Identity firmly located in a social milieu is a moveable feast that is formed and is always transformed in relation to the ways we are represented or addressed in the cultural systems. So, for the Tabligh Jama‘at, a new collective identity is an important issue. To achieve a new col­lective identity, the Tablighis adopt a strategy of uniting Muslims in society through the reconstruction of “boundaries.” Old boundaries based on sects, schools of thought, language, ethnicity, social class, and socio-economic status are reduced, in favor of new fixed social boundaries relating to every aspect of everyday life. The new boundaries are based on pris­tine Islamic tradition or on the Qur’an and hadiths. The common Muslim focus, according to Tablighis is on the present world, the Here, and not the next world in the Hereafter. For many Tablighis then, moving away from existing associations and routines of mundane life to spiritual activities, or the quest for Allah, is participating in the process of forming a new identity.

The transformation brought about by the Tabligh Jama‘at in the lives of Muslims is actually a transformation of identity. ‘This transformation seeks to then nullify the dominant modes of material existence and modern practices that stand in the way of piety, spiritual elevation, and the creation of a Muslim ummah’ (Ali 2003:179). The world in which life is pursued becomes a constantly changing signi­fier of identity. “The tablighi identity while grounded itself in commands of Allah and the recognition of akhirat as the beginning of an eternal life, transform the identities forged for and through this world” (Talib 1998:339).

In regards to negotiating and reconstructing Muslim identity, Tablighis withdraw their focus from the social values and cultural traditions of the mainstream Muslim community and even the larger society. For the Tablighis attention is fixed on the “self’ as the center of the world, as the epicenter for producing meanings; and the individual is responsible for his or her own salvation. Thus, the ritual prayers, wearing traditional Islamic attire, men sporting beards, increased vigilance in distinguishing halal (permissible practice under Islamic law) from haram (forbidden activity or object), to mention but a few, are important aspects of the Tablighi image or identity.

It is for this reason that they adopt an “exclusionary” but not a malicious attitude towards non-Muslims, while at the same time cautiously mingling with what they perceive to be “nominal” Muslims in order to over­come the barriers of real or perceived exclusion that exists. The adoption of an exclusionary orientation, of course, draws opposition and attracts criticism against the Tabligh Jama‘at. The most vehement opponents of the Tabligh Jama‘at are the Barelwis who are the followers of Indian born Ahmad Raza Khan Barelwi (1856-1921). Ahmad Raza Khan Barelwi established the Barelwi tradition or counter-reformist movement in the North Indian city of Bareilly during the 1880s. Contrary to the Tablighi teachings, Barelwi tradition places specific emphasis on shrine visitation, rituals of saint worshipping, and stresses the veneration of Prophet Muhammad through the celebration of his birthday and performing milad or mawlid ( singing praises to Prophet Muhammad in a gathering in an attempt to invoke his soul to visit them) (Sanyal 2005).


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Ali, Jan. 2003. “Islamic Revivalism: The Case of the Tablighi Jama’at.” Journal of Muslim minority affairs 23:173–81.

Ahmad, Mumtaz. 1991. “Islamic Fundamentalism in South Asia: The Jamaat-i Islami and the Tablighi Jamaat of South Asia.” Pp. 457-530 in Fundamentalisms Observed: The FundamentalismProject, edited by Martin Marty and Richard Appleby. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Haq, Muhammad. 1972. The Faith Movement of Mawlana Muhammad Ilyas. London: George Allen and Unwin.

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Metcalf, Barbara. 2005. Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Sanyal, Usha. 2005. Ahmad Riza Khan Barelwi: In the Path of the Prophet. Oxford: Oneworld.

Sikand, Yoginder. 2002. The Origins and Development of the Tablighi Jamaat (1920–2000): A Cross-country Comparative Study. New Delhi: Orient Longman.

Talib, Mohammed. 1998. “The Tablighs in the Making of Muslim Identity.” Pp. 307-40 in Islam, Communities and the Nation: Muslim Identities in South Asia and Beyond, edited by Mushirul Hasan. New Delhi: Manohar.

Jan A. Ali

Post Date:
2 February 2013