Jamaat al-Tabligih wa al-Da’awat (also known as Jamaat al-Ahbab) is considered one of the most controversial Islamic group on all sides, for many people who criticize the group see it doesn’t stop the oppressors nor defending the oppressed while some Muslim scholars who stand against it thinks they don’t prevent the vice nor promote the virtue.
Jamaat al-Tabligh raises many questions in the minds of Muslim especially its unique relationship with governments and regimes unlike other Islamist movements, Jamaat al-Tabligh are always in good terms with the governments and regimes whether they are fair or oppressing because they see the main goal is to put the people back on the track of rightness, love and tolerance.
With the center in India where the group held annual meetings attended by millions of people, the group is has huge number of followers around the world thus no exact number for how many followers in northern Syria but some researcher say it is around 12k in north Syria.
In Syria, the group was eliminated by ISIS when it captured Aleppo countryside, Raqqa and parts of Hama province where the group has a lot of followers but some of them joined ISIS and died fighting for it. This exclusive interview is considered the first public interview for Jamaat al-Tabligh in Syria
*Who are Jamaat al-Tabligh?
In an exclusive interview with NSO reporter in Aleppo countryside, the Emir of Jamaat al-Tabligh who uses Sheikh Abdullah as pseudonym says: Jamaat al-Tabligh was established by Indian scholar Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi in 1918 after the fall of Ottoman Empire, he faced many obstacles in his ideology to unite the Muslims people away from militarization, and the movement started from Nizamuddin (Nizam al-Din) area in Delhi, India.
About the name of the group Sheikh Abdullah said: “Sheikh Mohammad Ilyas calls it Tahrik-I Imaan but it is called “Tablighi Jamaat” in Turkey while the followers called themselves “Al-Ahbab”, when Sheikh Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi died he was succeeded by his son Youssef then Shiekh Noman al-Hasan”
About the spread of the movement in Syria Sheikh Abdullah said: the group came from India to Syria in 1952 but couldn’t attract many followers before 1960s, the group attracted many followers in Hama province due to the local scholar Sheikh al-Rawas then moved to Aleppo when headed by Sheikh Abdulwahab Darkazanli who established the biggest center for the group in Karam Homad in Aleppo, this center recruited thousands of young men who spread out in all Syria to promote the groups until 1993.
*The group’s dependence and support beside the divisions in India and Pakistan
Jamaat al-Tabligh is very different from other Islamic movements regarding the level of religious representation or financial support, so whom it follow and who supports it?
Sheikh Abdullah answers “the group follows the global Emir Saad Kandhlawi and his center in India but the group witnessed huge splits to two centers one in India and another in Pakistan due to disagreements on the leadership (al-Imarah)
About the disagreements Sheikh Abdullah add: before the death of Sheikh Noaman al-Hasan he named 10 followers to succeed him, 8 died and two left including Sheikh Saad the grandson of the founder Sheikh Muhammad Ilyas, which angered some followers and considered this a form of monarchy by Kandhlawi but Sheikh Saad refused to resign which made the Pakistani wing to split but there are signs of peace will show soon.
Sheikh Abdulla said: we didn’t decide our position about this and we are not in connection with any side but we are still following the old program instructed by Sheikh Noaman al-Hasan.
About the financial support Sheikh Abdullah added: since the establishment of the group we didn’t receive any funding from any side, all the money we use are from our own money which is the secret for the power of the proselytization but sometimes there is a small support through Zakat but we pay for our international travelling for proselytization according to each follower’s financial statue so some people go to India while others go to Jordan. We don’t have an internal written system because we receive orders from out scholars directly and verbally, we don’t have a centralized work system and we depend on a Shura Council was named by the followers.
*The relationship with the Syrian regime
Jamaat al-Tabligh wa al-Dawat has huge numbers of followers in all Syria, but it seems like the relationship with the regime was different from other Islamic movements such as the Salafism which oppose the regime and its followers were detained by the regime especially in Saydnaya prison so what is the relationship between Jamaat al-Tabligh and Syrian regime?
Sheikh Abdullah answers: until 1993 the relationship was good but it changed in 1994 when many Arab and Muslim delegations visited us in Syria so the regime banned these delegations from visiting Syria then banned anyone from travelling outside Syria without a security check and limited the travelling from 40 days to few days before stopping it completely except visiting relatives inside Syria only, the travelling (al-Khorooj) is what the group calls for travelling for proselytization (al-Dawah) for 40 days.
Sheikh Abdullah continues: our relationship with regimes is simple because we don’t support them but don’t oppose them, we don’t look for any benefits from regimes while some regimes fear our followers could leave our ideology and this cause problems for us, but in general we didn’t witness much harassment by the regime because the regime knows we are peaceful and don’t pose a threat.
*the group’s position regarding the Syrian revolution
When NSO asked Sheikh Abdullah about the Syrian revolution he said: when the Syrian uprising started the group divided between supporters of the regime and supporters of the revolution but in general we are not forced to choose a side because we only focus on proselytization. We didn’t side with anyone because we saw what happened in the country and we learned from the Afghanistan issue so we choose neutrality. And added: there are many FSA commanders who were members of the Jamaat al-Tabligh including Abdulqadir al-Saleh who had a major rule in the group and visited Pakistan for 4 months and travelled to Sunni-majority areas in Iran for proselytization beside that there is another FSA commander called Abdulraham Turki who is a member of our group.
*The situation of the group during the reign of ISIS
The ideology of Jamaat al-Tabligh is very far from ISIS so what was the situation of the group in ISIS-held areas?
Sheikh Abdullah replied: before ISIS we had a huge center in al-Bab city called “Salman al-Farsi Center” which contained thousands of young men from Idlib to al-Mayadin but when ISIS controlled the city we tried to work in secret but failed because they knew everything about us so we did nothing.
He continue: ISIS treated Jamaat al-Tabligh well, for them we weren’t infidel and the members of the group who were killed by them weren’t killed because of their ideology but for other reasons, even some of ISIS fighters were saying “Jamaat al-Tabligh our other half as we have the bodies and they have the hearts”
And about how much Jamaat al-Tabligh followers supported ISIS he replied: the truth is that many of our young men were affected by ISIS ideology, many of them joined ISIS and fought with it and were killed fighting. ISIS lured many honest people after showing their agendas but were exposed once people saw who they were, our main difference with ISIS is that they are a political organization trying to rule the people unlike us who try to love the sinners and be close to them to guide them not to punish them.
*How Jamaat al-Tabligh is living in the current situation in north Syria?
Another scholar of the group called Sheikh Omar said that the relationship between the people and the group is based on love, tolerance and guiding to Islam with kind hearts not by force beside not getting involved in civilians’ lives, the group is spread out in all Syria and we are not harassed by any side because we avoid and disagreement with any side.
Sheikh Omar add: when al-Bab city was liberated from ISIS we visited the police there and told them about our work and ideology and didn’t face any problem there because they already knew us, we also visited a Turkish officer in Qabasyn village and talked to him about our group and he welcomed us and told us to promote peace and tolerance between locals.
About their relationship with the opposition-affiliated “Office of Religious Affairs” he said: they know us very good and allow us to work in any mosque, and all the Imams are employed by the Office of the Religious Affairs.
And about their relationship with the military groups Sheikh Omar said: in Euphrates Shield area there was a small problem between us and Ahrar al-Sham because some followers joined ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham feared we could be connected to ISIS but later they told us to inform them of our meetings and the problems are gone and we have good relationship with all groups. But in Idlib Jamaat al-Tabligh being harassed by Hayyet Tahrir al-Sham HTS because we refuse to promote Jihad between our followers and we refuse to teach Muslim the huge issues that can lead to Kufer.
Sheikh Omar explained “regarding Jihad we see that this time is not the time for Jihad, we are considered a global organization in more than 250 countries including USA and calling for Jihad is going to brand us as terrorists and forced to quite our proselytization”
But the Emir of Jamaat al-Tablish Sheikh Abdullah says “this is not the time of Jihad because it is an advanced level of Islam and we can’t do it now, Prophet Mohammad PBUH spent 13 years teaching people Islam during the secret proselytization in Mecca before any fight, we don’t exclude Jihad from Islam and who ever does this is an infidel but we have our own priorities to guide the Muslim to the right track and abandon usury, sins and adultery because Jihad is not just a word to promote it”
About the relationship with media Sheikh Abdullah told NSO: the scholars of the group prefer to stay away from media and think it is better because we don’t need anyone to know our work except Allah. The current Emir of Jamaat al-Tabligh Saad Kandhlawi banned any person from taking pictures of him but there are some photos leaked to media.
*How other Muslims see Jamaat al-Tabligh?
Sheikh Abdullah speaks about what the scholars and Imams of Saudi Arabia say about Jamaat al-Tabligh ”the majority consider us enemies and always use harsh words against us such as lack of knowledge”
He add “this is a truth but the knowledge is not a condition for proselytization and if so then Allah would send scholars, proselytization doesn’t need knowledge unlike Fiqh though we don’t deny the rule of knowledge, now we are still working in secret in Saudi Arabia because the government ban our proselytization”
About Jamaat al-Tabligh in Syria, NSO asked Sheikh Ayman al-Batoushi the Imam in al-Bab city who said “how Jamaat al-Tabligh roam the markets and mosques proselytizing people for Islam is a good thing but we don’t accept the partisan and their ideology beside how they see themselves as the only right Islamic group. The group lacks scholars and have a unique system in choosing scholars, followers can be scholars within days which is considered a weakness, their proselytization is repeated and they never speak about the Islamic knowledge nor Fiqh, their mission is for the common people and they are excused due to the lack of knowledge”
Al-Batoushi ended saying “at the beginning of the revolution the main disagreement was when they were praying for mercy and guidance for oppressors and oppressed as well, we also disagree on “Islamic preaching in mosques” as they see it wrong because it focus on who attend mosques and they think that the proselytization should be in streets and markets but I am not sure if this is the ideology of the whole group”