The Jehovah's of Islam


It was my mother’s worst nightmare. Like all South Asian mums, mine was obsessed with her children’s academic performance. And as her youngest (and laziest) child, my academic performance — or lack thereof — was of particular concern.

So there I was, preparing for my Year 12 trial HSC exams. It was mid-1987. I was sitting in my bedroom when I looked out the window and noticed four rather short and skinny brown-skinned dudes in long white robes, some sporting beards with turbans wrapped around skullcaps. They arrived unannounced and uninvited.

The door bell rang. Mum opened the door. The four men immediately lowered their gaze, not wishing to be aroused by the seductive charms of a well-fed Indian woman in her sixties. Knowing her religious and cultural duty to be hospitable to men of God, mum left it to me and called out: "Eeeeer-faaaAAAn, you have guest. Come sit wid dhem. I mek cupppo tee."

I entered the lounge room and greeted the "brothers" from the Tabligh Jamaat (TJ), followers of a method of spiritual discipline combining methodologies of four major Sufi orders.

Islam, like Judaism, is a law-based faith. But as Jesus said, there isn’t much point in following the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit. So I guess you might say Sufism is the spirit of Islamic sacred law.

Back in the 1920s, an Indian Sufi named Sheik Muhammad Illyas was rather perturbed at the religious state of the "Meo" Muslim tribe living just outside Delhi. The Meos weren’t terribly interested in religious observance. Sheik Illyas wasn’t terribly interested in preaching to the unconverted, focussing efforts on turning not-so-good Muslims into better Muslims.

Illyas tried various techniques. At first he established schools where young children would learn to read the Qur’an in Arabic. This didn’t seem to make much of a dent in the irreligiosity of the Meo folk. He therefore developed a special charity methodology.

Illyas didn’t ask for food or money or anything else from these people. He just wanted time. Meo men would visit mosques in other localities, knocking on doors and inviting locals to the mosque at prayer times. After prayers, a person from the visiting Meo delegation would deliver a short talk which would be strictly limited to spiritual matters.

This was the beginning of the Tabligh Jamaat (literally translating to "the preaching group") movement, which quickly spread far and wide. Today, it is the largest and most popular Sufi reform group in the Islamic world. And here in my lounge room in 1987, four representatives of this group asked me to join them for prayers at the local mosque.

I was quite keen to join with the TJ. Heck, anything to get away from doing electromagnetism problems! Mum had other ideas.

"Hee have igzam nekss week. He must isstudee."

The spokesman for our visiting delegation used his well rehearsed line.

"Sister, insh’Allah [God-willing] he will do well in his exams. We only want him to give an hour or so. Just so that he can say his prayers with us at the mosque and listen to a short talk."

Mum wasn’t happy. She wanted to teach these dudes a lesson. She sent me to my room. She then spoke to the delegation.

"I vaaz vondereeng if yoo could help me pliz. Come widh me."

The men walked outside behind mum. Within a few minutes, these skinny dudes struggled lifting and carrying extremely heavy furniture — bookshelves, sofas etc — from the garage to various awkward spaces in our home. This also involved re-arranging furniture already inside the house.

The poor TJers performed all this heavy lifting without any complaint. Not only did they end up with sore backs, they also missed the prayers and talk at the local mosque to which they had come to invite me.

"Dhaat vill teech dhem! Dhey not come to bodhar you is-studee," Mum said with some satisfaction. She was right. The next time a TJ delegation turned up at her house was in 2006.

Like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, TJ always turn up unannounced. They’re always polite, only knocking on your door three times. If you don’t answer, they walk off even if they can hear AC/DC playing full blast from your bedroom.

You can always tell it’s them. They stick out like sore thumbs in their long robes and skullcaps wrapped with turbans. Many sport long beards. The Punjabi ones look almost like Sikhs. The TJ travel in groups. Many of their people aren’t in the group full time — in fact, most are part-timers. Others join them occasionally.

The last time I joined them was in 1994 during a trip to Pakistan to visit the relos. I was bored shutless (as they say in Dunedin) and wanted to see bits of Karachi without having to fork out wads of rupees. My cousin suggested I join the TJ.

I spent eight days with a TJ delegation, which visited a small mosque in a suburb of Karachi called Korangi. We stayed in a mosque where prayers were led by a 10-year-old boy who had memorised the entire Qur’an. Away from the prayers, I discovered he mercilessly cheated in backyard cricket.

TJ cop plenty of flack in Muslim circles due to their strict policy of forbidding all discussion of politics at their gatherings. I remember back in 1985 reading an article by a prominent Australian Muslim leader, complaining how the TJ would not allow a representative of the Afghan mujahideen to speak at their annual Australian gathering. Those were the days when just about every non-communist supported the Afghan "freedom fighters" in their jihad against the Soviet Union.

So you can imagine the shock in Muslim communities when a partly Saudi-owned newspaper called The Australian started running stories linking TJ to al-Qaeda. Perhaps The Oz are taking their Saudi investors too seriously, bagging a group which Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious authorities have described as deviant.

So why are TJ linked to al-Qaeda? The Oz claims the shoe-bomber Richard Reid and two of the 7/7 London bombers sat in TJ meetings. But I doubt you could stick around after a prayer service at any mosque (apart from a hardcore pro-Wahhabi, anti-TJ mosque) and not hear a TJ talk. 

In fact, others who have frequented TJ talks and gatherings include former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, former Indian President Dr Zakir Hussain, a host of Pakistani (and at least one South African) cricketers, the lead singer of a Pakistani pop band and members of an Indonesian rock band.

It’s little wonder that so many young Aussie Muslims I know refuse to read newspapers. It’s not that they’re illiterate, it’s that reading the paper makes them feel like foreigners in their own country. After all, when groups like the TJ are being linked to al-Qaeda, how long will it be before declaring even the most nominal Muslims "terrorists" becomes normal journalistic parlance?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.