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Southeast Asia, Tablīghī Jamāʿat in

Kamaruzzaman Bustamam-Ahmad
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

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Southeast Asia, Tablīghī Jamāʿat in

Tablīghī Jamāʿat is the largest of the numerous movements and organizations dedicated to the revival, reform, and revitalization of Islam that emerged in the twentieth century. It was founded by the charismatic Indian ʿālim (religious scholar) Mawlana Ilyās (1885–1944), from his base in the Dar ul-ʿUlum, a reformist ṣūfī madrasah (religious school) in Deoband near Delhi. From its base in India, Tablīghī Jamāʿat grew rapidly, such that it is now active in “almost every country with a significant Sunni Muslim presence” (Sikand, 2007, p. 129). The pioneers of Tablīghī Jamāʿat sought to revive the community by returning it to the era of the Prophet. In this context, Mawlana Ilyās, promoted a return to the original sources of Islam (the Qurʾān and Sunnah) by emulating what the Prophet did during his life.

Tablīghī Jamāʿat has been particularly successful among the majority population of ethnic Malays in Southeast Asia. It has also managed to establish a significant presence in neighboring Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. The expansion of Tablīghī Jamāʿat in Southeast Asia was also linked to local Malay processes of negotiating identity and reinterpreting and reconstructing Islam. This movement, originally from India and colored by South Asian culture, has influenced Southeast Asian Muslim culture, especially in Malaysia, a country with three main ethnic groups. Essentially, Tablīghī Jamāʿat’s arrival brought about a marriage of Indian Islamic and Malay Islamic culture. It can be said that Tablīghī Jamāʿathas contributed to the formation of a new image of Islam and Muslims in the country.

The spread of Tablīghī Jamāʿat illustrates how Islamic-Indian culture has blended with Islam-Malaysian culture. Relying on a national and international (Asia Pacific) markāż (center of authority, or headquarters), the movement has moved smoothly from daʿwah (proselytizing) and Sufism to a government model in Southeast Asia as demonstrated by the religious and administrative activities in markāż. Their members come not only from the lower classes, but also from the middle class.

The movement has sought to establish a mosque-based Islamic mission as the Prophet did in his era. In doing so, it aims to revive the spirit of the Prophet through daʿwah, which is why the markāż is under the control of a council or a small committee that runs the entire institution. In this context, the markāż can be seen as the place where the authority of the international markāż in Nizamuddin, India, is transferred. To complete this transnationalization of authority, the movement makes regulations based on the idea that good conduct is an integral part of the worship of Allah.


In Kuala Lumpur, Tablīghī Jamāʿat was introduced by Mawlana Abdul Malik Madani, who came to Singapore and Selangor in 1952 as a representative of the markāż (headquarters) at Nizamuddin. Initially, Tablīghī Jamāʿat received support in towns such as Penang, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore, where there were large Indian Muslim communities. In the 1970s, it began to recruit Malay members. The first person approached was Ustāż Ashaari Haji Muhammad who was the leader of Dārul Arqām. He made a khurūj (mission journey) with his followers to Singapore for ten days. According to Nagata “like Dārul Arqām, Tablīgh is fundamentalist in orientation; through daʿwah, it aims both to revive and clarify the basic teachings of the Koran, and to show their relevance to modern society” (Nagata, 1980, p. 422). In addition, Syed Serajul Islam maintains that “they started going around the country by preaching the message of Islam. They held informal talks asking people to return to the true path of Islam” (Islam, 2005, p. 119). More recently, with the resurgence of Islamic missionary activities, Tablīghī Jamāʿat succeeded in penetrating the Malay community, even at the village level.

Along with the arrival of Tablīghī Jamāʿat in Malaya, there was also an increase in the size of the Indian community in Malaya in places such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Singapore. Regarding the migration of Indians to Malaya, Sandhu writes: “the dominant factor in the increase of the Indian population in Malaya was the excess of immigrants over emigrants” (2006, p. 158). This demographic trend served Tablīghī Jamāʿat, which received a warm welcome from Indian Muslim businessmen in Kuala Lumpur. It is important to emphasize the role of Indian Muslims in spreading Tablīghī Jamāʿat in Malaysia. As Nagata points out “Tablīgh could thus be seen as one means whereby the marginal Indian-Muslim can achieve recognition as a Malay or bumiputra, the most effective route through religion and culture” (2006, p. 534).

The union of Tablīghī Jamāʿat and Malays began with the national riots of 1969 and the spirit of Islamic revivalism in Malaysia. Abdullah describes 1969 as “the launching pad for Malaysia’s daʿwah movement” (2003, p. 55) However, Baharuddin says that “the 13 May 1969 incident was, ironically, a blessing in disguise for the Malay capitalist” (Baharuddin, 2004, p. 191). There is a connection between these arguments, because the spirit of Islamic revivalism then could be seen as arising from the joining of young Malays with Tablīghī Jamāʿat. Meanwhile, for elite Malays, one of the outcomes of the riot was the creation of the NEP (National Economic Policy), a government program to assist Malays in socioeconomic affairs. Baharuddin maintains that “it is not uncommon for scholars to assume that the NEP was formulated solely as a government response to the bloody incident” (Baharuddin, 2004, p. 190). During the riots, many JT members were conducting khurūj in the Kampung Baru mosque, where other Malays were demonstrating against the Chinese. After the demonstration, Malays went to the mosque, where the Tablighists were serving meals to the public. As a result, many young Malays, most of whom were students at the University of Malaya, became interested in Tablīghī Jamāʿat activity. It was around this time that the Abdurrahman mosque in the area of the University of Malaya was established as the center for the young Malay karkūn members in Kuala Lumpur. This acceptance of Tablīghī Jamāʿat by the youth population contributed to the movement’s growth in the 1970s.

The development of Tablīghī Jamāʿat in Malaya can be described as having six phases. The first involved popularizing of Tablīghī Jamāʿat among the Indian community in Malaysia, especially Indian businessmen in Kuala Lumpur. The second phase was the growing influence of Tablīghī Jamāʿat on the nationalist movement among Malaysians after independence; Tablīghī Jamāʿat helped to introduce a new ideal of “real Muslims,” which contributed to the transformation of the movement from a strictly Indian trend to something that was popular among Malays. The third period involved spreading the spirit of Islam among young Malays in Kuala Lumpur. By centering its activities in Masjid Abdurrahman, the movement attracted many Malay students, while the Indian mosque became a center for older Malay and Indian Muslims. When the students finished their studies, they became involved in many different activities, thus further spreading Tablīghī Jamāʿat. The fourth phase was marked by Tablīghī Jamāʿat penetration into the Malay Muslim community as a whole, not just that of well-educated Malays, but also those in rural areas and Malay villages. During the fifth phase, Tablīghī Jamāʿat was challenged in several states, especially in Sabah and Malacca. During this time, it was banned for the same reasons as Dārul Arqām was dissolved. At this time the government continued to exercise direct control over Islamic movements that they felt might threaten the authority of the Malay elite. Neither Tablīghī Jamāʿat nor Dārul Arqām were registered, but they gained many new members among Malay Muslims who worked for the government and or were members of UMNO (the United Malays National Organization) or the Barisan Nasional (the National Front). The final phase was marked by negotiations between Tablīghī Jamāʿat and the government, especially in the establishment of the mosque in Sri Petaling as the markāż for Malaysia and the Asia Pacific, after the banning of Tablīghī Jamāʿat in Sabah and Malacca. By involving the government in the administration of the mosque, Tablīghī Jamāʿat attracted many more members, and achieved increased legitimacy. The public no longer saw it as a deviant sect. This dual strategy had implications for Tablīghī Jamāʿat’s success in penetrating the Malay Muslim community where it was able to establish more than twenty markāżs in Malaysia and connections to other countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore.

Sri Petaling: The Asia Pacific Markāż.

The Sri Petaling headquarters is located near the city of Sri Petaling (Bandar Sri Petaling). The Sri Petaling markāż has two functions. The first is as the national markāż which controls all state markāżs in Malaysia. All of these markāż must operate under the Sri Petaling markāż. The main tasks of Sri Petaling in relation to the state markāż are to organize khurūj and to conduct markāż programs (ijtimāʿī). Karkūn who want to travel to India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh or elsewhere must register at the halaqah (local headquarters), the state markāż, and finally at Sri Petaling.

At the same time, the Sri Petaling markāż also organizes overseas karkūn wishing to conduct khurūj in Malaysia. Sri Petaling asks the state markāż or halaqah if they will receive the jamāʿah in their territory. Thus, every karkūn who arrives in Malaysia must also register at Sri Petaling. Sometimes, markāż in Nizamuddin, India, informs Sri Petaling of the arrival of foreign jamāʿah one or two months before their arrival. This is to avoid duplicating jamāʿah in a single area and to ensure security.

Another aspect of this relationship is the validation of state markāż programs. The Sri Petaling markāż monitor ijtimāʿī (public activities) at each state markāż. Sri Petaling must be informed, for example, about any obstacle to missionary activities. To communicate this, the state markāż usually presents a karguzari (report of daʿwah activities) during jorh (regional meeting) gatherings. All problems that occur in the state markāż are, therefore, discussed by shūrā and other senior karkūn in Sri Petaling. Other problems, such as the increasing number of Muslim converts to other religions or a decrease in Muslim missionaries in an area, are forwarded to the international markāż at Nizamuddin, which may opt to send more jamāʿah khurūj to an area.


It is said that the arrival of the movement in Indonesia began in the early 1950s, when a group of Indian Muslims visited the Indian community in Jakarta. The development of Tablīghī Jamāʿat continued in Banda Aceh and spread as far as Papua. The national markāż was established in Kebun Jeruk, Jakarta, where the national shūrā (consultative decision-making process) takes place. The Indonesian karkūn has five regional areas which are controlled from Kebun Jeruk. Their regional meetings (ijtimā‘) take place in Sumatra, Jakarta, Java, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi. During the regional meeting, the mawlana from Nizamuddin attends the ceremony in order to give spiritual guidance (bayan).

The Tablighists have opened the madrasah in some provinces, where young Muslims memorize the Qurʾān and carry out missionary activities. The largest Tablighist madrasah is in Temboro, Magetan. In addition to memorizing al-Qurʾān the content of the curriculum tends to be includes the “standard reading material of Tablīghī Jamāʿat worldwide such as Fadhā’il Amal of Mawlana Zakaria, the Muntakhab Hadīth of Mawlana Yusuf and Mawlana Saʾad, and the Riyādhus Sālihin of Yahya Syaraf an-Nawawi” (Noor, 2009, p. 30).


The arrival of Tablīghī Jamāʿat in Thailand began in 1977 when a group of Malay karkūn from Kelantan visited Golok, in southern Thailand. As we have seen in Malaysia, the first target group was the Indian-Muslim community. Through Indian Muslim connections, they opened two headquarters in the region: the mosque Kabul in Yala and Mosque India in Pattani. Recently they have utilized the mosque An-Nūr in Yala as the headquarters in Thailand, making it the largest markāż in Southeast Asia after the Sri Petaling headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. During the Friday prayer, the mosque can accommodate more than ten thousand people. According to Noor “the number of Tablighist . . . has increased significantly with the grand markāż of Yala in Southern Thailand now becoming the fourth largest centre of Tablighi activities worldwide, after the respective centres in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh” (2009, p. 199).

Many of students who have graduated from the Tablighist madrasah in Thailand have spread across Southeast Asia. Thus, the Tablīghī Jamāʿat in Thailand is not only known as having the most members in non-Muslim country, but also seen as the place that produces a large number of religious scholars within the movement. As an Islamic movement in a non-Muslim country like Thailand, every year the markāż sends out more than twenty thousand people to go on khuruj, attracting young Muslims from other Southeast Asian countries.


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