The rise of the Tablighi Jamaat movement

In the final instalment of a two-part series, Frontier’s senior correspondent Mratt Kyaw Thu charts the rise of the Tablighi Jamaat movement and the deep divisions its growing popularity has created within the Muslim community.


THE YOMA THITSAR minibus pulls into the terminal at Taungok, in southern Rakhine State. The driver has been warned several times not to enter the town, but by the time he notices the angry crowd that has gathered at the station, it’s too late. They storm onto the bus, dragging passengers off the vehicle. Ten people are killed, either stabbed or beaten to death.

Many will recognise this as one of the key events of communal violence that erupted in Rakhine State in June 2012. The killings in Taungok are often considered a retributive act; a week earlier, three Muslim men had been arrested for the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman in nearby Ramree Township.

What is less known though is that those killed were reported to be Tablighis: followers of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic movement known for its missionary work that has variously been described as “fundamentalist”, “conservative” or “revivalist”.

The Rakhine Inquiry Commission’s final report, released in July 2013, said the group had been returning from Rathedaung Township in northern Rakhine State, where they had “exhorted Bengalis to build a mosque” and promised to provide the necessary funds. The commission added that “many Rakhine became extremely resentful of this Tablighi group” and the episode “increased the intensity of Rakhine patriotic sentiment and fuelled their anger”.

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Frontier was unable to confirm independently that those killed on June 3, 2012, were Tablighis, and it is unclear what evidence the Rakhine Inquiry Commission based its report on.

But the incident reveals an element of Myanmar’s communal tensions that has to date received little attention: the growing orthodoxy of sections of Myanmar’s Muslim community, driven by the adherence to the principles of a movement known as Tablighi Jamaat.

The rise of Tablighi Jamaat in recent decades has reinforced divisions between Buddhists and Muslims, but also created new ideological fault-lines within the Muslim community.

To date the debates over Islamic practice in Myanmar have taken place mostly in private forums like mosques and hidden social media groups. In one of the few articles on the topic, U Tin Win Akbar, the president of the Federation of Workers’ Union of the Burmese Citizens in Japan, wrote in February 2014 that Muslims in Myanmar are “slowly and steadily becoming more conservative and rigid in their religious practice”.

“The new style religious leaders also imposed many kinds of religious pronouncements that made it difficult for Burmese Muslims to maintain their harmonious social relations with Burmese Buddhists,” he wrote on Asia Peacebuilding Initiatives, a project set up by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

A Tablighi man at the Sunni Jamaat Mosque in Thingangyun Township. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

A Tablighi man at the Sunni Jamaat Mosque in Thingangyun Township. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

But Tablighi leaders say their movement is peaceful and Muslims join of their own choice. Prominent Tablighi U Kyaw Nyein said the movement has many followers in Myanmar and its activities were not against the law.

“There is no reason to oppose [Tablighi Jamaat],” said Kyaw Nyein, who is a legal adviser to Jamiat Ulama-al Islam, one of the country’s leading Muslim bodies. “And we don’t insist that it’s ‘fully true’ and we never criticise any other religious sects.”

The lifestyle of the prophet

A sub-sect of the Islamic revivalist movement known as Deobandi, Tablighi Jamaat was founded in northwest India in 1926 by Muhammad Ilyas al-Kandhlawi and stresses individual faith, urging Muslims to embrace the lifestyle of the prophet Muhammad. Today it is estimated to have anywhere from 12 million to 80 million followers across 150 countries, according to the Pew Research Center. The movement is a network rather than an organisation, with no real hierarchical structure, and is peaceful and strictly apolitical.

Tablighi Jamaat has six pillars, including kalmia (belief in Allah), salah (daily prayers) and dawah (preaching the message of Allah). Male followers grow beards and wear kurtas – long, white robes for which Tablighis are easily identifiable – while women cover themselves in public and typically devote themselves to family and religious life.

The focus on dawah has prompted some to describe Tablighi as “Muslim Jehova’s Witnesses”. Typically, adherents will go on a 40-day mission, or chillah, during which they preach to other Muslims, encouraging them to attend prayers at their mosque and listen to sermons. They do not seek to convert non-Muslims.

“It’s essentially a movement for the poor. It’s a very attractive identity offer for ordinary Muslims – the strength is the openness and flexibility,” Mr Alexander Horstmann, an associate professor in Modern Southeast Asian Studies at the School of Humanities at Estonia’s Tallinn University, told Frontier.

“It’s not complicated, not bureaucratic, it’s very flexible. People are very friendly with each other, calling each other brothers and sisters, so there’s a lot of solidarity,” said Horstmann, who has taught at Mandalay University and interviewed many Muslims in Myanmar for his research.

Horstmann said that its popularity in Myanmar has in partly been built on disaffection with traditional hierarchies and leaders, and it offers Tablighis opportunities that would otherwise not be open to them.

“There’s a very clear class issue here, and also one of education,” said Horstmann. “Established Muslim elites have strong hierarchies and they have their own madrassas. They are not so open for the ordinary Muslims.

“So the Tablighi have their own welfare and education systems, and they have very strong social support structures.”

The rise of Tablighi Jamaat

Tablighi Jamaat had surfaced in Myanmar by 1960, when several well-educated Muslims initiated a campaign in an attempt to spread its teachings around the country. (Frontier approached one of the four Tablighi initiators for an interview but he declined to comment.)

This campaign was brief; the movement was forced underground by General Ne Win’s 1962 coup. But far from disappearing, during this period Tablighi followers became influential on some of the main Muslim organisations in Myanmar, including Jamiat Ulama-al Islam and the Islamic Religious Affairs Council, according to French scholar Mr François Robinne from the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Ko Aung Zaw Myint – also known as Ibrahim – converted to Tablighi Jamaat in 2000, during his first year of university. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

Ko Aung Zaw Myint – also known as Ibrahim – converted to Tablighi Jamaat in 2000, during his first year of university. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

Local Muslims also point to the end of socialist autarky after 1988 and the gradual opening of the country by the military regime as a pivotal moment in the growth of the movement. Missionaries, including those from abroad, were able to visit and travel relatively freely, while Muslims from Myanmar travelled in the other direction.

In ever-larger numbers, Muslims began travelling to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage and to the Tablighi headquarters near New Delhi. The return of some Myanmar Muslims from India in around 2000 has also been cited as an important development.

“People who did the Hajj saw the dressing style in Mecca and brought it back to Myanmar – it was really new for Muslims here,” said Ko Than Swe, a Muslim businessman from Mandalay. “Soon after, many shops selling Indian and Arab-style clothing opened here.”

But these new ideas and influences were arriving at a time when the military regime was creating a national identity that largely excluded Muslims. For people in search of meaning, identity and acceptance, Tablighi has proven an attractive proposition.

Tablighi Jamaat’s influence is most noticeable in Yangon. The country’s largest city and gateway to the outside world, it’s also traditionally been much more influenced by South Asian Islamic ideology. But Tablighi Jamaat is also widespread in other communities around the country. When Frontier visited the Sunni Jamaat Mosque, in Yangon’s Thingangyun Township last month, a group of Burmese Muslims from Kyaukse Township in Mandalay Region were visiting to meet Tablighi followers in Yangon.

It’s not clear how many active Tablighis there are in Myanmar; they are also difficult to count because it can be a temporary identity and adherents may be members of multiple religious groupings. Some estimate that up to half of the country’s Muslim population may be affiliated with Tablighi Jamaat in some way.

Horstmann said experienced Tablighi missionaries are constantly on the move, travelling around the countryside and abroad. They form small bands of followers, and work to establish control over mosques and conduct outreach in communities.

“Tablighi Jamaat [activists] are very diligent. They make sure they contact every [Muslim] restaurant, every shop. They talk to these people and so the question is how those people respond,” he said. “It’s a sort of mouth-to-mouth propaganda. This kind of flexibility, mobility makes them hugely influential in this minority context … They offer social capital and religious respect, as well as opportunities for networking and access to international Muslim networks.”

‘These differences don’t make us opponents’

Prior to this year’s Thingyan water festival, some people discovered their Facebook Newsfeed contained messages urging Muslims to avoid the celebrations. A few posts seen by Frontier even warned Muslims against eating mont lone ye paw, a traditional snack, saying that it was the equivalent of eating pork.

Ko Aung Zaw Myint was one of those who helped spread the message about avoiding Thingyan. Also known as Ibrahim, he said he was simply opposed to the hedonism that is often associated with Thingyan – a sentiment that many Buddhists also share.

“During my early adulthood, I enjoyed Thingyan very much. But it has changed – there’s too much alcohol and rude conversations. People lost their mind when they were drunk and did not have a good attitude. So I avoid [participating] in Thingyan and I urge other people to do so.”

Ibrahim became a Tablighi in 2000, when he was in his first year of university. He attends the Sunni Jamaat mosque and is active in the Tablighi movement and regularly travels on missionary work.

Because Tablighi Jamaat is not an organisation, Ibrahim has no official position in the movement. But it was clear from the way that other Muslims at the mosque interacted with him that he was a figure of some authority.

Pakistani Muslims ride a truck as they return after attending the four-day Tablighi meeting in Raiwind, some 25 kilometers from Lahore. (AFP)

Pakistani Muslims ride a truck as they return after attending the four-day Tablighi meeting in Raiwind, some 25 kilometers from Lahore. (AFP)

Asked how he became a Tablighi, he describes it as a religious conversion, even a “miracle”. A friend persuaded him to go on a chillah with other Tablighis and while they were eating together in a mosque, he noticed he was eating with his left hand and everyone else was using their right. “It was like a light in my head went off,” he said. “I realised that I needed to change so I could be one of them. All Muslims have to be the same, to be united.”

He said the centre of the Tablighi movement is Tachanbe Mosque on Upper Pansodan Road in Yangon. “Most Tablighi Muslims go there every Tuesday and Thursday. Senior Tablighi people give some rules and regulations, instructions. The biggest day is Thursday; the meeting and discussion normally takes around three hours.”

When Tablighi missionaries visit a mosque, they invite other Muslims to come and discuss Tablighi Jamaat. “Some Indian Tablighi Muslims often come here to give sermons,” Ibrahim said.

Asked to describe the movement, he said it encourages followers of Islam to be “true Muslims”, both on the outside through their appearance and the “inside” through their adherence to Islamic teaching. “As much as they can, a Tablighi must be like the Prophet Muhammad,” he said.

He downplayed concerns about Tablighis creating divisions or making themselves targets due to their appearance, saying that not all Tablighis wore kurtas or grew beards.

“For women, the change is more than men but … I don’t think that [appearance] is a big issue. Yes, some people say we are different with others but I don’t think that these differences make us opponents or should be seen as trying to provoke each other.

“For the Muslims who are against Tablighi, we have to take time to correct them. Although we’ve been facing criticism, we need persistence.”

Frontier attempted to interview several other Tablighis but many declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the topic.

In Mandalay, several Tablighi followers explained the movement’s principles to Frontier off the record. The movement is much less prominent in the city – it’s rare to see Tablighis in public – and those interviewed dressed like Burmese Muslims, with just a short beard and slightly longer shirt rather than the full beard and kurta. Asked about the movement, they said simply that “Tabligh is fine here”.

The Islamic Religious Affairs Council also declined to comment for this article.  Kyaw Nyein said that Ulama-al Islam never sought to instruct Muslims which form of Islam to follow.

“You just practise what you believe in. We never have a low opinion upon each other [because of their beliefs]. Our religious sect Ulama-al Islam abstains from any speech or writing that might offend the beliefs of others or create misunderstanding among believers and we urge all to abstain from such acts,” he said.

Kyaw Nyein was disdainful though of those Muslims who criticise Tablighi Jamaat. “Most of the Muslim scholars – the real, competent scholars – don’t talk about it, but a group of those who get nowhere enjoy talking nonsense.”

‘People think they are foreigners’

The rise of Tablighi Jamaat has created new fault-lines within Myanmar’s Muslim community, which has traditionally been divided – in culture, language and faith – between those of Indian descent and those who identify as ethnically Burmese or Bamar.

In an echo of the way that Buddhists often view Islam, some Burmese Muslims feel that their beliefs and way of life are under threat because of the proselytising of the Tablighi Jamaat movement, which they say has resulted in many Burmese Muslims adopting Tablighi as their identity.

Writing in the 2015 book Metamorphosis: Studies in Social and Political Change in Myanmar, Robinne described the Tablighi Jamaat’s missionary work as “Islamising the Muslims of the country by ‘de-Burmanising’ them”.

But Muslim author and teacher U Aung Aung Than said Tablighi Jamaat’s growth was also fuelling tensions with non-Muslims, who viewed their conservative appearance as “very noticeable and strange”. It may even be contributing to widely held perceptions – unsubstantiated by the 2014 census – that the Muslim community is growing rapidly, or that illegal immigrants are “overrunning” the country.

Muslims fill the streets surrounding the Taj ul Masjid Mosque to offer prayers on the final day of a Tablighi religious gathering in Bhopal, India. (AFP)

Muslims fill the streets surrounding the Taj ul Masjid Mosque to offer prayers on the final day of a Tablighi religious gathering in Bhopal, India. (AFP)

When Frontier recently interviewed Burmese Muslim leaders in Mandalay, they spoke of “strange” Muslims – Tablighis – who had recently arrived in the city and settled in a particular ward.

“We can’t deny this problem. It’s happening. People [non-Muslims] think that they [Tablighis] are foreigners,” said Aung Aung Than.

He suggested that Tablighis should seek to combine the movement’s ideology with Burmese culture and traditions, to form a hybrid “Burmanised Tablighi”.

Some Muslims are even mobilising against Tablighi Jamaat, using social media to advocate a more moderate form of Islam and recalling a time when the Buddhist and Muslim communities were said to be more closely integrated.

When communal violence erupted in 2012 and stoked tensions between the religions, Ko Thet Ko Ko, 36, joined with like-minded Muslims to create a group called Yway Latyar. The group advocates maintaining Burmese culture and customs alongside the practise of Islam, and Thet Ko Ko said its aim is to promote co-existence and harmony with other ethnic and religious groups.

The name means “the chosen people”, and was used by a group of Muslim soldiers who served the Burmese kings since the Nyaung Yan period, in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“Our message is simple: that Myanmar Muslims should not stay differently and be isolated from others,” Thet Ko Ko told Frontier.

He likened some elements of Tabligh Jamaat to the conservative Buddhist 969 movement, which rose to prominence in 2012 with hardline nationalists like U Wirathu as its unofficial leaders.

“They [Tablighis] are spreading messages like, ‘Do not buy commodities and food at non-Muslims shops’, and ‘Do not wear the same clothes as [non-Muslims]’,” Thet Ko Ko said.

Despite the efforts of his group and others, Thet Ko Ko said he believed Tablighi Jamaat was winning this contest of ideas, particularly in rural areas.

“Because of Tablighi preaching, so many Muslims in remote villages and areas are starting to think that they need to be different with others,” he said.

“As the Tablighi missionaries are very strong, well-organised and well-funded by wealthy Muslim people, it’s hard to promote Myanmar traditions in the Muslim community. Because religion is a sensitive issue, we’ve also been facing lots of criticism. But we’ll try as much as we can to stay in harmony.”

Ko Kyaw Zin Lat, a young Muslim lawyer and former Tablighi, said he was concerned that in the context of rising Buddhist nationalism the movement’s activities could “provoke” conflict.   

He suggested that leaders set clearer guidelines on Tablighi activities, particularly missionary work. In Sri Lanka, he said, Tablighis are given training before they go on a chillah, but that this does not seem to be the case in Myanmar.

He said he was pressured by others at his mosque to become a Tablighi. Although he accepted the six pillars, he left the movement because he was uncomfortable wearing a kurta in public.

“Some [Tablighi] leaders don’t restrict [their followers] tightly, but some use force [to wear a kurta],” he said.

Military green light

That Tablighi Jamaat was able to thrive under military rule is curious. Foreign missionaries came and went relatively freely, and by the mid to late 2000s, Tablighis were holding large public preaching ceremonies in Yangon with several thousand participants.

This has fed some conspiracy theories that the military encouraged the growth of the movement in order to fan the flames of communal tension.

Thet Ko Ko from Yway Latyar said that when the military government allowed Tablighi events, “we young Muslims were not allowed to organise some interfaith discussions”.

Kyaw Zin Lat said Tablighi leaders reported their activities regularly to the Department of Religious Affairs, but he still found it hard to understand why the military regime allowed Tablighi to conduct missionary work openly.

Ko Kyaw Zin Lat, a former Tablighi. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

Ko Kyaw Zin Lat, a former Tablighi. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

“This was a time when the military regime made gatherings of five or more people illegal,” he said. “Even Buddhists monks couldn’t give a public sermon, but those Tablighis were allowed to gather in large numbers. I just wonder why the generals, who hate Muslims, didn’t stop their activities.”

But Horstmann said a more likely scenario was that the military understood the movement was peaceful, and there was a consensus that Tablighis could conduct their missionary works within certain boundaries.

“I think the military understood that there’s not really a threat coming from the Tablighi,” he said. “They understand that it’s a peaceful movement and it’s actually very different to the radicalisation taking place elsewhere [around the world].”

Ibrahim said that several government informants attended his mosque to listen to the sermons and report back to their superiors.

“When the Tablighi programs ‘opened’, many Muslims would come to join us. The intelligence forces came into the mosque and listened to what our leaders said. We all know that, but later they realised that we are not really concerned with politics.”

Kyaw Nyein from Ulama-al Islam gave a similar explanation. He said some groups had tried to stop the Tablighi Jamaat activities during the socialist era, but later Tablighi leaders explained their beliefs and the government approved their activities.

Beginning the discussion

Although peaceful and non-political, Tablighi Jamaat’s success at encouraging Muslims to embrace a fundamentalist version of Islam, particularly in their appearance, has reinforced divisions between Buddhists and Muslims at a time when many Buddhists are anxious about the future of their race and religion.

But Tablighi Jamaat does not explain the discrimination against Muslims or the attacks that have taken place since 2012, much less justify them. Muslims who follow Tablighi Jamaat are simply exercising their legal rights, and they are doing so peacefully and without disturbing others.

It’s important to note that Tablighi Jamaat is not new. If it has now become a source of communal tension, it is because political and social dynamics in Myanmar have shifted, particularly since the transition began in 2011.

Horstmann said he believed Tablighi Jamaat had been influential since the early 1990s “at the latest”. “What is new are the anxieties from Buddhists, they are really big, and they have been amplified by the constant hate speech by some Buddhist monks.”

While dialogue and understanding are needed to overcome these tensions, beginning the conversation is difficult. Kyaw Zin Lat said because the Muslim community feels under threat, a culture has developed where dissent or disagreement is seen as dangerous – much as it was in the pro-democracy movement under military rule.

As a result, it is hard for discussions around identity and belief to take place openly between Muslims, let alone with other religious groups.

“If some people criticise some wrong doings [that Muslims are doing], the Muslims leaders blame them. They say, ‘Don’t you understand? We have to be united in this situation’,” Kyaw Zin Lat said. “This is a big problem in the community, because it creates a society where people just believe whatever the leader says.”

Tablighi Jamaat raises important questions about Myanmar’s past, present and future. The conversation, though, is yet to begin.

Additional reporting by Thomas Kean. 

TOP PHOTO: The Tachanbe Mosque in Mingalar Taung Nyunt is the centre of Tablighi Jamaat in Yangon. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

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