It’s a wet October Thursday evening in East London, and my first visit to the Tablighi Jamaat’s Masjid Ilyas. The mosque has become controversial following a planning dispute between Tablighi Jamaat and the local council. Currently, it consists of a series of portakabins situated on the site that came to public attention after plans for its re-development called for a new mosque with a capacity of 70,000 people. This would make it one of the largest mosques in Europe – the so called ‘mega-mosque’. Around 2,500 men are present. Many are outfitted in the traditional dress of Pakistan – the shalwar kameez – their beards grown to a fist’s length, their trousers stop at their ankles, many wear knitted skull caps and some are wearing leather socks. Sleeping bags and cooking utensils in preparation for missionary tours are stacked at the back of the mosque. There is a distinct South Asian feeling to the group, the main language of the proceedings is Urdu, with translations in Arabic and English in rooms to the side of the main prayer hall. I had made it just in time. The men were sitting in orderly lines, their full attention resting on an elderly man sporting a henna dyed beard raised on a platform at the front. He began, ‘My dear respected brothers, today all morals have been lost. Good is regarded as evil and evil is regarded as virtue! People have become blinded by consumerism and the affairs of this world. We must turn our eyes once again to Allah and his angels, to return to the path that was created for us’.
Tablighi Jamaat, or TJ for short, translates as ‘preaching group’. It is a transnational, pietistic proselytisation movement seeking to bring the world’s Muslims back to what it regards as a more authentic version of Islam. Its followers are encouraged to imitate Prophet Mohammad and the first generations of Muslims in all of their actions, as well as donating their time to travel in small preaching groups to bring other Muslims to a similar way of life. TJ is the largest movement of its kind in Islam, with estimates of up to 80 million Muslims taking part in its activities across the globe. It claims to be active in every county where Muslims are present, although its strongholds are in South Asia – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The movement is also strong in the UK, France, parts of Africa and South East Asia. Its annual gathering in Tongi, Bangladesh, is one of the Muslim world’s largest congregations and has on occasion even exceeded those who attend the hajj in Mecca.