Islam, Ritual and the Ethical Life: Dawat in the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan

Khan, Arsalan, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Handler, Richard, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores the zealous commitment to a distinct form of face-to-face preaching (dawat) among Pakistani Tablighis, practitioners of the transnational piety movement, the Tablighi Jamaat. Tablighis say that Muslims have abandoned their Islamic duties for “worldly” pursuits and must be brought back to Islam through dawat. They insist that only their own form of dawat, which requires lengthy and arduous travel, is capable of drawing Muslims to Islam and dismiss as “worldly” activities the efforts to spread Islam by a diverse array of Islamist actors including political parties, corporations, NGOs, and popular televangelists. I show that, for Tablighis, dawat qualifies as a “religious practice” (dini amal) because it is a divinely prescribed ritual that, when conducted in its proper form, elicits divine agency in order to create ethical relationships between speakers and listeners. These ethical relationships, I argue, are conceived in hierarchical terms and are modeled on the ideal of the relationship between the Prophet and the Companions. It is this ideal of ethical relationships that Tablighis consider the ground for the Islamic nation and the global Islamic community, and it is the failure of Islamists to live in these terms that renders them un-Islamic.

My central thesis is that dawat is built on a model of ethical action in which a person becomes an ethical subject by submitting to the authority of pious others and being “acted upon” by them. This model of ethical action locates “agency” not within the individual as it is in a modernist ontology but in the relations between persons. The distinction Tablighis draw between “religious” and “worldly” activities, then, is not about religious doctrine or belief, which they share with Islamists, but about the proper form of an Islamic community structured by a sacred hierarchy.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Anthropology, Religion, Islam, Ritual, Revival, Pakistan
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