Operating within the global umma: Gambian Tablighis religious beliefs and practices
Dr. Marloes Janson
Whereas my previous research project focused on the Gambian branch of the Tabligh Jama‘at, a transnational Islamic missionary movement, the current research explores the translocal religious networks in which the Gambian branch is embedded. In the project the conception of the Tablighi congregation as a global umma that at the same time covers a multiplicity of local and regional expressions is taken as the starting point. This point of departure will split off in two directions.
Since previous ethnographic field research indicated that Tablighis from other West African countries regularly assemble in The Gambia to attend Tablighi conferences and training courses and to preach, and that Gambian Tablighis often set out on missionary tours to neighbouring West African countries, the research will compare the Gambian Jama‘at with its branches in other West African countries, particularly Senegal and Nigeria, and will explore the links between them. The focus on Senegal stems from its geographical and cultural closeness to The Gambia. Nigeria was the first West African country in which the Jama‘at established itself.
Secondly, the Gambian Jama‘at will be linked with other Islamic reformist movements. Like the Gambian Tabligh Jama‘at, in Senegal the Jama‘at Ibad ar-Rahman has grown into a movement that has appeal among especially urban youth. In Nigeria Yan Izala has a similar ideology as the Tabligh Jama‘at, but the way in which the movement propagates it is different. Grounds on which the different reformist movements will be compared are, in addition to their ideas about their position within the global umma and their attitude towards Islamic education and politics, the ways in which they perform life-cycle rituals and Muslim festivals, interpret intergenerational and gender relations, and deal with Sufis and Sufi-related practices.
Studying the Gambian Jama‘at as part of the global umma is intended to illustrate that Islamic reformism is not a teleological, monolithic movement but, instead, is a diffuse process occurring at different levels, where the local, the supralocal and the translocal intersect. Such an approach is both appropriate and timely to unlock stereotypical images of an accommodating, syncretic Sufi Islam and a ‘fundamentalist’ Islam as a militant force with an overtly political agenda.