Riverine Centre - Rebuttal Proof of Evidence
by- 20th June 2014
Town and Country Planning Act 1990
Site at Riverine Centre, Canning Road, Stratford London
Proof of Evidence
Jennifer Taylor BA (Hons), NCTJ Cert., Ph.D.
Newham Concern Limited
- My name is Dr Jennifer Taylor. I am Chief Executive of Lapido Media, The Centre for Religious Literacy in World Affairs. I have a Ph.D. in Sociology of Religion from the School of Oriental and African Studies. My doctorate After Secularism: Inner-City Governance and the New Religious Discourse concerned the sociology of Islam and governance in Britain’s inner cities. I have written or co-written several papers and books on Islam in Britain and on African and Christian religion. I am a Fellow of the Muslim Institute. A qualified and practising journalist for more than 35 years, I specialise in religious literacy and was Westminster Press’ first Race Relations Correspondent.
- Part of what I do for a living is to try to help journalists, think tanks and politicians with the religion dimension of social and political affairs. Lapido Media is a registered charity launched in 2007 by Dominic Lawson at the Frontline Club to help unblock the logjam in social affairs coverage after 7/7, up to which point all religions were being treated as if there were no differences. We have, I believe, had some success in this objective.
Scope of Evidence
- I have been asked to provide my opinion, on the basis of my knowledge of Tablighi Jamaat, on whether the development of the mosque which is the subject of this inquiry would result in an ‘inclusive’ and ‘cohesive’ community using the mosque. I have also been asked to comment on the status of women in Tablighi Jamaat and how they are likely to be treated in the mosque.
The Nature/Theology of Tablighi Jamaat
- Tablighi Jamaat means ‘preaching party’. It is a sect within Islam which has long roots in British India and colonial politics. It was founded by Mohammed Ilyas Kandhalawi after, it is said, receiving inspiration on pilgrimage to Mecca in 1925 to start a movement that would revive the strength of the faith in believers. Ilyas had trained at Deoband, the principal centre for reformist Islam in northeast India, established after the Indian Mutiny – known as the ‘First War of Independence’ - to regroup against the British. Deoband believes that Muslim societies lag behind the West because they have abandoned their dependence on Allah and fallen into amorality. The only way to return Islam to significance is through total rededication of individuals to Islam, and through following the way of life of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, down to exact details including sleeping on the floor, and using a twig for a toothbrush. Ilyas’ father is said to have taken an oath of jihad against the British at Deoband. Ilyas himself set out to counter the shuddhi or Hindu purification movement, opposing syncretism among the illiterate Meos, a Rajput tribe in southwest Delhi. He undertook visits encouraging the backslidden – as he saw it – to come to the mosque. The British had introduced reforms that encouraged political representation on the basis of religious affiliation. Numbers and self-identification mattered therefore. It is often said that Tablighi Jamaat is apolitical, but numbers count in any administrative system based on religion.
- Tablighi Jamaat expect the world to fall to Allah not by their own efforts at converting it – they generally do not seek non-Muslim converts - but as a reward for their loyalty to correct observance, and demographics. Their aim is to get to paradise. Their life is about prayer. It is the biggest Muslim dawah (invitation) movement in the world, and the most successful self-propagation methodology in Islam. Emissaries have visited Britain since the 1940s to create a spiritual home for economic migrants here. London, the former imperial capital, has always been desired as one of the three strategic global centres of the movement – after Delhi where the movement is still run by the founding family, and Mecca. The first – and still current - British amir so impressed the international amir whom he met on hajj in Mecca that, according to the world’s expert Yoginder Sikand, ‘he took him in front of the kaba and offered supplications to Allah to make him the instrument of winning the whole of Britain to Islam.’ (Sikand 2002: 225). This fact is also stated by two other authorities – one Muslim and one the former interfaith advisor to the Bishop of Bradford. It led to the construction of the Dewsbury markaz, the European centre, built partly with Saudi funds via the Muslim World League.
- Not only are Tablighi Jamaat not interested in surrounding society; they are encouraged to view it as unwholesome. The whole thrust of Tablighi Jamaat is purification: a return to a pristine version of Islam untrammelled by contamination by the world around them or other religious influence, even other forms of Islam. Only then will their fortunes be restored. A common Tablighi Jamaat metaphor for the world is ‘a toilet’. ‘Does anyone want to spend more time in the toilet than they have to?’ (Pieri 2012, citing scholars and adherents.) They are particularly opposed to secularism which they see as ‘deviant’, ‘a wave’ threatening to engulf them, and against which they must act fast. ‘Whatever you want to do, do it before this happens’ (Pieri 2012, citing Ilyas p. 39). They ban social contact with non-Muslims. Anything that is less than a total allegiance to Islam is a deviation from Allah’s ordained plan – and to be resisted – by definition.
- The effect of this ethos is inevitably centripetal, rather than centrifugal. It spins in upon itself, creating enclaves or ghettoes, and a separatist ethos. Consolidation is reinforced as ordinary Tablighi Muslims buy houses within the purview of a mosque or markaz, for the guidance and reassurance they seek. Key to the reinforcement of Islamic values, and social reinforcement are the proselytizing parties from which the group gets its name. All Tablighis are required constantly to travel around the country at their own expense or at the state’s1, staying in mosques, knocking on doors of backsliding Muslims to exhort them in the way of Allah and to observe Mohammed Ilyas’ central Six Points. The journeys vary from three days a month consecutive outside the locality, 40 days a year consecutive - a chillah – and a once in a lifetime grand chillah of 120 days consecutive, usually abroad. As with all small platoon experiences, this also serves to create strong bonds of identity and sense of common purpose.
- Distinctive dress and the insistence upon it acts as a territorial as well as identity marker. Women must wear a ‘black sheet’, covered ‘top to toe’;; male attire, from length of beard to length of trouser, is also prescribed. This also serves to signal to other Tablighi members that one is observant and assured of salvation. These systems of social conformity generate a sense of assurance. At best this gives peace, and at worst generates economic and social stagnation, fear and suspicion against outsiders and the wider community that can be exploited by the unscrupulous.
Experience of Tablighi Jamaat
- My most direct experience of the Tablighi Jamaat arose from a visit I made to the movement’s principal Markaz or centre in Nizamuddin in Old Delhi in January 2009 and also to the Dar ul Uloom [School of Knowledge] at Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, 70 miles northeast of Delhi, from which the Tablighi Jamaat (and also the Taliban) gain their inspiration. These were not academic visits, and did not constitute academic fieldwork. I went as a journalist. I believe I may be the only non-Muslim from Britain who has visited either place, and certainly the only woman who has visited the zenana or women’s quarters. I am the only Western woman ever allowed open access to the mosque at Deoband.
- As a journalist who had made an extended academic study of secularization and the effects of Islamic migration on governance and on secularization in Britain, I was curious about the plans for and likely effects of a 70,000 capacity mosque in the country’s capital city. This proposal (though later scaled down) earned the sobriquet ‘megamosque’ after this announcement on the website Mangera Yvars Architects Limited which was picked up by The Sunday Times and then The Telegraph in late November 2005. My intention was to find out for myself what the Tablighi Jamaat were like in their country of origin, and ask the leaders why they planned to build such a huge mosque and centre in Britain.
- The Markaz is a modern building of Islamic architecture rearing up very starkly in white concrete or marble in the midst of a poor basti or slum where Tablighi Jamaat members run small shops or booths for literature and provisions for the gasht or proselytizing journeys they are bidden to make. The presence of this huge multistorey centre seems remarkably divorced from even the narrow lanes around it where beggars sit at the gate and hawkers sell oranges and other things sitting on the pavements. This is a big teaching centre, where Tablighis come from all the world including Britain, to train and from where they fan out on their dawah journeys with nothing but a sleeping bag and a special pair of shoes.
- I went in alone. I was greeted in a friendly way by a young turbaned man inside the precincts who waved me on towards a door on which I knocked. I was let in and found myself in what I realized were the women’s quarters. A group of women all in shawls of various kinds stood and stared at me. An older bespectacled woman greeted me, and ushered me into a room lined with floor cushions, on one of which I sat alone for some time. Women came and went, and one who spoke English later sat and made conversation with me. She told me she had her period and would not be allowed to pray. I made my request to see the Amir. I was plied very kindly with nuts, sultanas, and tea. After some while, a woman who told me she was the Amir’s wife, Mrs Saad, beckoned me forward. She told me to sit on the floor with my back to a curtained aperture in the wall. I heard voices behind me, and the door was opened. I was able to turn my head slantwise to glance at who it was: two elderly bearded men. One of these men told me he was Professor Sana’a Suhan, a statistician from Aligarh University; not the Amir who was away. The other man said he lived in Britain.
- My interview is recorded in a blog I wrote and can be referred to at
- After the interview I was called to prayer with a group of women who had filed into the room for the azhan. Someone put my veil over my head and told me to pray with the prayers that were being relayed over a speaker on the wall.
- This was one of only two interviews I’ve ever conducted in 35 years without being able to look at my interviewee. The other was with the former pop singer Cat Stevens just after he became Yusuf Islam. Mufti Bulandshahri, a Tablighi Jamaat authority, says: ‘Women should not come before strangers. They may give to strangers a short reply to their questions from behind a screen.’ This was the very same attitude that prevailed in the zenanas or women’s quarters in 1850s India. A women’s charity I worked for from 1989 to 1995 had been founded in 1852 to attend to sick women in India’s zenanas. With no women doctors, sick women up to that point, according to one authority, could show only their tongues through a hole in a curtain.
- I visited the Markaz in Savile Town in Dewsbury in August 2009 and the blog of my visit can be found at http://www.lapidomedia.com/re-made-in-our-image I went with two Pakistani friends, and a local Anglican priest, also Pakistani, who had started building links with the mosque proper, and already had befriended an old Pakistani maulana with whom we later had tea.
- The Tablighi Jamaat denies it is secretive or separatist, and a spokesman had publicly denied it again in a BBC interview.
‘If you make yourself known to the organisers, I don’t see any reason why you are not allowed to go in and have a word with anybody you want to’, said the Director of the Newham project Abdul Khaliq, in a news item in 2006, when challenged by the reporter Tim Whewell.
- In fact, we were not allowed in and no one would see us. When I asked if I might meet some Tablighi Jamaat women as I had done in Delhi, I was told by a man who said he was the Islamics teacher: ‘We believe in keeping women in the home.’ He also refused to shake my hand on departing, and said he only shook hands with his wife. We had not been allowed to enter the building, but were made to stop at a line just inside the entrance. He explained we would need to speak to the ‘secretary for foreign affairs’ if we wanted an appointment. I asked what foreign meant. He said: ‘Anything outside this building.’
- In 2011 I commissioned, as head of Lapido Media, a young political scientist Zacharias Pieri to write a brief, user-friendly digest of the facts about Tablighi Jamaat and the Riverine mosque planning process, based on his doctorate. It was the first handy book we undertook, helping journalists understand the nuances of religion. I was sufficiently alarmed about the ignorance surrounding this group to make fundraising for this book a priority.
- The book was launched at Frontline in Paddington at the end of 2012 to a capacity crowd including three TJ members and many senior journalists such as the News Editor of the Sunday Telegraph. Ziauddin Sardar, Chairman of the Muslim Institute was the main panellist, interviewed by Dan Damon of the BBC World Service. The book was endorsed by the classicist Tom Holland, author of the acclaimed In the Shadow of the Sword and by Dr Philip Lewis, author of ground-breaking works Islamic Britain and Young, Muslim and British. He endorsed the book as ‘a model of its kind’. ‘In the context of polarised perceptions, Muslim and non-Muslim, about Tablighi Jamaat, this remains an accessible, balanced and informative report …’ The book is available on Amazon and on Kindle. Tablighi Jamaat personnel, including a trustee, attended the public launch.
- Lapido Media has subsequently tasked our correspondents with assignments to do with Tablighi Jamaat, most recently Ruth Gledhill, who was, until recently, Religion Correspondent for the Times.
The inclusivity or otherwise of Tablighi Jamaat
- Tablighi Jamaat by definition exists to create a social capsule from which to get to paradise, and outside influence is strictly utilitarian: a means to an end. Indeed, according to Canadian scholar Shaheen H Azmi, ‘The challenge of modernity is one that the Tablighi Jama'at handles not by arming its followers intellectually and ideologically, but rather by isolating them from its effects (Azmi p 237).
- Accordingly, to say that the mosque which is the subject of the inquiry would be ‘inclusive’ and ‘cohesive’ would be like expecting a pear tree to produce potatoes. It is a category error. My visit to Nizamuddin had moments of delight: the welcome I was given was gracious and kind. However, I was expected to perform the salat or Muslim prayer without question. One would be included only after having converted (or reverted) to Islam. Indeed, a Pakistani Christian male friend who made a subsequent visit with a Sikh bodyguard, was told repeatedly he must revert. Other Muslims are deeply at odds with Tablighi Jamaat, as is evidenced in Reading, where another mosque project on land gifted by the Council for a mosque for ‘all the community’ has foundered for ten years over its exclusion of Barelvis in the decision-making process, contrary to the conditions of the gift. TJ deplore life-cycle rituals, and do not celebrate Mohammed’s birthday, events dear to the Barelvis.
- In 1996, following the first Bradford riots, the first religion riots on the British mainland in 1995, I wrote the following: ‘The issue for [us all] in the multicultural millennium is not so much the “Islamization” of a once-Christian culture as the emergence, with state collusion, of discrete territories where vastly different norms prevail, shut off and sometimes resentful, a breeding ground for ferment and a target for hostility. The discreteness of these territories exists not just by the ‘accident’ of settlement but by dint of prevailing legislative and intellectual norms. The Bradford Commission Report makes one fleeting but telling reference to politicized Muslim activists who, it is clear, are not ‘responsible’ for creating impenetrable Muslim colonies, but who are waiting in the wings to foment social unrest if matters are ignored much longer.’ (Newbigin, Sanneh, and Taylor 1998: 107).
- It is for these reasons that the views expressed by Muslim commentators about this particular proposal should not be lightly dismissed, for example, by Imam Dr Taj Hargey and Ms Tehmina Khazi in their evidence to the 2011 public inquiry. With the withdrawal of Ms Kazi from this inquiry, that material is attached to this Proof as an accompanying appendix.
- In a religion characterised by sectarianism, Tablighi Jamaat is uniquely rigorous, giving rise to concerns expressed recently by the Muslim Institute of possible cultic origins and operation (See ‘Sects’, Volume 10 of Critical Muslim, June 2014, p.9).
Cults by definition shut their adherents off from normative society. In Toronto, home of Canada's largest concentration of Muslims, but also the major centre of Tablighi activity for all of Canada and arguably for all of North America, Shaheen Azmi writes that Tablighi Jama'at has been ‘almost unique in the Muslim community for inspiring in its followers isolationist attitudes which run against the grain of multicultural notions. This is reflected in that it alone, of all the major Islamic groupings in the Toronto area, has been able to inspire the formation of the rudiments of Muslim ghettos’ (2000: 236).
- I understand that the present proposal includes provision for women, namely a dedicated prayer space. I am of the opinion that such a space is not conducive to ‘inclusion’. It is an oxymoron. Such a space generates at the heart of the undertaking a rubric of segregation and separateness that would by definition limit the centre’s hospitality in Britain’s capital city.
- The increasing availability in Muslim bookshops across Britain of the core Tablighi Jamaat text for women – Heavenly Ornaments (Bihishti Zewar in Urdu) - written for women by Maulana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanwi (d. 1942) and readily available in translation, should be the context in which all provision for women is seen. This text embodies a set of assumptions and ideals for women which, says scholar Philip Lewis, ‘cannot but be problematic in twenty-first-century Britain.’ It is worth quoting him in full: ‘A scholarly annotated translation of this work notes that it takes for granted that women are socially subordinate to men. Indeed, religious knowledge is commended for women so as to be better able to ‘manage’ them. The ideal is for women to remain at home, secluded from all but family and selected female friends. Thanwi “lists women among men’s possessions. Following the hadi [hadith], he identified dominant women as a sign of the Last Day . . . women [generally] are the greatest number in hell . . . A woman is to follow her husband’s will and whims in all things, to seek his permission on all issues . . . ‘She is expected to be responsible for her husband’s happiness and to respond to his mood . . . “Never think of him as your equal, never let him do any work for you . . .”’ (Lewis 2007: 45, citing Metcalfe 1990: 23). Metcalfe notes: ‘A translation of the Bihishti Zewar is now required reading for Tablighi members in Great Britain.’ (Metcalf 1990: 5)
- There are no facilities for women at Nizamuddin, other than the azhan relayed by speaker into the women’s domestic quarter. The dedicated prayer facility proposed here would seem to be a concession to women, who generally do not even go to the main Friday prayers, but remain with the children, the shop or whatever while their husband attends. Accordingly, such concessions should be viewed with the greatest care, particularly as to their lasting delivery.
- I also note the provision of four tennis courts (and two Multi Use Games Areas) which could be used for women, but do so cautiously in light of the opposition to women participating in sport in Islam. Saudi Arabia was the last Olympic country in the world to send women – just two – to the 2012 Olympics, two weeks before they commenced. Girls are banned from taking part in sports in government schools in Saudi Arabia. For the heart of Islam is conservative; and Tablighi Jamaat, with its conservative male ethos, will be always affected by that – no matter what Muslim women in other forms of Islam may be doing.
Summary & Conclusions
- Tablighi Jamaat by definition exists to create a social capsule from which to get to paradise, and outside influence is strictly utilitarian: a means to an end. Accordingly, the religious practices of its followers are and must remain rigid and uncompromising. The effect of this ethos is inevitably centripetal, rather than centrifugal. It spins in upon itself, creating enclaves and leading to closed communities.
- As the religious practices of Tablighi Jamaat followers do not permit gender equality or social integration, regrettably, the outworking of such practices would not lead to the principles of social cohesion and inclusiveness being achieved. Therefore, if permitted, this mosque complex would inevitably become an enclosed environment with an inward-looking community.
Azmi, Shaheen H. 2000 ‘A Movement or a Jama'at? Tablighi Jama'at in Canada’ in Muhammad Khalid Masud Travellers in Faith: Studies of the Tablighi Jamaat as a Transnational Islamic Movement for Faith Renewal Leiden: Brill.
Metcalfe, Barbara 1990 Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf’Ali Thanawi’s Bihisthti Zewar (Heavenly Ornaments) London: University of California Press.
Pieri, Zacharias 2012 Tablighi Jamaat London: Lapido Media
Sardar, Ziauddin 2004 Desperately Seeking Paradise Cambridge: Granta
Sikand, Yoginder 2002 The Origins and Development of the Tablighi Jamaat (1920-2000): A
Comparative Study Hyderabad: Orient Longman
1 These tours are obligatory for all Tabligh Jamaaat Muslims. Sikand says: ‘…in Britain, unlike in South Asia, unemployed people can receive financial assistance from the state [which] means that, theoretically, proportionately more people from poorer families can afford to go on jama’at.(Sikand 2002: 230)