South Asian revivalist Islamic movements and their political potential


Even apparently apolitical Islamic groups may become politically charged, writes Thomas K. Gugler (Goethe University, Frankfurt) in a report in German published by the Austrian Fund for the Documentation of Religiously Motivated Political Extremism (February). Gugler focuses on lay preachers working within revivalist missionary movements from South Asia, such as the Tabliġhi Jamaʿat and the Daʿwat-e Islamī, whose primary goal is to encourage Muslims to deepen their piety or return to the strict practice of Islam through imitation of the Prophet Muhammad. In German-speaking Europe, most scholars in Islamic Studies pay less attention to South Asian Islam than to Arabic Muslim movements, although a third of all Muslims live in South Asia. The Tablighis have their roots in Barelvi and Deobandi reform movements in that part of the world. Founded in 1927, the Tabliġhi Jamaʿat started its international missions in the 1960s. After several failed attempts, the Barelvis succeeded in organizing their own missionary movement, the Daʿwat-e Islamī, in 1981, imitating the missionary travel that made the Tabliġhi Jamaʿat famous. In both movements, small, strongly knit groups of 5 to 10 highly committed lay preachers gather for short periods as “caravans” for preaching Islam, seeking to transform “nominal Muslims” into devout followers.

Male followers of Daʿwat-e Islamī are advised to devote one day every week to a missionary tour in the area where they are living. Gugler uses the term “Sunnitization” (Sunnaisierung in German) to describe apolitical forms of Islamization (in contrast to political re-Islamization movements) that allow young and convert Muslims to acquire a strong religious identity with a demonstrative rejection of Western cultural goods. Currently, Daʿwat-e Islamī is developing its preaching work in Austria. In Vienna, female lay preachers belonging to the movement appear to be especially successful, as they attempt to emulate not only the Prophet himself, but also his daughter Fatima as a female role model. Gugler writes that the movement is quite naturally influenced by its South Asian background and by debates there, especially in Pakistan, where severe penalties (up to death) for blasphemy have become an important issue. Punishing blasphemers is understood as pious violence. In that context, the Barelvi-influenced Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party was launched some 10 years ago. Gugler suggests that the potential of violence from Barelvi extremists as well as the political implications of apolitical preaching should not be overlooked—without forgetting also the implications of the growing public visibility of Islamic religiosity for Muslim integration in Europe.

(Dokumentationsstelle Politi er Islam,; on the impact of Pakistan’s blasphemy debates in Europe, see also the report by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, “Understanding and Responding to Blasphemy Extremism in the UK,”