In the path of the Perfect Muslim: Normalising the Prophetic Ideal Type in the discourse of the Tablighi Jama'at in Southeast Asia

Dr. Farish Ahmad-Noor

Farish Ahmad-NoorDr. Farish A. Noor (born 1967 in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia) is presently Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University; where he is part of the research cluster ‘Transnational Religion in Southeast Asia’. He is also Affiliated Professor at Muhamadiyah University, Surakarta and Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Essex in 1997 in the field of governance and politics. His weekly columns appear in several regional newspapers in Southeast and South Asia. In 2005 he was voted as one of the top forty Malaysians who have shaped the development of post-colonial Malaysia.

Selected Publications

Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS 1951-2003 (2003), MSRI, Kuala Lumpur.

The Madrasah in Asia: Political Activism and Transnational Linkages (2008), University of Amsterdam press.

Writings on the War on Terror (2006), Global Media, Delhi.

The Other Malaysia (2002), Silverfish, Kuala Lumpur.

In the path of the Perfect Muslim: Normalising the Prophetic Ideal Type in the discourse of the Tablighi Jama'at in Southeast Asia

The Tablighi Jama'at is arguably the single biggest Muslim missionary movement in the world today, with members from almost every country in the world. Yet the movement is unique in the sense that it seeks to convert Muslims to becoming even better Muslims according to its own interpretation and standard of Muslim normative behaviour. As a movement that has attracted the interest of more and more scholars of contemporary Islam, one aspect of the Tabligh that is under-researched is the dimension of discourse and normativity in the conversion process of  the Tablighis themselves. Central to this project of conversion is the foregrounding of what we will call the ‘Prophetic ideal type’; a model of perfect Muslim normativity embodied in the discursively reconstructed accounts of the life and behavior of the Prophet, that has been central to the discourse of the Tablighi Jama’at movement and which serves as the benchmark for all modes of religious and social life for their members and converts.

This paper brings together a myriad of conversion narratives that were collected during the course of two years’ fieldwork across Southeast Asia, from Southern Thailand across   Malaysia to Indonesia; and attempts an analysis of the discourse of the converts themselves, as well as the religious normative discourse of the movement they have converted to. It will argue that in the conversion narratives of the Tablighis we can see that the factors that motivate their conversion range from the search for identity to a rejection of worldliness; a desire for an Islamic Utopia (centred on South Asia, rather than the Arab heartland) to the quest for a mode of Islamic ‘authenticity’ hitherto neglected in many of the studies of the movement.


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