The mysterious Islamic movement quietly sweeping the Middle East

An ultraconservative Muslim order that preaches nonmilitancy is gaining followers across the region. Does Dawah represent an antidote to Islamic State or another threat to the West?


Amr Abdallah Dalsh/REUTERS
The moon rises over the minaret of a mosque in Wadi El-Rayan Lake, which is southwest of Cairo. Some disillusioned members of the Muslim Brotherhood Islamic group, which is now banned in Egypt, are joining the Dawah movement because it is apolitical.

Abu Murad surveys the captive audience in the mosque in West Amman, Jordan. Several latecomers kneel for the sunset Maghrib prayer, while others perform individual Sunna prayers in the corner. A handful of old men whisper passages from the Quran in the back. “I was a Muslim,” Abu Murad begins, gazing at the crowd. “But I did not know Islam.”

For 15 minutes, Abu Murad works the crowd of 60. He talks about his past failings, of being too distracted by worldly pleasures to pray regularly. He evokes tales of the prophet Muhammad’s companions who trekked hundreds of miles and braved bandits and armies to spread the word of Islam back in the 7th century. 

Now, in the age of mass transit and modern technology, the hardships are fewer, but the Islamic world has never been more in need of a spiritual revival. If the prophet’s companions sacrificed their lives to preach Islam, he argues, surely Arab Muslims can do the same thing.

At first, out of curiosity, or maybe politeness, the crowd at the mosque sticks around. But, now, nearly all are listening – intently. 

“Religion is not just prayer: It is action! It is effort!” Abu Murad says, his voice rising. “And we Muslims have never been more in need of action.”

Then comes the moment of truth. “Who’s willing? Who’s ready?” he asks.

Dozens of hands shoot into the air. Men, young and old, in Western suits and white thobes, some leftists, others Islamists and tribal followers, all pledge themselves to one of the fastest-growing Islamic movements now sweeping the Middle East – Dawah and Tabligh.

What began as a revivalist movement for a beleaguered Muslim minority in British-ruled India has over the past century transformed into a global phenomenon that may have as many as 50 million followers. Strictly apolitical, Dawah urges members to undertake a personal spiritual journey in the manner of Muhammad and his followers. 

Their task is to travel lightly and spread the word to fellow Muslims – from village to village, mosque to mosque – so that more are brought into the fold. Armed only with backpacks, sleeping bags, and a simple message, Dawah activists are going door-to-door in more than 200 countries, including the United States.

But in the past four years, no region has seen faster growth than the Arab world, where tens of thousands of jaded youth have been drawn by Dawah’s call. For this generation of Islamist-minded youth, the failure of movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood to rule in Egypt and growing disillusionment with the chaos and nihilism caused by Islamist and jihadist militias in Syria and Iraq have left a gaping void. From the heart of Cairo to the war-ravaged Syrian countryside, Islamist losses have largely been Dawah’s gains. 

A popular alternative to the politics of hatred as practiced by groups such as Islamic State (IS) would be balm for a region roiled by conflict. Western capitals reeling from the recent Paris terror attacks would also welcome such a counterforce. But does the rise of Dawah, an austere, secretive movement spreading a literalistic creed that rejects modern life, really hold out that promise?

By urging followers to heed the ways of Muhammad, and by insisting on the segregation of men and women in public, Dawah echoes some of the teachings espoused by the Taliban and other ultraconservative groups. 

Rather than Dawah being a check on extremism, some critics say its brand of Islam can be a gateway to the very practices that it says it wants to counter. In Britain, it has attracted followers such as Richard Reid, who tried in late 2001 to detonate a shoe bomb aboard a US-bound plane. 

The group insists that its message is nonviolent and that it harbors no hatred for other faiths or peoples. Instead, it seeks to show Muslims that the injustice and oppression they face in countries like Syria are a symptom of a society that has lost its morality. They insist the solution lies not in armed resistance or political activism but in spiritual practice. 

Views on Dawah are sharply divided: Is it truly a nonviolent antidote to groups like IS, or another danger for the West to worry about in the caldron of Greater Middle Eastern religious movements?

•     •     •

When Mohammed Ilyas Kandhlawi began his revivalist movement in northwest India in 1927, it was a response to a dominant Hindu culture that Muslims feared could sweep away centuries of Islamic norms and traditions. Mr. Kandhlawi, director of an Islamic school, wanted to take his teachings from the classroom to the common man and woman. 

In Urdu, it was dubbed Tablighi Jamaat, or proselytizing group. Its name later evolved to Dawah and Tabligh in Arabic, meaning calling and proselytizing. 

Dawah was rooted in the Deobandi school of Sunni Islam that emerged in northern India in the 19th century. Deobandis sought to educate Muslims and encourage their spiritual growth, while emphasizing the need to purify the faith of Hindu.

The Deobandi movement was split by the partition of India in 1947. It remains influential in Pakistan, where its seminaries trained Islamic militants who fought in Kashmir and Afghanistan, including Taliban leaders. But Dawah leaders say their movement today is not bound to Deobandis or any specific school of thought. 

Kandhlawi died in 1944. But the decentralized movement he created has become a global network, propelled by its simple revivalist message and by the dedication of mostly young men drawn by its idealism. Its biggest annual event is a three-day prayer and fast held in Bangladesh that attracts as many as 5 million followers, making it one of the largest gathering of Muslims in the world after the hajj pilgrimage. [Editor's note: The relative size of this event was misstated in an earlier version.]

Every day, thousands of groups of Dawah followers go on missions, called kharooj. Like Jehovah’s Witnesses, they approach people door-to-door. They dress in the flowing white thobe worn by Muhammad and his followers, complete with white turbans. They give a two-minute speech, offer a blessing to the people they visit, and make one request: that they join them for prayer and a brief lecture at the neighborhood mosque. 

In their lessons, drawn from Quranic verses and the recorded sayings of Muhammad, Dawah supporters lay out two simple aims. First, they encourage fellow Muslims to return to what they believe are the standards and morals of the prophet’s companions. Second, they recruit, asking worshipers to join Dawah and take part in kharooj

Dawah supporters are urged to proselytize three days per month, 40 consecutive days per year, and in four month-long missions in their lifetime. 

This formula means a constant influx of fresh recruits, akin to the chain marketing approach used by Tupperware and Mary Kay. But there is no physical product to sell, only a set of six principles that Dawah members must uphold, including a commitment to prayer and study, to honor fellow Muslims, and to sincerity of intention. 

To set an example, Dawah followers attempt to emulate the social practices of Muhammad in all aspects of life, ranging from which foot should exit the mosque first to which direction to face when sleeping at night. They eat from communal platters on the ground and brush their teeth with twigs known for their antibacterial properties, as did the prophet’s companions. 

Dawah activists often have no formal education or training; conviction of heart comes before Islamic knowledge. Any layman can learn the movement’s ways and become a sheikh. Its management style puts Dawah closer to “Occupy Wall Street” than a traditional Islamic group: It treats all members new and old as equals and puts all motions to a popular vote. 

Dawah supporters don’t engage in theological debates or broadcast their teachings via YouTube. The movement has no website, no social media channels. It even forbids its followers from delivering the Friday sermon that is the soapbox of the Arab street. 

It’s an approach that seems to be working. 

•     •     •

Mohammed Mustapha stands behind the counter of his cluttered one-room minimarket on the corner of a bustling neighborhood in west Cairo. He used to be an ardent supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s largest and best organized Islamist movement. But after the group’s sudden rise to power, capped by the election of Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt in 2012, Mr. Mustapha soon became disillusioned. He felt the Brotherhood had failed to bring about a greater Islamization of Egyptian society. He fretted that his years of activism had taken him further from, not closer to, God.

“For years, we focused on political reform, parliamentary seats, and the presidential palace – and where did it get us?” asks Mustapha.

Then a group of Dawah followers came to his doorstep with an offer: Come to the local mosque and tell your story. He soon became an active member and joined their proselytizing missions.

“Now we are fighting the real battle for the hearts of Muslims and Egyptian Muslims,” he says, looking out from behind a stacked pyramid of Nutella, Snickers bars, and Lay’s potato chips bags. 

As the most populous country in the Arab world, Egypt has long been a prize for Islamists. Dawah activists sense their time has now come. Mr. Morsi, who was ousted by the Egyptian military in 2013, sits in prison facing a death sentence for treason. The Brotherhood has once again been banned from Egypt. Other Islamist groups face pressure from the military-backed government, too. 

Not Dawah. By avoiding politics and not criticizing government policies, the group has been spared the harsh crackdown. Activists say the movement is experiencing a “renaissance” in Egypt and may have doubled its membership in the past five years.

Although leaders of the movement declined to be interviewed for this story, outside analysts and Egyptian Dawah members estimate the group’s numbers at roughly 300,000. From its headquarters in Giza on the outskirts of Cairo, hundreds of Dawah followers fan out across the country to win new recruits. 

Experts say the setbacks suffered by political Islamists in Egypt and other Muslim countries roiled by the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings have created fertile ground for revivalist movements like Dawah.  

“People who are disenfranchised with Islam and the way it is presented in the world gravitate towards [Dawah and] Tabligh,” says Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana who has studied the group. It offers “an Islamic authenticity and identity, something that many in the Brotherhood are suddenly finding themselves searching for.”

When Egyptians went to the polls in November 2011, Salafist and Islamist groups across the spectrum put up candidates. At the time, many speculated Dawah would, too. Instead, its leaders in Egypt refused to endorse a single party or presidential candidate. In retrospect, that decision was propitious.

Now thousands of former Brotherhood followers are turning away from the political arena. “We tried to change laws to change the society and we failed,” says Mohammed, another Dawah convert, who would only give his first name.

Like others in his social circle, he says the Brotherhood shares some blame for its dramatic downfall since its leaders had become caught up in the “worldly corruptions” that Dawah shuns. According to this argument, participating in elections for a mandate to govern is not the right path to transforming a society. What must come first is spiritual purity. 

As a Brotherhood youth activist, Mohammed says he and his friends went to the barricades in Cairo in 2013 after Morsi was kicked out of power. Now he asks if they were fighting the wrong war. 

“We were full of hatred; we were dwelling on worldly things such as power, which history shows is no match for love and mercy,” he says. “When we change people’s hearts, then we will finally have the Egypt we dreamed of.” 

•     •     •

In an apartment in Amman, another Mohammed furrows his brow and drops his head into his hands. For the past 20 minutes, he has been nodding politely and sipping from an increasingly cold glass of sweet tea as he listens to three men sitting cross-legged across the room. 

The visitors are activists who were mobilized quickly by Dawah leaders and sent to reason with the 20-year-old Syrian, who is struggling with a choice: Which armed jihadist group should he join? 

To the Dawah activists, this is no choice at all. This is why they have rushed to the apartment at 11 o’clock at night – to extol the virtues of “loving thy fellow Muslims and non-Muslims.” 

“Excuse me, sheikhs, I appreciate your time and wisdom,” Mohammed says, his eyes locked on the floor. “But we are in a state of war in Syria. Muslims are being slaughtered every day. It is my duty, and our duty, to defend the Muslim nation – to wage jihad.”

Dawah activist Abu Adam smiles, then quickly responds. “But jihad is not waged on the battlefields; it is waged in the hearts of men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Dawah is jihad.”

Mohammed, not looking up, mutters a Quranic verse, a rehearsed response to justify his decision. “Surat Al Hajj of the Quran says: ‘Permission to fight is granted to believers against whom war is waged....’ ”

Abu Adam quickly completes the verse. “Because they are oppressed and God has the power to grant them victory.” 

He then adds another saying of his own. “When those raise their swords against Islam, God will raise the swords of the nonbelievers against them.”

Look, he continues, not taking his eyes off Mohammed, the wars and catastrophes afflicting the Islamic world are just symptoms. 

“In order to heal, you must cure the disease, not cure the symptom – it is basic science. And the disease is Muslims’ abandonment of Islam,” he tells the young man. 

For some of the millions of Muslims afflicted by the grinding wars of Iraq and Syria, Yemen and Libya, the call to violent jihad can be strong and persistent. For Dawah, this is a frontal challenge to its core message that the path to salvation lies in reaffirming Islamic tenets. It’s unclear how effective this approach is proving. 

Dawah activists claim that over the past year they have convinced hundreds of young Muslim men in Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia that they should not join the ranks of IS. Still, in the past month alone they have seen two radicalized youths in Jordan slip through their grasp; they are now believed to be fighting in Syria. 

Such interventions turn on the persuasion of Dawah followers. They urge disaffected youth to heed the call of grass-roots social activism. The emphasis on a “higher purpose” strikes a chord with Islamists. The belief is that only when the Islamic world is united spiritually can its myriad ills ever end. For now, the movement avows, all political causes are “distractions” on the divine path to Islamic harmony. By contrast, jihadist groups like IS and Al Qaeda say military action to defend Muslim lands is a righteous path. 

“Corruption, unemployment, and oppression are driving Muslim youths to run away from their lives and run towards something greater,” says Alaa Omar, a Jordanian activist. “We wish more would run to Dawah, but there are still some that run into the arms of jihadists.”

Tired and backed into a theological corner, young Mohammed finally relents. “OK, OK, I won’t go right away,” he says. “I will give it a chance.”

“Forty days kharooj?” Abu Adam asks.

“Forty days,” Mohammed says. “But if I still feel the call, I will go to Syria right away.”

Leaving the apartment, Abu Adam is confident. “Once they open their hearts and join us, they never go back,” he says.

•     •     •

For all its efforts to talk down radicalized youth, Dawah has had its own encounters with militancy. Its illiberal version of Islam and rejection of modernity has attracted followers who later went on to endorse violence against the West in the name of Islam. Mohammad Sidique Khan, who plotted the July 2005 terror attacks in London, had prayed at a Dawah-affiliated mosque in northern England. John Walker Lindh, an American who fought for the Taliban, reportedly attended Dawah meetings in the US, where the group says it now has 50,000 followers. 

Dawah officials say these individuals broke every tenet of their faith and don’t represent the movement. They point out that jihadist militants are opposed to Dawah and their core message of spiritual self-improvement. 

The movement isn’t helped by its own secrecy and suspicion of outsiders. In Britain, members of the movement have been accused of promoting an anti-integrationist agenda and nurturing the idea that Western values pose a threat to Muslims. Critics say they espouse intolerant views that create a climate in which extremists can flourish. 

Dawah urges women, who are barely visible in the movement, to wear the full face veil. Women followers gather in homes, not mosques. In pursuing kharooj, women meet with other women at a neighborhood “guesthouse.” The Dawah men are not far away, providing groceries and food for the female activists. (Male Dawah members, who support a highly segregated approach, declined a reporter’s request to interview women for this piece.) 

Dawah sees secular music and TV as corrupting influences. Critics allege a long-term goal of creating puritanical Muslim enclaves that reject the legitimacy of secular governments.  

Still, in the pantheon of Islamist groups that worry Western intelligence agencies, Dawah is not a major concern. While certain individuals “may be of interest,” says a Western diplomat in the Arab world, the movement isn’t seen as a security threat on par with more-radical groups. 

Graham Fuller, a former senior Central Intelligence Agency analyst who monitored Islamist movements, is skeptical of claims that Dawah is a gateway to extremism. He argues that it represents a nonviolent alternative and that its expansion should be welcomed on this basis. 

“If some people say, ‘look, we don’t want Dawah here at all,’ then they are not living in the real world,” he says. The movement “is speaking to a very basic need to express one’s faith beyond prayer.” 

In the US and Europe, Dawah targets Muslim communities where it encourages second- or third-generation citizens of African or Asian descent to return to their roots. The movement also acts as a free resource for new converts, providing guidance and education. It has Islamic centers in New York and Chicago. 

Dawah activists say they want to improve the perception of Islam among non-Muslims. By showcasing the tenets of Islam – generosity, loving thy fellow man and woman, respect for nature, cleanliness, humility – they seek to combat prejudices. 

In the Arab world, Dawah’s impact is broad but hard to measure. It has almost no infrastructure or central budget, and decisions are made by a loose network of sheikhs, with limited coordination with its headquarters in India. Every gathering and kharooj is self-funded by the volunteers themselves, who often depend on locals for meals. 

Indeed, Dawah’s greatest strength may be its greatest weakness: It has no larger platform or agenda, other than the call to proselytize. 

This narrow vision reflects the movement’s roots in serving an educational role for uninformed Muslims, says Hassan Abu Haniya, a Jordanian expert on Islamist movements. “They simply have no larger goals and do not speak to the causes and crises of the day.”

Mr. Abu Haniya warns that Dawah’s lack of a greater narrative can lead some followers to turn toward political Islamist movements such as the Brotherhood, traditional Salafists, and even jihadists.

Professor Moosa, who first encountered the movement at a mosque in his native South Africa, describes it as “Islam 101,” without any advanced classes. “For some it is just not enough. It is good for the heart, but not intellectually satisfying, which is why you see so many cross over” to Islamist groups with a political agenda. 

In stark contrast to what members of militant groups such as IS believe, Dawah leaders contend that at the end of the day, love and prayer will conquer all.

“We do not want power, we do not want money, we do not want influence,” says Mr. Omar, the Jordanian Dawah veteran. 

“We only want God’s love for all. That is the secret to our success.”

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