Mawlana Muhammad Ilyas, the founder of the Tablighi Jama’at of South Asian subcontinent, is arguably one of the most influential, yet least well-known , figures of the twentieth century Islam. Despite his enormous contribution towards the development of a powerful grass root Islamic Da’wah movement, Mawlana Ilyas has not received much attention in the literature on modern Islamic movements. Most of the Western, and even Muslim, scholarships have remain occupied with the more spectacular and dramatic manifest ions of Islamic revivalist upsurge. The available literature on Maulana Ilyas and his Tablighi movement is mostly in Urdu and that too consists mainly of inspirational works by its leaders and devotional writings by its followers and supporters.
Mawlana Ilyas was born in 1885 in a small town in the United Province of British India in a family of religious scholars. He received his early religious education at home and later went to the famous center of Islamic education in Deoband where he studied the Qur’an, Hadith, Fiqh and other Islamic sciences under the early Deoband luminaries. After completing his education at Deoband, Mawlana Ilyas took up a teaching position at another famous Madarsah Mazaharul Uloom in Saharanpur (U.P., India). It was at this point in his life that Mawlana Ilyas became aware of the "dismal Islamic situation" in the Mewat region near Delhi where majority of Muslims were living a life that had very little to do with Islamic teachings and practices. Mawlana Ilyas sent several of his disciples to Mewat to survey the situation and later himself undertook many Da’wah trips there. Mawlana Ilyas met Mewati Muslims who could not even recite Shahadah and who had not prayed even once in their life because they did not know how to pray. He saw Muslims greeting each other in a typical Hindu manner; some had even adopted Hindu deities and visited Hindu temples to participate in devotional practices. Mawlana Ilyas fully aware of the difficult task ahead was, nevertheless, determined to bring the Meo Muslims back to the fold of true Islam.
In the early 1920s, he prepared a team of young Madrasa graduates from Deoband and Saharanpur and sent them to Mewat to establish a network of Masajid and Madrasas throughout the region. He soon realized, however, that the Madrasa ulama trained in the Deoband tradition were simply reproducing their prototypes and had no significant impact on society at large. Mawlana Ilyas concluded that these Madrasas were ill-equipped to produce Muslim preachers who would be willing to go door to door and remind people of their Islamic obligations. These institution were good only for producing religious functionaries, not Da’wah workers. It was because dissatisfaction with the Madrasas that Mawlana Ilyas resigned from a prestigious teaching position at Madrasa Mazaharul Uloom in Saharanpur and came to Basti Nizamuddin in the old quarters of Delhi to begin his Da’wah. The Tablighi movement was born in this place in 1926.
Basti Nzamuddin became his permanent residence as well as the headquarter of the Tablighi movement. The new movement met with dramatic success in relatively short period of time, thanks to Mawlana Ilyas’s utmost devotion, untiring efforts and sincerity of purpose. As a result many Muslims joined Mawlana Ilyas to preach the message of Islam in every town and village of Mewat. The rapid success of his efforts can be seen from the fact that the first Tablighi conference held in November 1941 in Mewat was attended by 25,000 people many of them had walked on foot for ten to fifteen miles to attend the conference. Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi, the founder of the Jama’at-e-Islami paid glowing tribute to the spectacular successes of the Da’wah efforts of Mawlana Ilyas in Mewat and elsewhere in India and described the Tablighi movement as a major step toward the Islamization of Indian Muslim society. Mawlana Ilyas was neither a charismatic leader like Mawlana Mohammad Ali Jauhar of the Khilafat movement, nor an outstanding religious scholar like Abul Kalam Azad of the Indian National Congress. He was not even a good public speaker like Ataullah Shah Bukhari of the Ahrar movement. Unlike Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi of the Jamaat –e-Islami who was a prolific writer and a systematic thinker, Mawlana Ilyas did not author a single book in his life. Physically frail and intellectually unassuming, Mawlana Ilyas was, nevertheless, enthused with the zeal of a dedicated Da’wah worker. His passion to reach out to the Muslim masses and touch them with the message of the Qur’an and Sunnah knew no bounds. Like a true missionary, he was persistent, untiring, and whole-heartedly devoted to his cause. During one of his many missionary tours of Mewat, he was once hit with a stick by a peasant upon whom he was impressing the importance of leading a religious life. The Mawlana, already physically frail, fell on the ground and collapsed. When he regained consciousness, he got up and, holding his assistant affectionately, said: "Look, you have done your job. Now would you let me do my job and listen to me for a little while?" As one of his colleague put it, "Mawlana Ilyas, though a mere skeleton, can work wonders where he takes up anything."His eagerness and indomitable determination to reach every Muslim and remind him of his obligations as a believer took precedence on every thing else. His passionate concern for the spiritual welfare of his fellow Muslims caused him great anguish.
A friend once came to visit him while he was on his deathbed. Mawlana Ilyas greeted his friend by telling him. "People out there are burning in the fire of ignorance and you are wasting your time here inquiring after my health!" He wanted every Muslim to be on his feet, preaching the message of Islam to others. He exerted his friends and followers to dedicate their lives to this cause. Once when he was trying to peruse his audience to volunteer for a missionary trip to Kanpur, U.P. India, not a single person responded to his call. Spotting one of his friends in the audience, Mawlana Ilyas asked him what prevented him from going to Kanpur. His friend was suffering from serious ailment and was obviously too weak to travel. He told Maulana Ilyas that he was "almost dying" and there was no way he could travel. The Mawlana said, "If you are dying already, you had better die in Kanpur."
It is important to note that while Mawlana Ilyas kept himself completely aloof from politics of the day and focused his program of action exclusively on making the Muslims aware of their religious obligations, he did not, at any time, criticized those Islamic groups which were actively engaged in politics. On the contrary, he maintained extremely cordial relations with Hussain Ahmad Madani and other Ulama of Deoband school whose political organization, Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, a pro-Indian National Congress group, was very much active in Indian politics. Mawlana Ilyas had equally warm relation with pro-Pakistan faction of the Deoband school led by Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanvi and Mawlana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani. However he refused to take any position on the issue of united India vs. a separate Muslim state of Pakistan for the obvious reason that this would distract his movement from its main religious tasks, and would also create dissensions within its ranks. Mawlana Ilyas was of the view that the Tablighi movement and the politically-oriented Islamic groups, although operating in two different spheres, were complementing each other’s work and hence there should be no competition and rivalry between them.
Once when someone pointed out that his movement was "too narrowly focused" and did not address the larger issue of socio-political reforms in Muslim society, the Mawlana responded that this narrow focus in the initial phase of the movement was necessitated by the available manpower and that the movement could grow to encompass a larger and more comprehensive program in the future. It is unfortunate that those who succeeded Mawlana Ilyas did not realize his larger vision and saw the Mewat model of Da’wah as eternally fixed. Nevertheless, the fruits of Mawlana Ilyas’s efforts are visible all over the world today.