I was once the warden of a student hostel at which my younger brother was also a resident. One evening he asked my permission to go out for a while. I asked him where he intended to go.
He said, “Home.” I asked him if he intended to change his intention along the way. Looking down, slightly embarrassed but mainly annoyed that I had caught him out, he replied in the affirmative. By “planting” the intention of going home “on top” of his intention to later revise that intention, he thought he would escape both lying and getting caught; he was mistaken on both counts. Intention is not everything, but it is something and something that matters at that. In Islam, “actions are judged according to their intentions” (hadith). In law, actus reus (guilty action) and mens rea (guilty mind/intent) must, bar some exceptions, co-exist in the same time and space for the crime to occur.This issue of “intention” relates to a recently published book on Fetullah Gülen and the Hizmet movement, “The House of Service: The Gülen Movement and Islam’s Third Way” (OUP, 2014), by David Tittensor. The central argument of the book is that Gülen and the Hizmet movement teach and practice, tamsil (defined by the author as “show[ing]… piety through actions” page 132); that it appears that Hizmet’s tamsil was “adopted” from World Vision’s lifestyle evangelism practice (defined by the author as “convey[ing] the Christian ethic through actions” page 146) where religion is “sufficiently muted to mask their real intent, which is to gain adherents” (pages 148-9). Tittensor argues that this “softer, or less aggressive approach is designed to make both organizations more palatable to a global audience, and mask the actual missionary work that is done on the ground” (page 173).
One of the problems with this argument is that it mismatches terms and practices within and among each other. In Islam, tamsil and tabligh are considered two forms of irshad, that is guiding others. Tabligh is a mode of guidance that invites people to Islam by word or action.
Tamsil, on the other hand, is a mode of guidance that unintentionally ensues from the thorough internalization of Islamic values and teachings in one’s life. It is the inadvertent overspill of genuine practice that has the power to show, guide or represent because it is not done with such intentions but simply to live one’s life in accordance with the teachings to which one subscribes. If one undertakes an act to show or guide, it is no longer tamsil as it is no longer inadvertent and unintended. Simply put, tamsil is the outcome, not the intent.
With “intention to show,” I am either engaged in tabligh (presenting Islam) through action or am being hypocritical. I am engaged in tabligh-through-action if the action I undertake is not at odds with my usual behavior and habit. If it is, then my action coupled with my “intention to show” amounts to hypocrisy even if I am genuinely trying to guide in that particular instance. Being conscious of what one is doing also risks bringing oneself (that is one’s ego) into the act of doing. Our egotistical presence in our acts tarnishes the value of the act. Gülen says, “Where you are [your ego], He is not; where you are not [your ego], He is.” In the Naqshibandi Sufi order there are four steps to reaching spiritual enlightenment “forget [forsake] the world, forget the [rewards of] the afterlife, forget your ego, forget [all these acts of] forgetting,” lest being conscious of them risks making one proud. So forgetting, or in the case of tamsil, not being aware of or intending to show or guide from the outset is key.
Understood in these terms, tamsil cannot be equated with lifestyle evangelism, far less a strategy adopted by Hizmet from the World Vision to avoid detection to missionize as argued on both counts by Tittensor. As Tittensor accepts, Hizmet is not seeking to convert non-Muslims, but what is more, tamsil as defined above and in Gülen’s teachings is not a practice that can be undertaken with the intent of preaching, converting, showing or guiding as is clearly the case with lifestyle evangelism as defined and described by Tittensor. There are too many fundamental differences in the theory (intent) and practice (action) of Hizmet’s tamsil and World Vision’s evangelism to be useful without these clearly being set out for the benefit of the reader, which they are not.
I did not intend to undertake a fully-fledged review of Tittensor’s book (had I so intended I would have listed other issues as well as praised the many merits of the research); I am merely sharing one critique that I kept finding myself scribbling on the book’s page margins. That said, I’m sure Tittensor did not intend to blur the lines between tamsil and tabligh, either, and certainly did not intend to elicit, for what it’s worth, this critique. But while intentions are something, they are not in fact everything. And in Islam, although our actions are to be judged by our intentions, if certain outcomes of our actions are foreseeable, we are responsible for them too. Now, with the intention to “guide,” that last sentence would amount to a tabligh!
This was originally published in Today’s Zaman and it is also available in the author’s personal website.