By Dr. Aslam Abdullah
Tablighi Jamaat t is the most influential grassroots religious organization in the World. Some 400 million Muslims, mostly from South Asia, in 190 countries are its foot soldiers who visit from village to village, town to town and country to country urging people to return to practicing religion during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad and his companion. Formed in 1926, by Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhelwi in the northeastern region of Mewat in India at a time when the Hindu Mahasabha had started the campaign to win Muslims back to Hinduism, the organization devoted itself to bring about spiritual reform in the community. The Tablighi Jamaat works among Muslims and focuses on “Six Principles” (Kalimah (Declaration of faith), Salah (Prayer), Ilm-o-zikr (Knowledge and remembrance), Ikraam-e-Muslim (Respect of Muslim), Ikhlas-e-Niyyat (Sincerity of intention), Dawat-o- Tabligh (Propagation and invitation to faith). Maulana Ilyas called the movement Tahrike Iman (movement of faith) in the initial stages.
Within 15 years of its formation, the organization attracted more than 25,000 people in undivided India for its annual gathering. Five years later, the first mission visited Western Saudi Arabia and Britain.
It introduced itself in France in the 1960s and the U.S. in 1970. In France, it had 100,00 followers in 2006, and in the U.K., it was present in 700 of 1,500 Masajid. In 1991, it focused on Central Asia and had 10,000 or more members in Kyrgyzstan in 2008. In the U.S. the Jamat has some 70,000 members. However, it has a large following in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
The largest annual gathering takes place in Bangladesh, followed by Pakistan and India, where one to 3 million people come together for three days. The Tablighi Jamaat encourages its followers to spend three, ten, 120, and 150 days in missions within and outside the country. During these missions, the members stay in Masajid, conduct a daily tour of the locality, inviting people to an evening gathering after the prayer, and encourage people to spend time preaching and learning the six principles.
A few years ago, the Tablighi Jamat split into two groups. Recently, the organization came into limelight after the Coronavirus crisis. On February 27, the organization held an international religious gathering at Sri Petaling Masjid in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Six of the participants tested positive of COVID-19. Despite the confirmed cases, the organization decided to hold a second international gathering in Gowa Regency near Makassar in Sulawesi, Indonesia. They held two more gatherings in Pakistan and India. In Pakistan, 150,000 ore more participated while in India, 3,500 joined In Pakistan, the Jamaat canceled the meeting on the third day after the authorities persuaded them to do so, while In India, it concluded on time. The Indian Ijtima took place in Nizamuddin, the central hub of the Jamat. Some of the participants were from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia, while others from different parts of India, such as Telengana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kashmir, and Uttar Pradesh. A large number of them returned to their states, while others could not find transportation due to lockdown in India.
The government says that the Tablighi Jamat violated the lock down rules while the Jamat maintains that the lock down began on March 24, and the had concluded the gathering by then. The Jamat also says that they had requested the Delhi Administration and Police to facilitate transportation to the participant a few days before the lock down. The government of Delhi has filed an FIR against Maulana Saad Kandhelvi, the head of the Nizamuddin faction of the Jamat.
There are two major issues involved.
1. The demonization of the Tablighi Jamat as the spreader of Coronavirus in India.
2. Tablighi Jamaat’s decision to hold large gatherings during the crisis.
In India from January till March 31, the Tablighi Jamaat was not the only religious organization that held large gatherings. Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and Buddhists, as well as, political organizations held large meetings despite Coronavirus warnings. Neither the state nor central government took a stand against their organizers. They let the major Hindu temples run their religious program regularly until 20. Yet, the government only blamed the Nizamuddin for opening its door. The action against the Jamat is a diversionary tactic on the part of the present government that failed to provide safe passage to migrant workers who lost their jobs and who got stranded with their families on crowded buses and bus stations. Many attempted to take thousands of miles journey back to their homes, and some died on the way. The sudden lockdown created chaos in the country, and the government was not ready to deal with that. The government wanted a scapegoat, and in the Tablighi Jamat, it found. The narrative the government is trying to promote along with Hindu fascist organization, the RSS, is that Muslims are the leading cause of Coronavirus, hence disloyal to the country. However, the second issue is larger than the action of the government.
Why would a religious organization play with the lives of its followers when it had become clear that Coronavirus is contagious and spreads fast? It had become apparent after the gatherings in Malaysia, Pakistan, and other places. Yet, it did not postpone and did not inform its national and international visitors of the risks involved. It did not issue any elaborate guidelines to maintain social distancing and other precautionary practices. People suspect that thousands of people who gathered in the Tablighi meetings carried with them Coronavirus and spread it in their families and local communities.
The main argument that the leaders of the organization give is that God is the one who protects the people attending religious gatherings. It is the same logic that Hindus, Christians, Jews, and all other faiths give. Almost in every part of the World in the name of God, the religious organizations held large gatherings of worshipers defying the orders of governments to maintain social distancing. What they don’t realize is they defied divine laws and put their followers on risk. The divine law is to listen to those who are knowledgeable and experts on issues that affect people’s life. On Coronavirus, the experts and people of the knowledge include scientists and doctors. No clergy would treat the victim of such a disease. Doctors and nurses would do. The clergy and religious organizations refused to take that advice seriously and added to the already existing crisis in a fatalistic manner.
They held gatherings with a large number of people and exposed them to the virus. They committed a crime, a crime they would carry on their shoulder, and a crime their followers must hold them accountable.
No religion wants its followers to suffer in the name of God. Religions inspire people to take care of their health, their families, and their resources. What these organizations did by holding such gatherings was in defiance of God.