The Tablighi Jamaat, one of the biggest missionary movements in the world, may not have existed in the consciousness of many just a few days back. Now its name is plastered across headlines everywhere in the world, chiefly for organising large scale gatherings last month and contributing to spurts of Covid19 infections throughout South and Southeast Asia. Given the nature and size of the organisation, the fact that they were allowed to roam about and gather freely in the midst of a pandemic points towards a gross failure in governance by governments and global institutions.
What’s unfolding today cannot be comprehended without first looking into this colossal organisation’s origin story. The Tablighi Jamaat is a Sunni proselytising organisation with roots in the Islamic revivalist movement of the Deobandi tradition. While many claim that the Jamaat originated in Haryana’s Mewat district some 100 years ago, Hilal Ahmad, author of Siyasi Muslims: A Story of Political Islam in India, traces its origin back to Delhi’s Markaz Masjid, the epicenter of the Tablighi Jamaat-related Covid19 infections. The organisation aims to address the moral decay of Muslims, encouraging strict adherence to what it claims is the path taken by Prophet Muhammad. Over the course of its life, the Jamaat has expanded beyond national boundaries, with a presence in over 150 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.
Part of Tablighi Jamaat’s transnational popularity comes from its firmly apolitical stance and its neutrality towards all socio-political organisations. It openly denounces jihad, militancy and the killing of people, but encourages jihad-bin-nafs, the pursuit to eliminate evil within oneself, although policy analysts are divided on this, with some claiming that the organisation is a breeding ground for terrorists. According to its mission, it primarily seeks to educate those ill-informed about Islam, proselytise, and facilitate those wishing to practice the religion. Even with a membership of millions, the organisation is fairly hierarchical, and its leadership is limited to a small group of elders of the mosque.
According to a research funded by the US Institute of Peace, the Tablighi Jamaat maintains near ‘absolute secrecy’ in its operations, not because of its association with nefarious groups but to prevent charismatic personalities from taking over, and to avoid internal squabbles and resultant factions. The size of the Jamaat, combined with the fact that it comprises a group of connected preachers who are always on the move around the world, makes it a unique entity capable of unimaginable good and bad.
In February, an event conceptualised by the Tablighi Jamaat was executed entirely at the local level in Saptari, a district in eastern Nepal, and saw an estimated attendance of 200,000 people, according to a news report. The location of the event and its potential size alarmed Nepali security agencies, especially given the turbulence in India caused by the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. The Nepal government at first decided to cancel the programme altogether, but allowed it to happen under the condition that attendees would only include Indian and Nepali citizens. Many potential participants had arrived on tourist visas from other nations but were successfully repatriated. This is an instance where the Nepal government demonstrated a successful intervention in a global event at a local and national level. The nature of the Jamaat is such that it requires such interventions.
Regardless of how apolitical Tablighi Jamaat claims to be, its romance with politics is obvious and its members are politically diverse. Political parties across nations are extremely fond of the Jamaat. Even individuals like Zafar Sareshwala, who had at one time appeared to be close to Indian PM Narendra Modi, and Mahmood Madani, who supports India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act which disadvantages Muslims over other religious groups, have the Jamaat’s respect. Clearly, there is no one type of Tablighi member. Its power lies in the sheer number of its members that span continents and ideological boundaries.
What has unravelled in the course of the coronavirus pandemic captures precisely this. A Tablighi congregation held in Malaysia went on to infect hundreds of people across Southeast Asia. Another congregation in Lahore, Pakistan spread the virus to Gaza and Kyrgyzstan. Pakistani officials had to force-quarantine 20,000 people who had attended the event in Lahore. The Jamaat’s decision to continue with congregations was not only irresponsible but also callous and criminal. Any defence of the events citing examples of huge political rallies happening around the same time or even after their events is futile as two bads never add up to make a good.
The manner in which the Jamaat went on to carry out such large scale events in various parts of the world in spite of Covid19 warnings highlights its bemusing foundations, especially with regard to its claims to help Muslims live their lives inspired by Prophet Muhammad. For instance, when the pandemic emerged, the Jamaat projected a binary between Allah and the virus while leaving everything to Allah.
Any knowledge about the Prophet’s life, though, shows that the Muhammad very clearly instructed people against entering or exiting (if one were already inside) places with an outbreak of plague. He wasn’t one for shaking hands with a person enduring infectious diseases either. Likewise, the azaan, a call to prayer, had been amended during times of incessant rains so that worshippers wouldn’t face hardships. Countries in the Middle East have taken heed of this trend, closing down mosques as soon as the pandemic emerged and announcing revised azaans that urged people to pray in their homes.
The Allah-Corona binary fueled a powerful but disastrous narrative, one that reached and was devoured by a clout considerably larger and more devoted than that of the World Health Organisation with its science-based public service announcements released to ameliorate the pandemic. While this makes the Jamaat a potential threat in exacerbating the spread of coronavirus globally, WHO must also come to terms with the fact that with such reach and mass appeal, the Tablighi Jamaat is also a potential ally that can effectively disseminate crucial information.
The fiasco instigated by the Jamaat is reminiscent of Joseph Stiglitz’s reflections on globalisation; chiefly that global governance is very fragile and lacks coherence. The 2007-08 global financial crisis revealed how disastrous the absence of sound and coherent mechanisms can be. Now, amid the Covid19 pandemic, where physical health of people has been foregrounded at the cost of financial health, we can see how ungoverned human interconnectedness, especially at a global level, can have tremendous consequences.
It was the religious, social and humanitarian responsibility of the Tablighi Jamaat to call off their activities immediately after the WHO announced the Covid19 crisis as a pandemic. Not doing so was reprehensible on their part. But putting the entire blame on them would be even more irresponsible than what the Jamaat did. If we look at the timeline, we learn that initially, even countries like the UK and USA didn’t take the pandemic seriously. The Jamaat is characterised chiefly by a nebulous group of preachers with little education and they cannot be blamed for being unable to see the bigger picture or to predict with any precision the trajectory of the virus and their own involvement in it.
Resorting to blame at a time of crisis may have more enduring consequences, especially as the Jamaat has been seen by many as a potential antidote to Islamic extremism. To refer to their shortsightedness as ‘corona jihad’ shows a more deplorable lack of farsightedness.