The Tablighi Jamaat’s mission, its very raison d’etre, is to spread the word of Islam and to make better Muslims of Muslims. But in recent days, it has gained notoriety for becoming the biggest ‘super spreader’ of the Covid 19 virus in not just South Asia where this group has its roots – its international headquarters are in Nizamuddin area of Delhi – but also in rest of Asia and perhaps other parts of the world as well.
The outrage being expressed in India over the discovery of a Covid 19 cluster in the capital Delhi’s Nizamuddin area where the Tablighi Jamaat followers had gathered from around the world for their annual congregation is entirely justified.
According to reports already deaths and over hospitalisations are being linked to the TJ congregation. Worse, because people had come from all across India, many of the returnees have become carriers of the virus to their states, cities and villages in all four corners of the country.
While the blame-game over how the Tablighis brazenly violated government orders against any gathering bigger than 20 people, how foreigners could violate their tourist visas for preaching activity, the irresponsibility and negligence of Jamaat leaders in taking proper action etc. is unavoidable, what matters more is how to contain the damage, if at all this is still possible considering that attendees would have spread out to remote parts of India and perhaps passed on the virus. But the Covid 19 havoc wrought by the Tablighi Jamaat is not limited to India alone.
In Pakistan, the Tablighi Jamaat has been discovered as the biggest spreader after return of shia pilgrims from Iran. Despite warnings and entreaties to not hold the annual congregation in Raiwind, on the outskirts of Lahore, the ijtema was held in the second week of March.
Similar congregations were held in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where videos were circulated scoffing at the dangers posed by the virus, which was called a fraud. Within days, health authorities started discovering Covid 19 patients who could be traced back to the Tablighi congregations. Quite like in India, the Tablighis had spread the virus throughout Pakistan, and the magnitude of the problem has still remains unresolved. Only a couple of days back, around 500 Tablighis, including over 100 foreigners from South-East Asia, Central Asia, West Asia and Africa, were quarantined in Sukkur town of Sindh.
There are also reports of at least one Chinese tablighi testing positive for Covid 19. But it is probably a little late in the day to contain the damage caused by the group’s insistence on holding its congregation. A report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz claims that people who attended the congregation in Raiwind have already spread the virus from Kyrghztan to Gaza.
Bangladesh, meanwhile, seems to have so far escaped any spread of the virus from the mammoth Tablighi congregation that is held annually in that country. Even so, fears are being expressed that Rohingyas returning from attending Tablighi Ijtema’s in Malaysia might have carried the virus with them.
The Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Malaysia, which is believed to be responsible for infecting nearly two thirds of the Covid 19 positive cases in that country is also feared to have spread the virus in the entire region. While Indonesia managed to stop the Tablighi gathering, there has nevertheless been a sudden spike in cases in that country. The infections in other South East Asian countries are also being directly traced to the Malaysian Tablighi congregation.
Over the years, the Tablighi Jamaat has emerged as arguably the largest missionary outfit in the world with its footprint extending across the globe. It is an offshoot of the Deobandi school and its foundations were laid by a Deobandi cleric Mohammad Ilyas in the 1920s. It is believed to have come into existence as a reaction to the Arya Samaj and the Shuddhi movement nearly 100 years ago.
Its primary aim was to keep the flock together through proselytization and preaching a puritanical version of Islam, initially among Muslim groups like the Meos that had acquired or adopted many Hindu customs. The work of Dawah (invitation) that the Jamaat carries out is voluntary. Volunteers devote whatever time they can to teach Islam to the faithful and invite the non-Muslims to enter the faith. There are roving bands of preachers – some do it for 4 days, others for 40 days in an year. The roving preachers travel within the country and across borders to spread Islam and mostly take care of their own travel, boarding and lodging arrangements.
While there is no dearth of funds, which are mostly in the form of donations from wealthy patrons and ordinary people, and sale of books and other literature, the ijtema’s are extremely well organised. They are also very frugal, and no freebies are given to people who come from far and wide to attend and gain spiritual satisfaction.
From those humble origins, the Jamaat now has presence in virtually every country of the world. While the organisational structure of the Jamaat is quite amorphous, its international headquarters are in Delhi. But over the years, political developments have led to power struggles and created new centres of power, for example in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even so, all these centres share fraternal links and top clerics from all countries visit and address congregations organised in other countries. The annual congregation in Bangladesh is often touted as the single largest gathering of Muslims after the Haj. Even the annual ijtema in Raiwind is attended by over a million faithful.
With the steady growth of the Deobandi movement, in part because of state patronage (especially in Pakistan where the Deobandis were at the forefront of jihadism in pursuit of the state’s ideological and foreign policy agenda), the Tablighi Jamaat has seen an astronomical rise in its influence and its resources. Although the organisation eschews politics, and doesn’t participate in any political activity or lend open support to any political party/player, neither can it be ignored politically nor can it completely divorce itself from politics. In other words, even though organisationally the Jamaat stays away from politics, its followers often play an important role in politics.
In Pakistan especially, there have been instances where the Jamaat’s Emir has hosted top retired military personnel to explore the possibility of going political. Although the Jamaat has continued to be apolitical, the fact that it commands a huge following means that no one really wants to rub it or its followers the wrong way. As a result, the Tablighis often do stuff that results in serious accidents, such as the recent burning of a train. The Jamaat often defies government orders banning large gatherings, which is exactly what has happened when against all advice it held its ijtema despite the fear that it could lead to the Covid 19 virus going viral.
More than politics though, the Tablighi Jamaat has gained a rather unsavoury reputation worldwide on account of the links of its followers with notorious terror organisations. From Harkatul Ansar and Harkatul Mujahideen to Jaish-e-Mohammad, the entire menagerie of Taliban groups, to sectarian terror outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, all have been associated with the Tablighi Jamaat.
Designated international terrorists like Masood Azhar have even been reported to have travelled extensively to East Africa – Sudan, Somalia, Kenya – to proselytise and build their network. To colour the argument more, for example, former ISI chief Javed Nasir, who was the mastermind of the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, is a staunch Tablighi Jamaat follower. Nasir has himself admitted in a court affidavit of defying UN sanctions to supply weapons in Bosnia and other jihadist hotspots.
People associated with the Tablighi Jamaat have been linked to terrorist incidents like the San Bernardino massacre and the Barcelona bombings. Although the Jamaat has always distanced itself from jihadist actions of its followers and at least publicly has never really endorsed jihadism, there are deep suspicions that its functionaries often facilitate or even turn a blind eye to the activities of jihadists.
Given that the pandemic caused by Covid 19 is going to change the way the world works, it is possible that there will be tremendous pressure on the Tablighi Jamaat to also change with the times. Its religious puritanism cannot become an excuse for endangering public health, nor can its criminal negligence in keeping infected foreign preachers and letting the infection spread be condoned. Every time an organisation like the Tablighi Jamaat is given a free pass, it is emboldened and it feels that it can cock a snook at authorities without any fear of consequences. Such impunity will have to end in the new world order that the Covid 19 crisis is likely to bring about.
Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.
The article originally appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.