The Tablighi Jamaat time bomb erupted across the country in the last week of March when around 200 people with Wuhan Coronavirus symptoms were admitted to various hospitals in Delhi from the Markaz Nizamuddin and surrounding places. Subsequently, the area around the Markaz Nizamuddin was cordoned off by the Delhi Police. Soon, cases began to erupt across the country with links to the Tablighi Jamaat and the country stood horrified as the magnitude of the Islamic Missionary organization’s transgressions became known.
Soon enough, it became known that around two thousand people, quite possibly a lot more, had attended the event and as late as the 22nd of March, 2500 people were present at the premises of the Markaz Nizamuddin and around 1500 of them left the place on the 23rd of March. Even so, it meant that around a thousand people were still stuck at the global headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat as of the 24th of March. Since then, it has been a continuous series of escalations and atrocious conduct by the members of the Jamaat who have made things difficult for the administration and the healthcare providers at every step along the way.
Before we proceed any further, there is a need to revisit the origins of the Tablighi Jamaat which would shed some light into the background of the organization and help us understand why its members have acted in the manner they have.
Tablighi Jamaat: The Origins
Tabligh Jamaat is an Islamic revivalist movement that came about as an offshoot of the Deobandi School of Islam. Like most revivalist movements, it urges Muslims to return to their faith as it was practiced during the life of the Islamic prophet with special emphasis on ritual, dress and personal conduct. The six core principles of the Tablighi Jamaat include the traditional Islamic teachings of Kalimah, Salaat, Ilm and Dhikr, Ikram-i-Muslim, Ikhlas-i-niyat and Tafrigh-i-Waqt. At the same time, the organization seeks to maintain a distance from matters of politics. Also, it’s message is directed primarily towards Muslims and its proselytizing is not directed towards non-Muslims.
The Tablighi Jamaat movement was launched officially in 1926, 1927 by some accounts, in Mewat by Muhammad Iliyas, the ancestor of Maulana Saad. Since coming into existence at a time of great turmoil within the Indian subcontinent, the movement has expanded greatly elsewhere as well. It is estimated that the presence of the organization can be found in around 180 countries, making it one of the largest Islamic movements in the entire world, if not the largest.
In recent years, factionalism has broken out within the organization ever since Maulana Saad declared himself the one true leader of the Tablighi Jamaat. Following the power grab, there are now three factions in the world. One is the Markaz Nizamuddin, the second is the Pakistani faction headquartered at Raiwind near Lahore and the third is the one at Bangladesh. The third is believed to be the largest in the world.
Members of the organization often spends weeks on end in missionary work, trying to spread the word of Allah. They knock on the doors of ordinary Muslims in order to give them the message of the Allah. Some engage in Dawat for four days, some ten and the senior members spend as many as 40 days on end. The primary objective of the Jamaat is to prevent conversion of Muslims out of Islam and it is believed that it came into existence to thwart the success of Hindu Missionary organizations who were working to Gharwapsi converted Muslims.
Ijtema is the annual gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat and it is this ijtema that has become a vector for the spreading of the Wuhan Coronavirus across numerous countries in the world. Pakistan, Malaysia and India are three countries which have suffered the most due to the ijtema and the fundamentalism of the organization prevented them from taking the Chinese threat seriously.
Tablighi Jamaat: The Explosion
The Tablighi Jamaat event was not only attended by Indian Islamic clerics but also foreign nationals. The alarm bells should have started ringing when seven Indonesian nationals associated with the organization tested positive for the Wuhan Coronavirus in Telangana after traveling from Delhi to Karimnagar for an ijtema. However, it was only later that the full scope of the Tablighi Jamaat’s contribution to the spreading of the virus would become prominent.
By the 4th of April, of the 25 confirmed cases of the Wuhan Coronavirus in Assam, at least 24 were directly linked to the religious congregation at Markaz Nizamuddin between the 13th and 15th of March. The state had not reported any case of the virus prior to that. 27 people infected in Odisha by the same date were linked to the same event. The West Bengal government announced that 225 Tablighi Jamaat members and their contacts had been placed under quarantine. Again, by the same date, 3 people in Uttarakhand had tested positive for COVID-19.
On the 2nd of April, B.S.Yedyurappa, the Chief Minister of Karnataka, announced that 391 people from the state who had attended the event at Markaz Nizamuddin had been placed under quarantine. Over a thousand Jamaatis had attended the same event and by the 4th of April, at least 229 of them had tested positive for the virus. By the same date, at least 1300 of the 1400 Tablighi Jamaat members had been traced by the Maharashtra Government and placed under quarantine. The first case of the virus in at least 5 districts of Rajasthan could be traced to Tablighi Jamaat or their contacts.
The Haryana government said that over 1300 members of the Tablighi Jamaat, including 107 foreign nationals, had visited the state after attending the religious event in Delhi. In Himachal Pradesh, of the 6 positive cases by the 4th of April, 3 had links to the Tablighi Jamaat. 107 people from Madhya Pradesh had participated in the event. Of the first ten cases in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, 9 were Islamic clerics who had attended the event and one was the wife of one of them. Over 90% of the Wuhan Coronavirus cases in Tamil Nadu are linked to the Tablighi Jamaat. As of the 6th of April, 1445 of the confirmed 4067 Chinese Coronavirus cases in India were linked to the Islamic Missionary organization. That is, 35.5% of the cases were linked to it. These numbers are not insignificant. It reveal the extent to which the Tablighi Jamaat has spread the virus across the country.
A research team at IIT Rohtak concluded that COVID-19 cases in India had increased by 3 times after the Tablighi Jamaat fiasco. “We predict… that the number of Covid-19 cases will increase exponentially in India to approximately 13,000 cases by 15 April 2020 and to more than 1,50,000 cases by the first week of May 2020,” said a report prepared by the research team. “This rapid increase in cases is a result of the Tablighi Jamaat event and we propose that any such event in the future will be severely detrimental for the health of the people and may pose a serious threat to the growth and well-being of the nation,” the report stated. While the actual numbers may fall short by a distance due to the proactive efforts of the central and state governments, the impact of the Tablighi Jamaat can be safely gauged by the conclusions drawn in the report.
Tablighi Jamaat: The Deplorable Conduct
After emerging as a ‘superspreader’ of the Wuhan Coronavirus, the conduct of the members of the Tablighi Jamaat did not improve. While they were being transported from Nizamuddin for their treatment, they spat on roads during the bus ride. After being shifted to quarantine facilities in Delhi, they engaged in unruly behaviour with the staff and doctors. The occupants made unreasonable demands for food, misbehaved and abused staff members and spat all over and on persons working/attending to them, including doctors. They also started roaming around the hostel building.
Then, it was reported that some of them were found roaming naked at the MMG Hospital in Ghaziabad and making lewd gestures at the hospital staff. They sang obscene songs and asked for beedi-cigarettes from the staff at the hospital. The nurses had also written a letter to the Police regarding the matter and later, the UP Government had decided that female members of the healthcare community and the Police will not be attending to the members of the Tablighi Jamaat.
Members of the Tablighi Jamaat misbehaved with healthcare staff at Kanpur as well. They refused to cooperate with the nurses, doctor and hospital staff saying that there wasn’t any disease such as the Wuhan Coronavirus. They also spat on them. “We had 22 people for two days who attended the Tablighi Jamaat event in Markaz, Nizamuddin in Delhi. Our team of doctors, staff and nurses were taking care of them in rotation. However, the patients behaved rudely with the medical team, they misbehaved, spit here and there and also used to huddle up together in the hall despite being repeatedly told not to do so,” Dr Arati Dave Lalchandani, the Principal and Dean of the GSVM Medical College, said.
Members of the Tablighi Jamaat behaved in similar fashion at Agra. They refused to consume the healthy non-spicy food prescribed to them by the doctors. Instead, they demanded that they be served ‘spicy beef biryani’. They threatened the medical staff that if their demands were not met, they would not take the prescribed medicines either. They also claimed that they would run away before the requisite quarantine period was over. Furthermore, the Jamaatis accused the administration of conspiring against their community.
At Ahmedabad’s Sola Civil Hospital, the Tablighi Jamaat members refused to take their medicines and injections claiming that the government wants to kill them. They claimed that they were being held against their will and created a ruckus when the medical team tried to test them. Eventually, a Muslim doctor had to intervene in order to bring the situation under control. At Pune, 40 doctors had to be quarantined after a Jamaati hid the fact that he had visited the event but tested positive while being treated for an accident. The Police had to be deployed at a Delhi hospital after the Jamaatis refused to get tested. At another centre, they were accused of throwing urine-filled bottles. In yet another case, they excreted on the corridor.
Apart from such antics, members of the Tablighi Jamaat have also been hiding from the administration. Fourteen Muslim clerics who had attended the event at the Markaz Nizamuddin were found hiding at a Maulana’s residence in Meerut. They were subsequently quarantined and the Police prepared to file a complaint against the Maulana for hiding them. Around 150 of them fled quarantine in Maharashtra and only ten had been traced by the 7th of April. Moreover, 50 attendees of the meet had gone missing in the state and their phones were switched off. Another Coronavirus positive patient fled the hospital at Bhagpat, Uttar Pradesh using his clothes as a rope.
The series of irresponsible behaviour did not end there. One doctor continued to see patients and even performed operations after returning from the event. In their irresponsibility, they have also been aided by specific individuals from the community who assisted their movement or helped them in hiding. A lot of them deliberately made themselves untraceable in order to avoid detection by authorities, thus making the latter’s job more difficult. In one instance, the Army had to take over a quarantine facility in order to put an end to their crass behaviour.
Ideological Malfeasance meets Biological Virus
The conduct of the Tablighi Jamaat was not born in a vacuum. There are certain ideological moorings of the Islamic Missionary Organization that made it greatly susceptible to becoming the ‘superspreader’ of the virus in India. These ideological inclinations were most aptly captured by Maulana Saad of Markaz Nizamuddin who demonstrated at great length everything that is wrong with the organization.
Maulana Saad Kandhalvi in a sermon the 23rd of March instigated Muslims to defy the lockdown. He said, “This is the time to fill the mosques. I have been saying this since the beginning that this is the time to fill up the mosques. Do not come into the talks to empty the mosques. In fact, it is the time to increases the mosques.” He added, “Those who have no faith in Allah, through these schemes and excuses of trying to save Muslims from the disease are trying to keep us away. They have found an excuse to keep Muslims away from coming here. They want to put this fear in the Muslims that those who gather in huge numbers can get infected. The disease will pass but the fear will not. This is a tactic to create fear amongst the Muslims and to end the love and brotherhood Muslims have amongst each other. This is a program created. This program is created against Muslims to make them appear ‘untouchables’. They think this is a good excuse to do this. There is no problem in staying away from those who have caught the infection. But Muslims should not meet Muslims? This is ‘jihalat‘.”
“This is not the time to leave mosques and disperse. Why did people believe that gathering in group will spread coronavirus? Why did people not believe that if we come together then Allah will send angels and with the help of angels the peace will return to the world,” the Maulana said further. He stated, “If you start listening to doctors and stop doing the namaaz and stop meeting people… yes, so you are sick, then pray to the 70,000 angels. Why are you not having faith in the angels? How will you be cured by taking medicines from doctor if you cannot be saved by the 70,000 angels? This is not the time to stay away and be afraid.”
Apart from Maulana Saad’s sermons, a normative culture exists within the Islamic missionary organization that makes it a prime candidate for the spreading of a pandemic. While talking to Swarajya Magazine’s Swati Goyal Sharma, a person who stayed at Markaz Nizamuddin for three days asserted that the practices followed at Jamaat “guaranteed” that the virus would spread to other inmates. “We lived together and ate from the utensil. At a time, four of us would sit down together and eat bread, rice and curry in one big plate. We all ate from it together and without using any spoon or cutlery. Once we are done eating, we would leave the plate as it and another batch of four would come and eat in the same plate. This would continue for about 6 to 7 batches,” he said.
“If you have to use the toilet, you had to wait for at least half-an-hour at any given point in time in the day. That’s how crowded the centre was,” he said. Johny (name changed) claimed that during his stay at the Markaz, the washrooms with ‘Indian seats’ always reeked of bad odour, given the large number of men who used it. “However, they were washed just once a day by a cleaner,” he added. Furthermore, Johny said that the members of the organisation drew the water for ‘Wudu’, a purification ritual among Muslims where they wash their faces, hands, arms and feet with water before performing namaz, from the same small swimming pool kind of a water area in the Markaz. “The fact that all of us used the same water for Wudu, the spread of the virus is but natural,” he said.
While he had some issues with the orthodox practices and teachings espoused by the organisation, he claimed that he is profoundly attached to the group because he believes that “they teach him how to live life the right way”. “In January, I was down for a few days with cold and flu. I did not take any medicines for it. It eventually receded after 20-25 days. I don’t know if that was the virus. In any case, I am out of it now and there is no point of getting myself checked,” he said.
In his book Islam on the Move, Malaysian author Farish A. Noor wrote that members of the Tablighi Jamaat are so comfortable with performing their excretory functions in full public view as the ‘shame about their bodies’ was eradicated. Apparently, the design of Tablighi toilet at markaz provides an all-seeing view whatever is going on in the toilet area. This would enable the Tablighis to ‘monitor and correct’ the behaviour of their Tablighi brothers. Such urinating in full public view ensured that the Tablighis would urinate while squatting instead of standing up as sitting down is the ‘proper way’ to urinate as per Sunnah. Open toilets also ensured ‘unwanted incidents’ like homosexual acts or masturbation do not take place inside the markaz. Homosexuality is condemned in Islam and masturbation is haraam in Islam.
Such ideological malfeasance has undoubtedly contributed towards making the Markaz Nizamuddin a breeding ground for the spreading of the Wuhan Coronavirus. When such unhygienic practices combine with an ideological predisposition towards not taking the threat seriously, the results are bound to be devastating.
An International Superspreader
The Home Ministry on the 2nd of April blacklisted and cancelled the tourist visas of 960 foreign Tablighi Jamaat members for violating visa conditions by engaging in missionary activities while in India. It had also asked the states and union territories where these foreign Tablighi Jamaatis are present, to take necessary legal action against them, for violating the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 which might involve their deportation after payment of a $500 penalty, and the Disaster Management Act, 2005. Home minister Amit Shah stated, “960 foreigners have been blacklisted and their Indian visas have also been cancelled after they were found involved in Tablighi activities on tourist visas”.
Foreign nationals associated with the Jamaat have been found in numerous states across India. And it is very probable that one of these individuals brought the virus to Markaz Nizamuddin. They had probably come to attend the religious event held at the global headquarters of the Jamaat between the 13th and 15th of March. It was an event, perhaps, along the lines of the ones held at Raiwind, Lahore and Malaysia around the same time. The ones held in Pakistan and Malaysia, too, served as conduits for the virus to spread to numerous countries in the region and even to countries as far off as Palestine. In Pakistan too, the Tablighi Jamaat event at Raiwind served as the conduit for spreading the virus across the entire country.
At one point of time, over half of the Wuhan Coronavirus cases in Malaysia were linked to the Tablighi Jamaat event held at a mosque outside of Kuala Lumpur. Most cases in Brunei and at least 10 cases in Thailand were linked to the Islamic Missionary organization. Eleven out of twelve people who tested positive for COVID-19 coronavirus on March 16 in Cambodia had attended the Islamic evangelical event in Malaysia. Thus, it is not farfetched to assumed that the virus was brought to Markaz Nizamuddin by one of the foreign nationals who attended the Islamic event held the place.
The matter of concern to note here is that Islamic terrorist organizations such as the Al Qaeda and Taliban are known to use Tablighi Jamaat in order to secure their travel to foreign nations. Under such circumstances, their becoming the superspreader of the virus assumes a cause for even greater concern.
What is the Solution?
There are no easy solutions to the mess, at least not ones that adhere to the norms of liberal democracies anyway. Harsh measures may have to be adopted by the state in order to ensure reform within the system. Maulana Saad of Markaz Nizamuddin, the head of one of the three factions of the Islamic Missionary organization, appears to be in no mood to cooperate with the law enforcement authorities. It is unlikely to change in the near future.
It is important to understand that, in more ways than one, Tablighi Jamaat is a reflection of the mainstream beliefs of the Muslim community in India. Until the religious beliefs and practices of Indian Muslims undergo a reformation, it is unlikely that the Tablighi Jamaat itself will undergo one. The Markaz Nizamuddin became a site of the carrier of the Wuhan Coronavirus because of its proximity towards foreign nationals. However, truth be told, given the manner in which widespread sections of the Muslim community has approached the pandemic, any other site of the Muslim community could have served as an easy conduit for the virus.
The consequences of ignoring the need for reformation within the Muslim community is for all of us to see. Regions of the country which had not reported any case of the Wuhan Coronavirus are forced to deal with the virus after members of the Tablighi Jamaat carried them there. All the major hotspots in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh are linked to the Tablighi Jamaat. Therefore, reformation within the Muslim community is of paramount importance not just for their own sake but for the health of the country. Under such circumstances, if reformation does not come from within, it might have to be imposed through legal means using the full might of the state.