A Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) conference organised during the middle of March in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz mosque has now become a critical flashpoint in India’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

So far, according to the union government’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, at least 1445 cases out of the total countrywide caseload of 6725 are directly linked to the congregation, which was attended by more than 2500 people. According to a recent study by the Indian Institute of Management, Rohtak, India will see an exponential increase in cases in the weeks to come due to transmissions triggered by the Markaz event.

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The TJ, a transnational orthodox Islamic organisation, held a religious congregation at its New Delhi headquarters in Nizamuddin in early March, which thousands of people from various parts of the country and the world – including senior preachers from Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia – participated in. These are countries where the virus had already begun spreading when the conference was hosted.

In fact, a similar TJ conference held in Malaysia in February was later identified as a prime source of infections in Southeast Asia.

Recklessness of the Jamaat

In India, several people who had attended the Nizamuddin gathering have tested positive. All of this because of an annual Islamic gathering. While it is crucial to stand against religious discrimination or prejudical attacks, it is equally important to ask –  if this isn’t plain stupidity, then what is? 

It was indeed irresponsible on the part of TJ to put together a huge gathering of people, including foreign nationals, in a densely-populated area like Nizamuddin when the deadly nature of the virus was well-established and various injunctions on quarantining and self-isolation were already in place.

For instance, the Delhi government, on 13 March, issued a notification prohibiting any gathering of more than 200 people under the Epidemic Diseases Act. Further, the government issued a travel advisory on 10 March, advising incoming passengers from twelve countries to undergo self-imposed quarantine for 14 days. The organisers violated both these rules.

The attitude of the Markaz officials, including its head, Maulana Mohammad Saad, has been particularly disappointing. An audio clip has surfaced where he overtly discourages social distancing and other government precautionary measures in mosques and dismisses the spread of the virus. It is better to die in a mosque, he was reported as saying, than anywhere else: 

“They are trying to stop and divide us… asking us not to gather, they’re trying to scare us by saying we will get infected… . This restriction is placed to stop Muslims from joining hands using a virus.”

Not only are such statements irresponsible, they are also against injunctions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who ordered people to pray in their homes on a rainy, muddy day (see Volume 1, Book 11, Number 637). 

Accountability of the Jamaat

The serious public health crisis triggered by the Nizamuddin congregation has triggered rampant “Islamophobia” in India. Some have pinned the blame for this outbreak on the 200 million-strong Indian  Muslim community, further exacerbating religious faultlines in an already polarised country. The senseless and inconsiderate actions of the TJ as well the rage, anger and incomprehension of the populace directed at them resemble a nationwide situation of panic and pandemonium. 

In India, the TJ, though engaged in proselytising, has been mostly under the radar, attracting little attention. Ordinary Indians know little about them. That is because its practitioners concentrate on purifying the believers – the already converted – rather than attracting new adherents. Their key aim is to take contemporary Islam, including matters of dress, eating and social arrangements, back to the days of the Prophet, the founder of the faith.

This revivalism goes, some would say, to absurd extents. Eschewing all modern conveniences, such as toothbrush, beds and dining tables, in favour of a rigidly simple way of life is a common practice amongst TJ affiliates. 

Tablighi Jamaat center of Aceh in Cot Goh, Indonesia | Wikimedia Commons

In addition, there is a culture of secrecy in the organisation, which naturally spurs suspicion. The TJ is banned in some Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, whose governments see its puritanical preachings as extremist. Though apparently non-confrontational, quietist and law-abiding, as the preachers admit, TJ is known to have harboured dangerous elements.

While the group is accused by some of not being orthodox or radical enough, others charge it of being “soft jihadis” and dangerous sympathisers of extremism. It is a known fact that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the British intelligence have been keeping a close watch over the organisation for a while now. 

Orthodox organisations, like the TJ, must be condemned, if not for their style of work or ideology, then at least, for their operational recklessness that has now resulted in national and health crises in more than one countries. But surprisingly, certain liberal voices in India, who otherwise are quick to call out religious fundamentalism in other groups, have remained silent over the TJ. They have instead redirected focus to administrative and law enforcement lapses made by the Indian government.

By not condemning the Jamaat’s callousness, we risk our own collective safety and also give tacit encouragement for actions that pose serious public safety threats. This incident, thus, should be a lesson for those who seek a safe, secure and stable society.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Vishal Kumar is a student of law at the Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi. He tweets at @AsOurLawls.

Featured image taken from Twitter.