Constantly on the move

Islamic worshippers leaving from the three-day annual Tablighi Jama'at gathering in Raiwind, on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan, on Friday. This need to travel - which some of the members described as being on a state of permanent pilgrimage - lies at the core of what the Tabligh is as a movement of faith renewal, the writer says. - AFP

BY now alarm has been raised about the numbers of people who have been infected with the coronavirus after attending a large gathering of the Tablighi Jama’at religious movement at the Sri Petaling mosque complex in Malaysia.

The gathering, held on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur from Feb 27 to March 1, reportedly involved about 16,000 people from several countries who are devotees of the Tablighi Jama’at movement.

Having gotten themselves infected due to the lack of social distancing, many members of this group have returned to their respective homes and countries in the Asean region and there is worry that the virus may spread even further as a result of such large-scale human movement.

Some have asked how and why the members of the group decided to travel to the gathering in the first place, and whether such gatherings can be better controlled or even temporarily stopped as the world deals with the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the case of the Tabligh, this is easier said than done for movement is an essential feature of the group; if we are to understand why this is the case, we would need to understand what the Tabligh is in the first place.

What is the Tabligh Jama’at?

The Tablighi Jama’at is a lay missionary pietist movement among Muslims that emerged in India a century ago. From the outset, it has laid enormous emphasis on the need for individual believers to leave their comfort zones, go out into the world to face challenges and hardship, and renounce all things worldly and materialistic.

For seven years, I conducted fieldwork with the movement and during this time, I travelled with members of the Tabligh all over the world, from the United Kingdom, France and Germany to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and then on to almost every part of South-East Asia.

This need to travel – which some of the members described to me as being in a state of permanent pilgrimage – lies at the core of what the Tabligh is as a movement of faith renewal.

When the Tabligh was formed in northern India in the early 20th century, it regarded the state of Muslims as abysmal. The movement’s founders argued that the faith of many Muslims had been weakened as a result of their attachment to all things worldly and materialistic. They believed that one has to renounce attachments to worldly things in order to be truly free to believe sincerely.

I have met scores of members from all walks of life who have, upon joining the movement, renounced their worldly attachments and stopped doing things like watching television, wasting time on social media, smoking or doing drugs.

In many ways, the Tabligh was and remains a largely benign movement: It has never sought out confrontation with other faith communities (as it largely confines its activities to other fellow Muslims) and it has never had any political ambitions (for it regards politics as something worldly and therefore a distraction from faith and love for God).Outsiders have sometimes seen them as fatalistic, apolitical and apathetic to the wider needs of society, but the members would argue that one cannot change the world positively unless one has been a better and more faithful individual first.

A movement that moves

What is special about the Tabligh is that it is a non-centred movement that does not have the rigidity of parties, organisations or corporations. Membership is open to all and on a flexible basis: Some join and follow the Tabligh for a weekend a month, some for weeks or months per year, some for life.

One thing that they all do is move in order to meet other members of the faith community and to weaken their bonds to the material world around them. They do not stay in hotels when they travel (for that would be unseemly and too worldly), but choose to stay in mosques and seminaries that they occupy.

It is impossible to exaggerate the extent to which this is a mobile movement. I have interviewed many of their members, all of whom have travelled around the region and beyond, and I have been amazed by the stories they shared with me.

Once in the Indonesian province of West Papua, I met a Tabligh lad who had travelled all the way to Peru – via Jakarta then to Singapore, then to Japan, then to Los Angeles, on to Mexico and finally to Peru and back again. At the large gatherings of the Tabligh I have attended in Pakistan, southern Thailand (in Yala) and Java (in Temboro), I have met thousands of Tablighs from every part of the world.

Can the Tabligh Jama’at regulate itself? Governments the world over are now faced with the difficult task of educating their respective populations and encouraging people to maintain a healthy social distance from one another while avoiding large gatherings. This poses a problem for movements that conduct pilgrimages in groups, and this applies not only to the Tabligh but also Christians who undertake pilgrimages along the pilgrimage trails of Europe, Hindus who visit temples and Buddhists who make pilgrimages to shrines.

So, what is the best way forward with groups such as these?

First, we should remember that the Tabligh has in fact had to self- regulate its activities and movements in the recent past.

Two decades ago when Indonesia was in the grip of violent militancy, the Tabligh was infiltrated and used as a vehicle by some radicals who sought to move across Indonesia anonymously. When it was discovered that terrorists had used the movement as a means to get to places like Bali, the Tabligh responded by checking on its members and ensuring that their movement would not become the vector for violence in the country.

As the Tabligh is a movement of faith and it cares about the welfare of its members, it should be

made clear to them that social responsibility is also an important value in religion. Muslim history has many examples of how Muslim rulers imposed controls on movement in times of epidemics, and Muslim scholars have always laid great emphasis on the concept of collective social well-being.

So rather than scapegoating or victim-blaming the Tablighi movement and its members, a better approach would be to engage them constructively while opening opportunity structures for them to demonstrate social responsibility instead.

And what applies to the Tabligh will also apply to all itinerant movements and pilgrimage groups that likewise move from one place to another. By not singling out the Tabligh as a unique problem, we avoid the mistake of adding stigma to crisis and by engaging them positively, such movements can actually play an important role in containing this virus pandemic.

The underlying message ought to be that social welfare and caring for the greater good of society are also components of faith, and they are not incompatible. — The Straits Times/Asia News Network

Dr Farish A. Noor is Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. The views expressed here are solely the writer’s own.

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