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     Volume 8 Issue 56 | February 6, 2009 |

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Cover Story

Photo: Zahedul I Khan

On The Banks of The Turag

Men's prayers are diseases of the will and their creeds diseases of the intellect, said the poet cum philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. As our society becomes increasingly ‘modern’, religious belief is seen by many as a personal eccentricity rather than the bedrock of moral values. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the media's focus has been on so-called Islamist groups, jihadis and suicide bombers. For many people, religion has become a wellspring of violence, rather than the transformative force it should be. The gulf between the so-called ‘modernity’ and the religion has never been wider. It was against this backdrop of skepticism that the 47th Biswa Ijtema or World Congregation of Muslims took place in Tongi, just outside Dhaka. The millions who flocked to Tongi went looking for divine blessing and spiritual deliverance. But what was said at the Ijtema? Was it a message of peace, or did the event sow the seeds of extremism? Did it address contemporary issues relevant to our lives? What about the security situation? What is the true spirit of the Ijtema?

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

Millions march to Tongi. Photo: Syed Zain Al-mahmood

Mohammed Solaiman has a bad leg. The 32-year-old grocery shop owner fractured it when his pickup truck overturned on a slippery slope. The leg has barely healed, but Solaiman is determined not to miss the Ijtema. He has come all the way from Narayangonj, and after police officers stopped his CNG auto rickshaw near Uttara, started to walk the five kilometers to Tongi. He is limping, but he won't stop for a rest.

“I don't want to miss the Munajat,” he says, smiling. “I come every year.”

He is not alone. Tens of millions make the trip to the Turag River every winter. For many, like Solaiman, it is a labour of love -- a chance to rub shoulders with fellow Muslims from around the world. They believe that because the Ijtema brings together believers from all corners of the globe, it is an event where prayers will be answered, and sins forgiven.

To achieve spiritual deliverance, the devotees brave harsh conditions and endure inadequate facilities. This winter the weather is holding, but last year driving rain and chilly winds killed several people and forced a premature end to the three-day event. The hardship is borne without a murmur.

“We have to make sacrifices to find Allah,” says Ishaq Ali, 71. Ishaq is nearly blind, and arrived at the Ijtema site hand in hand with his grandson Mohsin. The overcrowded facilities pose a terrific challenge to the old man, but Ishaq is defiant.

Muslims from over eighty countries gathered to hear the sermons. Photo: Syed Zain Al-mahmood

“I am labouring in the Path of the Lord,” he says. “I am old, and will soon die. This could be my last Ijtema.”

It is a kind of selfless loyalty that political parties can only dream about. But wholehearted devotion sometimes provides fertile ground for exaggerations, and the Ijtema has its fair share. Most of these have to do with over-enthusiastic attendees inflating the benefits of attending the annual event. “We don't have the means to go to Hajj,” says Arshad Ali who works at a tea stall in Jatrabari. “This is where we get a taste of that.”

The organisers of the Ijtema are at pains to discourage such exaggerations. “The Hajj or pilgrimage to Makkah is a pillar of Islam, while this is just a large field where we gather to discuss the teaching of the Quran and Sunnah,” said one Tabligh elder.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not the only Ijtema of its kind. The Tabligh Jamaat organises similar events in India, Pakistan and South Africa. The one in Bangladesh is the biggest in terms of numbers, and perhaps the best known.

Although comparisons with the Hajj are a fallacy, the spirit of the Ijtema is rooted in the tradition of the Hajj in many ways. It is a completely apolitical event and concentrates on promoting spirituality and brotherhood. Barriers of nationality and language are broken down. United in faith, rich and poor share the same congested space, and stand shoulder to shoulder in prayer.

The Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him; PBUH) performed only one Hajj in his lifetime. During that pilgrimage, he delivered what is known as the Last Sermon on the plains of Arafat. “All those who are present shall pass on my words to those who are absent and those to others again; and may the last ones understand my words better than those who listened to me directly. Be my witness, O Allah, that I have conveyed your message to your people."

Shoulder to shoulder in prayer. Photo: Syed Zain Al-mahmood Facilities are inadequate for the millions who attend. Photo: Syed Zain Al-mahmood

The final admonition of the Prophet forms the guiding principle of the Tabligh Movement, according to its leaders. “This is not a new movement,” says Maulana Hossain Ahmed, who has spent ten years with the Tabligh Jamaat. “This is not a recent invention. It is the work of the Prophet (PBUH) and his followers. Muhammad (PBUH), was a Messenger for all of mankind, but he did not travel outside the Arabian Peninsula. He is the last Messenger, but he did not live longer than 62 years. So how should his Message be propagated? The answer is that he charged his followers with the duty of Dawah or propagation of the Truth. Everything we do is based on the Sunnah (way) of the Prophet.”

Leaning on a bamboo upright at the Ijtema site, Maulana Hossain cites the Quran in support of this view. “The Quran clearly says that there shall be a group that invites mankind to the Truth. As followers of the Prophet (PBUH) it is our duty not only to follow the teaching of Islam, but to invite our brothers to the way of Islam. People are losing their way in pursuit of material gain. We must remind each other that we have a higher purpose as human beings.”

Devotees live in makeshift tents and adopt a minimalist approach. Photo: Syed Zain Al-mahmood

Tabligh means “to invite”. Since the movement was “revived” in the 1920s by Indian scholar Maulana Ilyas, the Tabligh Jamaat has worked tirelessly at the grassroots level, reaching out to Muslims around the world and calling for spiritual reform.

Dr. David Garbin a French academic at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University, London has studied the group extensively and believes its success is due to its strictly non-political nature and adherence to mainstream Islamic teaching. “While rejecting Pir (a sufi master) and Sufi traditions, it concentrates on missionary and preaching work and tries to avoid any involvement in politics.”

Shamsul Arefin, a 4th year student of Chittagong Medical College, has been involved with the movement for five years. He has attended many religious meetings, and even gone out on what Tabligh followers call “the path” a religious journey of 3 to 40 days depending on the level of commitment in which devotees will meet Muslims from other areas and discuss their faith.

“Tabligh tries to create an environment which makes it easy to follow the teachings of Islam,” says Arefin. “It's not just about preaching. It's about personal spiritual reform more than anything else.” Arefin explains how he always wanted to pray regularly, but did not have the discipline. “Now I have resolve. It helps keep my life on an even keel. The Tabligh movement has helped guys I know kick the drug habit. Whether you're a professional or a village farmer, you can always take something away from it.”

Arefin's classmate Ripon is attending the Ijtema for the first time. “I couldn't be comfortable with any group with political affiliations,” he says. “What I like about the leaders of Tabligh is that they don't seek material reward or personal recognition.”

The Tabligh movement is not without its critics. Businessman Abdus Shahid saw his son drift away after spending time with local Tabligh workers. “I wanted my son to pray regularly. But now he is very absent minded and spends too much time away from home.”

Shamsul Arefin says that the elders of the movement always urge followers to strike a balance. “There are many top professionals involved with this effort. Doctors, engineers, businessmen. You have to be successful in your career; otherwise you're setting a bad example. Some people try to go too far too quickly. You have to be ready for it”

Security was visibly tight. Photo: Syed Zain Al-mahmood
Women devotees travelled many miles to take part in the spiritual journey. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

On the global stage, the success of the Tabligh movement has not gone unnoticed. In these xenophobic times, groups of Muslims going around trying to “revive” their faith would inevitably raise eyebrows in some quarters. A 2005 article in the Middle East Quarterly began thus. “Every fall, over a million almost identically dressed, bearded Muslim men from around the world gather…” The piece goes on to call the Tabligh Jamaat “Jihad's stealthy legions” and basically accuses them of plotting world domination. A Guardian story in 2006 suggested the movement was “influenced by a branch of Saudi Arabian Islam known as Wahhabism” and claimed the group was under suspicion because some terror suspects had “attended” Tabligh sermons.

It is easy to see how an outsider looking in might find the Ijtema and the Tabligh slightly alarming. But the above articles by western observers contain deliberate misinformation. The leaders of the Tabligh Jamaat are not “Wahabi” and there is no talk of taking over the world. Dominic Whiteman is spokesperson for the London-based VIGIL anti-terrorist organisation, and no fan of the Tablighis. After a tirade against the Tabligh Jamaat he grudgingly dismisses the guilt by association premise. “Tablighi Jamaat's leadership is no more guilty than the Pope is for the Catholic church's links to IRA terrorists,” he wrote. “In fact, if all Britain's Muslims were Tablighi Jamaat devotees and lived their lives according to Tablighi doctrines, there would be little to no problem with violence-espousing, extreme Islamism in the UK.”

Experts say it is implausible that a follower of the Tabligh Movement would become involved in terrorism because the Tabligh Jamaat adopts a broad definition of Jihad based on its interpretation of the Quran. The leaders of Tabligh make a distinction between Jihad (religious struggle) and Qitaal (warfare). The Movement formally and actively believes that travelling to engage in missionary activity fully discharges any religious obligation to engage in Jihad.

In the ninety years since its inception, the Tabligh movement has deliberately distanced itself from politics and political activity, and has never been accused of wrong-doing in any country. But despite this track record, dark mutterings about “Islamist camps” continue in the west.

In the biggest “camp” of them all, the Biswa Ijtema (Global Congregation) at Tongi, there are no Quran-thumping wild-eyed radicals and no plans for world domination are in evidence. Security is visibly tight, with the police and the elite Rapid Action Battalion patrolling the perimeter. The devotees are housed in makeshift tents, and listen to the sermons with remarkable discipline. They cook their own food and pay for the journey out of their own pockets.

Trains were few and far between, forcing devotees to travel at great risk. Photo: Syed Zain Al-mahmood

A RAB official manning the CCTV installation near the Ijtema site says he is vigilant for any threat, but marvels at the discipline shown by the devotees. “Can you imagine thirty lakh people squeezed into a 150 acre area with temporary arrangements? It would be a logistical nightmare, but these people are very disciplined.”

The roads leading to the main Ijtema site are choked with people, and the air is thick with dust. Volunteers stand in the middle, asking attendees to move in orderly columns. True to the spirit of Tabligh, there are no peremptory orders. “Brothers, to the right please! To the right!” they exhort, noses covered with masks to guard against the dust.

The entire site is divided into tents or “khittas” and groups from different areas have their own space although intermingling is encouraged. Engineer Raquibul Hasan, director of a real estate company in Dhaka is staying with a Jamaat or group from Dhanmondi. He is clearly used to a lavish lifestyle, but remains unfazed by the minimalist arrangements.

“The toilet facilities are inadequate, although they have improved over the last few years. It's a hardship, but nothing compared to what the early Muslims had to bear,” Raquibul says.

Makeshift toilets have been erected by locals eager to make a quick buck. The charge is Taka ten for a bath, and five to use the toilet.

Engineer Hasan claims he is at the Ijtema so he can learn about spiritual reform. “Yes, I have faith, but the Tabligh teaches that you have to make an effort to renew and strengthen your faith. If we can do that we will be better Muslims and better human beings. It is not enough that my ID card says “Muslim”. If there is no effort, faith declines. Just look at what happened in the Balkan countries.”

Keeping the faith. Photo: Syed Zain Al-mahmood

As dusk falls, evening prayers start. White prayer caps glow in the light of the thousands of electric bulbs, as millions of the faithful bow to the Almighty. Then it is time for the main sermon of the day, and as if by magic three million voices are stilled. The Tabligh Jamaat has its own way of doing things, and this is in plain view at the Ijtema. It is an inclusive movement. There is no membership roll. No sects and no division. In an age where every organisation worth its letterhead craves publicity, the Tabligh shuns the limelight. It is not secretive the meetings of the Majlish e Shura or Council are held in the open. The Kakrail mosque-- the markaz or centre of Tabligh activity in Bangladesh-- literally never closes its doors. But an overt show is deliberately avoided. The Tabligh leaders call it Ikhlaas (seeking reward only from God).

True to this spirit, the speaker's name is not announced. The message is important, not the messenger the organisers seem to say. But those in the know whisper it is Shaikh Ahmed of Delhi.

The scholar begins by praising God, and reminding the faithful about the transient nature of this world. Faith is not just about rituals and prayer, he says, but about becoming better human beings by surrendering to Allah. The sermon, translated simultaneously into six languages, goes on to grapple with some of the contemporary issues troubling the world, albeit with a spiritual twist.

“The Israelites lived with honour in Egypt until they turned away from Allah,” says Shaikh Ahmed. “Then they lost their position in society and Pharaoh persecuted them. When they agreed to reform, the Prophet Musa led them out of Egypt and they were freed of the yoke. We are all deeply concerned with the plight of Muslims in the world today. But it is happening because we have broken our Covenant with God and stopped doing the Prophet's work. Let us not talk of conspiracies against us. We must reform our ways.”

The scholar goes on to touch on how material greed has consumed us, and elaborates on the simple lifestyle preferred by the Prophets. “If we all followed Islam, this economic downturn would never have happened. Its greed that caused it,” whispers Engineer Raquib.

The sermon ends with a call for the believers to join the effort and commit to a trip in the “path of Allah”. “We are drowning in materialism,” explains Maulana Hossain, “so we must leave our houses, our businesses, our families, for a short period of time, and follow the path of Allah and practise the Sunnah of the prophet for spiritual nourishment. We will return as better Muslims and better human beings.”

But surely this is something that everyone knows? Why is it necessary to knock on doors? There are religious schools where people can go if they want to learn? There is the internet...

Hossain Ahmed uses a simple but powerful analogy. “You think we should be like the pond where people can come if they want to drink? What if they have forgotten the feeling of thirst? We want to be like the rain which touches and cleanses everyone.”

Cleansing is on the mind of Abdur Rahman, an Egyptian national who has come to attend the Ijtema. “Its great to be here,” he says in heavily accented English. “You feel spiritually nourished, you feel clean. I have finally done something for my deen (faith). I finally have a sense of the Ummah.”

There is an over-riding sense of goodwill and harmony. Violence and hatred are far from the minds of the devotees as they prepare for the Akheri Munajat the culmination of the Ijtema. There is no doubt that many Muslims feel aggrieved by what they perceive as the unjust and biased foreign policies of the West. But the Ijtema is probably a good place for the faithful to put their anger behind them.

In today's context, the significance of the work undertaken by the Tabligh Jamaat cannot be underestimated. With a new president in the White House, the western world is coming to the realisation that the only way to win the struggle against terrorism is by engaging and mobilising the mass of Muslim opinion to root out and deny any legitimacy to those who misuse the name of Islam for acts of horrific terror. Only by explaining and upholding the true message of Islam can this be done, and three million voices on the bank of the Turag just vowed to uphold that message.

As the dust settles on the Turag, five thousand Jamaats or groups head out to carry on the effort of Tabligh. The Biswa Ijtema may be over, but its message continues to reverberate around the world.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2009