A conservative Islamic movement has come under international scrutiny after a mass gathering it organized in Malaysia emerged as a source of hundreds of coronavirus infections in more than half a dozen countries grappling with a global pandemic.
Malaysian officials on Friday reported that 624 of the nation’s 1,030 COVID-19 cases were linked to the gathering organized by the India-headquartered Tablighi Jamaat missionary movement at a mosque outside of Kuala Lumpur.
Two of the three COVID-19 deaths reported in Malaysia involved participants of the packed event at the Sri Petaling mosque from Feb 27 to March 1.
Authorities have been able to screen at least 10,553 of the estimated 16,000 attendees after news broke about the outbreak, according to Noor Hisham Abdullah, the country’s health director general.
Some 1,500 foreigners from a dozen countries had attended the gathering and many of them were found to be infected by the COVID-19 virus, including from Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, according to reports.
Malaysian officials are desperately trying to identify thousands of local participants who have not come forward.
“I understand the concern regarding the Tabligh group, there are over 4,000 of them yet to be identified,” Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob told reporters on Thursday. “While police said they will take up the search effort, I hope those who went for the event voluntarily get themselves tested.”
Malaysia has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia. It has overtaken Japan to become the Asian country with the third highest number of cases, after China and South Korea, according to data compiled by infections-disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
The Malaysian chapter of Tabligh Jamaat, which began in India in the 1920s, is apolitical and accepted by the local Muslim community but the reluctance by members to answer government calls to undergo COVID-19 screening has smeared its image, some say.
“Nothing bad happened before. Only this time they got entangled with COVID-19,” Ahmad el-Muhammady of the International Islamic University of Malaysia told BenarNews.
Ahmad said the government should take a hardline stance against those who refuse to be tested.
“It is an irresponsible act,” he said.
Prominent Islamic jurist and scholar Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin questioned the apparent lackadaisical attitude among Tablighi Jamaat members toward coming forward to be tested for the COVID-19 virus, suggesting that some of them may have deviated from the teachings of Islam.
“The reason Allah sends his religion is for the well-being of the human being. The religion does not teach its followers to self-destruct,” he told BenarNews.
“There is nowhere in the religion’s teachings that teaches about harming ourselves. (But) some members seemed to have failed in understanding this,” he said.
The Malaysian chapter of Tablighi Jamaat is based at the Sri Petaling Mosque and has organized various programs involving local and international participants.
Indian Muslim migrants launched the Malaysian chapter in the 1960s, especially in Malay-majority areas including Kedah, Perak and Terengganu, according to Khairin Sharep, an academic in the history department at the University Pendidikan Sultan Idris.
“The introduction of the Malay language and local preachers in the Tabligh movement at that time showed the start of a strategy to introduce a Malay Tablighi Jamaat,” he said.
By 1970 the movement was using the Ar-Rahman Mosque at the University of Malaya to attract new members, he said, adding it operated as a loose organization and focused on preaching missions.
“This lack of specific organizational structure is so that Tabligh followers only focus their efforts to their preaching missions while [not giving emphasis to] positions or titles,” Khairin said.
A Tablighi Jamaat member who asked to be identified as Zakariya called the COVID-19 outbreak a test from Allah.
“We don’t fulfill the obligations to continue Prophet Muhammad’s work fully and Allah wants us to repent and to be more diligent in the future,” said Zakariya, 49, a clerk from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
He apologized for those who have failed to be tested.
“Because of the actions of a few, all tabligh members are seen in a bad light by others. In Islam, the teachings are simple: Obey your government as long as they aren’t asking you to do haram or bad things,” he said.
‘Renounce all things’
Farish A. Noor, an academic based in Singapore who spent seven years studying Tablighi Jamaat, said 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 to renounce all things worldly and materialistic.”
In an Op-ed in The Straits Times of Singapore, Farish, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the movement is largely benign.
“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),” he wrote.
The Tablighi Jamaat movement is not limited to India and Malaysia.
It organizes an event each year, normally in January as was the case in 2020, on the Bishwa Ijtema ground about 18 miles north of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka.
Organizers claim the annual Bangladesh event draws more than 5 million Muslims and is second only to the Hajj in Mecca in terms of crowd size.
A much smaller event had been planned to run in Indonesia through Sunday, but was cancelled at the last minute on Thursday over COVID-19 concerns.
On Thursday, Tablighi Jamaat spokesman Ali Yubra Kamaruddin said about 8,000 pilgrims who had already arrived for Indonesia’s gathering in South Sulawesi province were being quarantined.
“This need to travel – which some of the members described to me as being on a state of permanent pilgrimage – lies at the core of what the Tabligh is as a movement of faith renewal,” Farish wrote.
“When the Tabligh was formed in northern India in the early part of the 20th century, it regarded the state of Muslims as abysmal. The founders of the movement argued that the faith of many Muslims had been weakened as a result of their attachment to all things worldly and materialistic, and they believed that one has to renounce attachments to worldly things in order to be truly free to believe sincerely.”