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Coronavirus: Pakistan quarantines Tablighi Jamaat missionaries

Popular Islamic movement faces pressure to curb activities in Pakistan after mass gathering linked to spread of virus around world
Tabligi Jamaat followers who attended a three-day gathering held in Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore last month (AFP)

A globally influential Islamic missionary movement is facing mounting pressure to curb its activities in Pakistan after holding a mass gathering last month which has been linked to the spread of coronavirus as far afield as Gaza.

About 250,000 people travelled from around the world to attend Tablighi Jamaat's annual conference, or Ijtema, in Raiwind, south of Lahore, which went ahead in mid-March despite growing concerns about the dangers posed by the global pandemic.

Two Palestinian men who had been in Lahore days later became the first confirmed cases of coronavirus in Gaza

For three days, attendees from dozens of countries prayed, ate and slept in close quarters before organisers bowed to pressure to cut the event short.

But on Thursday, Pakistani authorities placed the entire town of Raiwind under quarantine, closing shops and preventing people from entering or leaving, after at least 40 Tablighi Jamaat preachers tested positive for the virus.

Worshippers leave Raiwind as the Tablighi Ijtema is cut short on 13 March 2020 (AFP)
Worshippers leave Raiwind as the Tablighi Ijtema is cut short on 13 March 2020 (AFP)

About 600 people are reported to be currently staying at the group's centre, or markaz, in Raiwind, with around 300 people who attended the conference still stranded there and unable to return to their home countries since Pakistan halted all international flights.

In a statement, Lahore Deputy Commissioner Danish Afzaal pinned the blame for the outbreak on Tablighi Jamaat.

"The government's apprehensions stood true as several Tablighi Jamaat activists have tested positive for coronavirus and they caused the spread of it,” Afzaal said.

Tariq Jameel, a popular Islamic television preacher and Tablighi Jamaat member, told Middle East Eye before the lockdown was enforced that the event had gone ahead because many attendees had already arrived in Pakistan and there was no time to cancel it.

"As the time of the conference approached, people had already arranged travel, and some were already present in Lahore," said Jameel.

From Raiwind to Gaza

Tablighi Jamaat is a Sunni missionary movement that was founded in India in 1926 encouraging spiritual self-renewal, a focus on religious ritual and a return to the ways of the Prophet Muhammad.

Face-to-face proselytising, short preaching missions and attending the annual gatherings bringing together members from around the world are considered key duties for Tablighi Jamaat followers, who are estimated to number about 80 million worldwide.

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But as members of the group dispersed from Raiwind, some took the virus with them.

Two Palestinian men who had been in Lahore days later became the first confirmed cases of coronavirus in Gaza after being tested as they entered the besieged enclave from Egypt.

Five men from Kyrgyzstan who remained in Islamabad after attending the Ijtema also contracted the virus, while five Nigerian women suspected of being infected were also placed in quarantine.

Conference participants have been linked to outbreaks elsewhere in Pakistan, with at least four attendees among 38 confirmed Tablighi Jamaat cases in the southern Sindh province.

The wider movement has also been blamed for spreading the virus in Malaysia and India, where the issue has fuelled further Islamophobia against a Muslim minority already facing Hindu nationalist violence and discrimination.

The reported clustering of cases around Tablighi Jamaat centres in Pakistan has led to criticism of the movement for failing to heed calls to postpone the gathering, but also has raised tensions as authorities have sought to isolate members now deemed to pose a risk of spreading the virus further.

A man stands at the closed entrance of the Makki Masjid Tablighi centre in Karachi this week after the government ordered those inside to quarantine (Reuters)
A man stands at the closed entrance of the Makki Masjid Tablighi centre in Karachi this week after the government ordered those inside to quarantine (Reuters)

Tablighi Jamaat centres in other towns and cities including Hyderabad and Mardan, each housing scores of worshippers, have also been the focus of quarantining measures.

In the Punjab city of Layyah, a member stabbed a police officer while trying to escape from a Tablighi Jamaat centre as quarantining measures were being enforced.

And on Friday, police were attacked by worshippers as they tried to stop a Friday prayers congregation from gathering at the Ghousia mosque in Karachi province. Four people were arrested  for violating the government-imposed crackdown, but the cleric of the mosque was not arrested due to community pressure. 

Spreader or scapegoat?

Government ministers have been among those to pour scorn on the group and other religious movements for failing to take steps to minimise the spread of infection by limiting the number of people attending prayers.

Pointing the finger at religious congregations, Fawad Chaudhry, the minister for science and technology, singled out Tablighi Jamaat and Barelvi preachers for criticism, the latter belonging to a Sunni movement that has an extensive following across South Asia.

We are very concerned that Tablighi Jamaat refused to limit the congregation so they are responsible

- Fawad Chaudhry, Minister of Science and Technology

"We are very concerned that Tablighi Jamaat refused to limit the congregation so they are responsible. The religious clergy's regressive opinions are what led to this catastrophe," he said.

But others have suggested that Tablighi Jamaat makes a convenient scapegoat and a distraction from the Pakistani government's own failings in responding to the coronavirus crisis as the number of cases and the death toll continue to increase.

"It's not fair to blame one group. The government has failed to take any action from the beginning. They are making a scapegoat of people," said Ahsan Iqbal, a former interior minister.

"People have not been made aware of the potential danger and the lifestyle changes they need to incorporate in their daily life so that can protect themselves from coronavirus."

In Quetta, people waiting to collect rations from a welfare trust maintain social distancing (AFP)
In Quetta, people waiting to collect rations from a welfare trust maintain social distancing (AFP)

Like other countries around the world, Pakistan has started imposing social distancing policies in an attempt to control the spread of the disease and protect the country's fragile healthcare system from being overwhelmed.

But critics say that the government has been slow to act and has not gone far enough, with doctors among those calling for public gatherings, including religious worship, to be banned.

Unlike many other Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, religious leaders in Pakistan from both Sunni and Shia communities have not yet been required to close their mosques.

The government has failed to take any action from the beginning. They are making a scapegoat of people

- Ahsan Iqbal, former interior minister

Last week, Noorul Haq Qadri, Pakistan’s minister for religious affairs, told reporters that mosques would remain open, but worshippers would be kept to a minimum and people over 50 and children would be barred.

Maulana Zahid Qasmi, chairman of Pakistan's Ulema Islamic Council, a Muslim umbrella group with members from a range of movements, told MEE that his organisation is encouraging members to pray at home only in the hardest-hit areas of the country.

"In areas that are less affected, we will continue gatherings and prayers, and inform the congregations about health issues during our sermons," he said.

"We are concerned about the virus, but in order to survive this pandemic, we need to pray to God as a state with strength."

Mixed messages

For their part, Tablighi Jamaat leaders last week sent out a letter to the movement's followers instructing them to stop their door-to-door visits and not to congregate.

The letter appeared to be an attempt to address concerns that the group's signature methods of face-to-face proselytising, or dawah, risked contributing to the spread of the virus.

Yet influential members of the movement have also sent out mixed messages.

After the Lahore event, Jameel, the Islamic television preacher, gave a speech in which he said: "God chooses who is infected and who is not, and God will save us."

Our ideology will see us through

- Rizwan Shahid, Tablighi Jamaat follower 

By 1 April Jameel appeared to have tempered his views, describing the virus as life-threatening and calling on people to avoid gatherings and to pray at home instead, as directed by the government. 

By then however, some Tablighi Jamaat members were already questioning whether social-distancing measures and curbs on their traditional activities were necessary.

"Our ideology will see us through. We must all be spiritually connected, and asking for forgiveness is our only option," Rizwan Shahid, a 43-year-old member in Lahore, told MEE.

Arsalan Khan, an assistant anthropology professor at Union College in New York who has researched and written about the movement, told MEE that it is hard for followers to conceive that a practice to spread religious virtue could be "a vehicle for the spread of illness and death".

There is also a financial consideration, he said. Many Tablighi Jamaat mosques house madrassa-educated imams who rely on donations from worshippers for their income.

"The ulema cannot be seen as betraying them. This is definitely one factor, though certainly not the only one, in the decision by the Pakistani ulema to not close the mosques," he said.

MEE contacted leaders of the movement for comment this week but they had not responded at the time of publication.

Sabookh Syed, a Pakistani-based journalist and analyst focused on religious movements, agreed that Tablighi Jaamat leaders' reluctance to curtail the group's activities may have been part-motivated by economic factors, but he believes another more significant issue may be at play.

While the movement traditionally distances itself from and is distrustful of politics, its deep roots in Pakistani society, where it commands a large middle-class support base, mean that it has largely been left alone by the authorities.

Pakistani passengers sit atop buses as they make their way home from the three-day annual Tablighi Ijtema religious gathering in Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore on November 6, 2016.
Tablighi Jaamat members head to a 2016 gathering in Raiwind (AFP)

Bowing to pressure over coronavirus could be seen as setting a precedent for future political interventions in the group's affairs, he suggests.

"Tablighi Jamaat regard the government as embodying the old colonial rulers, therefore they disregard their advice," Syed said.

"Their main concerns are if the government closes the mosques and gatherings on this occasion, it will do so in the future."