Bishwa Ijtema: five million Muslims, 108 weddings, one Australian female photographer

The world's most frustrated bus driver waves an arm out the window.

On 24 January 2010 I attended the final day of Bishwa Ijtema, or “World Congregation.”  If you’re not Muslim you may not have heard of it – it’s an annual Islamic congregation held by the banks of the Turag River in Tongi, which is about 20 kilometres from Dhaka, Bangladesh.  Devotees from 70 different countries spent three days in prayer and meditation and Islamic scholars delivered sermons.  The organisers, Tablighi Jamaat, forbid political discussions taking place and the congregation is officially open to people from all faiths.  As per tradition, mass dowry-free wedding ceremonies were held on the second day of Ijtema.  According to The Daily Star, this year 108 couples were married in a single day. That’s a lot of love (or persuasion).

Bishwa Ijtema (pronounced biz-wah ist-emah) began very humbly in 1946, when an Indian scholar met with a few people at a local mosque.  In 2010, local police estimated that the numbers of devotees reached five million.

A woman prays in a partially contructed building

I was really excited about witnessing such a huge event.  I contacted a photographer called Jeremy Hunter, who was coming to Bangladesh for a week to take pictures for The Guardian.  We met up in Coffee World a few days before to discuss our plans.  Jeremy had maps and photos from previous years and suggested we do a warm-up lap of Tongi the following day.  Such a level of preparedness was unknown to me – but I have learnt from it.  We went with Jeremy’s 70-year-old fixer called “Tiger Uncle” who showed us the train station and we scanned for good vantage points.  How we would ever reach those points in the midst of millions remained a mystery to me. We met a friendly member of the Special Branch Police who said he’d find out if I could take a photo of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (impossible).

Crossing this sandpipe was the alternative to wading through mud and water.

But the night before I suffered pre-ijtema jitters.  Due to the incredible swell of traffic, Jeremy had arranged to travel to Tongi on the back of a motorcycle.  Some of my colleagues told me that going alone would be difficult, and others said that devotees might not be receptive to a female western photographer.  Unfortunately, by this stage it was too late to team up with a reporter from The Daily Star.  If I had a taka for every time I was told to cover my hair…   By midnight on Saturday I had decided to go, but to turn around and come back if I felt uncomfortable (or was making others uncomfortable).

However ijtema turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.  It was extraordinary to see so many people come together to celebrate their identity and faith.  The last two ‘mass’ events I attended were the protests against the G20 summit in London, and before that, the protests on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.  The mood during those two occasions was (justifiably) one of anger, frustration and bitterness.  Ijtema felt joyful, whilst also solemn and reflective.

And as for the mixed reports about whether devotees would be receptive to a western woman taking photographs – I found them positively encouraging.  In fact there was so much waving, posing and posturing – even direct requests to take individual and group portraits – that my only difficulty was getting candid shots.  I took nearly 700 photos, and only once did someone ask me not to take his picture (which was a bit silly, because he was one of hundreds on the banks below the bridge).  However I didn’t try to enter the central prayer area as I felt that would be pushing my luck.

It's too crowded to wave but nevermind that...

It was also a physically demanding experience – my whole body ached the next day.  After giving up on the CNG (auto-rickshaw) around 9am when traffic came to a standstill (after pumping myself up by listening to the very un-Islamic sounds of WHAM) I walked with thousands of others for a couple of hours to reach the ijtema grounds, which are spread over 160 acres.  We crossed soft sand, mud and waist-deep water.  Moving around in the congregation was obviously difficult and at the beginning there was a massive crush that nearly scared me off the whole idea. But a man stretched his arms out around me to give me breathing room, and this act of kindness was repeated by many others throughout the day. After asking for directions to Tongi train station, a man in white robes and skullcap planted himself by my side and became my temporary fixer.  He spent 45 minutes escorting me to the train station, telling officials I was a “sanbadik” (journalist) and I was allowed to pass through various hurdles – alas only to be turned back by police who had temporarily blocked off the station.  When I went to a partially constructed multi-storey building to get a good vantage point while waiting for Akheri Munajat (the final prayer) to begin, he smiled and disappeared back into the crowd.

Tongi station

It was mostly women who had gathered on various levels of the building. A man made me a seat out of planks of wood and I read Shazia Omar’s “Like a Diamond in the Sky” while eating mandarins and enjoying the shade.  It was a happy coincidence of art imitating life when I came to this passage:

“As they walked, Deen realised he was not surrounded by people, people, people but men, men, men.  Men everywhere.  The street was clogged with men. Men chanting Allah. Men dressed in robes inching forward with Qurans and religious zeal.  White robes billowed in the wind like spectres.  Even for Bangladesh, with 150 million people squeezed into 150 square miles of land, this congregation was an especially cramped mess.”

It compounded the feeling that ijtema is the biggest thing ever.

Me

However when I came home and did some research, I found that ijtema is dwarfed by the world’s largest peaceful gathering, which was held in Allahabad, India, in 2007.  Between 60 and 70 million showed up for the month-long Kumbh Mela, which takes place every 12 years.

Wikipedia’s list of ‘largest peaceful gatherings in history’ does not claim to be comprehensive (and it omits ijtema altogether), but according to its contents, Bishwa Ijtema 2010 was the tenth largest peaceful gathering in history.

Because I’m talking about silly, almost incomprehensible numbers of humans, here are some examples of other mass events to put it into context:

  • Around six million people welcomed Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, Iran when he returned from exile following the Islamic Revolution in 1979.  Twice as many people attended his funeral a decade later.
  • Around 1.8 million people attended the inauguration of Barack Obama in Washington in January 2009, but that was a million less than the parade in Boston celebrating the Red Sox’s baseball match victory in 2004.  The win ended the team’s 86 year “Curse of the Bambino” of world series championship losses.
  • In 2007, one million people attended the Love Parade in Essen, Germany.
  • 400,000 people attended Woodstock in New York state 1969, the largest rock concert of the decade. Here’s a quote from an online BBC report: “The festival’s chief medical officer, Dr William Abruzzi told Rolling Stone magazine: ‘These people are really beautiful. There has been no violence whatsoever which is really remarkable for a crowd of this size.’”
  • Up to three million people attended the hajj in Mecca late last year. Itjema is frequently labelled as “the second largest congregation of Muslims after the hajj.” This is incorrect – it is number one. Of course it’s not a competition but I do find this interesting, because it is not compulsory for all able-bodied Muslims to take part in ijtema, whereas the hajj is compulsory at least once in a lifetime for those who can afford it.

Why ijtema receives so little coverage in the world press is a mystery. Happily for me though, after a four hour journey home which involved walking, more walking, a bullock cart and a taxi, I sold two pictures to AFP.

Bishwa Ijtema 2010
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39 thoughts on “Bishwa Ijtema: five million Muslims, 108 weddings, one Australian female photographer”

  1. Although late, I can’t stop to write something about the reporting. Good reporting . Observation about the presence of male and female is true. But best part of this report is not spreading vitriol about Muslims like western media. Thank you Jess.

  2. it will be better if you become muslim…then u will be able to know that this is the highes work in the world.work of the prophet!!.tablighi jamat is in australia too….here is address
    Australia
    Markaz, 90 Cramer Street, Preston 3074, Melbourne.
    Sheikh Mo’taz El-Leissy, Melbourne. 61-3-94784515
    Markaz, 765 Wangee Road, Lakemba, Sydney. 61-2-97593898
    S. Hamid Latif, Lakemba Mosque, 63/65 Wangee Road, Lakemba 2195, Sydney. 61-2-759-3899, 61-3-470-2424
    Markaz, 427 William Street, Perth.
    Abdul Wahab, Perth. 61-9-4596826

    thank you (dont mind)

    1. Omar , I think it’s more important to be an honest person more than becoming a Muslim . Before telling a christian to be converted into Muslim … you should tell those Muslim to be honest … who are killing people by using the name of Islam .

      1. Thats the work of tablighi jamat.they go to muslim brothers ,not non-muslims.because we muslims should be muslim first,then the others

  3. In 2012 , the ijtema is going to happen on January 12,13 and 14 for first term second term will happen probably on 18,19, 20.. Really if you don’t go there you can not feel it.

  4. mashaALLAH your blog gives more idea to those people who don’t really actually know what ijtima is & how it touches everyone’s life who’s being part of it.

  5. Ijtema is indeed a very good way to propagate Islam amongst humanity. No doubt Allah showers His rahmat on those who are doing this. Do talk of Allah’s greatness everyday to your family , friends, colleagues and even non muslims. May Allah make us die with Imaan

  6. hi Jessica, hope you are well. My name is Bulbul, researching on Tablighi Jamaat in Bangladesh for my PhD at Cardiff University, Cardiff. I have done about one year fieldwork with TJ members. I am wondering if I can use one of your photograph in my research that would be great. Specially the one, a female was praying. In case if you want to keep in touch, here is my emails bulbul_ashraf@yahoo.com and siddiqimb@cardiff.ac.uk

    Look forward to hearing from you.

  7. I am very surprises and happy to note such a positive note from an Australian, I had been to Sydney, I know Aussie lifestyle,thank you Jessika for this very interesting article, for your information, due to high attendance this year Ijtema will in two parts, Jan 21-23 & 38-30

    1. actually this year 2011 Ijtema already end..this time it held 2 times..from 1st term(21/1/2011) and 2nd term(28/1/2011)..next year 2012 it will be in January..that time it will hold also two time..if you want to know the fixed date in 2012 and more about Ijtema and Tabligh Jamaate plz sent me e-mail..i’ll reply to you…i’m from Dhaka Bangladesh…Sharif (winsharif@yahoo.com)..

      1. Dear Sharif

        I came accross your below post

        “actually this year 2011 Ijtema already end..this time it held 2 times..from 1st term(21/1/2011) and 2nd term(28/1/2011)..next year 2012 it will be in January..that time it will hold also two time..if you want to know the fixed date in 2012 and more about Ijtema and Tabligh Jamaate plz sent me e-mail..i’ll reply to you…i’m from Dhaka Bangladesh…Sharif (winsharif@yahoo.com).”

        I shall be greatful if can let me know probable date for Ijtema to be held at dhaka by next year 2012.

        Kind Regards
        Capt.Nazrul

  8. I’m surprised they’re not sitting on the bus. Think it puts my memory of the Camel Fair at Pushka into perspective – I was sure there were millions! Love your writing Jess, keep it up, its inspiring stuff!

  9. I am amazed to learn your interest into this event. Well written. Good luck with your wonderful exploration!

  10. these ijtemas are held every year,.,.,.,.in Pakistan now 2 ijtemas take place in november, with a weak gap. they are held in Raiwind, near Lahore. ,.,.,.,.,.last year, in 2009, it was a miracle that these ijtemas were unaffected by terrorism which was on the highest at that time in november,.,,.,.,.,surprisingly no security is demanded by the organisers(here),.,.,.,.its a blessing ,.,..,..,.,

    Hamood

  11. beautiful article. You have captured the essence, time, sound- the full experience of the ijtema. May you have a fulfilling journalism career ahead (as one would say in munajat/dua style :).

  12. Hey Jess,
    I have been waiting for another blog entry! Love reading them and glad your having a fantastic time. Your pictures are fantastic, especially the train station!!
    We head home on the 7th of March arriving in Melb on the 1st of April!
    Keep up the awesome writing!
    Take Care,
    Vanessa
    xox

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