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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