Among the Missionaries

Worshippers during juma, or Friday, prayers at the Bishwa Ijetma. Click image to expand.
Worshippers during juma, or Friday prayers at the Bishwa Ijetma

The Bishwa Ijtema is no place for homophobes. Of the 3 million Muslims who attended the gathering in early February, about 10 were women. Guys walked the grounds decked out in a variety of man-dresses—the Bangladeshis in their traditional, plaid man-skirts; the Arabs in ankle-length tunics; and the Pakistanis in slightly shorter tunics, paired with the sort of baggy trousers that would make MC Hammer envious. I’ve worn each outfit and can confidently say that none of the 3 million was wearing underwear. Men strolled hand-in-hand while others sat drinking tea, sometimes caressing one another’s head, arm, or earlobe. Still, this is Asia, where such behavior is perfectly acceptable for heterosexual men.

The event included three days of prayers, lectures, and ruminations on how to be a good—and peaceful—Muslim and took place about an hour north of Dhaka, the capital. I showed up on Friday, the first day, around noon. The call for juma prayers, the biggest congregational prayer of the week (like church on Sunday morning) had just sounded—” Allahu Akbar!“—and worshippers promptly unrolled prayer rugs in the middle of the street. When one worshipper gestured as though he were going to place his rug on the hood of our car, I advised the driver to park, marooning us in the middle of the road. I opened the passenger-side door enough to squeeze out before the faithful closed in around us. Latecomers searched frantically for a space to pray, while rugless attendees swarmed around a man selling straw mats. When he sold out, the truly rugless tore black plastic garbage bags into pieces and laid them on the concrete.

The ijtema, or gathering, was hosted by Tablighi Jamaat, a massive organization of Muslim missionaries that espouses a strict, yet nonpolitical, interpretation of Islam. Tablighis, as the group’s followers are known, shun bristle toothbrushes in order to clean their teeth with miswak, an aromatic stick used by the Prophet Mohammed. They also drink every glass of water in three sips, the same way the prophet did. They are fundamentalists in every sense of the word. But they are mostly harmless. “This thing is really like an emotional sedative,” said Abdul Badi, a Caucasian man with a wiry beard and a thick street accent marked by slow, measured enunciations. Badi describes himself as an “Islamic contemporary artist,” fusing oil paintings with Islamic motifs. He is also the former imam of the MCI-Cedar Junction supermax prison in Walpole, Mass. He made the pilgrimage from his hometown of Boston. “This is truly a peace movement within Islam,” he said, stressing the second syllable of Is-LAM. Badi and other dedicated tablighis commit at least 40 days a year to traveling and preaching Islam. Christiane Amanpour described Tablighi Jamaat as “secretive” and hinted at its links to terrorist groups in a recently broadcast CNN special, The War Within. “People are scared,” she added, referring to the group’s growing influence.

Amanpour missed the mark. Tablighi Jamaat doesn’t have a Web site or a publishing house (as several earnest militant outfits do), and they didn’t want to meet with Amanpour. Does that make them secretive? Not when anyone can walk in and listen to their sermons. Including me. Do terrorists attend? With 3 million people there, it’s hard to rule out the possibility. “There is so much ignorance about Islam,” said “Brother” Eisa (which means “Jesus” in Arabic), an African-American and another Boston native. Eisa explained that he came for the message of peace, whatever reasons a few others might have. “We are only accountable for the message of our elders.” 

I went to the ijtema in part to find out just what the elders had to say. And, all in all, their message is quite tame. Here’s a sampling: The world’s problems result from a lack of religion, not an excess; Allah’s power transcends the physical and conceptual limits of this world; and “when a good action pleases you and a bad action displeases you, then you are a true believer.” Pretty simple. Yet, contrary to what Eisa said, what sets Tablighi Jamaat apart is not so much its message but its method. Tablighis are missionaries who see converting a non-Muslim to Islam as a ticket to paradise. Their eyes glowed at the sight of a blond-haired, blue-eyed American wandering around alone.

Most of the 160-acre campground consisted of thousands of bamboo shafts stuck into the ground, each one holding up part of a long piece of canvas, draped like Gulliver-sized bands of ribbon overhead. A few tin-sided barns posted signs welcoming foreigners.

A rug-seller relishes the business opportunity of a lifetime. Click image to expand.
A rug-seller relishes the business opportunity of a lifetime

The first to invite me into their quarters was a group of tall men with bulgy turbans from North Waziristan, one of the tribal areas in Pakistan where the Taliban have taken over. We drank two rounds of milky tea and discussed, in Urdu, the Taliban and the changes they’ve brought to North Waziristan. “The law and order is much better,” one said. “But it’s very dangerous for someone like you.” After a few minutes, the leader was fetched. This must be King Missionary, I thought, the moment he arrived. As he circled his quarry, he cracked his knuckles and rolled his neck like a boxer in warm-up before he sat and faced me. He had no sooner begun imploring me to “come to Allah” when an exterminator entered the barn, wielding what looked like a military-grade leaf-blower. The bug man sprayed a lethal poison—only for mosquitoes, he assured us—that shrouded our circle in a cloud of toxic fumes. Taking advantage of the smokescreen, I ducked away.

After stumbling out of the Pakistani tent, coughing and holding my shirt over my mouth, a teenage Bangladeshi boy stopped me and flashed a creepy smile. He tenderly rubbed my chin and repeated, in a breathy voice, “Oh, oh, Allah.” After this, I resolved to find the American tent, where I might have fewer problems with cultural nuances.

There I met Abdul Badi, the artist from Boston. Badi, who converted to Islam “back in the ‘60s,” traveled with his teenage son. Both father and son wore full beards and shaved their upper lips in the tradition of the Prophet Mohammed. They acted and sounded, well, American. Undoubtedly, they had pitched the nicest tent on the premises. “Yup,” Badi said while slowly nodding and admiring the blue-and-white, eight-man model. “We brought the Coleman,” decisively accenting the first syllable of KOHL-man to emphasize that it was a cool thing. As we talked, a bottle of perfume was passed around, which the tablighis dabbed on their neck and wrists. Sensing my apprehension, Badi suggested: “Smell it first. It isn’t for everyone.” Grateful for his intercession, I passed the bottle to my left.

Later, I asked Badi what compelled his conversion to Islam and decision to join Tablighi Jamaat. During the 1960s, he said with a cocksure grin, “I was a faithful worshipper of earthly beauty. But I reached a plateau of consciousness.” He searched for some spiritual calling. Eventually he found it in a stethoscope. “People say if you listen to your heartbeat, it makes the sound, ‘LOVE, dove,’ ‘LOVE, dove.’ One day, I took a stethoscope and placed it on my heart. You know what it said? ‘AL-lah, AL-lah.’ You don’t need to formally convert if you can hear the sound of your own heart.”

When the evening’s last sermon ended at around 10, I joined Badi, Eisa, and another African-American—a real-life boxing coach from New York City—for dinner. We sat on the ground and plunged our hands into mounds of rice, meat, and salad. The coach asked if I was a new convert. When I replied that I was just a journalist, he pushed out his lips, as if he were trying to hold a pencil in place with his upper lip. “But I can tell your heart is getting softer and softer,” he said in a gravelly voice while holding out his upturned palm and opening and closing it as if he were kneading dough. Meanwhile, Eisa lectured on how I couldn’t fully understand Islam without becoming a Muslim. When he noticed me trying to break the conversation by looking around, he snapped: “Listen! I am not talking to hear myself. If you are going to quote me in your article, you better be listening to everything that I say.” I smiled nervously, somewhat embarrassed, and grabbed another fistful of rice. 

The rest of dinner continued with various American Muslims working their own missionary angle. Between the coach kneading, Eisa demanding my attention, and the spicy food, my face broke out in a heavy sweat. Just in the nick of time, my friend called to say that he was heading back to Dhaka for the night. I had an excuse, and I stood up to leave. Abdul Badi got up to walk me to the gate. “This must be an overwhelming experience for you,” he said along the way. “I think you need a full-on Arabian experience,” Badi added, alluding to Mecca, where only Muslims are allowed.

I saw what he was getting at. And with one last nervous smile, I bade him farewell and stepped out into the night.