EXCLUSIVE: Unknown to Western media – but bigger than the Hajj

by - 27th January 2010

Tongi Bridge as devotees arrive on top trains and boats - Photo Jeremy HunterAS MANY AS five million people go quiet and not a breath of wind stirs.  The astonishing display of devotion and discipline rivals only the Hajj in Mecca for the Muslim faithful.

They are everywhere, on boats, bridges, rooftops, and in tents that merge with the horizon.

Jeremy Hunter, the Unesco-award winning photojournalist is just back from filming an event at Tongi in Bangladesh that very few Westerners even know about, let alone visit.

IJTEMA (pronounced Istema) is a half-Sanskrit, half Arabic word that describes the annual coming-together in Bangladesh of Muslims of the Tablighi Jama'at sect, seeking the divine blessings of Allah, in an Islamic gathering that is several times bigger even than the Haj to Mecca.

Akheri Munazat - Photo Jeremy HunterIt takes place at Tongi, an industrial township near Dhaka on the banks of the River Turag.

An official Saudi website says that the hajj – obligatory pilgrimage that is one of the five pillars of Islam - attracts 1.7million a year.

Yet Ijtemas in Bangladesh now attract 2 million – and at the final blessing, five million, according to police estimates, making it the biggest gathering of Muslims on the planet.

Yet it goes unreported by the Western media.  This miracle of faith and order has been taking place in Bangladesh since 1946, and at Tongi since 1966, known only to themselves and a few academics.

Said Jeremy, a former producer for Channel 4’s Cutting Edge:  ‘It was absolutely awesome.  I was the only non-believer there and I was treated with absolute kindness and consideration by police and congregants.’

Jummah prayers on first day of Ijtema - Photo Jeremy HunterThe event features instruction on how to pray, sermons on the fundamental issues of Islam, life in the after-world, and it also provides the opportunity for mass dowry-free marriages to be solemnized.

Its obscurity is indicative of how the West's understanding of Islam has been skewed by reportage of its own preoccupations with and implication in the Middle East – which accounts for just 20 per cent of the world’s Muslims.


Jeremy HunterJeremy Hunter was given a Unesco award for his work on religious festivals called Let’s Celebrate 365.  His work will be featured in the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.


Who are the Tablighi Jama’at? Read more »