Congregations and corona

April 06, 2020

In the face of growing coronavirus cases across Pakistan, the government’s decision to suspend congregational prayers at worship places is a welcome development.Without this decision, the...

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In the face of growing coronavirus cases across Pakistan, the government’s decision to suspend congregational prayers at worship places is a welcome development.

Without this decision, the government’s lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus would not have been effective. So far, 40 people have lost their lives to coronavirus in Pakistan.

On April 2, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) also endorsed the government's decision and urged people to pray at their homes and temporarily avoid coming to religious gatherings. The CII’s decision is consistent with similar measures adopted by different Muslim countries. For instance, Egypt’s Jamia Al-Azhar has issued a similar fatwa banning public gatherings, including communal prayers in mosques, during public health emergencies.

At present, the two holy mosques in Saudi Arabia are closed, where group and Friday prayers as well as Umrah pilgrimage have been suspended. Similarly, Iran, the hardest hit by the coronavirus, has closed down holy shrines and mosques in more than 23 cities coupled with banning communal prayers and Friday gatherings. The holy city of Qom has also been closed for pilgrims.

Likewise, the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is also closed to the public. Turkey, Malaysia, Jordon, Lebanon, Palestine and other Muslim countries have taken similar measures. In these countries, Azan – instead of asking people to come to mosques for prayers – asks people to pray in their homes.

The underlying motive of congregational prayer, where people of all colours, castes and financial backgrounds, pray together is to foster a collective spirit for the overall welfare of the community. When the very idea of collective wellbeing is undermined by public gatherings, individual prayer naturally takes a precedence on group prayer. In fact, those who insist on praying collectively in worship places during a public health crisis undermine the collective wellbeing of the community.

The two main clusters that primarily account for the outbreak and rapid spread of the coronavirus in Pakistan are linked to the mishandling of the pilgrims returning from Iran, and the annual three-day Tableeghi Ijtima in Raiwind attracting over 250,000 congregants. Though the Ijtima was eventually called off, the virus has spread throughout the country. Since then, the government has locked down the Ijtima venues and quarantined those members of the Tableeghi Jamaat who have tested positive. However, a large number still remain unaccounted for.

In hindsight, worship places, among others, in different parts of the world have formed the largest clusters of the coronavirus. For instance, in Italy and South Korea the continuation of Church services formed the first clusters of the coronavirus. Though South Korea has curtailed the virus’ spread through aggressive testing, the challenge still persists. Italy remains one of the most-affected countries in the world with the highest mortality rate (10 percent), notwithstanding having one of the best healthcare systems in the world.

Similarly, the Tableeghi Ijtima of 16,000 people from 25 countries in Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur from February 27 to March 3 makes up 55 percent of Covid-19 cases in the country, so far. As many as 711 congregants were infected with the virus and they spread it to their family members and others who came in close contact with them. Of the 16,000 Tableeghi attendees in Kuala Lumpur 13, 762 were screened by the Malaysian authorities.

In comparison to Malaysia, the Tableeghi Ijtima in Pakistan attracted 250,000 congregants who later dispersed without proper screening. Now, 16 cases of the coronavirus linked to the Tableeghi Ijtima have been reported from Islamabad’s Bhara Kahu (fifteen cases) and Shahzad Town (one case) areas. Similarly, 90 people have tested positive in Hyderabad and 40 in Raiwind. Moreover, two Palestinians who came to attend the Ijtima tested positive after landing in Gaza. Alarmingly, a large number of the attendees still remain unaccounted for. There is an urgent need to trace and screen them.

In India, the annual Tableeghi Ijtima in Nizamuddin, New Delhi – the international headquarters of missionary Islamic organization – has also become the super spreader of coronavirus. The inability of the organizers to call off the Ijtima has landed them in hot waters with a hostile media and the BJP-led Hindu nationalist government. Unfortunately, the BJP government is giving it a communal spin to hide its own mishandling of the poorly planned lockdown which triggered a mass exodus of migrant workers from major cities to their native villages.

Three weeks ahead of Ramazan, the decision to ban communal prayers will help the government regulate worship affairs during the holy fasting month. Indonesia’s largest Muslim institution, Muhammadiyah, has already issued a circular advising Muslims to perform trawih and Eidul Fitr prayers at home should the coronavirus situation shows no signs of abating.

Given the scale and enormity of the Covid-19 pandemic, it will be a few weeks or even months before we blunt the virus’ spread. Until then, the government needs to make strong, no matter how unsavoury, policies in the public interest.

The writer is a research fellow at theS Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Email: isabasitntu.edu.sg



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