Sunday December 03, 2023

Science versus dogma

April 26, 2020

There was this front-page photograph, published on Friday, in which a member of the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee is looking through a very large telescope at dusk on Thursday in Karachi.

This was evidently the drill prescribed for sighting the new moon, in this case of Ramazan. Eventually, the moon was not sighted and it was announced that the holy month would begin on Saturday.

This photograph tells a story. We have these respected ulema, headed by Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman, who gather every month at the appointed site to certify the appearance or otherwise of the moon. And they do this not just with naked eyes but with the help of such formidable telescopes. Yet, the meteorological certainties of the passage of moon and other satellites and planets in the sky that would validate a proper lunar calendar do not seem to matter.

Now, I am not concerned here with this questionable practice of the sighting of a new moon. But this photograph could be a graphic illustration of our ulemas’ rather enigmatic relationship with science and the challenges of the modern world. My point of reference here, of course, is the coronavirus and how the imperative of a strict lockdown has raised certain issues.

Already, a number of restrictions had been imposed on congregational prayers in mosques. Since self-isolation and social distancing are essential to block the spread of the deadly coronavirus, congregations in places of worship have universally been stopped. This has been so in other Muslim countries, to the extent that congressional prayers are not being held in the two holy mosques of Makkah and Madina.

But Pakistan has its own standards when it comes to religious passions and practices. Our religious leaders sought to overrule the coronavirus lockdown and the government, as usual, was willing to make concessions to placate the religious lobby. Hence, in a meeting between President Dr Arif Alvi and the ulema, a 20-point ‘action plan’ was devised to allow daily and ‘taraweeh’ prayers in mosques during the month of Ramazan, albeit with some specific conditions.

However, medical professionals felt that this amounted to taking a grave risk, particularly because our people are generally not bound by restrictions in these matters. There have been instances in Karachi of how restrictions on Friday prayers were brashly violated.

Anyhow, some leading doctors, in a letter written on Tuesday, asked the ulema to review this decision. This was followed by a press conference in Karachi on Wednesday in which the doctors argued for a strict lockdown for several weeks. They were worried about the prospect of an alarming rise in the coronavirus cases in the country by the middle of May.

It was an impassioned appeal and hit another target. At the political level, differences between Prime Minister Imran Khan’s approach and that of the Sindh government on the severity of the lockdown had already raised a storm. So, in response to the doctors’ press conference, the PTI’s Dr Shahbaz Gill impudently contended, in a tweet, that the doctors were playing politics on behalf of the Sindh government and the PPP.

The frivolity of this claim, though, was exposed the next day when some leading doctors addressed a similar press conference in Lahore. Readily, this concern on the part of the medical practitioners was echoed in Peshawar and Quetta. But the impact made by the female doctors’ press conference in Karachi on Friday was so much more powerful.

We know that doctors and paramedical staff are the frontline soldiers in this war against the pandemic and because they are so exposed to the virus themselves, a number of them have lost their lives. There have been touching stories of doctors’ and nurses’ sacrifices in other countries where the loss of life has been colossal.

Our situation is really precarious because of the limitations of our health facilities. It is a measure of the commitment and the professionalism of our doctors that they are so concerned about a medical crisis that is ticking like a time bomb. Imran Khan, too, has said that the next few weeks could be difficult.

In his press talk on Friday, Director-General of ISPR Maj-Gen Babar Iftikhar also said that the next 15 days are crucial. In support of a strict lockdown, he asked the people to “make your homes your places of worship”. Then, there is that fearful projection that Pakistan’s coronavirus cases could rise up to 200,000 by mid-July.

The gist of it is that in this dire situation, we need to be guided by science and by available facts that the experts can decipher. We have to learn our lessons from the experiences of other countries – and hope for divine protection in this month of piety and prayers.

One conspicuous example of the role that religion plays in our public affairs is the star billing of Maulana Tariq Jamil in Friday’s Ehsaas Telethon telecast live on multiple channels. It was attended by the prime minister and the grand show was concluded with a long prayer offered by Maulana Tariq Jamil, who is perhaps the most popular religious speaker in the country, with access to the corridors of power.

Some aspects of what he said during an extensive oration provide an instructive insight into the religious mindset in the context of the pressures that our society has to bear. The pity of it is that our rulers, who sometimes pretend to espouse a progressive and modern outlook, seem happy to live with these assertions.

Among other things, Maulana Tariq Jamil implied that our present difficulties constituted a divine retribution for the waywardness of our women and Westernised youth.

You may get some idea of what he might have said by the response that came from Shireen Mazari, the federal minister for human rights. This is what she tweeted: “Simply absurd 4 anyone under any guise to even suggest the Covid-19 pandemic is a result of women wearing short sleeves or bec of private schools/universities misleading the youth. This simply reflects either ignorance abt pandemics or a misogynist mindset. Absolutely unacceptable”.

Absolutely unacceptable? By whom?

The writer is a senior journalist.