Congregational worship in the time of corona

April 19, 2020

An important debate about government control of mosques has begun

Police officials request people to pray at home during lockdown in Karachi.

Three weeks ago locals in the outskirts of Islamabad prayed in a Friday congregation with Covid-19 infected Tableeghi Jamaat members and carried the virus home to their families. The town was quarantined and provincial governments banned congregational prayers across the country. Defiant congregations have since disputed government orders, walking through empty streets and past closed shops to pray together, preferring religious discipline to the science of social distancing, choosing religious congregation over their responsibilities to the public.

Pious Muslims congregate at places of worship with a frequency and in numbers far exceeding any other form of gathering in Pakistan. Worshippers meeting in prayer are inspired by values taken from the Quran and Sunnah. They engage with aesthetics, ascendancy and authority derived from Islamic history and learning. Their belief in the paramountcy of submission to God’s will coexists uneasily with the government’s land management, public health and planning priorities. They live in planned developments, drive on roads built and maintained by the state, receive municipal water and sanitation facilities and do business in marketplaces which are regulated by district officers. Yet, when urban redevelopment calls for the demolition of a mosque, or when the municipality objects to the illegal construction of a mosque on public land, they face the impossibility of reconciling their civic interests with their religious beliefs relating to the eternal nature of the mosque. A fault line separates the public from the religious congregational domain. It is both false and deadly.

Religious leaders and congregations that dispute government orders are ignoring the science which feeds terror of the pandemic. They are not incapable of engaging with debates about disease; ulema offered detailed commentaries about contaminated water tanks in mosques while cholera spread in Bihar in the late nineteenth century. Their ideas were derived from Hanafi law, however, and not Pasteur’s discoveries; the ulema did not engage with Western scientific ideas about contagion at the time. Public discourse has also been resistant to religious ideals for mosques in the past. In late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Lahore, Kanpur and Delhi, as town planners prepared to demolish and relocate mosques to open out urban environs and widen roads to move people and goods more efficiently through cities, they ignored representations of the centrality of mosques and devotion to everyday life and the neighbourhood. But this is no longer the case in Pakistan where the government has been empowered to regulate waqfs since the 1950s, town planners allocate land for mosques in every neighbourhood and the whole country observes Islamic holidays and a long Friday prayer break. Pakistan’s public discourse, practices and space elevate the sacred and the divine, anchored by law and nurtured by government. Those defying the government ban on congregation are not as receptive to non-scripturally derived ideas about congregation.

Those defying the government ban on congregation are not as receptive to non-scripturally derived ideas about congregation.

Organised resistance to government orders is the latest in a series of social movements asserting rights to congregational prayer across modern South Asia. Hanafi ulema encouraged the weavers and tailors of Bihar to convene their own congregation in defiance of the Ahl-i-Hadith custodians of their mosque in 1883. Muslim traders incited an Eid congregation to defy their Hindu neighbours and the government’s restrictions on cow sacrifice in 1893 at the height of the cow protection movement. The ulema, community leaders, and the press inspired the defiant congregation that prayed on the road in protest against the demolition of a corner of the Machhli Bazaar mosque in Kanpur in 1913. Khilafatists called for a congregational prayer at the site of the one-time Shahidganj mosque in Lahore in 1920. The Anjuman-i Islamia called for Muslims to pray at a disputed commercial site and raise the edifice of the Masjid Shab Bhar there in 1934. Community leaders inspired the congregation which prayed on a municipal plot in Ranchore Lines in Karachi in September 1947, and then claimed the site for the Pakistan Masjid. In each case, the ulema or community leaders gave instructions to faithful Muslims to assemble in congregation to enhance their public visibility as a faith-based collective and their street power in defiance of public priorities. Congregational prayers leading to qabzas of land for mosques or ending in public protests go unchallenged in contemporary Pakistan because they appear to be an expression of a collective will. The current movement has our attention because its very strategy, collective public visibility, is itself disallowed.

The idea of social distancing is new to us all. What is the source and nature of the directives encouraging congregation at a time when it is certain to spread disease? Is the statement of religious leaders that “prayers will be held while observing precautionary measures” enough for us? It shouldn’t be as our current understanding of science is that no precautionary measures are sufficient to prevent contagion when the virus is most likely airborne. Can we stand back and allow congregations to turn into mobs to assert their right to congregation when we are submitting to business closures and distancing from family and friends in the greater public interest? An important debate about government control of mosques has begun. Such control would begin in the realm of ideas. We must ask ourselves if we want a unified approach to mosques which is firmly under the control of the state as it is in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. If not, we must consider whether we are comfortable according ulema the moral authority to defy public prerogatives to summon a collectivity of Muslims by invoking ideas which we do not understand and may not agree with.

The writer is a visiting professor at LUMS 2019-20 and associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is the author of the forthcoming book, The Mosques of Colonial South Asia

Congregational worship in the time of coronavirus