Between faith and a pandemic

This year Muslims struggled to fulfill their religious obligations in Ramazan amid restrictions to keep coronavirus at bay

“This Eid and this month of fasting would, perhaps, be the most different in my life,” says thirty five-year-old Shaheer Ali, who lives with his wife and two children in an Islamabad suburb. “Fulfilling religious obligations and attending religious congregations in mosques was quite a challenge this year.”

Ali says they anticipate an entirely different Eid this time because of coronavirus and an earlier lockdown situation, which has eased considerably following recent announcements by the government. “There were no family and friends at iftar parties, no taraweeh prayers and perhaps, there will be no extended family gatherings on Eid because of the virus. This year is altogether different from the previous years,” he turns nostalgic.

For Muslims across the globe and in Pakistan, the most celebrated religious month of fasting – Ramazan – followed by Eid-ul-Fitr will be considerably different this year. Already struggling to deal with the pandemic, many Muslims could not fulfill their religious obligations the traditional way amid lockdown and restrictions due to coronavirus.

In one of his speeches, Prime Minister Imran Khan urged the people not to go out and celebrate Eid like previous years because of the virus. He urged people to stay home to ensure the safety and protection of everyone.

The federal and provincial governments had imposed restrictions even before the beginning of the fasting month urging people to pray at home and avoid public gatherings. The situation not only barred most Muslims to go to mosques during this month but also discouraged them to gather for collective social and religious gatherings, which is a tradition in the country.

This month posed a serious challenge for the state machinery in terms of convincing people of all sects to limit their religious activities in congregation. While the government had issued standard operating procedures (SOPs) to allow congregational prayers at mosques, and special prayers and congregation in Ramazan, a number of news reports indicate that these SOPs were openly flouted in many cities.

“Worship in Ramazan at the mosques this year was not like previous years. We did not have the liberty to worship like we used to,” says Zafar Khan, a Peshawar-based trader, who had preferred to go to mosque for prayers instead of doing the same at home. “We went to mosques like thieves as if we were doing something wrong. The state restricted the congregation,” he says.

“There was a conflict in my heart and mind while going to the mosque but I went anyway.” He says while he understood that the restrictions were being put in place because of the pandemic situation, “but we tried to please Allah rather than the government,” he adds.

Tahir Kazmi, a senior police officer in Rawalpindi district, says that in the early days of Ramazan a lot of people tried to head to mosques leading to violations of SOPs. He says it was a bit challenging to deal with the situation. However, gradually, people started following the SOPs and the number of congregational worshippers also started declining. He said additional deployments were made to ensure the implementation of SOPs to monitor mosques and religious gatherings. These deployments were made outside and inside of mosques as well as on rooftops.

“We tried our best to implement SOPs but we cannot entirely impose these restrictions,” says a police officer, deployed outside a busy mosque in Rawalpindi. “We can just appeal to them to follow the SOPs. This is for their wellbeing.”

Muhammad Ibrahim, the imam (prayer leader) at a mosque in one of the busiest areas of Rawalpindi, Satellite Town, says that a lot of people wanted to attend prayers and taraweeh but they could not make it. “The number of visitors was at least 40 per cent less than the previous years,” he estimates, adding that many people tried to follow the SOPs.

Many mosques in Islamabad, the Punjab and Sindh, violated SOPs for Friday prayers during Ramazan despite official warnings. Some of the mosques violating the SOPs also allowed people to perform aetekaaf, the most important and exclusive worship dedicated for the last 10 days of the holy month.

In Islamabad, the district administration issued a directive that aetekaaf will not be observed at every mosque in the capital city. It will only be allowed at mosques that can strictly implement SOPs regarding prevention of the virus. An advisory was also issued to all mosques in the capital that barred children and people above 50 years from aetekaaf at mosques this year. The administration also directed mosque authorities to ensure that people wear masks and use hand sanitisers while also instructing that body temperature of worshippers be checked daily and social distancing SOPs properly observed during aetekaaf.

However, Tahir Ali, who has been regularly observing aetekaaf for the past 12 years, said no this time. “There was an option and the mosque administration also contacted me but I preferred to stay home. I will miss this religious activity this year since it has been part of my life during Ramazan for the past decade,” says Ali. “I am old and I am not sure whether inside the mosque people are following the SOPs and maintaining a safe distance.”

The month of Ramazan is almost over now and people are preparing to celebrate Eid keeping in mind safety precautions. “The holy month has passed and religious obligations have been performed amid this virus challenge but we will miss our relatives on Eid as we will not be going anywhere,” says Ali. “This year, Ramazan created a conflict between faith and the situation due to the pandemic. I believe faith won.”

The writer is a member of staff. He can be reached at [email protected]

Between faith and a pandemic