InternationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 16

In defiance of COVID-19

Countries around the world have gone into lock down or imposed severe curbs to restrict the spread of the coronavirus. Religious activities have suffered too all over the world, but people and religious leaders in Pakistan have refused to heed the government’s advice to offer prayers at home.

The defiance has raised serious concerns about the virus spread in the country and some experts fear the government will have to impose a countrywide curfew to tackle the situation in the end. President Arif Alvi requested Pakistani ulema to advise people across the country to offer prayers at home as the coronavirus continues to infect people. The President held a meeting via video conference with religious scholars and governors of all provinces. The meeting was held a day before Friday as millions of people across the country offer congregational prayers in mosques. The ulema assured the President of their complete cooperation in battling the COVID-19 pandemic, but refused to bar people from coming to mosques and attend Friday congregations.

The situation in Pakistan is in contrast to measures adopted by Muslims and their governments the world over. Religious authorities across the Middle East have moved to cancel or limit weekly prayer gatherings to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Saudi Arabia locked down its capital Riyadh and holy cities of Makkah and Madina to prevent the spread of the virus. It also imposed further travel restrictions on 13 regions. It had to impose a three-week curfew after the situation worsened. In addition to closing mosques, it has halted international flights, suspended the Umrah, shut down schools, malls and restaurants, and asked people to stop going to work. It is feared it may restrict gatherings for Hajj this year. These are drastic steps taken under an extraordinary situation to save people.

Iran also shut down it holy shrines in the wake of the pandemic. The police had to use force to disperse crowds who forced their way into two popular shrines soon after they were closed because of the threat. Health officials had told pilgrims that kissing and touching the shrines could spread the virus, and urged clergy to close them for weeks. In a statement, religious leaders urged the pilgrims to rely on wisdom and patience during the crisis.

In a significant development, Al-Azhar, the Muslim world’s prestigious institution in Egypt, allowed the suspension of mass prayers at mosques. The Fatwa stressed that public gatherings, including congregational prayers at mosques, can result in the spread of the coronavirus and the governments of Muslim countries have complete jurisdiction to cancel the events. It also emphasized amending Azaan (call to prayer) with words “Salaat Fi Buyut-e-Kum”, meaning “pray at your home”, instead of the usual “come to prayer”. Also, families within their homes can arrange group prayers. The edict says it is obligatory for Muslims to abide by the health instructions of the state in case of crisis and avoid following unofficial information and rumours. “As per credible medical reports, the coronavirus spreads very easily and quickly. In the situation, saving human lives and protecting them from all risks and threats is in line with the great concept of Islam,” the Fatwa said.

However, most Pakistani people and religious leaders are not impressed by such decrees or the threat. It is despite the fact that pilgrims returning from Iran are blamed for the spread of the virus in Pakistan. Over 78pc of the 892 officially confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pakistan have a history of travel to Iran, according to the government. However, the pilgrims were not at fault. It was the government’s inability to screen them for the virus, which spread the disease in the country. Two people returning from a religious gathering in Lahore were accused of carrying the virus to Palestine. About 250,000 people had congregated in camps near Lahore for the annual five-day congregation, ignoring government warnings that such events could propagate the pandemic.

Malaysian authorities also linked most of its 428 cases to a religious gathering in the country. The authorities said participants in the gathering — from February 27 to March 1 — came from Bangladesh, Brunei, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Around 14,500 of the participants were Malaysian. Brunei and Singapore have also linked a spike in the coronavirus cases in their countries to the event.

A large number of Muslim countries have banned religious congregations and collective prayers to save the population from the pandemic. However, the government in Pakistan is not in a position to take strict actions on the pattern of most Muslim countries. It requested religious and prayer leaders to shorten Friday prayers as well as daily prayers, advising the public to go to mosques only for Farz prayers. Critics say if Muslim holiest places in Saudi Arabia can be closed down, why not mosques in other parts of the world? Unlike the Saudi authorities, no provincial or federal government in Pakistan can force the clerics to close mosques or ban large gatherings. The government also cannot impose a curfew to save its marginalised sections of society. It can only request religious leaders to enforce the restrictions. It appears religious leaders and the common people are not ready to listen to the request of the government. Health experts fear the next few weeks could see a sharp spike in the cases because of gatherings at masques. In view of the situation, the clerics should ask people, especially old and sick, to offer their prayers at home. If the practice continues, it is feared the government will have to impose a countrywide curfew to tackle the situation.