A man once approached the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and asked whether he should tie his camel or put his faith in God to protect it. The Prophet (peace be upon him) responded, “tie your camel, and trust in God” (Al Tirmidhi).
Faith in Islam was never meant to be a suicide pact. Muslims are not supposed to succumb to a fatalist interpretation of religion devoid of common sense. And no Muslim holds a license to expose other members of the community to harm based on their own religious interpretation. A stubborn fidelity to praying in mosques contradicts both these principles.
This piece is not an indictment against faith. It is an indictment against the triumph of blind faith over reason. Faith is important in times of crisis as a fount of hope and optimism. Religious teachings of community and charity help drive philanthropy and serve as important coping mechanisms in times of isolation.
But the peddling of blind faith, coupled with an irrational commitment to how things were done in the 7th century, has led to the colossal detriment of this country. The abandonment of human reason and adherence to scientific fact has been one of the chief victims of this movement. No time of the year displays this more than the beginning of Ramazan, when we will once again celebrate its starting point on different dates purely because the religious right continues to resist being supplanted by the scientific method. Rigid fundamentalism in Pakistan continues to eclipse the use of reason to address modern day problems.
This latter group’s religious leaders have succeeded in being influential throughout Pakistan’s history. They have gotten constitutional amendments that deprive minorities of religious freedom, have resisted the rights of women, and even succeeded in forcing the federal government to not appoint a world-renowned economist as an adviser. Now they have convinced the PTI to enact a 20-point plan for dealing with an issue that should not be an issue at all if common sense prevailed.
Praying five times a day, every day, in mosques will continue during the reign of Covid-19. So will the Tarawih in Ramazan. The 20-point plan spells out all the precautions that will be taken, which sound about as reassuring as Nero’s fiddling.
This is happening despite Muslim nations around the world suspending congregational prayers. Saudi Arabia shut down Islam’s holiest sites. The Al Azhar University issued a fatwa asking people to pray at home. In Kuwait, the traditional call to prayer has been altered to ask people to refrain from coming to mosques. Closing mosques seems to be one of the few things that the Muslim world agrees on — well, except Pakistan.
There is recognition across the globe that communal prayer gatherings can serve as super-transmission sites for a virus that thrives on densely packed groups of people. The Catholic Church suspended services in Italy as the outbreak engulfed the nation, while Jewish communities are also encouraging people to stay at home.
Those who have flouted the social distancing rules have borne the cost. Mustafa Akyol describes how in Israel, ultra-orthodox Jews refused the call to close yeshivas, where students study religious texts, insisting that “cancelled Jewish study is more dangerous than corona”. These mavericks have the misfortune of accounting for half of Israel’s confirmed infections. Meanwhile, the Tabhleegi Jamaat’s congregation has proved to be one of Pakistan’s largest clusters for the virus.
Still, the clerics refuse to accept that we should shut down mosques until the threat of the virus passes.
Once upon a time, Islam was known for the use of reason over blind faith. Practical reason was the hallmark of early Islamic jurisprudence, demanding that we weigh the situation in front of us to come to the best decision. When weighing the risk of exposing our community to a deadly pathogen against communal prayer, the outcome should not be difficult. Prayer can happen at home, and if congregational prayer is seen as mandatory then people can pray in groups with their families. If a khutbah (sermon) before prayer is necessary, then any member of the family can deliver it.
The disregard for social distancing in times like this is at odds with Islamic teachings. Here I draw from the excellent collection of sources on this topic by Mohammed Nizami, a consultant scholar based in London. For example, the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to ask his followers to pray at home during occurrences of heavy rainfall. He also once said, “If you hear of a plague in a land, then do not go into it. If it happens in a land where you are, then do not go out of it.” (Bukhari). Notice how there is no mention of putting the lives of others at risk for something which can be done at home. Especially since many people can be asymptomatic and risk infecting others even though they feel healthy. These teachings value responsible behaviour, not recklessness.
Even if someone does not care about being infected and is driven to be a martyr in the name of communal prayer, the Quran states for them, “Do not contribute to your destruction with your own hands.”
The teachings of Islam, at their core, never ask us to put our lives at risk in order to go to a mosque. Prayer can happen at home. After all, prayer is simply a believer’s connection to God. God exists everywhere as per Islamic belief. Your local mosque does not have a monopoly over God’s presence. The Quran itself says that God is closer to the believer than their jugular vein. Pray at home and he will hear.
Too many politicians in too many instances have caved before the religious right’s failure to use common sense. Of course, in the end it is all politics, but to play politics with people’s lives is a dirty game that people do not forget. If cases rise because of this decision, then people will hold the PTI accountable, not the religious clerics. That, if nothing else, should make the PTI reconsider what it is doing.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 21st, 2020.
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