Raouf Rasool

Praying at home is new normal this Ramadan

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Risking self may be ok, but risking others isn’t as faith makes me personally responsible for the well-being of fellow people

Desperate times call for desperate moves. This is how one could describe suspension of congregational prayers at the mosques throughout the world.

As the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims have begun observing the holy month of Ramadan, it is going to be a different experience this time as the unprecedented global pandemic — COVID-19 — is rewriting social and communal behaviours in equally unprecedented ways.

Mosques, usually brimming with the faithful during Ramadan are closed throughout the world, including in Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, the holiest cities in Islam. In a statement, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud lamented the necessity to maintain social distancing to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus and the damper it would place on this year’s Ramadan celebrations, the month in which God revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

“It pains me to welcome the glorious month of Ramadan under circumstances that forbid us of prayers in Mosques and of performing the Ramadan prayers,” he said, according to the official Saudi Press Agency. “All this is due to the protective measures taken to save lives and human well-being in light of the global threat of COVID-19.”

The closure of the holy mosques in Mecca (Kaaba) and Madina (Masjid-e-Nabvi), and the al–Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (Qibla Awwal — the third holiest site in Islam) in the face of COVID-19 pandemic should have put to rest any doubts and debates over the issue, but for some reasons it has not. There are a few exceptions where the people have overlooked the medico-scientific advice as well as the edicts (Fatwas) of the noted Islamic jurists (like the ones who ratified closure of mosques in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world; Indonesia, Malaysia and other major Islamic nations) and instead chosen to congregate at the mosques for prayers during Ramadan.

In Iran, the Muslim country hardest hit by the pandemic, officials have shown visible reluctance to clamp down on Ramadan gatherings, even though the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had hinted earlier this month that such measures may be needed. Same has been the case with Pakistan. Here the authorities were forced to rescind an order to limit mosque gatherings under pressure from religious leaders. When asked about it, Prime Minister Imran Khan said: “We knew that people will definitely go to the mosques even after the government stops them by force. We did not want to send police to the mosques to impose a ban on congregational prayers and for arrests.”

However, there is more to the reality. Islamabad has declined to take a tougher line on the mosque issue because it defers to the power of religious figures. According to Michael Kugelman, a noted expert on Pakistan politics, the government also fears the consequences if the kid gloves that it treats them (clerics) with were to come off. “If it were to order all mosques closed, protests would probably ensue. At best, this would undermine the very social distancing that mosque closures would be meant to enforce.”

He also says for the religious leaders, who insist that religious duty requires that mosques remain open, it’s ultimately less about considerations of God’s will and more about temporal matters of politics and money. “By closing their doors and turning away thousands of people—some of whom have shrugged off coronavirus concerns and stated their determination to pray at the mosque—they would be ceding political ground to a state that has rarely imposed its will on them and risking the loss of public support from their core constituency. They would also risk losing out on the hefty financial contributions provided to mosques during Ramadan.”

In Kashmir, certain portions of population have a tendency of looking towards Iran and Pakistan when it comes to the matters of faith. They must understand that these two countries, in reality, are not the leaders of Islam or its followers. Neither are they epicenter (or the starting place, and basic source of Islam) nor an example or inspiration for the Muslims to follow and emulate. Governments in both these countries wanted to do what their counterparts elsewhere in the Muslim world have done, but lacked the political will and administrative capital to execute the decision given the kind of political situations they are faced with. They buckled and wilted under the pressure of certain groups, and have ended up compromising the health and safety of entire populations. Take this: On April 23, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that “without effective interventions there could be an estimated 200,000+ cases by mid-July” in Pakistan.

Another thing that merits a mention here is that mosques in Iran and Pakistan, given the climate in these countries, usually have marbled or cemented floors. It is easier to disinfect them. In fact if need be, it can be done several times each day, possibly after every prayer or gathering. Spraying or mopping a marble or cemented floor with a chemical disinfectant is not a problem. Unlike this, mosques in Kashmir have carpeted floors. Disinfecting a carpet is a Herculean task and is certainly not as simple and easy as doing so on a marbled floor. So while it is, at least theoretically, possible to limit the spread of coronavirus infection in the mosques with marble or cement floors by their frequent disinfecting, the heavy furnishings of synthetic-woolen carpets in Kashmir’s mosques make them ideal for hosting and transmitting similar infections.

This should possibly address and settle any doubts people may have on whether they should try and follow Iran and Pakistan’s examples. Looking towards other countries can also help.

In Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population, mainstream Islamic organizations have issued religious pronouncements (Fatwas) asking Muslims not to hold mass prayers or to have communal dinners ( ‘Iiftar’) to end daily fasts at sunset. In and around the capital, Jakarta, the government has kept people in lockdown during the outbreak, which has infected, by official count, nearly 7,800 nationwide and killed some 650.

In the United Kingdom, which is home to more than 2.6 million Islamic faithful, the Muslim Council of Britain advised people to host and attend virtual Iftars and to tune in to livestreams broadcast by their local mosques. In the United States, Muslims are opting for videoconferencing to replace in-person meals and prayers.

Pertinently, past week, the World Health Organization (WHO) also issued guidelines for the holy month of Ramadan. In view of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with strict social distancing norms in place in several countries, the WHO advised that several steps should be followed during Ramadan to mitigate the impact on the public health.

The world body recommended that cancelling social and religious gatherings is a must when the pandemic has claimed more than 1.5 lakh lives around the world. “A standardised risk assessment exercise must be followed while taking a decision to either modify or cancel, or proceed with holding a mass gathering,” said the guidelines.

Health authorities across the globe were asked to take a comprehensive approach towards the ongoing pandemic. Instead of the mass gatherings, it suggested, virtual alternatives can be adopted, for example, using mediums such as television, radio or the Internet. Religious leaders should be involved early in decision making, so that they can be actively engaged in communicating any decision affecting events connected with Ramadan.

The WHO recommended that people should practise physical distancing by maintaining a distance of at least one metre at all times. “To avoid physical contact, other means of greeting can be adopted such as waving, nodding or putting the hand over the heart. Unwell and old people should take extra precautions and avoid attending any gathering whatsoever. Those with pre-existing medical conditions such as hypertension/diabetes have also been asked to avoid events,” it added.

The world health agency said that any gathering during Ramadan should be held in an outdoor setting and that smaller services with fewer people should be preferred over large gatherings. “In case an ill person is identified at an event, immediate contact tracing must be facilitated,” it said, also laying down several other measures to be followed — all attendees ensuring proper physical hygiene such as hand washing, both inside and outside mosques; the presence of covered dustbins at venues to ensure safe disposal of tissues; regular cleaning of mosques and premises; and regular sanitisation of frequently touched objects such as light switches or staircase railings.

The WHO said that physical distancing must also be practised while offering ‘zakah’, or charity, to the needy. Instead of organising ‘iftar’ banquets, packed food must be served.

Although no studies have been performed on relating fasting with COVID-19, those infected with the virus must consult a doctor while keeping or breaking a fast, said the WHO.

Faced with life-threatening situations, it is the choices that people make which determine their safety and well-being. However, in the emergent situation thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic, peoples’ personal choices besides their own well-being are critical for other people’s safety too.

Faith and holy spirit of Ramadan may infuse enough determination in me to shrug off coronavirus fears and head to the neighbourhood mosque for prayers, but the same faith also holds me personally responsible for the safety and well-being of others – the fellow people – which stands compromised in case of big and small gatherings amid COVID-19 pandemic. So, how do I settle this dilemma? Until I do, staying home and praying there is no longer a matter of choice – it’s an obligation.


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