Raouf Rasool

Ramadan: It’s time for reflection and privation; not for gossip

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Holy month of Ramadan is a time for reflection and privation, heightened devotion and worship. It is not about killing time by gossiping on the shop-fronts or lanes and bylanes of residential localities. It never was so, and this time around with shutdown in place to contain the spread COVID-19 pandemic, the need to stay indoors and to focus more or self-improvement through worship and meditation is more than ever before.

However, for the past few days, at certain places large crowds of people gather in the mornings and the evenings. Early in the day, people come out of their homes to shop for greens and other edibles; and later just to steal a chat with others. Unmindful of the dangers posed by the COVID-19, people, it seems, have started taking the lockdown casually now. Had it not been so, perhaps then one would not see the kind of public presence on the roads and streets as is the case. But unfortunate reality is that in certain areas police have to forcibly push people into their homes, by chasing them away.

There are also reports about some mosques holding congregational prayers. Even as the numbers of worshippers are very small, but it is evident that some people have chosen to deliberately overlook the fact that prayers in majority of mosques around the world have been suspended as a measure to thwart the spread of novel coronavirus infection.  What is really disconcerting is that they seem to confuse and mistake their disobedience of the social distancing norms with piousness and piety. Such behaviour borders on outright ignorance or ‘Jahiliyyah’– which has, as history bears witness, always brought disasters not only to the mankind, but also to the people’s varied faith traditions.

Faced with one of the most challenging health-care crises in the last 100 years, the governments around the globe, and medical infrastructure of almost entire world is struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic. More than 225,000 people have died, over 2.5 million people are infected with coronavirus, and millions more are at risk. Hundreds of researchers, scientists and experts are working hard to come up with a vaccine or some other drug that proves to be a cure to this disease. But till the time such a cure is found, authorities are urging upon everyone to maintain social distancing.

This is indeed why the Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah and Guidance besides suspending the Umrah pilgrimage (and may possibly suspend even the Hajj 2020), and congregational daily five prayers at the Kaaba (in Mecca) and Masjid-e-Nabvi (in Madina) besides other mosques in the kingdom has also announced that Taraweeh prayers during Ramadan may only be performed at home. Other Islamic countries have followed the suit, and announced that performing Taraweeh prayers in mosques will not be allowed during Ramadan in a bid to help fight the spread of the pandemic.

Now this is not a negative — but a positive to be embraced. We are at a critical stage in our fight against COVID-19 and any negligence at this stage can prove fatal. And risking one’s own safety and that of others is certainly not an act of faith or piety; it is outright criminal and merits punishment in kind, both here and hereafter!

People need to understand that COVID-19 pandemic is profoundly changing and re-writing our individual and social behaviours. Many a things which were normal until yesterday are no longer deemed appropriate today. Our world is no longer habitable in quite the same way as it was before. An intrusion by a homicidal virus has taken hold of that world, recomposed it and inverted the daily affairs of its inhabitants. Take the instance of shaking hands or exchanging hugs. This tradition of shaking hands or hugging among the friends and acquaintances has almost completely stopped now. Similarly visiting the sick is considered a good deed in Islam and other faith traditions also encourage it. However, in the case of COVID-19, such visits are not possible. People are now asked to check up on those who are sick with phone calls, messages and social media. Even the funeral prayers stand limited to five or six close relatives of the dead.

All these instances are but a reiteration of the fact that a miniscule virus can, and actually has brought about a great deal of change in the people’s behaviours –much more profound and discernible in collective behaviours than in individual ones. And the evolutionary history testifies to the reality that those who are ready for, and adapt to the change, have better chances of survival than those who are resistant to change. Remember the branches which are flexible enough to bend under the force of the stormy winds escape unscathed while the stubborn trees that dare resist the winds of change end up being broken or uprooted!

The mosques and marketplaces, surface and air travel services, and all other activities have not been halted for no reason. The fact that even the religious places have been closed for the faithful, should be enough to drive home the enormity of the dangers posed by the deadly COVID-19.

Fortunately for the Muslims, closure of mosques does not mean they stop prayers. In Islam, individual prayers and worship play a greater role than communal ones. Muslims can pray five times a day wherever they are, and often home is a place where most praying takes place. So this Ramadan, home is also the place for meditative prayer – the Tasbeeh and Taraweeh — whose aim is to instill Godly calm in believers.

Tradition is that Muslims read one-30th of the Holy Quran on successive evenings till it had been recited in its entirety by the end of the Ramadan. Now that it cannot be done in the mosques, it can certainly be done at homes; if not during Taraweeh prayers only, but during the course of each day by doing calm recitals or listening to the same on mobile phones or recorders.  Those who invest themselves in such rewarding pursuits can easily avoid getting themselves and their dear ones into precarious situations by needlessly coming out on the roads and streets for no visible reason.

History also reminds us (as recorded by 11th century, Islamic scholar Muhammad bin Rasul al Husaini) that an outbreak of plague during the fasting month of Ramadan in Hijriah 131 had killed almost 1,000 people a day. The outbreak lasted until Syawal, the month following Ramadan. Muslims named the event Tho’un Muslim bin Quthaibah, after its first victim. The leaders and the people of Bani Umayyah fled to the desert to distance themselves from the sick.

And today when people are told to stay home in order to avoid coming into contact with the sick, they are seen hunting for excuses to come out on the roads, or concocting reasons to congregate if not in the mosques but in marketplaces. This is not done. It’s avoidable and must be avoided.

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