Is it necessary—even, mandatory—for believers to visit a place of collective worship, or participate in a religious congregation, for one’s prayer to be accepted by God? And does the necessity hold true even when a lethally contagious disease breaks out, when participants in a collective prayer not only run the risk of catching the contagion but also of passing it on to others in the vicinity?
The answer to these questions is rather obvious. The primary duty of religion—at least its chief promise—is to protect the devout. The very first prayer to the Almighty on the lips of many devotees, irrespective of their religious affiliation, is: “O Lord, protect me and protect my near and dear ones.” Since God is the Creator of all, He is also the Protector of all. But even He cannot protect if dogmas and blind beliefs of organised religions make devotees behave irresponsibly in times of an unprecedented global pandemic, such as COVID-19, which has so far afflicted close to a million people and killed over 40,000 around the world.
- The primary duty of religion—at least its chief promise—is to protect the devout.
- The corona pandemic has forced entire countries to be brought under prolonged lockdowns, including religious places.
- What is, and should be, the role of religion in times when a never-seen-before public health crisis has gripped the world?
- Broadly, two types of controversies have arisen. One places religion versus science. The other pits religion versus community.
- It was irresponsible on Tablighi Jamaat’s part to have gone ahead with their pre-scheduled programme, considering the highly contagious nature of the disease.
- Singling out the Nizamuddin markaz, or Muslims, is disingenuous.
How Coronavirus Has Affected Religion
The debate whether religion is a personal relationship between oneself and God, or an institutionalised and communitarian set of beliefs and practices, has been raging since time immemorial. For most people, it is not an exclusive choice between one or the other—rather, it is both. However, COVID-19 has almost conclusively, albeit temporarily, settled it in favour of the former. The proof of this could be found in two of the most unbelievable, indeed, history-making, images of how the corona virus pandemic has affected religious practices around the world.
These images came from two unlikeliest places on the planet—St Peter’s Square in the Vatican City, home to the head of the Catholic Church, and the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which houses the Kaaba, the holiest place for Muslims worldwide.
One was the dramatic image of Pope Francis, on March 28, walking alone in the rain to hold a solitary prayer service. St Peter’s Basilica, an architectural masterpiece that normally draws tens of thousands of people, looked eerily empty. This was primarily because COVID-19 was taking a huge toll on the neighbouring state of Italy. In his prayer, the Pope, who is also the Bishop of Rome, said the coronavirus had put everyone “in the same boat” and urged the world to see the crisis as a test of solidarity.
The second image was that of the completely empty Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque) in Mecca, which along with Masjid al-Nabawi (Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque) in Medina, was closed for prayers to stop the spread of coronavirus. The enormous courtyard of the mosque in Mecca, which is built around the Kaaba, the ‘House of God’, is normally where a sea of humanity assembles for prayers.
Indeed, even when devout Muslims are not physically present in Mecca, they are expected to face the Kaaba, and hence remain mentally connected to it, at the time of performing the daily Islamic prayers. Saudi Arabia's King Salman, who is the custodian of the two holy mosques, was hardly exaggerating when he said, “We are living through a difficult period in the history of the world.”
Religion, Controversies, and Coronavirus
Places of worship of all faiths, and all over the world, attract large human assemblies. But when the corona pandemic has forced entire countries to be brought under prolonged lockdowns, none can complain when severe restrictions are placed on religious places and religious congregations. These restrictions have been observed by and large. Sadly, violations have happened in some countries, including India, and these have triggered heated controversies. What is, and should be, the role of religion in times when a never-seen-before public health crisis has gripped the world? Does God gives anyone immunity from coronavirus even when they do not observe physical distancing?
Broadly, two types of controversies have arisen. One places religion versus science. The other pits religion versus community.
The controversy over the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, which has been declared a hotspot of coronavirus disease, falls in the latter category. Dozens of cases of Covid-19 emerged after the Muslim organisation held its gathering in March at Markaz Nizamuddin, its international headquarters. It was attended by nearly two thousand delegates, who came from all the states of India. Many participants were also foreigners, since Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement set up in 1926, has followers all over the world.
Should the leaders of Tablighi Jamaat (which urges Muslims to return to practising Islam the way it was during the lifetime of the Prophet), have held such a large religious congregation at a time when the corona virus scare had already spread in many parts of the world, including India? No. Certainly not. It was irresponsible on their part to have gone ahead with their pre-scheduled programme, considering the highly contagious nature of the disease. Should the authorities have denied permission for the programme well in advance? Yes.
Stop Demonising the Muslim Community
Unfortunately, the debate over this episode has taken an ominously communal turn, with some perpetually pro-government TV channels, and many diabolical and high-decibel voices on the social media, commenting on it as if it was a pre-planned “conspiracy” to “super-spread” the coronavirus across the country. One tweet said, “These Tablighi Jamat people should not just be blacklisted but charged for willfully carrying out bio-terrorism and endangering the life of citizens of this country”.
These Tablighi Jamat people should not just be blacklisted but charged for willfully carrying out bio-terrorism and endangering the life of citizens of this country https://t.co/ZwK8tC4qjW— Jimmy Ray (@jimm_ray) April 1, 2020
Another was even more incendiary — “Single largest source of transmission explosion, sending to dust all earnest efforts by India’s govt and citizens. It’s like a biological suicide bombing. Unforgivable.”
Imagine. Single largest source of transmission explosion, sending to dust all earnest efforts by India’s govt’s and citizens.— Abhijit Majumder (@abhijitmajumder) March 31, 2020
It’s like a biological suicide bombing. Unforgivable.#NizamuddinMarkaz #TablighiJamaat https://t.co/zUTnCc94Fy
Islamophobia was thick in the air even in pre-corona times — that is, when Delhi had been rocked by horrific communal violence, in which innocent Muslims bore the main brunt.
Sadly, even India’s battle against the public health crisis, which calls for the highest level of national unity, has not restrained professional Muslim-baiters.
The singling out of the Nizamuddin incident for the spread of the corona virus was all the more disingenuous because, around the same time—that is, just before the Janata Curfew was announced on March 22—there were throngs of devotees at several Hindu temples in Delhi and across the country.
Worse still, none other than the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh personally conducted a religious ritual at the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, several hours after the Prime Minister had announced the 21-day national lockdown to arrest the spread of COVID-19. The miscalled ‘Yogi’ not only transgressed the PM’s decree on not crossing the proverbial “Laxman Rekha”, but also violated the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which had categorically stated: “No religious congregations will be permitted, without any exception.”
‘God Will Protect You Against Coronavirus’
Coming to the second type of controversy—namely, religion versus science—it must be said that the main (though not the sole) culprits here are some dogmatic Islamic organisations in Muslim and non-Muslim countries. Their irresponsible utterances and conduct have not only imperilled the lives of Muslims themselves, but also served to increase anti-Muslim prejudices among non-Muslims.
Many clerics in Iran, where COVID-19 has claimed nearly 3,000 lives, urged people to come to pray at mosques, saying Allah would protect them against the virus because “Allah is all powerful”.
In Pakistan, when President Arif Alvi held a meeting with clerics to convince them to close mosques for congregational prayers, many rejected the request. "We can in no way close mosques ... It is not possible in any circumstances in an Islamic country," they said.
The Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan held a huge congregation in the Punjab province last month, and, as in India, this gave rise to many new COVID-19 cases.
In Afghanistan, authorities had difficulty stopping people from going to mosques because many prayer leaders said, “Don’t worry. Allah will protect Muslims from the virus.”
The Sunni extremist group Islamic State (ISIS) has described the COVID-19 epidemic as “divine retribution” for China, Iran (because it is a Shia-majority nation) and other non-Muslim countries.
Islamist preacher Hani Ramadan, director of the Islamic Centre in Geneva, (France expelled him three years ago for “radicalising” its Muslim community) has claimed that "the epidemic is due to the wrath of Allah,” and that “Allah sent the epidemic to punish the peoples who anger him by their accursed deeds like music, nudity, debauchery, fornication, turpitude, freedom… ”
Another preacher remarked ecstatically, “The disbelievers think that they can defy the One with their scientific progress. Lo and behold, He is making fun of them with a virus smaller than an atom. O Allah, thank you for the blessing of Islam, the one and true religion.”
Islam Needs Ijtihad (Independent Reasoning) And Reform
After reading such crazy but scary statements, I cannot help concluding this article by reproducing excerpts from an interview that Ziauddin Sardar, a renowned British-Pakistani writer on Islam, gave to Hasan Suroor of The Hindu newspaper over a decade ago. It is published in his book Breaking the Monolith, which I have been reading during these days lockdown-enforced solitude.
“Why do you think Muslims are perceived the way they are—rigid, intolerant, quick to take offence? Or is there a tendency to demonise the community?”
“Both. A segment of our community is intolerant and rigid. But not all Muslims should be seen in this light…”
“How do Muslims get out of the “bind” in which they find themselves, partly as a result of their own conduct and partly because of anti-Muslim prejudice?”
“I think the best way to do that is for Muslim societies to discover a contemporary meaning and significance of Islam. Indeed, in my opinion, serious rethinking within Islam is long overdue. Muslims have been comfortably relying, or rather falling back, on age-old interpretations for much too long. This is why we feel so painful in the contemporary world, so uncomfortable with modernity. Scholars and thinkers have been suggesting for well over a century that we need to make a serious attempt at ijtihad, at reasoned struggle and rethinking, to reform Islam. Reform, in my opinion, is long overdue.”
To this, I would like to add: All organised religions need their own doses of reform, one indispensable component of which must be to enhance mutual and respectful cooperation in times of common threats to humanity, such as the one we are now facing.
(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comment at email@example.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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