WITHOUT a doubt, the novel coronavirus has affected routine life around the globe like few events in modern history. In a globalised world few countries are left unaffected, with over 180,000 people infected and more than 7,000 fatalities.

Countries and cities around the world are opting for lockdown to stop the spread of the contagion, as this is being seen as the best method to prevent more infections. Schools, offices and commercial centres around the world — including in Pakistan — are closed or in the process of shutting down, while large gatherings are being discouraged.

Read: Tweaking the Azaan and other measures Muslim countries have taken to combat the virus

Keeping these developments in mind, the issue of congregational prayers needs serious attention, with the state, ulema and common people all playing their part to adjust religious rituals in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.

In Pakistan, as elsewhere around the Muslim world, hundreds of people attend daily prayers at large neighbourhood mosques. This number is in the thousands during Friday prayers, especially in the larger mosques. Considering the fact that worshippers are in such close proximity during daily prayers in mosques, it is incumbent on religious leaders and the state to come up with a strategy that protects people’s health and lives until the threat of the virus subsides.

There have been various suggestions. For example, the Pakistan Ulema Council has issued a fatwa calling for all political and religious gatherings to be postponed, Friday prayers to be shortened, and prayers to be held in open spaces etc. However, the Punjab chief minister assured a delegation of clerics on Monday that mosques would not be closed in the country’s most populous province. Considering the severity of the situation, the state must understand the risk to religious congregations, including those who gather in places of worship.

The state can review how other Muslim countries are dealing with the crisis. Egypt, Iran and Oman have all suspended Friday prayers while the UAE has temporarily shuttered all places of worship. The Saudi government, too, has stopped congregational prayers in its mosques while placing curbs on umrah. In fact, images of the Holy Kaaba without people performing the tawaf around it have brought home the severity of the crisis.

If such stringent measures have been taken in Islam’s holiest sites, then the authorities here should have no qualms about altering daily routines temporarily to keep people healthy and possibly save lives. At the very least, the ulema in Pakistan must consider temporarily limiting the number of daily worshippers in mosques and suspending congregational prayers on Friday, in keeping with the example of other Muslim states in these trying times.

Decisions need to be taken rationally, not emotionally, which is why religious scholars and the government must come up with a plan to address issues of public worship during the virus pandemic without further delay.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2020

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