Al Azhar fatwa must be heeded

Updated March 27, 2020

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ONE of Islam’s premier seats of learning, Al Azhar in Egypt, is considered by most Muslims to be the gold standard where matters of faith are concerned.

One would have hoped, therefore, that the fatwa by the institution permitting suspension of congregational prayers in Pakistan to control the spread of the coronavirus would have been heeded.

However, it seems that President Alvi’s meeting yesterday with religious scholars across the country to discuss that possibility has not changed their stance.

The outcome, according to the government, is that prayers will be ‘restricted’ and the elderly and the sick advised to pray at home.

Such half-baked measures will cost us dearly.

Other Muslim countries — Saudi Arabia and Iran among them — have already suspended congregational prayers, even while members of Pakistan’s clergy refused to countenance a measure that will save lives.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the kind of influence the religious lobby wields in Pakistan, the federal and provincial governments have been dithering over the issue.

However, Sindh, which has been the most proactive in handling the crisis, yesterday decided to discard its hitherto tentative approach and take the responsible step of temporarily banning all congregational prayers in the province.

Restricting person-to-person contact is the only way to disrupt the relentless pace of coronavirus transmission.

No lockdown can be effective if exceptions are made for certain types of gatherings, especially in a situation where even those who are asymptomatic can infect others.

Any place where people congregate is like a petri dish facilitating the spread of the contagion.

A substantial majority of cases so far recorded in the country can be traced to Pakistanis returning from pilgrimage to Iran; the rate of infection among them was exacerbated by the squalid conditions in which many were ‘quarantined’ in Taftan.

Then there was the first Covid-19 fatality in Pakistan, an individual already presenting with symptoms of the disease upon his return from Saudi Arabia after performing umrah.

At his village in KP, he attended a celebratory feast with 2,000 guests.

Reportedly, around 40 of 46 tests performed so far on those with whom he came into contact have turned out positive.

Another example is that of at least a dozen Tableeghi Jamaat members found to be infected after attending the Jamaat’s annual conference in Raiwind where tens of thousands congregate.

Entire villages are being quarantined as more and more cases of community transmission are discovered.

To see what could lie in store for us, we need only look at the horrific scenes playing out in Europe, with hospitals struggling to cope and morgues filled to capacity.

Imagine that happening in a country like ours, where the health system at the best of times is appallingly inadequate.

If every loophole that allows close contact among people is not plugged, the worst of times lie before us.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2020