A GLOBAL virus outbreak of massive proportions has killed tens of thousands, infected nearly a million and caused major changes to the way humans interact, travel, eat and live. The nearest similar disaster was the Spanish flu in 1918 that had infected 500m people and killed about a quarter of the world’s population at that time.
To contain the spread of Covid-19, measures are being taken to isolate countries, consisting of travel bans and restrictions on movement of people outside their homes. This means dire changes to daily routines, including obtaining food, carrying out necessary work, providing health services and undertaking social interactions.
One of the main actions of human beings is meeting religious obligations: to God and to the people. The first is met through prayer, which, for Muslims, means congregational prayers on Fridays and funerals, fasting, umrah and Haj. Christians visit churches; Hindus and Sikhs go to temples; and Jews attend synagogues. Most countries have banned gatherings of more than three to five people, since the virus spreads fast among those who are in close proximity to each other. Religious gatherings that have people interacting with each other closely can be a major cause for the rapid spread of the virus.
Considering the deadly nature of the virus and the increasing number of infections and deaths, most Muslim countries have suspended congregational prayers on Fridays, including Turkey and Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, Jordan and Malaysia. Saudi Arabia and several other states have declared fatwas to this effect, no prayers are being held in Makkah and Madina, and Saudi Arabia is dissuading Muslims from making Haj arrangements. These are extreme measures, but the danger to humanity is also extreme.
Should Muslims disobey orders from the authorities?
It is understandable that many Muslims will feel an emotional pinch on being deprived of collective prayer; many students of religious learning will be concerned over the distancing they must practise from their teachers. Should Muslims disobey orders from the authorities and continue to gather in large numbers for Friday and funeral prayers? After all, if one is to contract the illness, she or he will do so as per God’s will. And who can question His will?
This is the sentiment of many Muslims, including many clerics, who seem to have ignored the writ of the government in Pakistan. Hundreds of cases in Punjab have been traced to the holding of religious gatherings, including spreading it to Gaza, and mosques up until recently were full of worshippers sitting in close proximity to one another.
These violations are contrary to what we can understand from Islamic teachings. We find examples of the Prophet (PBUH) excusing sick persons from attending Friday prayers (Al-Sunna al-Saghir: 241). In times of plague, he advised people to neither travel to nor from the infected place (Sahih Bukhari: 5730).
During his time, health experts who could provide detailed information about the spread of infectious diseases did not exist. He gave overall advice, taking guidance from the Quran that places human life and its protection as the ultimate responsibility of human beings. Our lives and bodies belong to God and we must do what we can to protect ourselves and others from potential harm. A primary principle is that the possibility of harm takes precedence over potential benefit (2:219). Fear of potential harm and the extent of the ability to deal with it are determinant factors in the rules of fiqh.
The Prophet also asked people to make efforts for protection as best as they could: the rest would be up to God. A famous hadith calls for tethering the camel, not leaving its protection to God.
The Quran reminds human souls of the time before existence, when all had witnessed to being His servants. Islam’s core is to make humans aware of this meeting and our return to Him, to connect us with God and with each other. We can contribute to this by avoiding the possibility of harm and supporting each other during times of hardship. Refusing to stay away from gatherings is a deliberate denial of the sanctity of life and health, and certain clerics are doing a disservice to themselves and others if they insist on congregations.
The Muslim response to this global danger must be highlighted by all-out and collective action to serving those who may be less fortunate in terms of access to food and other essentials. It may not be enough to dole out charity. We need to share what we have with others who depend on daily earnings, reaching out to them individually and in small groups so as not to violate the idea of physical distancing. This is a challenge also to our religious clerics to carry out their duty, and call people to show compassion and love, instead of engaging in unnecessary debates that encourage people to ignore health warnings.
The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.
Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2020