As scientists race against time to study Coronavirus and its possible cure, governments across the world have prohibited large gatherings including at places of worship as physical distancing is the most effective prevention to the spread of the disease. Mosques remain shut across the Gulf countries including Islam’s holiest sites but many clerics in Kashmir believe Muslims have little to worry about.
“No virus can beat us, no virus can beat the Hanafis,” cleric Haji Tanveer roared in English from the pulpit of a mosque in Kashmir during a congregation last Friday. “No virus can beat Ahle Sunnat Waljama’at,” he now squealed, his throat stressed from the shouting. Worshippers in the mosque respond in agreement: “no doubt”.
However, Tanveer was not the only cleric to refute expert medical advice. In another Friday sermon by Mohammad Noman Nowshahri, also affiliated with the Ahle Sunnat Waljama’at, those calling for closure of mosques were ironically described as non-practicing Muslims who did not heed scholarly advice. He accused those advocating precautions of “creating divisions in Ummah”.
Nowshahri cited a unanimous decision by south Asian Muslim clerics of various schools of thought against the closure of mosques. “We are safe right now and Inshallah we will be safe in future as well,” he said as he circled back to Kashmir in his sermon.
The cleric stressed that since the pandemic hasn’t spread in Kashmir, precautions need not be taken. Taking a dig at a rival school of thought, he said “You have stopped praying on Fridays but we will camp at our mosques for days together”.
Videos of both sermons were uploaded on Facebook inviting harsh criticism from commentators across the Valley.
The Government of India has invoked the colonial era Epidemic Act whose provisions allow authorities to fine or imprison individuals violating rules and regulations to contain the outbreak of disease. Authorities in Jammu and Kashmir too have imposed restrictions and disallowed gatherings. However, many continue to gather at mosques indifferent to the outbreak of the pandemic.
On the intervening night of March 22 and 23, Aga Syed Baqir-al-Musawi held a religious gathering in central Kashmir’s Budgam district in which dozens of devotees crowded in a hall at his residence. . A day after several mosques across Kashmir hosted devotees on Shab-e-Meraj.
Waqf Board has ordered closure of the 133 shrines and mosques across Jammu and Kashmir that fall under its purview. Jamiat-e-Ahle-Hadees issued a statement directing its followers to put off Friday prayers as several Muslim nations had done, making it one of the few religious bodies to adopt the health advisory by experts.
However, a splinter faction of the group attacked it over the decision. In a sermon last Friday, Mohammad Maqbool Akhrani, president of the ‘Difaye Jamiat-e-Ahli Hadees‘, termed closure of mosques as un-Islamic. Referring to the closure of the grand mosques at Makkah and Madina Akhrani said that “we have not pledged allegiance to the rulers of [Saudi Arabia]”.
A video of the sermon uploaded on social media shows Akhrani in front of a starry background, framed between two crossed out screenshots of the press release issued by the Jamiat-e-Ahle-Hadees advocating putting off Friday prayers. The cleric is adamant that there is nothing to worry about and dismisses the importance of sterilisation of public spaces by Srinagar municipality.
However, to their credit, many other clerics have followed the medical advice. Mutahida Majlis-e-Ulama, a conglomerate of clerics headed by Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, has issued an advisory calling for avoiding large gatherings in mosques.
The advisory directed scholars, orators, and mosque managements to curtail Friday sermons, offer non-obligatory prayers at home and requested the elderly and sick as well to pray at home, to avoid handshakes and to “follow the advice of health experts in letter and spirit”.
The advisory, however, did not advocate the closure of mosques.
Slow Government Action
The Jammu and Kashmir administration was also slow to wake up to the crisis. Only months ago, in November 2019, it prevented Khoje Digar prayers at a popular Sufi shrine in downtown Srinagar and before that disallowed Muharram processions and imposed strict restrictions on Eid in the aftermath of the abrogation of Kashmirs limited autonomy.
But the same government organised a major sports event in the tourist resort of Gulmarg bringing in athletes from across India even as coronavirus was spreading before moving to impose Valley wide restrictions after Srinagar reported its first positive case.
No Lessons Learnt
Inaction and lack of serious response to the spread of disease in the early stages in Italy is being blamed for the calamity in the country where the death toll is now the highest in the world.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has also ordered closure of shrines despite resistance from religious hardliners. In Iran as well the infection is said to have spread from the holy city of Qom where large numbers of people gather at shrines and where the first case was detected on February 19.
By March more than 20000 are confirmed to have been infected with the disease that has claimed at least 1685 lives across the sanction hit country. At least 129 people died of the disease in a single day on March 21 and the country’s overall death toll is the third highest in the world.
Similarly in Malaysia, a mass gathering at a four day event beginning on February 27 in a mosque is being linked to at least 840 cases of individuals contracting the disease. Ten people have died of the disease in the country that has also reported the highest number of cases in South East Asia.
Malaysia has since called off Friday prayers and the government has now deployed its army to enforce a lockdown to curb its spread. The Tablighi Jama’at that organised the February 27 event has since also suspended its activities but has refused to comment on the matter.
Recently a large number of pilgrims and students from J&K and Ladakh returned from Iran, some of whom have tested positive for the disease. According to official figures so far, overall 13 individuals in Ladakh and 3 in the Jammu region besides one in Srinagar, who had returned from Saudi Arabia, have tested positive for the disease. More than 3000 are being monitored by authorities.
India has reported a total of 497 positive cases and 9 deaths so far. Experts estimate about 300 million people could be infected in India with four to five million of them to be severe cases.
The spread of the virus that originated in Wuhan, China has consistently shown a sudden spike and upward curve with casualties doubling by the day. At the time of filing of this report, latest numbers stated the global number of positive cases to be at a staggering 308,000 and the death toll at over 15,000.
In an unprecedented move Islam’s holiest mosques at Makkah and Madina in Saudi Arabia, Al-Aqsa mosque in Palestine, and the shrines in Iran and Iraq have been closed in a bid to prevent large gatherings and rapid spread of the disease.
As nations across the world struggle to contain the pandemic that has already overburdened even the world’s most advanced healthcare infrastructures, the severity of the impending catastrophe has seemingly not been understood in the South Asian subcontinent where the faithful continue to throng mosques and temples.
The Muslim world is at the crossroads of choosing between religious bigotry opposing the closure of mosques and the health and survival of fellow humans.
According to Maulana Masroor Abbas Ansari, there is precedence in Islam to save lives and that clerics must consult those who are experts in the field, in this case the medical experts.
“Just as people consult clerics and scholars in matters of religion, clerics must consult medical experts in the current situation as they are the experts in the field”, Ansari who heads Ittehadul Muslimeen said. “We have directions [from Islamic injunctions] to save lives. But when do we implement those directions is to be decided by medical experts. Just as Islam permits an individual to abstain from fasting if it is harmful to him or her but only after medical experts recommend so”.
We have directions [from Islamic injunctions] to save lives. But when do we implement those directions is to be decided by medical experts. Just as Islam permits an individual to abstain from fasting if it is harmful to him or her but only after medical experts recommend so”.
However, he pointed out, no medical expert was present in the meeting held by the Mutahida Majlis-e-Ulema. At the meeting, Ansari said he argued against gatherings at mosques. “In the current situation the advisories for precaution and the Muslim way of prayer were incompatible”, said Ansari adding Allah values the intentions of a person and understands his or her compulsions. “It doesn’t matter if you are going to the masjid for five or thirty minutes. If the isolation is ended and a gathering takes place, there is a danger. We argued the same reasons they gave for allowing [non-obligatory] prayers at home for the obligatory prayers”.
However, the broader consensus in Kashmiri society seems to be in favour of taking precautions to stem any possibility of the spread of the disease fearing the Valley’s health infrastructure would crumble within days if not hours.
For now in Kashmir, devotees have disappeared from the shrines where khadims would sprinkle on them rose water from ornate ittar-dhaans. Instead now municipal workers spray chemical disinfectants from steel tanks perched on their backs. It is as dystopian as it can get in the land of the Sufis. However, there is some silver lining in that we still have only one COVID-19 positive case. And if we strictly practice social distancing we certainly can prevent the virus from taking hold in our society.