Prayer and Purpose: Pakistan’s enormous risk
The holiest mosques in Makkah, in Madina and in Jerusalem, are all empty. In Saudi Arabia, the holiest sites were shut down weeks ago, long before most ordinary Pakistanis had even heard of the coronavirus. The speed and diligence of the decision has likely saved thousands of lives and stemmed the spread of the virus. Similarly, the decision by most Muslim countries like Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Turkey to halt communal Friday prayers has also likely served to stop the spread.
Pakistan is having a harder time dealing with the constraints imposed by the virus. Even though the government has ordered a lock-down, many are still choosing to pray in communal mosques. Last week, President Arif Alvi suggested that people should pray at home, by saying that he, cognizant of the dangers of spreading the virus, had chosen to pray at home.
Communal prayer is supposed to be the great equalizer, a means for faithful Muslims to understand that they are part of a larger community. Rich and poor praying together are meant to foster a collective spirit. The prescription for communal prayer is built on the idea that spiritual life has both an individual and a communal dimension.
Many men who object to the idea of prayer being offered alone and at home seem to misunderstand the communal dimension. The care for community that communal prayer is supposed to foster is precisely the instrument through which the virus can be stopped. If the meaning of communal prayer is considered, the spread of a disease is the opposite of what is intended. Instead of caring about the welfare of others, particularly the old and infirm, those who choose to pray in mosques are prioritizing their own individual spiritual practice over the interests of the community.
Given the growing number of cases in Pakistan, over 1,000 at last count, this refusal to place limitations on communal prayer can devastate the country. The lack of health infrastructure in the country insures that as the virus spreads, more and more will die. The absence of ventilators needed to keep patients with respiratory distress alive means that only the luckiest will be able to avail life-saving treatment. In a situation like this, it is absolutely crucial to disaggregate prayer from communal meeting. The first is absolutely crucial for Pakistan (and human kind in general) to recover from this crisis. The second can doom Pakistan with disease.
The problem extends beyond the individuals. According to the Punjab government, repeated requests were made to the Tableeghi Jamaat to postpone their annual gathering that is held every year in Raiwind. Government officials communicated the risks that such a large gathering (it attracts thousands of Muslim pilgrims from all round the world) would pose to public health. None of their interventions worked. The gathering was held in Raiwind from March 11 through 15 and was attended by thousands. Not only did the organizers ignore the warnings, some attendees openly touted the idea that their faith was so strong that the virus could not touch them.
If the purpose of prayer and communal prayer is understood, at least in part, as making a contribution of the welfare of the whole community, then the actions of the Tableeghi Jamaat are extremely problematic. Other Islamist groups have sadly followed the example of the Jamaat and continue to tell their many followers that they should be performing communal prayers in the mosque.
This week all of these myths were exposed. On Monday, it was reported that a thirteen-member delegation consisting of seven men from Kyrghiztan and six from Palestine were administered coronavirus tests. Six of the men from the delegation tested positive for the virus. The Islamabad police put all the members of the delegation at the Islamabad mosque, where they had been staying. Undoubtedly, they attended not only the Jamaat in Raiwind but also took part in communal prayers at the mosque. Everywhere they went, they likely shed the virus. The coming week will likely see a significant increase in the number of cases in the communities to which the attendees of the Jamaat have returned.
If the purpose of prayer and communal prayer is understood, at least in part, as making a contribution of the welfare of the whole community, then the actions of the Tableeghi Jamaat are extremely problematic. Other Islamist groups have sadly followed the example of the Jamaat and continue to tell their many followers that they should be performing communal prayers in the mosque. Collectively, they represent a significant challenge to Pakistan’s coronavirus response.
Mosques, several of which are located in every community in Pakistan, can serve essential functions in a crisis such as this one. The social services required in such times are great. The mosque space can be reorganized as a place where pre-packaged meals are provided for pick up to the many who will face disastrous economic consequences from the spread of the coronavirus. Mosques can also function as information centers and even makeshift hospitals where patients can be treated and quarantined. Publicizing the availability of the mosque space would enable Covid-positive patients to be separated from their families, breaking the chain of transmission.
The debate over communal prayer in mosques is particularly crucial given the approach of Ramzan. Unless the problematic aspect of it is established clearly and repeatedly before the public and with the large support of religious leaders, the month will also bring a huge increase in the number of Coronavirus cases. Given this significant risk, Pakistani citizens should be encouraged to stay at home and mosque loudspeakers should be used to disseminate information about the virus.
Prayer is always a source of spiritual strength, and it is particularly so at a time when so much is unknown and uncertain. Social distancing is a burden on us all and its impact on the ability of individuals to pray with their community is tragic. At the same time, the very purpose of the five prayers is to underscore the need of rising above self-interest. In our current moment, maintaining distance from others has become a matter of life and death. With such costs attached to the actions of every one of us, it is essential that we pray, but that we pray at home.
– Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” and “Veil.” She writes regularly for The Guardian, the Boston Review, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications.