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Here’s Why Jummah Congregations In Pakistan Must Be Cancelled

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Aneeq Ismail argues that Pakistani clerics’ decision not to cancel Friday prayers is dumbfounding. On Friday, when millions head to mosques in Pakistan for Jummah, there could be thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of apparently healthy men who will be silently carrying COVID-19.

This Friday, millions of Pakistanis will gather together in large congregations for the weekly Jummah prayers. The Jummah, of course, is a common event and does not merit much comment. Except this time, the Jummah will take place in the midst of the rampage of COVID-19, a rapidly escalating public health disaster for much of the world including Pakistan. If you ask many of these attendees why they continue attending congregational prayers against the advice of all medical experts on the planet, many of them will point to a joint statement issued yesterday by a group of Ulema as their justification.

Members of this group of Ulema represent the largest Islamic organisations in Pakistan. The summary of their joint statement? Congregational prayers (regular and Jummah) should continue in Pakistan’s mosques, albeit with certain suggested precautions.

At first glance, the precautions appear to be comprehensive enough, at least in theory. People who have tested positive for coronavirus or are exhibiting symptoms, those over 50, those with a cold or fever, those who are caring for elderly relatives, and young children are all told to pray at home instead of coming for congregational prayers in the mosque.

Mosques are instructed to ensure hygiene by removing carpets and keeping floors clean, to provide hand sanitisers at mosque entrances, to keep prayers short, etc. A closer look, however, makes clear a glaring oversight. The fatwa overlooks one of the most important reasons for the rapid spread of coronavirus, i.e. asymptomatic or ‘silent’ carriers of the virus.

These ‘silent carriers’ of the virus constitute anywhere between 30% to over 50% of coronavirus cases, according to different research reports. Such individuals, while appearing perfectly healthy, may have the virus and be contagious without exhibiting any symptoms for up to 2 weeks. Research from China, which was ravaged by coronavirus in the past few months, shows that such ‘silent carriers’ are in large part responsible for the rapid dissemination of coronavirus, since such people are more likely to feel well enough to move around and come into contact with uninfected people.

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All this means that on Friday, when millions head to mosques in Pakistan for Jummah, there could be thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of apparently healthy men who pass the filters suggested in the Ulema’s joint statement but will be silently carrying COVID-19. As they pray shoulder to shoulder and in close proximity with unsuspecting fellow Muslims, they will transmit the virus to thousands of others. These new carriers will then carry the virus into their homes with them, exposing their unsuspecting families to coronavirus. Over the next few weeks, the Pakistani healthcare system will bear the burden of these decisions.

This is disturbing enough, and yet this is only the best case scenario in which all the statement’s recommendations are fully followed by mosques and congregants. In practice, the full set of recommendations will be impossible to follow, greatly increasing the potential harm. How, for example, do you ensure that people do not interact with each other in the mosque, as the statement suggests? How do you ensure that mosques actually keep their floors clean and sanitised before every prayer? Healthcare experts with knowledge of Muslim prayer spaces understand the futility of any proposed precautions in mitigating the spread of the virus through congregational prayers; a recent statement by over 150 British Muslim doctors clearly emphasises the harm in continuing “any congregational activities … even with restrictions in place.”

Islamic scholars in UK, many of them trained in the same Dars-e-Nizami tradition as Ulema in Pakistan, understood the seriousness of the situation and responded quickly and decisively. 27 of UK’s most influential Ulema issued a joint statement agreeing, amongst other things, that:

  1. All regular, obligatory prayers should be prayed at home.
  2. It is sufficient to pray Zuhr Salah at one’s home in lieu of Jummah Salah.

Temporary suspension of congregational prayers, including Jummah, thus appears to be a legitimate Islamic juristic opinion. Indeed, Mufti Ahmad Shah*, who works at the Darul Ifta of one of Pakistan’s largest madrassahs and was privy to the deliberations of the joint statement by Pakistani Ulema, highlighted Points No. 5 and 11 in the statement:

“5. If the government, on medical grounds, decides to limit the number of congregants or restricts Muslims of a certain age from coming to the mosque, then such people are considered ma’zur (i.e. they are excused from coming to the mosque).

  1. People whom … the government, on the advice of doctors, advises to refrain from participating in Jummah, should pray Zuhr Salah at their homes.”
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Mufti Shah said that these points in the statement clearly allow the government to temporarily suspend congregational prayers, including Jummah, if the government deems it necessary on the basis of medical advice. The ball, thus, is in the government’s court.

This presents the government with a dilemma, but also an opportunity. They have so far made the intelligent decision to not suspend congregational prayers because of the inevitable backlash it would provoke. An official, full suspension of all congregational prayers (the current recommendation from medical experts) or closing down mosques would possibly lead to mass protests across the country, thereby creating widespread instability and defeating the purpose of suspending congregational prayers in the first place. Letting congregational prayers continue unchecked (and the number of congregants will most probably increase after yesterday’s joint statement) may lead to rapid dissemination of the coronavirus over the coming weeks, thereby putting the country’s healthcare infrastructure under unbearable pressure. Is there an opportunity to balance things here somehow?

Here’s a suggestion: suspend all non-obligatory gatherings in mosques, and limit the number of congregants in obligatory prayers (including Jummah) to 5 people. With this approach, the Ulema will hopefully be more willing to cooperate since this approach takes into account religious sensibilities and does not explicitly violate any of the recommendations in the joint statement issued by Ulema.

It is also easier for local authorities to enforce these guidelines rather than those put forth in the joint statement. While it isn’t perfect, this approach will at least help prevent millions of people from joining large congregations in mosques and will thus further the government’s efforts to implement large-scale social distancing to deal with coronavirus. Crucially, it will help us keep the healthcare system afloat as we deal with this unprecedented health crisis.

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