With the month of Ramadan coming up, cooperation from our religious institutions will be crucial in containing the spread of Covid-19
There is an oft quoted hadith where a Bedouin asks Prophet Mohammed (sm) if he should tie his camel and trust in Allah, or if he should leave the camel untied, and trust in Allah. The Prophet said: Tie her and trust in Allah. (Sunnah Al-Tirmidhi).
Nothing is more precious than life and when the entire world is in the throes of a pandemic that is growing exponentially each day, the saying above is truer than ever. When country after country is taking unprecedented measures to protect their people from this scourge asking people to help themselves and their fellow beings from the current free flowing coronavirus by social distancing and adopting other healthy practices we sadly and woefully observe how some people are defying these in communal gathering seeking “ironically” divine intervention. But in doing so they ignore an important tenet of religious belief, “God help those who help themselves.”
This defiance or irrational response to a universal crisis has manifested in many countries, mainly in congregations for prayers and religious meeting. In Bangladesh despite government urgings and even orders for social distancing and bans on large group meetings there have been big religious gatherings in some places not to mention holding of Friday prayers in mosques.
In India thousands of people gathered for Tabligh convention in Delhi when the country was entering the first phase of corona virus attack. In Pakistan, religious gatherings of thousands took place in gay abandon of the restrictions on social gathering.
Unfortunately, in this reckless conduct in defiance of health guidelines to contain the spread of the virus Muslims of the sub-continent are not alone. In France, recently the evangelists converged in a church to “pray” when the country was going through the crisis of containing the vicious virus. In the US, a pastor in Florida had to be arrested when he called the faithful to his crowded to church to pray.
At the beginning of the current crisis sweeping through New York which now accounts for half of coronavirus incidents in the country, a synagogue held a congregation from where the early incidents occurred. In South Korea, gatherings in a cult-like church is believed to have spread the virus.
Now where does this lead us? Does faith have to be so blind as to defy rational thinking or endanger not only one’s own safety but also others? We do not know how many coronavirus incidents already have occurred or may occur in the future if the congregations in Bangladesh continue further unabated. We already know how this was spread, at least partially, from the religious gatherings in South Korea, France, and New York. Are we ready to allow this?
In countries like South Korea, France, the US, and similar developed countries, the defiance or reliance on faith to combat this crisis may be limited to a few churches and sects on the fringe. The community at large in these countries are far too civic-minded and responsible to allow the fringe behaviour of a small segment of the society to disrupt the injunctions and restrictions imposed on the country and the communities for social distancing and health guidelines.
The government will come down with a heavy hand on the fringe communities if they do not conform or continue to defy the restrictions. But what about countries and communities that let themselves be governed by their interpretation of “divine help” when a calamity strikes, and they keep praying together instead of “tying their own camels?”
In the US and other similarly developed countries, governments may arrest a clergy or even close down a church for failure to abide by the safety rules. This may not be just undoable but unthinkable in our country. This is because in Muslim-dominated countries, a parallel government exists in the form of clerics and clerical institutions where religion and society are concerned.
In matters of religion, a Mufti’s fatwa or edict conveys far more power than a government order. Some countries such as Saudi Arabia and some Arab countries may have a government friendly clergy and religious institutions that toe the government line. But in others the clergy and the religious institutions may at times work at cross purposes. And when this is the case, the role of the clerical institutions becomes absolutely necessary in interpreting the true message of their religion and conveying it to the people to help them in times of crises.
Never Allah will change the condition of a people until they change themselves. (Al Quran 13:11). So how will Allah help us when we throw caution to the wind and converge in hundreds in a small place to pray and seek his help?
We are dismissing the fundamental caution to keep a distance from other people because close proximity between people is a cause of spread of this virus. Do we think that we can touch a germ and not got infected by it because Allah will save us? No, Allah will not save us if we do not use our reason that He gifted us with.
Unfortunately, no government edict or fear of punishment of breaking the rule will force the conduct of a person who believes by staying away from a congregation for prayer he is shying from his religious duty. A large majority may abide by the government edict on health guidelines on social distancing, but for those among us for whom congregation and joint prayer is a must, only a right call from our religious leaders and religious institutions on refraining from congregations will work.
This will become most necessary in the upcoming month of Ramadan when our mosques are filled with worshippers three times the number of a normal month. It is necessary to prevent further spread of the virus, further fatalities.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.