Friday prayers and the pandemic of coronavirus: The Pakistan Context

By Syed Sharfuddin*

Today, 17 April 2020 millions of Pakistani Muslims observed the first Friday after the collective decision taken by Darul Uloom Karachi on 14 April 2020 that mosques will remain open for the younger and able bodied Muslims to perform five time congregational prayers, as well as Friday prayers all over the country. This decision was taken after two days of comprehensive deliberations involving representatives of many Muslim schools of thought in Pakistan, and apparently also had the blessings of the Federal Minister of Religious Affairs and the President of Pakistan. But soon after the Darul Uloom scholars’ decision was publicly read out by Mufti Munib ur Rahman, who is also Chairman, Moon-sighting Committee of Pakistan, it was severely criticised on electronic and social media by liberal Pakistanis.

Two days after the decision, the Sindh government further tightened the restrictions on social distancing and clarified that mosques will remain closed throughout the Sindh province until the restrictions on social gatherings were eased.

As is customary in Pakistan, no contingency planning is done about the future until the future arrives. Therefore in these announcements, both from Darul Uloom Karachi and from Sindh government there was no mention of Ramadan which is only days away. During Ramadan the institution of mosque becomes the focal point of Muslims for five times obligatory worship, Iftar and Traveeh prayers conducted in night.

All other religious activities such as madrassa teachings, religious conferences and tabligh gatherings are suspended throughout the country until further review. In the context of the scholars’ announcement of 14 April, no uniform practice was observed in the country for offering Friday prayers. Sindh remained in a locked down state during the afternoon prayer hours and consequently, public congregations did not take place. In other provinces, Friday prayers were offered but with less attendance than is done in normal times. The scholars’ decision continues to be criticised in social media by those who favour complete closure of worship places until the threat of the virus spreading through human contact is over.

It is therefore important to examine what went wrong with all that effort which was put in by many good intentioned and highly respectable people to reach a consensus in the country about offering Friday congregational prayers in mosques during the coronavirus emergency in the hope that it will be observed in the country uniformly.

It will not be an over- simplification to assume that the government wanted to close the mosques for Friday worshippers in the country to control the spread of coronavirus due to close human contact, because Pakistan does not have the capacity to conduct large number of coronavirus tests to identify and isolate potential carriers of the virus. There is also the general tendency on the part of the public to see matters of life or death in a fatalistic perspective. However, before finalising this decision, the government wanted to co-opt the religious scholars and get their endorsement. But it soon realised that religious scholars were thinking otherwise. They were in favour of keeping mosques open with some exceptions so as not to appear rebellious or difficult. This presented the government with a dilemma. In line with the ground situation, the government decided to take the middle path. While allowing the scholars to go ahead and announce their decision, the government decided to withhold its official support by not taking the required necessary steps to make that decision effective.

The evidence of the government not backing up the scholars was the silence of the President and the federal government after the criticism of the Darul Uloom announcement went viral on social media. To stop it, there was no national address by the President or the Prime Minister  officially endorsing the decision of the scholars and telling the public that the government was officially banning anyone over 50 or suffering from fever or showing signs of cough or cold to visit mosques. Neither did the government openly come out in favour of keeping the mosques closed to public while allowing Azan on microphones but prayers only to in-house mosque staff.

But if the facts are otherwise, and indeed the government wanted to reach a decision with an open mind and was fully behind the scholars’ consensus, then a number of things have gone wrong in the process which are enumerated in the following paragraphs with a view to lesson learning for the future. This ‘post mortem’ is also relevant because the Pakistan Prime Minister has directed his Minister for Religious Affairs to again start negotiations with the scholars on the mechanisms to the followed during the month of Ramadan.

1). The 14 April meeting of the Darul Uloom scholars started on a wrong footing because it was a follow up of the protest meeting held by them on 12 April demanding the release of an Imam of a mosque who was arrested by a police officer for leading a large congregation of worshippers. The scholars maintained that the Imam could not prevent anyone entering a mosque for worship, as it was not his function. The police should do so outside the mosque. And police do not have the resources, or the courage to pick up fight with every determined worshipper if he has made up his mind to offer prayers in a mosque instead of his home. The solution lies elsewhere at the doorstep of the government as to how it issues instructions and implements these across the board. The scholars also strongly criticised the disrespectful behaviour of the police officer against the mosque and the Imam and called for her suspension. In this atmosphere of distrust, any decision by the scholars, which ran contrary to the Sindh government’s position on strict social distancing, was doomed to fail.

2). The scholars took their decision in the context of the dynamics of Pakistani religious ethos and social behaviour. But it was a decision, which required transcending national considerations in favour of Pan Islamism. In taking the decision to keep the mosques open, the scholars ignored the restrictive measures taken by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Bangladesh, Turkey and other Islamic states. Scholars justified their decision in the context of Pakistan but could not back it up with the practice of the Jamhoor (majority) in the context of other Islamic countries. Here a point arises that Islamic injunctions which are universal cannot be different for different nationalities of the faithful.

3). Against this argument, the view of the scholars that Pakistan is neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey holds weight. Unlike these countries, Pakistan is home to multiple Islamic schools of thought and pluralistic views on Islam. Pakistan is also not an authoritarian or secular state. The scholars are right when they point out that if social distancing is so important to keep the mosques in a lock down state, why are crowds tolerated by authorities in mega shopping stores, vegetable markets, charity distribution centres and public transport hubs where the purpose of social distancing is not only defeated but defiantly violated by the public on a daily basis. The absence of action by authorities shows they are either inefficient or not interested in removing this contradiction using their official authority.

4). Without any disrespect to the office of the President of Pakistan as Head of State and his sincerity to reach a national compact, he is does not have the executive power under the Pakistan constitution to take such an important decision on behalf of the government. A decision like this acquires national importance where the majority of public is extremely sensitive to its religious beliefs and obligations. If an announcement of the sort which came from the Darul Uloom platform is to be enforced in the country, it cannot come other than from the Prime Minister, as the de jure authority. With a civilian democracy in place in Pakistan, it is undemocratic to say that such an announcement should come from the Chief of the Army who is still regarded by many as the de facto power in the country. But to get the President of Pakistan involved in a sensitive initiative without any de facto or de jure authority vested in him under law is to ensure the failure of its outcome. No wonder then that despite the window dressing of the President in these discussions, the plan of action fell through even before it was taxied for take-off.

5). Flowing from the above, there is another important lesson to be learnt for the future, which has more to do with optics rather than content. It has been the practice in Pakistan that the chairman of the Moon-sighting Committee makes the announcement about the sighting of the moon at the start and end of each Ramadan. Although last year, the government’s maverick Minister of Science and Technology tried to stop this practice and wanted this announcement to be made by the Government, the way he did this was unacceptable to religious scholars because he wanted them out of the picture and rendered obsolete. The correct way would have been to let the scholars make the recommendation and for the relevant government Minister to announce their recommendation in the form of a government decision for the people. This is because the statutory authority and the writ of the government rest with the government and not with religious scholars. The mistake Mufti Munib ur Rahman made on 14 April was to announce the scholars’ decision about mosques at his level thinking that he had the backing of the government. But the people of Pakistan for whom this message was intended did not accept it because he did not have the legal authority to announce a government decision. Mufti Munib ur Rahman unwittingly fell into a trap he did not know would result in the decision to cause controversy. He should have insisted along with other scholars that this decision should be announced by the Prime Minister of Pakistan in a special televised speech to the nation, backed by measures, including enactment of a law or ordinance, rendering anyone who defied the exceptions mentioned in the decision to be liable to fine or arrest. This would have also placed the government in a position to either take a bold decision and implement it or walk away from it in the interest of discretion.

Finally, it all boils down to the art of governance. How a government handles a crisis, foresees complications and pre-empts problems before they multiply into bigger issues. Already, the coronavirus has taxed the government more than it can take, but the price for being at the helm of affairs demands wisdom and action from our leaders and people, just like it does from soldiers and civilians in time of war. We should always remember that we are all in it together, for better or for worse, for material well being or for our spiritual salvation. So help us God.

*The author is a former CEO of Muslim Aid UK (2010-2014).






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