In the last week of February 2020, the border post of the Balochistan province, Taftan, allowed 6,500 pilgrims to leave their confinement as suspected victims of COVID-19 and return home to their provinces in Pakistan as long as they were free of the virus. These were Shia pilgrims who had visited sacred shrines like Qom and Mashhad in Iran.
In early February, China had warned the world about the contagion, but Iran paid no heed and kept allowing travel to China, and took no quarantine action at Qom where thousands had gathered from around the world. Iranian authorities allowed the city to become a major epicentre of COVID-19. The following month, around 90 per cent of the approximately 17,000 cases throughout the Middle East were linked to Iran.
Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on March 3, said something that most religious leaders in Pakistan were to soon repeat: “COVID-19 is not such a big tragedy and this country has overcome graver ones. The prayers of the pure youth and pious are very effective in repelling major tragedies.” After the death of 13 senior Iranian officials, among at least 30 who contracted the virus, he shifted to blaming America for starting the pandemic.
The thousands of pilgrims quarantined by Pakistan in Taftan hardly experienced adequate safety measures. People were herded into tents where the unaffected men and women also became infected. They were all Shias, and the largest numbers were from Sindh province in Pakistan, where its largest city, Karachi, with 22 million inhabitants, is located. Since none of these pilgrims were tested for infection, they became carriers, and today Pakistan has nearly a thousand coronavirus-stricken citizens, with reportedly eight dead by the end of March.
The Tablighi Jamaat of Pakistan is the largest such “invitation to Islam” organisation in Pakistan and, probably, in the world, judging from a million-strong congregation in Lahore every year. This March, the Lahore congregation became an international infector. An article in The New York Times reported how, “the gathering proved a perfect transmission point, infecting indeterminate numbers of Pakistanis, at least two Kyrgyz citizens and two Palestinians who flew home and introduced the virus to the Gaza Strip. A similar gathering of Tablighi Jamaat in Malaysia infected more than 620 participants who then returned to half a dozen countries across Southeast Asia”.
Pakistan’s most vulnerable locus is the mosque where the devotees have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to pray five times a day. There are half a million mosques in Pakistan — the count can’t even be called accurate because of the changing nature of the mosque. In Pakistan, in the early days following 1947, most Muslims prayed at home except on Fridays when some went to the mosque to join the congregation. Today, most people pray five times a day in neighbourhood mosques, which have consequently proliferated.
When Pakistan decided to “lock down” the country in the third week of March, mosque congregations had to be ignored because most clerical leaders were not in favour of the closure. Their response was close to what the Iranian supreme leader had said earlier — and regretted — that Allah will look after His believers. Then, Pakistan President Arif Alvi referred the matter to the highest Islamic authority — the Jami’at al-Azhar or the Al-Azhar University, in Egypt. Only then did he get an edict in favour of the closure of all mosques: The clerical leaders would have still stood their ground but for the decision taken by Saudi Arabia to close all rituals in Mecca and Madina.
Pakistan took the middle ground, a decision which remains incomprehensible: That mosques will not be closed, but the prayers will only be conducted by no more than five people connected with the mosque administration. Evidence as per TV coverage, though, suggests that the police have had to actively stop citizens from heading to mosques to keep them safe.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 9, 2020 under the title ‘Prayer and contagion’. The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan.
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