The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which started April 24, will be unusually challenging this year.
The fasting month is traditionally a season of self-exertion and spiritual reward through physical deprivation but also religious communion and charitable work.
Ramadan is usually a joyful season when families and friends get together to celebrate life and mutual bonds of affection.
This year, however, social bonding will cede place to social distancing. Religious worship will be more solitary than congregational. The spirit of the season will be more in the hearts of people than on the festive streets of Arab and Muslim cities.
The overwhelming majority of Arab and Muslim populations has been understanding of the reasons that motivated their countries’ leaders to enforce lockdowns, curfews and other unprecedented restrictions. Heartbreaking news of the mounting toll in the world and in their own region drove home an acute awareness about the need to protect lives by respecting exceptional rules.
Religious authorities have played a crucial role in raising awareness and offering a narrative justifying public health restrictions. The decisive positions taken by Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Egypt’s Grand Imam of al-Azhar and members of the UAE’s Fatwa Council have helped convince people of the rationale for putting collective prayers and umrah on hold. Saudi authorities have announced a nuanced approach to the evening (Taraweeh) prayers, which will be held in the Mecca and Medina mosques but only in the presence of clerics and essential staff. Lay worshippers will not be able to attend, but prayers at home instead of the mosque during the month of Ramadan is the right thing to do.
Religious leaders of Muslims in the West have been punctilious in assuming their share of responsibility for ensuring the safety and welfare of their communities.
The UK Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board said mosques will remain closed during Ramadan until the end of the lockdown. “It would be deemed extremely irresponsible to congregate for night prayers or hold religious gatherings during this Ramadan in any mosque or houses with people who are not members of the immediate household,” said Qari Asim, a Leeds imam and chair of the board told The Guardian.
“During the epidemic, the desire to perform prayers with a congregation in a mosque comes second to saving lives,” he added.
There have been attempts by ultraconservatives and an irresponsible fringe of religious leaders across the Middle East and North Africa to pit faith against the public health requirements by trying to hold group prayers outdoors and organise evening marches despite the curfews. This goes against the confinement rules and safety requirements. The attempts failed to attract a significant following as overwhelming majorities saw the risks involved in violating the confinement orders. The dominant sense of discipline said a great deal. It reflected a reasonable attitude and the sense that people valued their own life and that of others. When the world returns to normal, the sentiment could do wonders in the Arab and Muslim world.
Even so, there have been islands of indiscipline, which could be a cause for wariness because of their public health implications.
These include the religious processions that took place in March in Iraq and Iran. They were condoned by local religious figures even though they went against all common sense and objections. Transgression of the confinement rules in the name of Islam is not only dangerous but a serious misrepresentation of basic Islamic tenets, which put the preservation of life ahead of all other priorities of the faith.
In Pakistan and Bangladesh, authorities have been struggling with radical clerics opposed to social distancing and all restrictions on collective prayers.
“The quota on the number of worshippers imposed by the government is not acceptable to us. Islam does not support imposition of any quota on worshippers,” claimed Mojibur Rahman Hamidi, a senior member of the hardline Hefazat-e-Islam group.
But this fringe element will be further discredited by its reckless stance. The observance of Ramadan has always been an exercise in faith, resilience and self-restraint. Such qualities should help Muslims meet the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic as well.