Defend Truth


You can follow the law and still be a believer


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Unusual times call for unusual measures. Amid a deadly pandemic and with extraordinary laws in place, it’s important to remember that avoiding communal prayer or eating during Ramadan does not make you less of a Muslim.

Groups of Muslims around South Africa have decided that they will ignore personal distancing laws and continue with communal worship. This is dangerous because the coronavirus spreads when crowds form. It also feeds into the belief that prayer can and will prevent the spread of Covid-19.

It is worth putting the current resistance among pockets of Muslims into context. Ramadan, the holy month in the Islamic calendar, started last week. All believers have to fast from dawn (suhur), to bukah puasa (breaking the fast) every day. During this month there is an emphasis on communal eating at the time of breaking the fast and at prayer at mosque afterwards. Let us set aside, for now, all the other things that Muslims are expected to do during Ramadan. It is communal worship, perhaps more so than communal eating – which is mainly among immediate family, but may include non-family members – that poses a serious risk of spreading airborne infectious diseases such as Covid-19. 

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past four months, you will know that the virus is deadly. By the night of 26 April, there were an estimated 2.9 million infections in the world, with 204,000 deaths.  In South Africa, there were 4,361 infections and 86 deaths. 

In almost every country around the world, lockdowns have been imposed and there have been calls for physical distancing. Religious gatherings and sporting events have been cancelled. In most countries, religious groups have refrained from holding public meetings or gatherings. There have, however, been some notable exceptions where people have defied authorities. And then there are those who believe that prayer can heal infected people or banish the virus from the earth. We can deal with these two issues separately.

Defiance of physical distancing laws

In March, a few hundred ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel attended the funeral of a Rabbi, Tzvi Shinkar, in open defiance of physical distancing restrictions issued by the government. Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called the event “life-threatening”. The English-language newspaper Haaretz reported that Covid-19 was spreading rapidly in ultra-Orthodox communities, but police feared that enforcement would lead to clashes. For the most part, though, Jewish communities around the world have adhered to physical distancing laws.

In India, Pakistan and in Malaysia, Islamic movements, notably the Tablighi Jamaat (when thousands of people gather over several days of communal prayers) defied authorities and held massive gatherings. In India, the Tablighi Jamaat gathering rapidly became a Covid-19 petri dish, with participants becoming vectors of India’s growing coronavirus crisis. Their leader now faces manslaughter charges in India

The Tablighi Jamaat is an aggressive proselytising missionary movement. Their main goal is for all Muslims to return to practising Islam the way it was practised during the lifetime of their prophet Muhammad more than 1300 years ago. In Malaysia, at the end of February-early March, more than half of the country’s Covid-19 cases were linked to the Tablighi Jamaat gathering which had been attended by 16,000 people. Following the gathering, there were new infections reported across Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei and Singapore.

The government of Pakistan has been in a state of high alert for several weeks while authorities struggle to track down 100,000 attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat held in that country. In early April, the health services ministry said it expected the number of Covid-19 infections to top 50,000 by the end of the month, with between 5,000 and 7,000 deaths. The defiance continues. In Pakistan, Imams have overruled government’s lockdown rules, and mosques are crowded for Ramadan prayers.

In South Africa, there may be small pockets of people congregating in mosques or makeshift prayer spaces, and they do so in defiance of the law. Video clips circulating at the weekend showed Muslim men in prayer groups, with one man, a lawyer by the name of Zehir Omar, insisting that people should attend communal prayer services. He said, “Anyone who is approached or charged” for contravening lockdown or physical distancing laws should get in touch with him. “I offer my services, with the help of Allah, free of charge for that person,” Zehir said.

Faith may be our greatest failing

The main cause of this minority resistance to complying with lockdown laws is the unflinching belief that prayer and faith in some or other deity would either prevent people from getting the disease, or cure them. 

Here we can turn to the fear of discussing the tension between secular (state) laws and religious laws – and the likelihood of blowback, as a police officer told Haaretz. This fear is not unique to Judaism. The children of Abraham are at one in their belief in monotheism and faith in that single god. But let’s leave the Christians and the Jews aside for now. The lawyer referred to above appealed to his god (Allah) to help him defend people who are charged by the state for breaking the law.

This brings up the issue of belief, especially in prayer, and belief in science or science-based evidence. The biggest difference between religious belief and science is that the former believes in faith while the latter believes in evidence. We can extend this further by repeating the Muslim belief that the Quran is the first and last word on anything and everything. I’m pretty sure that’s not an exaggeration. Scientists, on the other hand, thrive on being wrong and on making incremental changes to theories as new and better evidence emerges. There is no new evidence that will ever change or alter the Quran. It is “the last word” of god.

If we bring this discussion back to the Covid-19 pandemic, we can say, with some confidence, that scientists will find a cure for the virus while prayer or faith will not. And while the virus remains with us, communal gatherings for prayer – in a synagogue, church or mosque – will always provide perfect conditions for its spread.  

Those religious groups and leaders who insist on violating secular laws of physical distancing – without losing senses of solidarity – may be doing a lot more harm than good. It is probably wise to stop the discussion here. 

In short, if Muslims want to gather, they should do so, but they will have to face the same sanctions – arrest and prosecution – as any other person or group that violates the Covid-19 laws. The first step in containment is physical distancing. 

It really does not make you any less of a believer if you take steps to save your own life and the lives of others. DM


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