Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, is currently being observed by Muslims. However, this time, Muslims are either restricted or strongly discouraged from congregating in the mosques to pray their five-daily prayers. My local Islamic Center has shut its doors for the past seven weeks. Thus, instead of congregational prayers, esp. for the Friday Jumu’ah and Taraweeh (special night prayers during the month of Ramadan), Muslims are now listening to virtual khutbah (sermon) over the computer and praying in their own homes.
With hundreds of thousands of mosques closed down on our planet, this is a unique phenomenon in the Muslim world. Even, the Grand Mosques in Makkah (Ka’bah) and Madinah (Al-Masjid an-Nabawi) are almost empty for weeks because of the Corona Virus (Covid-19) pandemic that has killed more than two hundred thousand people worldwide and infecting another three million people. It is worth mentioning that these courtyards are usually at their busiest during the months of fasting and Hajj but remain open all year round for Muslims to pray therein.
Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday (April 21) that although the Taraweeh prayers will be held at the Grand Mosque and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi only the mosque staff are expected to perform the nightly prayers. King Salman said in a statement, “I am pained that the holy month arrives amid circumstances that make us unable to perform group prayers and Taraweeh — special Ramadan night prayers — at mosques due to precautionary measures to protect the peoples’ lives and health in combating the coronavirus pandemic.“
Earlier this year, Saudi authorities halted travel to holy sites as part of the umrah, the “lesser pilgrimage” that takes place throughout the year. In an unprecedented move, the Kingdom may ban its citizens and foreigners from making the holy pilgrimage this year during the Islamic month of Dhul Hijjah (which falls between July and August this year). So far, more than a hundred Saudis have died because of the Covid-19.
If the Hajj is canceled this year in Makkah, it won’t, however, be the first of its kind in the more than 1,400-year history of the Islamic pilgrimage when its planning had to be altered due to armed conflicts, disease or just plain politics. One of the earliest significant interruptions of the hajj took place in 930 C.E., when a sect of Ismailis, a minority Shi’ite community, known as the Qarmatians, raided Makkah. The Qarmatians killed many pilgrims and fled with the black stone of the Ka’bah to their stronghold in modern-day Bahrain. Hajj was suspended until the Abbasids, a dynasty that ruled over a vast empire stretching across North Africa, the Middle East to modern-day India from 750-1258 C.E., paid a ransom for its return over 20 years later.
The political tug-of-war between the Fatimid rulers of Egypt and the Abbasids kept various pilgrims from Mecca and Medina for eight years, until 991 C.E. French emperor Napoleon’s military incursions aimed at checking British colonial influence in the region prevented many pilgrims from hajj between 1798 and 1801 C.E.
There are reports that the first time an epidemic of any kind caused hajj to be canceled was an outbreak of plague in 967 C.E. And drought and famine caused the Fatimid ruler to cancel overland Hajj routes in 1048 C.E. Devastating cholera outbreaks several times throughout the 19th century resulted in the suspension of pilgrimages, including Hajj in 1837 and 1846 C.E. After the disease returned in 1865 in Hejaz, a region of Saudi Arabia that includes Makkah, an international conference was called in Istanbul. It was decided that quarantine ports would be set up in places like Sinai and Hejaz to help limit the spread of the disease, as pilgrims set on their journey to perform Hajj.
While a decision to cancel the hajj will surely disappoint Muslims looking to perform the pilgrimage, many Muslims are aware of a relevant hadith – a tradition reporting the sayings and practice of the Prophet Muhammad (S) – that provides guidance about traveling during a time of an epidemic: “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.”
Globally, nearly 3 million people have been infected by the Covid-19 of which more than two hundred thousand have already died. Here in the USA, nearly a million people have thus far been diagnosed to be infected with the virus, while more than 53 thousand have already died. No cure has yet been found, in spite of all the hullaballoo of President Trump who is proving to be more a TV clown than a serious world leader. As I noted earlier, he is not alone in making a fool of himself. Most of the rulers have been found too unprepared or flat-footed against this virus.
No vaccine or therapeutic medicine has yet been found to combat or contain this virus. As a result, no one truly knows how long this pandemic would last. Nearly a billion people are out of a job on our planet. The US economy that had been near full employment just two months ago is now in its most dire straits since the Great Depression. Jobless claims over the past five weeks have totaled more than 26 million, far worse than anything the U.S. has seen. How high that number will get is still unclear when the Labor Department reports the April nonfarm payroll data in two weeks. Expectations for the April unemployment rate in the USA are in the 10% to 15% range.
Many countries are still under locked-down condition, which is adding to the frustrations of many. The overwhelming fear is that if the pandemic does not kill, hunger might just do that. Thus, the pressure is ever-growing for many governments from Trump’s USA to Modi’s India to ease social-distancing restrictions and open up the business. They are under a catch-22 situation with no easy solutions or answers.
Never before in the history of mankind, has anyone seen a single pandemic shutting down the entire globe in this way. The hustling and bustling mega-cities now look like ghost towns with hardly any movement; the air is much cleaner to breathe in, although people are all caged inside their homes and are afraid to go out. People wake up in the morning with the gloomy news of skyrocketing death counts around the globe. People run away from each other, even their loved ones. Niqab, once much abhorred in the West, is now donned by many westerners for mere survival. Nobody is giving Niqab-clad Muslim women a ‘dirty’ look! The arrogant and the meek, the powerful and the weak, the filthy rich and the dirt poor are all scared the same way. They are even afraid to take their dead family members to the graveyard.
Who would have thought that a small virus that is infinitely smaller than a fly could cause such a panic, crippling the typical life of all humans from a royal prince to an ordinary Joe! Powerful world leaders who not too long ago boasted of being capable of ‘Nuking’ and pulverizing their foes have proven to be clueless and too impotent to fight this invisible predator. Who would have imagined this turn of events in this age of hyper technology when humans are sending satellites into outer space!
What went wrong?
I asked the question some weeks ago to Shaykh Abu Fida K.T. Nephtchy, a Turkish Sufi master who lives in Los Angeles. He advised me to read Surah Ar-Rum and ponder on verse 41.
Allah says in the Qur’an: “Fasad (corruption) has appeared throughout the land and sea because of what the hands of people have earned (by oppression and evil deeds, etc.) so He (Allah) may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness].” (Surah Ar-Rum 30:41)
In Surah An-Nahl, Allah also says: ‘And Allah set forth an example of a town that is safe (of fear) and well content. Its means of subsistence was coming in abundance from everywhere. But it (the people of the town) denied the Blessings of Allah. Therefore Allah caused it to taste the garb of famine and fear because of what they did.’ [Qur’an 16:112].
It is a time of deep reflection for all. Is it possible that the Covid-19 pandemic is a taste of consequences of human wrongdoings and disobedience to their Creator? Is it possible that in our lust for the duniya (inane materialism) we all became too ‘materialistic’ and forgot about the Akhirah (the Hereafter) and how worthless we truly are without the blessings of our Creator?
Maybe that this Ramadan, as we kneel down and prostrate in our prayers, we shall be more sincere and grateful to and mindful of Allah and His provisions, and work more seriously towards making our planet a better one that is free of fitnah (unrest, civil strife, conflict) and fasad.