Mixed measures to combat Covid-19 in Muslim nations

By Fatima Zohra BouazizRabat, Mar 13 (efe-epa).- The spread of the coronavirus pandemic has posed serious religious dilemmas for the Muslim world.

Should collective prayers be banned in mosques? Should the pilgrimage to Mecca be cancelled? How should infected corpses be treated if they cannot be cremated?

Responses have varied from country to country, and both Shiites and Sunnis agree on the need to respect Islamic precepts as long as adhering to them does not harm the life and health of Muslims.

At least 15 Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and North Africa have been affected by Covid-19 with more than 10,000 infections and 500 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Iran has been battered by the deadly respiratory disease with the highest number of deaths so far recorded at 429.

The burial of the bodies has posed challenges from the outset because cremation is not an accepted practice in Islam.

In Qom, the most affected Iranian city, authorities have dug mass graves to bury plastic-wrapped corpses.

In other countries like Iraq, where there have been eight deaths, burials have taken place under the supervision of a specialized medical team. Bodies were wrapped in plastic before being placed in wooden coffins.

In Morocco, health authorities reported the body of the first Covid-19 victim had been buried in a coffin without the presence of the deceased’s relatives who were in quarantine.

Lahcen Sguenfel, director of the Regional Council of Ulema in Temara, northwestern Morocco, told Efe that when there is an epidemic the washing of bodies, an essential Muslim ritual, can be avoided and corpses can be buried in a coffin with no funeral ceremony.

Sguenfel said the main objective of Islam is to protect lives and stop the spread of epidemics.

The prophet Muhammad applied quarantine in times of outbreaks and said: “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.”

But isolation measures have also affected other major Islamic rites including the pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

On 27 February Saudi authorities temporarily suspended the Umrah, a pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of the year, as well as visits to Medina.In 2018 more than 18.3 million Muslims embarked on the Umrah, according to Saudi authorities.

Images of a desolate Kaaba, the building in the centre of the Great Mosque of Mecca to which all Muslims direct their prayers, were widely shared on social media and became an emblematic example of the impact of the coronavirus.

Hajj, the most important pilgrimage which must be carried out at least once a lifetime, takes place this year between 28 July and 2 August.

Time will tell whether it also suffers as a result of the fast-spreading virus, according to several theologians Efe consulted. In the past, the pilgrimage has been cancelled due to wars or the spread of epidemics like the plague.

Other pilgrimages of great importance in the Shiite world, such as visits to the holy sites of Najaf and Karbala have been suspended by Iraqi authorities.

The measures have affected other religious activities like the closure of religious museums and visits to shrines held annually in Morocco, and the closure of Koranic schools in Algeria.

But the most controversial decision related to collective prayer, the second most important pillar of Islam and a mandatory ritual for men.

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