Srinagar: “I have never even heard of people staying at home for Shab-e-Qadr,” says Abdul Majeed. The 50-year-old resident of downtown Srinagar has visited Jamia Masjid, the city’s grand mosque, and bought samosas and halwa from the local fairs to mark the auspicious night during the month of Ramzan every year since he can remember.
This year as the coronavirus pandemic has locked down even Islam’s holiest cities but Mr. Majeed still believes that religious congregations should have been exempt from the lockdown owing to the coronavirus pandemic, citing inaccurate information of the spread of the infection having been contained without lockdown in many foreign countries.
The Jammu and Kashmir administration has ordered a ban on congregational prayers during the lockdown. However, falling in quick succession, three of the most important occasions on the Islamic calendar — the Shab-e-Qadr tonight, the last Friday prayer of Ramazan, and Eid-ul-Fitr on Monday — could potentially test the limits of the lockdown.
Congregational prayers are still being observed in some areas of Kashmir, especially the countryside and rural areas. Sporadic clashes have erupted in the last few days when the police tried to stop worshippers from offering congregational prayers on Friday at mosques in the districts of Pulwama and Budgam.
Shab-e-Qadr is believed to be the night when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad. This year, the sacred occasion is being observed tonight as Jamia Masjid and other prominent mosques remain shut amid the COVID-19 lockdown in Kashmir.
The Mutahida Majlis-e-Ulema, a collective of Islamic religious organisations in the region, has asked people to offer these three important prayers at home during the lockdown, a first in the remembered history of Kashmir. “Islam is a logical religion,” said Masroor Abbas Ansari, a prominent religious leader and head of Jammu and Kashmir Anjuman Ittehadul Muslimeen. “We have been following the advice of doctors and health workers. Earlier too, we asked people to stay at home for the Tawreeh prayers during this Ramazan.”
Mr. Ansari reiterated the plea to observe religious duties at home to prevent the spread of the virus in the community. Mr. Ansari disagrees that public prayers with social distancing could have been possible. “It would require volunteers and social education, which would be very difficult right now,” he said.
Not all clerics, however, agree with a complete ban on congregational prayers. Public health officials overseeing the Valley’s COVID-19 response have also defended the ban on social gatherings. “It would have been impossible to maintain social distancing in mosques,” said Dr. SM Qadri, a senior epidemiologist and the nodal officer for COVID-19 in Kashmir. “If people violate the order and come out to pray tonight, they will be putting their community and family at risk.”
Dr. Samir Mattoo, director of health services in Kashmir, also appealed to the people to stay indoors in the larger interest of the public. “There will be a big chance of transmission of the coronavirus [if people offer congregational prayers], in which case so many people will get infected,” said Dr. Mattoo. “My message to the people is to stay at home.”