Between Religious Rituals and Safety Protocols in the Time of a Pandemic
Religious leaders have an important role to play, in word and deed, to safeguard the physical and spiritual well-being of their flock during this pandemic.
On 27 July 2021, the second day of the Malaysian parliament’s special sitting to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic, Mahathir Mohamad criticised the government for its failure to handle the situation and also said that a reason the government has failed is because people do not abide by the safety protocols.
While he was referring to segments of the general public, his criticism can also be directed towards the religious elites, some of whom have been accused of breaching safety protocols. Additionally, the advisories they have introduced arguably jeopardise the safety of people.
The recent commemoration of Eid al-Adha on 20 July 2021 illustrates how certain advisories may not be in line with ensuring people’s safety. With eight states having transitioned to Phase 2 of the National Recovery Plan (NRP), the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) announced that mosques and prayer halls in these states would be open for Eid al-Adha prayers, although congregants would have to abide by strict protocols. Prayers were even allowed in Selangor, which still remains in Phase 1 of the NRP. In the case of Perlis, one of the states in Phase 2, the prayer was conducted in open areas just outside the mosques. This would allegedly reduce the risk of infection while ensuring that the prayer, which is a sunnah, or a tradition of the Prophet, remains fulfilled. This fixation with wanting to fulfil the sunnah in exceptional circumstances, even if the ritual in question could easily be done in the safety of one’s home, reveals a fixed mindset on how certain religious occasions should be observed.
It is insufficient for religious elites to tell people that they must pray and be patient in times of difficulty, especially when there are elites who alienate themselves from people’s struggles by violating protocols and jeopardising others’ safety.
This fixed mindset is also evident in religious elites’ alleged flouting of safety protocols so as to engage in other religious rituals. This was evident when popular preachers such as Azhar Idrus, Don Daniyal, and Iqbal Zain were present at a tahnik ceremony – a ritual to welcome a newborn baby – held by well-known singer Siti Nurhaliza in May 2021 during the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO). Dr Zulkifli Al-Bakri, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs), was also present and had “no comment” when asked about his attendance.
However, whilst they are fixated on ensuring that certain rituals can still be carried out during the pandemic, albeit with some adjustments, they end up overlooking or dismissing the more immediate needs of the community. For example, one of the main struggles that increasing numbers of people have faced is that of the lack of food and basic necessities as a result of financial hardship. This led to the white flag movement, which allowed people to indicate that they were in need of immediate assistance. While there were elites who were supportive of the movement, others were dismissive. This was especially so in the case of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) MP Nik Abduh Nik Aziz, who urged people in need to pray instead of admitting defeat by raising a white flag.
After a year and a half of living with the pandemic and going through several MCOs, people have become fatigued, and their mental well-being has been compromised, as evident from the sharp rise in suicide cases from a total of 631 cases in 2020 to 468 cases in just the first five months of 2021. Thus, as the pandemic persists, recognition of people’s fatigue is increasingly important, and there is a need to render both emotional and financial support to them. However, in the case of the Muslim community, the existing approach towards people’s struggles tends to be centred on a religious narrative, as illustrated above. It is insufficient for religious elites to tell people that they must pray and be patient in times of difficulty, especially when there are elites who alienate themselves from people’s struggles by violating protocols and jeopardising others’ safety. Furthermore, religious narratives are not useful in solving other aspects of the pandemic, such as poor healthcare administration, anti-vaccination campaigns, the breaching of protocols by celebrities and politicians, and unequal enforcement of SOPs and penalties.
Thus, these religious narratives raise an important question on the adaptability of certain religious ideas amidst changing and difficult circumstances. More certainly needs to be done, and as renowned Malaysian intellectual Chandra Muzaffar put it, what religious elites need to do is to understand the fundamental methodology and principles behind the interpretation of religion and to critically apply that methodology to changing contexts. This would allow for an understanding of religion that goes beyond its rituals and will make room for more creative and empathetic solutions to address people’s struggles.
Afra Alatas is Research Officer in the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Nur Syafiqah Mohd Taufek is a master’s student in the Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore.