A major fallout has emerged in the Muslim community after several masajid in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town have come forward to refute claims that they support the bid to open places of worship. The Majlisul Ulama and Jamiatul Ulama have raised the ire of the Muslim community in South Africa after they submitted a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa appealing for mosques to remain open during the national lockdown, which has been extended until the end of April. The parties cited that Muslims are in desperate need of spiritual upliftment as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic and the closure of the masjid is detrimental to Muslims during this time.
A group called the Custodians of the Haqq, led by Adv Zehir Omar, has taken up the cudgels on behalf of the two organizations and have listed a number of masajid, including four in Cape Town, that want mosques to remain open during the lockdown. But in formal statements issued yesterday, Omar Farouq mosque in Lenasia, Polokwane Muslim Trust, Hamidia Masjid in Newtown and Musjidur Rahman in Durban said they are not aware of any requests made by Custodians of the Haq for the reopening of their respective mosques. These masajid said they have not given their consent for the Custodians of the Haqq to use their name to support the call for the government to allow congregational prayer.
In his letter, Adv Zehir Omar Attorneys cited that the current regulations – in terms of the Disaster Management Act of 2002 – restricts citizens freedom of movement as well as the freedom to practice their religion. The outlining of the ablution rituals performed by Muslims before performing any one of the five daily prayers sought to nullify the concern of contamination of the coronavirus. It was further suggested that masajid committees take responsibility for the guidelines set out by the president, such as the wearing of masks and basic screening for all those wanting to enter the holy space.
“The lockdown has deprived Muslims of such worship which is absolutely essential in terms of the Islamic religion. On behalf of our clients, we therefore appeal to you to consider accommodating the constitutional rights of Muslim citizens in the lockdown regulations,” read the letter.
It was also argued that, when compared to “the taxi industry, grocery stores and spaza shops, the danger of the spread of the virus via mosques is practically nil.” The letter explained that few people attend the masajid for each of the five prayers and that only the Jumuah (Friday) prayers would draw large crowds. It was also noted, however, that “the prayers last for approximately 30 minutes, after which all the worshipers disperse.”
According to reports, a list of masajid in support of this call was attached to the letter. However numerous masjid committees have issued statements, saying they did not give permission for their names to be used for that purpose and they are not in support of the call.
While speaking to Cape Town scholars, the anecdotal evidence suggests widespread support to heed the presidents call and an understanding that the preservation of human life is paramount, particularly during a plague. There was also hesitation from some who felt that commenting on the issue would breathe life into an already settled debate and risk causing a rift within the Muslim community.
On Friday, the Presidency rejected the request to open masajid in South Africa, reiterating that it had consulted widely with many ulema bodies who agreed to respect the lockdown regulations. The consensus reached with Muslim faith leaders was that the lockdown was for the “greater good”, despite the sacrifices it would require South Africans to make. In the letter, the Presidency says it will not make the same mistakes in other countries, where the “prohibition of religious gatherings came too late for thousands of citizens”. Based on this, it will not accede to the demand to open mosques in the country.
Following Adv Omar’s letter, the South African Muslim Network and Islamic Medical Association wrote a responding letter to Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to add their voice to the matter. They stated that Adv Omar’s clients represent a minute fraction of the total mosques in SA and the vast majority of mosques have complied with the initial restrictions and later lockdown provisions of government and will continue to abide by the law of our land.
“We note that many essential workers and those going to seek food and medical help have no choice but to use minibus taxis and other forms of public transport which increases their risk of contracting the coronavirus but there is no alternative for them and we salute those essential workers who have to use public transport for their courage during these testing times,” they stated.
Meanwhile, on Friday, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor urged the Muslim community to be united in their approach to tackling the pandemic by adhering to the call of the president to keep masajid closed. Pandor said that granting permission to one religious grouping to hold gatherings would be highly problematic.
“Once you open up room to any religious grouping then you cannot be selective. Other religious groupings would also want similar room and then you may introduce a level of chaos and concern that actually leads to harm. The duty of a Muslim is to respect life and all that government is trying to do is to protect South Africans,” said Pandor.
She further urged all Muslims to “continue in the example they have shown”.
“This is a community that is a particularly faithful community that lives according to important principals. But today, we ask that their leadership be shown in exhibiting to South Africa that it is possible for us to confront and beat this pandemic. And that we will do so only through unity and by working with the government to protect each person- ourselves, our families and our nation in its entirety.”
“It is that level of discipline and commitment that I will ask for from each and everyone of us.”