A fragmenting ummah by Rafia Zakaria

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OVER the weekend, 60,000 pilgrims began the second Haj pilgrimage to take place under the grip of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The 60,000 citizens and residents of Saudi Arabia were all masked. According to reports, they prayed for an end to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In pictures: Pilgrims mark second Haj overshadowed by Covid-19

The change in the mien and manner of the pilgrimage reflects the dissension and fragmenting of the Muslim ummah in general. The array of nationalities that used to come together for the performance of the annual pilgrimage represented, in a literal and tangible sense, the vast ambit of the Muslim world and the Muslim people’s capacity to come together for a higher purpose.

Despite their many differences, the people from a cross-section of society, speaking a staggering number of languages and dialects, and from places far and wide, somehow managed to coexist for the duration of the pilgrimage and to create a collective that is unparalleled in the entire world. In the wake of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has naturally closed its borders and placed limitations that are necessitated by the nature of the plague. To permit things to continue as before would, undoubtedly, create a catastrophe for the entire world.

The reasons for the curtailed pilgrimage thus are good ones. At the same time, it would not be out of place to wonder whether the restrictions on the pilgrimage have had a corollary effect on the nature of the metaphoric ummah.

A recounting of Muslims who are suffering and of Muslims who are inflicting suffering is an apt exercise for all Muslims as they celebrate today.

Take, for instance, the previous emphasis placed on the transnational dimensions of the gathering of pilgrims; that they were not constrained by the borders of a single country reflected the fact that religious polity is seen as beyond the frontiers of any one or the other country. The safe post-pandemic ritual can no longer accord with such a lack of limits, and the question now is one of how far the idea of a supranational community can be strengthened without being re-energised on a yearly basis by the same numbers as were previously witnessed at the pilgrimage.

The politics of various Muslim nations reflect this shrinkage of the Muslim worldview. In the current moment, Muslims are suffering in many parts of the world, all of which is known by other Muslims, but that nevertheless continues. In the Gaza Strip, everyday life continues to be marred by unpredictable attacks by the Israeli Defence Forces, making celebration, even of Eidul Azha, a tricky proposition. The memory of the ruin inflicted by the Israelis in the last days of Ramazan and last Eid are all exhortations against gathering in large numbers.

Then there are the Muslims of Xinjiang in China. Even as details emerge of the hell that is a Chinese re-education camp, the abuse continues. When Uighurs are dragged off to one of the camps, they are so dispirited that they leave notes for their family to forget them forever. In the camps, the vast numbers of detained Uighurs, (some whose camps can apparently be seen from outer space) toil day and night and are taught to forget their beliefs altogether, forbidden to pray or practise their faith in any form.

Sadly, despite the well-known nature of these atrocities being suffered by Muslims, the ummah is not able to cobble together a collective strategy that would take the burden of raising these issues away from a single country. The consequence, of course, is that the issue is not to be raised at all, not with any real effort towards actually halting the human rights abuses.

If apathy is the name of the game where nation states are concerned, non-state groups appear to be only too eager to take up the concept of the ‘ummah’ for their own purposes. Rumours have been circulating for a while that Al Qaeda, newly reconstituted, has launched a new magazine that is directed at the Muslim ummah.

Then there are the Taliban, who, in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, are staging a resurgence. In a terrifying illustration of the bizarre times we inhabit, the Taliban’s English-speaking spokesperson now boasts about the group’s plans to BBC. In one recent interview, this spokesperson told the BBC that the reason the Taliban were not in control of the cities in Afghanistan is because they had not yet attempted to do so. The message, of course, being that once they did attempt to take the cities, they would succeed in doing so.

A recounting of Muslims who are suffering and of Muslims who are inflicting suffering is an apt exercise for all Muslims as they celebrate Eidul Azha this year. The question before all of them must essentially be whether the concept of the Muslim ummah as a united polity is one that is being honoured by Muslims and by Muslim states. It may also be useful to ask when the annual pilgrimage, a glorious and transnational reflection of the ability of Muslims to come together, can be restored to its former dimensions. As we present our sacrifices and pray that they be accepted by the Almighty, we should also look inward, consider our own ability to revive the idea of the ummah by saving those Muslims who are suffering and not free.

Celebrations in times of distress and the vast shadow of death that Covid-19 has cast over the world has made this moment just that; it is appropriate to practise restraint and exhibit empathy. As the ummah is being challenged, so must individual Muslims consider their role in measuring up to it. Sacrifice, after all, need not be of material things, but also of doing the inner spiritual work, of the meaning of suffering, and the implications due for those Muslims who are blessed enough to not be suffering.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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