The annual International Unity Conference in Tehran is an eagerly awaited event. Called the ‘Week of Unity’, it is held to coincide with the birthday of the noble Messenger (pbuh). Academics, scholars, ulama and activists from all over the world belonging to all Schools of Thought are invited to this august gathering.
For 33 years the Islamic Unity Week conference has been held in Tehran. This year, however, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is being held virtually. Apart from the organizers (Majma at-Taqrib bain al-Madhahib al-Islam—Forum for the Proximity of Schools of Thought in Islam), other participants are linking via Zoom or Skype. Yet others have sent in recorded messages to be included in the conference deliberations.
This has become the new norm for conferences and other events worldwide. ‘Virtual’ as it is called, has superseded actual gatherings. The Islamic Unity Week conference being held from October 29 to November 3 is no exception.
It is not surprising that this year’s theme of the International Islamic Unity Conference (in its 34th year) revolves around the impact of the pandemic and how to cope with it. Cooperation among Muslims at the individual, community and international levels are the sub-themes to be discussed.
The role of scholars and academics in highlighting and explaining the impact of the pandemic and offering Islamic solutions in the spiritual, ideological and practical domains are other subjects being addressed. The role of Islamic media is also emphasized in disseminating accurate information and advising people in adhering to proper protocols.
While not affected as severely as many Western countries such as the US (the most affected country in the world with also the highest mortality rate), France and Britain etc., the Muslim world has not escaped its devastating impact either. Some Muslim countries have coped better than others.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance, has been badly affected primarily because of the illegal sanctions the US has imposed. These have prevented the import of urgently needed medicines and equipment to take care of those afflicted by the coronavirus. American sanctions amount to war crimes because they have caused the killing of the most vulnerable in society.
The pandemic, however, has also brought to the fore certain protocols that Muslims have traditionally followed as part of their lifestyle. For instance, one of the measures constantly emphasized is to wash one’s hands frequently. Muslims have done this and continue to do so as part of their daily routine in making wudu before offering the five daily salat (prayers) and before and after eating. This has been Muslim practice for more than 1400 years.
Prior to the pandemic, Muslim women were targeted in many Western countries for wearing the hijab and more particularly the niqab. France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and even otherwise liberal Scandinavian countries displayed vicious Islamophobic tendencies. In Canada’s French speaking province of Quebec, a bill was passed in the National Assembly last year prohibiting the display of any religious symbols. Yet, above the speaker’s chair in the Quebec National Assembly hangs the crucifix. We are told, this is a “historic symbol, not a religious one”!
Quebec’s Bill 21 specifically targets Muslim women wearing the hijab and the niqab. The bill specifies that civil servants cannot display visible religious symbols. And people wearing visible religious symbols (hijab and niqab) would be denied government services and even prohibited from teaching at school.
The pandemic has now forced not only women but even men to wear the niqab. It may be called a ‘mask’, but for all practical purposes, it is a niqab. Allah has His own way of slapping arrogant people back into reality.
Social distancing and quarantine are other aspects that have been introduced to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. The noble Messenger (pbuh) had issued instructions more than 1400 years ago that if there is a plague or other communicable diseases, affected people should remain confined to their locality and not venture out. Outsiders were asked not to enter that locality (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith #624).
Thus, Muslims are well placed to advise others about proper hygienic practices while also adhering to them faithfully. In some countries, Muslims have adopted a casual attitude toward the pandemic. This is unwise. Adequate precautions are necessary including pertaining to congregational prayers.
The International Islamic Unity Conference touched on all these aspects. It is our fervent hope that within a year, the pandemic would be behind us and Muslims would once again be able to participate in such conferences where much interesting interaction takes place outside the conference hall.