The government's reluctance to ban congregational prayers carries within it the fraught tensions of Pakistan's identity.

Pakistan has crossed 1,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the actual infected is likely significantly higher. Yet, unlike other countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, Pakistan has not banned congregational prayers that pose a clear threat to public health. 

A few weeks ago, thousands thronged to Raiwind for the annual congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat, a transnational Islamic piety movement. The Federal Government requested that the congregation be suspended – but only on the second day. 

For weeks, congregations in mosques have continued despite dire warnings. Yesterday, a council of the country's most prominent Islamic ulema met and all but one, a Shia representative, proclaimed that mosques should remain open and that Friday congregation prayers should proceed, albeit shortened. 

Today, as I write this article, thousands if not hundreds of thousands of men across Pakistan will have visited their local mosques for Friday prayers despite the threat to their lives and the lives of their families. 

The government announced that while mosques would remain open, mosque congregations should not exceed three to five, a welcome policy, to which a few prominent Islamic scholars have acceded. But, many others insist that mosques remain open and congregational prayers continue. 

Congregational prayers are, of course, a pillar of Islam and understood by many as a mandatory requirement, but throughout the world, Muslims are adjusting their religious duties to save lives. This is seen as necessary by the state to protect citizens and also well within the demands of Islam. 

Yet, in Pakistan, Islamic authorities are resisting state pressure to close mosques, and the government refuses to take strident actions against them. Many people in Pakistan and around the world are asking why Pakistan seems to stand out in this seemingly suicidal commitment to mosque congregations. 

An answer to this requires moving beyond the tenets of Islam to the politics around Islamic authority in Pakistan. 

Muslim nationalism to Islamic statehood

Pakistan was conceived as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. The country was founded on the two-nation theory that posited that Hindus and Muslims were fundamentally distinct people with distinct religious and cultural traditions. Pakistan's founder and father of the nation Muhammad Ali Jinnah did not conceive of Pakistan as an Islamic state. 

In a famous address, he proclaimed: "You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed -- that has nothing to do with the business of the State." 

But Islam was not absent from the understandings of national identity either. In 1949, less than two years after Pakistan's founding, the Constituent Assembly passed the Objectives Resolution which declared: "Sovereignty belongs to Allah alone but He has delegated it to the state of Pakistan through its people for being exercised within the limits prescribed by Him as a sacred trust." 

Pakistan, then, has always wrestled with an internal tension between, on the one hand, the idea that Pakistan should be governed according to a divine plan and on the other that it should be dictated, solely, by the will of the people. 

All governments have had to strike some balance, and of course, ideally, it was understood that both the will of the people and the will of God would be one and the same. 

Religious parties like the Jamaat e Islami had long argued that Pakistan must move in the direction of Islamic ideals and that this required the creation of an Islamic state. But, their abilities to realise this goal remained limited in the first decades after independence. 

It was the military dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq that formalised and intensified the link between Islam and the state, making Islam the basis for state sovereignty.

The cataclysmic civil war of 1971 that led to the violent birth of an independent Bangladesh had rent the myth of a united Muslim identity asunder. Ethnic nationalists throughout the country were demanding greater recognition and autonomy for linguistic and ethnic identities and autonomy for provincial governments from the federal centre, challenging that basic premise of a single, unified Muslim identity. 

When Zia assumed power, he claimed it was in defence of both Islam and Pakistan, and he used Islam as a bulwark against both progressive forces as well as ethnic nationalists. 

Zia's "Islamisation" expanded the scope of Islamic law in Pakistan, establishing the Federal Shariat Courts to ensure that laws are in keeping with Islam, passed a range of anti-women (Hudood Ordinances) and anti-minority (Ordinance XX against Ahmadis) legislation, mandated the teaching of Islam in schools, and generally promoted Islamic institutions. 

Moreover, the period witnessed the dramatic growth of madrassa education funded in part through the collection of zakat taxes and flow of funding from Saudi Arabia to support the Afghan jihad.

The politics of Islamic authority

Islam's symbolic importance grew throughout the next few decades. Zia's Islamisation expanded the political space for religious political parties and also led to the politicisation of the Islamic ulema who became increasingly involved in matters of the state. But, it also intensified competition over the mantle of Islamic authority. 

The politics around Islamic authority in Pakistan is an immensely competitive space, and this competition shapes the refusal of the ulema to implement the closing of mosques despite the dire threat of Covid-19. 

Nobody wants to be seen as backing down from the commitment to a foundational religious practice like congregational prayer. In the competition for being the authentic and true representatives of Islam, admitting the need to close mosques is to cede the symbolic value of Islamic faith to others. 

The ranking ulema in Pakistan can find their authority challenged both by other ranking ulema but also by lower-tier ulema and mosque imams. There are economic issues at play, as well. 

Madrassas in Pakistan produce graduates who fill the mosques of Pakistan, and they depend on mosques for their livelihood. The mosque economy depends on alms and is therefore tied to the flow of bodies in the mosque. To demand a closing of mosques can, then, potentially invite the ire of one's constituency. 

The Pakistani state draws directly on Islamic authority and thus has become beholden to Islamic actors, particularly to the authority of the ulema. 

The reluctance of the government of Pakistan to close mosques and ban congregational prayers despite the obvious and immediate threat posed to Pakistani citizens by Covid-19 is a clear manifestation of this problem. 

The ruling Pakistan-Tehreek I Insaf (PTI) government led by Imran Khan has been notably reluctant to take bold action. This is because the PTI has placed Islam at the centre of its populist politics. 

Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former cricketer and once-notorious playboy has reinvented himself as a born-again pious Muslim and routinely claims that the mission of his party is to create a "riyasat-e-medina" or 'state of Medina'. 

This vision of an Islamic society is not necessarily in keeping with that of the ulema, and Imran Khan has faced resistance and a backlash from Islamic groups and parties. But, to override the collective body of ulema is very difficult for a government that routinely affirms its Islamic credentials.

The government must close mosques and place a ban on congregational prayer immediately. But, it is true that to do so "unilaterally" could invite a backlash and could lead religious parties and actors to take their protests to the streets. 

The state is generally reluctant to take on religious actors but the threat of street protests in the context of Covid-19 is, indeed, a disturbing prospect. 

Nevertheless, the Pakistani state must dig into the Islamic tradition as have the governments of other countries to find alternative sources of Islamic authority. 

Pakistani citizens and the people of the world demand this. Our lives depend on it. And we have no time left. 

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to