Unprecedented times | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

Unprecedented times

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Worshippers pray around the Holy Kaaba in Makkah.

For the first time in the 1400 year history of the Faith, Islam’s three holiest mosques in Makkah, Medina, and al-Quds have been closed for Ramadan and public prayers are set to remain suspended during Eid al-Fitr, the feast concluding the fasting month. Only mosque staff have performed the five daily prayers and the Taraweeh, special Ramadan prayers, which have been broadcast to Muslims locked down at home due to the coronavirus which is savaging the world.

Saudi King Salman himself announced this decision at the outset of Ramadan. “I am pained that the Holy Month arrives amid circumstances that make us unable to perform group prayers and Taraweeh at mosques due to precautionary measures to protect the peoples’ lives and health in combating the coronavirus pandemic.” 

The Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina have, of course, been forced to close over the centuries during warfare, plague, and political wrangling. This year the cause is the disease that is gripping the world and forcing more than three billion people of all faiths into lockdown.

Covid-19 has forced the Saudi authorities to halt the flow of foreign visitors to Makkah for the Umrah, the “lesser pilgrimage,” which can be performed at any time during the year, and to ask Muslims to delay plans for this year’s Hajj, which takes place in July-August. Cancelling the Hajj would be unprecedented as this has not happened since the establishment of the Saudi kingdom in 1932. It is notable that the Hajj went ahead during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1917-18 when the region was also in chaos due to World War I and the Arab revolt against the collapsing Ottoman empire.  

 Pilgrims have been previously prevented from performing Umrah and the Hajj by various rulers as well as outbreaks of the plague and cholera. Between 2012 and 2013 the Saudis suggested ailing and elderly Muslims to postpone pilgrimage due to another coronavirus, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, MERS.

 In al-Quds, al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in the Islamic world, and the iconic, elegant Dome of the Rock, have been closed to prefect virus spread during Ramadan and the Eid by the Jordanian Islamic Waqf, which administers Muslim holy sites in the city. While al-Aqsa has been shut, imams have broadcast sermons and livestreamed on Facebook traditional Ramadan prayers.

 This is the first time al-Aqsa has been closed for public prayers during Ramadan since the 12th century following the conquest of al-Quds by the crusaders who massacred thousands of Muslim and Jewish residents. They slew Muslims who took refuge in al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. In October 1187, Saladin expelled the crusaders and recovered al-Quds. He permitted the Church of the Holy  Sepulchre to reopen, allowed Christians of Eastern denominations — expelled by the Crusaders — to return to the city and worship in their churches, and resumed Muslim control of and services at al-Aqsa, which had been used by the Knights Templar as their headquarters during the crusader occupation.  

Today determined Palestinian residents of the Israeli-occupied Holy City pray in streets near the Haram al-Sharif, the compound on the acropolis where al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock are located. As Israel regularly prevents Palestinian men under the age of 50 from attending Friday prayers at al-Aqsa, the streets within the walled city and open spaces at its gates have long been prayer halls. Social distancing has been practiced under the watchful eyes of armed Israeli soldiers. Covid-19 is not the sole menace in Palestine.

This year, the virus has prevented tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank from entering al-Quds to take part in Ramadan’s Friday noon prayers at al-Aqsa. Last year more than 320,000 received Israeli permits to journey by bus to al-Quds to spend the day in the Old City, praying, visiting family, shopping, and reconnecting with the centre of their religious life and longed-for political and economic capital. 

West Bankers have faced double lockdown: by the Palestinian Authority and by Israel. Both mounted checkpoints along frequently travelled roads. In

West Bank cities, the traditional call to prayer was altered to fit the circumstances. Instead of “come to pray,” muezzin has cried, “pray in your homes.”

Both Saudi Arabia and Palestine have good reasons to impose strict lockdowns on their populations and restrict the entry of pilgrims and other outsiders although both depend on pilgrimage revenues and maintaining external economic connections. The Saudis with the wider world, the Palestinians with Israel which controls land, sea and air access to their occupied country. 

Since the first corona-case was identified on March 2, Saudi Arabia has reported more than 55,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 300 deaths. Despite early intervention, the Saudi daily death rate ranges from 1,500-2,500 cases, while the number of recoveries is more than 24,000, a good record. Forty-two per cent of victims are Saudis; the majority is foreign migrant labourers and residents, who account for one-third of the kingdom’s population of 33.7 million.

Palestine has had more than 380 cases, two deaths and 325 recovered. Twenty were in Gaza, where the fear of a mass outbreak has been averted so far. The virus was introduced to the West Bank on March 5 by European pilgrims visiting Bethlehem, which was locked down two days later and the Palestinian

Authority banned the entry of foreign tourists to the West Bank. On March 21, the first two cases were detected among Palestinians who entered the Israeli-besieged and blockaded Gaza strip from Egypt, all of whom where quarantined for at least two weeks. Palestinian containment of the virus, particularly in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is miraculous for many Palestinians, particularly those employed in Israel and Israeli colonies, interact with Israelis who have had nearly 17,000 cases and more than 270 deaths.

Islam’s three holy mosques link Saudi Arabia and Palestine because of their roles in the founding and history of the Faith and their importance as places of prayer and pilgrimage. Plagues, war and politics cannot diminish them.

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