/ 26 March 2020

The solitary choreography of solo prayer

Safrica Health Virus
Keeping faith: People pray at the 23rd Street mosque in Mayfair, Johannesburg, last week. Most mosques have since closed ahead of the lockdown, on advice from the Jamiat ul Ulema South Africa. (Michele Spatari/AFP)

On Tuesday night, the weather is perfect. Temperate. It’s the kind of Jo’burg night I remember ending in long drives and nutty sprinkles at Milky Lane in Hillbrow. But it’s not just the innocence of childhood that’s gone now. There’s a thickness in the air. Anxiety. Worry. Confusion. Much of it my own, yes. But these are strange times. And yet you wouldn’t know by just driving around Mayfair. Nothing is different here. Not really. Okay, there was that one man standing outside Masha Allah Wholesalers on Bird Street decked out in a conflict helmet with a clear plastic visor pulled down across his face. I had to look twice. But he was just standing there, in casual clothes and helmet. Robocop on his day off, catching up with his friends. 

But two blocks further on, it’s quiet. With apologies to William Wordsworth, the very houses seem asleep. 

Approaching Church Street from Sixth Avenue, the windows of the mosque on the corner of Clifton street are open. The yellow light of the mosque slips onto the road, inviting our gaze in. There, a small group of men stand side by side. Their eyes are fixed to the ground. A second passes. And the row of men bend their backs in unison. From the car, their cue of “Allahu akbar” is not audible. Their hands are on their thighs. Backs bent. Their eyes are still trained to the ground. They stand again. And then in one fluid movement dip their bodies to the ground. It is the choreography of praying together – the act of finding yourself to be not quite so alone in the world after all. 

But that small glimpse of the Esha prayer was an anomaly in Johannesburg this week. This was one of very few mosques in the city that had not yet closed before the official lockdown. Most mosques in the city had shut their doors on Sunday. The Jamiatul Ulama South Africa, the council of Muslim theologians, issued an advisory to mosque committees – every mosque is run by its own community-appointed committee – calling on them to halt hosting the five prayers in congregations larger than five people. Most committees obliged. 

But even as some commentators criticised the haste of the advisory, the urgency was borne out by another public statement from another Muslim organisation in the city. On Sunday Amr Bil Maroof, who describe themselves as a “public benefit organisation” announced that for two weeks thenceforth there would be no gatherings in the “Markaz”, which can be translated as “the centre” but is also known as Masjidun Noor. It is not two kilometers from the Sixth Avenue mosque, in what was once a Telkom conference centre. 

The Markaz, however, is no ordinary mosque. It is the headquarters of the Tabligh Jamaat in Gauteng. As well as hosting congregational prayers, it is also the centre of administration and consultation for what some academics have described as the single largest Islamic movement in the world. Crucially as well, it is a bed-and-breakfast of sorts, providing food and shelter to travellers finding their own way to God. For days rumours had swirled that someone had tested positive for Covid-19 at the Markaz. But as strident as the tone of the WhatsApp messages were, there was still no official confirmation. 

Until Sunday. 

“Some brothers have returned from countries which were not on the NICD list of high risk countries. At their time of travel there were close to no infections in those countries. Nevertheless, as a precaution all brothers that have returned from any foreign country have been evacuated from the Markaz and advised to self-quarantine at home and seek medical care as required. All brothers who have come in contact with such people should seek medical advice,” the statement said. 

“Brothers who had tested positive are in quarantine at their homes and have been for some time. Duas are requested. Most are showing positive signs of recovery already.” 

In widely distributed WhatsApp voice messages, some of those who tested positive urged everyone that they had been in contact with to be tested immediately. One of those who tested positive also apologised to anyone he may have infected. 

The Markaz is situated in Crown Mines, immediately west of the city centre. The greater area is densely populated. While the Markaz is being disinfected according to the statement from Amr Bil Maroof, it is not clear how many people have been in contact with those who have tested positive there. And it’s not clear how far beyond the Markaz local transmissions may have already happened. It is reasonable to assume some have occurred. 

Four hundred kilometres away in Bloemfontein this week, the Divine Restoration Church urged congregants who attended a prayer breakfast with international visitors to get tested following confirmation that international guests of the church had tested positive for Covid-19.

“Together with the department of health, we decided to test all attendees of the breakfast at the church premises on March 21 and 22. All those who have not been tested yet, we encourage you to be tested,” the church said.

By Thursday evening the Free State had 49 confirmed cases of Covid-19 – the bulk emanating from the church. Several of those who had attended the services with the international guests are yet to be traced. 

Much, much further away, in South Korea, in early March, Lee Man-hee, the 88-year-old founder of The Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony in Daegu, was pictured bowing to the ground, his head bent, his face covered in a mask. He was apologising for the church’s role in accelerating the spread of the virus in South Korea. One of the church’s congregants, a 60-year-old woman known now as Patient No 31, has been traced as the source of thousands of infections – she attended services at the Shincheonji Church.  

The church has been described as a cult and has been lambasted for its secrecy. At some point, government officials threatened to charge  Lee Man-hee with murder. 

The coronavirus pandemic has complicated our relationship with places of worship. They have been epicentres of transmission in themselves, but people’s relationships with places of worship are complex. They give people an identity. They create meaning in the muddle of everyday. 

But now to survive, to protect each other, we have to find meaning outside of a physical place. The meaning we have to construct for ourselves is the conviction that staying at home, staying away from the people and places that give us reason to be, will allow us to find another meaning for ourselves. Alone. By ourselves. In our homes.

On Wednesday night, the air is heavier. The anxiety, worry and confusion hangs closer, nearly suffocating. The adhaan – call to prayer – sounds from my neighbourhood mosque. It is the soundtrack to life here. Hayya alas salah. Come to prayer. Hayya alal falaah. Come to salvation. It is the exhortation for the faithful to seek refuge in the mosque. And they do. The streets are often filled with men walking to the mosque. 

But the adhaan has a postscript now. “As-Salatu fi buyutikum.” Pray in your homes.