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Burial or cremation? Muslims remain in a Covid quandary

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By Dr M. HARIS DEEN

The second wave of the COVID 19 pandemic and the extent of its spread worldwide, has left the Muslims of Sri Lanka in a serious quandary. To bury or cremate? That is the question. As far as the Muslims are concerned, the Sri Lankan government does not seem to give in. At first, what appeared to be a genuine cause, now clearly appears to be motivated by discrimination. Despite the advice of the WHO, several local organisations, representation by eminent professors of medicine, several distinguished ulemas, who diminished the argument that the water table issue as a fallacy, the Sri Lankan government stays unmoved on the issue of cremation against burial.

Article 3 of the Sri Lankan constitution states that “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and the franchise.”

Relevant to my arguments are what is stated in Article 4 of the constitution, to wit:

Article 4 – The Sovereignty of the People shall be exercised and enjoyed in the following manner:

(c) the judicial power of the People shall be exercised by Parliament through courts, tribunals and institutions created and established by law, except in regards to matters relating to privileges, immunities and powers of Parliament and of its Members, wherein the judicial Power of the People may be exercised by Parliament according to law.

(d) the fundamental rights which are by the Constitution declared and recognised shall be respected, secured and advanced by all the organs of government and shall not be abridged, restricted or denied save, in the manner and to the extent provided,

Article 10 – Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to adopt a religion or belief of his choice,

Article 11 – No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel or degrading treatment or punishment.

One will see from the above cited Articles of the Sri Lankan constitution that the sovereignty is in the hands of the people, unlike in Britain and most other civil law countries, where the sovereignty is vested in the parliament and legislation passed by parliament cannot be challenged, although there is judicial review as to execution of the law but not the law itself.

Therefore, I submit that the Sri Lankan Parliament did not have the People’s mandate to present the “The Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance” (Chapter 222) on 11th April 2020. The contents of the Bill had not been presented as a “White” paper for discussion by all communities. Hence, it is a “bolt from the blues” for those who seek a dignified end to them or their loved ones. It is further submitted that the fundamental rights of not only the Muslims, but also of every citizen of Sri Lanka who wish to be given dignity to their last rights, has been denied. Furthermore, the fundamental rights guaranteed by Article 10 have been infringed against the guarantees contained in Article 4 paragraph (d) of the constitution. In my opinion, this Bill could have been challenged in courts by invoking Article 4 (c) of the constitution, in which I believe there is adequate ground for a judicial review.

That is as far as the law is concerned. What about the position of the Muslims vis-a-vis what the Qur’an and the Ahadith say about the dignified treatment of dead persons.

“O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you. If ye differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if ye do believe in Allah and the Last Day: That is best, and most suitable for final determination”. (4:59)

I have researched and discussed with Islamic scholars on the issue. Allah in His absolute wisdom says in the Qur’an that death is inevitable and no matter how people try to escape death it will reach everyone (50:19), also “every soul shall taste death and only on the day of judgement you will be paid your full recompense on the day of your rising. Anyone who is distanced from the fire and admitted to the garden has triumphed . The life of this world is only enjoyment of delusion” (3:185). This is the only place where “death” and “fire” have been related as a punishment to be distanced from.

Allah’s book is for every situation rather than any situation, hence Allah in His absolute mercy refrained from committing His faithful from committing to any particular obligations as death can happen anywhere under any circumstance “No self knows what it will earn tomorrow and no self knows in what land it will die.” (31:33; 31:34). However, Allah showed the son of Adam, Cain what he should do when he killed his brother Abel, during a dispute between them. Allah sent a raven which dug the ground with its beak and feet and buried another dead raven and closed the “grave” “so that he might show him how he should cover his brother’s dead body,” (05: 31). Therefore, it is evident that Allah promoted burial as a dignified manner to respect the dead under all circumstances.

The Prophet (Peace and Salutations upon him) encouraged haste in burial of the deceased. This includes the entire process from ghusl to burial, but in particular it refers to carrying the body of the deceased from the Janaaza to the burial. Abu Hurayrah narrates that the Prophet (Peace and Salutations be upon him) said: “Hasten with the Janaza. If it was a righteous person, then you are forwarding it to its bliss, and if it was other than that (not righteous), then you will remove this burden from your necks.” [Reported by al-Bukhari (volume 2, hadith 401) and Muslim (volume 2, hadith 2059)].

Death and human dignity – Humanitarian Forensics under Islamic Law

In many civilizations, traditions and religions—both ancient and modern—death is a mere transitional phase between one stage of life and another. Burying the dead is one way to ensure that the dead are accorded dignity and respect, and that the feelings of their living loved ones are considered. Throughout history, religions, traditions and cultural practices have influenced the ways in which the dead are managed, both in times of peace and conflict. Today, they continue to do so.

In Islam, human dignity is a right given by God to all humans—who are referred to in the Qur’ān as God’s vicegerents on earth. Islam grants certain rights to humans before they are even born, and others after their death. Whether dead or alive, the human body—created by God in the perfect shape—must be given dignity and respect. This importance of the human body is illustrated, for instance, in the Qur’ān 5:31. There, it is narrated that when Cain was unsure of how to deal with the body of his brother Abel—whom he had murdered—God sent a message in the form of a raven. God used the raven to dig into the ground to bury another raven, thus indirectly showing Cain how to bury his brother’s body.

Faced with the difficulties of ensuring the dignified burial of the dead in the context of armed conflicts and other situations of violence and natural disasters, classical Muslim jurists developed Islamic laws to deal with the challenge. These laws aim to respect the dignity of the dead and respect the feelings of their loved ones to the degree possible. The dignity of the dead surfaced in the discussions of the classical Muslim jurists on a number of issues. Some of the most significant of which, for our purposes here, are: searching for and collecting the dead, disposal of Muslim and non-Muslim mortal remains, quick burial, exhumation of human remains and burial at sea.

Before delving into these issues, it is worth noting that Islamic law at times combines purely legal rules with religious and/or ethical matters. This is the case as well with the management of the dead. For instance, burial and grave regulations are deliberated in the Islamic legal literature, along with the etiquette of visiting graves. Combining legal and ethical elements is an important characteristic of Islamic law that helps keep it alive. It helps ensure that Muslims voluntarily impose such rules upon themselves, and that they keep practicing even with regard to aspects that are not codified in Muslim States’ legal systems, and over which courts have no jurisdiction. This nature of Islamic law points to the impact Islamic law can have in influencing societal behaviour. Understanding these Islamic rules can help guide humanitarian forensic specialists to overcome challenges they face by respecting the religious needs of Muslim societies, when they work in Muslim contexts. It is a way to show that respecting the dead is the common overriding concern of both their forensic work and Islamic law. (Dawoodi, A. A – 2018 – Humanitarian Law and Policy).

In my capacity as a lay person, I have put my knowledge before Islamic lawyers and parliamentarians and the Ulema to take up the case of the illegality of imposing “The Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance” (Chapter 222) not only on Muslims but those of any faith, who do not want themselves cremated and request a dignified burial. It is not as yet too late, I am sure the government will listen to reason, when approached in the proper way. There is evidence that the reason given by the authorities of groundwater contamination is not proven.

In a web article posted on 19.05.2020 The Fast Company newsletter (accessed 27/10/2020) states inter alia as follows:

“Microbial and chemical contamination can also occur in cemeteries as a result of unmanaged, untreated and incorrectly sited sanitation services, solid waste, and wastewater, which allows for the flow of microorganisms and contaminants into cemeteries.

In general, bodies that are treated and buried in correctly sited and constructed cemeteries do not pose a threat to public health and are not a source of pollution. The WHO guidelines clearly stipulate that to date, there has been no evidence to suggest that individuals have become infected from exposure to the bodies of persons who have died from Covid-19.

If conducted according to the usual recommended health and safety practices, choosing to bury or cremate a person who has passed away from Covid-19 should pose no additional risk to the environment or the people. However, in South Africa, based on the nation’s known religious and cultural practices around death as well as the lack of sufficient crematoriums, Covid-19 victims are highly likely to be buried in cemeteries. South Africa also has serious issues with access to land in metropolitan and rural areas. As a result, conservation and residential developments take precedence over cemeteries because they are not considered sustainable.

However, when sited properly and according to sound scientific judgement, cemeteries should protect surface water and groundwater from contamination regardless of the cause of death. Provided that the capacity of the cemetery is not breached, the placement and design of the cemetery should have a built-in resilience to supply enough time for the attenuation of contaminants on-site. In some instances, poorly sited cemeteries may be at higher risk.

To date there have been no reported cases of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 (officially known as SARS-CoV-2 ) being detected in drinking water in either private boreholes or public drinking water systems coming from cemeteries. This can be related to the travel time that SARS-Cov-2 will need in order to remain infective.

So far, SARS-CoV-2 does not have a high level of persistence in the environment, due to it being an enveloped virus and can be eliminated effectively by water treatment, especially chlorination, and would pose a minimal risk to drinking water. As the outbreak continues, and in the unlikely event that more people succumb to Covid-19; particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, more water-quality and hydrogeological (laboratory and pilot scale) experiments are needed before major conclusions can be drawn on their fate and the way they are transported in cemetery environments.

Email: deenmohamed835@gmail.com



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Opinion

Buddhism and all beings’ right to life

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A large majority of human beings deny the right to life of animals and other sentient beings, including insects. Why? (Sentient being is a living being endowed with mind and consciousness). The late Venerable Narada Thera in his book titled, Manual of Buddhism, states as follows- “The tolerance of the Buddha was not only to men and women but to dumb animals as well. For it was the Buddha who banned the sacrifice of poor beasts and admonished the followers to extend their loving kindness (maithree) to all living beings. No man has the right to destroy the life of another living being, even for the sake of one’s stomach, as life is precious to all” He quotes from the Metta Sutta: “Whatever living beings there be, feeble or strong, long, stout or medium, small, large, seen or unseen, those dwelling far and near, those who are born and those who are to be born, may all beings be happy-minded, without exception. Just as a mother would save her own child, at the risk of her own life, even so let him cultivate boundless love towards all beings.”

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi in his book, titled “The Noble Eightfold Path-Way to End Suffering” says: “The positive counterpart to abstaining from taking life, as the Buddha indicates, is the development of kindness and compassion for other beings. The disciple not only avoids destroying life, he dwells with a heart full of sympathy desiring the welfare of all beings. The commitment of non injury and concern for the welfare of others represents the practical application of the second path factor “Right Intention” in the form of goodwill and harmlessness. Abstaining from taking life (Panathipatha Veramani) – Herein someone avoids the taking of life and abstains from it. The intention of harmlessness, is a thought guide by compassion (karuna) aroused in opposition to cruel, aggressive and violent thoughts. Compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering; a wish to be extended to all living beings. It springs up by considering that all living beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering.”

The Lankavatara Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism states: Quote: “For the sake of love of purity the Bodhisatva should refrain from eating flesh, which is born of semen, blood,etc., for fear of causing fear to living beings; let the Bodhisatva who is disciplining himself to attain compassion, refrain from eating flesh. It is not true that meat is proper food and permissible when the animal was not killed by himself. Meat eating in any form, in any manner and any place, is unconditionally and once for all prohibited”

 

The Surangana Sutra states: “In seeking to escape from suffering ourselves, why should we inflict suffering upon others? How can a Bhikkhu who goes to become a deliverer of others, himself be living on the flesh of other sentient beings? The Buddha forbade Buddhists from engaging in occupations that involve killing of animals, such as Butcher, Fisher, or Animal farmer.”

When it comes to small animals, like rats, and insects, the attitude of the large majority of humans is as if they do not have right to life.

According to Buddhism, they, too, have the right to life as human beings. While some human beings try to prevent cruelty to animals such as elephants, tigers, dogs, etc., I have never heard of any one talking of cruelty to insects. My opinion is that the first precept in Buddhism ( Panathipatha Veramani) applies to all animals, and insects, as well. They too feel pain.

I would like to obtain the observations of other readers of your newspaper on my opinions expressed above.

 

NEIL PERERA

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Opinion

A Cabinet reshuffle needed

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It looks as if the government did not realise the need to take drastic action to stem the tide of public disapproval. Even the most optimistic, who were overjoyed at the election of a non-politician President, followed by that of a government with an unexpected thumping majority, are sighing in despair! Although part of it is due to avoidable own-goals, there seems to be an extremely effective anti-government campaign directed by an unseen hand. Even when toxins are detected in imported coconut oil, rather than laying the blame on errant importers, attempts are made to tarnish the image of the government. All this is possible because the government seems to lack an effective communication strategy. One wonders whether the government has a lax attitude because the Opposition is blundering.

The fracas in the Parliament on the issue of Ranjan Ramanayaka losing his seat was the best illustration of a misguided Opposition not fit for purpose. Critics may argue that RR was given an unfairly harsh punishment but their criticism lacks moral authority because they opted to be silent when a Buddhist priest was given a much harsher punishment for the same offence: in fact, they were delighted! RR stated publicly that most judges were corrupt and defended his stance at every possible turn. He also refused all opportunities afforded for clarification. In spite of the Attorney General informing a while ago that RR’s seat should be declared vacant, to his credit the Speaker waited till RR’s petition for appeal was dealt with. Even though the facts were obvious, the Leader of the Opposition accused the Speaker of removing RR on the basis of non-attendance for three months, which he had to correct the following day! Those who blamed the SLPP for staging unruly protests in Parliament in October 2018, did the same on behalf of RR. Is this not laughable?

Once and for all, the question of the authority of the President was settled with the passage of the 20th Amendment and it is high time the President made use of his new powers. The most important thing he can and should do is a cabinet reshuffle, a mechanism often adopted by British Prime Ministers by way of a course correction. It need not be a major reshuffle but a minor one involving some ministers who are obviously underperforming. I have written in the past about the Minister of Health who demonstrated gross irresponsibility by partaking of an untested and unlicensed medicinal product. She is also responsible for not implementing the Jennifer Perera committee report on the disposal of bodies of unfortunate victims of Covid-19? Had this been implemented in December, much of the adverse publicity the country received could have been avoided. Perhaps, the voting during the UNHRC resolution also may have been very different. The Minister of Public Security talking of banning some face coverings did not help either. Pity he did not realize he was talking of this at the wrong time; during an epidemic when face coverings may be useful.

The Minister of Trade, who was an effective critic in the Opposition, has turned out to be totally ineffective. Even the government gazette has become a joke due to his actions. Perhaps, it is time for him to take a back-seat and allow someone else to have a go at the rice-mafia. etc. Perhaps, ex-president Sirisena may be given a chance to see whether brotherly love is more effective than the gazette in controlling the prices of rice.

The biggest failure of this government is on the diplomatic front. What most diplomats consider to be the most important diplomatic assignment, the post of High Commissioner to India remains unfilled for almost a year. Whether we like it or not, India is fast gaining the status of a world power, and not having our representative to deal with officials acknowledged to be of top calibre is a shame.

The way the UNHRC resolution was handled showed total incompetence of the highest order. We withdrew but the Ambassador decided to take part; we lost and claimed victory! To cap it all, the Foreign Minister announced in Parliament that the resolution was illegal. All the time sinister forces are at work, relentlessly, to undermine the country and force the separatist agenda on us and if we are not sharp, we may end up in disaster. For reasons best known to themselves, the government failed to utilize fully the good offices of Lord Naseby. Statements made by the Foreign Secretary no doubt irked the Indian and US governments.

For all these reasons, the need of the day is a complete overhaul of our Foreign Affairs set up, starting with the Minister. It is high time we made use of our career diplomats, who are well trained for the job and stop sending political ambassadors. The practice of utilizing ambassadorial posts as parking lots for retired service chiefs is abhorrent, as it gives the false impression that Sri Lanka has a military government in all but name.

There is still a chance for reversal of fortunes, if the President decides to act swiftly after returning from Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. If not, unfortunately, there may not be much left to celebrate!

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Opinion

Alleviating poverty, the Chinese way

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China has released a white paper on poverty alleviation which outlines the success of policies implemented, the methods employed and her desire to share the unique social experiment with other developing countries. Sri Lanka being a friendly international partner of China should make use of this opportunity to study the programme and plan a scheme and send a team to China to learn the activities conducted under the scheme so that Sri Lanka will be able to handle the fight against poverty, successfully.

“China achieved the largest scale battle against extreme poverty, worldwide, as 98.99 million people had been lifted out of absolute poverty, creating a miracle in human history.” These people were living in 128 ,000 villages all over in China. China through a sustained program was able to achieve its poverty reduction targets set out in UN 2030 agenda, 10 years ahead of its schedule.

A quote from a report released by the BBC outlines the success achieved by China.

:” In 1990, there were more than 750 million people in China, living below the international poverty line – about two-thirds of the population. By 2012, that had fallen to fewer than 90 million, and by 2016 – the most recent year for which World Bank figures are available – it had fallen to 7.2 million people (0.5% of the population). So clearly, even in 2016 China was well on the way to reaching its target This suggests that overall, 745 million fewer people were living in extreme poverty in China than were 30 years ago. World Bank figures do not take us to the present day, but the trend is certainly in line with the Chinese government’s announcement. (“Another large country, India, had 22% of its population living below the international poverty line in 2011 (the most recent data available) …:”}

The people living in extreme poverty suffer from the lack of extremely basic amenities, such as food. safe drinking water, sanitation, health, shelter, and education. It is a fact that those who come under this category are trapped in a vicious circle and for generations they cannot escape the deprivations.

Some of the policies followed by China in achieving the enviable outcome are discussed in the White paper. The most important condition to be fulfilled is the acceptance of the fact that governance of a country starts with the needs of the people and their prosperity is the responsibility of the government. “To achieve success, it is of utmost importance that the leadership have devotion. strong will and determination. and the ruling party and the government assumes their responsibilities to the people. play a leading role, mobilize forces from all quarters and ensure policies are consistent and stable’.

China has provided the poor with the guidance, direction and tools while educating them to have the ambition to emerge from poverty, Through farmers’ night schools, workshops and technical schools create the improvement of skills. The government identifies the economic opportunities in consultation with the people, then provides finances, loans for the selected projects, and strengthens the infra-structure facilities, including the marketing outlets.

While the macro aspects for the poverty alleviation is planned centrally, the activities are executed provincially and locally.

Sri Lankans living under the national poverty line was 4.1% of the population in 2016 (World Data Atlas). The impact of Covid-19 in 2020-21 has dealt a severe blow to the living standards in Sri Lanka and it is assumed that the people living under the poverty line would have reached approximately 8% of the population by 2021.

President Gotabaya Rajapakasa has realised this gloomy truth in his interaction with the poor in the villages on his visits to the remote areas in Sri Lanka. I would request him to study the success story of China and to work out a similar NATIONAL programme in consultation with China. In the White Paper, China says that she is ready to share her experience with other countries who desire to reduce the poverty levels. The President should appoint a TASK FORCE of capable and nationalist-minded individuals to steer the program with given targets as PRIORITY VENTURE. If Sri Lanka can plan a comprehensive programme for poverty alleviation and implement with determination under the capable, dedicated and willing leadership of the President, nearly two million Sri Lankans who live below the poverty line will benefit and would start contributing to the growth of the nation productively.

RANJITH SOYSA

 

 

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