Shi'a Islam, digital collectives, and covid-19 outreach



Shi'a Islam, digital collectives, and covid-19 outreach


As an early-career anthropologist of religion, I was conducting ethnographic fieldwork among the Twelver Shi’a denomination of Islam in the Pakistani city of Lahore when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In the short two-month project I was working on, I was engaged in learning more about new digital proselytization networks established in Pakistan. Building on the work of marketplace producers of Shi’a religious media, these networks deployed existing social media platforms such as Facebook Live, YouTube, and WhatsApp to create a regular calendar of blended on- and offline events which closely resonate with existing theologies of mediation and co-presence richly in evidence in Pakistani Shi’a faith.
When I left Pakistan in early March 2020, I was able to continue this research remotely at the same time as expanding my fieldsite to similar digital collectives in parts of the world with large diaspora communities of Urdu-speaking Shi’a of largely Indian, Pakistani, and Tanzanian origin. This included the online activities centred upon the Islamic Shia Ithna-Asheri Jamaat of Toronto (ISIJ) in Canada, which as a physical member community comprises around 5000-7000 people, but whose online activities have a much wider reach. Not only is it the most lavishly adorned mosque in the Greater Toronto area, but its outreach activities include the Jaffari Community Centre, equipped with a gym, banquet hall, and classrooms, and a fully-functioned “Watch Live” facility on their website and YouTube channel, the latter of which also includes archived recordings in both English and Urdu. I had been familiar with the ISIJ for some time through the engaging and charismatic sermons of the ISIJ’s Maulana Syed Asad Jafri. I find Jafri’s English-language majlis-e-aza [mourning gathering] sermons on each of the first ten days of the Islamic month of Muharram, the most engrossing in the language.
During the pandemic I watched as the Jaffari Community Centre established a wide range of resources, under the headings, “Nurture the Soul”, “Contact Resources”, and “Educational Fun”. The first heading featured (at the time of writing) a 19-video series titled “Spiritual Check-up”, led twice-weekly by Maulana Syed Muhammad Rizvi on topics that the community are encouraged to reflect upon. The ISIJ also established a COVID-19 Taskforce which held regular live-streamed panel and Q&A sessions through which viewers could feed back directly through the interactive presentation software Menti.
Among the wider Canadian Shi’a (Twelver, Ismaili, and Bohra) community, Facebook pages centered around religious television networks provided an opportunity for users to post visual material with the active encouragement that they be shared widely. As I observed among digital proselytization networks in Pakistan, the sharing of visual material on one’s feed or among one’s WhatsApp contacts carried with it the possibility of gathering blessings and increasing the potential efficacy of one’s prayers. A small sample of these COVID-19-specific materials shared among Canadian Shi’a are attached with this entry. A number of these written in Urdu and shared widely between Canadian worshippers and family and friends in Pakistan are briefly summarised and translated below.

1. A diagram showing congregational salat [prayers] during social distancing, produced by Al-Maarif Foundation, a Canadian Shi’a Ithna ‘Ashari publisher. The diagram was produced by Maulana Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi after sending a question to Ayatullah Sistani's office in Najaf, Iran, regarding the utility of a diagonal connection in congregational prayer during COVID-19.
2. The split image shows two sides of a morally responsible Shi’a subject. On the left-hand side, a young man is shown wearing a mask outdoors. On the right side he is shown undertaking a pilgrimage, likely to the mausoleum of Imam Hussain in Karbala in Iraq. Below the English text, a caption reads in Urdu: “Wearing a mask keeps azadari and azadars safe. This is your legal, national and moral duty.” The word azadari refers to the doing of ritual mourning for Imam Hussain and the ahl-e-bayt who suffered death or humiliation at the Battle of Karbala in 680AD. The word azadar refers to one who does azadari; a ritual mourner.
3. With a similar guiding message of “Save Azadar, Save Azadari”, this image carries an embedded invitation to share widely. The Urdu transliterated text reads: “For all azadars the use of a mask is compulsory. The management will not allow anyone to participate without a mask.” In its journey between users the image was often accompanied by the hashtags #ResponsibleAzadar #saveazadar #saveazadari
4. Depicting a masked pilgrim wearing a devotional green headband, the image is captioned in Urdu with the words, “Hussain ibn Ali said ‘Any individual who sheds even a single tear for our troubles will be rewarded by Allah with a place in heaven”. Shared widely on social media, the image was often pegged to the hashtags #SaveAzadariSaveAzadar #DefeatCoronaSaveAzadari.
5. The global, inter-faith day of fasting referenced in this image was also referred to by other contributors to the Pandemic Religion archive, particular a number of Mormon contributors.
6. This image, shared widely on social media, was captioned in English with the words, “How is separation, what is called suffering? Ask those people who are deprived of visits”. The use of the English word “visits” likely acts as a translation of the Arabic/Persian/Urdu expression ziyarat, when describes an act of pilgrimage, usually to a shrine or mausoleum.


Mosque and Community Centre


Shi'a Islam

This item was submitted on January 3, 2021 by [anonymous user] using the form “Contribute Your Materials” on the site “Pandemic Religion: A Digital Archive”:

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