The Essential Imam: Ahmed Ali Uzir takes on COVID-19

On a Saturday afternoon in mid September, just days before the start of autumn, it finally felt like a pre-COVID day for the religious communities of Brooklyn. A mother pushing a stroller ran after her two kids riding their scooters. Jewish families, on their way to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, filled the streets of a Mapleton neighborhood, while nearby, at the Iqra Masjid Community & Tradition mosque, spirits were also high.

In this small mosque on the corner of Dahill Road and 65th street, not far from Little Pakistan in Midwood, in-person prayers had resumed after months of lockdown. 

Clad in a blue shirt, black pants and dark gray kufi, a short, and rounded cap, Imam Ahmed Ali Uzir, 37, emerged from the mosque to greet his followers on the sidewalk, inviting them in. In the back of the mosque, three workers were drilling, working on a renovation. Inside, men were laying their prayer mats across the floor. 

It was almost 1:15p.m and time to call the “Azan,” the signal that the prayer must begin. 

“Allah Akbar,” sang Maaz Ali, Uzir’s 16-year old son, who is currently being trained by his father. As Maaz recited the prayer, the men knelt on their knees, then bent forward in a long bow. 

New York City is home to more than 768,000 Muslims according to recent estimates by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, representing about 22% of the 3.5 millions of Muslims in America. 
At Iqra Masjid, in-person prayers had become a deep wish during the lockdowns caused by the pandemic.

Last Spring, when the virus hit New York, Imam Uzir became one of the busiest Imams in the city. On March 17, a little over 900 cases of Covid-19 had been reported, according to the city’s health department and just a week later the city had already almost 17,000 cases of Covid-19 and 200 deaths. With this surge in infections, the funeral homes were just as overwhelmed as hospitals. So the Brooklyn imam volunteered to carry out funeral rituals and burials, thinking he would help only for a few weeks until everything got back to normal. Instead, the number of funerals skyrocketed. 

By March 31, the city reported 41,771 cases and 1096 deaths, with 33% of the cases concentrated in Queens, and 27% in Brooklyn. According to a breakdown by ProPublica, the hardest hit areas in the city were concentrated in seven neighborhoods, including Bensonhurst and Mapleton, where Iqra Masjid is located. 

Religious communities in Brooklyn, like everywhere else in the country, quickly changed their long-time rituals to adapt to the pandemic guidelines of social distancing and lockdown. Religious gatherings were canceled and even the communal Friday prayers were called off.

Burying people who had died of Covid-19, also became a source of anxiety, given the uncertainty about how the virus spread and how it could be best contained. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised all employees of funeral homes to only touch bodies if they wore PPE. Uzir remembers that, at the time, even a simple surgical mask was almost impossible to get.

In the Muslim tradition, burial rituals are sacred. Bodies must be washed with water and soap before the burial, as a way to honor the dead and prepare the body for its journey to the other side. The practice can sometimes be performed by the relatives themselves but the most often an Imam carries it out. “We give respect to the body, because the body is going back to almighty God,” explained Imam Uzir. “We are taking them to the final resting place. They should be clean and ready to meet almighty God.” 

Uzir remembers that, from the beginning, funeral workers feared to be infected. He said that many Masjids “were closed, and no other Imams were coming out to help the people who passed away.” The Muslim community was torn between avoiding the risks of infection and their obligation to honor the dead.

Looking for guidance, Azhar Azeez, the president of the Islamic Society of North America, and director of the Islamic Relief USA, put together a task force of Islamic medical experts on religious guidance for COVID-19, and reached out to the Fiqh Council of North America, which brings together scholars and Islamic jurists.

On March 26, the Council agreed that to honor the dead during the Covid-19 pandemic, the preferred method would be to perform the washing, called “ghusl” in Arabic, but only if the person performing it had proper PPE. It ruled that in cases where PPE was not available, simply pouring water over the bodies fully clothed would be acceptable. If this couldn’t be done, “Tayammum,” the act of sprinkling dust over the body while reciting “Bismillahi Rahmani Al-Rahim”, “In the name of God the most gracious, the most merciful,” was allowed. 

It can be practiced in place of ritual washing in cases where there’s no water available. The Fiqh Council also found a precedent  in the Muslim tradition related to another epidemic. It goes back to 639 AD during the epidemic of ‘Amwas in Syria, where thousands of people died and during the Battle of Uhud where a shortage of shroud cloth and manpower, meant the martyrs could not be washed. 

Uzir remembers that, at this point,“nobody was washing the bodies.” He didn’t have any PPE, not even surgical masks, so he followed his colleagues but, unlike many, he didn’t stop performing burials. He used the “Tayammum” method almost exclusively. 

On April 5, a total of 64,955 cases of Covid-19 and 2,472 deaths had been reported in New York City, according to the city’s health department, with some of the highest rates of infection located in Brooklyn, coming second after Queens.

By late April, Uzir was leading up to 20 funeral services a day, all across New York, New Jersey and even Philadelphia.“We had children too,” he said. “Elders, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Africans, anyone.”

The burials were done in the most simple way too, in wooden boxes. Some families could not afford expensive caskets. “In Islam, when a person passes away, we have to try and use simple stuff. The wooden caskets are good enough, religiously. Expensive ones are not right.” 

Cetin Ibrahim Sinmazisik, a friend of Uzir, said he was inspired by the young imam’s dedication to take it upon himself as a God-given duty to help people despite all the restrictions: “He took it straight on, he didn’t flinch, he tackled it. We have a belief in our faith that states that when a Muslim dies, at least one person has to be at his funeral. When we stand in front of God, on the day of judgement, He’s gonna ask us ‘how come there was nobody at this person’s funeral?’ We can say Ahmed was there.” 

Sinmazisik said he felt a sense of abandonment from the other Imams who stopped working. “Do I agree with it? No. Because it’s just like a police officer, who takes an oath to protect the public. Or a doctor who prioritized not to go to the hospital. Now, you took an oath, and now, at the first sign of trouble, you’re gonna run away?”

On April 12, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, wrote on his Facebook page that he was scared that “humanity could lose and selfishness prevails.” One of the most important figures in Sunni Islam, al-Tayyeb criticized the Imams who had refused to bury a female doctor who died of coronavirus. He said it was an unethical human act against religion.

“I’m not gonna judge anybody, it was a scary situation: people were dying, people had responsibilities,” concedes Sinmazisik. “A lot of Imams are older, a lot of them have risks with them, so anybody who backed out or couldn’t do it or wouldn’t do it or were scared do it, maybe their families begged them not to do it, I’m not going to really judge, but I’m just going to appreciate the ones who did it.” 

Imtiaz Ahmed, owner of Al-Rayaan Muslim Funeral Services, said he reached out to many imams during the pandemic and that Uzir was the only one available. They had worked together before to bury unclaimed bodies and Ahmed knew that he would agree to help. “I spoke with Imam and he said ‘Okay, I will do it…’ After two three days, [Uzir] settled down and did a very good job for his community.” Together, they performed 300 burial prayers in three months, against 300 in a normal year.

Uzir, originally hails from Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad, and came to America in 2005, at the age of 20. His religious journey started when he was a teenager. He attended religious school in Pakistan at the age of 15. He said he always felt a calling: “My parents never forced me for religious education or anything. That was my own choice, I chose to be in a religious school, just do some studies.”

When Uzir first arrived in New York in 2005, his first job was at a Dunkin Donuts. “I was fired the second day,” said Uzir. “Nobody wanted to buy from me.” He said his boss asked him “if I could shave my beard and come back tomorrow, and I said ‘I’m sorry I cannot do that.’”

Uzir went on to an auto-part warehouse, dispatching parts. He then worked briefly as a mechanic at JFK airport until he suffered a spinal injury in a crash coming back home. In 2015, he started working as a taxi driver in the Big Apple. 

Taxi drivers have been designated as essential workers by New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission but Uzir says he has never felt as essential as since he started working as an imam. As a taxi driver, he was never obligated to help anybody. “If I wanted, I could stay home.” He remembers the ungrateful passengers: “Nobody likes taxi drivers, nobody gives them respect, they have a hard life.”

As Uzir settled in America, he hung onto his faith, and in 2013, he started to gain experience by volunteering as an Imam at Iqra Masjid mosque in Brooklyn, at a time when it was about to close. 

“Somebody told me that there was a mosque, they don’t have money to pay the Imam, sometimes there is nobody to lead the Friday prayers. So can you please help them? So I said sure, I will be there to help them.” 

He worked at Iqra, plugging up and helping communities pray, covering for other Imams, a job he said he never expected to have. “I never planned my life. I never planned anything, it was just almighty God put me on this role,” he said. Uzir works without financial compensation, just like when he volunteers at precinct 62 as an auxiliary sergeant. But his work as an imam is now “part of his life.” “I am very happy, I feel very lucky. I am not a very rich guy, and I feel I am very blessed.” 

As bodies fell, so did places of worship. With the prohibition of religious gatherings, mosques closed during the pandemic. Now that they’ve reopened, Uzir fears he has seen a drastic drop in participation. Before the restrictions related to Covid, the Friday congregational prayers attracted up to150 people and the mosque used to be filled to maximum capacity. Now, on an average Friday, only 10 to 40 people show up.

For Sinmazisik, Uzir’s friend, the closure of his mosque was one of the most tragic effects of Covid. “If you’re used to praying every day, coming to the mosque every day, performing Friday prayers, which are very important to us, and all of a sudden, you can’t pray together, it becomes a very heavy burden.”

Uzir has been thinking a lot about essential workers and how Imams aren’t necessarily seen as essential by others: “Essential is when something is important to the community, when you’re helping someone in a situation you’re essential. We are always out to help our community. When a fight happens in the community, yesterday there was a fight, I was out there in the community trying to create peace and fix the problem, that’s what Imams should do.” If he’s not there, “who’s going to do it?” he asked.

At every funeral, the Imam shared the families’ gief. Sometimes, it was so hard to bear that he preferred doing the burial alone: “Every burial was sad, because someone’s loved one had passed away. It was easier for me to go by myself and do the burial than the family members coming around, because I have to see their pain. If it’s a father, the children are crying, if it’s a son, the parents are crying…” 

One of the saddest moments for Uzir was the burial of a teenage boy from Philadelphia. “We picked up his body from Philadelphia, his mother and father came, and sister and brother, they all came and they wanted to wash him, too. It wasn’t an easy thing for me to see it. I was in so much pain, that I have to see a mother washing her baby.” 

Uzir recognizes that the pandemic changed him, making himself even more available than before. “I am a different person, like, I always tell people that I am reachable 24/7, I might not respond to you right away, but I will respond to you whenever I see your message. Anyone can reach me. You don’t need an appointment with me.” A few days later, he put on hold everything he had planned after a community member passed away. 

On September 22, Uzir received an award by Brooklyn Borough President Office of the City of New York as a Brooklyn hero for serving his community during COVID-19. Among the nine other heroes, Ahmed, the funeral home owner, was also honored.The following day, Imam Uzir was back at the mosque working all day when his phone rang at 5.30PM. Someone from Precinct 62 was on the line calling on behalf of a family who needed spiritual guidance. He answered and quickly reassured them in Urdu that he would be there soon.

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