Renowned Iranian author and Shi'a theologian, Abdol-Karim Soroush, has slammed the Islamic Republic authorities for not placing the city of Qom under quarantine, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Qom, the capital of Qom Province, located 140 km (87 mi) south of Tehran, is the Twelver-Shi'ites' second-holiest city in Iran.
The city is the largest center for Shiite theology in the world, and a significant destination for pilgrimage, with around twenty million people visiting the city every year, the majority being Iranians but also other Twelver-Shi'ite Muslims from all around the world.
Meanwhile, Qom is the epicenter of the recent outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Iran that has so far killed more than 2,000 across the country.
In an article for an opposition website, SAHAM news, Soroush said on Monday, March 23, "Maddahs (Shi'ite eulogists) have dominated Qom."
Explicitly referring to Maddahs and the clergy as "shopkeepers," Soroush has maintained, the reason for not placing Qom under quarantine, is the fact that no shopkeeper voluntarily shuts down his business.
The Maddahs and cleric-eulogists are also reluctant to shut down their lucrative shops, he has reiterated.
Maddahs are "religious vocalists" who have a central role in Shiite ceremonies. Once under the shadow of Ayatollahs and clergy orators, Maddahs have somehow gained the upper hand during Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's leadership, since 1989.
Many analysts believe that Maddahs were the main force resisting medical experts' advice to quarantine Qom and prevent the spread of coronavirus when the epidemic was starting last month.
Lambasting the proposal, Qom's Friday Prayer Imam, and the caretaker of the 'holy' Shrine in the city, Mohammad Saeidi, roared on February 26, "We consider the shrine as the 'House of Healing.' Its doors should remain open, and people should strongly come and visit it."
However, when the mid-ranking clergy, Saeidi, later relented and accepted a temporary shut-down of the shrine, groups of religious vigilantes led by Maddahs tried to force their way into the mausoleum, on Monday, March 16.
Excited by Maddahs, the protesters who believed the shrines have great healing powers, accused that the government of following "anti-religious advice of the World Health Organization (WHO)," ignoring the "healing power of the holy sites."
Closing religious sites in Iran is unprecedented. Even during the deadly eight-year war with Iraq, they were kept open.
Nevertheless, the novel coronavirus and its related disease, Covid-19, hit the country so hard that the Islamic Republic Minister of Interior, Abdol-Reza Rahmani Fazli, decided to close all the shrines, including the ones in Qom, and Iran's second-largest city, Mashhad.
In the meantime, despite pressure from medical experts, the Islamic Republic authorities have resisted placing the whole city of Qom under quarantine.
Abdolkarim Soroush, who shuttles between Tehran, Cambridge, and College Park, Maryland, believes that Maddahs and their clergy side-kicks are the main force against isolating Qom.
"The authorities gave in to the force of Maddahs and clerics and failed to take the city out of their hands," Soroush argued in his article.
Soroush, who prefers to be described as neo-theologian scholar and philosopher, has presented a plethora of anecdotes in his article about Prophet Mohammad and Shiite Imams visiting physicians and seeking their help for recovery. He has argued that dead holy men cannot hear out or help pilgrims asking for healing.
Blasting such approaches, Soroush has insisted that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus proved that rituals such as writing letters to "holy figures," are purely the outcome of vulgarism.
"The clerics who are leading the masses are vulgar themselves, and suffering from the stupidity of the masses," Soroush has written, adding, "Despite clerics' attempts to present Qom as people's haven, coronavirus has proved otherwise. The city is indeed the epicenter of this deadly disease."
Soroush, 74, was named by TIME magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people in 2005.