In many religious traditions, there are two relational axes along which our lives are understood. The first is the vertical, between the created and the Creator; the second is the horizontal, among the created and with the rest of creation. Islam has those two aspects as well, with the latter relationship always being viewed through the lens of the former. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a marked effect on the latter relationship, changing the nature of ritual worship in many ways. And at the same time, Muslim sages and scholars have reminded their flocks that the former relationship, between the Divine and those who beseech Him, remains constant and consistent — even if takes different forms in this difficult time.
Over the past week, Muslims around the world have pleaded with Islamic scholars to weigh in on the pandemic to give advice and guidance. The coronavirus directly affects congregational worship in several significant ways due to the “social distancing” advice — not least the ability to attend lessons and classes (because Islam is fundamentally a religion of learning), and funeral arrangements (because of the concern of spreading infection from people who pass away from complications arising from the virus).
It might seem simple to some that congregational worship should be done away with in situations of emergency. But it isn’t quite that easy. There are prayers to be held in mosques that are considered religiously compulsory for many in the community; there are other prayers that are strongly recommended to be performed in a congregation; and many of the pious will go to great efforts to ensure they meet those obligations and recommendations.
As an academic and scholar in Islamic studies, I’ve participated in many of the debates concerning the obligations attendant on Muslims in times of crisis — within my native Britain, in Europe and the United States, in South Africa and South East Asia. The discussions of which I’ve been a part were not, and could not simply be, a matter of identifying the legal prescriptions in the Islamic tradition. Instead, the vast majority of scholars with whom I’ve interacted or whom I’ve observed — from the Higher Council of Azhar Scholars in Egypt, to the British Board of Scholars and Imams in the UK, to the Azzawia Trust in South Africa — were unequivocal that the obligations or recommendations of congregational prayers, including the Friday prayer, ought to be suspended in the face of public health concerns.