In the midst of changing government policy as it deals with Covid 19, the United Kingdom has found itself in the midst of confusion as instructions has changed and ranged from continuing as normal, social distancing, keeping schools open, then closing them and the enforcement of the ban on bars and restaurants. While a number of establishments, workplaces and educational institutions took matters in their own hands in closing down their spaces, the Muslim community has faced its own internal debate on how to respond to the pandemic.
This may be an especially pertinent question for the Muslim community. Shadim Hussain in The Independent has claimed that up to a quarter of British people who have died from the disease have been elderly Muslims. While the statistic may not be confirmed by official statistics, the vulnerability of the elderly and vulnerable within the Muslim community he refers still stands, with for example, many Muslims living with three generations under one roof, increasing the risk an elderly relative will catch the virus from another family member, even if they themselves are attempting to self-isolate.
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the national umbrella body with over 500 affiliated national, regional and local organisations, called on Thursday 19th March for the suspension of all congregational activities at mosques and Islamic centres in the United Kingdom. This step marks a change from a previous statement, in line with the British government’s own developing policy, on Tuesday 16th March, when it released general advice on following the best hygiene practices, and advising only worshippers who have flu-like symptoms, have been in contact with those who have a confirmed case of the virus, or have returned from the worst-hit countries, to refrain from attending the mosque.
This most recent unprecedented step follows public health advice by the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisers, of stopping “non-essential contact” with others and avoiding gatherings, “big or small.” The Muslim council of Britain, recognising the centrality of Mosques and communal activities to Muslim identity, and in particular, the compulsory Midday Friday communal prayers (Jummah), says this decision has not been “taken lightly,” with the MCB taking into account a number of views, including not only the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisers but many Muslim scholars and their boards, who belief that the individual obligation to perform Friday prayers in mosque congregation is temporarily lifted in these circumstances.
The MCB also refers to the British Islamic Medical Association, which represents Muslim medical and health professionals, who have said it is “unsafe and harmful to continue business as usual, or even with significant adjustments”.
Yet is is exactly this centrality of mosques that the statement refers to that has meant that this recommendation has not been taken on unanimously. Rather, an internal debate has ensued which has continued, despite stricter precautions being taken by both the government and indeed a number of mosques and Muslim bodies, and has meant an insistence by other mosque committee and scholars that mosques under their authority remain open.
A reluctance to close
The resistance to close has been based on an opinion prevalent among some (not all, or even the majority, as this thread clarifies) deobandi muftis in England of the Hanafi school of thought, as well as salafi support. Fatwas (rulings on an Islamic point of law) have been published to explain this position. For example, Maulana Yusuf Shabbir of the Islamic Portal, also endorsed by Mufti Shabbir Ahmad (Darul Ulum Blackburn) and Mufti Muhammad Tahir (Darul Ulum Bury) insists mosques remain upon “until and unless the government places a total restriction on religious places”. While only those diagnosed or with symptoms of Coronavirus, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions should stay at home.
The fatwa lays out 10 points to support this. These cover the importance of Mosques and communal prayers, which hadiths show continued during war time and epidemics, that the protection of faith supersedes the protection of one’s self, the limited duration of these prayers (10-15 minutes), a spiritual argument that collective acts of worship is part of the solution rather than the problem, and marking a distinction between the individual decision not to attend a mosque and the collective decision to close the mosque, implying that the former is more acceptable and of the same effect. It also points out that (at the time the fatwa was released), schools had not been ordered to close, and pointing out that Muslims continued to attend social functions and other public spaces, spending more time there than they would at a communal prayer. In light of this, the authors argue that the benefits of keeping mosques open outweigh the risks at this stage. It is this fatwa that has impacted the decisions of Lancashire Council of Mosques, and other Deobandi-affiliated mosques to remain open.
Another fatwa, by Mufti Zameelur Rahman (Darul Ma’arif in Birmingham), argues that while sickness may be a valid excuse for men not to attend communal or Friday prayers, the level of sickness must be that in which it would be “intensely difficult” or near impossible. Symptoms that are less severe, or those who simply have a fear of being infected by a sickness, do not have a valid excuse, because of the reality that it is always possible to be infected or transmit an illness. A third fatwa, released by Wifaqul-Ulama in London, also called for the continuation of obligatory prayers at the mosque, unless ordered to by a public authority, with modifications including shortening the length of prayers, maintaining distance before and after, and have multiple Friday congregational prayers to balance the numbers of those attending. This insistence is based on the importance of Mosques to the faith, with the Adhān (call to prayer) and congregational Salāh as “special salient features and manifestations of Islām.”
These fatwas have not been without significant and strong challenge. Sheikh Muhammed Nizami, issued a forceful attack on the fatwa by Maulana Yusuf Shabbir and his 10-point argument, describing it as “dangerous”. He argues that the idea that mosques will keep out physical harms is predicated on “folk religion”, or a superstitious way of thinking about the religion; not grounded in reality. He questions the devotion to the buildings themselves given that, according to a famous hadith, the earth itself is a mosque (indicating that worship and a connection to God can be found everywhere). Therefore, a closure of some mosques does not mean a loss of devotion or commitment to the religion. He also argues that the emphasis placed on the importance of attending mosques is related to normal times, pointing out that even in time of heavy rain, the Prophet would tell people to pray at home. He argues that while “protecting the faith” is a maqasid (objectives of) shariah, praying in a mosque is not and has never been placed under this, with no jurist ever advising people to place their lives in danger in order to join a communal prayer. To the argument that mosques remained open in the past in times of war and epidemics, Nizami explains that rather than seeking an imprint of the past, a common pitfall, it is the reasons and motives that should be analysed. At that time social distancing within the area was purposeless, whereas in current times, being in the early stages of transmission, stopping the spread of the virus within an area is still a possible means of dealing with the virus.
British Muslim academic and writer Yahya Birt describes the decision of some mosques, including East London Mosque, Manchester Central Mosque, Victoria Park and the Lancashire of Mosque, to remain open as a “scandalous dereliction of duty”, and a false argument that congregational prayer is more important than preserving life. Birt also reminds mosques communities that they would be legally liable for the health and safety of those who use their premises; after the health secretary clarified that faith communities should also avoid large social gatherings.
Salman Younes, teacher at Seekers Guidance, warns against deference to senior ulema who may not have an understanding of the infection, the broad communal consequence, and who have taken into account the advice of experts. He refers to a powerful comment by Mufti Taha Karaan of South Africa, who states that if “we have erred [in closing down the mosques], the worse consequence will be that our community would have missed Jumu’ah and jama’ah for a limited period. But if the opposite position is in fact the wrong one, the consequences that follow will be the type for which no amount of apologising can ever compensate. What is at stake is human life..’
The uncertainty and lack of knowledge of the virus may indeed have lead to a reluctance to prohibit congregational prayer, and close down what is at the heart of Muslim social identity, particularly in immigrant contexts. But the frightening development of the virus across the world and the UK, means that many mosque committees and scholars are also deeply aware, like the Mufti in South Africa, that in making a choice of whether to remain open, one consequence is not quite like the other.