By Miftah Lawal, Irving Community Member
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on the entire world, including the Muslim community. We have been at it for six months. We pray that Allaah, in His infinite mercy, lifts this test from us within a short time.
During the first two weeks of the outbreak in the US, life was at a standstill. Many people could not do the essential things of life. A lot is still unknown about COVID-19, but scientists now know enough to guide the public on how to safely go about activities of daily living.
This piece is an attempt to draw attention to what may seem obvious, but which many Muslim communities may not have considered – to perform our acts of worship as prescribed, without giving up their essential components. It is hoped that it will challenge the reader and inspire change.
What We Knew
On Mar 19, 2020 the governor of Texas issued a lockdown order – two weeks after the first COVID-19 case was identified. At that time, barely anything was known about the novel virus. Many thought the virus was airborne, so movement was extremely limited. Experts have learned more about it, but research is ongoing.
Understanding the CDC Guidelines
The CDC has issued guidelines for different groups, including businesses, protesters, and faith communities (1). These guidelines should be used for the reason they are intended– guidance. Not understanding how to use them can be problematic, especially for us as a Muslim community. On May 23, 2020 the CDC issued guidelines for faith communities (Masajid, Churches and Synagogues). The statement reads in part: “The CDC offers these suggestions for faith communities to consider and accept, reject or modify consistent with their own faith traditions, in the course of preparing to reconsider in-person gatherings, while still working to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” It is note-worthy that the guidance is neither a revelation nor a mandate to follow hook, line and sinker. There is a constitutional amendment in place that safeguards religious communities in their practices (1). Nonetheless, the guidance is very beneficial.
According to the CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield: “We are not defenseless against COVID-19. Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow down and stop the spread of the virus, particularly when used universally within a community setting….” (2). Masks are recommended especially where social distancing is not possible.
Barber shops now operate by using these guidelines because haircutting is not performed on a customer that is 6 feet away – not that it is not possible. Similarly, Salaah has never been prayed in the manner in which it is presently being done. The observation of Salaah is not being compared with having a haircut; it is just an analogy. Note that hair salons and barber shops are not considered essential businesses in Texas, but they are operating business normally by ensuring that masks are worn by customers. This is how the CDC guidelines should be followed.
Protesters are “strongly encouraged to wear cloth face coverings because their activities involve shouting and chanting or singing. Doing this will keep people as safe as possible” (3). Protesters, for the most part, do not maintain social distance. Therefore, they are strongly advised by the CDC to wear masks to be safe.
Considering the fact that Muslims do not shout, chant or sing during Salaah in the Masjid (at least not normally), the time has come for us to pray the proper way, while being cognizant of the safety of our community per the CDC guidance. The only times that we utter short phases are at the end of surah Fatiha and at the termination of the prayer. Both utterances do not have to be done at the top of one’s voice. If this is true, it means prayer can be done safely by closing the gaps. Praying together without gaps is a prescription from our beloved Prophet . There is presently no scientific evidence to conclude that it is unsafe to pray in congregation by closing gaps in Salaah, if everyone wears a mask and all other necessary precautions are taken. Praying properly is more essential to the soul than having a haircut is to the body.
Understanding the Risks
Per the CDC, “COVID-19 spreads among people who are in close contact (about 6 feet) for a prolonged period of time. The spread happens when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks; and droplets from the person’s mouth or nose are launched into the air and land in the mouths or noses of people nearby.” (4) This is what is known at the moment.
You have probably seen one of the risk charts that outline activities based on perceived risks of COVID-19 infection. ‘Zero percent risk’ does not exist. Religious gatherings of more than 500 people are considered among the highest risks for COVID-19 spread, in the same category as attending a large concert. The activities of a crowd at a concert may be similar to those of people in other religions; but they are certainly different from what Muslims do in Salaah behind an Imaam. Yet, it is very convenient to lump them together.
In Salaah, we do not speak aloud except when we say ameen and at the termination with tasleem. The Imaam always faces the same direction as the congregation, and the Salaah takes about 10 minutes to complete. Worshippers can disperse right afterwards. Please bear in mind that these facts are not necessarily known to those who drew up these guidelines and risk charts.
Why the 6 ft Distance in the Masjid?
The ruling to pray with gaps is entirely based on medical advice, due to the perceived risk of the spread of COVID-19 at the initial stage. In other words, it was based on science. Scientific conclusions are based on available evidence, and they change as new information becomes available (5).
There is no evidence right now to suggest that wearing masks during a no-gap Salaah does not slow or stop the spread of the virus among Muslim congregations.
How to Open for a No-Gap Salaah
Every Muslim community has its own unique circumstances. Each Masjid management team is expected to be familiar with its locality, and do what suits its members. For instance, some cities have ordinances that reduce the number of public building occupancy by 50 percent. Masajid in such cities will reduce the number of people who come to pray Jumu’ah accordingly.
- A Masjid that is equipped with windows can consider keeping them open for cross ventilation – helps reduce the spread of the virus (5)
- Frequency of daily congregational Salaah can be reduced (e.g. Fajr and Isha only)
- Mandate the wearing of face covering; if able management can provide masks and plastic prayer mats for their congregants – particularly for Jumu’ah Salaah which is mandatory upon most Muslims.
- Khutbah can be shortened, and members spaced out while listening to the khutbah. They close their ranks as soon as Salaah starts.
Why is it Important to Close Ranks in Salaah
The Prophet said: “Straighten your rows and stand close to each other.” He [the Prophet] also said: “Join your rows and stand shoulder-to-shoulder. I swear by Whose Hands the soul of Muhammad is, I see the devils penetrating between the rows as does a young goat“. [Al-Nasaa’i and Abu Dawood – graded Hasan]
According to scholars of Hadith, this is sufficient as a threat to every Muslim; and whatever will prevent us from standing shoulder-to-shoulder in Salaah has to be based on current facts.
What if Some Do Not Feel Comfortable?
The Muslim community is quite diverse, so it is expected to have a lot of variations in perceptions. Some people believe the virus is a hoax, while others insist it is so bad that they cannot even check their mails. The former group will insist on attending the Masjid without wearing masks or taking other precautions. While the latter may restrict themselves indoors, and wear masks even in their homes. The vast majority of Muslims believe the virus is real but continue with life within guidelines. That is why they do grocery shopping and visit barber shops, among other necessities of life.
Remember that there are many who did not attend congregational Salaah before COVID-19 for many reasons. Perhaps their reasons had nothing to do with COVID-19 or any other pandemic. There is nothing any community can do about those who are not interested in coming to the Masajid for those reasons. So the focus is on those who want to visit the Masajid to fulfill their religious obligations in a safe environment.
How Do We Ensure Compliance?
There are few suggestions to consider, but local circumstances will dictate the steps that each community can take. The shura committees run the show, so the onus is on them. We have enough creative people who can come up with well-informed suggestions. Some possibilities are:
- Restrict attendance of the vulnerable in the community, but be upfront with them.
- Lead by example: no favoritism, regardless of relationship, tribe or affiliation – it destroys.
- Publicize and carry out measures to enforce well-informed decisions to protect the lives of the congregants.
- Use the services of off-duty police officers as needed because Muslims are very compliant whenever law enforcement is involved. Members will even say ‘jazaka Allahu khaeran’ with smiles to a non-Muslim officer who enforces something they would otherwise not do (like proper parking). It is inexpensive to hire a police officer for a couple of hours per week, and it works greatly.
Muslims are arguably the most educated group in the US, spanning all fields of human endeavor. This is a blessing that we need to be grateful for. We cannot continue to be blind followers of science who merely cut and paste. It is high time we used our expertise to elevate the Muslim community.
Our scholars need Muslim professionals in the fields of infectious diseases, public health, epidemiology, and medical research to provide the correct guidance for our community. Muslims with no expertise in public health and infectious diseases should take a step back when it comes to policies around COVID-19. We need to apply science and make it relevant to our communities
- Miftah is a medical research professional, and former shura council member in multiple communities