Alex Thurston, University of Cincinnati
On April 1, Saudi Arabian authorities requested that “all Muslims around the world” delay making plans for this year’s hajj season, which will begin in late July, until the coronavirus pandemic is under control. The move toward suspending hajj has been building since late February, when the Saudi Arabian government suspended visas for foreigners to make the lesser pilgrimage (‘umrah), which can normally be made at any time of the year. It appears increasingly likely that hajj will be suspended altogether, or will take place in a very limited format. Such a move would be unprecedented in Saudi Arabia’s modern history, but it has precedents from the nineteenth century and before, including for reasons related to public health. Some major Muslims scholars have already said it is permissible to suspend hajj under dire circumstances. Other governments, for example Egypt, have canceled their official hajj delegations for this year. Meanwhile, social media users have been sharing the striking images of the nearly empty sanctuary of Mecca, normally thronged with visitors.
The hajj issue is only one of many challenges now affecting Muslims. Amid COVID-19, social distancing, and lockdowns, Muslim communities confront urgent and painful questions: Should group prayer, and particularly Friday congregational prayer, be suspended? How should funerary rites be performed amid fears of contagion? Who has the authority to make these decisions? And what precedents, if any, does the Islamic tradition offer?
Intra-Muslim debates on these issues have largely paralleled other sectors’ debates about how dramatically to curtail normal life in response to the pandemic. Initially mild and skeptical reactions about the need for upheaval have largely given way to widespread agreement about the desirability of taking drastic steps to “flatten the curve.” Group prayer and pilgrimages are largely now suspended. Many Muslim clerical bodies now also advocate approaching public health questions, including funeral preparation for COVID-19 casualties, with great caution, for example by merely pouring water over the deceased’s body rather than scrubbing it by hand, or by performing tayammum (ritual cleansing with sand or earth) rather than using water. There have, however, been moments of resistance to mosque closures and other measures. Such moments activate pre-existing tensions between certain Muslim constituencies and authorities.
Group prayer has been the key issue and symbol for Muslim communities grappling with COVID-19’s impact. Although Muslims are not obligated to pray their five daily prayers in congregation, well-known prophetic traditions emphasize the spiritual merit of praying with others. The Friday prayer is considered an obligation for healthy adult men who live within reasonable distance of a mosque where the prayer is held. Suspending group prayer disrupts the spiritual and communal lives of Muslims and, to paraphrase one American Muslim scholar, Friday prayer ranks among the “symbols of God” on earth – hence the tremendous initial reluctance of different scholars and ordinary Muslims to temporarily shutter mosques.
In different communities, Muslim scholars and/or governments have sometimes proposed the intermediate step of holding a limited Friday prayer where a small number of worshippers stand apart and use rugs brought from home. Intermediate steps, however, have quickly given way to the indefinite suspension of Friday prayers. By mid-March 2020, videos were circulating capturing muezzins – some of them choking up with tears – replacing the most widespread version of the call to prayer with an alternative version, derived from a prophetic tradition, commanding worshippers to “pray in your houses.” Both visually and aurally, the pandemic is changing the Islamic “sensorium” in nascent ways whose consequences may be felt for some time.
Muslim scholars have dived back into the Islamic tradition seeking precedents for such suspensions. The most commonly cited precedents are prophetic traditions concerning the permissibility of telling Muslims to pray at home amid rain or cold; some scholars have analogized from such traditions to make the case for the permissibility of suspending group prayer amid the pandemic. As the disaster has worsened and the debates over group prayer have become more complex, other scholars (Muslim and non-Muslim) have dug into post-prophetic history to find examples of mosque closures during medieval times. Famous twentieth-century scholars, such as the Saudi Arabian Grand Mufti ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Bin Baz (d. 1999), also recognized the possibility of instructing people to pray at home under certain circumstances.
Amid debates over Islamic responses to COVID-19, pre-existing tensions have come to the fore, especially between Islamists and authorities, and new tensions are being generated. Part of the backdrop is the ongoing or renewed effort by various states to take more control of the religious spheres in their countries. One risk for authorities in general, now elevated amid the pandemic, is that overt state interventions in the religious sphere, and/or overt partnerships between rulers and clerics, will discredit the representatives of “official Islam.”
In different areas, there have been flashes of discontent when authorities order closures of mosques and shrines. For example, in mid-March, Iranian authorities suppressed protests at key sites in Mashhad and Qom; and at least one Senegalese imam was briefly detained after defying a ban on holding Friday prayers in the capital Dakar. So far, states have handled such challenges to their authority with relative ease, particularly when populations are largely receptive to the public health arguments – combined with the religious arguments – for suspending group prayer. But there has been some violent pushback against bans on Friday prayer, for example in the northern Nigerian state of Katsina.
Unsurprisingly, some of the voices most critical of and/or skeptical towards mosque closures have been longtime dissenters, often coming from Islamists’ ranks. The Algerian Islamist Ali Belhadj, who spent much of the period 1991-2006 in detention amid Algeria’s civil war, recently released a video objecting to mosque closures. He asked why the state could not station medical personnel outside mosques to screen congregants before they enter, and he argued – as have others – that “the issue is not [really] about the mosques, based on the fact that the markets are not closed, the soldiers’ barracks are not closed…” Some clerics have implied that when Muslims continue going to markets but not to mosques, it is an issue of weak faith – while figures such as Belhadj have implied that the pandemic reveals authorities’ continued desire to constrict Islam.
Meanwhile, some authorities have been reluctant to close mosques. Taking up the case of Pakistan, Arsalan Khan writes, “The mosque economy depends on alms and is therefore tied to the flow of bodies in the mosque. To demand a closing of mosques can, then, potentially invite the ire of one’s constituency. The Pakistani state draws directly on Islamic authority and thus has become beholden to Islamic actors, particularly to the authority of the ulema.” If state-‘ulama’ relationships place clerics’ credibility on the line in some countries; in others, it is the state’s credibility at risk vis-à-vis the competing demands of different sectors. As of Friday, April 3, Pakistan had a patchwork of regulations and restrictions in place, with some provinces placing de facto bans of Friday prayer and national authorities leaving mosques open but restricting congregation sizes.
In some Muslim-majority countries, the fates of imprisoned Muslim activists have also taken on new significance. Parts of the Saudi Arabian diaspora have launched a social media campaign called “Before Disaster/Qabl al-Karitha” to agitate anew for the release of prisoners including the detained cleric Salman al-‘Awda, strongly associated with the country’s Islamist-tinged Sahwa/Awakening movement. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other Middle Eastern countries have released hundreds of detainees in recent weeks as part of efforts to slow the virus’ spread, but most high-profile prisoners remain in custody. COVID-19 has not yet prompted domestic truces between authorities and Islamists.
There have not been, so far, profound divergences between Sunni and Shi‘i responses. Although the Twelver Shi‘a have a more formalized clerical hierarchy than the Sunni world, many clerics have reached the same conclusions regardless of sectarian affiliations or legal schools. One striking fatwa (Islamic legal opinion) came from the senior Iraqi Shi‘i cleric ‘Ali al-Sistani, who ruled that knowingly spreading COVID-19 could obligate the spreader to pay compensation to those affected; al-Sistani issued this guidance as part of larger recommendations about following state authorities’ public health edicts and about the need for travelers and sick people to obey quarantine protocols. Iraqi authorities have, however, faced defiance from Shi‘i pilgrims heading to holy sites in the country, and pilgrims returning to Iraq from Syria have reportedly tested positive for the virus. From certain Sunni quarters, there were some initial expressions of satisfaction seeing the virus exact a heavy toll from Iran, but the virus’ spread into Sunni communities has turned attention nearer to home. Meanwhile, some Muslims and non-Muslims have been deeply upset with China’s handling of the virus, including because of China’s ongoing maltreatment of its largely Muslim Uighur minority.
Looking ahead, in the near term, key questions include how Muslims will navigate the observance of Ramadan, set to begin around April 23. Ramadan normally brings intensive socializing and group worship, but much of that activity may be prohibited this year. Arguments about group prayer will likely resurface in other forms during the sacred month, especially when it comes to the question of how to observe Eid al-Fitr, a major Muslim holiday involving community prayer following the last day of fasting. In the longer term, if lockdowns stretch into months rather than weeks, profound changes to many Muslims’ daily religious lives are in store, as well as continued debate over who speaks for Islam in the age of COVID-19.
 Aya Batrawy and Jon Gambrell, “Saudi Officials Urge Muslims to Postpone the Hajj Until Coronavirus Pandemic Is Under Control,” Associated Press, 1 April 2020, https://www.yahoo.com/news/saudi-officials-urge-muslims-postpone-102152453.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAACKAaJRh4XYI4rhP3Cxl6pCb1NaXyw48XDNQg5F4SMKKxDzZtvf281_l9LZIgDXgtxezWSM1sd6YXM6wS9EMIEth7-rhfV9eHav_rxx7f7GorKo2ZmtH-XdNkSSjlu-bX5fnOrvBYg_N-zZkgafmgzyRq8CTKFPATKQZ0O9-UHAS.
 “Coronavirus: Saudi Arabia Suspends Entry for Pilgrims Visiting Holy Sites,” BBC News, 27 February 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-51658061.
 “Bi-Sabab al-Waba’ wa-l-Ta‘un..Mata Tawaqqaf al-Hajj ila Bayt Allah al-‘Atiq?” Al Jazeera, 9 March 2020, https://www.aljazeera.net/news/cultureandart/2020/3/9/مواسم-توقف-الحج-لبيت-الله-العتيق.
 “‘Ulama’ al-Muslimin: Yajuz Man‘ al-Hajj wa-l-‘Umrah ‘Mu’aqqatan’ bi-Sabab Kuruna,” Anadolu Agency, 1 March 2020, https://www.aa.com.tr/ar/الحج-والعمرة/علماء-المسلمين-يجوز-منع-الحج-والعمرة-مؤقتا-بسبب-كورونا/1750822.
 “Misr Tulghi al-Hajj ‘ala Nafaqatiha..wa-Nida’ Muhimm min Wizarat al-Awqaf,” Sky News, 23 March 2020, https://www.skynewsarabia.com/middle-east/1330597-مصر-تلغي-الحج-نفقتها-ونداء-مهم-وزارة-الأوقاف.
 Yasir Qadhi, “Prayer and Funeral Issues Pertaining to COVID-19,” Fiqh Council of North America, 24 March 2020, http://fiqhcouncil.org/prayer-and-funeral-issues-pertaining-to-covid-19/.
 Sahih al-Bukhari 619, Sahih Muslim 650.
 Joe Bradford, Twitter, 12 March 2020, https://twitter.com/joebradford/status/1238227219954249729.
 See, for example, Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew, Twitter, 19 March 2020, available at https://twitter.com/ShaikhDadow/status/1240674510015168513.
 On the “sensorium,” see Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).
 See, for example, Sahih Muslim 901.
 See, for example, Hasib Noor, Twitter, 18 March 2020, https://twitter.com/hasibmn/status/1240438255901913089.
 ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Bin Baz, “Al-Halat allati Yushra‘ fiha al-Salah fi al-Rihal,” official website, undated, https://binbaz.org.sa/fatwas/16132/الحالات-التي-يشرع-فيها-الصلاة-في-الرحال.
 Thomas Pierret, Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Ann Wainscott, Bureaucratizing Islam: Morocco and the War on Terror (Cambridge: Cambrige University Press, 2017); and Ahmet Kuru, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
 Nathan Brown “Official Islam in the Arab World: The Contest for Religious Authority,” Carnegie Endowment, 11 May 2017, https://carnegieendowment.org/2017/05/11/official-islam-in-arab-world-contest-for-religious-authority-pub-69929.
 Harriet Sherwood, “Iranian Police Disperse Crowds from Shrines after Covid-19 Closures,” The Guardian, 17 March 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/17/iranian-police-shrines-coronavirus.
 Salia Guèye, “Diourbel : L’imam Faye entendu puis libéré par la police,” Seneweb, 28 March 2020, https://www.seneweb.com/news/Politique/diourbel-l-imam-faye-entendu-puis-libere_n_313046.html.
 Isa Sanusi, Twitter, 28 March 2020, https://twitter.com/sanuxiii/status/1244012977516412929
 “Ali Belhadj exige l’ouverture des mosquées et demande de mettre un médecin ou un infirmier…” YouTube, 21 March 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lnx7I5ZcyDk.
 Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew, Twitter, 20 March 2020, https://twitter.com/ShaikhDadow/status/1240953729085554691.
 Arsalan Khan, “Why Pakistan Isn’t Closing Mosques Despite the Coronavirus Threat,” TRT World, 27 March 2020, https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/why-pakistan-isn-t-closing-mosques-despite-the-coronavirus-threat-34913.
 Kathy Gannon, “Mosques Stay Open in Pakistan Even as Virus Death Toll Rises,” Associated Press, 3 April 2020, https://apnews.com/244fb28793f7180fa056102685ba1d16.
 See, for example, a Twitter post from al-‘Awda’s son ‘Abd Allah on 27 March 2020, https://twitter.com/aalodah/status/1243464997642145792.
 Stephen Kalin, Lisa Barrington, and Aziz El Yaakoubi, “Saudi Arabia Releases 250 Immigration Offenders Amid Coronavirus Outbreak: Statement,” Reuters, 26 March 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-saudi-prisoners/saudi-arabia-releases-250-immigration-offenders-amid-coronavirus-outbreak-statement-idUSKBN21D1J9.
 “Daf‘ al-Diya..Fatwa Jadida li-l-Sistani bi-Sha’n Kuruna,” Al Jazeera, 24 March 2020, https://www.aljazeera.net/news/politics/2020/3/24/دفع-الدية-فتوى-جديدة-للسيستاني-بشأن-فيروس-كورونا.
 “Iraqi Shia Pilgrims Defy Curfews and Coronavirus,” Arab Weekly, 18 March 2020, https://thearabweekly.com/iraqi-shia-pilgrims-defy-curfews-and-coronavirus.
 Ahmed Rasheed, “Iraq Shi‘ite Pilgrims Returning from Syria Test Positive for Coronavirus: Officials,” Reuters,
29 March 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-iraq/iraq-shiite-pilgrims-returning-from-syria-test-positive-for-coronavirus-officials-idUSKBN21G0UE.