Every aspect of modern life as we know it is being hit as sweeping measures are rolled out around the globe in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus. As billions of people grapple with a pandemic for which scientists and world leaders have few answers, the dread over the virus has driven the globe’s faithful even closer to religion and ritual in their search for solace. But health experts worldwide have advised against mass gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19 and Muslims are adjusting the way they worship to halt transmissions of the disease.
Across the Muslim world the pandemic is altering ancient standardised rituals. The same undulating Arabic hymn, called the adhan, has echoed across cities and towns all over the globe calling the faithful to perform their five daily prayers in times war or peace, prosperity or famine for more than 14 centuries. But on March 13 a muezzin (the person who calls to prayer) in Kuwait, his voice breaking with emotion, made a small tweak. He changed the words hayya 'ala as-salah (come to prayer) to as-salatu fi buyutikum (pray in your homes).
The coronavirus has stopped communal Muslim prayers for the first time in many mosques. A religious gathering in Malaysia late last month attended by some 16,000 people generated about 670 coronavirus cases across the region, including 576 in Malaysia, 61 in Brunei and 22 in Cambodia. At least 13 Indonesians were also infected. The country is still reeling from the explosion of cases at the religious gathering and weekly prayers have been called off.
In Egypt, the most populous Arab country, religious authorities have ordered a two-week closure of mosques and churches and banned mass communal prayers. The government in Tunisia – where some worshippers have been praying in front of shuttered mosque doors – said messages from imams will be broadcast to reinforce essential health protections. The Blue Mosque of Istanbul, with its slender minarets and cascade of domes, Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock under its gilded roof and bright blue tile façade, and the huge Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca with its 200m ornate square minaret all shut their doors.
Although an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad is said to have urged worshippers to stay at home during bad weather such as strong winds and rain, this is the first time in modern history that prayers were cancelled.
The scene is most salient and sobering in Mecca, Islam’s holiest sanctuary. The usually crowded courtyard around the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque, towards which all Muslims pray, is silent and deserted of worshippers. Saudi Arabia has also banned overseas visitors since the end of February, meaning those wishing to undertake pilgrimage to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina are unable to do so. About 12 million people usually visit Mecca each year, mostly for the hajj, the pilgrimage that all adult Muslims have to perform at least once every lifetime, which this year begins on 28 July. However, thousands wishing to perform umrah, a pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time of year, have been affected by the ban. There are fears that the annual hajj pilgrimage will be cancelled but the Kingdom has not yet announced their decision. Cancelling would hit hard, not just spiritually but financially too. Hajj attracts millions of people and contributes more than $10bn to the Saudi economy. Pilgrimages are the kingdom’s largest source of revenue after oil.
However, cancelling Hajj is not without precedent. It has happened many times before in Islamic history due to disease and conflict among other reasons. Earlier this month, the Saudi King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives released a statement noting 40 moments in history where Hajj was either cancelled or the number of pilgrims was extremely low.
People gather outside the closed doors of the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Iran's holy city of Qom on March 16 2020. (Getty)
For the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, Ramadan is likely to present extra challenges. During the holy month, which starts in late-April and will last for 29 or 30 days, Muslims fast from dawn until sundown, but those with severe sickness, including flu, are permitted to break their fast. During Ramadan, mosque attendances usually peak, with people crammed against one another.
But in some places believers have defied medical advice to join together in worship, whatever the risks.
In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world, many worshipers in the capital accepted advice to avoid religious gatherings and prayed at home. In the teeming capital of Jakarta, the governor has suspended all religious activities for two weeks while President Joko Widodo has spoken of a “need to evaluate religious events that involve many people”. The country's highest religious authority, the Indonesian Ulema Council, has also issued a nationwide ruling allowing Muslims to temporarily skip Friday prayers in regions where the virus has spread "uncontrollably."
But elsewhere in the country people ignored the risk of coronavirus and crowded into their mosques. A rally of Muslim pilgrims in South Sulawesi province was cancelled on Thursday, but only after thousands had already attended. Some Muslims trusted in their faith to keep them safe. “Allah is protecting those who abide by their obligations,” Aswin Jusar, 76, in the town of Depok, south of Jakarta, told Reuters, as he prepared to attend Friday prayers as usual despite a call from the mayor for religious activities to be suspended. At a mosque in Tangerang, west of Jakarta, one worshipper said he was worried about the virus but still went out for Friday prayers because authorities had not imposed a ban, Reuters reported.
Iran, home to one of the world’s worst outbreaks, is also home to dozens of major Shiite Muslim shrines, which remained open to crowds for weeks even as the coronavirus left the country shell shocked. The country’s president Hassan Rouhani had refused calls to quarantine the holy city of Qom, Iran’s first hot spot. He wanted to shutter some shrines like those that draw pilgrims to Qom, but hard-line clerics balked. When the authorities finally heeded health officials’ pleas and shuttered two popular shrines where crowds mingled, prayed and touched the walls and tombs for blessing in the cities of Mashhad and Qom on March 16, hundreds of men, apparently organized by hard-line factions in seminaries, stormed both shrines, breaking open the doors and overrunning security forces who pleaded with them not to enter, shouting, “The president is damn wrong to do that!” videos on social media showed.