THE World Health Organisation (WHO) last week declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. The National Basketball Association (NBA), a men’s professional basketball league in North America, has suspended its season. United States president, Donald Trump, has suspended travel from 26 European countries to the US and declared a state of emergency in America. This devastating pandemic is spreading like a bush fire and affecting lives of millions.
Worldwide, human beings are facing an existential threat posed by the fast-spreading Coronavirus (COVID -19). Doctors are struggling to find medications to treat those who get infected, or to vaccinate others to protect them. The best we can do at this time is to take a few simple steps to slow down its spread. We Muslims need special attention because of our practice of congregational prayers, shaking hands, embracing each other, and kissing to show our affection. These practices can easily enable transmission of common cold, influenza, virus and infection.
It is our moral duty as Muslims that we take all steps necessary to safeguard ourselves and others around us from this terrible disease. One’s personal desire to do obligatory prayers at the masjid or fulfill other religious duties comes second to ensuring the common health of the larger community. Masjids should be protected from bacterial or viral transmissions.
As Muslims, we do believe that nothing happens without Allah’s permission. The Qur’an states, “Say, ‘Nothing will happen to us except what God has ordained for us; He is our Protector.’ In God let the faithful put their trust.” (9:51) Total reliance upon Allah SWT does not exclude precautionary measures such as social isolation, surveillance, prevention, treatment, quarantine and other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-approved measures. The second caliph, Umar (RA), refused to enter Syria which was afflicted by an epidemic. Abu Ubaidah bin al Jarrah’s (RA) contention was mitigated by Umar’s theological response that “we escape from the command of Allah SWT to the command of Allah.” Reliance upon Allah SWT and tying the camel are two sides of the same coin.
Epidemics, as trials and tribulations, have been and will remain part of human life. “We will certainly test you with some fear and hunger, and some loss of possessions and lives and crops. But give good news to the steadfast, those who, when a calamity afflicts them, say, ‘To God we belong, and to Him we will return.’” (2:156-157) viral catastrophes remind us of our creatureliness and sheer dependence upon Allah SWT, the True Master and Controller of the cosmos. They are stark reminders of Allah’s omnipotence, providence and total control over our destinies.
Prophet Muhammad (SAW) gave us specific guidelines to navigate epidemics. Quarantine, social isolation, travel bans, restricted movement, visitations, congregation and socialisation are among the precautionary and preventive measures specified in the Ahadith. The Prophet (SAW) commanded us to escape epidemics such as leprosy as we run away from the lion (Bukhari). Fear for one’s safety is a genuine Islamic reason to forgo some of the fundamental Islamic actions and rituals. The Prophet (SAW) relinquished oath of Islam from a member of Banu Thaqi’f tribe who suffered from Hansen disease. Therefore, devotional acts such as daily and weekly congregational prayers, funeral prayers, Taraweeh prayers and Eid prayers can be stopped temporarily to avoid real, life-threatening, widespread dangers of endemics.
Daily congregational prayers in a mosque are mandatory (Wajib) according to some Fiqhi schools while Sunnah according to others. Jama’ah or congregational prayer at any place such as home or office is accepted as Sharai’ congregation. Even those who consider it mandatory accept fear and sickness as genuine Islamic reason to miss the congregational prayer at the masjid, as the Hadith categorically states. Therefore, fear of viral, life-threatening sickness such as Novel Coronavirus or actual symptoms of such an alarming disease are sufficient enough Sharai’ reasons to temporarily stop coming to the masjid for daily prayers and perform the Jama’ah at home or in a more controlled, less congested environment. Therefore, all community members who are suffering from known symptoms of Coronavirus such as dry coughing, sneezing, wheezing, upper respiratory problems or fever must stop coming to the masjid until fully cured. The Prophet (SAW) commanded us not to harm others and not to be harmed by others. It is an established Islamic axiom that “prevention is more significant than treatment”.
The Friday prayer is far more important than any other congregational prayer as it is established by a pinpointed Qura’nic text. To overturn a categorical Qur’anic text, precise Ahadith and Ijma’a of Ummah (Consensus) requires different sorts of compelling evidence both religious and medical such as umum al-balwa (widespread hardship, credible life-threatening risks and proven local pandemic). Credible local risk of high morbidity and mortality are essential to forfeiting the Friday prayers on communal level. Individuals can miss the Juma’ prayers due to far lesser reasons such as travel, sickness, fear of personal safety, physical torture, property damage or familial urgencies. Therefore, real fear of personal safety, viral transmission, health scares etc. are sufficient enough Sharai’ reasons to take the individual concession of turning Juma’ into Dhuhr prayer. It is a permission given by the authentic Hadith to individual Muslims stricken by fear or sickness. Therefore, small children, elderly, women and those with symptoms of cold, flu, influenza or infection are requested to stop coming to the masjid both for daily prayers and Juma’. This is their Islamic duty to protect themselves and others from transmission of disease, especially in these trying times. The healthy Muslims can populate the masjid in reduced numbers and for limited periods of time. The masjid can be completely closed to all in case of state emergency when the schools, offices and shopping malls are closed. Protecting human life is one of the fundamental objectives of Islamic Shari’ah. It takes precedence over all other objectives of Islamic faith as life is the foundation of everything else. Therefore, preservation of human life and human rights at times is far more significant than continuity of even essential acts of devotions.
Based upon the above, the Fiqh Council of North America is recommending the following:
1: Elderly adults, women, children and individuals with symptoms of disease shall stop coming to mosques for daily as well as Friday prayers. Instead of Juma’ they shall do Dhuhr prayer at home.
2: People with serious health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart problems and blood pressure shall also stay home and not attend the daily or Friday prayers. Genuine fear of contracting virus is a valid Sharai’ reason to miss the congregational prayer.
3: Mosques shall follow the guidelines of local authorities and reduce traffic/gatherings at mosques. All non-essential programs shall be cancelled.
4: Friday crowd shall be curtailed, controlled and dispersed soon after the Fard prayer. Khutbahs and prayers shall be shortened. People shall do their Sunnah and Nafl (supplementary prayers) at home. Combining Dhuhr with Asr and Maghrib with Isha is permissible to limit crowds during these trying times.
5: Mosques can be closed for daily or weekly congregational prayers based upon local authorities’ advisory. The closure will depend upon local mosque leadership’s assessment of credible threat of pandemic. Such a drastic step is permissible to avert dangers of widespread transmission. Historically speaking, the mosques were closed and Juma’ was suspended due to pandemic of A’mawa’s in Syria during the time of second caliph Umar (RA), during Crusades and on many other occasions when the conditions were not congenial.
6: Mosques shall allow and organize Friday prayers for those who intend to perform the Friday congregational obligation.
May Allah SWT protect us all and accept us all.
Dr Ali Shah is the executive director of Fiqh Council of North America.