Religious leaders across the nation took dramatic measures this week to cancel weekend gatherings while others told their members they will still hold services. Ahead of Friday prayers where Muslims usually prostrate shoulder-to-shoulder on carpets, disagreements emerged among Muslim leaders over how to handle mass gatherings.
Outside Washington, leaders of two major Virginia-based mosques were planning to take the opposite approach from each other for Friday prayers, which are mandatory for Muslim men. Leaders at Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Fairfax County were setting up ways to screen the health of members with thermometers before they entered the mosque, and they would cap attendance at 400. On the other hand, the ADAMS Center, the second-largest mosque in the nation, canceled Friday prayer services and closed locations until further notice.
On Thursday, leaders at Dar Al-Hijrah, which normally sees about 1,100 during Friday prayer services, were planning to hold services because county officials said there were four confirmed cases traced to outside interaction, and they had not yet recommended canceling communal gatherings.
"If we just cancel religious schools and work and everything and people are living in a state of fear, that's not a healthy community," said Saif Rahman, director of public and government affairs.
However, on Friday, the mosque's board changed its plans and decided to close the mosque, noting that late Thursday night, Fairfax County decided to close schools on Friday. "Therefore, out of abundance of caution and because of the lack of clear information, the Board has decided to close the masjid for Friday and all congregational prayers and activities until further notice," the board said in a statement.
For the ADAMS Center, which usually hosts 9,000 people at 10 locations, the decision to close came when Loudoun County announced Thursday its schools would close. Members are encouraged to do daily prayers at home and can listen to religious instruction online, said Rizwan Jaka, elected chair of the board of trustees at ADAMS.
Jaka said mosque leaders checked with interfaith leaders and found that several across traditions were canceling services as well, including Virginia and D.C.-area Episcopal churches, Catholic churches in Washington and several synagogues. As religious leaders traded information with each other about their plans, each leader grappled with challenges, including whether they can help "flatten the curve" and keep the coronavirus from spreading faster, or do they risk abandoning people who might need them?
"Our goal is to have a preventive posture to prevent the spread before it becomes an issue in this area," Jaka said.
The disruption caused by the coronavirus has made religious leaders nervous because the major holidays of Ramadan, Passover and Easter are just weeks away. During Ramadan, Muslims typically go to prayer services every evening after breaking their fast.
Muslim organizations including the Islamic Medical Association of North America and the Islamic Society of North America on Thursday sent a joint statement strongly recommending the Muslim community to take precautions, including suspending Friday prayers.
"Protecting human life is one of the fundamental objectives of Islamic Shari'ah," the statement said. "This concept takes precedence over all other objectives of Islamic faith as life represents the foundation of our existence. Therefore, at times, preservation of human life and human rights is far more significant than continuity of even essential practices of devotion."
Other Virginia mosques that are canceling services are Islamic Center of Northern Virginia and Manassas Mosque. In Washington, Masjid Muhammad mosque will be closed for Friday prayers. Friday prayers that take place at the U.S. Capitol were postponed.
Johari Abdul-Malik, who was an imam at Dar Al-Hijrah and has been a prominent Muslim leader in the Washington area, said that during a conference call with mosques in Maryland on Thursday night, some leaders said they were reducing their services to 250 to meet the governor's recommendations for large gatherings while several were deciding to cancel.
"Those who said they weren't closing were given grief, like get with the program," he said. "They decided it's important that we agree and teach our congregations that we can all still be good Muslims and disagree on the level of precaution."
The Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring will close at 3 p.m. after Friday prayers. Haytham Ibrahim, the operations manager at the center, said they're canceling all events until further notice. "We don't want to take the risk," Ibrahim said.
The 46-year-old center is one of the oldest in the region, and 50 percent of the community is over 60 years old.
Imam Omar Suleiman, one of the most high-profile Muslim leaders in the country, said that mosques across the nation were closing in areas that had high numbers of outbreaks. Suleiman was supposed to be in New Zealand this weekend to commemorate the first anniversary of the mosque shooting that killed 51 people, but his trip was canceled.
Instead on Thursday, he was still deciding whether to cancel the service at his own mosque and was about to hop on a call with Dallas health officials. He said leaders at his own mosque talked about having the service outside, keeping the obligation to five minutes so members could fulfill the obligation and leave. They also talked about rolling out paper on top of the carpet where they pray.
Muslims simply can't transfer their religious obligation online, he said.
"There's significance in the performance of the obligation where you're not in chairs, you're breathing each other's air," he said.
Teddy Amenabar contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to note that Dar Al-Hijrah changed its plans Friday and decided to cancel services.