On one rainy Friday noon, in the seventh-century Arabian city of Yathrib (now Medina), the Prophet Muhammad ordered his caller-to-prayer (mu'adhdhin) to announce to the city to "pray in your houses," instead of the usual "come to prayer." The city's residents were surprised. The Prophet had once considered burning the houses of those who refused to pray the congregational prayer in the mosque. He was trying to build and nurture a nascent community through communal worship. But the Prophet then explained, "I disliked putting you to task by bringing you out walking in mud and slush."
This tradition has since been brought back, in a time when mosques are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But what would the Prophet have done, if he had access to live streaming and tele-conferencing technologies?
On another Friday, just a couple years ago in Malaysia, I saw my octogenarian grandmother praying in front of the television. It was broadcasting live the Friday prayers being led by her favourite Imam in a mosque in Singapore. And she was following him in prayer. I stopped her, saying that that was impermissible in Islam. My grandmother challenged me, "But this is live. Even if I'm there, I'd still have to rely on the speakers to hear him, and I would be far from him in the ladies' section [of the mosque]. Now I can see him."
But I was not alone in this view. Just a month ago, the Qatar-based International Union for Muslim Scholars prohibited such practices by means of a (live-streamed) fatwa, which was echoed on the very same day by the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America. My grandmother turned off the television nonetheless, complaining about why we should not have brought her to Malaysia to spend the long weekend there. She would often cancel plans if they coincide with the congregational prayers. She goes to the mosques every day for both prayers and religious classes. That is where she meets friends her age and where she socialises daily. Now she is homebound, with my uncle who still has to leave for work during the day, leaving her alone. Without her mosque and community.
The Prophet's once considered thought to burn the houses of those who did not perform Friday congregational prayers reflect the weight and significance of communal worship in Islam. In fact, the act is made obligatory in the Qur'anic chapter "al-Jumu'ah" — which is also the Arabic term for "Friday" — meaning "congregation." The Prophet once also reportedly said, "Friday is for us, Saturday is for the Jews, and Sunday is for the Christians." But beyond Friday, the Prophet has deemed communal worship to be at least "twenty-five times superior" than individual acts of worship. Such emphasis on communal worship has led Muslims to recklessly congregate in huge numbers, even in the midst of a viral outbreak, and to violently protest the closure of mosques. There is even a need for a new fatwa, issued by the leading Sunni Islamic authority in the world, Al-Azhar, banning mass praying outside of closed mosques and places of business.
The challenges of maintaining (and nurturing) a religious community and performing communal worships in this pandemic are not exclusive to Islam. Since lockdowns and quarantines became the new normal, believers of other major religions have struggled as well. God may not need communal worships and congregational prayers, but believers do. COVID-19 has brought feelings of isolation and hopelessness, strings of mental illnesses, losses, grief and a void that religion could and should fill.
Yet, even when epidemiologists (and Bill Gates) are constantly warning about "the next pandemic," religion has not been as proactive or even creative. It is as though plagues are something new to Islam (or any religion), and that somehow humanity has been caught off guard. But consider the fifteenth-century theodicean Arabic treatise, "The Virtue of the Plague," in which the author, Ibn Hajar al-'Asqalānī, recounts how the governor of Cairo, during the plague of 1430, led a large congregation in the mosque for the purpose of prayer to end the plague. This proved to be fatal when the mortality rate jumped from forty-a-day to one-thousand-a day-in less than a month. Almost 600 years later, we have repeated this mistake. Safety measures were too slowly implemented by religious leaders, and mass prayers were still carried out in mosques even when COVID-19 had spread worldwide.
On the other hand, our attempts to foster a sense of community during lockdowns and quarantines have not really evolved with technology. Almost all of the virtual Islamic initiatives that have popped up recently are limited to religious webinars and sermons. And even when the latter is held on a Friday, during what is usually the congregational Friday service, Muslim religious leaders are quick to disclaim that these are not "alternatives," "replacements" or "substitutes" to the real thing.
But why not? Why did I instinctively stop my grandmother — who was ahead of "my time" — from modernising prayers? Why do mainstream ulema prohibit virtual Friday services?
My grandmother is fortunately not alone. I discovered that small pockets of Muslim communities — mainly American and Australian, but also in other parts of the world like Bosnia — have already begun leading Friday congregational prayers over live streams. The most significant of all is in Los Angeles, led by Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Islamic Law Professor at UCLA and one of the world's leading Muslim thinkers and scholars. In fact, his virtual Friday services began in January of 2019 — almost a year before COVID-19. In his first virtual Friday sermon, he explained the same initial instinctive resistance to leading such an essential Islamic worship over live stream, citing fears of "breaking with established precedents." It is this same fear that forms the bases of the fatwas against virtual Friday services.
But the congregational Friday prayer has been breaking with established precedents for more than a millennium. Sermons are now held in languages other than the original scriptural Arabic, the second call to prayer (adhan) was added when Muslims became increasingly urbanised, and Friday services were permitted to be held in several mosques within a single city when Muslims grew in number. All of these, and many other changes, have broken the most established precedent of all — the Prophet's. Yet they are all borne out of necessity and all came with the same initial antipathy.
There is then the issue of a quorum (or jama'ah), not unlike the Jewish minyan. But this number is arguably arbitrary, and jurists and scholars have been debating for centuries over a specific number (ranging from two to one hundred adult male Muslims). Subsequently, the question of a physical sacred space and the gapless intentionality of the congregants within that space has arisen. But intents and intentions are in the hearts of the congregants, and not the gapless prayer mats of mosques, as Abou El Fadl has pointed out. Yet, I do note the ethical concerns of rendering mosques redundant should all congregational prayers be remotely accessible. But that is akin to negating the value of face-to-face meetings in the era of Google Hangouts and Zoom. As the Prophet once said, "All the earth is a mosque."
Challenging the recent fatwas by the MENA-based ulema councils and even his fellow American peers in a recent virtual Friday service, Professor Abou El Fadl argues that these councils do not take into account the virtues and added values of making Friday services remotely accessible. Even beyond this pandemic, there are many Muslims who were already feeling alienated due to challenges derived from their minority and underrepresented statuses. Many women, visibly queer Muslims, and even Muslims in non-Muslim countries all share the same problem — access to communal worship and community. As Abou El Fadl puts it:
In non-Muslim countries, jumu'a is often the only thread holding Muslims to their sense of ummah and tradition. There are so many threats and distractions to the withering away of a Muslim identity, especially for the younger generation. Jumu'a is a lifeline for many Muslims. Because the connection between Muslims and their sense of bonding with the ummah is so tenuous, if that connection is severed for a period of time, it might not return.
The holy month of Ramadan is already here. Customarily, Muslims would head to the mosques to perform iftar (breaking of fast) together, which is then followed by the congregational special taraweeh prayers. For minority Muslims like me, Ramadan's evenings are the time to reconnect deeply with my religion through my community, after a day of juggling between the sacred and profane on my own. It was the only chance to surround ourselves with our religious community who truly understand the modern-day struggles and challenges of being Muslim. But this year will be different. For many of us, we will have to do it alone.
What is stopping the virtualisation of congregational prayers are religious leaders' insistence on premodern precedents — precedents which do not reflect the challenge of our lived reality, and which were articulated by premodern jurists who did not factor in virtual technology. Yet this outdated algorithm is still being used today, even in this period of great isolation where a sense of collectivity is urgently needed.
Yes, there is time for a conscientious and cautionary reticence in a fast-paced world. But what is a community without contact? And what is religion without a religious community? The Prophet Muhammad knew this. He placed great emphasis on communal worship. To hold his community together, especially in times of need, I suspect he would have used whatever tools he had — both physical and virtual.