When most of the countries in the world seem to have entered a post-COVID-19 phase and are hinting at making a hard choice between health and wealth due to fear of economic slowdown, the Islamic world is confronted with the juridical and theological dilemma of enforcing social distancing during the holy month of Ramazan, which attracts large gatherings for communal rituals, especially for the late night Taraweeh prayer.This particular religious congregation is not only responsible for the gathering but also for the most indispensable post-Iftar refreshment after a day-long hunger and thirst. In brief many believe that, social distancing or isolation is antithetical to the rhythm or the spirit of the Ramazan.
Due to a millennium of theological and jurisprudential dominance within Islam and an age-old belief in the spirituality of the month of Ramazan, both States and religious institutions, including local clerics, are finding it difficult to convince the people about the necessity of social distancing. In their efforts to enforce social distancing, Muslim states are not only enacting new laws but more importantly seeking the assistance of State Islamic institutions and local clerics to convince and persuade people to adhere to State guidelines and avoid religious congregations.
Islamic Authority, Arab States and Ramazan under COVID-19:
In this holy month of prayer and fasting, the biggest challenge for authorities has been to dissuade people from thronging to the mosques for prayer. This Taraweeh exercise attracts a multitude of people to the mosque, which will rapidly spread the coronavirus infection. As far as Taraweeh is concerned, there has never been a consensus on its religious status. Sunni jurists differed on the matter and Imam Al-Shafii (767-820), the founder of one of the four Sunni jurisprudential schools called for performing this prayer at home only.The Shiite Fatimid rulers in Egypt did not believe in the Islamic origin of the Taraweeh and for them it was an innovation of the second Caliphate Omar-a contemptuous figure for Shiites. This historical lack of consensus has come into sharp focus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Arab States in North Africa:
Egypt has asked its most prestigious religious institution, Al-Azhar University to convince people against the collective Taraweeh prayer and thronging the mosques particularly in Ramazan. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad El-Tayyeb urged people to perform Taraweeh at home along with their family members. The Minister of Endowment and Religious Affairs, Mohammad Mukhtar, warned against Friday prayers even at home or on the roads or in parks. Later both the Azhar and Ministry of Endowment worked together to assign state actions more sanctity and legitimacy. The Darul-Ifta (House of Islamic verdict) also tweeted that any gathering is religiously forbidden and detestable to the face of God.. The same Darul-Ifta declared that violators of State guidelines were not less than religious transgressors and that there was no harm in using alcohol based sanitisers.
Over the years, Morocco has taken many steps to control religious institutions but continues to draw its legitimacy at least partially from Islam, as its ruler is known as Commander of the Faithful. A wide spectrum of religious groups in Morocco supported all government actions regarding COVID-19. The Supreme Council of Ulema urged Muslims to perform Taraweeh at home and respect the lockdown imposed by the State. The Council saw no harm in individual performance of Taraweeh at home due to closure of mosques. The Council also said that Commander of the Faithful was with us in protecting our lives first and our religion later. The Government sought the support of religious groups to give religious backing to its lockdown instructions. Channel 6, a religious TV network, has constantly broadcasted programs under the hash tag, ‘stay-at-home’ and various videos by the Salafist preachers are calling for staying at home and complying with government orders.
The story in Tunisia is different with Islamists part of the coalition Government. Rachid Ghannauchi, the architect of the biggest Islamic movement in Tunisia,‘En-Nehda’ is the Speaker of the Tunisian Parliament. Earlier there were fears that banning Taraweeh or Friday prayers could ignite an outcry within the government but until now, no such thing has happened and the state authority is collectively enforcing measures to fight COVID-19. State religious institutions like the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Grand Mufti of Tunisia, Imam Osman Battikh and officials of Zitouna University have been co-opted in the mission of mobilising the people against mass gatherings. The Religious Affairs Minister of Tunisia, Ahmad Azoom said that the Taraweeh is not a mandatory exercise and the whole of the Arab Islamic world and Jurisprudential schools have agreed on it.Some who defied the laws were heard chanting slogans on the street and seeking God’s intervention to cure the COVID-19.To keep the spirit of the month alive, several religious programs being aired on TV and social media are full of religious teachings.
In Libya, both the Tripoli-based and eastern Government-backed religious authorities are inspired by Saudi Salafist trends known as Madkhalism. Both factions are trying to enlist the backing of Saudi clerics to justify the state ban on public Taraweeh. However, a local cleric from the western region, Tariqe Durman rejected the Government decision of banning prayer in mosques and others resented the Salafist dominance in the government. The Grand Mufti of Libya, Sadeq al-Ghariani himself is against closure of mosques due to his own anti-Salafist belief and for him all these bans would distract people from the “pandemic of Colonel Haftar project”.
Ramazan in Gulf Cooperation Council Countries:
As far as the GCC States are concerned, the decision to suspend Taraweeh in the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina surprised many. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz had announced one week before the onset of Ramazan that Taraweeh should be held at home. Sheikh Abdul Aziz said that even the Prophet used to perform Taraweeh at home and further that the Taraweeh prayer is not obligatory. The head of Mecca and Medina Mosque affairs Abdur Rahman Al-Sudais said that Taraweeh would be held only for Imams and cleaning staff . A campaign by the Department of Virtue ‘You are better at Home’” has been launched and the Council of Senior Scholars and the World Muslim League have launched a similar campaign.
Other GCC countries too have decided to shut down mosques and ban evening prayers, except Qatar and Bahrain, which have decided to open their central mosques- Imam Mohammad Ibn Al-during Ramazan. After almost five weeks on the first day of Ramazan, the Imam Mohammad Ibn Al-Wahab mosque in Qatar opened and 40 persons performed the Friday prayer and that number was allowed because of the Hanbali School, which is followed by the Qataris, does not allow the Friday prayer with less than forty persons.The decision to open the Al-Fatih mosque in Bahrain was taken with the advice of Higher Council of Islamic Affairs- an advisory body of the Ministry of Religious Affairs but numbers are to be kept low. On its part, the Kuwaiti government decided to modify the general text of the usual call for prayer and added a line which reads: “Oh! People perform your prayer at home”.
UAE has not only banned the Taraweeh and Friday prayers but the Jurisprudential Council of UAE has also exempted the frontline medical staff working in the field of COVID-19 from observing fast. A senior member of the government, Al-Naimi justified the ban on Taraweeh saying that social distancing in mosques would almost be impossibleand said that everyone wants the mosques to open but the decision has been taken in the light of Islamic canon, past juridical writings and views of Islamic jurists.
Similarly Turkey, a country which over the years has been accused of drifting away from decades of Kamalist state secularism, marginalising Islam in public sphere, and moving towards Islamisation of both the society and the state, had announced much before Ramazan that mosques would remain closed for the collective Taraweeh and other prayers including that on Fridays. Ali Erbas, head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanat) said that Taraweeh prayer can be performed individually at home.Diyanet, which controls the affairs of 89,000 mosques in the country, has also been criticised for not closing the mosques timely. Like many conservatives who attribute the disease to the sin of Muslim, Ali Erbas blamed prevalent homosexuality for the spread of virus in the world and the government defended him using the top trending hash tag, “Ali Erbas is not alone”.
South and South East Asia: Interplay among Clergy, States and the People:
Pakistan, claiming often to practice Islam as a state ideology which surprisingly did not follow the policy of Arab and GCC governments this time around. First, the federal Government of Pakistan decided not to impose a complete lockdown and clergy too warned against going too far on shutting mosques or banning prayers, particularly in Ramazan. The Ulema in Pakistan have always been very influential and gradually their influence has transcended socio-religious realms. The first testimony to their sway in the political sphere of Pakistan was the anti-Ahmadiya movement in early 1950s and, during the rule of Zia-ul-Haq and the Afghan war, the Ulema became an indispensible part of the state. They have always tried to control state institutions either in the name of protecting Islam or defending the ideological character of Pakistan.
Before the onset of Ramazan, the Ulema were in full support of the ban on religious congregation and on March 17, 2020 All Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) issued a joint fatwa to postpone all religious gatherings across the country.But the Grand Mufti of Pakistan, Taqi Usmani and former judge of Federal Sharia Court said on April 14 as a preemptive note of caution, that all mosques should remain open in Ramazan. Before Ramazan, some Imams were also arrested for not following e state guidelines and numerous tweets were full with tags like “O people, the mosque is calling you”. Many said that they cannot close mosques and in an Islamic country, this was not possible under any circumstances. The Tableegh Jamaat went ahead with its annual religious congregation despite the government prohibition.
For both the state and religious authorities, the real challenge came after Ramazan began. Unlike other Muslim States, Pakistan did not ban the prayer congregations. Prime Minister, Imran Khan unhesitantly stated that Pakistan is a free nation and so we will continue to keep the mosque open. The Ulema succeeded in influencing the Government on this line despite opposition from within and outside the government. Rahman Malik and Shehbaz Sherif, the Chairman of Standing Committee on Interior, and President of Muslim League (N) respectively, urged people to stay at home during Ramazan. The Ulema, had however made its intention clear before Ramazan that Taraweeh and Friday prayer could only be held in mosques. Pir Azizur Rahman Hazaravi, President of Jamia Darul Uloom Zakaria in Islamabad and Patron of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (F) had said that shutting down Friday or Taraweeh prayer and closure of mosques was unacceptable. He sought more attendance in the mosques to remove the virus by seeking forgiveness of Almighty.A group of Ulema also argued that thronging the shops was more dangerous than thronging of the mosques. Given the mood of the clergy and the streets, the President of Pakistan Arif Alvi on April 20, 2020 hammered out a 20-point Action Plan/conditions with a group of clerics for allowing the Taraweeh in the mosques. But the plan required a complete social distancing within mosques and also that people should be encouraged to perform Taraweeh at home.
The government was soon expressing its displeasure over non-compliance with the action plan and said that in case of an exponential rise in cases of infection the decision would be reviewd.  The religious affairs minister, Noorul Haq Qadri said that responsibility lay on the Ulema to implement the 20-point Action Plan. There was no consensus between the provincial governments and the federal government over opening of the mosques. The chief minister of Sindh, Murad Ali Shah decided to limit the number at mosques to 3-5 persons and ordered that rest should perform the prayer at home.
Many have criticised the way the government had succumbed to the religious authority. Najam Sethia a well known media figure in Pakistan was critical of allowing Taraweeh in the mosques and said that people cannot be left to their will and every wish of the people cannot be fulfilled. He asked whether the Egyptians or Saudis are lesser Muslims and Pakistanis are the only true Muslims. Similarly many doctors criticised the government move and questioned why people should be guided by the Ulema on something which is completely alien to them.
The religious and theological conservatism of the clergy class too has been questioned. For example, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, one of the most enlightened and rational voices on Islam and a self-exiled Islamic scholar from Pakistan who lives in Malaysia, is very critical of the government’s decision on Taraweeh. First, he questioned the mandatory nature of the Taraweeh itself and for him it was only an innovation. During an interview on the current debate on Taraweeh in Pakistan, he said that if an act or ritual poses a danger to life, it needs to be modified in the larger public interest. He also expressed the view that the origin, evolution and the impact of COVID-19 is not for the religious scholars to discuss but was the domain of medical science. He said that banning of collective prayers in other countries is the fulfillment of the spirit of Islam. Referring to a Hadith, he said, if a simple rain can permit people to pray at home, then why not for COVID-19.
In muslim majority Bangladesh the government faces a similar dilemma in implementing social distancing during the month of Ramazan. On one occasion in March there was some panic after more than 25,000 people came out for mass prayers as a remedy for COVID-19. On social media, many criticised this gathering and that it was not possible that such a huge gathering could be held without the knowledge of authority .Again on April 18th, many Islamic leaders defied the nationwide lockdown and attended the funeral of a well known preacher. All these were indicative of the challenges ahead for the government. The government enacted a measure permitting only 12 persons for Taraweeh at a time in all 300,000 mosques across the country. The clerics were not receptive to this restriction and one of the senior members of hard line Islamist group Hifazat-e-Islam, Mujibur Rahman Hamidi said that rationing and quota system in religion or worship was not acceptable. In Ramazan, many local authorities due to mounting pressure have announced that people would be free to go to mosques without any restrictions. Before Ramazan, the chief of Hifazat-e-Islam, Shah Ahmad Shafi had supported the government decision of allowing only ten devotees for Friday prayer, but the government is finding it difficult to implement the same rules during Ramazan.
Indonesia and Malaysia:
The major challenge for the state of Indonesia with a population of 270 million would be to stop the annual exodus (Mudlik) when people travel to their ancestral homes to spend the last days of Ramazan and celebrate the festival of Eid with their family members. Though President Joko Widodo has already decided to ban air and sea journey across all 17,000 archipelagos but the restriction is likely to receive a large-scale backlash. Last year around 20 million travelled from one place to other. Indonesia has not opted for a national lockdown and has a decentralised political structure with each of its 33 provinces having major autonomy. President Widodo in March had called people to study and pray at home and later asked local governments to adopt special measures to implement social distancing. The two most prominent religious organisations, Muhammadiya and Nahdatul Ulema have urged people to perform Taraweeh at home and termed this prayer non-obligatory. Both issued Fatwas for refraining from mass prayers and Muhammdaiya promoted a hash tag Ramazandi Rumah (Ramazan at home). In March, the Indonesian Ulema Council had issued a Fatwa against congregation where cases of COVID-19 were in abundance. Jakarta has imposed social distancing in Taraweeh but people are flaunting laws as there is no formal injunction limiting the number of people to gather at a particular time and place. Home Minister Tito Karnavian said that religion is a sensitive matter and it is very challenging and they are careful in making policies related to the religion.
Many provinces have refused to abide by the central guidelines. One such province is Ache, known as a Veranda of Mecca for its deep religiosity, which defied the national guidelines and people assembled in large numbers for evening prayer in the biggest mosque in the regional capital, Banda Ache. Ache already practices Sharia law. The Ache Ulema Council is part of the local government and is opposed to following social distancing. Many people reportedly asked, “why you are afraid of the virus when you should be afraid of God?” The province of North Sumatra which does not have the same autonomy as Ache, faces a similar situation with people thronging mosques for Taraweeh. The Government prefers a persuasive rather than a coercive approach and many are talking about seeking the help of clerics, artists, public figures and traditional leaders to convince people about social distancing.
Malaysia, one of the badly hit nations in South East Asia has already extended the lockdown until mid-May closing all the mosques, schools and the market place. In a televised address, Prime Minister MohyiddinYassin said that just like when we fast, we must fight and struggle against desire. The Prime Minister has also asked ZulKafl Mohammad Bin Bakri, the first Mufti to become the Religious Affairs Minister, to convince people to stay at home in Ramazan. Mohammad Shukri Mohammad, a cleric from conservative state of Kelantan in Malaysia said it would be for the first time that he would not go to mosque in Ramazan and skip the public Iftar.
Conclusion: For the first time in decades, a majority of the Ulema and religious institutions have shown a kind of unanimity on a complex theological issue by being less hesitant in declaring explicitly, that the prayer of Taraweeh is not an obligatory exercise. The new norm of social distancing has gained currency despite coming in conflict with traditional religious practices. People with few exceptions have accepted the opinion of the Ulema and their Fatwas. Many states have also realised their limitations in the religious sphere despite their claims of state religiosity and hence sought the sanction of Ulema before closing the mosques or banning of the prayers. Amid the crisis of |COVID-19 a new kind of relationship may therefore be evolving between the State and Islamic religious institutions. Individual clerics have also been able to carve out a larger space for themselves and these independent jurists influenced the common opinion to great extent as far as the religiosity of the prayer is concerned. Clearly, Ramazan has brought into focus the tension in the muslim mind between Islamic religious beliefs, practices and jurisprudence on the one hand and modern day governance and medicine on the other. What is evident is that increasingly there are voices within religious institutions across many if not all Islamic countries in favour of social distancing norm, given the trauma and compulsions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
Taraweeh is an additional long prayer performed at night in Ramazan when the devotees are supposed to listen to the recitation of Quran in a month following the Imam
Frederic Wehrew, J Nathan Brown and others, Islamic Authority and the Arab States in a Time of Pandemic, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 16, 2020 , Accessed https://bit.ly/35qWtlv May 2 , 2020
It is one of the highest center of theology in Tunisia and established in 8th century
Frederic Wehrew, J Nathan Brown and others, Islamic Authority and the Arab States in a Time of Pandemic, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 16, 2020 , Accessed https://bit.ly/35qWtlv Amy 2 , 2020
Hanbali school is one of the four major Sunni jurisprudential schools practiced in some part of Gulf and Africa among the Arab nations
Abu Dhabi makes it clear it allows shop to open but not the mosque, Khalij online , An Arabic Daily, April 24, 2020 , Accessed shorturl.at/aek49 April 30 2020
It is small religious group which takes its name from its founder MirzaGhulam Ahmad. A sustained anti-Ahmadi movement led by Sunni religious group under the leadership of Ulema in 1950s forced the government to declare them non-Muslim through a constitutional amendment in 1974.
Groups calls on Muslims to pray at home, Jakarta Times , April 23, 20202, Accessed https://bit.ly/2WpNkpz April 29, 2020