To read a comprehensive article on the issue, click here.
Some friends sent me a fatwa that represents the position of major figures in the Midlands and North, asking me to comment on it (given the serious nature of the affair). The fatwa is dangerous (especially where it encourages 60 year olds to attend congregational prayers) since it pertains to matters of life and death, as well as poorly reasoned. And this is not to mention that it’s predicated on folk religion – an outlook that represents a village mentality that takes God’s deen as magical or a superstitious way of thinking. Yes, the masājid’Allāh are safe spaces where believers congregate, but they’re not mystical buildings that keep out physical harms or devils, nor does a building become consecrated merely because we call it a name.
A mosque is an assigned place where believers gather, when and if they need to gather. And when it comes to prayer, the Prophet said: “The earth was made a masjid and purifying for my mission.” (al-Bukhārī) As long as it is clean, a believer connects to God anywhere. We really need to get that subservience to God will not collapse because some mosques in some parts of the world are temporarily closed.
None of the points mentioned in the fatwa are compelling. It is unworthy of consideration, and as I quickly pick apart each point, you’ll see how bad it is. As believers, we are called to employ our intellects and revelatory guidance. Unfortunately, this fatwa does neither soundly.
So these are the (fallacious) variables provided to argue mosques should remain open for congregational ṣalāh:
“1. The importance of Masjids and congregational Ṣalāh, as reflected from congregational Ṣalāh during war (Ṣalāt al-Khawf) and other ḥadīths.”
Firstly, the significance of attending mosques relates to normal times. When circumstances change, even for things such as heavy rain, the Prophet would tell people to pray at home (with the adhan altered accordingly). Secondly, congregational ṣalāh and attending mosques are two different things – people can pray with their families at home, and likewise ṣalāt al-Khawf was NOT offered in a mosque but between the military detachment itself, in the field. The examples cited are irrelevant to the point made about mosques, and especially in normal times.
“2. The protection of faith supersedes the protection of one’s self.”
Firstly, praying in a mosque is not “protecting the faith” – what does it say of a people who put the faith down to four walls and a carpet?! And if the faith depends on it, how are women and children so easily excluded by these people?! In the Makkan era, the Prophet had no such mosque per se (there was the home of al-Arqam), and that was when the faithful were solidly formed and cultivated. Never in the HISTORY of Islam has any sane jurist advised people to place their lives in danger just to make congregational ṣalāh in a mosque. Secondly, this butchery is a misapplication of the maqāsid (objectives of) al-sharī’ah. Given that praying in a mosque is not “protecting the faith”, the “priority” being spoken of doesn’t even apply here, nor, as I point out repeatedly, is anybody suggesting the complete abandonment of congregational prayer or the permanent closure of mosques.
“3. The Prophet’s practice of rushing to the Masjid during calamities.”
Yes, that’s because the calamity wasn’t in the mosque!! This statement absurdly suggests that the Prophet would’ve gone to the mosque seeking the virus and infers the ridiculous idea that the calamity (virus) is located somewhere outside the mosque – that the mosque is an infection-free zone! (I’m quite certain they’ll eventually mention the magic dust-like barakah argument.)
“4. A significant portion of the Ummah abandoning Ṣalāh particularly congregational Ṣalāh and other sins causing such epidemics. The Masjid and congregational Ṣalāh is partof the solution and not the problem.”
Firstly, yes, the Chinese and Italians’ abandonment of congregational ṣalāh caused the outbreak, and if you socially mix for rituals, we’ll all be saved! (Read: sarcasm – you literally could not make this stuff up!). Secondly, no one is calling for “abandoning” the jamā’ah, the discussion is about temporarily pausing congregational gatherings.
“5. Masjids remaining open when epidemics occurred during the era of the companions and thereafter.
6. Ḥadīths advising precautions during epidemics do not mention closing Masjids or stopping congregational Ṣalāh.”
This fiqh approach (manhaj al-istidlal) is symptomatic of what’s going wrong with Muslims across the board. Rather than analyse reasons and motives, they literally and quite absurdly seek an imprint of the past. The mosques were left open because social distancing within the area was purposeless. In those times, social distancing (as the famous hadith on plague shows) was implemented amongst regions, because that’s where it was useful. Yes, if everyone in your area had coronavirus or the majority would inevitably be afflicted with it then closing mosques would be quite pointless. But we are in the early stages of transmission and the strategy is one of stopping the spread of the virus within an area. The shar’ī reason (illah) behind the hukm for impeding transmission stands applicable in ANY context, whether it’s a region, locality or area. What the fatwa calls for is to remove the precaution and undermine containment. Well done, gentlemen.
“7. The differentiation between an individual decision not to attend a Masjid and a collective decision to close a Masjid for congregational ṣalāh. (It is worth noting if Eid occurs on a Friday, according to ḥanbalīs, Jumuʿah Ṣalāh is not necessary on individuals, however, Jumuʿah Ṣalāh must be established in the Masjids, as outlined in an earlier answer).”
Firstly, they cite a “differentiation” when they’ve been unable to distinguish these in every point so far! Secondly, the “differentiation” is irrelevant, closing the mosque is a leadership decision that’s about preventing harm. Ironically, there is somewhat of a precedence to close access to a mosque to prevent harms, and it’s in the (questionably attributed) narration which many religious leaders depend on to ban women from mosques, where Umar b. al-Khattāb allegedly prevented women from mosques between prayers due to their behaviour. Yes, he didn’t ban them from the congregational ṣalāh itself, but that’s simply because people don’t misbehave whilst in prayer. But where there was harm, the leadership call was made to prevent access.
Thirdly, they invoke a point regarding the Ḥanbalīs in normal times. Yet, and far more relevantly, al-Mardāwi in his opus al-Insāf (a mainstay for the Ḥanbalī school) wrote, ‘and it is permitted without argument for the sickly to temporarily abandon the congregational prayer and Friday prayer, and likewise it is also permitted to temporarily abandon the two out of fear of contracting sickness.’ Now with this reasoning, if the mosque becomes a site where a serious illness threatens congregants, logically the Ḥanbalīs would advocate the mosque to temporarily close its gates, based on the principle of mafhum al-awlā, or ‘greater inference’.
“8. The continued running of schools notwithstanding the huge risks and the duration of time (6-8 hours) spent therein.”
Firstly, we now have an acknowledgement that social mixing is a “huge risk” but only in relation to the hours they spend together. To speak of a situation without understanding it, is perverse. Going back to the Ḥanbalīs, the scholar Ibn Al-Qayyim wrote that neither a scholar nor a judge can issue a fatwa in truth unless he understands two things, the first of which is “the context with an analytical cognisance, and deriving the reality of what’s happening through operative variables, indicative factors and inferential signs until he comprehensively knows the situation.” Transmission doesn’t require hours – coughing, sneezing, or transmission by touching one’s orifices (which can take a few seconds) suffices. Secondly, the continued running of schools has little to do with mosque leaders, it’s not in their remit to close down schools. What others do is irrelevant to the responsibilities of Muslim leaders. Thirdly, mosque attendance for adults is not analogous with children at school very simply because the risks (predicated on age groups) are not the same. The most vulnerable attend mosques, whilst the least vulnerable attend schools.
“9. The limited 5-10 minutes duration of congregational Ṣalāh.”
SO? A man sneezing or coughing next to you is enough to contract the virus. Again, with such close contact 10 minutes is far more than enough. Furthermore, congregations are notoriously bad for such hygiene. People cough, splutter, and sneeze openly in ṣalāh, often because they’ve been misinformed by the same type of clerics that conscious movement invalidates prayer. So given the context, the point doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence.
“10. The ground reality of Muslims continuing to attend weddings, functions, shopping centres, and other public and private places and spending much more time than the time spent in congregational Ṣalāh.”
Yes, which people ALSO shouldn’t do. What kind of reasoning is this, “because people are doing the wrong thing elsewhere, they ought to do it here as well”? Or is this simply a fatalistic fatwa: “there’s no point socially isolating because people are transmitting it anyway”? Leaders of their communities ought to be setting out responsible behaviour that speaks to the public good, not resigning themselves to irresponsible actions, and then further encouraging it!
Now some will inevitably say that I’m being harsh, but this is not unnecessary savagery. Social respect does not pertain to respecting such shoddy “scholarship”. I sympathise with the unease some might feel, but this is one of those circumstances which legitimately calls for it – believers ought to hold such fatwas in absolute contempt and ridicule.
To be clear, there will be a lot of discussion on this topic, and as the ground continues to shift, there’ll be a lot of legitimate points raised on both sides. But the contruction of this fatwa, the arguments it rests on, and the general method of reasoning (along with choice of sources) speaks to a religious culture that evidences how the uninformed articulation of submissions to God in the UK has not only been absolutely inane and contrary to what God wants, it has caused various types of harm. Generally, such ways of thinking has instigated dissonance, doubt, ethno-cultural hegemony, mockery, and unfavourable outcomes across the board. (Please note that many seminarians disagree with the fatwa and have made it clear. All are not the same and shouldn’t unfairly be treated as such.)
To end, I’ll keep with the theme of the Ḥanbalīs, where the Ḥanbalī philosopher Ibn al-Qayyim put it quite relevantly:
“Whoever gives fatwas to the people merely from what has been related in books differing from the customs, habits, era, social/political circumstances and contextual variables, misguides others and is himself misguided. His injury to the faith is greater than that of a doctor who treats patients inconsiderate of their different customs, habits, era, circumstances and contextual variables, merely seeking to reflect what is in the general books of medicine. Such a doctor is an ignoramus, and such a mufti too is an ignoramus; both are the most harmful they could possibly be to the people’s religion and their bodies – may God help us!”