By Muneeb Nasir
Canadian Muslims, as all Muslims throughout the world, are grappling with the catastrophic changes on their personal as well as their religious life brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mosques, Islamic Centres and religious schools have been closed since mid-March and all communal services have been suspended.
This is particularly difficult for the community during the month of Ramadan which is the most intense and holiest period of the year for Muslims. This is a time when most Muslims observe the fast, attend the mosque and take part in Iftar dinners with extended family and friends and at mosques.
The stay-at-home measure has meant that mosques have had to move online to provide services to their members at a time when they are most in need of religious and spiritual support.
A vast majority of the mosques do not have the means to virtually engage the community and many are scrambling to go online. Of course, the virtual alternative favors those who have the means to connect online and are comfortable with technology.
Going virtual has engendered intense discussion in the Canadian Muslim community – should Salaatul Jumuah (the Friday prayer service) be streamed online and can viewers follow the Imam in the prayer? Similarly, should Salaatul Taraweeh be offered in the mosque by a few selected worshippers and can those watching at home join the prayer?
The religious scholars have discouraged the practise of following an Imam virtually in prayer, either during the Friday services or during Taraweeh. On Fridays, mosques have been streaming Friday talks in place of the sermon and advising Muslims to pray Salaatul Zuhr instead.
However, a few mosques in Canada have been streaming, both Salaatul Jumuah prayer and khutba as well as Salaatul Taraweeh, from the mosque with the Imam and a couple of worshippers in attendance.
Mosques offering these online services have been garnering growing viewership, an indication that Muslims are looking for the sense of community and spiritual comfort offered through these familiar worship services, albeit virtually.
While gathering together for prayer and religious education are a major part of what the mosque does, it isn’t all that the mosque is – many mosques provide support for families who are grieving a lost one and marriage and social services.
Social services have quickly become the focus of Islamic institutions and organizations since the lockdown – by feeding the needy, supporting health care workers, offering financial support to those out of work, mosques of all kinds are serving their neighbors in need while demonstrating that the mosque is much more than a building or public worship service.
As Ramadan is the time for donations to sustain their activities for the rest of the year, some mosques and Islamic schools could be shut down due to financial hardship. Asking for contributions when people are losing income and jobs and feeling insecure is going to be especially tough.
While it is difficult to predict what the future and life will look like with such a volatile and deadly virus, the next couple of years will be very challenging for religious institutions.
As measures are gradually relaxed, attending the mosque will be limited to a fixed number of persons and involve protective measures such as the use of masks, gloves, and physical distancing.
Mosques will be required to reconfigure their facilities to accommodate this new normal and put in place procedures to control the flow of attendees into their buildings as well as document them on entry, should contact tracing be necessary.
As all worshippers would not be allowed to attend weekly Salaatul Jumuah service, the virtual option of allowing Muslims to follow the Imam in prayer would need to be revisited by Islamic scholars as a temporary measure until the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control.
This is a challenging time for religious institutions and more creative forms of engaging worshippers will be needed but one of the consequences of this pandemic could be that religious observances will move more into the homes and enhanced by online offerings from the mosque.