In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
All praise and thanks are due to Allah, and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger.
In this fatwa:
1- There is no harm in forming groups in times of pandemics and widespread calamities which enjoin upon one another the establishment of certain communal obligations, if those obligations are not being established by others who would normally perform them, whether due to negligence or inability. By doing this, they will absolve everyone else from the sin of not having performed this communal obligation.
2- As for regular prayers that do not intend a specific deceased Muslim, then this is something for which we do not know any precedent. So avoiding such action is more befitting.
Answering your question, the Resident Fatwa Committee (RFC) of AMJA states:
It is a matter of agreement among the scholars that the absentee funeral prayer, whether offered during the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic or any other calamity for that matter, is prescribed to be performed for someone who dies in absentia and did NOT have a funeral prayer offered for them at their time of death.
It is also a prevailing view among the scholars that the funeral prayer is offered in absentia for those who have played a crucial role in the religion of Islam. That includes, but is not limited to, our major Islamic scholars, the callers (du`at) to Islam, fighters in a legitimate cause (mujahideen), as well as philanthropists (who have aided the Ummah), and their likes.
This is proven by the actions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who prayed for al-Najashi (the Negus) in absentia, for he was counted amongst the righteous Islamic rulers because he had given aid to the Muslim immigrants in his land, and enabled them to worship Allah freely during their stay in Abyssinia.
It is also known that the Prophet had written to him, inviting him to Islam, and he had accepted the invitation. For that reason, the Prophet performed the absentee funeral prayer for him.
It was narrated in the agreed-upon hadith that the Messenger of Allah announced the death of al-Najashi on the same day that he died, and he then proceeded with the Companions to the prayer ground, where he lined them up and offered the funeral prayer with four takbeerat.
So, we can apply the example above to those who die from amongst our major scholars, Islamic propagators, fighters in the way of Allah, and those who have done outstanding good works/deeds, who would all be counted amongst the forerunners in their contributions toward the victory of Islam and Muslims.
And it is worth mentioning that this is a matter which is based on ijtihad, or the independent judgement of our scholars, based on their interpretation of the Revelation.
As a result, our scholars have different views about the matter of the absentee funeral prayer and the matter of its legislation in Islam.
Whether or not the absentee funeral prayer is offered for every Muslim who dies in absentia is a matter on which there are several opinions:
1- According to the Shafi`is and Hanbali school of thought, the absentee funeral prayer is prescribed for every Muslim who dies in absentia, even if the prayer is performed over them in the town or place where he/she died.
2- The second view is that it is prescribed to offer the absentee prayer for a Muslim who dies in absentia with the condition that the prayer was not performed for them in the place where he/she died. If the prayer was performed for them in that place, then the funeral prayer in absentia would not be legislated. This view is the second view attributed to Imam Ahmad, and it is the chosen view of Sheikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah and his student Ibn al-Qayyim, as well as the more contemporary Ibn Uthaymeen.
3- The third opinion in this matter is that it is prescribed to offer the absentee prayer for the Muslim who dies in absentia, if he had provided benefit to the Muslims. This would include individuals such as our major scholars, fighters in Allah’s way, and philanthropists who benefited people through their wealth, as well as others who would fit into this category. This view is also attributed to Imam Ahmad, and it was chosen by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Iftaa in Saudi Arabia.
The opinion we find to be strongest is the view that it is legislated to pray the absentee prayer on the one for whom the funeral prayer was not performed in the place where he/she died, and likewise upon those who have benefited the Muslims and Islam.
So, we say that in the same way it is legislated to offer it for the one who died in absentia and the funeral prayer was not offered where he/she died, it is also prescribed to pray it for those who have benefited Islam and played a crucial role in serving the religion, as well as those who have offered benefit to the Muslims at large.
As for everyone else, it is sufficient to pray the standard funeral prayer for them. Whoever missed the funeral prayer can offer it at the deceased’s grave, or supplicate for them from anywhere. It is known that many of the Companions died, or were killed, in absentia during the Prophet lifetime, and it is not mentioned that he performed the absentee prayer for every one of them, nor is it recorded that the Righteous Caliphs prayed it for every Muslim who died in a different land. This proves that it is not prescribed to pray it for every individual Muslim who dies in absentia.
It is important to note this is a matter of scholarly judgement (ijtihad), and giving precedence to one view over the other can be relative to the scholar making that judgement call.
Thus, the opinion selected as preponderant by one scholar might not be the chosen opinion in another madhhab, or among other scholars. And by default, we do not reproach the one who holds a different view in these types of matters when there are different valid opinions. Whoever finds one opinion to be stronger should work according to it, but at the same time, we should not reproach someone who finds another opinion to be stronger.
In conclusion, there is no harm in forming groups in times of pandemics and widespread calamities which enjoin upon one another the establishment of certain communal obligations, if those obligations are not being established by others who would normally perform them, whether due to negligence or inability. By doing this, they will absolve everyone else from the sin of not having performed this communal obligation.
What has been discussed thus far pertains to the absentee funeral prayer offered for those who die in absentia, AND the funeral prayer for them was NOT offered where they died, OR because the individual is someone who played a crucial role in serving Islam and Muslims.
As for regular prayers that do not intend a specific deceased Muslim, then this is something for which we do not know any precedent. So avoiding such action is more befitting. That is because any time we differ on whether an act is a sunnah or an innovation, refraining from that act becomes better than performing it.
Almighty Allah knows best.