It was Monday, March 9, and all was calm in Atlanta, Georgia. The news was beginning to report more growing concerns about the COVID-19 virus, otherwise known as coronavirus.
The news about the spread of coronavirus was limited to certain states and had yet to directly impact our local community. There were talks about the growing health concern and what could possibly happen to local residents if the virus spreads throughout the state.
As the week extended, shocking news of a COVID-19 case came out of our local school system where the anticipated exposure is expected to be vast, as a result of the infected teacher’s interaction with students and staff members.
Within twenty-four hours, schools began to shut down and talks of Masjid closures began to spread across the Muslim community. President Donald Trump assured Americans on Wednesday the novel coronavirus was on the brink of disappearing. Two days later, he admitted it wasn’t, which shocked and panicked the nation.
Thursday night marked the night of doom for many Islamic leaders, as they battled with the tough decision to cancel Friday Jumu`ah prayers. As minute-by-minute news changed rapidly throughout the state of Georgia, Muslim leaders struggled to make a unified message to their congregation.
According to Sarah Pulliam Bailey from the Washington Post, “Ahead of Friday prayers where Muslims usually prostrate shoulder-to-shoulder on carpets, disagreements emerged among Muslim leaders over how to handle mass gatherings.”
In Atlanta, Georgia, masjids made swift decisions to consult with medical experts and seek consultation from the CDC to make an informed decision about Friday prayer. The initial consensus from Masjid leadership was the following,
“The only people who absolutely need to attend the Friday prayers are adult males. Adult males are those past the age of puberty. Elderly men (60+) and those with compromised or weak immune systems should NOT attend the Friday prayer out of caution.
“Those already sick should absolutely not attend the Friday prayer and will be asked to leave if symptoms are observed. Attendees are requested to bring their own prayer rugs and to follow recommended hygiene practices such as frequent handwashing with soap, using hand sanitizers, and refraining from handshaking and other close contacts.”
Many other Mosques across the nation had similar requests, including requesting attendees to make wudu (ablution) at home, stand three feet apart, and go straight home after prayer.
Several local Masjids made the tough decision in the later hours of Thursday evening to cancel Jummah prayers indefinitely, out of a concern for public health.
This swift decision caused an uproar across the local Muslim community. Many Muslims supported this decision and passionately advocated for the message of prioritizing human life over certain religious obligations, while other Muslims struggled to understand and support a decision to cancel a mandatory act of worship (for men) at this stage of the outbreak.
“I understand the significance of what we are facing but it shocked me to hear of widespread mosque shutdowns before schools and places of employment were even canceled. Attending Friday prayer isn’t an option for me and I was disappointed that we weren’t even encouraged to have smaller group-led Jummah prayers or provided with adequate alternatives,” Muhammad Akbar told AboutIslam.net.
Masjids, such as the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam in Atlanta, Georgia decided to proceed with Friday prayer services with additional steps to ensure safety and cleanliness. The khutbah services were shortened, the mosque was sanitized, and the elderly and sick were advised to stay home.
The Friday prayer was titled, “Order in Chaos” and attendees were provided a spiritual message of maintaining hope and calm during these times of disorder and chaos.
“We must remind ourselves that everything is by the permission of Allah. Our way of life is order and what we are seeing in the world right now is disorder,” Imam Sulaiman Hamed spoke passionately from the minbar during his concise Jumu`ah sermon.
“Turning to Allah during this time of discord means to cling to what gives you order in your life. The decision to not cancel Jumu`ah today came from a place of order and not disorder.”
In a message posted to Facebook by Shaykh Dr. Muhammad bin Yahya al-Husayni al-Ninowy from Madinah Institute in Duluth, GA wrote,
“With the Coronavirus declared a pandemic, the high contagiousness of the virus, our local and state authorities canceling schools, universities, and daycares, many Islamic centers nationwide canceling all services including Farḍ (obligatory congregational prayers and Jumu`ah), and the pressures due to potential liability for risking further infections, many Islamic institutions including Madina Institute, have opted to suspend all activities as a precautionary measure.
“Personally, and at this stage, I do not see the need to cancel all Farḍ (obligatory) services. But, this can change anytime, as we are all awaiting further recommendations and instructions by experts at the CDC and government officials, which we will follow.”
For some converts, the decision to close mosques was very challenging.
“I am a convert to Islam and I honestly don’t know where to turn during this time of possible long-term Masjid shutdowns. I personally feel spiritually lost during this global crisis without my spiritual community,” Marlon Roberts told AboutIslam.net.
Despite the varying opinions and decisions being made across Masjid leadership boards, most communities agree on the need to continue to follow the directives provided by the CDC and the need to adequately consider the seriousness of canceling fard (obligatory) communal services.
Although the Masjid is a place where the virus can be spread, it is also a place of refuge for the believers. For some, the removal of this spiritual safe haven is devastating and can lead to religious confusion and disconnection.
Therefore, careful consideration and communal strategies must continue to be put in place for the continuation of the Muslim community, while still maintaining a commitment towards safeguarding human life.