The issue of social distancing is complex because there are a number of factors at play. The key is to correctly understand those factors, something which almost all of the fatwas promoting mosques access fail to do. What’s a fatwa meant to be?

Neither a scholar nor a judge can issue a ruling in reality unless he understands two things: First, understanding 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. Second, understanding obligations related to the context which is to understand God’s dictates expressed in His Book or in the prophetic sayings regarding the situation.

Ibn al-Qayyim, I’lām al-Muwaqqi’īn
This article addresses whether mosque leadership should temporarily restrict congregational prayers.

Despite its brevity, I aim to comprehensively cover the salient points by summarising the context, the key shar’ī directives, and relevant factors – the minimum required for competent decision making. This article does not aim to be exhaustive but even the simplified arrangement here is compelling enough to urge temporary restrictions.

To begin with, we must accurately pin down the context:
  1. It’s a misconception that only the elderly and those with chronic illnesses are at risk. Recent data from Italy and the US shows that middle aged categories are also very vulnerable. Furthermore, many people have undiagnosed health conditions excaberating their risk. The Muslim community has a higher prevalence of the two high-risk health condition – diabetes and coronary disease, thus being at more risk than wider society.
  2. Infection is fundamentally about contact. Sneezing, coughing, or touching one’s orifices after contact with an infected surface is all it takes. This amounts to seconds, not 10-15 minutes (or what four rak’at might take).
  3. To limit mosque attendance to asymptomatics (people not showing symptoms) neglects the fact that people are mainly contagious before they have symptoms. The isolation of asymptomatics (people not showing symptoms) is essential to be able to control the spread of the virus and the severity of the disease.
  4. It is not inevitable that everyone will catch the virus (at least before there’s a vaccine), and we can slow its progress or considerably diminish transmission. Social distancing does not require absolutely everything to shut down to be effectual. It reduces the R0, the rate of transmission. Many fatwas neglect this gradient: the less contact occurs, the lower the rates of infection, and subsequently, the lower the number of sicknesses and/or deaths.
  5. We’re at an interim stage. If we take preventative measures we can lower the rates of infection, and if we carry on normally rates increase, the NHS is overwhelmed, and the number of deaths rise. Whatever mosque leaders decide they’ll ultimately be making a choice about where to place Muslim communities on that gradient. The options on the table are to either opt for a precautionary approach (before the virus has mass infected the population) that temporarily suspends all activities and gatherings, or a passive one that inescapably facilitates infection and eventually the probable death of some congregants.
  6. The ultimate question at this juncture is this: all things considered, whilst we’re at a transitory stage between low transmission and mass infection what’s the morally responsible thing to do? Either we suspend congregational prayers out of an interest to lower rates of transmission and preserve life, or accept the threat acknowledging that some may die out of an interest to maintain congregational prayers.

But does acknowledging that some may possibly die out of an interest to maintain congregational prayers reflect prophetic guidance? To answer this:

  1. Salat al-jamā’ah and praying in a mosque are two different issues. The issue we’re concerned with is temporarily closing mosques. Salat al-jamā’ah can continue in people’s homes.
  2. The purpose of salat al-jamā’ah is to bring people together to foster a shared identity as believers, a common godly spirit, and the basis of shared allegiance. The mosque is a communal space where believers are also educated and socialised, and community cohesion nurtured. The mosque became a symbol (sha’īrah) of the faith and its adherents, whereby the munāfiqīn (heretical pretenders) would refrain from attending the houses of God because they had little intent of socialising with believers or being nurtured by Abrahamic monotheism (hanīfīyah) and its ideals.
  3. Given how the mosque would be infused into general life, general attendance is associated to normal everyday circumstances. So even something like heavy rain, in a context where aridity was the norm, would compel the Prophet to tell believers to pray in their homes instead (al-Bukhārī). One reason the ṣahābah weren’t encouraged to struggle through the hardship and stoically embrace the possible harms was because of the temporary and abnormal nature of the situation. Once the rainfall would pass, the community would resume normal life. Neither the missed congregational prayers nor the lack of ambition was seen as offending God or invoking His divine wrath.
  4. At this juncture there are two variant conclusions regarding ‘harm’ that we can reasonably arrive at, but both suggest that mosques should temporarily close: (1) There aren’t any harms in temporarily closing mosques but there’s a benefit in attending. If we accept this, then the shar’ī principle that we ‘prioritise averting harm over procuring benefits’ ought to be action-guiding. (2) If temporarily closing mosques is harmful to the believers but attending the mosque during heavy rain is a greater harm, then the coronavirus and its transmission is not only analogous with heavy rain in this situation, but its harm is far greater (min bāb al-awlā) and thus a compelling reason to take it a step further and temporarily suspend services.
  5. The intent is not to deny people the prayer, as it has been characterised by some, but to discourage lay Muslims from participating in risky behaviour (under the circumstances). Furthermore, a mosque is not inherently a sacred building nor is it a mystical quarantine zone, and to posit such baseless doctrines is to descend into a superstitious mindset far from an Abrahamic outlook. The lives of believers are far more important to God than any building, and to this effect it is related that the Prophet said whilst looking at the Ka’bah, a building actually consecrated by God, “The wealth and life of the believer are more sanctified to God than your (Ka’bah) sanctity.” (Ibn Mājah and al-Baihaqi)

So what are the shar’ī obligations related to the context, and how might we understand God’s dictates expressed in His Book, or in the prophetic sayings, regarding the situation?

  1. The hadith, “If you hear of a plague in a land, then do not go into it. If it happens in a land where you are, then do not go out of it” (al-Bukhārī and Muslim) provides us a shar’ī reason (‘illah) that intimates the moral obligation to impede transmission. In any given scenario this can range from outright prevention (dar’ al-mafāsid) to diminishing harm (taqlīl mafāsid), and we are obliged to do as much as possible (Q 64:16). Put another way, just because a harm cannot be entirely removed it doesn’t mean that we do not have a moral obligation to reduce it.
  2. For similar reasons, the Prophet said, “The sick should not descend on the healthy” (al-Bukhārī and Muslim), but as I’ve pointed out, people are contagious before they have symptoms. So what does the hadith say to those who don’t know whether they might be contagious? In relation to the hadith, “Flee from the leper as you would flee a lion,” (al-Bukhārī) jurists have commented that lepers ought to be prevented from mosques, even when their contagious nature is unknown. So what do we make of a situation where we don’t know who the threat is? If the logical response is that no one ought to attend such gatherings, then contesting the provisional closure of mosques becomes inconsequential – mosques tend to be closed when nobody is there.
  3. The entire sharī’ah is replete with revelatory advice establishing the principle that prevention is better than cure, such as the verse, “and do not contribute to your destruction with your own hands” (Q 2:195) as well as hadiths that marry this principle with a godly outlook, such as where a man asked the Prophet whether he should tie his camel and trust in God, or leave her untied. The Prophet responded, “Tie her and trust in God.” (al-Tirmidhī)
  4. Advocates of open mosques tend to rely undiscerningly on the statements of medieval jurists on plagues. But modern, regional, and contextual realities are not the same. Their contextually dependent conclusions do not provide us with authoritative or comprehensive precedence, and simply copying and pasting paragraphs neither counts for scholarly guidance nor intellectual leadership.

Beyond the context and shar’ī obligations related to it, there are many wider social and political factors to consider, particularly because they impact on the ability of believers to establish their faith more generally, as well as seek medical help when required. I acknowledge that some of the points are not uniquely persuasive, but added to the other factors mentioned in this article I believe they augment the overall position. For brevity, I only mention a few:

  1. Leaving mosques open adds to infection rates which results in adding a strain on the NHS. And given that Muslim communities are likely to require a lot of medical attention, it means negatively impacting the very service they’ll subsequently require. With an already overstretched NHS, we shouldn’t be adding to its burdens but instead facilitating its effectiveness. A collapsing NHS is far more harmful to believers than the temporary suspension of mosque services.
  2. Mosques, particularly their trustees, have legal duties towards the health, safety and welfare of mosque congregants under charity law. As a result of the government’s advice they are unlikely to be covered under any public liability insurance for certain claims made against them, as well as legal claims/costs arising from the deaths of any attendee or employee where the mosque is alleged to be in breach of its duty of care.
  3. Given the rising intolerance against Muslims, can we really afford the scandal of a mosque being at the centre of a mass outbreak, where Muslims are then made scapegoats for a crumbling health system as well as the infection of non-Muslims beyond the reaches of the mosque? And where other faiths have suspended congregational activities, should Muslims position themselves as outliers who care little for the negative impact their choices will have on society and the safety of their co-citizens?

Fundamentally, if we’re wrong to be precautionary then the mosque will have been mistakenly closed, but only temporarily. It’s difficult to argue that we’ll invite the wrath of God since God does not punish the sincerely mistaken. Indeed the Prophet put it that the mistaken mujhtahid, one who has exerted all intellectual efforts to arrive at a reasoned conclusion, will still be rewarded for his or her efforts (al-Bukhārī and Muslim). However, if we’re wrong to be passive, the mosque becomes a hotbed of infection and the cause of deaths. Whilst the sincere who have exerted all intellectual efforts to arrive at a reasoned conclusion in this scenario might also avoid the wrath of God, lives are lost, families badly affected, and loved ones left mourning. And this isn’t to mention that Islamic practices might be characterised as harmful to wider society and made convenient scapegoats by the political right. The point is that none of us know what the future holds, but given what’s on the table at this moment, only what can be put down to a disregard for (some) lives, a mischaracterisation of the congregational prayer, or ignorance of the context would allow us to opt for the latter.

If there is a government directive that includes the closure of mosques, this discussion becomes irrelevant. It won’t be a matter of what we ought to do, but whether we simply can or cannot. In fact, for some cohorts of religious leaders this has been much the position – “We’ll wait on the government.” But for mosque leaders to place their uncritical faith in a government that has flip-flopped on the issue and failed to provide a clear strategy seems highly mislaid. What God and the faithful require is robust leadership built on merit, sensible reasoning, and proactive action in the interests of the believers and fellow countrymen.

It ought to be noted this is not merely a fiqh decision where ‘respecting’ difference of opinion tends to be an indulgence. It’s one of public policy extending into the realm of al-siyāsah al-shar’īyyah (godly leadership). The more immediate and severe the harms become, the less a cavalier opinion ought to be tolerated. Normatively, the Muslim leader would step in to make an executive decision weighing up harms and benefits (maslaha/mafsada), but in our context atomised policymaking is left to mosque leaders. Putting aside whether this ought to be the case, at this moment mosque leaders have been entrusted to think and act intelligently as umarā (leaders), to understand the variables accurately and weigh them up in a reasonable way, and not simply act as stewards under the influence of the uninformed.

As the shar’ī sources collectively intimate, a preventative approach is the morally responsible thing to do and the least harmful, all things considered. Let us prevent ourselves from having to conclude, in hindsight, that the inaction was a dereliction of duty, uninformed leadership, and a failing towards those under the charge of mosque leaders.

And only God is aware of all things, may He guide us to what is best for both abodes.