The coronavirus outbreak threatens to upend faith-based traditions that have gone on for more than 1,400 years. The world’s nearly 2 billion Muslims will not be able to hold communal feasts and prayers that are a hallmark of Ramadan, their holiest month, starting this week.
The pandemic has forced many governments to order restrictions on travel, gathering and collective prayers the likes of which the world has not seen before. Around the world, mosques that worshippers swarm during Ramadan are expected to be empty or have limited attendance.
In Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the doors of Kaaba, the holiest of sites for Muslims, usually full to the brim with worshippers from around the world during Ramadan. Now, they are closed. Masjid al-Nabawi, the mosque of Muhammad, the Muslim Prophet, is similarly shut.
Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al Al-Sheikh, has told people to pray at home, including the special nightly Ramadan prayers called Taraweeh that attract throngs to mosques.
Ali Mulla, the muezzin at the Grand Mosque in Makkah, the man responsible for reciting the call to prayer, told the French news agency his heart ached at the thought.
"We are used to seeing the holy mosque crowded with people during the day, night, all the time...I feel pain deep inside," he said.
The kingdom’s political and ideological rival, Iran, the center of Shi’ite Islam, indicated it would follow suit. In a televised speech earlier in April, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told people to pray at home.
“We are going to be deprived of public gatherings of the month of Ramadan,” Khamenei said during a speech marking the birth of revered 9th century Shi’ite Imam Mahdi as reported by the Associated Press. “In the absence of these meetings, remember to heed your prayers and devotions in your lonesomeness.”
Despite the gloomy message, he did not waste an opportunity to take an apparent swipe at the United States.
“The problem of coronavirus must not make us ignorant of the plots of enemies and the arrogant power,” he said.
A few thousand kilometers to the east, in the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, the public faced restrictions on Ramadan-related activities.
“The early morning meals (sahur) and the breaking of fast (iftar) are to be done individually or with core family members only,” government issued guidelines stated. The same rules applied to offering prayers or reciting the Quran.
The country has also banned people from traveling during Ramadan, forcing tens of millions to spend the holidays away from family.
A similar fate fell upon the world’s oldest Muslim university, Jamia al-Azhar of Egypt. The famed seat of learning that opened its doors in 972. A.D. was forced to shut them last month, along with all the mosques in the country, although they were still allowed to broadcast the calls to prayer through their loudspeakers.
Many governments were teaming up with religious leaders to improve compliance.
“Scholars of Islam throughout the world are unanimous that the Prophet of Islam warned against the spread of contagious diseases and urged Muslims to prevent the spread,” said Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, the president-general of Nigeria’s Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, as reported in Nigerian newspaper Politics Nigeria. His country too suspended all congregational prayers and instead was encouraging online lectures.
In the central Asian country of Azerbaijan, hundreds of people were being fined for leaving their houses.
Not everyone has bowed to the pressure to stay home, however. In Pakistan, clerics threatened to revolt against the government’s policy of limiting worshippers to only five at a time. The government relented and allowed them to keep mosques open during Ramadan but with 20 guidelines on safety.
“I request that you pray at home. If you really have to go to the mosque, then please stick to the 20-point SOPs,” urged Prime Minister Imran Khan in a televised addressed this week, warning that if the spread of coronavirus increased, mosques would have to be locked. By SOPs, he was referring to standard operating procedures.
A similar appeal was issued by neighboring Afghanistan, a war-torn country that is already dealing with a shortage of COVID-19 test kits and isolation facilities.
Health officials in both countries worry that the guidelines might be hard to implement.
The restrictions will likely impact the less fortunate who count on the numerous charity tables that spring up across the world wherever Muslims reside.
“In the mosque, we used to prepare Iftar, the evening meal, for people who cannot afford it. We also prepared Ramadan food bags and financial aid to poor people. With the current crises this will decrease somehow, but we hope for the good,” said Eslam Elsherbeny, an imam in Cairo, Egypt.
Others are finding ways to keep the spirit of giving alive. Rana Osama in Islamabad has been organizing a charity table every Ramadan for the last four years.
“This year we cannot organize a charity table. So, we have increased food delivery at home because a lot of people have been impacted with this pandemic. Until now, we have delivered more than 2,000 bags of groceries,” he said. He intends to continue this throughout Ramadan.
The day after Ramadan is one of the most festive Muslim holidays, called Eid al-Fitr. Many Muslim countries have already banned collective Eid prayers and subsequent festivities.
“Post-Ramadan mass gatherings and meetings routinely held during Eid al-Fitr celebrations to be done using social media and video calls only,” the Indonesian government said.
VOA’s Indonesian service contributed to this report. Hamada Elrasam contributed from Cairo.