Muslim Scholars in Egypt Response to Pandemics

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Sun, 2020-03-29
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Last Friday nationwide no prayers were said in Egypt’s mosques. Yet, performing prayers in mosques is obligatory to the faithful. Performing the Friday prayer is very important in a religious country like Egypt. Mosques during Friday prayers were always packed to the extent that most mosques had to expand the space for prayer by placing rugs in the streets near a mosque. Dr. Kamal Boraiqa Abdelsalam Hassan [Kamāl Burayqaʿ ʿAbd al-Salām Ḥassan], General Coordinator of the Center for Dialogue at the Azhar, head of the Observation and Suggestion Committee in Bayt al-ʿĀʾila (the Egyptian Family House) , the institution in which the Azhar and Egypt’s churches cooperate, explains how Egypt’s scholars have dealt with the coronavirus crisis.




Performing the five daily prayers in congregation is an obligation on every believing adult male who has no excuse for not doing so. It is preferable to be performed in the mosque since it provides more rewards. The Prophet Muḥammad (PBUH) stressed the paramount importance of performing prayers in the mosque in many hadiths.  This congregational prayer signifies unity, solidarity and equality of all Muslims who stands together to observe their prayer.


However, the rapid dissemination of coronavirus (COVID-19) created a challenge for the religious leaders to find an alternative for bringing people together in mosques since assembling in such congregations may lead to the spread of the virus. On the 15th of March 2020 and with the outbreak of the crisis the first response came from al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars which is considered to be one of the highest religious authorities in the Sunni World and held in a very high esteem. In an official statement issued they affirmed the permissibility of suspending the Friday prayer and the other daily congregational prayers to protect people from the coronavirus.


Their fatwa is based on the fact that one of the greatest objectives of the Islamic Sharīʿah is to preserve the lives of people and protect them from harm and danger. This fatwa is issued as a precautionary measure to prevent the transmission of the virus that threatens people’s lives. The statement of the Senior Scholars explained that it is obligatory for patients and elderly people to stay at home and abide by the protective measures declared by the concerned departments in each country. They must not go to the mosques for the Friday prayer or the other five daily congregational prayers. To support their argument, they quoted a adīth, narrated by both al-Būkhārī and Muslim, ‛Abdullāh Ibn ‛Abbās reported that he said to the prayer caller (Mu᾿ādhin) on a rainy day, "When you have announced ‘I testify that Muḥammad is the Messenger of Allah,’ do not say, ‘Come to the prayer,’ but say, ‘pray in your homes.’ He (the narrator) said that the people disapproved of it, so Ibn 'Abbas said, "Are you astonished? He (the Prophet, PBUH.), who is better than me, did it. The Friday prayer is no doubt obligatory, but I do not like to put you in difficulty by walking in mud and slippery grounds."


This Ḥadīth guides us not to perform the congregational prayers in order to avoid the difficulty of going to the mosque in the rain. More dangerous than this, of course, is the danger of the epidemic. The alternative, according to the Sharīʿah, is to perform the noon prayer, which is four units (rakʿāt) instead of two, at home or in any place that is not crowded.


Scholars concluded that being afraid for one’s life, one’s property, or one’s family are excuses for a Muslim not to attend the Friday prayer or the other five daily congregational ones.


Moreover, they referred to the Ḥadīth that supports this idea is the one reported by both al-Būkhārī and Muslim in their Ṣaḩiḩs on the authority of ‛Abd al-Raḩmān Ibn ‛Ūf who heard the Prophet (PBUH) say, “When you hear that it (a pandemic) is breaking out in a certain territory, do not go there. If it breaks out in the territory you are in, do not go out fleeing away from it.”

The Prophet (PBUH) has prohibited those whose smell might hurt others from attending the prayers in the mosque in order not to harm the other worshippers. On the authority of Jaber, may Allah be pleased with him, al-Būkhārī reported that the Prophet (PBUH) said, 'Whoever has eaten garlic or onion should keep away from us [or from our mosque] and stay at home'”. The harm mentioned in this Ḩadīth is limited and ends with the conclusion of the prayer. How about the harm of an epidemic that is highly contagious and that might lead, may Allah forbid, to an uncontrollable catastrophe?


Therefore, the Council of Senior Scholars at Al-Azhar has come to the conclusion that the state has the right to temporarily suspend the Friday prayer or the other five daily congregational prayers if it sees that they may lead to the spread of this dangerous virus.


Consequently, Prof. Dr. Aḥmad al- Ṭayyib, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar decided to suspend the Friday (Jumʿah) Prayer and collective prayers in Al-Azhar mosque temporarily, as a protective measure, to support Egypt's governmental measures against the spread of COVID-19.


    Sayyida Zaynab mosque crowded during mawlid of al-Sayyida Zaynab (Archive photo from the internet)        Sayyida Zaynab mosque shut down due to the coranavirus (photo from wikipedia)  


 Following the statement of Al-Azhar Senior Scholars, Egypt’s Ministry of Awqāf [Endowments] closed Al-Sayyida Zaynab Mosque, one of the most important and historical mosques in Old Cairo, after a large number of worshippers mobbed outside the mosque following the Friday prayer on March 20. Egypt’s Religious Endowments Ministry on Saturday March 21 issued an order to halt Friday prayers and congregational prayers, closing all mosques and buildings belonging to them for around two weeks. It was necessary to change the formula of the adhān (call to prayer). The wording of the adhān (call to prayer) was changed temporarily by replacing the phrase “come to prayer,” with “pray where you are,” or “pray at home.” The adhān is a summons for Muslims to enter the prayer. This change in the formula of the adhān is based on the Prophetic traditions quoted earlier which was reported by ʿAbdullāh Ibn ʿAbbās.


These procedures were very successful and the people started to abide by the decisions and pray from home. This played an important role in preventing the spread of the virus. The churches in Egypt also suspended their gatherings and meetings to perform their rituals.


In order to encourage nurses and physicians to carry out their duty to fight the spread of the virus Prof. Aḥmad al- Ṭayyib, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar issued a statement in which he expressed his gratitude and thanks for the efforts they make and for being the first to face this humanitarian crisis with which they have done their best and played a leading role in safeguarding the society and maintaining its safety. He said that “today, you are the heroes and heroines of a battlefield in which only the faithful can take part. We do need you today more than we did at any other previous time. I do trust your loyalty and perseverance. Therefore, I pray to Allah to keep you safe and to protect you against all harm and evil.”


Al-Azhar also launched  on its official page an outreach media campaign to raise the awareness of the people and to remind them of their duties towards themselves and the society as a whole at times of crises, especially at the present time as the world is currently confronting the COVID-19 pandemic. In this campaign the messages published contain quotes from the sayings of the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his Companions and to teach peoples the way they should adopt at the time of the plagues. One of these messages quoted contained the ḥadīth of the Prophet that asks people to isolate the patients from healthy people. The Prophet said “Do not place a sick patient with a healthy person” and in another ḥadīth “If you hear that a land has a plague in it, do not go forward to it. If it comes upon a land which you are in, do not depart from it.” Another message quoted the saying of Amr Ibn Al-As [ʿAmrū Ibn al-ʿĀṣ] “the epidemic is like fire and you are its fuel. Disperse, until the fire finds nothing that ignites it, and will be turned off.”


But the corona crisis poses other problems related to those who die. Where should (Ṣalawāt al-Janā᾿iz) funeral prayers be performed in the current situation? The scholars of Al-Azhar at the fatwa center responded that performing the funeral prayer in mosques is not a condition of validity and it can be performed at any place as long as the purity of the place is assured. This is proved in the Prophet’s (PBUH) saying "The earth has been made for me a place of prostration and a means of purification, so wherever a man of my Ummah is when the time for prayer comes, let him pray" (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī).


The majority of jurists hold the view that performing the funeral prayers outside mosques had originally been in conformity with the legal ruling concerning this matter. Al-Imām al-Sandī commented saying, "Yes, it is better to perform a funeral prayer outside the mosque as it was the Prophet's usual practice to perform funeral prayers outside the mosque."

They explained that both practices are permissible. Imām al-Bukhārī wrote a chapter entitled "Chapter on performing the funeral prayer in prayer rooms and mosques."


Accordingly, in the current situation in which mosques are closed to combat the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), it is permissible to perform the Funeral Prayer in the prayer rooms outside the mosques, in the open areas or the graves yards.


The fatwas of al-Azhar scholars and quotes of the outreach campaign show how Muslims have been dealing with pandemics in the past and that we have to follow their footsteps in the current time to save ourselves and our neighbors and communities.


All of these efforts of the religious institutions encouraged the people to have hope that they are not alone and the official religious institutions are giving moral and spiritual support and hope that we are able to overcome this crises and practice our acts of worship from home and pray for God to save humanity, asking for healing, and praying for protection over those who are not yet infected.



Cairo, March 29, 2020


Dr. Kamal Boraiqa Abdelsalam Hassan,

General Coordinator of the Center for Dialogue at the Azhar, head of the Observation and Suggestion Committee in Bayt al-ʿĀʾila, the institution in which the Azhar and Egypt’s churches cooperate.