The live scenes from the Kaaba broadcast by Saudi satellite television were stunning. The imam of the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, in Mecca was praying to an empty courtyard amid the coronavirus lockdown in the country.
Islam’s second most sacred place of worship, the Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi, a mosque in Medina in Saudi Arabia, was also nearly deserted as the imam led night prayer on the first day of the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan.
In Jerusalem, Palestinian religious authorities ordered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, one of the Holy places for Muslims, to be closed during Ramadan prayers. Authorities across the Muslim world also ordered mosques to shut their doors to worshippers in line with the confinement imposed in an effort to stymie the era-defining pandemic.
As millions of Muslims worldwide started their Holy fasting month on 24 April, images from empty mosques during prayers painted a stark portrait of this moment of spirituality along with other changes in ways of life affected by the coronavirus.
For the first time, a common crisis across the Muslim world with profound political, economic and cultural impacts could usher in wide-ranging religious changes that could lead to much-sought-after Islamic reforms.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Muslim societies have been grappling with its social and cultural impacts, such as enforced separation, as part of efforts to curb the spread of the disease.
In societies characterised by often extended families, tribal ties, and congested dwellings, socialising is almost sacred and is encouraged by the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet Mohamed. Concerns about the devastating economic impacts of the lockdown have also overshadowed public reactions.
Whether or not the changes mark a permanent break from Muslim popular culture far more drastic than many previous examples from history remains to be seen, but they will certainly be an element testing the response to change.
More important, however, are the religious consequences of the pandemic, which are expected to force a shift in the collective minds of Muslims and their spiritual attitudes and behaviour.
Before Ramadan started, many Muslim countries imposed restrictions on congregational prayers in mosques, which pious Muslims believe are essential to instill a sense of being in the presence of God and connection with other believers.
Many Muslim nations also stopped the Friday prayers that Muslim men are duty bound to perform collectively in a mosque along with a sermon to be delivered by an imam. While the decision to suspend Friday prayers on a global scale was extraordinary, ordering them to skip the daily collective prayers remains challenging for many pious Muslims.
Most importantly, Saudi Arabia has abruptly suspended all visas for the umra, the year-round minor pilgrimage to Mecca which peaks in Ramadan with the arrival of millions of Muslims in the Holy city.
With warnings that the coronavirus will likely stay for some time to come, the Saudi authorities are reportedly studying the possibility of cancelling the hajj, or pilgrimage, which is set for late July this year, for the first time in modern history.
The hajj is a ritual required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lives, and it draws millions of visitors to Mecca. The Saudi Minister of the Hajj has urged Muslims to hold off booking trips this year, suggesting that the annual season may be called off if the coronavirus crisis persists.
Significantly, the orders for the Holy mosque’s shuttering came from Saudi Arabia’s highest political authority, King Salman. The monarch, who holds the title of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, said he was acting on the principles of Islamic Sharia Law, which calls for “the preservation of souls.”
In many Muslim countries, the order to close mosques and suspend prayers came from governments, with influential fundamentalist clerics and the religious establishments remaining in some cases opposed to the moves and claiming that religion comes above anything else.
The sharp division between governments struggling to enforce social-distancing rules to fight the coronavirus and hardline clerics underscores the ways in which the coronavirus pandemic could have far-ranging consequences on Muslims.
The unprecedented measures received backing from some influential religious authorities, however, apparently because they fall in line with their own moderate teachings.
In Egypt, Al-Azhar, the world’s highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, backed the government in halting Friday prayers and shutting mosques for congregational rituals. Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars decreed that governments have the right to shut mosques “to protect people from the coronavirus until the end of the epidemic.”
In Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who is revered by millions of Shia Muslims worldwide, decreed that a Muslim can waive Ramadan fasting if he or she “remains in fear of catching the coronavirus”.
While many of these measures are seen as a response to the coronavirus outbreak, looking at them in a broader perspective shows a powerful stance by Muslim governments against Islamism and religious fundamentalism.
In many Muslim countries, clerics and hardline groups who have refused to close mosques and stop allowing religious congregations have continued to downplay the coronavirus threat to their communities.
Some religious fundamentalists have even revived mediaeval superstitions or plots by enemies as being behind the coronavirus outbreak in the Muslim world.
As a result, the Muslim governments’ resolve to change worshippers’ behaviour in order to counter the spread of the pandemic is a defining moment that involves key political and cultural choices.
In a broader Islamic context, these bold measures are setting a precedent in the Muslim world that could shift the focus back to much-discussed religious reform in Islam over recent decades.
Since the rise of religious fundamentalism in the 1970s, particularly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the beginning of the Islamic jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, intellectuals in the Muslim world have spoken up about the need to reform Islamic discourse.
The debate has been reinforced in recent years after the rise of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group (IS) in Iraq and Syria in a push to protect Muslim societies from violence and immunise their populations against extremism.
The Arab Spring Revolutions in 2011 also triggered the debate about Islamism and what was seen by mainstream liberals and secularists as attempts by Islamist political parties to infiltrate state structures by exploiting the democratic contestations and elections.
A deeper look into the outcomes of the Arab Spring and the recent waves of uprisings in several Arab countries shows a slowing trajectory for Islamism and a diminishing role for its political groups.
Like every challenge, the coronavirus crisis has provided an opportunity for Muslim societies to reassess their cultures and to pursue the battle for modernity and religious revival.
In many ways, many of the lockdown steps are seen as setting a future agenda for challenging the status quo that could include concrete actions and more commitments to a long-overdue process of islah, or Islamic reform.
In a landmark decision, Saudi Arabia recently eliminated flogging, a form of corporal punishment which has been criticised by human-rights groups as part of an unfair judicial system.
The authorities said the elimination of flogging as a punishment was the latest in a series of steps taken by the Kingdom to modernise its judicial system, which is based on Islamic Sharia Law and jurisprudence.
Another reason that could also have promoted the unprecedented measures towards sacred events and holy places during the current crisis is the fear that Islamist political groups may seek to press their agendas by exploiting panic and confusion among people of faith resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
In Pakistan, for example, the refusal by hardline clerics to shun collective prayers has forced the government to back down, raising doubts about Pakistan’s resolve to fight the pandemic.
Islamist movements across the Muslim world sought to make a comeback following the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1967 War with Israel that shook the Arab societies and exposed the vulnerability of their political systems.
For Muslim nations, the present coronavirus pandemic is a world-shattering event whose far-ranging consequences can only begin to be imagined. These impacts will likely not only shake Muslim societies, but also transform them, possibly forever.
Decisions to halt group prayers on a temporary basis, to suspend the hajj, and to abolish religiously condoned punishments were unthinkable a few years ago, and they will certainly result in wide-ranging social and cultural changes.
These changes will likely directly and indirectly lead to religious reforms in ways that will only become apparent later. A more open and more free society will then place Muslims on a new and forthcoming path to a wider Islamic renaissance.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: United we stand