British Muslims cope with restrictions under lockdown

Mosques look to livestream Friday sermons amid coronavirus outbreak.
Sunday 29/03/2020
A man wearing a proective mask walks away from the East London Mosque in London, March 20. (AFP)
Art in time of crisis. A man wearing a proective mask walks away from the East London Mosque in London, March 20. (AFP)

LONDON - As the United Kingdom faced its first week under a government-mandated lockdown to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, British Muslims, like everyone else, dealt with  major challenges regarding how to live and worship under stringent “social distancing” rules.

“We are all social creatures but maybe Muslims are more social than most,” said Shadim Hussain, writing for Britain’s Independent newspaper, “We eat together -- often from one plate, sharing utensils and side dishes. For many Muslims, social intimacy like handshakes and hugs are so hardwired into their behaviour that the week-old invention of ‘social distancing’ is both alien and absurd to them.”

Hussein, a member of the government’s steering group on adoption, said the closure of mosques was something that many Muslims might struggle to deal with.

“Islam is a collective religion, and although prominent British Muslim organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain have –- in line with Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt –- instructed Muslims to pray at home, many of the UK’s mosques are likely to remain open,” he wrote in the Independent.

Mosques and other places of worship across the country were ordered closed by government decree. Although Muslim scholars who initially resisted calls to shutter mosques during the COVID-19 outbreak now backed those for worshippers to pray at home, there was resistance to the idea of mosques locking their doors.

“After carefully considering the nature of this contagious and rapidly spreading virus and its impact on lives, together with the societal, religious and political implications, scholars agreed… all Muslims and citizens of the United Kingdom should adopt social distancing,” read a statement signed by scholars and muftis from London, Bradford, Leicester, Bury, Blackburn, Lancaster, Dewsbury, Batley and Bolton.

“It would be justified to perform salah [prayers] in one’s own home,” the statement said, “however, a limited group (four or five) of appropriately selected individuals should continue to undertake five times adhan [call to prayer] and salah at the masjid.”

Many mosques offered livestreaming to worshippers for Friday sermons and prayers, as well as advice on how to worship from home. “You can keep your spiritual connection with Allah by making your home a place of worship,” East London Mosque Chief Imam Shaykh Abdul Qayum said on the mosque’s website.

“You can also maintain a spiritual connection with the East London Mosque by listening when we broadcast the adhan and prayers, and by watching the short video messages, talks and sermons by our imams.”

In a video message after the lockdown, Shaykh Abdul Qayum acknowledged how difficult it was for Muslims not to be able to visit the mosque. “Some of you called us and said, ‘why is the adhan taking place and… some people are praying, why are we deprived [from praying at the mosque].' The main thing we said very clearly is that we should not abandon juma [Friday] and jamaat [congregational] daily prayer altogether, we should carry on,” the notice on the website stated.

Like many mosques, East London Mosque was having a minimum congregation prayer with only four or five worshippers specifically invited for the purpose, despite the government’s lockdown.

“They need to have this symbol of Islam, not abandon it altogether. They need to pray, even with this limited number. They need to give adhan regularly and hold daily prayer… They need to carry on, but unfortunately not all of us will be able to go and pray [at the mosque],” he added.

One service for which mosques remain functioning at previous capacity, if not higher, was funerals.

A forthcoming bill that looks set to grant the British government the most powers of any government during peacetime had included issues surrounding burial rites. Islam has stringent rules about burial, including that it must ideally be done within 24 hours of death.

Initially, the bill would have allowed local authorities the power to cremate bodies of coronavirus victims without consent of relatives, something that Britain’s Muslim and Jewish communities vehemently protested. Cremation is forbidden by Islamic law.

However, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock subsequently said the provisions had been removed, saying the government recognised the need to “accede to the wishes of the families and faith communities.”

“I’m so relieved that the government have listened to what we’ve said about religious burials for Muslim and Jewish people and have brought forward an amendment to address our concerns,” MP Naz Shah posted on Twitter following the decision.