Middle East prepares for Ramadan under coronavirus lockdown

Cairo confirmed that all congregational religious activities would be cancelled.
Sunday 12/04/2020
Egyptians at Al Moez street in al-Hussein and al-Azhar district as mosques are closed in old Islamic Cairo. (Reuters)
Egyptians at Al Moez street in al-Hussein and al-Azhar district as mosques are closed in old Islamic Cairo. (Reuters)

LONDON--Following the announcement that Egypt will ban all congregational religious activities, including prayers and iftar, during the upcoming holy month, Muslims are preparing for the prospect of a Ramadan under lockdown.

Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments announced that it will ban “all congregational religious activities” during Ramadan, which is set to start on April 23. The ruling will ban congregational prayers, including the taraweeh night prayers, as well as any congregational iftar — the evening meal during which Muslims break their daily fast.

The ministry also confirmed it will ban all Mawaed al-Rahman gatherings, which are free congregational iftars held in public for Egypt’s poor. Many mosques, as well as other charity and neighbourhood organisations, usually host daily Mawaed al-Rahman for Egypt’s poor, as well as passers-by.

“Mosques are to remain closed until no new coronavirus cases are registered across the nation and until the Ministry of Health certifies that gatherings would no longer pose a threat to public health,” the ministry said in a statement.

The ban will also apply to the religious practice of I’tikaf, or seclusion, when Muslims spend the last 10 days of Ramadan in mosques in religious contemplation, the ministry added.

Mosques in Egypt, along with almost every other Arab country, remain closed as governments in the Middle East combat the spreading coronavirus crisis.

The outbreak of the virus — officially known as COVID-19 — has been labelled a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation, with a majority of countries around the world imposing travel restrictions and advising people to stay at home in order to address the spread.

Even in countries where the adhan, the call to prayer, continues to ring out from mosques, the call has been changed to address new realities. Mosques have amended the wording of the adhan, replacing the phrase “come to prayer” to “pray at home.”

Despite the lockdown, a committee of senior scholars at Cairo’s al-Azhar, the most senior religious authority in Egypt, confirmed that fasting should continue as usual, even if most Muslims will be unable to pursue traditional activities such as praying in mosques or hosting iftars for friends and family.

Mosques in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been outright closed or seen their operations severely restricted as the region works to address the crisis.

Apart from mosque closures, the lockdown will also affect supplies of goods, with many Muslims fearing that goods, particularly food, could run low.

Saudi supply companies have begun increasing their strategic reserves of consumer goods ahead of the holy month, according to local media. However, with curfews in place in the kingdom and many other Middle East countries, questions are being asked about how people will be able to shop safely and maintain stringent social distancing during this period.

In Egypt, all shops and malls are closed every day at 5pm, with a complete shutdown on Thursdays and Fridays. This not only impacts shoppers but also vendors, who rely on increased traffic in the lead-up to and during Ramadan.

Even something as simple as traditional Ramadan television has not escaped the coronavirus crisis. Many people across the region watch Ramadan soap operas broadcast on a nightly basis over the holy month. However, according to industry insiders, many scheduled television dramas saw filming curtailed and eventually cancelled, likely leaving many channels short of a full schedule.

However, the lockdown could also be an opportunity, with Egypt’s Islamic educational institute and government body, Dar al-Ifta, advising people to reconnect and reconcile with family members during quarantine.

“We must look to the positive aspects during these exceptional times that have compelled many people to be quarantined in their homes and turn this into an opportunity for bonding and forgiveness and restoring the spirit of serenity and cooperation,” said Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawki Allam in a fatwa.

“[We should] repair what can be repaired in terms of relations between family members… Homes are built on love and forgiveness,” he said, “and we are all in the same boat.”