In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. All praises to Allah, the Creator and Lord of the worlds, and peace and blessings on His servant and Messenger Muhammad, his family and companions and all those who follow them until the end of times.

In this piece, I would like to address an important issue: the case for holding virtual/online community gatherings for prayer due to the unprecedented situation we are facing today.

The threat of COVID-19 has led to the canceling of vital services, including Jumu’ah and congregational prayers, and the shutting down of mosques. This is heart-rending; it fills our hearts with sadness and grief. We turn to Allah, the All-Merciful, to save us all from this pandemic, and bless us all to come out of it, while being in sound health, with renewed faith and trust in Allah, the most Compassionate and the most Merciful.

With the situation being unprecedented, it calls for an exceptional ruling or opinion. It is in this spirit that I address the issue of Jumu’ah. Before getting to the heart of the matter, let me mention a few points by way of introduction:

The Shari’ah or the Divine Laws are from Allah, the All-Wise and all-Merciful; it takes into account human welfare, and enshrines discernible purposes and wisdom. Since it is meant for all times and places, it is at once dynamic and adaptable to changing circumstances. Dr. Muhammad Iqbal put it beautifully when he said that the Shari’ah, while being immutable in principles, has built-in mechanisms for change and adaptation.

The history of Fiqh has been a constant interplay of principles and rules – a process that has continued immediately after the death of the Prophet (peace be upon him), as Islam spread to various countries, and the Companions were called upon to address new issues.

The texts were fixed and limited; however, their interpretation varied according to time and place. 

Shah Waliullah points out that the Prophet’s companions considered the intent of the Prophetic precedents, and that they didn’t simply adhere strictly to the letter of the texts.

In successive generations, Islamic jurists adopted different methods when dealing with newly arising issues. Although many of them were grounded in their own particular schools of jurisprudence, they still formulated rulings differing from the standard views of their schools in order to adapt to changing circumstances. There is no shortage of examples in each school to attest to this fact. Furthermore, eminent scholars among the four schools even allowed for choosing more comfortable options, as long as they are valid, as clearly demonstrated by Imam Shah Waliullah and others.

In the process of interpreting the texts to deal with new issues, a clear distinction was made between Usul (principles or roots) and Furu (branches or derivatives); and fatwas were given based on the Qawa’id or Golden rules, and lately, by a greater emphasis on Masaalih (benefits) and Maqaasid (objectives/ purposes).

While discussing such issues, it’s important to forewarn against the tendency to quote from texts of Fiqh out of context. Imam Ibn al-Qayyim has warned against this trend:

Whoever issues rulings to the people merely based on what is transmitted in the compendia despite differences in their customs, usages, times, conditions, and the special circumstances of their situations, has gone astray and leads others astray. His crime against the religion is greater than the crime of a physician who gives people medical prescriptions without regard to the differences of their climes, norms, the times they live in, and their physical conditions but merely in accordance with what he finds written down in some medical book about people with similar anatomies. Such is an ignorant physician; the other is an ignorant jurisconsult but more detrimental.”

Keeping the above in mind, let us also consider the wisdom and intent of the Shari’ah. Jumu’ah, as stated by Imam Shah Waliullah and others, is a crucial Shi’ar or symbol of Islam, the purpose of which is to demonstrate the community spirit, unity, and strength. Therefore, those who extract traditions or quotes out of texts to rule that one can follow Jumu’ah anytime, anywhere, by listening to a Khutbah on the radio or television would only end up destroying this great symbol as well as the community.

With these remarks in mind, now let us consider the issue of whether we are allowed to hold a virtual (i.e. online) Jumu’ah in these unprecedented times.

I venture to say that it can be done – but only as a temporary measure. Only as a temporary measurebecause, otherwise, it will lead the way to the great harm of shutting down mosques. In this age of increasing trends of individualism, and movements away from mosques (i.e. being unmosqued), we must never adopt online gatherings as a general rule.

With this caution, I would like to state:

A virtual Jumu’ah can be instituted as a temporary measure by each Jami (congregational mosque) serving its congregants. A safe and reliable method of the Khutbah and prayer should be in place to make it easy for the congregants to listen to the Khutbah and follow the Imam in prayer from their homes or workplaces. 

This precedent must stop as soon as the lockdown situation and the ban of closing down places of gathering are lifted.

A question may arise: why insist on holding an online Jumu’ah? Why can it not be left as before — with no Jumu’ah gathering as per Covid-19 regulations?

To address this question, we must first remember that health and government experts have advised us that we’ll be following these regulations for the long haul, which means there will be many months of no physical gatherings for communal prayers. Not being able to meet to conduct Jumu’ah prayers for so long — breaking the habit of attending the mosque weekly for Jumu’ah — will certainly diminish community bonds. Moreover, it would lead to the erosion of our attachment to congregational prayers, and the mosque, which will then result in making it harder to bring these habits back to importance in our lives once the ban on gatherings are no longer in effect. It’s relevant here to bring up a point that Imam Shah Waliullah mentioned about the significance of Tayammum, or symbolic ablution. He said that Tayammum is instituted to ensure that we never forget the importance (i.e. the habit of purification) and that we should go back to regular purification (with water) as soon as our situation changes — i.e. when water is available or can be used once again. We can extrapolate from this, that an action which keeps up the intent and spirit of Jumu’ah that we can institute in the extraordinary situation we find ourselves in, such as praying together online, will be an effective temporary measure that will allow us to maintain the practice or the habit of Jumu’ah until it be reinstated as normal.

In allowing for congregants to follow the Imam online, we may remember these prior flexible rulings of the schools of jurisprudence, when they continued to allow for all sorts of flexibility which were not initially allowed, including permitting people to follow the Imam of the Haram from their hotel rooms, as long as they can see the lines of the worshipers from the mosque, as well as  the lifting of the condition that insists that the Imam should always be in the front, and hence followers cannot be ahead of the Imam, etc.

They lifted the prior conditions by taking into account the overcrowding of the Haramayn (the two sanctuaries of Makkah and Madinah) s well as other factors. There is no reason why we cannot adopt such a flexible approach in the rather tricky situation we face today.  The rule of jurisprudence states: where there is a genuine hardship, the rigor of the law is to be relaxed.

While holding an online Jumu’ah, we may choose one of two options: 

  1. The Khatib and Imam at the same place, with three followers, while keeping the strict requirement of maintaining the physical distance as mandated by health experts.
  2. The Khatib delivers the online Khutbah in one place, and an Imam (preferably a Qari) leading the Salah with the three followers, both of which are streamed live.

The entire procedure should be kept to fifteen minutes, including Khutbah and Prayer, so as not to cause undue hardship on people.

If the lockdown is not lifted in time for Ramadan (as it appears to not be), then we should also hold virtual Taraweeh in the same way as mentioned above: each congregation following their own Qari and Imam. 

In the case of Taraweeh, it should be a lesser issue as it is a Nafl (optional) prayer, with the soul of Taraweeh being listening to the Quran. That is why when the pious Caliph Umar instituted Taraweeh, he appointed Ubayy b. Ka’b, the famous scholar of the Quran, to lead the people.

 Even though people are allowed to pray Taraweeh at home, we should encourage online Taraweeh; otherwise, we would miss the Quranic spirit of Ramadan.

Once again, let me stress the point that each mosque or Jama’ah should follow their Imam so that they would not lose touch with their own congregation and enhance their specific community bonds.

Finally, we must continuously emphasize the fact that these virtual gatherings should be allowed only as a temporary measure. This is according to the rule of Sadd al-dhara’ i (closing the doors), which dictates that we must close the doors leading to unforeseen transgressions or offenses, or, stated differently, we must not pave the way to policies inadvertently leading to the shutting down of our mosques.

If what I said is right, it is all due to Allah’s sheer mercy; if I am wrong, I beg Allah’s forgiveness.

[April 2]