Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran are among the major Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East to ban public religious gatherings during the holy month of Ramadan in an effort to counter the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Starting April 23 this year and falling annually in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is observed worldwide by Muslims as a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, group prayer and reflection. Observing Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the five primary obligations, or pillars of faith, that each Muslim must fulfill in his or her lifetime.
Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdul Lateef al-Sheikh announced April 13 that Muslims in the Saudi Islamic kingdom must continue to remain indoors at home, where they can pray during Ramadan. Communal prayers at mosques in Saudi Arabia have been suspended since March 19 because of the coronavirus outbreak that has claimed at least 114 lives in the kingdom so far.
This will also have an impact on communal prayers called Taraweeh, held after dusk during Ramadan. Muslims usually congregate in mosques in large numbers for these prayers, often spilling out from mosque compounds into surrounding streets, in the belief that collective prayer brings greater spiritual benefit to worshippers.
Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Islamic Affairs told the faithful that obligatory prayers offered five times every day, whether at home or in mosques, are more important than Taraweeh during Ramadan.
The instructions to stay home are in keeping with advice from the Saudi Ministry of Health. Saudi Arabia is expecting as many as 200,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the coming weeks.
“We ask Allah the Almighty to accept Taraweeh prayers, whether held at mosques, or homes, which we think is better for people’s health,” the minister said.
The Egyptian government issued a statement March 20, prohibiting public religious gatherings during Ramadan. And a committee of scholars at Cairo’s al-Azhar University, the country’s highest religious authority and among the most distinguished seats of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, encouraged Egyptians to observe Ramadan at home.
Muslims should still fast, the scholars said in a statement, pointing out that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to have no impact on that ritual. However, falling sick or being compelled to travel would be valid reasons not to fast.
Also banned will be public gatherings focused on iftars, or fast-breaking meals after sunset, typically shared with family and friends, according to a separate statement issued by Egypt’s Ministry of Islamic Endowments.
The ban will also have an impact on “Itikaf,” a ritual during which many Muslims spend the last 10 days of the holy month in the mosque praying or meditating.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a televised speech on April 16 that it is likely mass gatherings of worshippers would be banned during Ramadan as part of the government’s continuing efforts to arrest the spread of the coronavirus. Iran has experienced one of the world’s worst outbreaks of COVID-19.
The 81-year-old Ayatollah suggested that Muslims in Iran should express their social and spiritual solidarity during the holy month in other ways, such as praying at home. Although typically encouraged to pray communally, Iranian Muslims should observe mandated social distancing during Ramadan. “In the absence of public gatherings in the Ramadan month, including praying, speeches, and so on … we should create the same sense in our lonesomeness,” the Ayatollah said.
During this year’s Ramadan, many mosques will offer digital online resources, such as video conferencing platforms or live streaming, as an alternative to communal gatherings.