Mosque closures and religious authority in the British Muslim Community amidst COVID-19.
By Dr Riyaz Timol, Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, Cardiff University
What does the Covid-19 debate about mosque closures tell us about religious authority in British Islam?
Sunni Islam is an inherently decentralised religious tradition. Unlike the Catholic Church, for example, it has no papal authority issuing edicts on behalf of the faithful. True, in many Muslim-majority lands – such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey – there is a de facto alliance between state and religious authorities resulting in centrally articulated positions on a given matter. In secular liberal democracies such as the UK, however, Islam operates in the private sphere. As elsewhere, a learned elite known as the ulema speak on behalf of the religion gaining popularity and traction based on their scriptural proficiency, perceived piety and ability to connect with the concerns of their (increasingly virtual) congregations. At times of crisis, many lay Muslims look to the ulema for guidance, reassurance and direction.
The bursting of the Covid-19 pandemic onto the world stage has very rapidly disrupted normal patterns of living. Many of us find ourselves adjusting to a ‘new normal’ in which homeworking, social distancing and the avoidance of all non-essential travel and gatherings are key. At the time of writing, a blanket ‘lockdown’ is in force within the UK which has closed much of the public sphere including schools, offices and places of worship. This, of course, encompasses the 1,700+ mosques which dot the landscape of various UK towns and cities. While the issue of collective prayer is therefore currently a moot point, I wish to focus in this article on the heated debates and discussions that animated Muslim communities around the country in the week leading up to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement of the lockdown at 8.30pm on Monday 23rd March.
Islamic Legal Theory and Collective Mosque Prayer
Islamic legal theorists have proposed a set of five maqasid al-shariah, or objectives of the sacred law, revolving around the preservation of religion, life, intellect, progeny and property. These were extrapolated by leading medieval theologians – such as al-Ghazali (d. 1111), al-Razi (d. 1210) and especially al-Shatibi (d. 1388) – from the detailed legal rulings contained in the four canonical law schools of Sunni Islam. Rather than forming an inscrutable set of edicts from an arbitrary Lawgiver, proponents of maqasid theory sought to discern the ratio legis or divine wisdom (illa and hikma) behind Islam’s sacred law. Islam’s prohibition of alcohol, for example, was linked by al-Ghazali to its ability to befuddle the mind thus serving the macro goal of preserving the sanctity of the intellect. In the week leading up to the UK’s national coronavirus lockdown, two of these five maqasid came into sharp conflict – the imperative to preserve religion and the imperative to preserve life – as part of heated intra-ulema debates about whether British Muslims should voluntarily close their mosques.
Daily prayer is central to the life of any devout Muslim. The religion itself has instituted five cycles of ritual prayer synchronised to the position of the sun relative to the earth. Congregational prayer is central to the life of the community and the very word for mosque – masjid – translates literally as the place of prostration. Muslim observers of the emergent Covid-19 pandemic, however, advised that business as usual activities in British mosques would facilitate the spread of the disease. On Monday 16th March, the British Islamic Medical Association issued an open letter to the Muslim community warning “about the harms of ongoing congregational activities”. They argued these would especially impact Muslim communities given the high incidence of underlying health conditions among an elderly population who often live “in extended families…with three generations under one roof”. On the same day, the British Board of Scholars and Imams, an “ecumenical fellowship of Imams, religious scholars, and Islamically literate Muslim academics”, provided theological justification for suspending all congregational activities in British mosques, including the iconic Friday prayer, following an extended consultation exercise with its diverse member-base. Soon after, the Muslim Council of Britain – the country’s most influential umbrella body – issued an unprecedented national call to suspend “all congregational activities at UK mosques and Islamic centres” – mirroring kindred calls made by Christian and Jewish religious authorities.
To close or not to close?
Yet this non-binding advice proffered by various representative Muslim bodies was far from universally heeded. Rather, it kick-started a national debate that raged at the local level in numerous Muslim communities. Ordinary worshippers reacted emotionally to the idea of the sudden and wholesale closure of a cherished religious institution which for decades had provided an unerring rhythm of spiritual and cultural comfort among the vicissitudes of diaspora life. Muslim health professionals on the other hand, with first-hand insight into the havoc that Covid-19 was wreaking in the NHS, patiently addressed congregations explaining that the suspension of congregational prayer was in the best interests of the community and nation. The decision to close or to not close ultimately fell to the trustees and management committees of individual mosques; emergency meetings were convened at the level of regional mosque councils and expert religious opinions were sought from locally respected ulema. Several of these were issued advising that mosques should continue to operate, albeit with increased precautionary measures, until all public spaces were equally closed. These were vociferously combatted by other ulema who felt that obtusely clinging to religious ritual when it demonstrably presented a public health hazard was unconscionable. Prayers could be offered at home, they argued, and the Islamic legal principle that “There should be no harming nor the reciprocation of harm” trumped all other considerations at such a time. A passionate whirlwind of debate thus tore through Muslim communities all week slowly shifting the needle of consensus from the preservation of religion to the preservation of life. By the time the national lockdown was announced on 23rd March, most British mosques had already closed their doors to the public.
An Epistemological Conflict?
Mosques have historically been the preserve of the ulema. They lead the prayers, deliver sermons and share spiritual and theological insights derived from Revelation. Yet their closure was premised upon a form of knowledge emanating from a very different source: that of the empirical sciences. Statistical modelling produced by secular academics and public health advice offered by epidemiologists suggested that communal gatherings – in mosques as elsewhere – would result in the exponential spread of a debilitating virus that would overwhelm national healthcare capacity. The prognosis of the scientists thus impinged upon the domain of the ulema.
Those invested in cultivating Islam as an oppositional identity in diaspora perhaps felt a visceral unease at acquiescing to the dictates of an alien epistemology delivered by the Chief Scientific Advisers of a relentlessly pro-Brexit government with a track record of institutional Islamophobia. Paradoxically, there was also a sense that a government directive to close public places would absolve the ulema of culpability for prematurely closing mosques; or that asymptomatic transmission constituted only a speculative risk that could not trump the established practice of congregational prayer. Opinions which supported the voluntary closure of mosques, on the other hand, evinced an openness to sources of knowledge emanating outside the immediate expertise of the ulema. They considered the risk to life to be categoric demanding immediate action. Theology, as sociologists of religion remind us, does not operate in a vacuum but is freighted with the cultural, political, economic or indeed epistemological concerns of a given social setting or historical moment. The age-old epistemological chestnut between religion and science, exacerbated by the politics of migration, could thus be sensed informing the subtle tussles of authority that played out between ulema, Muslim health professionals, mosque management committees and various Islamic representative bodies in that emotionally tense week.
Conclusion: Religious Authority in a Digital Age
This brief case study provides several important insights into the functioning of religious authority in British Muslim communities. First, it reiterates the well-known fact that legal opinions – or fatwas – offered by religious experts (muftis) are non-binding. Second, umbrella bodies – such as the Muslim Council of Britain or the British Board of Scholars and Imams – will always face an uphill struggle in attempting to represent the interests of an inherently decentralised religious tradition operating independently of the state. Third, the ostensible bifurcation of knowledge into sacred and secular domains may militate against the development of a holistic epistemology which allows fiqh to function effectively in modernity. Fourth, it demonstrates how diversity, difference of opinion and vigorous debate – with varying levels of courtesy (adab al-ikhtilaf) – have always constituted the warp and woof of the Islamic legal tradition. Fifth, and somewhat amplifying this fourth point, the online platforms through which many ulema chose to communicate their views are of some interest. Put simply, the internet has fundamentally altered the nature of religious authority in contemporary Islam. In a digital age, muftis cannot issue fatwas in isolation (no pun intended) but rather their pronouncements form part of a globalised discourse with multiple interlocutors. Unexpected audiences scrutinise their statements contesting and critiquing positions their own congregations would have accepted without question.
Ironically, one of the key functions of religion is to provide a coping mechanism for believers at times of crisis. Preliminary research from the University of Copenhagen indicates that the Covid-19 pandemic has provoked a global spike in religiosity as Google searches on prayer skyrocketed in 75 countries during March 2020. Yet the mass closure of public places has stripped believers of their congregations and usual sources of communal support. As two major events in the Muslim calendar draw ever closer (Ramadan and Hajj), ulema will need to think carefully and creatively about how they can harness the power of technology to connect virtually with their congregations in what promises to be a year of historically unprecedented disruption.
Dr Riyaz Timol is a Research Associate in British Muslim Studies at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. He is the Principal Investigator of a major three-year project examining the lived experiences of British Imams and the co-editor of a special issue of the international journal Religions exploring 'Leadership, Authority and Representation in British Muslim Communities'.
To cite this article please use the following format: Timol, R. 2020. Mosque Closures and Religious Authority in the British Muslim Community amidst COVID-19. Journal of British Muslim Studies, Blog (3).
 I recognise that modern scholars, such as ibn Ashur (d. 1973) or al-Qaradawi (b. 1926), have suggested expanding the scope of maqasid theory beyond these five by encompassing such goals as ‘freedom’, ‘dignity’, or ‘justice’. I also acknowledge that maqasid theory is sometimes hotly contested by ulema who are concerned by its propensity to do away with the specificities of the law schools in pursuit of abstract ideals which may, in practice, serve to legitimise individual or collective subjectivities. Nevertheless, I contend that the maqasid provide a useful analytical lens through which the intra-ulema debates of that week may be viewed.