The Covid-19 pandemic has been disruptive to all religious communities in the US, including American Muslims. What happens to the rituals of religion—Durkheim’s “eminently social phenomenon”—when the social is withdrawn from them? Believers find themselves forced to reevaluate the necessity and purpose of cherished rituals, like those associated with Ramadan, when it is no longer possible to perform them in congregation.
“What happens to the rituals of religion—Durkheim’s “eminently social phenomenon”—when the social is withdrawn from them? Believers find themselves forced to reevaluate the necessity and purpose of cherished rituals, like those associated with Ramadan, when it is no longer possible to perform them in congregation.”
In this climate of procedural uncertainty, the need to consult with religious authorities takes on unusual importance. The pandemic, however, is striking the American Muslim community at a particularly interesting moment, when religious/clerical authority is increasingly contested. Believers’ bonds to—and confidence in—the authority of local imams has for some time been eroding, challenged by distant, de-localized, national-level sources of religious guidance. With the suspension of local, physical religious experience (outside of one’s own house), self-styled authority figures in the digital Muslim public sphere gain an unprecedented equivalence with local imams and community leaders. The extent to which local authority will lose its privileged position under “shelter in place” conditions remains to be seen‑ and indeed some local leaders are using frequent online meetings to intensify their bond with their congregations- but there is no doubt that the elastic and elective nature of religious authority among American Muslims will become more engrained and more visible through this crisis.
“With the suspension of local, physical religious experience (outside of one’s own house), self-styled authority figures in the digital Muslim public sphere gain an unprecedented equivalence with local imams and community leaders.”
With its requirement of abstention, distance, and avoidance, the quarantine itself looks rather like fasting and is certainly akin to it. Remembering Mary Douglas, one can argue that both religion and quarantine are about maintaining purity in the face of danger—be it the danger of pandemic or the danger of forgetfulness of God, of falling away from the safety of the ummah. In these days of worldwide social distancing, the phenomenon of religion becomes visible and is re-enacted at a societal and even global scale.
“With its requirement of abstention, distance, and avoidance, the quarantine itself looks rather like fasting and is certainly akin to it.”
In this essay, I briefly consider the pandemic’s potential effects on Muslim communities in terms of questions of ritual, the challenge for religious/clerical authority, and impact on the overall Muslim public sphere. Other significant themes such as racial and economic disparities within the Muslim community were prominent during Ramadan 2020, as well, but discussion of them deserves more time than I can give to them here. (The speech on which this essay is based was given at a panel where other speakers did address these issues. I recommend that readers check out Margari Hill’s work with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, MuslimARC.)
The Impact on Rituals: Repetition, Disruption, and Unsettled Meanings
Rituals are about repetition. Interrupting them harms their spontaneity and saps their strength. For example, for Sunnis (at least for men), one of the defining experiences of Ramadan is attending taraweeh every night. For many, this is what gives the days and nights of Ramadan their distinctive shape. When this staple of the holy month is abruptly eliminated, those who would have joined in automatically are forced to cast about for substitutes. Whatever has replaced taraweeh this year will remain in the worshipper’s spiritual repertoire for years to come, a supplement to or substitute for what was once unquestionable.
“Rituals are about repetition. Interrupting them harms their spontaneity and saps their strength.”
Another loss of repetition is connected with the Friday congregational prayer. With masjids closed, jummah cannot be performed (or, as of early June, jummah is resuming, but is accessible to significantly fewer people). As a result, we see a shift from “public congregation” to “family congregation” in the private sphere. Although the average Muslim family is only gradually working through the technicalities (how many people are required? how many rakaat? who can lead?) what is coming into focus is a “home masjid” practice parallel in some ways to the evangelical concept of the house church. It is worth noting, however, that the idea of praying at home with family has a history in this country—and not an unmixed one. While praying together at home presents a beautiful image of the nurturing Muslim family, it also has long been offered by male authority figures as a way to avoid the issue of improving women’s space in the masjid. Now that praying what would otherwise be congregational prayers at home has become a necessity for many, believers are forced to think yet again about the questions around women’s space and prayer.
“we see a shift from ‘public congregation’ to ‘family congregation’ in the private sphere.”
In some cases, pandemic conditions intensify the meaning of rituals. As people take greater ownership of their ritual practice, they invest new meaning in their actions and experience an enhanced spirituality, gravitating toward practices that are more personally meaningful. Particularly for those whose Arabic is not strong, it may be that reading Quran for themselves in translation (a practice still devalued by many traditional religious leaders) is a more meaningful way to engage with religious teaching. The texture of many rituals is reconfigured when they become private experiences. Dhikr in congregation is intensely interpersonal, with a distinctive spiritual vibe built by everyone doing the same thing at the same time; individual dhikr is more inward and sensual.
“Ultimately the constraints of quarantine may lead believers to question the necessity of certain rituals.”
Ultimately the constraints of quarantine may lead believers to question the necessity of certain rituals. Disruption of routine practice raises doubts about its religious status. Can you pray jummah at home? Is that not a contradiction in terms? Is taraweeh really a prophetic practice? Just how obligatory is it? (Of course, for Shia Muslims this was never a question). Such are the questions triggered by the lockdown.
The Impact on Clerical Authority
In this climate of procedural uncertainty, the need to consult with religious authorities takes on unusual importance. The pandemic, however, is striking the American Muslim community at a moment when its connection to religious/clerical authority has already come under strain.
Now that Muslims have the whole internet at their disposal, they can easily choose the best recitation, the best online lecture, the most congenial interpretation of scripture. They are no longer captive to local talent. Thus far, however, considerations of opportunity cost have limited the tendency to stray: congregants also want to participate locally to keep up with goings-on in their own communities, or to maintain face there, and that leaves less time and less justification for relying on the wider resources on the web.
“We can call this the Netflix effect. Self-styled authority figures in the digital Muslim public sphere gain an unprecedented equivalence with local imams and community leaders.”
With the suspension of local, physical religious experience (outside of one’s house), however, more Muslims are taking the opportunity to look elsewhere. And like all internet-mediated experiences (news, social life), religious intake becomes a bubble. Suddenly it is– at least potentially– possible to leave behind all the irritants of one’s local congregation and find speakers who are entirely sympathetic—who cater to your particular tastes and prejudices. We can call this the Netflix effect. Self-styled authority figures in the digital Muslim public sphere gain an unprecedented equivalence with local imams and community leaders.
One example of a national organization that has capitalized on this shift in interest is ISNA. Throughout Ramadan (and continuing into June) they offered Friday reflections at 1:00pm, effectively taking the place of a jummah khutbah, showing a marked preference for female speakers. For women who long for a female voice in congregational settings—even if they might see impediments to woman-led prayer—this is a step towards increasing women’s presence on the religious stage.
“For women who long for a female voice in congregational settings—even if they might see impediments to woman-led prayer—this is a step towards increasing women’s presence on the religious stage.“
Meanwhile, unable to lead the customary rituals, local imams leaned into more customized lectures for different age groups. Whereas before, imam’s talks after fajr or between maghrib and isha were often aimed at a small audience of truly hard-core mosque attendees, the pandemic lockdown gave rise to a sense that there was a captive audience to be won– but it was a different audience. Talks could be more frequent, because people were at home and ready to listen, but they had to be brief and meant to appeal to a range of audiences: reading Rumi’s poetry at dawn, sahaba stories for children, and post-maghrib tafseer focusing on the most familiar suras. This style of engagement may lead to a different kind of attachment between imams and congregations. If the person at the minbar is a stern, authoritative figure, the friendly man who tells you stories at home is reliable and relatable in a different way.
The Impact on the Overall Muslim Public Sphere
With respect to the overall Muslim public sphere, the pandemic is creating shifts of thinking and emphasis that may or may not survive beyond the present crisis. These include:
Vindication of Muslim Practices Some familiar ritual practices– wudu (otherwise known as frequent hand-washing), greeting without shaking hands– have been vindicated. American niqabis report that with so many people now wearing masks, they draw less hostile attention. There is some hope that the shared experience of face covering may contribute to a lasting sympathy for their practice, or at least demystify it. At the same time, some of the key Muslim virtues– giving zakat, patience in adversity, keeping close to family– take on new salience in a time of emotional hardship and restricted mobility. As these virtues are trumpeted in public service announcements, Muslims take pride that qualities they’ve cultivated all along are playing such a large part in the national conversation.
A Domestic Turn in Ramadan Charity Whereas in the past the Ramadan imperative to feed the hungry has mostly been directed overseas, in 2020, with the needs of (often non-Muslim) neighbors so starkly visible, there has been a domestic turn in Ramadan giving. This year’s charitable giving has been both more domestically focused and more personal. Practical assistance and charity to non-Muslims was a higher priority. Although the data is not in yet, it seems likely that the losers in Ramadan charitable giving this year have been the local mosques, which rely on the season as their principal occasion for fundraising. As the pandemic lingers into summer, however, the heightened awareness of crisis lingers with it, and it is possible that extended local appeals may gradually recoup any loss.
Religion, Science, Conspiracy Theories Times of crisis typically provide fertile ground for conspiratorial thinking. In some Muslim countries (Turkey, Pakistan) authorities, especially among the clerical class, were initially inclined to explain the pandemic as some kind of global conspiracy. They later switched to the idea that the pandemic was a punishment from God, perhaps triggered by the Chinese internment of Uygur Muslims. (Of course, conspiracy-mindedness is global phenomenon– in some countries, notably India, it was Muslims who were blamed for the virus.) American Muslims, on the other hand, distinguished themselves by refraining from such delusions. Consciously tying public health measures to prophetic practice—for instance, by frequently reminding congregations of the hadith about quarantine—most religious messaging directly concerning the pandemic has reinforced the theme of compatibility between scientific knowledge and Islamic faith.
Exemplary Citizenship In New York and New Jersey, March and April saw a lot of publicity around gatherings of Hasidic Jews for weddings, funerals, and religious services that broke the rules prohibiting large gatherings. Mayor DeBlasio feuded publicly with some important rabbis, who insisted that public health orders restricting gatherings were affronts to their religious liberty and even acts of covert anti-Semitism. By contrast, Muslims, consciously or not, took the opportunity to present themselves as a model minority—making it clear to civic authorities that mosques were closed and they would not circumvent the restrictions by congregating in other spaces. By very publicly supporting food banks, feeding their neighbors, making masks for health workers, and generally acting as supportive members of society, Muslim communities stored up considerable civic good will, social capital which may insulate them against future incidents of Islamophobia.
Mucahit Bilici is Associate Professor of Sociology at John Jay College and CUNY Graduate Center. This essay is based on a presentation delivered on May 19, 2020, as part of the panel, “COVID-19’s Impact on Muslim Communities and Muslim Life,” organized by Stanford University’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.