Coronavirus: Muslims prepare to mark Ramadan, Hari Raya at home

Restrictions on mass worship in the region in effort to counter spread of Covid-19 pose challenge for devotees

Police officers with protective masks outside the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur last month. Malaysia said last Friday that it would extend its movement control order to April 28. PHOTO: REUTERS Devotees adhering to social distancing measures during
Ms Suhaila Jamat with her husband Mohammad Shahrin Sharni and their four children - (clockwise from foreground) nine-year-old Muhammad Zaky, 11-year-old Sofiya, seven-year-old Ayra and three-year-old Wafiya - reciting prayers with extended family members through video-conferencing app Zoom last week, after circuit breaker measures took effect in Singapore. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

When the Muslim month of Ramadan begins later this month, Republic Polytechnic associate lecturer Suhaila Jamat and her family will have no choice but to stay indoors.

With circuit breaker measures in Singapore to curb the spread of the coronavirus, there will be none of the last-minute shopping at Geylang Serai bazaar or visits to Al-Istighfar Mosque to perform the special terawih prayers every night.

Instead, the 40-year-old will be attending religious classes via video-conferencing app Zoom, listening to Quranic podcasts and watching live religious talks on Facebook.

"It will surely be a little sad for us since we won't be able to meet our religious teachers and friends like we usually do," she told The Straits Times. "We have to remind ourselves that we're facing a global pandemic and certain measures have to be put in place to ensure the well-being of everyone."

Mass worship at mosques, temples and churches in many parts of the world have been put on hold as a measure against the Covid-19 pandemic, which has so far killed more than 100,000. Over 1.7 million have been infected by the coronavirus, which causes Covid-19.

For Muslims who traditionally spend hours during Ramadan at mosques to perform the congregational terawih prayers or to study the Quran, among other things, the closure of mosques by governments is yet another blow after Saudi Arabia early last month suspended the all-year umrah pilgrimage in Mecca on fears of the virus spreading to Islam's holiest cities.

Plans for the main haj pilgrimage, set for late July into early August, also remain up in the air.

In South-east Asia, government leaders have joined forces with top clerics and religious organisations to calm anxieties as drastic measures were swiftly put in place.

The Religious Affairs Ministry in Indonesia - the world's biggest Muslim-majority nation of 270 million people - has issued a circular outlining prayer and worship guidelines for Ramadan, which include limiting gatherings such as breaking-of-fast dinners and terawih prayers. Muslims need not go out of their homes to pay the compulsory zakat, or alms; officials will go door to door to collect them instead.

Most mosques in the capital Jakarta, the epicentre of the country's outbreak, have shut but many in the provinces remain open.

The Indonesian Ulema Council has urged mosque-goers to wash their hands often and to use their own prayer mats so as to minimise contact.

In Malaysia, the government last Friday announced that it would extend the country's movement control order, or MCO, to April 28, in a bid to further flatten the Covid-19 infection curve.

 REUTERS Devotees adhering to social distancing measures during
Police officers with protective masks outside the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur last month. Malaysia said last Friday that it would extend its movement control order to April 28. PHOTO: REUTERS

Next door, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, or Muis, told The Straits Times that mosques were expected to remain closed at least until May 4, or 11 days into the Muslim sacred month.

"That would mean at least 12 terawih prayers which have to be performed at home," said a spokesman for Muis.

 
 

If the circuit breaker measures are lifted, mosques may reopen, but even so, precautionary measures could remain, including limits on the number of congregants, he added.

"So the community will still be advised to perform terawih with their family at home. The same will apply for Aidilfitri prayer as well," the spokesman added. The Aidilfitri prayer is typically conducted in large congregations at the mosques after the fasting month.

The restrictions have not stopped Muslims from seeking creative ways to worship with their loved ones.

For instance, Ms Suhaila, her husband, aircraft engineer Mohammad Shahrin Sharni, 42, and their four young children have been participating in Quran reading sessions with their extended family via Zoom. "During this period, we should make the best use of technology and the time we have to continue our religious practices at home," said Ms Suhaila.


A Zoom screen showing family members at their respective homes reciting prayers on April 9, 2020. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

FIGHTING THE PANDEMIC TOGETHER

After two weeks of praying five times a day at home, Indonesian cameraman Harry Syahrizal, 50, was "missing the mosque too much" and he sneaked out for a quick congregational prayer with his neighbours.

Wearing a face mask, he joined a few dozen residents to pray at the mosque near his home in South Tangerang, outside Jakarta. He washed his hands with soap and water before entering the mosque, and maintained his distance from other congregants.

 
 

When he got home, he removed his clothing and took a shower before mingling with his family again.

"It's boring at home, I just miss praying with others at the mosque," he said. "The virus can't be seen so of course I'm scared if I get infected. But my neighbourhood is still in a safe zone with no known cases and I'll be very careful," he said.

Indeed, governments continue to face an uphill task in getting the faithful to adhere to social distancing measures for extended periods.

The strongest resistance has come from the Tabligh Islamic missionary movement, which has roots in India dating back a century.

Some 16,000 followers attended a religious convention that it organised in Kuala Lumpur in late February, which later became the region's largest Covid-19 cluster. Two weeks later, another 8,000 members gathered in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, before the authorities ordered that the event be cancelled.

 REUTERS Devotees adhering to social distancing measures during
Devotees adhering to social distancing measures during a prayer session at a mosque in Temanggung in Central Java province, Indonesia, earlier this month. PHOTO: REUTERS

When contacted by The Straits Times by phone, Malaysian draughtsman and Tabligh member Mohamed Irfan Majid, 38, said: "We shouldn't be shutting down mosques. In fact, it should be open to all so that everyone can pray and mend their relationship with God.

"Why are we so scared of the virus? We shouldn't be afraid to die as death is imminent."

 
 

But with greater awareness of the dangers of Covid-19, members of the Muslim community, even opposition politicians and conservative clerics, are putting their differences aside to battle the pandemic together.

The Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party in Indonesia, or PKS, the main opposition party to President Joko Widodo's administration, said it supported calls to worship from home.

The party's senior leader Mardani Ali Sera told The Straits Times: "We strongly agree as religion cares for the safety and well-being of the people.

"When necessary, enforcement has to be carried out to ensure people follow proper health protocols at the mosque, such as maintaining cleanliness and distance."

The Academy of Medicine of Malaysia has called for the movement control order to be extended until June to discourage city dwellers from returning to their villages, known locally as "balik kampung", to celebrate a number of upcoming festivals, including Hari Raya.

 
 

Malaysian pharmacist Norazrin Noah, 29, said: "The extension is necessary. The earlier we take action, the faster we can contain the spread of the virus and get back to our normal life. There's a need for this sacrifice."

Singaporean Zalina Hasan, a 46-year-old senior finance executive at a mosque, said: "I'm sure the majority of Muslims, especially those who often go to the mosques, feel very sad.

"I really hope that things will get better as soon as possible. May Allah protect us all."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2020, with the headline 'Muslims prepare to mark Ramadan, Hari Raya at home'. Print Edition | Subscribe