British Mosques Move to Suspend Services over the Coronavirus Pandemic; Time to Focus on the Holdouts

Glasgow Central Mosque was one of a number of leading British mosques that suspended services last night (Wednesday 18 March 2020) in respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Yesterday evening saw a spate of meetings across the United Kingdom between mosque councils, medical professionals, local authorities and other stakeholders about the coronavirus. These included Manchester, Bradford, Birmingham, London and Scotland (where the Cabinet Secretary for Justice Hamza Yousaf and Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer wrote directly to imams yesterday strongly advising them to suspend mosque services).

There were wrenching scenes: senior scholars and mosque devotees were in tears at having to leave mosques they have prayed and worshipped at for many years for the very first time. Trustees were strongly advised that they had a legal duty under charity law to safeguard the health and safety of congregants. Medical professionals restated the medical risks. Attendees were told of projected death rates and its adverse impact on normal funereal arrangements.

Among those that announced suspensions were leading mosques such as Regents Park Mosque, East London Mosque, Birmingham Central Mosque, Glasgow Central Mosque, among others. Of course mosque representatives at these umbrella body meetings will have to go back to their respective mosque committees and ratify the collective decision made at these local/regional meetings to suspend services at mosques, and temporarily close these hubs of community life.

At the time of writing it can be conservatively estimated that 250–500 mosques/prayer halls have committed to suspension, somewhere between 11%-24% of the total (precise figures are hard to come by; the confirmed total thus far is just shy of 190). It can be safely assumed that dedicated Muslim prayer halls on university and school premises will already have been closed. It should be noted that mosque councils only took their decision after the announcement to close the UK’s schools. Unlike the Church of England on Tuesday or the Chief Rabbinate on Tuesday evening, which did respond to the government advisory on Monday evening, the majority of mosques moved more slowly to this position.

Without the leadership of (i) the British Board of Scholars and Imams (BBSI), (ii) the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), and (iii) the British Islamic Medical Assocation (BIMA) making strong statements respectively at the beginning of week for (i) the lifting of the obligation of Jumu‘a in this emergency or (ii) for the suspension of mosque services, or (iii) for highlighting particular medical risks to the Muslim communities, movement may have been even slower. Leadership was also shown by a small minority of mosques, the majority from Shia denominations, that did close their doors earlier.

There are still a few laggards and holdouts. One is the Lancashire Council of Mosques, which instructed its affiliates to close their madrasas after the UK schools closure announcement was made. It is meeting tonight (Thursday, 19 March) to deliberate over whether to now suspend prayers at its affiliate mosques. Yesterday, Quwwatul Islam Masjid in Forest Gate announced that it was going to split Friday prayers into two smaller jama‘ats.

There is a strong current of opinion among some (not all) Hanafi muftis in England from the Deoband school of thought, along with some Salafi support, that is resistant to closure of the mosques. Three legal opinions have been published, one by Maulana Yusuf Shabbir of Islamic Portal, endorsed by Mufti Shabbir Ahmad (Darul Ulum Blackburn) and Mufti Muhammad Tahir (Darul Ulum Bury), which has been of influence upon the Lancashire Council of Mosques, and other Deobandi-affiliated mosques. Of the two issued yesterday, one was by Mufti Zameelur Rahman (Darul Ma’arif in Birmingham) and the second by Wifaqul-Ulama in London, signed by Mufti Zubair Dudha, Mufti Zakariyya Akudi, Mufti Amjad M Mohammed Kakakhayl, and Shaykh Haitham al-Haddad. Hizb-ut-Tahrir UK members have also been agitating for mosques to remain open. It should be noted that Mufti Zubair Butt, also a Deobandi Hanafi mufti, spoke strongly and movingly in favour of suspension at the Bradford Council for Mosques emergency meeting last night.

While it is expected that the vast majority of smaller mosques will follow the lead of the larger mosques that moved to suspend services last night — and that is indeed that strategy that has been pursued by the community’s political and religious leadership — this is by no means a completed process. The clock is still ticking on persuading holdout mosques and even mosque councils to move to suspension at least before Jumu‘a tomorrow and better immediately.

Please contact any holdout institutions you are aware of and use polite but firm language to persuade them to do the right thing and to put the value of life higher than the duty to perform prayers in congregation on Fridays or the daily prayers. It is far better than waiting for the government to use sweeping emergency powers it will possess after the passing of the Coronavirus Bill 2020 to close mosques and madrasas forcibly that insist on remaining open.

People can at least partially fulfil their obligation by praying Zuhr and other prayers in isolation. And as discussed in my blog post yesterday, mosques will have to be inventive and find new ways to reach out and make a contribution to get us through this crisis. And truly God is the best of Protectors and the Best of Guardians and upon Him solely do we rely for aid and help and protection.

Update: 19/03/2020, 11pm

— Quwwatul-Islam Masjid suspended all its activities after Isha’ on 19 March.

— Lancashire Council of Mosques issues letter on evening of 19 March suspending prayers and all other mosque services forthwith. Signed by LCM Chair, signed by Maulana Rafiq Sufi with three local directors of public health. But compliance has been patchy in Lancashire in towns like Preston, Bolton and Bury, with several masajid remaining open for Jumu ‘a tomorrow with inadequate restrictions in place.

Community historian of British Muslim life