Our Mosques Are Failing British Muslims in the Coronavirus Pandemic

Ghamkol Sharif in Birmingham is one of the few leading British mosques to have closed its doors in response to the Coronavirus Pandemic as of 18 March 2020.

So far it is depressing to report at the time of writing that most mosques have decided to stay open albeit it with what are frankly inadequate restrictions. These will be ineffective in preventing mosques and madrasas acting as means for the coronavirus to be spread by people who are asymptomatic (i.e. who have the virus but who are not yet showing symptoms).

A few leading mosques around the country have taken the decision to close — for example, two in Birmingham, Ghamkolvia and Green Lane Mosque, Cambridge Central Mosque, Al-Rahma Mosque in Liverpool, Manchester Central Mosque, Didsbury, and Shahjahan Mosque in Woking — but precious few others. For instance, East London Mosque, Manchester Central Mosque, Victoria Park, and the Lancashire Council of Mosques are to remain open with these tardy and inadequate measures for Friday prayers this week, as well as ongoing congregational prayers. Only one mosque in Leicester has closed. The rest remain open with restrictions. At a meeting there, the ulama prevailed over the pleas of qualified health professionals in the community to act quickly and with dispatch. This dismal scene has been replicated elsewhere, up and down the country.

This is a scandalous dereliction of duty. The mosque committees and the ulama attached to or employed by them have allowed a conflict of institutional interest to trump the clear and obvious matter of preserving life. And frankly a false argument that congregational prayer is more important than preserving life is not only being advocated but there is emotional manipulation involved, playing on people’s local, ethnic or sectarian affiliations. This is something that principled imams and independent ulama in the UK have spoken out strongly against, advocating instead for the priority of putting people first (not institutions) in this crisis.

This is the crunch period now. Hours matter now, not just days. Our religious institutions must not wait for government enforcement. A clear-enough government advisory was issued early Monday evening. Mosque committees should know that they are legally liable for the health and safety of those who use their premises, and especially so after this government advisory to avoid large social gatherings. The Health Secretary clarified in Parliament that this covers faith communities too.

So what is the temporary role of the mosque without a congregation? Well it could use technologies to reach out to communities at home. The old technology of radio can be extended beyond Ramadan licenses to cover the whole crisis period. Streaming services via the internet could be used to provide education through the madrasas and continue the mosque’s adult learning provision.

The Friday collection could be garnered virtually through regular bank payments or crowdfunding donations after the virtual Friday bayan, replacing the physical Friday khutba. We could pray Zuhr remotely and separately after having come together virtually to listen to the bayan. Let us explore interactive technologies so that mosques hear back from communities and not just broadcast to them.

Last but not least, this is a time for families and neighbours to come together and help each other out, keeping an eye on the elderly and infirm, and all those who will need additional practical assistance at this time. And with Allah lies true success.

Community historian of British Muslim life