Coronavirus and Sharia law: Divide over closure of mosques and ban of Friday prayers in Idlib 

Friday prayer from the Omar Ibn al-Khattab Mosque in the al-Bab city - 10 January 2020 (Enab Baladi)

Friday prayer from the Omar Ibn al-Khattab Mosque in the al-Bab city - 10 January 2020 (Enab Baladi)


The war-torn Idlib in northern Syria has been experiencing a struggle between jihadist leaders—who refuse to close mosques and cancel Friday prayers—and governmental and medical officials, calling on their suspension amid fears of the coronavirus outbreak, officially known as COVID-19.

Coronavirus infections have yet to be recorded in Idlib, according to the data of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and the health directorate, which are conducting tests for individuals suspected of having the coronavirus disease. 

However, the World Health Organization (WHO) and international organizations have warned of the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in Syria for several reasons, most notably the deterioration of the health sector, which has been ravaged by nine-year war, the population density, the weak civilian infrastructure. Many internally displaced persons (IDPs) have to live in cramped conditions such as IDP camps in Idlib, where they have difficulty accessing basic services.

This prompted Enab Baladi to table the decision to close mosques and suspend Friday prayers in Syria’s last opposition-held territory of Idlib during the coronavirus crisis and discuss the motives of the two parties supporting and opposing the closures. Enab Baladi also contacted the concerned bodies in the so-called Salvation Government (SG), doctors, and religious scholars and obtained the views of citizens on the issue. 

Ongoing dispute about the closure of mosques and suspension of Friday prayers 

The so-called SG of significant influence in Idlib released a statement on 2 April, demanding the ministry of Awqaf (Islamic endowments) to notify all mosque preachers that Friday prayers will be suspended for two weeks in order to ensure public health and safety against the coronavirus outbreak.

Known as Abu Malik al-Tali, Jamal Zainia, a leader in the group of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), commenting on the statement of the so-called SG—before he announced his resignation as an HTS leader and then his return—said in a statement released on 4 April of this year that “the Islamic nation was afflicted with the disruption of Friday prayers and other congregations in mosques under the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic and preserving the lives of people, without imposing strict control measures on the movement of people in the crowded markets in which many evil things are taking place,” considering this as “a type of deprivation and disrespect of Allah symbols and Islamic rites.”  

Al-Tali added that “when restricting the movement of people in the streets and markets, preventing gatherings and sit-ins, as well as issuing a fatwa by the consensus of leading Islamic scholars on the need to close mosques and masjids temporarily for a legitimate interest, then there is no shame in that decision of the SG.”

Abu al-Yaqzan al-Masri, a former HTS commander, also dared to defy the SG’s decision by performing Friday prayer on 3 April.

In a video recording of “Abu Al-Yazqan”, through his channel in “Telegram” last week, he refused to close the mosques for any reason.

Abu al-Yaqzan published a video on his Telegram channel last week, illustrating his refusal to close the mosques for any reason; he added that “the coronavirus has taught us that mosques play an important role in times of ordeal for mosques function as a point of reference for Muslims and a source of Fatwa and guidance so that their gates shall never be shut down.”

The criticism over the decision of the SG was not exclusive to the leaders, people on social media sites criticized the closure of mosques and the prevention of Friday prayers, especially with the proliferation of videos from markets and stadiums where all aspects of life take place regularly.

“We are a civil government body”…  Social awareness exists

The director of the office of public relations in the so-called SG, Muhammad Salem Qasem, told Enab Baladi that the suspension of Friday prayers for two weeks came to prepare the people to take precautionary steps and to reduce the gatherings because north-west Syria has yet to see any confirmed cases of the coronavirus. Therefore people have to cooperate to prevent its spread.

As for public markets, Qasem said, “we stopped the weekly bazaars, poultry and livestock markets, and crowded markets.” As for less crowded markets, they are open to meet the needs of people, expecting stricter measures in the next stage, especially if any case of the coronavirus infection is detected in the region.

Enab Baladi monitored in a video report on the movement of markets in Idlib;  most of the interviewees said that they could not dispense with their sole source of income, amid the absence of decisions and actions to compensate them.

Idlib’s Coronavirus prevention measures … breaking up gathering is the only way to protect people’s health

The SG has undertaken a series of introductory and preventive measures against the coronavirus since the middle of last March, The SG gradually closed schools, educational complexes, institutes, and universities.  Civil society organizations and health institutions have been very active in the region as well in their fight against the virus, most notably the Idlib health directorate, the Syrian Civil Defence (SCD), and the “Violet” organization.”

On 23 March, the SG set up the coronavirus “emergency response” committee to tackle the coronavirus health crisis. The committee primarily aims to monitor adherence to the SG’s particular decisions and circulations to confront the coronavirus disease by the public authorities and to develop an emergency response plan to deal with the coronavirus infection. 

In turn, the Idlib health directorate, in coordination with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partner organizations, has formed a team to set up three hospitals to receive cases of the coronavirus within 15 days. They also establish isolation community centers dedicated to the suspected coronavirus cases, but “these centers would not be sufficient to accommodate the expected numbers if the coronavirus disease broke out in the area.”

The head of the drug control department in the Idlib health directorate, Mustafa al-Sayyid al-Dagheem, told Enab Baladi earlier that social distancing and continuous sterilization of places are the main keys to combating the virus, and the only obstacles to the growing number of deaths.

Al-Dagheem stressed that the people of the region should stay home and stop going out to markets, schools, universities and mosques except for essential needs, and those who go out should take appropriate prevention measures; such as washing hands with water, soap, and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers which contain between 70 percent to 80 percent alcohol, and avoid close contact with people expected to be infected.

Al-Dagheem believes that practicing social distancing and staying at home (self-quarantine) are the only ways to stem Coronavirus spread, referring to the difficulties experienced by developed European countries in containing the infected cases at their hospital. He called on the people of the region to cooperate to confront corona effectively.

Residents of Idlib expressing their opinion… “prayers can be performed at home”

Ahmad al-Imam, a graduate of the Faculties of Sharia and English Literature currently working in Idlib’s health directorate, told Enab Baladi that he agrees that Friday prayers should be canceled and mosques should be closed temporarily due to the absence of the lowest level of appropriate medical care and public health infrastructures in the region. This is why people should not underestimate the seriousness of the COVID-19 virus. 

Al-Imam confirmed his opinion that European countries and other great countries known for being the most medically-advanced ones on earth are not able to control the coronavirus pandemic and lose billions every single day to stem its spread. He added that the role of mosques is to promote health awareness as well as making dua and supplications to Allah for protection against every kind of harm and relief from calamities, after every call for prayer (each athan).

Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll on its Facebook page, with a question: In Idlib, some leaders rejected the decision of the so-called salvation government to close mosques, demanding first the closure of markets…  Do you agree or disagree with this position of the leaders? And why?

About 67 percent of 1,200 Facebook respondents answered positively, while only 31 percent disagreed with the leaders’ position. The comments received were diverged between supporters and opponents of the closure of mosques. Abu Ahmad Ali said that he is against the position of leaders, considering that markets are a source of income for most poor and needy people, while prayers can be performed at home. 

On the other hand, Abdul Salam al-Homs agreed with the decision of the leaders to open mosques and close markets, because the latter is more crowded with people than mosques.

Abdul Qadir Qabbani said that he is against the leaders’ decision and their stances calling for the opening of mosques because preventing mischiefs is better than bringing benefits and necessity makes the forbidden permissible. In this case, leaders’ decisions are against Islamic law. 

“Abu Hatim Doma” refused to discuss whether or not to close the mosques over the coronavirus crisis, stressing that people should not express their opinions about that, letting highly qualified doctors and religious scholars give the right answer, and whoever offers opinions and advice beyond his own knowledge and causes the death of a person bears the burden of his death. The matter is hazardous and not entertaining.

What is the Islamic law about the measures taken against the Coronavirus?

Sheikh Walid al-Khatib, son of the city of Binnish in rural Idlib, and the secretary of the Fatwa Committee at the Kuwaiti Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs told Enab Baladi that all the divinely revealed laws came to preserve “the five basic necessities”: preservation of religion, life, intellect, lineage, and wealth.

Al-Khatib cited the words of Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali that “Sharia aims at five objectives for people; that is to protect their religion, life, intellect, progeny, and property. Anything that protects these is a benefit, and anything that emaciates them is harm, and overcoming it is a benefit.”

Abdullah Abd al-Hadi al-Othman, a member of the Syrian Islamic Council in Istanbul, told Enab Baladi that the Islamic scholars agreed to halt communal Friday prayers and gatherings if the person fears himself from illness or others, and if this is the case of the individual, then a fortiori, the same should be applied to groups. 

One of the highest objectives of Sharia is protecting and preserving life, and this requires protecting it from harm, just as it requires protecting others’ lives, as highlighted by the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, “there is no harm or harm! “

Al-Othman pointed out that with the rapid spread of the coronavirus cases, this subject is referred to the professionals, who are “the medical professionals”, as the Almighty said, “so ask the people of the Reminder if you do not know.” The doctors here are the professionals who stressed the necessity of preventing gatherings. 

Al-Othman clarified that the communal Friday prayers and any other form of public congregations are prohibited. People are to be barred from going to markets except for essential activities, with taking the prevention measures and avoiding public gatherings. This prohibition of performing prayers in mosques and masjids remains as long as the need remains.

Al-Othman concluded by saying, “it is better to make mistakes in preventing people from attending  Friday prayers or any congregational prayer with the possibility that people will survive than being mistaken in allowing them with the possibility of their perishing.”


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