When life closes its doors in front of us, many find ourselves with no solution except to go to our mosques, churches or temples to seek refuge with God. Religion is a fundamental source of spiritual healing and hope; a remedy against despair, providing psychological and emotional support that is an integral part of mental well-being. At a time of confusion and suffering, the threat today comes from a virus that makes no distinction between believers and non-believers.
The coronavirus Covid-19 has infiltrated many aspects of our lives, including how we practice religion. It has forced faith leaders to take drastic measures, such as the cancellation of congregational worship and the closure of religious schools and holy sites. Millions of places of worship are closed — hopefully temporarily — to help curb the spread of the virus. Having already disrupted traditional Easter and Passover services, and with Ramadan approaching, the virus will undoubtedly be remembered by religious people, for all the wrong reasons.
So how easy is it to maintain a sense of spiritual connection when changes to the way that you worship are enforced by external circumstances? Will your religion intercede for you in the presence of Covid-19? Will it protect you?
Most Muslim-majority countries have placed restrictions on religious rituals to combat the virus. Congregational prayer — which for Muslims means five times a day, every day — by its very nature means that people gather in numbers in enclosed places and come into close physical contact with each other. The canonical daily prayer is one of the "five pillars" of Islam. The midday prayer on Friday is replaced by even larger congregations gathering for the Jumu'ah Prayer. Muslim men are obliged to pray this in congregation; you cannot pray it on your own at home, unlike other prayers if the congregation is missed for some reason.
The coronavirus pandemic has closed mosques around the world for the first time in living memory, leaving 1.8 billion Muslims to pray at home or work, or wherever they can. The Grand Mosque in Makkah is usually crowded every day of the year; it now stands empty for much of the time, with a barrier around the sacred Kaaba in the centre, to stop people touching it.
Although no visas have been issued for Muslims to perform the Umrah, the Lesser Pilgrimage, according to the Saudi Arabian authorities there are no plans yet to disrupt this year's Hajj, the Major Pilgrimage which normally attracts millions of Muslims from around the world. The next couple of months will be crucial in this respect.
Similar measures have been taken in Turkey, Iran, Malaysia and other Islamic countries where worshippers are now deprived of the comfort attained from religious ceremonies at this time of uncertainty and confusion. Closed mosques, cancelled pilgrimages, suspended gatherings: Muslim religious leaders have been left with no option but to adapt.
Indeed, this is true of leaders in many faiths; the decision to close their doors is a difficult one to take. Religious rituals are meant to be enacted, engaging the mind, soul and body, but the dangers presented by the deadly virus are too great to ignore.
"For many Christians, the very concept of not gathering as the people of God is unacceptable," wrote evangelical leader Ed Stetzer. "We love gathering in person with feet and faces, but for now, we may best love our neighbour by gathering via electrons and avatars." The Elders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told their 15 million followers worldwide that all public gatherings are suspended until further notice. The Roman Catholic Pope Francis celebrated Easter Mass before a near empty St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. From changing rituals to going digital, places of worship are adjusting to fit the new reality. The crisis has forced faith leaders to come up with new ways of religious observance, from streaming services on video and audio links to encouraging family groups to pray together at home.
Neither illness nor death, of course, distinguish between black and white, rich and poor, ordinary and famous; we are all equal before God and what He has planned for us. The richest and most powerful superpowers in the world have been caught out by this small virus and what it can do to human beings and society. Our status, our money or our faith cannot protect us; they can make us feel comfortable and comforted, but the virus is letting us know that greater powers than our own at work here.
Throughout history, pandemics and plague have been tackled by isolating those who are ill. Quarantine was recommended by Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who advised that people in a place of plague should stay there, and those outside should keep away. Today we have seen that "self-isolation" and quarantine, the cutting of transport links and travel curbs are all being utilised to tackle Covid-19.This was recognised centuries ago by the Ottoman Empire, and the Venetians did the same, with ships arriving in Venice not permitted to dock for 40 days.
The irony for believers is that the places where we would normally go for solace and refuge in times of difficulty are closed. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, gathering with others to pray is probably not the best of ideas. Moreover, while we can pray for spiritual guidance, we must not ignore the practical advice to wash hands thoroughly and regularly, and keep our distance from others. Prayer is not a hand sanitiser — although we should wash before prayer — and holy water is not a vaccine — but soap and water can and does help to prevent infection. While the politicians are charged with trying to guarantee public safety based on scientific and medical evidence, believers of all faiths know that the Almighty helps those who help themselves; that we "trust in God but still tie our camel". When places of worship are closed and the virus is still a major threat, how are our local faith communities coping? If we follow the tenets of our faith, if we have one, and the advice of the government, then the answer should be, "Quite well, all things considered."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.