Religion in Quarantine: Side Emre on "From Phsyical to Virtual Pious Presence: Muslim Community Conciousness Redefined in the Age of Coronavirus"

The following blog post is an edited excerpt from an essay appearing in the Network’s second eBook Project entitled Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World. This book features personal and research reflection on how their understanding of religion is being altered and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eBook is available for FREE download at:

From Physical to Virtual Pious Presence: Muslim Community Consciousness Redefined in the Age of Coronavirus

Side Emre

Possibly derived from Hebrew (ummā or umetha), the Arabic term umma, meaning “community or people,” has a long linguistic history reaching back to Akkadian (ummatu). During the foundational period of Islam, the umma referenced communities who shared a common religion and faith, and in later periods, it came to define different Muslim communities with specific regional designations and nonpolitical/partisan affiliations. For pious Muslims today being part of the umma is tantamount to Muslims’ unique sense of identity. It is a transcendent spirituality and a moral code that connects every believer to Prophet Muhammad and God in sanctuaries of worship. This identity relies not only on common ethical or spiritual principles but also on close physical bonding in worship locations (mosques, masjids, shrines) where the pious can congregate, peacefully practicing their faith, alone and yet in commune, with their fellow Muslims, replicating centuries-old traditions and fulfilling their promise to submit to the will of God. In fact, the physical aspect of communal worship is so central that every Friday, pious Muslims congregate for the Friday prayers in their neighborhood mosques across the globe. This is but one aspect of the Muslim faith which is being redefined in the post-COVID-19 world.

In an effort to curb the disease’s spread, the Saudi government suspended the Umrah Pilgrimage to Mecca on March 31. Following this decision, the Saudis also announced that annual Hajj Pilgrimage travel plans would be put on hiatus for July 2020. With no equivalent precedent known in modern history, one of the most significant events and one of the five pillars of Islamic faith has thus been suspended because of the pandemic. In Turkey, Friday congregational prayers are now prohibited, as well as the five daily prayers in masjids/mosques. The famous al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem has closed its doors to worshippers. In Senegal, popular Sufi festivities have been suspended. In many mosques across the globe, fervent disinfection procedures and indefinite mosque closures have been put in place. In Sri Lanka, a majority-Buddhist nation, members of the Muslim minority population who died from COVID-19 have been cremated as per governmental orders to prevent communal funeral prayers, disregarding Muslim burial rites. For conservative Muslim nations, such as Qatar, there is another angle: Governmental restrictions imposed by the pandemic require the favorable opinion (Arabic: fatwa) of religious scholars (Arabic: ulama) before they are legally put into action.

As with the expansive spectrum of countries with majority- or minority-Muslim populations, different measures and restrictions forced on citizens aim to the curb destruction of human life rather than adhering to religious tradition. While many countries are willing to err on the side of caution, there are others with limited economic infrastructure struggling to withstand the effects of the deepening crisis. In the Global South, some countries such as Burkina Faso, with an over 60% Muslim population, chose to implement next to no restrictions for communal gatherings of worshippers. There is a growing sentiment in economically insecure countries that building “herd immunity” remains the more realistic solution to prevent total societal and economic collapse. In other words, just as the Muslim world represents an expansive and eclectic spectrum of faith with Sunni and Shi’i creeds, and with followers of Sufi orders, the official responses to the pandemic also differ from one majority-Muslim country to the next, depending on an array of complex societal, political, and economic urgencies.

This is just one side of the coin. How do Muslim communities respond to the crisis as it is unfolding in the U.S.? One telling example is found in the Aspen Institute’s Resources for Maintaining Community During the COVID-19 pandemic (Aspen Institute, 2020) and its outreach. The institute’s Inclusive America Project details in a blog how Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim communities are adjusting to the rapid changes happening today. The shift from contact-based community worship and religious practice to virtual ones has been abrupt. Their focus on digital platforms that give information on online events and digital faith-based communities, teaching tools, and other mediums reflects innovative efforts to increase mindful and compassionate connectivity between practitioners of different faiths. In that framework, the blog provides various useful links and informs us that platforms such as the Islamic Network Groups and livestreamed prayer services by different Muslim community centers in the U.S. are among the digital venues that Muslim practitioners can utilize to transform their understanding of faith-based community during the pandemic. Other influential networks such as the Islamic Medical Association of North America, the American Muslim Health Professionals, Islamic Society of North America, and Fiqh Council of North America advise Muslim communities to suspend daily prayers as a precaution. The ADAMS Center in Virginia, one of the most well-known mosques in the U.S., not only canceled daily prayer services but also halted center-based educational programs. This organization now offers sermons on Facebook, as well as a Facebook Live venue connecting health professionals with community groups.

As practitioners of world religions, whether monotheistic, polytheistic, and/or agnostic, we all face similar fears, sense of loss, and yearning for hope. We also strive for a common goal: to create a safe haven for our loved ones and share empathy for others whose stories we read, watch, and listen to, ever more so intently than before. Perhaps what we accepted as a physical faith community changed, but the idea of the community will continue to thrive as Muslims will continue to innovate and adjust their faith to the demands of this new world.

Side Emre is an Associate Professor of the history of the Islamic world and religion at Texas A&M University and a scholar of Islamic mysticism, religion, and the early modern history of the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. Her book, Ibrahim-i Gulshani and the Khalwati-Gulshani Order (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2017) examined the historical trajectory of the Khalwati-Gulshani order of dervishes with their socio-political/cultural impact in the Muslim world.

Aspen Institute. (2020, April 27). Resources for maintaining community during the COVID-19 pandemic [Web log post]. Retrieved from