Monday, January 17, 2022 - 15 Jumada al-Akhirah 1443

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Keeping a Distance between Worshippers during Prayers to Avoid Infection

Footage of group prayers in al-Aqsa Mosque and others show worshippers standing in prayer at a distance of one or more meters from every side with each praying on their personal prayer mat. Is this manner of row alignment inconsistent with the obligation to straighten rows during group prayers? Does this distance affect iqtida` (following the imam)? What is the ruling on group prayer in this manner? 

Answer

The preservation of life is one of the noble universal objectives of Islamic law. Indeed, the value of human life is of utmost importance in all heavenly revealed religions. Health, one of the most important manifestations of this value, is an expression of the means by which man can fulfill God’s purpose for him. From this perspective, protection against diseases, either through prevention or treatment, is obligatory. Imam Ibn al-Jawzi said that avoiding something that is likely to cause danger or be a danger is sanctioned [in Islamic law] as is taking precautions for God Almighty says, “O you who have believed, take your precaution.” He went on to give examples of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) taking precautionary measures such as hastening past a leaning wall, taking medicine, and wearing a shield (in battle). According to Ibn al-Jawzi, we cannot resign ourselves to fate and destiny without giving consideration to the causes.

Commenting on the words of the Quran “… but take (every) precaution for yourselves,” Imam al-Qastalani said that these words of the Quran evince the obligation of taking precaution against any speculative harm, thereby demonstrating the obligation of seeking treatment with medication, taking precaution against epidemics and against sitting against a leaning wall.

Regarding the issue in question, there is no doubt that the new pandemic, COVID-19, that is ravaging the world today has infected a staggering number of people and proved fatal to many others. Since Islam has prescribed a system for the prevention and control of contagion to prevent the risk of infection, it is therefore permissible for worshippers follow this command by standing apart during group prayers, leaving a safety distance from all sides.

Arranging and straightening rows

While the majority of scholars have maintained that the alignment of rows during group payers in the manner prescribed by the Sunnah is recommended and desired, others maintained that it is a requirement. In spite of this difference of opinion, all scholars agree that failing to do so does not invalidate the group prayer. The premise for their opinion is based on numerous Prophetic traditions exhorting the proper alignment of rows. Among these is the tradition narrated by Anas (may God be pleased with him) who narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Straighten your rows, for straightening the rows is part of the excellence of prayer.” In another tradition the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is reported to have said, “Establish rows for I can see you from behind my back.” In Muslim’s version, it says, “… for it is part of the perfection of prayer.”

Based on these and similar traditions, Imam Ibn Battal contended that the arrangement of rows during group prayers is a recommended Sunnah and not obligatory. Had it been obligatory, he argued, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) would not have said that it is “part of the excellence of prayer” because excellence surpasses the fulfillment of the legal obligation of performing prayer.

Forming rows by having worshippers stand apart from each other as mentioned in the question does not stray from the meaning and purpose of row alignment. Scholars have maintained the permissibility of keeping slight gaps between worshippers performing prayer. They found no fault in this with regard to disrupting the integrity of the rows. They likewise maintained that row-spacing during prayer does not prevent iqtida` nor does it disrupt the integrity of group prayer because the mosque is a single space and standing in any spot in it is tantamount to standing in a group. They furthermore argued that all worshippers within the environ of a mosque are in group prayer. Some even went as far as to say that the amount of space between worshippers is based on custom. The Maliki scholar, Al-Kasani, said that it is permissible for a worshipper praying in the farthest corner of the mosque to follow the imam who is standing in the mihrab since the entire mosque is essentially a single space. He also said, “The entire mosque has, de jure, the status of being a single area. For this reason, it is permissible to follow the imam in the mosque even if the rows are broken.”

Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwaini noted that there is no harm in keeping a considerable distance between [the congregants in the same row] if the mosque accommodates both the imam and the worshippers following him in prayer since the mosque was established for this purpose.

The above and other similar scholarly opinions demonstrate that the gaps observed by congregants during group prayer that was mentioned in the question as a protective measure against COVID-19 while lining up in a straight row does not deviate from the purport of straightening the prayer lines and their unity. Furthermore, it neither breaks up the group nor iqtida`.

Although the majority of scholars have maintained the offensiveness of breaking up rows during group prayer, it is nevertheless established in the maxims of Islamic law that offensiveness is removed by the minimum need. If that is the case, then surely a necessity related to the preservation of life has the highest precedence.

Based on the above, there is no objection to spacing worshippers during group prayers in the manner mentioned in the question to prevent infection. The group prayer observed in this manner is valid and consistent with the meaning of aligning prayer rows in a straight line. In addition, jurists condone leaving small gaps between worshippers, maintain that this does not prevent the unity of rows, does not invalidate iqtida`, nor break up the group. The same applies to spacing rows and leaving wide gaps between worshippers because group prayer is fulfilled by standing in any spot in the mosque even if the rows are not contiguous. The amount of space between worshippers performing group prayer is determined by custom and the local practice of the people.

In addition, it is important to understand that a high concentration of people in a group prayer or in any place during an epidemic will most probably contribute to the spread of infection and exacerbate the crisis further as is the case at present. Consequently, decisions were taken to suspend any congregation of people while Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta issued a fatwa that determined the permissibility of such decisions.

And God Almighty knows best.