"More On Virtual Khutbahs and the Personal Nature of a Pandemic"


SUMMARY DESCRIPTION: Dr. Abou El Fadl returns again to the practice of virtual jumu’as. Recently, a representative of the Association of Muslim Scholars from the Middle East appeared on Al Jazeera channel and issued what amounted to a fatwa (non-binding legal opinion), effectively stating that virtual jumu'as are haram; that it is inconsistent with the laws of Sharia to conduct a virtual jumu’a during the time of the plague in any form. This was right after Stay-At-Home orders from the coronavirus were increasing, and as a result, mosques were closing and people on their own initiative were holding what amounts to a virtual jumu’a, although it is unclear if they were following the proper rules for jumu’a. As discussed in the last khutbah, we cannot simply have an imam who gives a khutbah and offers prayers online, who is not sure whether a quorum exists or not.  


The viewpoint of the Association is understandable. Jumu'a was mandated in part so that Muslims will commune together, physically and collectively worshipping God as a single people and a single nation, an ummah. If virtual jumu'as become the norm, it prevents the important objective of the physical coming together of the ummah. From their perspective, even if there is a plague and jumu’as need to be suspended, there is simply no reason to create an innovation (bida’) in worship, which requires compelling reasons and the use of precaution, as acts of worship are decreed by God directly.


In taking our Sharia seriously, we must balance being irrationally conservative versus doing haphazardly whatever we please in worship. In Muslim countries, suspending jumu’as for a period of time would likely not cause any harm; once the emergency is over and mosques are reopened, jumu’as would fill up again. However, we have a very different set of considerations for Muslims in non-Muslim countries. In non-Muslim countries, jumu'a is often the only thread holding Muslims to their sense of ummah and tradition. There are so many threats and distractions to the withering away of a Muslim identity, especially for the younger generation.  Jumu'a is a lifeline for many Muslims. Because the connection between Muslims and their sense of bonding with the ummah is so tenuous, if that connection is severed for a period of time, it might not return. Once you reopen the mosques, they might not even come back to Islam.


How do we respect the rules of the Sunnah and also tend to the needs of Muslims in the West? Here, the critical factor for jumu'a is there is a sense of collectivity, and also an intent to come together to worship God. If people with pure intent to do jumu'a decide to meet virtually instead of physically because of the circumstances (ie. had it not been for the circumstances, and God knows my intentions, I would have met physically), the rules of jumu'a are met because of the intentionality. In addition, an imam must consent with a congregation to come together under these exceptional circumstances to worship Allah in a state of dhikr to conduct the jumu'a prayer while present. The rules for presence are achieved electronically because these people make the effort to come together, as God allowed us to live in an age in which technology is present.


The world is experiencing a real test. Many have lost jobs and income, are getting sick and dying. In times before ours, Allah has sent forms of hardship. The key is, where do we turn when hardship befalls us? The Prophet was confronted not just with the death of his wife, but the death of all but one of his children. With our modern minds, many of us would immediately become convinced that God has forsaken us, cursed us, does not love us. Hardships test our mettle. When confronted by hardship, it is best to turn to God, recognize our dependence on God, and strengthen our relationship with God. 


Under the circumstances where so many of us will confront challenges of all kinds, what do you do? First, assume in fact, that this affliction comes to speak to you directly. Don’t use logic to marginalize or generalize the events and escape personal reflection and individual accountability. Personalize it because part of God’s miracle is that events unfold at a universal level, but for a believer, every event is highly personal regardless of how universal the event is. Remember that Allah knows us as a collectivity, but also knows us as individuals.

Second, assume the worst. Pray for the best but assume the worst. Assume that whatever you fear will in fact happen and commit to not be a hypocrite. If one does not worship now and waits for the worst to start worshipping, they are a hypocrite. If one waits until their deathbed to start begging Allah for forgiveness, but never before felt strongly about their relationship with God, they are a hypocrite. 


Third, remember that God has made laws of causation and part of being a being a good Muslim is following God’s rules of causation (e.g. laws of contagion, illness and medicine), and having the humility to understand that the laws of nature are not suspended for any of us. To believe the rules do not apply to us is to lack humility and take God for granted. It is part of your Islamic obligation to follow all the rules of cleanliness, distancing, and the like.


Lastly, this plague is an opportunity to come to God. We must not let prior sins and failures to turn to God make us too ashamed to turn to God now. God tells us, "Only those who despair in God's mercy and forgiveness are hypocrites." Nothing is worse than insisting on distancing oneself from their Maker because they have done so in the past. 


If this pandemic is a punishment depends on a person’s actions.  If a person is a sinner or oppressor, it is a punishment and a warning. This is the opportunity for the unjust to reform and come back to God.  If a person has lived a just life, it is not a punishment, but an opportunity to bring them closer to God. The more we supplicate to God, the more our hearts will know peace when God’s name is mentioned.  We must start our process of resolving conflicts with God now and should not wait to receive a warning in more drastic ways. Remember that God is the most merciful. There is nothing that God cannot forgive, and nothing hides from God. 


In many Muslim countries, khutbahs are carefully controlled by governments, resulting in them having no content of value. Virtual khutbahs may be an opportunity to challenge this dead discourse. When a person is oppressed, they become dead intellectually and spiritually. Their creativity is killed. For khutbahs to challenge the authoritarian state of mind, those giving the khutbahs (khatibs) must internally have a powerful conviction that unless they speak the truth, they will be punished rather than rewarded for their speech. In other words, God will not accept a speech that is untruthful or hypocritical. 


Muslims as consumers must actively choose who they want to give khutbahs. If Muslims attend the khutbahs of the corrupt or uneducated and do not rebel, Muslims will remain a colonized and oppressed people. Muslims must insist that the space where God is represented is respected and dignified to attract intelligent people, and demand excellence from their khatibs.


Muslims students in the West travel to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunis or Mauritania, learn a little bit of Arabic and come back spewing Arabic terms, hadith, and Quranic verses, using them as a position of authority and authoritativeness, but ultimately do not elevate intelligence in their discourse. Instead, they are importing the ugly demonic stain of despotism from Muslim countries to Muslims in the West. It is time we realize these practices of jumu’as full of stereotypical statements, buzz words and concepts that defy reason, logic and beauty have no place in making our religion more meaningful in our lives or the lives of our children. It is time to rebel against this type of imported Islam that is deeply infected with hypocrisy and despotism.


Ask yourself, if you die tomorrow, what will be the most important for you? We try to ask ourselves these ultimate questions and if God chooses whatever God chooses, we reconcile our peace with God. 

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