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Mohammad Kazim, caretaker of the main mosque in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on its roof on Thursday. Image Credit: NYT

Cairo: It was a rare moment in the 1,400-year history of Islam, and another sobering milestone in the march of the coronavirus.

On Friday, the first day of Ramadan, silence shrouded the Kaaba, the black cube-shaped structure that Muslims face while praying, as the virus cast a long shadow over a sacred month of fasting, prayer and socialising that is central to the faith of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims.

The sealed-off Kaaba in Mecca, and another revered site in nearby Medina were among tens of thousands of places in Muslim-majority countries where communal prayers have been banned and family gatherings curtailed, plunging worshippers into a Ramadan like no other.


“It pains me,” Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, who is formally known as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, said in a statement published Friday by the official Saudi Press Agency.

In some countries, though, clerics and worshippers defied restrictions or pressured governments to water down their orders, stoking fears that Ramadan could prompt a surge of infections.

Although public prayers were cancelled in the capital of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, mosques were packed in the autonomous province of Aceh, where clerics ruled that prayers could continue.

At least 10,000 people attended Friday Prayer at the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Aceh, local news media reported. Some said they were putting their safety in God’s hands - even as they wore face masks. “It is God who decides when we will die,” one masked devotee, Taufik Kelana, told Reuters news agency. “But we will stay alert.”

In Pakistan, where Ramadan starts Saturday, Prime Minister Imran Khan bowed to pressure from clerics to keep mosques open, while advising worshippers to observe social distancing rules.

Ban on congregational prayer

The southern province of Sindh, however, which is controlled by the opposition, struck out on its own by declaring a ban on congregational prayer during Ramadan.

For many Muslims, the restrictions on Ramadan - a monthlong period of daytime fasting, typically followed by crowded gatherings in mosques, homes and restaurants - could be deeply painful.

At Al Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem, an imam called out Ramadan prayers across a near-deserted plateau, pleading with God to “have mercy on us and all of humanity and to save us from this lethal pandemic,” according to The Associated Press.

Typically, tens of thousands of Muslims would be visiting Al Aqsa Mosque and the adjoining Dome of the Rock. This year, the prayers are being broadcast on television.

Returning home to be with families

For some governments, Ramadan could be a significant moment for the virus’s spread, similar to the Chinese New Year celebrations in Wuhan, China, where the virus emerged. During the early weeks of the outbreak there, many Chinese travelled from Wuhan to other cities, carrying the infection. Likewise, Ramadan is a time when vast numbers of Muslims return home to be with their families. The travel mostly occurs, though, at the month’s end, just before the Eid Al Fitr holiday.

Throughout the Islamic world, each country had its own approach to the pandemic during Ramadan. Bangladesh has permitted Ramadan prayers but restricted them to 12 people per mosque. Singapore and Brunei, on the other hand, have banned popular Ramadan bazaars where festive items are sold in bustling markets.

Indonesia suspended domestic flights and rail services, and prohibited private cars from leaving the capital, Jakarta, to restrict people from traveling home.

In Egypt, the grand imam of Al Azhar, the revered thousand-year-old centre of Islamic scholarship, ordered Muslims to perform their prayers at home - an injunction that was being respected, mostly, Friday.