An Imam Leads His Congregation Through the Pandemic
In most states, religious institutions are exempt from shutdowns, and leaders have struggled with whether to close their doors.
April 8, 2020
Idris Abdul-Zahir, the head imam of the Masjidullah mosque, in West Oak Lane, Philadelphia, weighed throughout March whether to close the mosque’s doors.Photographs by Hannah Yoon for The New Yorker
n Thursday, March 19th, Idris Abdul-Zahir, an imam in West Oak Lane, Philadelphia, wrestled with whether his mosque, Masjidullah, should open the following afternoon for the Friday prayer service, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic
. The mosque, one of about seventy in the Philadelphia area, has almost a thousand members. It also hosts a day-care center for nearly two hundred children, called the Masjidullah Early Child Care Academy, or mecca; an online Islamic school for forty students, called the New Medina Institute; Islamic girl- and boy-scout troops, the Alimah and Jawala Scouts, respectively; two senior-citizen groups; and a food program that has distributed fresh produce to hungry people for the past thirty years. The day-care center, which had closed earlier in the week, provides breakfast and lunch to all students, many of whom are among the twelve per cent of children in Philadelphia who face food insecurity. Amid the closure of public schools and other programs, Masjidullah was scrambling to try to keep feeding children. “If we don’t stay open, these kids are going to go hungry,” Abdul-Zahir told me. “The threat of covid-19 is not as real for some people as the threat of hunger.”
Abdul-Zahir, who is forty, with a baby face and sleepy eyes, grew up in the city’s Germantown neighborhood. His parents helped found Masjidullah in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of West Oak Lane forty years ago. Abdul-Zahir attended Temple and Drexel Universities and currently keeps a day job managing I.T. systems for the city of Philadelphia. He also has a film-production company, and, in 2012, he worked with Black Public Media to direct a Web series called “Ask a Muslim,” in which Muslim-Americans answered questions about their faith. “So many people were saying things about Islam after 9/11,” he told me, “but no one was actually asking black Muslims for answers.” For the past two years, he served as assistant imam at Masjidullah, but, in mid-March, just a few weeks ago, he was sworn in as head imam. The arrival of covid-19
thrust him into the same position as many religious leaders, who are trying to guide their congregations through a public-health crisis. In many places around the world, large worship gatherings had helped spread the virus. “I was put in place as imam here to work through difficult issues,” he told me.
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For spiritual guidance, Abdul-Zahir looked to the Quran and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place,” the Prophet had said—a thirteen-hundred-year-old shelter-in-place order. However, elsewhere Muhammad had emphasized the importance of Jumuah prayer, the Friday service. “In Islam, it’s obligatory for men to gather on Friday to pray,” Abdul-Zahir told me. After two conference calls with his members, he felt that he needed to keep the mosque open for prayer and food services. “I have overwhelming support that people want to come out,” he told me. “We’re prepared to take the proper precautions, but we need to stay open. If we don’t, I don’t know how people who are not being paid are going to survive.” Given the mosque’s large space, he believed that at least six feet between congregants could be easily maintained. “On an average day, I might shake one hundred hands,” he said. “I’m somewhat of a germophobe, so I already use Purell.” On March 19th, there were only eighteen diagnosed cases of covid-19 in the Philadelphia area. (Due to a lack of testing and the fact that many carriers are asymptomatic, the number of cases was probably much higher.) “Even if I multiply that by ten, that’s still only a hundred and eighty in a city of 1.5 million people,” he told me. “At least in my opinion, it’s not time to hit the bunkers yet.”
Masjidullah, which has a thousand members, also hosts a day-care center, an online school, scout troops, senior-citizen groups, and a food program.
The next morning, on Facebook, Masjidullah posted a list of precautions for the service, including “Take your temperature before going to prayer” and “If possible try to avoid handshakes and hugs.” If anyone was sick, the announcement went on, they were welcome to stay home and watch the service on Facebook Live. (With his I.T. savvy, Abdul-Zahir has live-streamed his services for the past year.) Some felt that he was endangering his congregation: he received an outraged message from Teresa Rollins, a former congregant who’d moved away from the area. “Gov Wolf has ordered all non-essential to life businesses to be closed and no more than 10 can congregate . . . Skype your services online! It is our responsibility to flatten the CV virus curve!” she wrote. Abdul-Zahir responded, “Jumuah prayer is essential to my spiritual life. Those who’d like to stay home & watch via FB Live should do so. Those who want to come out while taking the proper precautions should also do so. There is no compulsion in the religion.”
That week, when I visited the mosque, Janeen Bey, one of the halal chefs for the day-care center, was preparing grab-and-go meals in brown-paper lunch bags which included an apple, potato chips, and a chicken-salad sandwich. “I’m grateful to do it, and I look forward to it every day,” Bey, a distinguished woman, who stood behind a folding table in the windowless prayer hall, told me. “But I’ll be more than happy to see things get back some normalcy.” Near her stood the Islamic-studies teacher, the headmistress of the cyber school, and the head of the Alimah Scouts program. Around them, a dozen or so rambunctious kids played tag or broke open bags of chips. The grab-and-go halal-lunch program was just getting started, and only about ten families collected meals that day. It was still the first week of quarantine, Bey added, and people still had food in their pantries. Soon, when their incomes had dried up, they wouldn’t.
For the afternoon service, some forty-five people came to pray. Sheikh Anwar Muhaimin, an imam from a neighboring mosque, offered some words about fear around the pandemic and the constant stream of estimates about how many Americans would die from the illness. “In this moment, we’re not worshipping science, we’re not worshipping doctors, we’re not worshipping statistics,” he said. He quoted a famous Hadith, “Trust in God but tie your camel,” which urges believers to pray for God’s help but still take necessary precautions. “We’re worshipping Allah and tying our camel—our Lexus,” he said, to laughter. At the end of the service, he ushered people out the door. “We’re being asked gently and kindly, after the Salat, to disperse right away,” he said. “Nothing personal, brothers. No hugs today. No daps.”
Masjidullah offers halal grab-and-go lunches and delivers fresh produce to families in need in its community.
Amid the pandemic, religious leaders are trying to figure out how to minister to their congregations without exposing them to infection. In South Korea, more than sixty per cent of the country’s seven thousand cases in early March had been traced to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious group that had a large service, in Daegu, where the virus spread. In Malaysia, the number of infections spiked after sixteen thousand people attended a mass gathering at a mosque near Kuala Lumpur. To curb the risk of infection, mosques, synagogues, churches, and temples around the world are making historic decisions to close their doors. In Jerusalem, the Great Synagogue, which holds ten thousand worshippers, has closed, as has the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is said to stand on the spot where Jesus was crucified. In Turkey, all mosques are closed for Friday prayer. In Kuwait, a muezzin, who issues the call to prayer from the minaret of a mosque five times a day, is no longer singing only “come to pray”; he now adds “pray in your homes.”
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In the U.S., some religious groups have been resistant to closing. Many simply believe that their congregants’ need for spiritual support or social services is still more urgent than the pandemic. (As the friar Michael Duffy, of St. Francis Inn, a soup kitchen in the city, told me last week, “I feel like a red cloud is heading for Philadelphia, but it hasn’t reached us yet.”) Others have political objections to the quarantine: some conservative evangelical churches—it’s unclear how many—have continued to meet, citing Donald Trump’s skepticism about the risks, and also their constitutional right. Solid Rock, a Cincinnati-based megachurch that held a fund-raiser for Trump last month, refuses to close; Mike DeWine, Ohio’s Republican governor, recently tweeted, “We did not order religious organizations to close, but my message to
everyone is that this is serious. When you are coming together, whether in a church or wherever—this is dangerous.” To attempt to curtail such gatherings, Michigan has discouraged all meetings that take place outside the home. Tennessee has banned any gatherings of ten or more people; the pastor Greg Locke, of Global Vision Bible Church, based in Mount Juliet, has kept his church open and has said that he is consulting lawyers about fighting efforts to force it to close. Most states, including New York and Pennsylvania, have ordered the closing of all nonessential businesses but have exempted religious institutions. The administration of the Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Wolf, recently announced that it “encourages religious leaders to exercise discretion in order to mitigate the spread of illness.”
A congregant of Masjidullah.
Some religious leaders were devising creative ways of connecting with their congregants. On a recent Sunday morning outside St. Luke’s, an Episcopal Church in Germantown, Mother Lorna Williams, an associate priest, held a brass box of wafers and waited for takers of drive-through and walk-up communion-to-go. The church had set up the system a week earlier, to avoid hosting large gatherings. “We did ashes-to-go on Ash Wednesday,” she told me. She was wearing a long black cape over her vestments. “We need to have God’s love more than ever,” she said. A black Honda pickup pulled up, and Williams scooted to the driver’s-side window. “Hey, sweetie!” she called to the driver, a longtime parishioner. She handed a wafer through the car window. “The Body of Christ,” she said.
Williams’s colleague, Brother Jason Peter, waited on the curb. “I’ve had people look at me askance,” he told me. “We know we’re taking risks, but the sacraments are really important.” Four choir members stood singing on the steps of the church, while the rector, David Morris, who has been at the church since 2011, stood by, shooing them away from one another so that they maintained social distance as they sang. But the following week, with cases mounting, Morris decided that even a drive-through communion was no longer possible. “The risk of spreading the virus is too great,” he told me. For the same reason, the church had closed its nutrition program, which serves nine thousand meals a year. “It’s very frustrating, because I know that people are hungry, but we have to make sure we’re doing our part in not spreading the virus,” Morris said. “It’s like walking a tightrope.”
Leading worship is only one of the roles that religious organizations play in their communities; many have begun focussing, instead, on trying to bring help to those in need. Church quilting circles are now making masks; synagogues are delivering food bags. “There is the very real need for spiritual respite and connection,” the Reverend Fletcher Harper, the executive director of GreenFaith, an interfaith organization devoted to fighting the climate crisis, told me. “But then, pretty quickly, there’s a desire to engage in practical action.” In this way, he felt, there was a parallel between the pandemic and the climate crisis: “Everything normal is disrupted and it forces people to connect with one another in a much deeper-than-normal way.” He noted that GreenFaith is adapting its organizing methods to help others amid disaster. On a recent organizing call on Zoom, the Reverend Leo Woodberry, a civil-rights leader who helped to shut down the K.K.K.’s operations in South Carolina, in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, said, “People of faith have always been the vanguard, the point of the spear, when there’s devastation and despair.” He added that members could try to find creative ways to help. One participant noted that, if homeless shelters were closed, they could try leaving hand sanitizer, wipes, and towels at designated locations. One simple way to help was to reach out to vulnerable neighbors and ask what they might need. In tangible ways, he went on, the virus revealed humanity’s interconnectedness: “A little bat in China affects us all.”
A congregant at a Masjidullah Friday prayer, outside the mosque.
A security guard in the mosque’s doorway.
On Friday, March 27th, Masjidullah’s rambling stucco building was mostly closed. There were now more than seven hundred confirmed covid-19 cases in Philadelphia. The mosque was no longer hosting daily prayer, since disinfecting the carpet four times a day had proved to be an overwhelming amount of work. But it was still giving out food to those who needed it. At noon, Bey and others began handing bagged halal lunches out a side door to the day-care center. Donations had increased, so the brown-paper bag was now stuffed with an extra juice box and piece of cake. The volunteers tried to keep the door shut, so that no one could enter the building. A steady stream of people arrived: a grandmother and her three grandchildren drove up to pick up five lunches; a mother and daughter took three; a larger group took seven to distribute to needy neighbors.
Abdul-Zahir had decided to hold another Friday service. Mosques in Saudi Arabia were closed to worshippers. Saudi cities were under a twenty-four-hour curfew. Scholars at Al-Azhar, Egypt’s renowned university, had issued an edict proclaiming that it was O.K. to suspend Friday prayer, as had the Fiqh Council of North America, a leading scholarly body on Islamic Law in the United States. “Not only is there no sin in doing so, rather it is sinful to flout such regulations and bring risk to oneself and to others,” the Fiqh Council’s edict reads. Saffet Catovic, an imam and chaplain at Drew University and an adviser to the Fiqh Council, told me that, during a period of flash flooding in Muhammad’s lifetime, he directed people to pray in their homes rather than risk their lives by coming to the mosque. But some imams were still arguing that the duty to perform Friday prayer outweighed the risks. Several clerics in Pakistan, defying the government’s orders, continued to host mass gatherings. Abdul-Zahir’s congregation was pressing him to hold the meeting. He had recently attended a conference call between the Department of Health and religious leaders, during which officials had reiterated that religious organizations were allowed to continue operating. “It’s not just the prayer piece,” Abdul-Zahir said. “We’re providing more food than ever.” He didn’t exactly feel that people’s fears and the government’s warnings were overblown, but he didn’t yet believe that the virus was the most urgent concern for some members of his community. “I want to make sure we’re following the protocols,” he said, “but people still really want to come.”
At 1:15 p.m., in twos and threes, some forty men, ranging in age from their twenties to their seventies, startled to trickle into Masjidullah’s sanctuary for prayer. An elderly man, who had a fierce, hacking cough, remained in the lobby, drinking water. Abdul-Zahir addressed the congregation regarding covid-19. “We’ve said that we’re making decisions based upon knowledge, not ignorance or fear,” he began. “The stay-in-place order that came from the state and also from the city—those do not apply to religious institutions such as Masjidullah, which are considered essential.” The mosque was now feeding up to sixty children a day, he went on. “We want to make sure that people get fed, because we don’t know what’s going to happen with those folks if we close, and we don’t want people to turn to all types of things that are not good in order to eat.” The coughing continued in the lobby, interrupting the speech.
Amid the closure of public schools and other programs, Masjidullah has scrambled to try to keep feeding children in the community.
The next morning, I received a text from Abdul-Zahir. “Good morning,” he wrote. “Masjidullah has decided to close for Jumuah prayer until further notice.” I called to ask him what had transpired since he gave his remarks the previous afternoon. He told me that hearing the man with the hacking cough had frightened his congregants. “It makes people nervous,” he said. “Once folks get nervous, the community calls me to express concerns.” He’d also grown worried about the approach of the virus: there were now nearly a hundred confirmed cases in the three Zip Codes surrounding the mosque. “The people around us have it now, and they’ve given us information that I’d be foolish not to act upon.” The grab-and-go meals would continue, he said, at least through mid-April. They would deliver fresh produce to people’s homes as long as they had the volunteers. And they would still hold Friday prayer, and stream it via Facebook Live. He told me, “As long as there are three people gathered together, it’s a service.” The following week, Governor Wolf asked Abdul-Zahir to offer a statement in support of finding alternative forms of worship during the pandemic. “I encourage every religious leader to consider this unseen harm, the Covid-19 virus, in their locale and recommend actions that will keep their congregations out of harm’s way,” he said in a press release from the state. “For it is written in the Quran that the saving of one life is as if you’ve saved all humanity.”
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