No pilgrims in times of coronavirus?

Saudi Arabia has called on Muslims across the world to put their hajj preparations on hold for the time being. The corona pandemic is impacting one of the central pillars of Islamic life. But how can Saudi Arabia’s cancellation of the hajj be justified theologically? By Lena-Maria Moeller and Serdar Kurnaz

By Lena-Maria Möller & Serdar Kurnaz

The coronavirus pandemic is not making any exceptions for religious life – a fact that has not only become apparent since the Jewish festival of Passover and the Christian Easter weekend. The sweeping restrictions on public life that are now in place worldwide also cover religious gatherings such as communal prayer, services and funerals.

Right now, the most burning question for Muslims is what communal religious life will look like from the end of April, during the fasting month of Ramadan. At the same time, a second important question is appearing on the horizon for many believers and religious scholars: might the global spread of the coronavirus lead Saudi Arabia to cancel this year’s hajj? And if so, would such a decision by the state, on the grounds of protecting people from infection, also have any basis in theology?

Muslim life and the coronavirus pandemic

Even before Germany introduced wide-ranging measures to control the coronavirus pandemic, the number of people falling sick with Covid-19 on the Arabian Peninsula had increased significantly. As early as the beginning of March, the Saudi royal family decided to postpone the umrah until further notice, and to prohibit believers from across the globe from entering the country for this small year-round pilgrimage.

Only a few thousand people attended the Friday prayers at Mecca’s al-Haram mosque following this decision – a fraction of those who usually turn out for these communal prayers. A few days later, Saudi Arabia banned Friday prayers at all mosques in the country, with the exception of al-Haram mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. Both of these, the most important houses of prayer in Islam, have since also been closed to the public.

In other majority-Muslim countries, authorities and religious scholars also made early recommendations in an attempt to counteract the further spread of SARS-CoV-2. In Turkey, for example, the Diyanet religious authority decreed that anyone who was experiencing symptoms of the illness must stay away from all communal prayers (including Friday prayers).

Mosque minaret with loudspeakers for the call to prayer (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Religiöse Pflichten im Umbruch in Zeiten der Corona-Krise: In Kuwait wurde selbst der Gebetsruf abgeändert. Anstatt zum Gebet eilen zu sollen ("ḥayya ʿalā ṣ-ṣalāt"), rufen die Muezzine des Landes die Menschen nun dazu auf, in ihren Häusern zu beten ("aṣ-ṣalāt fī buyūtikum").

A legal assessment from the Fatwa Council of the United Arab Emirates took a similar line. People exhibiting symptoms were banned from taking part in communal Friday prayers; older people and those with pre-existing conditions were released from this duty and told to perform the regular midday prayers at home instead.

The Emirati religious scholars justified this ruḫṣa, the exemption from a fundamental religious duty, using Sura 22, verse 78 of the Koran, among other things, and the suggestion it contains that God does not lay any hardship on people in religion. They also drew on the prophetic Sunna, according to which religious duties are to be performed only to the best of one’s own abilities.

In Kuwait, even the call to prayer was altered. Instead of telling people to hurry to prayer (ḥayya ʿalā ṣ-ṣalāt), the Kuwaiti muezzins now call on people to pray in their houses (aṣ-ṣalāt fī buyūtikum). Public religious life has come to a temporary standstill almost everywhere in the Islamic world.

In Germany, Muslim communities also followed the recommendations of virologists and state authorities immediately. The Central Council of Muslims announced on 13 March 2020 that in view of the current situation, people were advised against participating in communal Friday prayers until further notice. This decision was an act of social responsibility, intended to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

On the same day, the Council of Islamic Communities in Hamburg (Schura) decided that no Friday prayers would be held in Hamburg’s mosques until the end of March. This was an important step, especially considering that the previous two weeks had been a city-wide school holiday, and a lot of travellers were returning home. The ruling is still in force. Instead, believers can now access a choice of virtual Friday prayers every week via the Schura Hamburg website.

The cancellation of Friday prayers has come as a heavy blow to Muslim communities worldwide, but it can be entirely justified in theological terms. If the Friday sermon and the communal prayer that counts as a religious duty (farḍ) – at least in Sunni Islam – are omitted, believers may still perform the required midday prayer as one of five daily prayers.

People can therefore continue to fulfil this second pillar (rukn) of Islam. But what if one of the five pillars (arkān) is prohibited by the state for a year, for reasons of infection control? Will a potential cancellation of the hajj, which begins at the end of July, be just as easy to implement?

Pilgrimage and infection control

As the guardian of the two sacred sites (ḫādim al-ḥaramain aš-Šarīfain), every year the Saudi royal family is faced with the task of opening the holy cities of Mecca and Medina up to Muslim pilgrims from all over the world, while at the same time guaranteeing their health and safety. In the history of Islam, the annual hajj has not always free of problems.

Iranians wearing face-masks in Qom (photo: picture-alliance/AA)
Ghom, das Zentrum der schiitischen Gelehrsamkeit, als Epizentrum der Corona-Epidemie im Iran: Der erste Corona-Fall im Land wurde am 19. Februar in der heiligen schiitischen Stadt Ghom bekanntgegeben. Am gleichen Tag sterben dort zwei Männer an Covid-19. Von dort breitete sich das Virus im ganzen Land aus. In der Islamischen Republik haben sich bis heute erwiesenermaßen 77.995 Menschen mit dem Coronavirus angesteckt (Stand: 16.04.2020).

During the early period of Islam, political disagreements and even war between rival caliphates and other Muslim groups led to cancellations of the hajj that at times went on for several years. The last time the pilgrimage was suspended was following Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. The French campaign made it impossible for many Muslims to travel to Mecca and Medina safely.

Saudi Arabia, in whose jurisdiction the two holy cities now lie, also has some prior experience of health risks to the hajj pilgrims, who have grown in number from around 60,000 to more than 2 million a year. In 2013 the responsible authorities faced a huge challenge in planning the annual pilgrimage in the face of the MERS epidemic, a severe respiratory illness also caused by a coronavirus. But that time, the hajj was not called off.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s current reservations seem justified. In Iran, the Middle Eastern country worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic, experts now believe the virus spread outwards from Qom. A centre of Shia spirituality, the city is an annual destination for millions of travellers on pilgrimages.

The fact that this place was the point of origin for the nationwide Covid-19 epidemic shows that pilgrimages present a high risk in times of pandemic. It comes as no surprise, then, that at the beginning of April the Saudi authorities called on Muslims worldwide to put their hajj preparations on hold for the time being. At the present moment, no reliable statement has been made on whether the pilgrimage will take place in the summer.

The basis in theology

Given the swift and far-reaching reactions from Muslim scholars with regard to Friday prayers, it cannot be assumed that leading Saudi scholars would contradict the potential desire of the royal family to cancel this year’s hajj. In fact, in the almost global suspension of Friday prayers and other communal worship, we might see a kind of modern iǧmāʿ, a broad consensus from the legal scholars.

The Islamic tradition has a few fitting precedents for taking drastic steps in the interest of infection control, including with regard to practicing the religion, which may go some way towards explaining the broad consensus. According to one story about the Prophet (ḥadīṯ), which is well-evidenced in the sources, Muhammad also called on believers not to travel to a country where the plague was known to have broken out, and not to leave their own country when there was an epidemic of this kind there. This early form of restriction on travel can serve as a present-day starting point for comprehensive preventative health measures.

Pilgrims praying at the Great Mosque in Mecca (photo: Reuters)
Entschiedenes Umdenken und Handeln: Betrachtet man die schnellen und weitreichenden Reaktionen der muslimischen Gelehrsamkeit mit Blick auf das Freitagsgebet, so ist nicht davon auszugehen, dass die führenden saudischen Gelehrten einem möglichen Wunsch des Königshauses nach einer Absage des diesjährigen Hadsch widersprechen würden. In der Tat ist in der nahezu weltweiten Suspendierung des Freitagsgebets und sonstiger gemeinschaftlicher gottesdienstlicher Handlungen quasi ein moderner iǧmāʿ, ein umfassender Konsens der Rechtsgelehrten, zu erkennen.

Islamic law also contains a few central legal maxims on which sweeping restrictions on individual and communal religious practices could be based. The starting point for these maxims is the legal proposition that counts as one of the five basic maxims that span all the legal schools: “Harm should be eliminated” (aḍ-ḍarar yuzāl)).

Further maxims such as “The prevention of harm takes precedence over the gain of benefits” (darʾ al-mafāsid muqaddam ʿalā ğalb al-maṣāliḥ) and “The risk of an individual harm is borne to prevent public harm” (yutaḥammalu aḍ-ḍarar al-ḫāṣṣ li-ağli dafʿ aḍ-ḍarar al-ʿāmm) make this basic proposition more specific and provide suggestions for resolving cases in which benefit and harm collide.

These maxims could serve to justify a potential short-notice cancellation of the upcoming hajj. In the first version, the harm would be the further spread of coronavirus and the resultant rapid increase of people falling ill with Covid-19 both during the pilgrimage and afterwards.

In opposition to this is the benefit to the individual pilgrims, who are fulfilling their religious duty through the hajj – and in this, according to many religious scholars, there is also a general benefit, since the annual hajj also serves a collective interest in the preservation of the religion.

Protecting life or protecting religion

This situation, then, sees a collision between two goods that, in Islamic law, fall into the category of interests that must be protected: the protection of life through measures to combat Covid-19, and the protection of the religion with the pilgrimage going ahead. The fundamental principle here is that ideally, a decision should be made that avoids harm and brings benefit at the same time – but for the question of a hajj during the pandemic, such a solution appears impossible. In the interest of avoiding a degree of harm that cannot be predicted, the benefit afforded by the pilgrimage must be given secondary importance.

The second maxim can be drawn on to justify a potential cancellation of this year’s pilgrimage, even when taking into consideration the large financial outlay and organisational effort that pilgrims take on. Not every Muslim will have the option of going on the hajj in their lifetime. It is therefore classed as something that only becomes a duty in certain circumstances, such as being in good health or having the financial means to make the journey.


Nonetheless, believers the world over go to great lengths to undertake the annual pilgrimage at least once in their lives. The financial outlay, but also the strict issuing of visas, which are often given out through a lottery, might mean that Muslims who would have been able to go on the hajj this year will not have the possibility of going in future.

This individual harm must, however, take second place behind the public harm. The public harm, which here even falls into the category of interests that it is necessary to protect under Islamic law, must, however, be clearly present and affect Muslims in general.

Since these requirements are fulfilled by the heightened risk of contagion both for those travelling to make the pilgrimage and beyond, the individual interest becomes secondary to the public interest. The maxim demands that the greater evil – the spread of the coronavirus and its far-reaching health consequences – must be avoided, even if the consequence of this is an individual harm.

Lastly, undertaking the pilgrimage ceases to be a mandatory duty, independently of these two maxims, if it is not safe to make the journey. This means that one of the conditions that makes the pilgrimage obligatory for Muslims is not fulfilled (as was the case in 1798). Under this interpretation of the law, in cancelling the hajj Saudi Arabia would in a way merely be reacting to the changed theological conditions, without intervening in the discourse itself.

It remains to be seen what decision the Saudi authorities will make in the coming weeks and months. It is currently impossible to predict the extent to which the global coronavirus pandemic can be controlled, and even if this effort to reduce the number of infections is successful, a longer-term restriction on worldwide mobility is certain to be required.

The personal harm to individual believers will be great, but it may give them comfort to know that such far-reaching measures are not without historical precedent and a basis in theology.

Lena-Maria Moeller und Serdar Kurnaz

© 2020

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

Lena-Maria Moeller is a professor of Islamic Law at the University of Leipzig’s Oriental Institute.

Serdar Kurnaz holds the professorship in Historical and Contemporary Islamic Law at the Berlin Institute for Islamic Theology, based at the Humboldt University in Berlin.