If there is any silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it forced organizations that primarily interact with their audiences in person, organizations like mosques, to embrace the internet.
Before the pandemic, mosques were packed whenever I attended. Cramming in as many Muslims as possible so they could all take part was the norm. Muslims are obligated to pray certain prayers, like Friday prayers, at a mosque, and making room so others can fulfill that obligation has always been my experience.
Then, the pandemic hit. All in-person gatherings at the mosque were put on hold.
My local mosque, the Islamic Institute of Toronto, streamed its first Eid Prayer in June 2020 in an effort to reach their hundreds of members, who had been barred from from attending in person due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Recording the sermons and prayers isn’t new. But live-streaming them definitely is.
In addition to streaming the prayer and sermon, IIT doubled the number of in-person outdoor Eid ceremonies from two to four, with masks and social distancing strictly enforced.
The end of Eid prayer is usually a time to socialize and celebrate after a tough month of fasting. This custom was discouraged last year in an effort to comply with COVID-19 mandates.
Not being able to see my extended family or friends was certainly a different experience for me. I understood the need to do so, but the first Eid in the pandemic felt more like a doctor’s appointment and less like a celebration.
The transition wasn’t easy for IIT either, according to Mohamed Khadim, an administrator at the Islamic Institute.
“It is very difficult to replace the intimacy of Jamaat (Arabic for congregation),” Khadim said.
Some, however, particularly the the younger members of the congregation, are more open to this digital development.
Abubakar Alim, 20, a student who attends IIT, said the pivot to streaming was long overdue and hopes mosques continue to provide online services, even as some mosques have recently moved services back indoors.
“Everything is on the internet,” Alim said. “We have the technology and more options are better for everyone.”
My grandmother agrees. By Eid, she hadn’t been able to attend the mosque for more than a year, and was ecstatic to be able stream the Khutbah (Islamic sermon).
Khadim and the Islamic Institute are acutely aware of the effect of isolation on the elderly.
“As an institution, we tried to mitigate this [loneliness] with more regular online programming for seniors, such as khutbahs and other programs,” he said. In addition to the increase in streaming, IIT also organized drive-through events for food and loot bags that included candy and toys for children.
How donations have been affected
Not only is communal prayer a way for the congregation to feel connected, it is also typically the time they would donate to their mosques as well.
Muslims are encouraged to donate any time they go the mosque. Ramadan, with its nightly prayers,
COVID-19 took that in-person option away. And IIT has felt the effects.
“There was a marked decrease in our finances and regular donations in the second Ramadan in May 2021,” Khadim said.
“The first Ramadan, we did very well and actually exceeded our target. However, we believe that was due to the pandemic not taking hold yet, and people did not feel that financial squeeze.”
While there is an online option to donate and people are now able to congregate indoors, the amount of money the mosques receive isn’t back to the level it was before the pandemic.
Some Canadian mosques have reported reductions in donations by 75 per cent during the pandemic, according to CTV News. And the effects of COVID-19 were even worse for smaller mosques, according to Khadim.
“One consideration is that we are one of the larger institutions with more stable funding and a larger congregation,” he said. “Smaller institutions did not fare so well.”
Mosques prepare for a fall return to indoor prayers
Luckily for Guleid, my grandmother, and every other Muslim hoping to get back to their routines, mosques are starting to reinstate indoor congregations.
“We are now gradually re-opening with Jummah (Friday prayer) and Fajr and Maghrib (sunrise and sunset prayer) being offered,” Khadim said. Indoor prayers are allowed, however, the social distancing and mask requirements remain.
Moving indoors comes with more regulations. At IIT, people must bring their own prayer mats, a bag to put their shoes in, and a chair if required, according to its news release. Socializing is not allowed and there are designated entrances and exits. Masking and social distancing will be even more strictly enforced than it is outdoors.
Due to mosque capacity limitations of 130 people, there is an online registration requirement for when larger congregations are expected, like on Fridays or the daily prayers.
For Abdifatah Guleid, 29, an engineer who attends IIT, the social distancing is the one aspect of the new rules for indoor gatherings he can’t get used to.
Traditionally when praying, men and women are separated from each other, and they pray shoulder-to-shoulder with their gender group.
“Our parents taught us that the devil comes into the gaps in the prayer line,” Guleid said. “That’s [ON] day one. It feels so wrong to pray six feet away from the nearest brother.”
I’ve been to the IIT since it’s been reopened. The policies sometimes made things awkward. Things I used to take for granted when attending the mosque like staying behind to catch up with family and friends or standing shoulder-to shoulder are prohibited. I’m still getting used to the new rules, but it felt safe and it was comforting not feeling like a danger to the other members present.
Guleid looks forward to a time when he’ll be able to pray the way he is accustomed to.
“How mosques are doing things is better than nothing,” he said. “The masks are fine but praying six feet apart is just too weird for me.”