Is it permissible to perform the prayer for the deceased by distancing the congregation from each other in the saf? This method is said to take social distancing into account in order to stop the spread of an epidemic.
Alhamdulillah, praise and thanks to Allah for the countless blessings He has blessed us all with. Blessings and salutations to the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, his wives, his family, companions and all those that follow his teachings to the day of judgement.
The first issue that should be resolved here is to take into account the suggestion issued by the authorities as to how to manage this epidemic especially from the Ministry of Health. Different countries employ different approaches in handling this issue, suitable for the control rate and statistics of the spread of the epidemic in the region. The authorities are responsible to ensure the latest information is shared and conveyed to the society are accurate and fast so that the spread of the disease could be contained.
The Ministry of Health through Datuk Dr Noor Hisyam Abdullah as the Head of Director of the Ministry of Health has issued a statement titled “MCO Media Statement 11th March 2020 – Current Situation of the Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) Infection in Malaysia” on 11th March 2020. When commenting on the issue of the spread of the pandemic among the attendees of Himpunan Jemaah Tabligh (Tabligh Congregation Assembly) held on 27th February until 1st March 2020, he suggested the following medical advice:-
“Following the COVID-19 incident in Brunei. MOH advised those who have attended the tabligh assembly to:
- If he is experiencing symptoms then he should call the nearest State Medical Office or the state’s CPRC through the contact attached in Attachment 1 or contact the Virtual Health Advisory (a collaboration between MOH and DoctorOnCAll) through the MOH’s website for further enquiries. Furthermore, MOH also collaborated with BookDoc where the public can download the BookDoc application through the Google Play Store (only for Android users) to get free “Health Advice” from doctors through chat. Always practice good personal hygiene including washing your hands often, practising the right etiquettes when coughing and sneezing as well as wearing a face mask;
- If he is not experiencing any symptoms he should practice social distancing of at least 1 meter from others for 14 days from the last date he attended the assembly.
MOH also calls for all those who attended the assembly to cooperate with MOH to ensure that the COVID-19 infections are stopped from further spreading in the community.
MOH also asks for:
- All assemblies which involve mass gatherings to be postponed to prevent the possibility of the COVID-19 from happening;
- If experiencing respiratory symptoms, it is advised to not attend any programs that involve many people or go to crowded places including religious activities;
- Symptomatic individuals are advised to stay away (practice social distancing) at least 1 meter when there is another individual;
- People stop travelling overseas to countries affected with COVID-19 infection; and
- Malaysians who are experiencing respiratory infection symptoms should not visit other places in Malaysia during the school holidays.”
According to the above statements, it can be understood that the suggestion for social distancing are for individuals who were involved in the Tabligh Congregation Assembly on the stated dates, regardless of whether they are experiencing symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, respiratory infection, or asymptomatic, to keep a distance of 1 meter. Furthermore, this statement until today has not changed and there is yet any statement from the Ministry of Health regarding the implementation of social distancing for those who are not involved in the Tabligh Congregation Assembly.
A question arises; is it permissible to perform congregational prayer by implementing social distancing? If the state religious authorities issued a directive to suspend all congregational and Friday prayers in mosques and surau for a duration of time, for the purpose of cleaning, disinfecting and stopping the spread of the virus, thus the issue of social distancing in mosques should not arise for it cannot be performed following the directive from the authorities. The only exception is for the imam and bilal on the duty to maintain the mosque and call out the adhan.
However, if there is a need, for example, for individuals who are quarantined at home or in quarantine centers, then is it permissible to perform the congregational prayers with some distance between people in the saf?
For the ruling on this matter, we must come back to the original ruling of closing and filling the saf for prayer which is sunnah and it is one of the sunnah hai’ah, not a requisite nor sunnah ab’adh. In a hadith of the Prophet PBUH:
سَوُّوا صُفُوفَكُمْ فَإِنَّ تَسْوِيَةَ الصُّفُوفِ مِنْ إِقَامَةِ الصَّلَاةِ
"Straighten your rows as the straightening of rows is essential for a perfect and correct prayer."
Sahih al-Bukhari (690)
From Abu Mas’ud, he said:
كَانَ رَسُولُ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَمْسَحُ مَنَاكِبَنَا فِي الصَّلَاةِ، وَيَقُولُ: اسْتَوُوا، وَلَا تَخْتَلِفُوا، فَتَخْتَلِفَ قُلُوبُكُمْ
“The Messenger of Allah (may peace he upon him) used to touch our shoulders in prayer and say: Keep straight, don't be irregular, for there would be dissension in your hearts.”
Sahih Muslim (432)
From Abu Hurairah RA, the Messenger PBUH said:
وَسِّطُوا الإِمَامَ وَسُدُّوا الْخَلَلَ
“Have the imam in the centre and close up the gaps.”
Sunan Abu Daud (681)
The same is stated in a hadith narrated by Abdullah Ibn Umar RA, where the Prophet PBUH said:
وَلاَ تَذَرُوا فُرُجَاتٍ لِلشَّيْطَانِ وَمَنْ وَصَلَ صَفًّا وَصَلَهُ اللَّهُ وَمَنْ قَطَعَ صَفًّا قَطَعَهُ اللَّهُ
“And do not leave openings for the devil. If anyone joins up a row, Allah will join him up, but if anyone breaks a row, Allah will cut him off.”
Sunan Abu Daud (666)
The original ruling for having gaps in the saf is makruh and it annuls the rewards of congregational prayer according to the above hadiths.
However, if there is a necessity to have gaps or distance between a person to the next person in the row of prayer (saf), then it is no longer makruh nor is it haram. This is according to the Islamic legal maxim:
الضَّرُورَاتُ تُبِيحُ الْمَحْظُورَاتِ
“Exigent matters make the prohibited permissible.”
Another maxim states:
الْحَاجَةُ تَنْزِلُ مَنْزِلَةَ الضَّرُورَةِ عَامَّةً كَانَتْ أَوْ خَاصَّة
“A necessity is in the place of exigent matters, in general, or specific level.”
Refer al-Asybah wa al-Nazha`ir (pg.88)
This can be analogically deduced with the issue of praying while sitting that we have discussed previously, where it is a normal occurrence in other Muslim countries for chairs to be prepared in the back of the mosque for old and sick people. Thus, usul scholars proposed the maxim:
الكَرَاهَة تَزُولُ بالحَاجَة
“The makruh ruling is abrogated when there is a necessity.”
Refer Ma`lamah Zayed (no.267)
Matters which are ruled as makruh in prayer are not considered as makruh when there is a necessity for it to be done. For example, in a hadith narrated by Abu Qatadah, the Prophet PBUH was:
كَانَ يُصَلِّي وَهُوَ حَامِلٌ أُمَامَةَ بِنْتَ زَيْنَبَ بِنْتِ رَسُولِ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وَلِأَبِي الْعَاصِ بْنِ الرَّبِيعِ، فَإِذَا قَامَ حَمَلَهَا وَإِذَا سَجَدَ وَضَعَهَا
“(The Prophet PBUH) was carrying Umama, daughter of Zainab, daughter of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ). and Abu'l-'As b. al-Rabi'. When he stood up, he took her up and when he prostrated, he put her down, Yahya said: Malik replied in the affirmative.”
Sahih Muslim (543)
Imam al-Nawawi in al-Minhaj Syarh Muslim (5/34) stated:
“Small actions are permissible in prayer, thus, two steps in prayer does not invalidate the prayer but it is prioritized to be avoided, except if there is a necessity, indeed, necessary actions are not makruh just as what the Prophet PBUH did. The above hadith also proves that it is permissible for an imam to pray at a higher place from the makmum, but it is makruh when either the place of the imam or the makmum is higher unless there is a need. Thus, if there is a need such as to teach the movements in prayer it is not makruh but it is sunnah according to this hadith. The same for a makmum who need to teach other makmums of the movements of the imam and needs a higher place to pray.”
Syeikh Dr Labib Najib Abdullah al-Adni, a scholar of madhhab al-Syafie from Yemen when asked the same question on his website  answered as the following:
“I answer – by asking the help from Allah Taala: The prayer is valid. This matter has been stated by our Syafi’iyyah scholars – may Allah bless them – when an imam assemble the makmum in one mosque then the iqtida’ (congregational prayer) is valid on the condition the makmum knows the change of movement of the imam and the makmum does not precede the imam in his place. This is the accurate depiction on this matter.”
However; does the person receive rewards for the congregational prayer performed?
According to al-Syihab al-Ramli: Yes. Whereas according to Ibn Hajar, no. His analogy is stated in al-Minhaj al-Qowim (pg. 164):
“[And] it is sunnah [to straighten the saf and command it to be done] for whoever [and] also [who is the imam] whether he himself or a person who is given the authority [emphasized] to follow (the Prophet PBUH) and (avoid) the warning promised for those who leaves it (straightening the saf). It means to complete and fill the first saf and the subsequent saf, closing the gaps and everyone should stand beside each other in straight rows where no one’s chest are a little to the front, not on top of each other’s sides (stepping over each other) and is not quick in making a second saf before the first saf is filled and does not stand in one saf until the preceding saf is completed. If one of the above is contradicted, then it is makruh.” Intaha.
Al-Tarmasi through ta’liq in his words said (Hasyiah al-Tarmasi, 4/41):
“Thus, the rewards of congregational prayer is abrogated according to our lecturer (Imam Ibn Hajar), while according to al-Syihad al-ramli: Every matter which is makruh in congregational prayer abrogates its rewards except the ruling of straightening the saf.” Intaha.
The same is stated by al-Allamah Ba ‘Isyn Rahimahullah in Busyra al-Karim (pg. 362).
I (Dr Labib) said that according to fiqh perspective:
“Maybe the ruling of makruh is no longer applicable according to al-Allamah Ibn Hajar al-Haitami Rahimahullah Taala when it happens due to a necessity for it to be done. Wallahua’lam.”
According to the above facts and discussions, we are inclined to state that it is permissible to perform congregational prayer while keeping a distance between the makmum during an epidemic outbreak if by performing the congregational prayer it is still safe from the spread of the disease. However, currently, the only situation that is permissible for this way of performing congregational prayer is the prayer for the deceased. As for the context of congregational prayers and Friday prayers in mosques, the government through the Ministry of Health is still trying their best to cut the link of infection of the COVID-19 which is still high even after 2 weeks of the issuance of Movement Control Order (MCO). Thus, the applicability of this suggestion is subject to the permission of the government as the Ulil Amri so that this will not be the reason the spread of this disease continues and cause harm to innocent parties. Thus, if the congregational prayer itself could lead to the spread of the pandemic, then the congregational prayer is impermissible.
Hopefully, this explanation will give an understanding to the questioner. We pray that Allah SWT will stop the spread of this disease and forgive our wrongdoings and return our society to a better state. Amin.
 See https://dr-labeeb.com/%d8%b3%d8%a3%d9%84-%d8%b9%d8%af%d8%af-%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%81%d8%b6%d9%84%d8%a7%d8%a1-%d8%b9%d9%86-%d8%b5%d8%ad%d8%a9-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b5%d9%84%d8%a7%d8%a9-%d8%a8%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b4%d9%83%d9%84-%d8%a7%d9%84/#more-335