As Ramadan Begins, Muslims (Mostly) Accede to Pandemic Orders

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 socializing that is central to the faith of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims.

The sealed-off Kaaba, in the Saudi city of 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 worshipers into a Ramadan like no other.

“It pains me,” King Salman — who, as the Saudi monarch, 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 worshipers defied restrictions or pressured governments to water down their orders, stoking fears that Ramadan could prompt a surge of infections.

Although public prayers were canceled 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, the 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 the Reuters news agency. “But we will stay alert.”

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

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. Signs of strain are already showing. On Thursday night, dozens of Egyptians paraded through the coastal city of Alexandria carrying a model of the Kaaba on their shoulders, in defiance of a ban on public gatherings. The police later arrested the protest’s organizers.

At the Al Aqsa Mosque in 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 the Aqsa mosque and the adjoining Dome of the Rock. This year, the prayers are being broadcast on television.

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 traveled 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.

Islamic ceremonies have already provided a vector for the spread of the disease. In Iran, Shiite pilgrims gathered at a major shrine in February; in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the virus was imported by people from Saudi Arabia; and in India, a large cluster of infection was linked to a meeting in mid-March of a Sunni missionary group called the Tablighi Jamaat.

Mindful of that, Malaysia, one of the countries in Southeast Asia worst hit by the pandemic, on Thursday banned people from traveling back to their hometowns for Ramadan and extended its virus lockdown by two more weeks.

Addressing the nation, Malaysia’s prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, hailed the country’s “jihad” against the pandemic, which has seen new infections drop significantly in recent days.

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 center of Islamic scholarship, ordered Muslims to perform their prayers at home — an injunction that was being respected, mostly, on Friday.

In the afternoon, in the upscale Zamalek district of Cairo, men clustered on a busy street, shoulder to shoulder, to offer their prayers — another sign that many are already chafing at the restrictions. A group of police officers, standing on a nearby junction, did not intervene.

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