How Mosques—Usually Shoulder to Shoulder, Toe to Toe—Are Already Reopening

Muslim prayer rugs separated by an arrow suggesting social distancing
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

This article is part of Reopenings, a series about how businesses are operating during the pandemic.

Muslims pray inches apart from one another, shoulder to shoulder, toe to toe, and socks are totally optional. Once the prayer is over, like in any other house of worship, they huddle, hug, and shake hands. Kisses on the cheek are very much a thing.

After many weeks closed because of the coronavirus—an especially difficult period because of the holy month of Ramadan, which began April 23—mosques in some parts of America are beginning to reopen. Some Muslims are attending their regular Friday prayers, but there’s nothing regular about it.

Usama Shami might have some words for you if he catches you hugging inside his mosque. He’s the president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, and after about five weeks closed, his mosque is now open. The mosque is the biggest in Arizona, and it can accommodate about 600 worshippers. He’s being cautious, and he said the decision came only after consulting with health care professionals and Arizona officials, who have started to reopen the state. Right now, he’s only open for special evening Ramadan prayers called Taraweeh and weekly Friday prayers.

What will the Friday and Taraweeh prayers actually look like? Strange. He said his crew sanitized the building and then marked places 6 feet apart on the floor where people can stand, a far cry from the typical shoulder-to-shoulder mosque. “We asked everybody to bring their own prayer rugs, so our rug would not be contaminated,” he said. “We also asked people not to bring children under 12 years old because they would not be able to maintain social distance. And we closed the bathrooms.” If worshippers forget their prayer rugs, Shami’s mosque has a stock of disposable paper ones they can use. The mosque also posted a list of conditions congregants are expected to satisfy before attending the next prayer, like sterilizing their hands and wearing masks.

Ramadan also typically means free food at sunset at mosques that host iftar, the breaking of the fast. “Yeah. We’re not doing the iftar,” Shami told me.

Shami is ahead of some of his peers. At one major North Texas mosque, a person at the front desk said they didn’t have a plan yet. They were waiting to see what churches do.

Other mosques aren’t even considering reopening anytime soon. In Virginia, where the governor is slowly pulling back restrictions and some churches and mosques can reopen at 50 percent capacity as soon as Friday, the mosque leaders have already decided that they will not be opening until after Ramadan is over. But they’ve come up with a creative way to hold Eid prayer, the celebratory ritual that marks the end of Ramadan set for May 23 this year, and are waiting for approval from state officials.

“The idea is that we will rent a large parking lot and line up cars two spaces apart, and bring cars through at 100 at a time, or whatever the number is, and have families get out of the car, right next to their car, and follow the imam for the prayer. Then get back in their car to listen to the sermon,” said Saif Rahman, the director of public and government affairs for Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in northern Virginia. Typically, they serve around 3,300 attendees for Friday prayer. He said the intention is to give people in the community access to one another without risking their health or any violations of social distancing ordinances. It’s a holiday, so to make it more fun, they’ll also be holding a car decoration competition so the younger kids can experience the usual carnival atmosphere.

Reopening is further out in other parts of the country. Omar Ricci, the spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California, said the state won’t let the mosque resume services for some time. He and his colleagues are only in the preliminary stage of deciding how to most effectively reopen the mosque, but the biggest challenge will be getting people to stay away from one another.

“When we go back to ‘normal,’ the reality is people are going to hug, they’re going to shake hands, they’re going to do all the things that they go back to doing,” he said. “And I think there’ll probably be some people who are wearing their masks and keeping distance, but there’ll be plenty of people who won’t.” To Ricci, other obstacles, like toe-touching during prayer, seem like easy hurdles in comparison.

Haviz Ur Rehman, the president of Masjid Darul Quran, the largest mosque in Long Island, isn’t even thinking about when his mosque can reopen. I asked him what he would do if Cuomo lifted the restrictions tomorrow. “I don’t think he’s going to say that tomorrow,” he said blankly. Rehman has instead been tending to coronavirus patients. At other mosques, like the one at New York University, where I often pray, the imams also haven’t begun discussing it yet.

In some states, like Ohio, mosques were never forced by state governments to shut down, but did so voluntarily. The Islamic Center of Cleveland, the largest mosque in the area, has been empty all of Ramadan, according to its president, Ziad Tayeh.

The mosque hasn’t decided on when it would open back up, but Tayeh hinted that if it did, it will be invitation-only. “Under no circumstance, I think, are we going to openly invite everyone to attend the masjid,” he said. “We’ve contemplated a registration process whereby people would have to register and then would be able to attend. We would allow a maximum number attendees, but not at the same time.”

Even with a limited number of people allowed, congregants will still be asked to bring their own prayer rugs, keep masks on the entire time, and stay at least 6 feet apart. Tayeh hopes that things can go back to normal once a vaccine is available.* Until then, he’s ready to wait it out. “It’s not going to be fun, but it’s necessary,” he said.

In Arizona, where Usama Shami’s mosque is open, he knows that Muslims like to hear it from scripture if there are precedents to behave any one way. And he’s got one cued up.

He shared a story about how the Prophet Mohammed said if you ate onions or garlic, you shouldn’t go to the mosque, because you’re going to bother other people with the smell. So how can anyone justify showing up if there’s a chance they spread a lethal illness? “I don’t think we will go back to the way it was before,” he said. “As Muslims, we should have a different attitude that if we think we are harming others, we shouldn’t go to the mosque.”

Correction, May 14, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Ziad Tayeh’s last name.