Salaam Gateway: In 2020, more of life went online than ever before, including religious activities. Prayers and lectures were streamed over platforms like Zoom, and Ramadan virtual iftars became commonplace.
Will this become the 'new normal', as believers accept the shift to a virtual religious life amid COVID-19, possible future pandemics, and looming challenges like climate change, which may affect the very way hajj is carried out? Is Virtual Islam on the horizon?
“It is a transformative moment in some respects because the traditional religious establishment within Islam is having to rapidly adapt to modernity in its fullest sense, not just because of COVID-19, but of where human society is,” said Adnan A. Zulfiqar, Associate Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School, USA.
A NEW DIMENSION
As religious life went online with earnest earlier in the year, especially in the lead up to Ramadan and during the holy month itself, certain questions were raised about religious obligations and practices. Religious leaders, for instance, were careful to virtually present lectures instead of actual sermons as they were not physically in mosques with their congregation.
“Another dimension has been opened up: to what extent is ritual practice and worship able to be conducted through technology? There has been a real struggle over this,” said Zulfiqar, who has researched Islamic legal responses to COVID-19, including congregational prayers and funeral rights.
“The idea of conducting your Friday prayers via Zoom, where people are in various locations and the prayer leader in another - is that permissible? There has been, frankly, a lot of resistance to that, as if you open up the space of ritual practice, essentially you are giving everybody a marketplace in which they can choose. If you say this is just for COVID-19, to what extent can you later on put the genie back in the bottle?”
A technological shift was already underway before the pandemic confined people to their homes, and apps were launched to book prayer slots at mosques once stay-at-home restrictions eased.
Zulfiqar noted that fatwas have been increasingly issued verbally or through visuals on social media platforms rather than via the printed word. “Islam is much less written than it was before. Traditionally speaking, there is a really formal way that fatwas are written, but I often couldn’t find them written down. People have become comfortable with the (fatwa's) presentation by video as its the primary medium out there,” said Zulfiqar.
The generational gap over technological adoption, and acceptance, has also become more pronounced. “The physical sacred space is historically, and for the human psyche, so important that it will be difficult for the virtual to completely take over, but we will see. You already have in a lot of the Muslim diaspora third-way movements that are essentially 'un-mosqued', of young people gathering virtually but also organising virtually and meeting outside of the mosque or masjid,” said Zulfiqar.