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Prayer and community during COVID-19



Recently Australia’s Prime Minister remarked in Parliament: 'While you may not be able to go to church, the synagogue, the temple or the mosque, I most certainly call on all people of faith for you to pray… I can assure you, my prayer knees are getting a good work out.'

Man praying at home with cat (Getty Images/Nazra Zahri)

No doubt many will see this as the PM preaching, but for millions of Australians of varying degrees of religiosity, prayer will play a key role in dealing with the novel stresses associated with this novel virus.

Furthermore, giving one’s knees a workout isn’t a solitary exercise. Religions bring us not just closer to our creator but also to each other, especially in times of crisis. And you don’t have to be devout to feel the blessing.

Each Friday my dad and some 12 of his elderly friends (all over 70) have made a habit of attending salat al-jumma (Friday prayers). But prayer isn't the only reason they gather. After the Friday prayer, they head out to a different restaurant to gasbag and share old war stories. I've overheard Dad and his friends mention munching on Turkish, Uighur, Italian, Indian, Pakistani, Afghan and Lebanese food. 

Not all these uncles are terribly devout. One or two are probably agnostic, if not atheist. All are retired professionals or academics, highly educated men. I doubt many would have made time for prayer were it not for the meal.  

Why only men? Is this yet another case of gross Islamic sexism? No. The old blokes only get to see each other once a week. A co-ed meeting would be impossible as many of their wives (who usually arrange the men's social lives) just don't get along.


'Faith without community is a risk to faith. And community must mean more than just our "own"'.


Eating at restaurants and attending mosque are now out of the question. Social distancing rules mean the old chaps won't be able to sit at the same table. And given the age trajectory of those falling victim to this virus, these young-at-heart South Asian men won't dare risk each other's company regardless of how much they enjoy it.

Young Muslims, many of whom more readily identify as Muslim than some migrant ethnicity, will also be affected. Many congregations in Sydney and Melbourne service very young mostly English-speaking congregations. My mum benefits from watching satellite TV religious programs in the Urdu language. If only my Urdu was as good. My Islam, or at least a culturally appropriate form, must be sourced from religious teachers in Australia, the UK or North America.

Watching YouTube clips or listening to podcasts is nowhere near as good as taking part in collective learning or worship in a live setting. Perhaps the best time for this is during the lunar month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset. Muslims of all faiths and denominations gather for iftar (breaking the fast) and share meals and company.

For international students, this is an important time to connect with locals. Some of my best Ramadan memories involved chicken and beef satay and spicy peanut sauce prepared by Indonesian and Malaysian students at Macquarie University. Terima kasih!

Muslims pride themselves on one of the greatest spiritual gatherings — the Hadj or pilgrimage to Mecca. But this year it is almost certain that the coronavirus will close down this important symbol of collective Muslim consciousness.  

Muslims aren’t the only community to feel stripped of their collective spirit. In the inner-Sydney suburb of Newtown, one Shul (synagogue) has a tradition of hosting a Friday night sabbath dinner. Jews and their Gentile partners and friends sit down with the rabbi, sing devotional songs and share a kosher meal. Everyone in attendance gets to share a key feature of their week after wishing everyone in the room Shabath Shalom 

One Hindu friend living in northern New South Wales recently told me that temples have had to shut their doors to all but their inner circles. This includes Hare Krishna centres providing meals on their premises. But nothing will prevent the generosity of my Sikh friends. The langar (communal kitchen) at the gurudwara (temple) won’t be closing anytime soon.

Instead of offering a dining in experience, temple volunteers will be delivering food parcels to the elderly and frail just as they did communities ravaged by bushfires. They will be joined by volunteers from churches, Islamic centres, synagogues and other believers and the not-so-believing. 

It could be that God/G-d/Allah/etc has sent this virus to bring us closer to Him/Her. But S/He also wants to remind us how much our devotion and worship is about each other, about community. Faith without community is a risk to faith. And community must mean more than just our 'own'. Viruses don’t discriminate, and neither should we.



Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.

Main image: Man praying at home with cat (Getty Images/Nazra Zahri)

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism.COVD-19



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Existing comments

People of faith tend to talk about prayer a bit more when a crisis unfolds. People who profess to no faith may do so as well. Even if my prayer is only "help" (and it frequently is) there is deep communication. I have a Benedictine prayer book which I bought in London some years ago and I imagine the monks who gathered the book together praying in unison at specific times of the day. This uniformity gives strength and depth to their common prayer as well as strength to each individual within the group. I like to think I'm a small part of that and praying at church during Mass likewise strengthens the community and individual.

Pam | 08 April 2020  

Thoughtful article, Irfan. "Shukran Lak." InshAllah.

AJM | 08 April 2020  

Irfan, Thanks so much for this window into riches and blessings commonly overlooked in our community. You've made my day!

Wayne Sanderson | 08 April 2020  

I dont believe any God/G-d/Allah/...sent a virus to bring us closer.

Gerard | 08 April 2020  

Thank you Irfan for this delightful article. However, your last paragraph, which begins with the sentence, "It could be that God/G-d/Allah/etc has sent this virus to bring us closer to Him/Her," tends to ruin it for me. What sort of God/G-d/Allah/etc would bring this upon us in order to " bring us closer". I needn't go into any comparisons with diabolical parents and the like who punish their children 'for their own good' or simply to bind them more closely to their neurotic selves. This sort of belief appears to destroy your fine arguments of the previous paragraphs of this article.

Tom Kingston | 08 April 2020  

We are living in a time when those who are formally religious have been stripped of their normal supports in an unprecedented manner. Mere formal attendance at worship and fellowship have never been seen as proof of inner virtue. Perhaps this seeming absence of support is a test? It is possible that some of the hangers on will fall away, whilst those who seemed 'lost' will return. The world will never be the same after COVID-19. St Augustine said 'Save yourself and the world lies at your feet'. He was a self-confessed redeemed sinner who knew what he was talking about. We need to take the witness of those like him seriously.

Edward Fido | 08 April 2020  

I read with interest your article Irfan. It heartens me to see the writings of the followers of many faiths on this forum which brings home to me there is but one God, who is Father to all humanity and to all creation. I note the comments to your: "It could be that God/G-d/Allah/etc has sent this virus to bring us closer to Him/Her. But S/He also wants to remind us how much our devotion and worship is about each other, about community". I don't believe God acts in such a way because Covid-19 is a living virus who, like us and all that exists, has no being or life but in God. Everything that unfolds in God is good and God fills it completely. To me this is all part of the mystery of the Life we live in the Divine. and like the psalmist we are all enjoined to rely on God now and always.

Terry Cobby | 08 April 2020  

Irfan, Bhaya, your eloquent words took me back to the days of my childhood in the gated, insulated, and incubated suburb of Alipore, Calcutta, but not quarantined enough to deaden the beautiful lament of the muezzin calling out to God for help and to His People to join him in prayer. It also brought back memories of the Lamentations, sung in Latin by my mother at our Jesuit church, and which she translated and explained to me with such entreaty and reverence that they still run shivers down my spine: "O My People, Why have you abandoned me....". My memories of Islamic Bengal are particularly poignant, especially those of the tenor coloratura Bhaul singers, Sufis all, who would work themselves into a trance with their singing and dancing. Growing up at the time in an Anglo-Indian cultural melting-pot in which 'Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar' was an idiom that I understood so well, it's hard for me not to be overtaken by sentiment and nostalgia. I would however like to challenge the view that God may have sent us Covid-19. THAT'S the only kind of God I do not believe in, whether dressed in Muslim or Christian garments.

Michael Furtado | 08 April 2020  

“It could be that God/G-d/Allah/etc has sent this virus to bring us closer to Him/Her.” Maybe. Who knows? Theodicy goes back at least to Job. “20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” 22 In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”

roy chen yee | 08 April 2020  

It is interesting that Ramadan, which is in many ways analogous to the Christian Lent, is about to come up. For Muslims it is a time of prayer, penitence and alms giving, culminating in the celebration of the feast of Eid al Fitr. For them prayer is basically the recitation of verses of the Quran which they believe is the Revealed Word of God. Like the Bible, the Quran draws attention to some calamitous events of history, which are seen partly as God's judgement, but also as a trial and justification of those who trust in Him and persevere. None of the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are in the least bit anodyne. You cannot construct God in your own image in any of them. Creating a God in your own image is very much a modern trend in 'cafeteria religion'. It never lasts. If I was asked what I thought was a universal symbol of the Almighty - mind it is a symbol - I would suggest the Burning Bush as seen by Moses in the Book of Exodus, which burnt but was not consumed. God is unutterably Holy. You cannot water down true religion. You should hold it in awe.

Edward Fido | 09 April 2020  

Irfan, its sad at this time that the 'watering down' accusation is employed by so many fundamentalists, both Islamic and Christian and, in recent times, Buddhist as well as Hindu. While most psychologists are convinced - on the basis of copious evidence - that these self-hating instincts are responsible for the more extremist, inhuman and terrorist interpretations of the various scriptures, your's and mine, the Sufis I knew at my Jesuit school and as neighbours, were not at all like that, citing chapter and verse in class as well as socially to indelibly show that Islam is a religion of love in the same way in which Christianity is. The problem with those who warn against the anodyne is that they mistake love of both the Christian and Islamic variety as a watering down of the scriptures. Indeed, the removal of love from this discourse, generally to be replaced by duty, responsibility, rules and obligation, is that it distorts discourses of human rights and justice, which are central to both Christianity and Islam, into those of vengeance, hatred, suspicion, alienation and zealotry. Instead of being anodyne, love is hard. For Christians St Paul says it all in 1 Corinthians 13.

Michael Furtado | 10 April 2020  

These days the word 'fundamentalist' is often used as a sort of Newspeak to devalue those with whom someone disagrees. 'Love' is now such a loose word it can mean anything to anyone. There are people I have met who I would consider genuinely loving but who are still firmly grounded in their religion. One of these was the late Imam Khalil Chami of Sydney, quite firmly founded in his Muslim faith but an extremely tolerant man. Firm belief, genuine outgoing love and tolerance need not be mutually exclusive. All of the great Doctors of the Church, including that sublime mystic, St Theresa of Avila, were firmly founded in their Catholic Faith. The recent former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr Ali Gomaa, is an Islamic scholar and jurist as well as a renowned Sufi. He would be perfectly orthodox in his Muslim faith. Sufism is a vast field and it really needs the knowledge of someone like Professor Carl Ernst to speak knowledgeably about it. Suffice to say there are Sufis who are regarded as authentically Muslim and those who are seen as way, way out. Indian Sufism includes both. The Muslim community is very wary of heterodox Sufis.

Edward Fido | 10 April 2020  

Irfan Bhaya, the wonderful line you have taken, emphasising our unity in diversity, cannot be pecked clean of the ticks and fleas that all religions tend to attract as their carapaces harden and become impervious to the marvellous sentiments that you express and memories that you record. Anyone who knows Indian religious history and the persecution and martyrdom of Sufis by religious zealots, intent upon dotting every canonical i and crossing every rule-based t, are best advised to ignore the doomsayers, especially at this critical juncture when we are remarkably agreed upon the quintessentially important and invaluable essentials. Alaikum salaam!

Michael Furtado | 15 April 2020  

I said earlier that I thought you needed to know something about Sufism to speak knowledgeably about it. The Great Age of Sufism, like the Great Age of Spanish Catholic Mysticism, is long past. Both informed and revivified their respective religions when they really needed it. Rumi, al Arabi, al Gilani and Chishti are living memories in the Islamic World. As they did with St John of the Cross, religious zealots suspected them of heterodoxy, possibly because they saw the deeper and wider implications of their religion, which the zealots could not. It is Islam and Catholicism which guarantee the efficacy and validity of genuine Sufism and Carmelite spirituality respectively. I myself have witnessed a genuine Mevlevi sema before an authentic sheikh. It was off the normal tourist route. It moved me immensely, as Sufi music of various varieties does so many. But the Sheikh would say that this is just part of Islam, just as a Carmelite priest would say the Carmelite way of prayer is just part of Catholicism. This is not fanaticism. This is normal.

Edward Fido | 17 April 2020  

The words of St Peter's first letter (4:12-13) resonate strongly in the pandemic our whole world is currently enduring: "Do not be surprised by the ordeal that tests you . . . but rejoice in sharing Christ's sufferings . . ." Bold words, grounded in Easter faith and hope, and intended as spiritual encouragement during trial rather than as counsel to quietist resignation; and an incentive to find meaning in suffering by freely uniting what we undergo with the redemptive suffering of Christ, culminating in sharing his resurrection glory where the wounds of suffering, significantly, register still on his risen body.

John RD | 18 April 2020  

"God is detaching us from the securities of this world. In the silence of the Church or in our house, we are now able to make an examination of conscience so we can clean what prevents us from hearing the Voice of God clearly. With sincerity we can ask God to tell us what He wants of us today, and continue to do that every day. And spend as much time as possible with God at church or somewhere in your home or where you find the silence. He is all we need."

From Conchita | 21 April 2020  

As long as religion does not get in the way of the science, nor should either get in the way of human rights unless very clearly necessary.

R. Ambrose Raven | 15 May 2020  

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