The Politics of Islamic Death Rituals in the COVID-19 Era

The Case of Egypt

in Anthropology of the Middle East
Author:
Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal PhD Candidate, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India nadeem6moonakal@gmail.com

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Matthew Ryan Sparks PhD Candidate, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel sparksandmcneill@gmail.com

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Abstract

Throughout the Islamic world, the era of COVID-19 has witnessed controversial changes to highly ritualised traditional Islamic funeral rites. To combat the pandemic in Egypt, the government and Al-Azhar implemented restrictions surrounding group prayer and burial which many Egyptians viewed as impinging on their religious duties as well as on their ability to mourn. Utilising participant observation, interviews, and deductive research, this article explores the social and anthropological ramifications involved in the modification of traditional Islamic burial rituals in the era of COVID-19 and the negotiations involved amongst different actors, looking specifically at cases in Egypt.

Egypt announced the first case of COVID-19 on 14 February 2020; it involved a Chinese national at the Cairo International Airport. In the months that followed, more cases were recorded in the country, prompting the Egyptian Health Ministry to impose restrictions and regulations to contain the spread of the virus. The regulations also encompassed restrictions on religious activities and gatherings. The country's vaccination campaign, which began in January 2021, has currently resulted in approximately 4,851,349 vaccine doses administered with either the Sinopharm, AstraZeneca/Covishield or Sputnik V vaccines as of 12 July 2021 (Reuters Staff 2021; WHO 2021).

On 21 March 2020, the government, in conversation with Al-Azhar, the foremost Islamic religious institution of Egypt, as well as the Coptic Orthodox Church, implemented restrictions suspending group prayers and services in all houses of worship throughout the country for two weeks (Egypt Today 2020; Rahouma and Hegazy 2020). It is a common opinion that at the outset these restrictions were not taken seriously by the general public. However, with the surge in cases the government started to strictly enforce the new policies. While the pandemic itself affected the livelihood of many Egyptians, the restrictions on religious activities remained a concern for people who wanted to attend the communal jumuʿah prayers and engage in religious activities. While some people adhered to the fatwas from Al-Azhar, others tried to surpass the restrictions and engage in smaller gatherings to continue the religious activities that they found solace in. During Ramadan in 2020, restrictions were imposed on the number of people who could enter for group prayer in mosques, and there was in addition an open ban on the community banquets for the poor, or maʾidat al-rahman (a policy which would continue during Ramadan in 2021). While the rest of the year would witness the enactment of similar social distancing and masking policies, except for occasional localised curfews, social life remained largely uninterrupted in Egypt after the initial two-week lockdown in March. However, faced with the ever-present danger of disease spread during mass prayers such as on Friday and during funerals, both Al-Azhar and the government are continuing to take a more hands-on approach in controlling both group prayer and Islamic funerary rituals.

In terms of historical precedents, Egypt's experiences during the last worldwide pandemic, the Spanish influenza of 1918–1920, saw similar co-operation between Al-Azhar and the Anglo-Egyptian government to curb the spread of disease in the ‘veiled protectorate’. According to Christopher Rose, the Egyptian authorities were wholly ill-equipped to battle the pandemic, leading to a mishmash of contradictory policies that largely caused a social collapse in the rural areas and might have been a contributing factor to the 1919 nationalist uprising of Saʿad Zaghlul.1 During this pandemic, attention was also paid to the religious aspects of life and how they might contribute to public health. From the newspaper Al-Muqattam in December of 1918, the Alexandria Municipal Department of Sanitation asked the Ministry of Awqaf to ensure that all mosques be constantly kept clean, hygienic, and well ventilated (Rose 2021). Furthermore, the popular celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the Prophet Mohammad's birthday) as well as all permissions for a funeral or a religious procession were cancelled (Amin 2016; Rose 2021). However, as Rose notes, when Al-Azhar was asked to close, this request was made with the understanding of Al-Azhar as an educational rather than as a religious one; the British did not want to risk making enemies of the Islamic religious authorities. From these sources, we can infer that Egypt does have a history of religious and governmental authorities working together in the name of public health to combat pandemics, albeit delicately, due to the prominent role of prayer (especially funerary prayers) in Islam.

This study examines the anthropological aspects of the Islamic rituals of group prayer and funerary/burial rites as they are negotiated by Muslims faced with restrictions mandated by the state and religious authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic. We specifically chose this oral history / participant observation framework to capture the subjective experiences, emotions and impressions of average Egyptians who have had to deal with the implications of these restrictions first-hand, and to better gauge the dynamics between Al-Azhar, the state and Egyptians concerning religious life during the COVID-19 era (Portelli 1991). The research also focusses on the implications of engagement between the Egyptian government, Muslims and Al-Azhar in Egypt concerning the modifications in burial rites and Islamic funeral procedures during the pandemic.

Methodology

The core of this article is taken from interviews and participant observations conducted between March and June of 2021. We selected interviewees as voluntary participants under the optional condition of anonymity. Although this article has been informed by numerous conversations with individuals throughout Egypt, we have decided to focus on the observations of four interviews which we believe most strongly reflect the spectrum of attitudes expressed by Egyptians regarding this aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. While discussions occurred throughout the country, the four referenced interviews were conducted in the city of Cairo. All of the interviewees are Egyptians who have remained in the country throughout the pandemic. Two of the selected interviewees identify as men, and two as women, within an age range of 22 to 60. All of the interviews were conducted in Arabic and English, and can be made available in transcript form upon request. After completing and transcribing the interviews, the interviews were analysed in tandem with other anthropological and historical literature on the conflict between religious and state authorities and religious individuals, when performing religious duties potentiates a public health threat.

Islamic Regulations and Beliefs concerning Death and Burial

Islamic traditions and customs are followed largely by the derivations from the Hadith and the Quran. Matters pertinent to Islamic fiqh (‘jurisprudence’) drawn from the mandates of Quranic verses are followed strictly in Muslim societies. Hence, despite differences concerning several Islamic laws amongst different schools of thought, these mandates, practices and restrictions concerning death and burial remain similar (Gatrad 1994). Essentially, Islamic burial practices can be divided into washing the body (ghusl), shrouding the body with kafan, funeral prayer (salat al-janazah)2 and burial (Ekpo and Is'haq 2016).

Bathing the Body (Ghusl)

According to Islamic beliefs, the corpse should be washed with the right purpose and intent (niyyah) to complete the cleansing of the body. Islamic Sharia mandates that the body should be cleaned with water3 and a cloth covering the body parts considered as ʿawrah. The person who cleans the body should be of the same gender as well. While the exact chronology of practices of washing the body might vary, the bathing of the body begins with the cleansing of the perineum, followed subsequently by the scrubbing of the legs and then the completion of wuduʾ (Azhar 2020). Wuduʾ is the ablution that Muslims perform before prayer, and it includes the washing of hands, face (including outer ears), arms and feet, each three times. Traditionally, some Muslims also use perfumed water for ablution (Venhorst 2012).

Shrouding

After cleaning the body, the corpse is wrapped in a clean white cloth (kafan), which symbolises the respect and dignity of the deceased. White shrouds in particular are used as ordered by the Prophet Mohammad. As per a hadith recorded on the authority of Ibn ʿAbbas, the Prophet Mohammad said: ‘Wear white clothes, for these are your best clothes, and enshroud your dead in them’ (al Nasa'i 2007; Dar al-Ifta al-Missriyyah 2020). The shroud is perfumed in some traditions with camphor or attar, a custom which is also practised as per the evidence collected from the Prophet's orders. The underlying significance of all Muslims being shrouded in a plain white cloth is that it emphasises the mortality of humankind and the insignificance of material possessions (Azhar 2020). The shrouding of men and women also differs in Islam. If the deceased is a man, the shroud should be in three pieces that include an izar (‘wrap’), a qamis (‘shirt’) and a lifafa (‘outer covering’), and the izar typically covers the body from head to toe. However, if the deceased is a woman, the shroud should consist of five pieces that include a qamis, an izar, a khimar (a head cover that is long enough to hang down the waist), a lifafa, and a khirqah (outer wrapping) that is to be tied around the breasts (Dar al-Ifta al-Missriyyah 2020).4

Funeral Prayer (Salat al-Janazah)

Muslims hold salat al-janazah to offer collective prayers for the forgiveness of the deceased. Salat al-janazah is practised strictly and sensitively in Muslim societies and is considered an important aspect for the close relatives and families of the deceased. Unlike other prayers, salat al-janazah usually will be attended by a larger number of people, who participate in the congregational prayer and mourning, especially neighbours, friends, relatives and family members. Muslim societies regard salat al-janazah as a very essential commitment to be fulfilled as per the mandates of the religion.

Burial (Dafin)

The burial laws in Islam mandate the close relatives and family of the deceased to bury their loved one as soon as possible (24 hours is considered normal). The graves are supposed to be placed perpendicular to the Qibla (the direction towards the Kaaba in Mecca), and the body will be placed in the grave without a coffin. Graves are usually identified with simple markers, as Islam restricts flamboyant mortuary displays. Over time in certain Islamic cultures and traditions, there have been more additions to representations and displays of emotion concerning death; however, in Egypt amongst the large Sunni population such additions are either absent or minimal.

Attending the burial is also well rewarded according to Islamic beliefs; hadith reported from Abu Hurayrah report that the Prophet said: ‘Whoever follows the funeral procession and offers the funeral prayer for it, will get a reward equal to one Qirat, and whoever attends it till burial, will get a reward equal to two Qirat (mountains)’ (An-Nawawee 2018). Hence, participation in the burial, the paying of tribute, and mourning remains a common tradition in Muslim societies. Visiting an ill person or attending a funeral is highly recommended in Islam, and it is the responsibility of the community regardless of the personal relations with the deceased (Hedayat 2006).

Absentee Funeral Prayer (Salat al-Gha´ib)

For the victims who succumbed to COVID-19 in Egypt, Shaykh Ahmad Wisam, the Secretary of Fatwa at Dar al-Iftaʾ in the country, issued a fatwa that recommended salat al-gha´ib (Salah 2020). Salat al-gha´ib, or the absentee funeral prayer, refers to a form of funeral prayer in Islam that can be performed upon a deceased Muslim if they die in a place where other Muslims cannot pray for their soul. Several hadith indicate salat al-gha´ib as a permissible option to offer prayers and tributes to the deceased if the person died in a location that was inaccessible to his family or close relatives (al-Munajjid 2006). Largely, the Shafiʿi and Hanbali madhhabs (‘schools of thought’) have traditionally held the view that a funeral prayer in absentia is prescribed for anyone who dies away from their native place even if a funeral prayer is held in the place where they died. However, there have been contradicting views concerning the legitimacy and permissibility of salat al-gha´ib amongst several scholars. Islamic scholars like Shaykh al-Saʿdi5 mention in fatwas that in absentia prayer is permissible only if the deceased has worked towards the betterment of Muslim societies in scholarly or economic contributions or as a mujahid (‘warrior’). And scholars like Ibn Taymiyyah,6 Shaykh IbnʿUthaymin7 and Ibn al-Qayyim8 prescribe salat al-gha´ib only in cases where funeral prayers are not offered for the deceased at the time and in the place they died.

Tributes and Mourning

Customs and practices related to tributes and mourning in Islamic burials vary regionally; however, largely in Muslim societies the mourning is observed by receiving visitors and paying condolences. Regarding the forms of mourning, Sunni scholars advise refraining from loud wailing and extreme forms of expression. The Prophet Mohammad, they argue, discouraged extreme expressions of grief that exhibited any form of self-harm. In the scholars’ view, slapping cheeks and scratching faces and tearing clothes are violent expressions and are therefore highly discouraged. Islam, moreover, categorically places much focus on the intent behind each action, and the intent is supposed to seek forgiveness and please Allah.

Following the Hadith, the one who participates in the funeral prayer to fulfil the commands of Allah and seek his pleasure will earn the rewards for his actions. On the contrary, those who participate in funerals because of simple social conformity will not be rewarded (An-Nawawee 2018).

Islamic Views on Death and the Afterlife

The expression of grief and sorrow in Islam is constructed through an intersubjective meaning-making process that is accomplished primarily through narratives (Neimeyer 2001). The rituals and mourning surrounding death play a significant role in the completion of the burial process, especially considering the emotional imperatives involved in the process. Émile Durkheim (1995) observes that beliefs are considered an ‘essential element of religion’ and that customs and traditions are collective representations that mediate cultural notions of mortality and reinforce social identity. Furthermore, Durkheim also argues that ‘believers’ who live a religious life have a direct sense of what constitutes religion. Following Islamic beliefs, life and death are controlled by Allah, and Allah is believed to have an active influence during and in the afterlife. The Quran (16:70) states: ‘God created you, then he takes you away’ (Assami et al. 1997). Upon hearing about a person's death, the Muslim's first response in accordance with prophetic traditions should be ‘We surely belong to Allah and to Him we shall return’, which further stresses the significance of death as a matter of Allah's will. Death also is the path to the afterlife that Muslims believe is a part of six essential fundamental pillars of their faith (iman).9

Life, according to Islamic belief, is considered distributed into two halves, life in the world (dunya) and the afterlife (akhirah). The Quran contends that the earth is considered as a resting place for worshipping Allah and delivering good deeds (2:20–21; Assami et al. 1997). This is also reflected in the prayers prescribed during the last moments in life as well as prayers to be said after hearing the news of the death of a Muslim. During the last moments of a person's life, a Muslim is supposed to recite verses from the Quran in Arabic or any language the person comprehends (Hedayat 2006). As death is considered an active process, the soul is held to pass through a transitional phase departing from the material world to ‘a spiritual world of purgatory’ (Hedayat 2006). The separation of soul (ruh) and body (jism) is the manifestation of death.

Islam perceives life on earth as a continuous examination, the result of which would be rewarded or punished in the immortal afterlife. Hence, the matter related to death is not considered a taboo subject in Muslim societies, as the reality and the conditions of death are taught and imbibed to Muslim children at a very young age (Sheikh 1998). Matters regarding death are also reflected upon frequently in jumuʿah prayers and other occasions in Muslim societies. Death is considered not to be resisted, and every Muslim should be prepared for their departure. This is even evident during the counselling of Muslims concerning terminal illness or the responses from relatives and friends after a bereavement (Ebrahim 1996; Sarhill et al. 2001). Any changes to the approach in which death or customs related to death are handled would hence have to be made with extreme sensitivity, ensuring that they do not cross the boundaries of the Islamic framework. Constant comfort is achieved in the enduring relationship for the bereaved by prayers. Moreover, bereavement in Islamic tradition reminds one about the guiding values of one's life and their brief journey in the world, after which their soul will have to return to the primordial state (fitrah) that encompasses the attachment of all humankind to Allah.

Major Religious Authorities in Egypt and Their Roles

The Islamic religious laws and ritual practices in Egypt are regulated largely by the Al-Azhar, Dar al-Ifta and the Ministry of Awqaf. Al-Azhar is considered the most prestigious and important religious institution in Egypt. The institution consists of a mosque, a university and a religious research centre that oversees higher education and a national network of schools throughout Egypt. The institution remains one of the main references for Islamic affairs and Islamic jurisprudence, and plays an important role in shaping the religious laws and regulations concerning social affairs in Egypt. A 1961 law reorganised Al-Azhar and expanded the institution, granting it more control over the executive branch of the Egyptian government. Al-Azhar has rather maintained an ambiguous relationship with the state ever since. However, in reality the Egyptian government holds and exerts significant control over Al-Azhar, and this has been in recent years an issue of public debate. Dar al-Ifta is an Egyptian government body that was established for Islamic legal research and jurisprudence in 1895. It issues fatwas and guidance on matters related to Islam by drawing references from the Quran, Hadith and precedents of Islamic jurisprudence. Since its inception, Dar al-Ifta has been one of the most premier institutions representing Islamic legal research in Egypt, advising Muslims within the country on contemporary social issues; it also plays a major role in consultation for the judiciary in Egypt. There have been incidents of disagreements between Al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta in the past, and the Egyptian government still has significant influence and power over both Al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta. The Ministry of Awqaf in Egypt is one of the ministries in the Egyptian government that handles matters related to religious endowments, including public mosques. The Ministry has for a long time represented the Egyptian government's decisions to regulate religious discourse via state-supported and approved imams and religious sermons. The Ministry in recent years has strongly supported the anti-radicalisation and religious reform efforts of the Egyptian government.

Challenges and Constraints Faced by Muslims in Egypt during the Pandemic

We now turn to presenting excerpts from the selected interviews. The narrative excerpts below have been selected from the several long interviews and conversations about the changes and challenges facing religious practices brought on by the pandemic. Throughout the interviews, the participants spoke at length on the impact of the pandemic on religious practices and the role of Al-Azhar and the Egyptian government in regulating and at times offering alternatives within the ambit of Islamic beliefs. Historically, Islamic institutions and governments have adopted the policy of moderation and reinterpretation in times of crisis, and several scholars have argued that moderation is accepted in Islam and is justified by the legality of the Quran (Wahidin 2020).

Reviewing the interactions with several people, the excerpts below capture the convergences and divergences with the approach of the government/Al-Azhar and the range of responses with regard to people's willingness to accept modifications in traditional Islamic funerary rituals.

Salah Matwallī, 60, Retired Engineer

Salah spoke about how initially the Egyptian government tried to undermine the effects of the pandemic by projecting it as just an instance of influenza; people were caught in between the information perpetuated by government institutions and contrary views in the media. However, once the government issued restrictions and regulations pertinent to reduce the spread, more people started taking the pandemic seriously. When we asked Salah to elaborate on how religious practices were carried out amidst the restrictions imposed by the government he said:

The government completely shut down Friday prayers, and we used to go behind the government's back to pray in different mosques based on word of mouth. Each time one mosque would shut down, we would go to another one that would be open. And if someone told us the government now knows we might pray in this mosque, we would say ‘let's not pray here this Friday and go to a different mosque’.

Later in the conversation, Salah also explained how the funeral prayers were carried out during the pandemic:

We pray nearby the tombs or the burial place and pray next to each other the funeral prayer for the deceased – or we would do it next to where we were washing the body. However, it was completely forbidden for us to do any funeral prayer in the mosque. We would always do the prayers in an open area. We also don't do the salat al-gha´ib prayers (in the absence of a body). I never prayed the salat al-gha´ib prayers for someone.

When asked about whether or not he agreed with Al-Azhar's policies concerning the restrictions placed on prayer and mourning. Salah replied:

When it comes to the fiqh, ‘don't throw yourselves in the hands of destruction’, and if the Azhar thinks that the governmental procedures are valid, they should be followed. Cut the prayers, cut the ʿId prayers, sometimes shutting all the prayers down, social distancing or not – the Azhar as an institution completely obeyed the government there, and was doing what is best for the Egyptian people or the public – considering how COVID is spreading. The image of Al-Azhar has completely dissipated, and they have been completely absent since 2013. The government only shows the opinion of the Ministry of Awqaf and Dar al-Iftaʾ.10

Salah's narratives illustrate how people who follow religious practices strictly try to strike a balance between their faith and the regulations mandated by the government. Hence, religious institutions often use examples from the Prophet and his companions or Quranic verses to justify the regulations or modifications endorsed. Furthermore, apparent in his accounts are the continuous trend that we see within Egyptian society in which Al-Azhar becomes a part of the state machinery to effectively mobilise the faithful towards implementing proactive policies in dealing with the pandemic, much as was seen in Alexandria in the winter of 1918 during the Spanish influenza epidemic (Rose 2021).

Lastly, with Salah's account, we see that ultimately communities of the devout can and will rebel against, ignore or counteract government policies when certain restrictions are deemed unreasonable or as extending beyond the public perception of the threat level (Ibrahim 2021). As noted by other scholars, the social fabric of Egypt itself has certain safety nets which enable people to use their social capital to uplift and support each other in times of crisis independently of explicit governmental or religious authorities (Helmy 2020). In several cases, people have affirmed the support from their family, relatives and neighbours to be beneficial, especially amidst impediments caused by lockdowns and other restrictions, thereby enabling COVID-infected people to follow self-isolation.

Khulud, 35, Video Producer

Khulud identifies herself as being agnostic, though culturally a Muslim, and occasionally feels compelled to ‘perform’ as a Muslim for certain family functions. Khulud is very outspoken in her beliefs that religious zeal in both thought and action contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic in Egypt spiralling out of control – which reinforced her questioning of religious customs in the country:

Being religious sometimes is stupid because they have this belief that God is going to help them but he won't. I mean … I don't know if he exists or not, but even if he's here, he's not going to help some stupid people trying to harm themselves.

Although Khulud thinks that Al-Azhar and the government worked well to combat the pandemic, she sees the principal threat as being the mentality of religious people who conceived of the pandemic and the ensuing protective policies as acts of aggression against the Islamic ummah (‘community’) as a whole:

I think that they (Al-Azhar) were very smart, but people are not smart. As I told you before, religious people act stupidly sometimes, like we read in the news how some people were closing the mosque and closing the lights, and they are praying like at the beginning of Islam. There is no enemy for Islam! It was something – a world pandemic, it is everywhere. It's not something personal. It's not fighting Islam or Muslims or their beliefs. Just stay home. Stay safe! But they didn't listen.

Although positive on the whole about the response of the government and Al-Azhar to the pandemic, Khulud was not shy about critiquing what she believes was a lack of transparency on the government's part concerning the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak in Egypt. Khulud lost two of her uncles during the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus directly had to experience the adapted versions of Islamic burial prayers in her immediate family:

So, before COVID, people used to be with each other, and of course, if someone died, they would support each other. But in this COVID time when I lost my uncles, we didn't do this. They just bury him and that's it (dafinuhu wa khalas), and inform each other/offer condolences via telephone only … no prayers. Actually, Al-Azhar made a fatwa to do the funeral prayer in the house. Do the absence prayer in the house (salat al-gha´ib). If one cannot find the deceased body, they pray these prayers. So, we have this prayer for this situation.11

In Khulud's family, traditional burial rites were not practised when her uncles died of COVID-19. They did not join for the customary prayers and were encouraged to offer condolences over telephone and proceed with the burial. Khulud's narrative expands upon the complex relationship between non-religious, agnostic, and atheist, or ‘cultural’, Muslims whose sentiments towards cultural religious practices have been weakened by their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hussam, 25, Operations Professional

Hussam comes from a family background that he describes as moderately religious. He began his narrative by describing the social dynamics in Egypt during the current pandemic from the bottom up, as he views it:

I think we don't have this mentality here in Egypt, like we don't have this mentality where if you're sick, then everyone is super judgmental. Luckily. We're actually very caring about each other. If someone gets COVID, we think about how we could help. Like of course I will take precautions when I visit them and try to support them.

Hussam's grandmother died during the COVID-19 pandemic, and although COVID itself was not the cause of her death, his description of her funeral illustrates the contradictory attitudes towards the pandemic observed between the city and the country. The grandmother was buried in her hometown, and relatives had to travel three to four hours by car to attend the funeral. During the funeral prayer, they faced the challenge that not everyone respected the safety regulations:

When all her friends gathered to make the funeral prayer – they had no concept of social distancing, that we should spread out or even that people should not attend because of COVID. Like, this is not who they are. So, for the country folk, nothing changed basically, but my family took all the precautions like the masks, the (sanitising) alcohol, like everything. But other than that, like, we had to perform the duties of the traditional faith, you would say, as is done in the countryside. People like all the hometown friends, and even foreigners come in to say goodbye.

Hussam described the importance of observing such funeral rituals, as it adheres to prevailing customary and religious beliefs concerning the journey between life and death:

In my religion, the more the people pray for you, the better it is for you during the journey after death, not the judgement day. Like when you die, we have this belief that two angels are going to ask you some questions that basically sum up all your life. These prayers help you like maintain your fortitude or strengthen your resolve when you face them. So, the more prayers the better it is. That's why it's a tradition.

Hussam believes that Al-Azhar and the government responded proactively to the COVID-19 crisis; however, he notes the role of emotionality, especially in situations regarding death and the importance placed upon proper burial and grieving rituals. He opines that generally Egyptian people tend to be emotional and that many could not restrain themselves from doing ‘things that they want to do’.

Hussam lastly elaborated on the educational as well as religious roles played by Al-Azhar in Egyptian society, furthering its role as a unique bridge between Islamic knowledge and Western science, which, in equal measure, both bolsters and weakens its credibility amongst different strands of Egyptian society. He pointed out that Al-Azhar is not just a religious institution. It has a university and a school as well:

So, with the Azhar, it's okay because they have talked to doctors and experts; we have everything that also helps in making the normal religious fatwa. The fatwa actually comes from very specific observations in a field. Let's say in medicine, they actually go to pharmaceutical people and ask them ‘What is the effect of this pill or vaccine?’ and then come to a conclusion based on more than one person's opinion. So that's how the fatwa was made.

Hussam's observations illustrate both the trust in Al-Azhar's judgement from the perspective of religious moderates in tandem with the psychological and spiritual needs reinforced by both Islamic theology and popular beliefs in Egypt. As Hussam notes, these beliefs are very prevalent and strong amongst the Egyptian people, especially in the countryside where it is virtually impossible to uniformly apply COVID-19 restrictions to all participants in communal prayers and especially those of funerary rituals. Furthermore, the psychological, emotional and spiritual needs felt by the devout can often act as a stronger motivating force than imposed governmental or religious restrictions, due in part to the belief that the living can assist the deceased in their afterlife journey, and in part to the benefits granted to a person who performs such religious obligations.

Female, 22, College Student

A female college student from Cairo agreed to be interviewed under the condition of anonymity. She identifies as being religious and similarly comes from a religious family background. She recently lost her father to COVID-19, thus she and her family were required to adopt the new restrictions in completing the burial rituals:

My father died of COVID-19; he caught it three weeks ago, and he died two weeks ago. The government didn't allow them to write the cause of death; they wrote cardiac arrest. Also, his body was not washed appropriately according to Islam; however, at the same time, Al-Azhar said to try and do it with the least contact and don't do it in a complete manner as usually done, as we are not in usual times. Either try to hose the body with water, and that's it, or leave them as they are, wrap them with the white burial cloth and then plastic to prevent the disease from spreading, as these are special circumstances that require special measures.

The interviewee, however, believes that, despite the restriction on prayer and ritual observance, Al-Azhar and the government did handle the situation well:

We can no longer have large meetings or salat al-jumuʿah (‘congregational prayer’) during Ramadan. However, this is not one hundred per cent Islamic; it is rather more traditional. I think that Al-Azhar handled the situation well. It shouldn't impact the religious acts themselves. Both Al-Azhar and the government had a united front when handling COVID. I don't think it was effective, but this was not due to them; rather, it was due to the Egyptian people themselves and the way they manage life in general.

The interviewee believes that the government and Al-Azhar must enact reasonable restrictions when the public is not observing effective precautions. Moreover, in this interview, we see the tension between trusting in government authorities, as evidenced by the fact that COVID-19 was not listed as a cause of death on the death certificate, and the belief that the government and institutions should bear the responsibility for taking care of the citizens during public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The anonymous interviewee's detailed descriptions of the washing of the body and burial processes also provide us with insight into the specifics of performing the Islamic burial rites in the era of COVID-19 for a victim of the virus.

Discussion

Rituals, particularly religious ones as noted by anthropologists, are an essential and intrinsically conservative form of ‘meaning making’, especially in religions with orthopractic components such as Islam, in which their performance or lack thereof often serves additional other purposes. Moreover, in Islamic societies social conditioning caters to the relevance of rituals in the underlying structures of social life. For example, in Islam prayer also serves the additional function of organising the hours of the day, as well as strengthening group bonds/ties, and weddings and funerals, they can be considered acts of socialisation. According to Pierre Bourdieu (1996), internal representations are constructed through such a socialisation process that could be largely drawn from religious paradigms in this context. Therefore, the individual operates depending on their habitus, which could be explained as the cognitive system of structures that helps the individual to think, feel, perceive and respond, depending on their social conditioning. In hierarchical religions, or societies organised around hierarchical religious institutions, ‘negotiations’ or modifications of ritual most commonly occur within a highly formalised process, so as to best preserve the ‘meaning’, intention and function behind the original ritual act.

In the case of the ritual negotiations that took place in Egypt in 2020–2021, from our interviews it is clear that Al-Azhar and its fatwas played a very decisive role in mobilising large aspects of the public to take proactive measures against the COVID-19 pandemic.12 While the more Westernised, educated, moderately religious or even highly religious upper classes of Egypt may have been more ready to adhere to more stringent personal precautions, amongst the middle and lower classes, the lack of exposure to definitive information about the virus and the strength of popular religious beliefs in many cases led to an opposite approach being taken. For example, in some areas marginalised groups, such as the Sinai Bedouin, the Amazigh population of the Siwa Oasis, and other groups in rural Egypt did not perceive COVID-19 to be a threat at all and did not see the intention in or the purpose of getting vaccinated or tested for the virus. Life in these areas, outside of the initial lockdowns, has indeed remained largely unchanged throughout the past 18 months. Thus, in these areas, prayers, weddings and funerals have mostly carried on as usual. However, in the large urban centres of Cairo and Alexandria, as well as the capitals of regional provinces, more complex negotiations had to be made to comply with the more strictly enforced rules of the densely populated urban areas. This phenomenon can be explained by the fact that Egypt remains a largely centralised country in terms of the administration of civic policy and in terms of the fatwas issued by Al-Azhar authorities, in both the temporal and de facto religious sense. Power continues to reside largely in Cairo and radiates outwards from its administrative centres into other provinces.

As observed in the cases of Hussam and Salah, life in the countryside can very much operate by its own traditional cultural rules and norms, as informal networks and relationships continue to determine the codes of behaviour regarding religious observances, prayers and funerals. This matter is also influenced, as Khulud noted, by the predominance of unofficial religious leaders or heterodox strains of Sunni Islam that do not rigidly adhere to the rulings of Al-Azhar. On the other hand, as seen with the cases of Khulud and the anonymous female interviewee, the implicit and explicit pressures felt by individuals compel them to conform to governmental policies regarding COVID-19 restrictions on prayers and funeral rituals, because they are felt much more strongly in the cities and urban areas, where central authority is more easily exerted.

At the core of this dichotomy, from the Egyptian perspective, appears to be a classic case of the science versus religion debate. For example, a Salafist taxi driver from Marsa Matrouh in no uncertain terms explained to me how he believed that COVID-19 was a punishment from Allah upon humanity for more openly committing sins and generally disobeying the teachings of Islam. Amongst many populations on the extreme end of this belief scale, Al-Azhar is viewed as being a mouthpiece for the government, and thus a ‘corrupted’, if influential, force in the Islamic world and as an institution of Islamic learning. The Egyptian government has over time adopted several mechanisms to bring Al-Azhar under government control. The Al-Sisi government has furthered the agenda to have more control over society, and, as a part of upgrading its authoritarianism, the current regime has adopted policies to limit the autonomy of Al-Azhar. The rift between Al-Azhar and the government has consequently become more apparent in recent years (Amin 2020; Heydemann 2007).

However, at least concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, it does appear that Al-Azhar's approach to jurisprudence – that is, bridging ‘modern’ scientific knowledge with Islamic theology – did in fact have a large influence on encouraging both religious and non-religious Muslims to effectively mobilise during the COVID-19 pandemic. While issues of public health can expediently cause modifications of burial rituals in particular, as seen in Central Africa during the several Ebola outbreaks, bridging the gap between spiritual and scientific knowledge remains a profoundly important issue that may be critical in combatting epidemic or pandemic diseases. In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, it is clear that Al-Azhar's approach, in combining Islamic jurisprudence with support for governmental mandates, was successful to an extent in Egypt in building public consensus regarding the modification of rituals.

Conclusion

The traditional jurisprudence concerning Islamic burial laws mandates the participation of relatives, friends and acquaintances. However, as we have demonstrated, these practices were exempted by the religious authorities. Many people chose to follow the changes, as they were issued by the country's foremost religious institution. However, some did not because they, for emotional reasons, wanted to honour conventional practices, and several others did not adhere to the government policies because they did not think the pandemic was dangerous. Some also refrained from adhering to the government's regulations, as they did not agree with the religious authorities. It is evident that, in the absence of Al-Azhar's intervention, it would have been more difficult to put the pandemic restrictions in place in Egypt. Al-Azhar historically has played an important role in guiding the large Sunni majority of the country, and has also influenced the social system in Egypt (Bano 2018; Zeghal 1999).

Al-Azhar and the Egyptian government have had a history of working together as a part of the ‘state machinery’ since at least the 1918 pandemic. However, there is also a precedent that Al-Azhar must retain its authority as a religious institution and that, to a certain extent, religious authority should not be curtailed. In the light of recent developments concerning regulations mandated by the Egyptian government and Al-Azhar, it is clear that both worked towards imposing the precautions recommended by the World Health Organization to avoid the spread of the virus. In this respect, the role played by Al-Azhar remains crucial, as Muslims largely remain reliant on the legitimacy and approval of the modification or reinterpretation of Islamic rituals and customs as long as they are accepted by religious authorities such as Al-Azhar. Egyptians of both religious and non-religious backgrounds tend to have a general attitude that the government should be held responsible for the welfare of the people during times of crisis. Al-Azhar still faces a crisis of legitimacy amongst certain sections of the Muslims in Egypt, particularly amongst the more Salafist and Wahhabi influenced strains of society.

There also remains some distrust between citizens and the government involving ‘hiding’ the numbers of COVID-19 cases, which has further led to divergences concerning adherance to the regulations in Egypt. Social traditions and beliefs concerning the power of prayer and prayers for deceased Muslims as well as the ensuing emotionality surrounding them were also factors that encouraged Egyptians to eschew regulations. There is also a strong belief, amongst the more conservative members of society, that the government and even al-Azhar should not control prayer and religiosity. In Islamic jurisprudence, there exist several precedents for adapting burial prayers to suit the unique needs of public health crises or pandemics; however, the role of popular belief, reservations surrounding salat al-gha´ib, and emotionality in times of great duress remains a powerful force which counteracts proactive government measures.

The acceptance of adulteration and changes in religious practices hinges on several factors in Egyptian society, and the state remains concerned about not crossing the threshold of public acceptance. Criticism of several festivals, celebrations and mourning demonstrations had become a ‘fixed topos in the discourse of modernity and Islamic reform’, as they were seen as a threat to or a contamination of the purity of religion and a challenge to the state (Schielke 2007).

This article can be considered as a pilot study intending to capture primarily the implications of engagement between the Egyptian government, Al-Azhar and Muslims in Egypt concerning the modifications in Islamic burial rites as mandated by Al-Azhar amidst the pandemic. Having interviewed and discussed numerous aspects of religious rituals in general and burial rites in particular with several Egyptians, we identified many gaps in the knowledge around the involvement of Al-Azhar in mediating between the Egyptian government and the public, especially during crises. More focus on a cross-sectional analysis using a diverse set of participants concerning religious rituals in Egypt could further bring out the complexities of both internal negotiations as well as the implications of external interventions for modifying rituals like in the case of Al-Azhar. Moreover, further ethnographic research could also look into the long-term implications of Islamic rituals as an embodiment of the socialisation process in Egypt and into the larger effects of restrictions of religious rituals and practices in modifying certain central aspects of Islamic jurisprudence. Furthermore, the scope of such research concerning Bedouin tribes in Sinai could also capture the changes in the approach towards negotiations, as the sensitivities remain different for the Bedouin tribes in Sinai and other minority groups in Egypt.

Notes

1

Saʿad Zaghlul (1859–1927) was an Egyptian nationalist and statesman whose Wafd Party and political activism were instrumental in fomenting the 1919 Egyptian Revolution against the British Empire.

2

Salat al-janazah differs from other prayers in terms of the takbirs (a common call during prayers that translates to ‘God is great’), rakats (the single iteration of prescribed actions and supplications performed during prayers) and duration. Unlike other prayers, salat al-janazah is a collective obligation upon other Muslims (fard al-kifaya).

3

In case of the unavailability of water, tayammum (an act of dry ritual purification by substituting water with clean sand or stone) is practised.

4

Hadith: ‘Umm Layla Bint Qanif who said, “I was among those who washed Umm Kalthoum, the Prophet's daughter, when she died. The first thing he gave us was the waist wrapper, then the shift, then the head cover, then the large outer sheet. She was afterward wrapped in another cloth. The Messenger of God was at the door, handing us the pieces one by one’ (recorded by Abu Dawud).

5

Shaykh al-Saʿdi was a prominent Islamic scholar from al-Qassim, Saudi Arabia, who was primarily known for his works in Islamic jurisprudence and Quran tafsir (Quranic commentary and explanation). His works are used as references by modern Salafi scholars.

6

Ibn Taymiyyah is one the most prominent Islamic theologians who belonged to the Hanbali school of thought. He was born in Damascus in 1263 CE, and his works are often republished in various Arab and South Asian countries. He is also regarded as the source of Wahhabism, and his writings are considered as references for the traditionalist Wahhabi movement.

7

Shaykh IbnʿUthaymin was a Saudi Arabian scholar of Islamic theology and jurisprudence, and is considered as one of the prominent and popular faqih of the modern era. He was born in 1925 in Najd, Saudi Arabia. He has taught at several Islamic universities in Saudi Arabia, and has written extensively on interpretations of the Quran. Shaykh IbnʿUthaymin is considered to be one of the most influential clerics in the Salafist movement.

8

Ibn al-Qayyiim was an important Islamic jurisconsult and theologian who belonged to the Hanbali school of thought. He was born in Damascus in 1292 CE, and is regarded as an important Islamic thinker of his time. He was a student and disciple of Ibn Taymiyyah, who also influenced his opinions and thoughts on Islam and Islamic jurisprudence.

9

As per Islamic beliefs, there are six pillars of iman which include both belief in the Day of Judgement and belief in the Qadhaa’ and Qadr (Doom and Divine Decree).

10

That is, the Ministry of Religious Endowments and the preeminent, government-sponsored institute for Islamic legal research and the issuance of fatwas.

11

Caliph ʿUmar ibn al-Khattab was said to recommend this during the outbreak of the plague of ʿAmwas in 638 CE.

12

According to Al-Azhar's actual statement, there are two ways of Islamically burying people, depending on whether the body is present or not. If the body is buried without salat al-janazah, then you pray salat al-gha´ib. This distinction is important, as it creates an entirely new ritual replacing salat al-janazah. Salat al-gha´ib is a must for everyone as long as they know the individual and no one has prayed on them yet – that is, if no one has attended the funeral. If you do not know anyone else who has gone to the funeral to pray for the body, it is compulsory (fard) for you to go and pray for it. However, if you know someone who has attended the funeral, it is no longer compulsory for you to attend and pray. See Salah (2020).

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Contributor Notes

Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal is a Dr TMA Pai Fellow and PhD Candidate at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India. His doctoral thesis focusses on the identity complexities in the Middle East and their underlying effects on the political and security dynamics of the region. E-mail: nadeem6moonakal@gmail.com

Matthew Ryan Sparks is a Third Year PhD Candidate in Middle East Studies at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, Israel, where he is currently documenting oral and life histories of the Sinai and Negev Bedouin. A lifelong storyteller, Matthew is an author, oral historian, research consultant and professional editor with years of experience working with various international clients through his firm, Sparks & McNeill, LLC. His primary research interests are oral/life histories and folklore of nomadic, indigenous, subaltern and queer populations in his native Central Appalachia as well as the Middle East and North Africa. E-mail: sparksandmcneill@gmail.com

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  • Alessandro, P. (1991), ‘What Makes Oral History Different?’ in The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (New York: State University of New York Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Al-Munajjid, Shaykh M. S. (2006), ‘Ruling on Offering the Funeral Prayer in Absentia’, Islamqa, 9 February, https://islamqa.info/en/answers/35853/ruling-on-offering-the-funeral-prayer-in-absentia.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Al-Nasa'i (2007), ‘The Shroud of the Prohpet’, Sunnah, https://sunnah.com/nasai:1897 (accessed on 15 July 2021).

  • Amin, S. (2016), ‘Lessons From the 1918 Flu in Egypt: The Egyptian Museum and the 1918 H1N1 “Spanish Flu” Pandemic’, The British Museum, https://bmitpglobalnetwork.org/2021/02/02/lessons-from-the-1918-flu-in-egypt-the-egyptian-museum-and-the-1918-h1n1-spanish-flu-pandemic-shreen-amin-egypt-itp-2016/ (accessed on 12 July 2021).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Amin, S. (2020), ‘Egypt's Al-Azhar in Dispute with Government over Fatwa Authority’, Al-Monitor, 23 July, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2020/07/egypt-draft-law-control-al-azhar-dar-al-iftaa-religious.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • An-Nawawee, Y. I. S. (2018), Riyad Us-Saliheen (Riyadh: Darussalam).

  • Assami, E., Kennedy, M. and Bantley, A. (1997), Holy Quran (Jeddah: Dar Abul Qasim).

  • Azhar, S. (2020), ‘Islamic Processes for Managing Grief, Loss and Death’, in Working with Grief and Traumatic Loss: Theory, Practice, Personal Reflection, and Self-Care, (ed.) A. Redcay and E. Counselman Carpenter (San Diego: Cognella Publishing), 188197.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bano, M. (2018), ‘At the Tipping Point? Al-Azhar's Growing Crisis of Moral Authority’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 50, no. 4: 715734, doi:10.1017/S0020743818000867

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bourdieu, P. (1996), ‘Physical Space, Social Space and Habitus’, Oslo: Institutt for Sosiologi og Samfunnsgeografi, https://fdocuments.net/document/physical-space-social-space-and-habitus.html (accessed on 12 January 2022).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dar al-Ifta al-Missriyyah (2020), ‘The Manner of Shrouding Men and Women’, https://www.dar-alifta.org/Foreign/ViewFatwa.aspx?ID=8102 (accessed on 14 July 2021).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Durkheim, É. (1995), The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: Free Press).

  • Ebrahim, A. F. M. (1996), ‘Counseling the Family of the Terminally Ill during Sickness and Death’, JIMA 28: 2123, doi:10.5915/28-1-6179

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Egypt Today (2020), ‘Al-Azhar Fatwa Center Urges Citizens to Stay Home’, Egypt Today, 24 March, https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/1/82941/Al-Azhar-fatwa-center-urges-citizens-to-stay-at-home.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ekpo, C. G. and Is'haq, A. B. (2016), ‘Islam and the Environment: Implications of Islamic Funeral Practice on Environmental Sustainability’, Journal of Research & Method in Education 6, no.1: 5863, doi:10.9790/7388-06115863

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gatrad, A. R. (1994), ‘Muslim Customs Surrounding Death, Bereavement, Postmortem Examinations, and Organ Transplants’, BMJ 309, no. 6953: 521523, doi:10.1136/bmj.309.6953.521

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hedayat, K. (2006), ‘When the Spirit Leaves: Childhood Death, Grieving, and Bereavement in Islam’, Journal of Palliative Medicine 9, no. 6: 12821291, doi:10.1089/jpm.2006.9.1282

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Helmy (2020), ‘Informal Safety Nets, Networks, Risk Management: Role of Social Capital in Egypt’, Alternative Policy Solutions, 21 January, https://aps.aucegypt.edu/en/articles/72/informal-safety-nets-networks-risk-management-role-of-social-capital-in-egypt.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Heydemann, S. (2007), ‘Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World’, The Saban Center at The Brookings Institution, October, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/10arabworld.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ibrahim, S. (2021), ‘The Dynamics of the Egyptian Social Contract: How the Political Changes Affected the Poor’, World Development 138: 105254, doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2020.105254

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Neimeyer, R.-A. (2001), Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association).

  • Rahouma, M. and Hegazy, S. (2020), ‘Closing Mosques and Churches: Religious Institutions on One Hand to Confront Corona’, El Watan News, 21 March, https://www.elwatannews.com/news/details/4660033.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Reuters Staff (2021), ‘Egypt Begins COVID-19 Vaccination Drive with Frontline Medical Staff’, Reuters, 24 January, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-egypt-vaccines-idUSKBN29T0LD.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rose, C. (2021), ‘Implications of the Spanish Influenza Pandemic (1918–1920) for the History of Early 20th Century Egypt’, Journal of World History 32, no. 4: 655684, doi:10.1353/jwh.2021.0044

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Salah, M. (2020), ‘Absentee Funeral Prayer in Islam’, Huda TV, 21 June, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMVqm8KHvCs (accessed on 10 January 2022).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sarhill, N., LeGrand, S., Islambouli, R., Davis, M. and Walsh, D. (2001), ‘The Terminally Ill Muslim: Death and Dying from the Muslim Perspective’, American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Care 18, no. 4: 251255, doi:10.1177/104990910101800409

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schielke, S. (2007), ‘Hegemonic Encounters: Criticism of Saints-Day Festivals and the Formation of Modern Islam in Late 19th and Early 20th-Century Egypt’, Die Welt des Islams 47, no. 4: 319355, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20140782.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sheikh, A. (1998), ‘Death and Dying: A Muslim Perspective’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 91, no. 3: 138140, doi:10.1177/014107689809100307

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Venhorst, C. (2012), ‘Islamic Death Rituals in a Small Town Context in The Netherlands: Explorations of a Common Praxis for Professionals’, Omega: Journal of Death and Dying 65, no. 1: 110, doi:10.2190/om.65.1.a

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wahidin, J. S. (2020), ‘Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on the Implementation of Islamic Fiqh Al-Tasawabit and Al-Mutaghayyirat Approaches’, Systemic Reviews in Pharmacy 11, no. 12: 11021107, https://www.sysrevpharm.org/articles/impact-of-covid19-pandemic-on-the-implementation-of-islamic-fiqh-altasawabit-and-almutaghayyirat-approaches.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WHO (World Health Organization) (2021), ‘Egypt: WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard with Vaccination Data’, https://covid19.who.int/region/emro/country/eg (accessed on 13 January 2022).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zeghal, M. (1999), ‘Religion and Politics in Egypt: The Ulema of Al-Azhar, Radical Islam, and the State (1952–94)’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 31, no. 3: 371399, doi:10.1017/S0020743800055483

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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