It’s prayer time in Riyadh and you can hear the call to prayer coming from my neighborhood mosques. It’s the fourth one today, but mosques across the country, which is one of the most pious in the world, will be empty. This has been the case since the government announced on March 17 that it was suspending prayers in mosques. The call has been amended too. Instead of “come to prayer,” the muezzins now say “pray at home.” Even the year-round “umrah” pilgrimage in Mecca has been suspended.
“This is something new for us in Saudi Arabia. This is the first time it’s happened,” said muezzin Nayef Abdullah, 39, after he made the call to prayer at a small Riyadh mosque that used to overflow with up to 200 worshipers a day. “We always pray five times in a mosque and then to suddenly lose it, of course your heart will be heavy.”
While Saudis say they understand the social-distancing measure was taken to protect them, they still feel sad they cannot go to the mosque.
Attending prayer in a mosque is a very important aspect of religion for many Saudis. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where shops and businesses close five times a day for prayer. There are mosques at airports and malls. In restaurants and offices, before the corona outbreak, employees would spread prayer rugs and pray as a group if they couldn’t go to the mosque. Muslims believe that group prayers bring more benefits and blessings to the believer than praying alone.
All of that is changing.
General practitioner Khaled Alothman, 29, now prays alone at home or in his clinic and says the closure has highlighted the importance of the mosque in Saudis’ everyday life. “Even people who missed prayers, who didn’t care about prayers, now when they hear the muezzin on Friday and there’s no sermon feel there’s something missing,” he said. “We are with the state, this is also for our benefit, to reduce the disease.”
Until last week, men could still pray together on Tahlia Street, one of the main streets in Riyadh. They could pull a large prayer rug from a dispenser on the street that allowed them to perform a group prayer. The dispenser has recently been removed.
The religious police, who have been defanged as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman opens up the country, have become part of the campaign to keep Saudis at home. They have put up banners that encourage people to stay at home, with one saying that Prophet Mohammed would cover his face with his hand or cloth whenever he sneezed.
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