On Thursday, March 19th, Idris Abdul-Zahir, an imam in West Oak Lane, Philadelphia, wrestled with whether his mosque, Masjidullah, should open the following afternoon for the Friday prayer service, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The mosque, one of about seventy in the Philadelphia area, has almost a thousand members. It also hosts a day-care center for nearly two hundred children, called the Masjidullah Early Child Care Academy, or MECCA; an online Islamic school for forty students, called the New Medina Institute; Islamic girl- and boy-scout troops, the Alimah and Jawala Scouts, respectively; two senior-citizen groups; and a food program that has distributed fresh produce to hungry people for the past thirty years. The day-care center, which had closed earlier in the week, provides breakfast and lunch to all students, many of whom are among the twelve per cent of children in Philadelphia who face food insecurity. Amid the closure of public schools and other programs, Masjidullah was scrambling to try to keep feeding children. “If we don’t stay open, these kids are going to go hungry,” Abdul-Zahir told me. “The threat of COVID-19 is not as real for some people as the threat of hunger.”

Abdul-Zahir, who is forty, with a baby face and sleepy eyes, grew up in the city’s Germantown neighborhood. His parents helped found Masjidullah in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of West Oak Lane forty years ago. Abdul-Zahir attended Temple and Drexel Universities and currently keeps a day job managing I.T. systems for the city of Philadelphia. He also has a film-production company, and, in 2012, he worked with Black Public Media to direct a Web series called “Ask a Muslim,” in which Muslim-Americans answered questions about their faith. “So many people were saying things about Islam after 9/11,” he told me, “but no one was actually asking black Muslims for answers.” For the past two years, he served as assistant imam at Masjidullah, but, in mid-March, just a few weeks ago, he was sworn in as head imam. The arrival of COVID-19 thrust him into the same position as many religious leaders, who are trying to guide their congregations through a public-health crisis. In many places around the world, large worship gatherings had helped spread the virus. “I was put in place as imam here to work through difficult issues,” he told me.

For spiritual guidance, Abdul-Zahir looked to the Quran and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place,” the Prophet had said—a thirteen-hundred-year-old shelter-in-place order. However, elsewhere Muhammad had emphasized the importance of Jumuah prayer, the Friday service. “In Islam, it’s obligatory for men to gather on Friday to pray,” Abdul-Zahir told me. After two conference calls with his members, he felt that he needed to keep the mosque open for prayer and food services. “I have overwhelming support that people want to come out,” he told me. “We’re prepared to take the proper precautions, but we need to stay open. If we don’t, I don’t know how people who are not being paid are going to survive.” Given the mosque’s large space, he believed that at least six feet between congregants could be easily maintained. “On an average day, I might shake one hundred hands,” he said. “I’m somewhat of a germophobe, so I already use Purell.” On March 19th, there were only eighteen diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in the Philadelphia area. (Due to a lack of testing and the fact that many carriers are asymptomatic, the number of cases was probably much higher.) “Even if I multiply that by ten, that’s still only a hundred and eighty in a city of 1.5 million people,” he told me. “At least in my opinion, it’s not time to hit the bunkers yet.”

Source: www.newyorker.com/feed/everything