Advancement of technology can bring about new issues that cause us to revisit our understanding of religious rules and guidelines. The ability to transmit voice and video over long distances has led people to ask whether it is permissible or valid to participate in congregational prayer if a person were at a considerable distance from the imam [the prayer leader]. The same question has been asked regarding listening to a khutbah [sermon] through a radio, telephone, or computer broadcast and having it count as if the person was physically there.
History of the Issue
The question regarding praying from a far distance from the congregation probably began with the introduction of microphones which could broadcast sound at a far distance. Some Muslims inquired whether they could remain in their homes or at their workplace and follow the imam without having to physically travel to join the lines of people behind him. With the introduction of radio broadcast, people living miles away could tune in to a masjid broadcasting the prayer and potentially follow in prayer while listening to the sound from the radio. This concept developed even further with the advent of video streaming, and it will certainly reach another level with virtual reality, where a person may feel like they are actually part of a physical congregation. The question is whether this individual feeling of being part of the congregation may be considered, in the sight of Allah, as actually being part of that group. Is such a prayer valid (or encouraged), and if so, will it count as a group prayer rather than an individual one, and will it therefore take on the rulings and rewards associated with congregational prayer?
No recognized legal school nor scholar has ever allowed a person at a very far distance from the physical congregation to be considered as being part of that congregation. Scholars of Islamic Law [fuqahā’] have differed whether short distances due to potentially necessary barriers such as a building, a river, or a street would be a valid excuse for keeping a distance between the rows of worshippers. However, none of them has ever permitted or validated anyone to consider themselves as part of a group prayer when at a much further distance with no necessary obstructions. This is a matter of nearly complete consensus among scholars and schools, both past and present.
The Underlying Wisdom
The reason for invalidating such an action is because it contradicts the entire purpose of congregational prayer in the first place. Muslims physically gather in one place for prayer to strengthen emotional connections and interact with each other before and after prayer. This is simply not achievable without being physically present. The same wisdom applies to other physical acts of worship such as the Pilgrimage to Makkah [Ḥajj] which cannot be performed even if a virtual reality headset made a person feel as though they were walking around the Kaʿbah, and even if they were actually physically walking while going through the virtual experience. The lack of physical presence precludes such a virtual Ḥajj from being considered valid in the sight of Allah.
An individual’s desire to feel like they are part of the group is noble. Despite such a feeling, virtual participation does not actually make them part of that group, nor does the group that is praying together feel the same about that person since they are not present. Virtual prayers, according to both common sense and the latest research on the harmful effects of technology on socialization, would cause harm to the idea of community that Islam tries to foster through practices such as group prayer.
There are three major cases where people may want to join a group for prayer or khutbah from a distance, and in all cases, there are permissible alternatives to achieving some connection and ‘feeling’ of being part of the group.
1) Daily Five Times Prayers: Many masjids around the world broadcast their daily prayers via radio to households living in that area. This is a way to bring about a connection to the masjid even when one is not able to go. While a person may not follow the imam of the masjid in prayer through a radio broadcast, they can listen to the adhān [call to prayer] and iqāmah [call to commence] and then perform prayer with their family and neighbors in their house or at work. Even though you are not part of that congregation in the masjid, starting at the same time provides a sense of solidarity with the community.
2) Jumuʿah Prayer: The Friday Prayer, which is obligatory upon adult males and optional for others, consists of two sermons and two units [rakʿas] of prayer. For those performing it, Jumuʿah prayer is a substitute for the Ẓuhr prayer. A person who is not physically present cannot join and must pray four units of Ẓuhr instead. There are two options:
a. People unable to attend Jumuʿah Prayer for a valid reason can listen to a broadcasted khutbah. It will not count as a khutbah for them, but as a general lecture to benefit from the knowledge and admonition. After the lecture is over, they would pray Ẓuhr, either individually or collectively. Since the broadcasted khutbah will not actually count as a khutbah for them, they cannot pray two units of Jumuʿah prayer, even if they are a large group.
b. If they are able to gather a few people together, one of them can perform two short khutbahs so they can pray Jumuʿah instead of Ẓuhr prayer. Performing a khutbah is not that difficult and can easily and quickly be learned by someone with a foundational knowledge of Islam. A khutbah does not have to take much effort to prepare and can be as short as a minute. According to the Ḥanafī school of jurisprudence, a minimum of four people (including the imam) is needed for a valid Jumuʿah Prayer. This makes it relatively easy to gather a few nearby Muslims and pray Jumuʿah, since it can be prayed almost anywhere and is not restricted to a masjid. It should be noted that Islam strongly encourages very large gatherings of Jumuʿah prayer, and the type of small gatherings discussed here should only be leveraged in cases of necessity.
3) Tarāwīh Prayer: In the month of Ramaḍān there are recommended night prayers known as Tarāwīḥ, usually consisting of eight or twenty units. Muslims usually gather in the masjid and pray in a group with the imam reciting aloud. In many masjids around the world, imams complete recitation of the entire Qur’an during Tarāwīḥ Prayer over the course of the month. People often have a commendable desire to participate as the reciter usually has a beautiful voice, and listening to and reflecting upon the entire Qur’an can be a beneficial and spiritual experience, and an individual praying at home may only have a small portion of the Qur’an memorized. Since a person is not allowed to join a group prayer remotely, they have the option to sit down and follow along with a live broadcast (or even a recording) as the imam recites verses from the Qur’an in prayer. This can be done with or without looking at a copy of the Qur’an. This allows a person to still benefit from listening to a beautiful recitation of the Qur’an and reflect upon its meaning. A person may also perform Tarāwīh Prayer at home by themselves, even if they repeat a small number of verses over and over (due to only having a small portion memorized). This is the best method as it fulfills the tarāwīh prayer along with listening to and reflecting upon the Qur’an (during the prayer).
[Shaykh] Mustafa Umar
Mar 20, 2020 – Anaheim, CA
Edited by [Shaykh] Umer Khan