The majority of Muslim scholars have wisely ruled to suspend all congregational events to protect all communities.
But holding Friday sermons and prayers online has become a debatable issue among Muslims in the Western countries where Muslim minority communities may feel more isolated due to the extended lockdowns that have restricted public assemblies.
Muslim scholars in America and Europe have relied primarily on the opinions of earlier scholars on this sensitive issue. Quoting several of them, these scholars say that an unreasonable gap in between the lines breaks congregational prayers (Jamaa) and concluding that there is no Jumah with many households praying miles apart. In their opinion, people watching and listening to the sermon cannot offer two units of Friday prayers, instead, they should observe noon Zuhr prayers.
Based on a statement prepared by an eminent Muslim scholar in the USA, Yasir Qadhi, the Fiqh Council of North America, recommended that:
"The khutbah (Friday sermon) that is being broadcast, even if live, does not take the ruling of a Friday sermon for those who listen to it from their houses. This is because there is unanimous consensus amongst all of the legal schools that an unreasonable gap in between the lines breaks a congregational prayer (jamāʿah); hence there is no jamāʿah with many households praying many miles apart."
But the Council is also of the opinion that families can offer Friday prayers at home if they have the required number of participants. Even though scholars differ on the number of people needed to be physical present to offer Friday prayers, they all agree that a congregation comprises of at least two people.
In my humble opinion, this ruling does not address the issue of online sermons and distant prayers at home for extended periods versus the responsibility of Friday prayers.
The obligation of Friday prayer consists of two essential parts, two units of prayer and a preceding sermon. In normal circumstances, people visit the masjid to offer this prayer. The fact that many people reach the places of worship towards the concluding moment of the sermon is a matter for another discussion.
There are several examples of Islamic rules that are applicable in normal circumstances can be changed in emergencies and unusual situations. This is well established from the Quranic text and the Prophetic actions.
Wuḍūʾ is a procedure for cleansing parts of the body, a type of ritual purification, or ablution. It involves washing the hands, mouth, nostrils, arms, head, and feet with water. The Quran says: O you who have attained to faith! When you are about to pray, wash your face, and your hands and arms up to the elbows. And pass your [wet] hands lightly over your head, and [wash] your feet up to the ankles. And if you are in a state. requiring total ablution, purify yourselves." (Quran 5:6)
But in the same verse, it exempts people from performing wudu in the manner mentioned above during emergencies. "But if you are ill, or are traveling, or have just satisfied a want of nature, or have cohabited with a woman, and can find no water-then take resort to pure dust. Rub that lightly over your face and your hands. God does not want to impose any hardship on you but wants to make you pure and to bestow upon you the full measure of His blessings so that you might have cause to be grateful. (Quran 5:6)
The Quran establishes the rule that during emergencies, rules are flexible. The guiding principle is that God does not want to impose any hardship.
The prayer is one of the essential pillars of Islam. Believers must offer them on time. "For all believers, prayer is indeed a sacred duty linked to particular times [of the day]. (Quran 4:103)
Yet the Prophet allowed combining the prayers during travel or emergencies. Sahih Muslim, a book on the sayings of the Prophet records: "When the Messenger of Allah intended to combine two prayers on a journey, he delayed the noon prayer till came the early time of the afternoon prayer, and then combined the two. (Book 6:57)
On Friday prayers, the Quran says: "O You who have attained to faith! When you listen to the call of prayers on the day of congregation, hasten to the remembrance of God. And leave all worldly commerce: this is for your good if you but knew it." (Quran 62:9)
Yet the Sunan Abu Dawood, an authentic collection of Prophet's sayings and actions records " ibn Umayr al-Huzali said" Usamah attended the Prophet (ﷺ) on the occasion of the treaty of al-Hudaybiyyah on Friday. The rain fell as little as the soles of the shoes of the people. He (the Prophet) commanded them to offer Friday prayer in their dwellings."
We do not have many details on this prayer. All we know is that the Prophet did not call it Zuhr prayers. Did the people hear the khutbah of the Prophet without being in his physical proximity? We do not know the method.
Thus, we find that in matters of worship, God and his messenger allow people to adjust in emergencies, ensuring that their intention is pure and they do not overburden them.
COVID-19 novel coronavirus has created a very rare emergency, the like of which the recent world has never experienced before. Until we return to a normal situation, we have the flexibility of observing the Friday prayers at home following an Imam who is physically miles apart from us within the timeframe of the prayer.
Of course, this is a non-binding opinion. Those who accept its rationale can offer Friday prayers at home. Those who are still in doubt can offer Zuhr prayers. However, we must realize that the differences in opinions should not deride its holders. It's an emergency, and we will return to a social life soon, inshallah resuming prayers in Masajid and Islamic centers.
We must realize that consensus of scholars is not the consensus of all scholars of Islam. It is the consensus of scholars who subscribe to a particular view. The Quran is the criterion, and every opinion is subject to its validation.
Allah knows best!