Hundreds of Muslims in the Sacramento-area gathered at the Salam Islamic Center on Friday to celebrate the start of a four-day holiday called Eid al-Adha, which centers around the idea of sacrifice.  

But the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to celebrate differently this year — outdoors. 

In accordance with a July 13 California public health order to close indoor worship services in counties on the state’s watch list, the mosque offered services on the concrete walkways in between buildings.

Worshipers wore masks, brought their own prayer mats, stood under sun tents, and prayed six feet apart. 

“We used to do it indoors, but we [are] working with the circumstances,” said Amr Dabour, who is an Imam, or religious leader at the mosque. 

Dabour gave services four times Friday morning, because attendance was capped at 100 people. Congregants sat in cars lined up outside the mosque, waiting for their turn to pray in community. 

There are over 75,000 Muslims in the greater Sacramento area, according to the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. 

Outdoor worship is not so unusual if you look at history, UC Berkeley religious history scholar Ronit Stahl said.

“There’s always… been traditions of outdoor meetings across religious groups,” Stahl said. 

But over time, as religions became established and acquired buildings, worship services moved indoors, “because of weather, because it’s a lot easier to hear people.” 

Stahl said there are already signs that religions are adapting, using modern-day technologies because of the pandemic. 

Religious services are being livesteamed over the internet, for example.  

Just a couple of weeks ago, Sacramento’s Catholic Bishop encouraged churches to consider holding weekly mass outside, which is normally unheard of. 

“What I would anticipate is congregations doing interesting new things in this moment, and figuring out new ways to meet,” Stahl said about the impact of the pandemic. 

Although having to pray at a distance changes the immersive, “full-body,” sensory experience of worship, she said.  

Being forced to pray six feet apart is significant for Muslims. They’re encouraged to bow shoulder to shoulder, practically touching. 

“It’s been a bit difficult especially for the older individuals,” said Brooklyn Bilstein, who worships and volunteers at the Salam Center. 

“Usually people in the Muslim community are very close to each other – hugging and kissing,” Bilstein said. 

But this Muslim holiday, Dabour says he’s asked congregants not to dwell on discomforts. 

“The goal of the prayer is to focus — and the spirituality of it,” he said. “And we can get that inside of a building, or outside a building.”

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