Natural disasters can raise pressing questions for religious believers who believe in a sovereign God. One question which inevitably arises is, “What is God doing in this?” For the almost 2 billion Muslims who make up a quarter of the world’s population, this is an important question. How might Muslims respond when they seek to frame a spiritual response to the pandemic? And what spiritual resources might their faith offer them in the face of this disruption to their lives?
For Muslims, there are specific religious obligations which social distancing requirements interfere with, especially communal prayer in mosques, pilgrimage, and washing the body of the dead.
Over recent months, most Muslim organizations around the world have been supporting social distancing measures brought in by their governments to control the pandemic. In Saudi Arabia Muslims were ordered not to perform their prayers at mosques, but to perform them in their own homes. The Australian National Imams Council issued a ‘Public Statement’ on 18 March, which gave Australia Muslims similar advice.
Islam offers a system of guidance for human behavior. Ordinary Muslims are expected to follow the guidance provided by those who are more knowledgeable about Islam than they, and ultimately the guidance issued should be based upon the Quran and the Sunna (the example and teaching) of Muhammad. These sources, to which legal reasoning is applied, are the foundation for the practice of Islam. Complying with this guidance is believed to bring benefits in this life and the next.
Most Muslim scholars would say that attending Friday communal prayers is obligatory for all Muslim men. The Quran instructs Muslims to leave their places of work on Friday and hurry to prayer (Sura 62:9), and there is a tradition of Muhammad which says that recording angels sit at the gates of mosques to keep track of all who attend (so their participation will be rewarded). But how to comply with this requirement during a pandemic?
To relax an obligatory requirement of Islam requires an exception which can trump the obligation. There is a principle in Islam that prevention of harm, especially to Muslim lives, can overrule other obligations. Thus the Australian Fatwa Council’s fatwa on COVID-19 applied the principle that “Islamic Sacred Law protects the life of a Muslim,” in order to grant an exemption to Muslims from attending communal prayers. The International Fiqh Academy, a peak global body of Muslim jurists, put it this way, in a statement delivered on 20 April, that under necessity, “Almighty God has allowed people do to what is forbidden, and to omit what is obligatory”. IFA’s comprehensive fatwa endorses such measures as closing businesses, using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, wearing masks and gloves, closing mosques, and generally adhering to the health directives issued by authorities, even if this interferes with Islamic requirements.
In relation to pandemic restrictions, of particular relevance are traditions of Muḥammad which refer to exemptions for attending mosques, and traditions which refer to contagious diseases. There is a tradition that during cold, windy wet weather, Muhammad instructed Muslims to pray in their homes. This establishes a precedent for an exemption to mosque attendance for health reasons. On the other hand, there is another tradition which could be taken as guidance to ignore contagious diseases. Muhammad is reported to have said, ‘There is no such thing as vermin (poisonous snakes, scorpions etc), contagious disease, or an evil omen.” Islamic traditions report some controversy among Muhammad’s companions concerning this statement. Some report that there was an additional balancing comment made that “the ill should not be taken to the healthy.” This second part of the tradition has been cited by Australian Imams and other Muslim leaders to support social distancing.
At stake here is a theological tension between the empirically observable principle of cause-and-effect, and a Islamic doctrine that everything happens according to the Divine Decree. Islamic teaching especially emphasizes that each soul dies at the precise time preordained by Allah. I remember an engaging discussion with Muslims in an Indonesian village early in 1980, about the fate of Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia, who was being kept alive on life support systems. The villagers had seen TV images of Tito in his hospital bed. Was it possible, they asked me, to prolong someone’s life past the time of death predetermined by Allah? It was made very clear to me that the correct Islamic answer was, ‘No it is not’. The influential Salafi sheik, Muhammad Saalih al-Munajid has observed that not even murder violates Allah’s sovereignty over the time of death: ‘the one who kills a person has not taken anything away from the lifespan of the one who was slain; rather Allah, may He be exalted, decreed that from eternity.”
The issue of divine sovereignty over epidemics also features in traditions in which Muhammad states that plague is sent by Allah, so “when you hear that it has broken out in a land, don’t go to it, and when it has broken out in the land where you are, don’t run out of it.” This might sound rather like a sensible restriction on travel for quarantine purposes, but in reality the logic is that if Allah is punishing a particular region with plague, it is senseless to try to evade his judgement, and if divine judgement is falling upon a region, it makes no sense to throw in your lot with them.
There is a telling discussion of this tradition reported in the Sahih Muslim. ‘Umar was leading Muslims on a raiding party to Syria when they received word that the plague had broken out there. Umar sought advice, and decided to turn back. Then a follower asked, “Are you going to run away from the Divine Decree?”, the implication being that it was futile to try to avoid a date with destiny set by the creator himself. Umar replied, “We are running from the Divine Decree to the Divine Decree.” He then gave the illustration that if you take camels into a valley, and there is green grass on one side and none on the other, whichever side you choose, it will be the Divine Decree. So to take steps to avoid plague must be considered as pre-ordained by Allah as dying from the plague after you get infected from entering plague territory.
No doubt with all this in mind, the Australian Fatwa Council’s ruling on COVID-19 began by asserting the sovereignty of Allah over death: “Life and death are absolutely within the decree of Allah alone, exalted be He. This is a reality, no matter what secondary causes appear to be.” The second paragraph continues, “No human shall die until it has completely exhausted its destined provision (rizq) and lifespan (ajal). Death is one of the decrees of Allah.” So if someone dies from COVID-19, it is because Allah has willed it. However, after asserting the principle of divine sovereignty over death, the fatwa defends attending to ‘secondary’ causes, such as infectious disease. Accepting the reality that Allah takes life by secondary causes is, the fatwa states, “part of our belief in the decree and destiny that Allah has established in the world.” So engaging with and acting in accordance with our understanding of ‘secondary’ causes is also the Divine Decree. Therefore, the fatwa urges, “a Muslim repels the decree of illness and transmissible diseases with the decree of protection, treatment and medicine.”
The Australian Imams were wise to urge Muslims to support the government’s policy of social distancing. Several early cases were reported from around the world where large gatherings of Muslims played a critical role in spreading COVID-19, including in Malaysia and India. In Indonesia it was reported in April that, at the instigation of Muslim leaders in the province, mosques continued to be open to thousands to attend Friday prayers together. One Acehnese congregant stated that she prefers to attend the mosque because ‘the reward is bigger [for praying in the mosque on Friday]… so no matter how afraid we are, most importantly is that we believe it is Allah’s provision’ and another suggested that “maybe by worshipping, Allah will keep the disease away from us.” She would rather trust in God’s sovereignty than miss out on the potential spiritual benefit of attending mosque.
There are risks for Muslims in applying certain Islamic teachings concerning epidemics. One risk is to emphasize the Divine Decree at the expense of the ‘Decree’ of preventative measures. According to a tradition attributed to Muhammad, plague may be a punishment for some, but for genuine believers it could be a source of mercy, so that if a believer trusts in the Divine Decree for his life during an epidemic, and he falls sick and dies, he will receive the reward of a martyr, i.e. paradise with all the options. Here is the full text of the hadith:
“I asked Allah’s Apostle about the plague. He told me that it was a Punishment sent by Allah on whom he wished, and Allah made it a source of mercy for the believers, for if one in the time of an epidemic plague stays in his country patiently hoping for Allah’s Reward and believing that nothing will befall him except what Allah has written for him, he will get the reward of a martyr.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
This teaching might be considered an incentive to get infected, if it means attaining to the status of a martyr!
There is also theological pressure in the Quran, at the core of Islam, to see pandemics in terms of divine punishment. The Quran speaks repeatedly of the wrath of God falling on groups of people as punishment for rejecting past messengers. Quranic punishments include earthquake, fire, flood, windstorms, thunderbolts, and airborne projectiles. This emphasis is so pervasive, especially in the earlier, ‘Meccan’ passages of the Quran, that there can easily be a tendency to consider all natural disasters as acts of divine punishment. For example, when the Tsunami devastated South East Asia, the Saudi-based cleric, Muhammad Saalih Al-Munajjid announced it to be a punishment upon unbelievers for evil practices associated with holidays, such as adultery, drinking alcohol, and dancing: “the Almighty Lord … showed them his vengeance”.
A very practical risk for Muslims if they interpret epidemics as divine punishment is that they might not take necessary precautions against infection. This is a risk for the followers of the Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, who boasted that he and his followers have no need for social distancing: “We pray fives time daily … we stick together. We join hands. We eat from one bowl. We are doing very, very, very well. We have anti-virus. You have coronavirus, we have anti-virus.” Early on in the progress of the pandemic, as reports of COVID-19 devastation were coming in from China and then Iran, some Sunni Muslims clerics declared that this was God’s judgement against China for persecuting Muslims, and against Shia Muslims for being heretics. Those who assume that the epidemic is God’s judgement against other people could be tempted not to take adequate precautions themselves. Later, of course, the pandemic came for Sunnis too.
There are political risks for religious communities who do not observe health requirements. In India, Muslims were blamed by Hindu extremists for the spread of the virus. At one point, one in five confirmed cases in India was linked to a single three-day long meeting of the Tablighi Jamaat movement in New Delhi. After this event a government raid on the movement’s compound discovered the largest virus cluster in India. The authorities arrested 29 people, including 16 foreigners who attended the meeting, and as news of these events spread there were incidents of discrimination and hatred against Muslims across the country. (At the same time, the disruptions caused by COVID-19 have also provided opportunities for increased persecution of non-Muslims in some countries. For example, reports have been received from Pakistan that a NGO denied COVID-19 related food aid to poor Hindus and Christians, and a Muslim cleric boasted on Pakistan television that a destitute Christian was offered food in exchange for conversion to Islam. These actions have been called ‘reprehensible’ by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.)
We have seen repeatedly that large gatherings of people in close proximity, whether for sports, religious observance, parties, or even a choir practice, can turbo-charge the spread of COVID-19. Islam mandates for large gatherings of men in mosques, and afterwards these men potentially could spread the virus to their families. It is not an easy thing for Muslim communities to suspend communal gatherings, given that they play such a central role in Islamic spirituality. This is especially true of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite a hadith which states that angels prevent plague from entering Mecca and Medina, there have been multiple large-scale epidemics which decimated pilgrims: 20,000 pilgrims died of cholera in 1821 and 15,000 in 1865 (one sixth of all pilgrims that year). (However it is considered especially meritorious to pass away on the Hajj.) This year the Saudis have suspended the year-round umra pilgrimages to Mecca, and the Muslim world is still waiting for a decision from Saudi Arabia concerning the Hajj, which is due to commence in late July.
Islam offers a system of guidance, and Muslim leaders are speaking up all over the world to offer this guidance, addressing the many challenges caused by the pandemic. Most scholars are using their spiritual clout to instruct Muslims to follow guidelines issued by national authorities. This guidance is intended to release Muslims from the invidious position of being conflicted between religious requirements, and the requirements of the state. At the same time, there are theological drivers in Islam which could lead Muslims either to regard the pandemic as a punishment for non-believers, and thus not a serious risk for sincere Muslims, or to downplay the risk in favor of the perceived benefits of maintaining meritorious religious practices. Some Muslim communities may consider the tenets of their faith, including the requirement for men to gather for Friday prayers, to take precedence over anything a secular government might give them. The pandemic requires Muslim leaders to balance certain aspects of Islamic teachings with sensible medical advice, and when Islamic leaders do not align the guidance they are issuing with sound medical advice, the health outcomes for Muslims can be expected to be poor.
In countries which are trying to achieve compliance with pandemic measures, it is important to recognize that for many pious Muslims, religious requirements can take precedence over human-made laws of nations, if they interfere with core requirements of Islam. In order to secure the compliance of their Muslim citizens with health advisories and social distancing rules, the state needs Muslim organizations to issue guidance mandating the compliance of the faithful. There are risks, both for Muslims and rest of the community if this does not happen.
Dr. Mark Durie is an academic, theologian, Anglican pastor, a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology. Visit his site at markdurie.com.