Introduction: The global spread of COVID-19 has triggeredmany new debates and discourse and many of the political analysts are forecasting a dire post-COVID-19 worldorder beginning with the futureof the European Union (EU). Many are apprehensive of the future of multilateralism in the context of the World Health Organization (WHO) controversy and are positing the advent of a new localism. Amidstall of this, in large parts of the Islamic worldreligious scholars and institutions are in the process of a jurisprudential reading of government actions regardingCOVID-19. Historically religion and religious institutions, both seeking and delivering,Fatwa have been the part of the Arab polity and to determine the religiosity or illegality of anact has been in the domain of the clergy.
The clergy in the Arab worldare interpreting the closure of mosques and ban on Umrahin the light of exegeticalrulings of Quran, propheticteachingsand more than a millennium of Islamic canons and religious commentaries. These jurisprudential exercises have become obligatory because of thenature of the disease which, as a first preventive measure, mandates social distancing while most of the day-to-day Islamic rituals involves a social gathering whether it is five-time prayer in mosques or weekly Jumaprayers[i]or annual and minor pilgrimages[ii]to Mecca and Medina where millions assemble, or collective Iftar in the month of Ramadan.
Religious Myths and COVID-19
Many among Muslims view the epidemic as a punishment from God for not being faithful to Him and do not believe in the biological origin of the disease. Some also find an element of conspiracy in the spread of COVID-19. One of the highly revered religious scholars in Iran, WaliulaahNaqi Boor in a televised interview said that Israel is using its magical power to destroy Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah because the Jews have magical and supernatural powers.[iii]The spiritual leader of Iran, Sayyed Ali Khamenei reacted almost in a similar manner when he said that one should not be surprised by COVID-19 as enemy comesfromboth Jinn and human beings and there is an intelligence cooperation between the two”.[iv] The view of Israeli health minister, Yaakov is not different from Iranian clergies as he considers COVID-19 a punishment against homosexuality.[v]The Islamic State (IS) called the coronavirus an army of God and for them COVID-19 is a divine retribution against China.For many, or at least some, in the Arab world the advent of COVID-19 in the city of Qum is also a manifestation of God’s vengeance for Shiite hereticalbehaviourand policies againstArabs.[vi]It is very interesting to note that the IS issued a Sharia advisory, invoking many Hadith,[vii]and asked its members not to travel to the epidemic-hit areas. An anthropologistassociated with the Beirut University, TalhoukaRoula, said that denial of the worldly origin of the epidemic could be attributed to people’s faith in local myths and thestrong control of false belief over the people.[viii] She also said that in crisis, people turn more to what is emotional and supernatural than what is rational and abstract.
COVID-19 Crisis and divergent responses of religious authorities:
After the number of COVID-19 cases beganmounting fromearly March 2020, many Arab governments decided to shut down mosques and ban Friday congregations to implement social distancing.Themost radicaldecisioncame from the Saudigovernment to suspend the Umrahbecause of the assemblage of millions on the occasion and decided to shut the Great Mosque of Mecca fromMarch 5. Thishas rarelyhappened in the recent past and the last time Hajj was partially disrupted was 1798-1801 due to unsafe Mecca route.For the first time, the Hajj wascompletely banned in 930 AD and the ban was continued for a decade because of political reasons, during the rule of Shiite Qarmatian dynasty (ruled 923-44) in Mecca[ix]. There was a closure again in 968 AD due to aplague.In between, partial suspension of Hajj has happened many times due to conflict and political rivalries among local and regional rulers.
Saudi Arabia holds a unique position in the Muslim world because it housesthe twoholiest mosques of the world and is the birthplace of Islam. The evolution of the modern Saudi nation- state has been such withIslam as the legitimiser of state action.At the same time the state and religionare organically linked that insulation of one from other is almost inconceivable.In brief any action of either institutionis perceived to enjoy the endorsement of each other.
The World Muslim League (WML) and Senior Council of Ulema- two most prominent religious institutions in Saudi Arabia- instantly ratified the decision to shut down the mosques and the banning of Umrahwithout any jurisprudential reference.Imam Abdullah Al-Juhani, one of the Imams of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in a Friday sermon said that decision of the government to suspend Umrahwasin full compliance with Islamic Sharia.[x] The Secretary-General of WML Mohammad Al-Issa said the closing of mosques in the time of epidemic like COVID-19 is a religious duty. He also said that the suspension of Umrah was a difficult decision but Muslims around the world should understand the seriousness of the matter.[xi] An official of the Religious Affairs Ministry in Saudi Arabia also hinted at the suspension of the Taraweeh prayers[xii]during the month of Ramadan.[xiii] In anticipation of the epidemic continuing, there are already some views and opinions in circulation whether the Ramadanthis year could be deferred because regular intake of water is necessary to prevent COVID-19.But Ali Gumaa, former Grand Mufti of Egypt was opposed to suchspeculation and said that no jurisprudential decision could be taken in anticipation.[xiv]A similar opinion was expressed by the Grand Mufti of the UAE, Ali Ahmad who said that there are no grounds for not fasting during Ramadan.[xv]On the other hand,alegendry and highly revered Shi’ite religious scholar, Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Iraq has favouredskipping the fast, if it can reduce the probability of catching the infection[xvi]
After Saudi Arabia, Al-Azhar University[xvii] is another place of learning and is highly regarded for its jurisprudential contribution to Islam. Over the years, it has lost its autonomy significantly and the criticism is that gradually its authority has been usurped by the state.
Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Mufti of Al-AzharUniversity and the chairman of the Council of Islamic Scholars has called for suspension of religious congregation.[xviii] But people continued to visit the mosques until the government decided to suspend the prayer in mosques and this decision of the government came after Al-Azhar mosque itself was closed on March 20, 2020for the first time in its history of 1200 years. One can see the caution of the state to take initiatives on religious issues where the clergy remain important in the religious life of people despite the hierarchal primacy of the government. Governmentsare fearful of a backlash while deciding on religious matters and prefer a religious endorsement of its actions.
In UAE, the General Authority for Islamic Affairs on March 5, 2020 asked all Imams to deliver Friday sermon on, ‘Prevention is Better than Cure’ and shorten the prayer time by opting for shorter verses in their prayer [xix] This act is reflective of the level of intrusion of Islamic authority in the religious affairs of the people.
Unlike religious institutions in Saudi Arabia and Egypt whichsimply ratified the decisions of their governments, there are some independent religious councils run by the federation of independent Islamic scholars. These councils delved deep intothe matter in the light of exegetical rulings of Quran and prophetic traditionsbefore delivering their verdicts. One such body is a Dublin-based ‘European Council for Fatwa and Research’ which is dominated by the Arab Islamic scholars.[xx]HussianHalawa, chief of the body said, “I cannot believethose who are calling it a global conspiracy and those seeing it as a punishment for China because one can see it is sparing none”.[xxi]In a meeting, the Council endorsed all decisions ofpromoting social distancing.One of the members referred to a verse in Quran which admonishes, “Do not cast yourself in destruction with your own hands and do not kill yourself”.[xxii]The jurist body of the Council said that in case of illness and fear, one should avoid the mosque and one should save oneself and endeavor to save others.[xxiii]
The president of a Doha-based non-sectarian religious body, Intentional Union of Muslim Scholars, Ahmad Al-Raysunisaid that it waspermissible to suspend both theHajj and Umrah due to the danger of the COVID-19 and one should avoid allcrowded places.[xxiv]
Unlike in the eastern Arab world where the relationship betweenthe state and the religion is marked by conflict, the religious affairs in West African Muslim countries are controlled by the governments which do not allowindividual expression on religious matters whilealso enlisting the supportof religiousinstitutions to provide legitimacyto policiesand actions.
The government of Morocco sought the view of the religious affairs ministry before shutting down the mosques on March 16, 2020. The minister of religious affairs in Rabat said that the decision of the King Mohammad VI was based on an effort to save the body and soul which is an eternal creed ofIslam. Many in Morocco wanted Imams to lead the prayer from the mosque on microphone so that people at home could follow him but that was not allowed.[xxv]The government in Algeria toosought aFatwa from the jurist committee to ban prayers in mosques. Its religious affairs minister said that the Fatwa committee had decided to suspend group prayers to prevent the spread of the epidemic.[xxvi] But in respect of people’s religious sentiments, Imams were asked to start a daily 30-minute Quranicrecitation session in all mosques of the county.[xxvii]
Apart from the voices of the religious institution and councils, some independent voices also emerged amidst these debates.MaufiqhGhilyani of the Islamic Centre in Michigan said that preservation of life and soul is one of the principles of Islam and hence one should take all preventive measures against COVID-19.[xxviii] Professor Khurshid Ahmad of Pakistan, a renowned economist and Islamic scholar condemned those who explain COVID-19 in term of conspiracy theories and said that protagonists of these views are abusing their religious authority.[xxix] Similarly, Khalid Al-Jundiof Egypt said that closing of mosques at the time of crisis is not different from closing of club, theater and cafes.[xxx]
There are some detractors also of the closure of mosques and ban on Umrah. Sheikh Ahmad Alkuri of Mauritania of the Council of Islamic Scholars in South Africaopposed the banning of Friday prayers.Hearguedthat when the battlefield does not allow waiving of the prayer, then how one can abandon the important prayer on the suspicion of a disease.[xxxi]He said that even if one ishealthy and at home, onecan die if death has been ordained at a particular moment.[xxxii]
Defiance inthe Name of Faith
There have been mixed reactions in the Arab street to the closure of mosques and prayer congregations.These divergent voices were noticed on the social media when one Kuwaiti citizen said that even if hismosque wasfilled with coronavirus, hewouldonly pray in the mosque.Another Kuwaiti tweeted that the decision of the government wasin complete compliance with the will of the God and said prayer at home is the need of the hour.[xxxiii] Another Arab tweeted that self-preservation wasone of the principles of Islam and banning congregation wasthe fulfillment of this principle. An interesting sightwas noticed in the Palestinian city of Tulkarm, where a doctorwas delivering the Fridaysermon about the spread of coronavirus in a packed mosque.[xxxiv].An Egyptian national said, “Seeing the holy mosque of Mecca as a barren land is very frightening”.[xxxv] Many in Iran have defied the closure of the Shi’ite shrines in Qum and Mashhad. Chanting anti-regime slogans they had stormed into the premiseswhereseveralwere later arrested.[xxxvi] Many Moroccans in the town of Fez and other places were seen on the streets and reportedly chanted slogans like, ‘God is Great’ and He is the only Healer.[xxxvii].
There are two sets of opinions vis-à-vis the closure of the mosques and banning of Friday prayers and Umrah: individual and institutional. Mostreligious institutionsand individual scholars have supported the decision of the state regarding congregational prayers and Umrahbarring a few who termed it as an un-Islamic act. Some have invoked prophetic traditions and the opinions of traditional juriststo support the governmentswhile others have simply approved the decision because they view thecompliance withthe state to be acompliance withthe Sharia itself. Inthe early days of closure of the mosques, people were reluctant to comply with governmentordersuntil it was ratified by religious authorities and the governments also soughtsanctionsof religious institutionsbecause they were fearful of public backlash.Those who are defying the authorities of the religious and the state institutions are perhaps less guided by their day-today common sense and more by their blind faith. What is more needed at the moment is the application of common sense. The adoption of a scientific approach, while dealing with the epidemic, would ease the task of external agencies.Finally, religion should be a discipline where common sense prevails
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i]Juma is a prayer which is weekly held on Friday in the afternoon which usually takes place in a bigger mosque of the area and people in large number attend.
[ii]The minor pilgrimage is called Umrah which can be performed any time with the same rituals of annual pilgrimage
[iii]Iranian clergy on TV 3 channel says COVID-19 a Jewish conspiracy, Tweeted by Mohammad MajidAhwazi , a Sweden-based Iranian journalist and political activist, March 23, 2020, Accessed https://twitter.com/MohamadAhwaze/status/1242372884905046016 April 12 2020
[iv] Ali Khamenei of Iran on TV 3 says COVID-19 is a conspiracy of both human beings and Jinn Tweeted by Mohammad MajidAhwazi,a Sweden-based Iranian journalist and political activist, March 23, 2020, Accessed https://twitter.com/MohamadAhwaze/status/1242372884905046016 April 12 2020
[vii]Hadith isa collection of saying of Prophet on several social, economic, political and moral issues
[xi]Saudi Leader of Muslim World League: Interfaith partnership during pandemic ‘religious, and moral duty’ Al-Monitor, An English Daily, March 29, 2020m, Accessed https://bit.ly/2RuBoAX April 12 , 2020
[xii]Tarweeh prayer is an additional and long prayer performed at the night in the month of Ramadan
[xvii] One of the oldest centers of Islamic learning, jurisprudence and religious teaching established by Fatimid dynasty in 10th century in Cairo
[xx]It is a body founded by Federation of Islamic Organization in Europe in 1997 and it is being headed by world renowned religious scholar Qarzavi
[xxi]Sec.-Gen. of European Council for Fatwa : I do not want to listen who say COVID-19 is a global conspiracy, MEMRI, Special Dispatch No. 8657. March 25, 2020, Accessed https://bit.ly/2Vk0vaTApril 16, 2020
[xxii]Chapter 2 and chapter 4 of Quran (verses 195 and 29 )
[xxiii]Based on the resolution of European Council of Fatwa and Research