written by Ebrahim Rasool
22 March 2020
A Moment of Rupture
Globally the community of Muslims has had to make an almost unprecedented decision: whether to close the mosques for both the communal daily prayers as well as the Friday prayers in response to Covid-19 or coronavirus. That the majority of clergy and congregations have taken the cautious and preventative route is a tribute to the reasonable, and maybe survivalist, gene within this community. It is an acknowledgement that we are experiencing unprecedented, if not existential, challenges today. Coronavirus has created a moment of crisis, if not rupture: our assumptions and traditions are disrupted, our fault lines are exposed and stark decisions confront us.
Copying Trump — A Radio Mufti, A Muslim Tabloid & A Bogus Council
Crises have a way of not only exposing your thinking, your intellectual disposition or your theological reasoning, but more importantly, your character. We can debate thought and theology, but not the character that denigrates those who sincerely try to do the right thing as ‘scum worse than pigs’ as a Muslim tabloid has done. We can debate thought, but not thought based on the ultimate suspicion — conspiracy theory — as a statement from a so-called ulema body does (in imitating Donald Trump by calling coronavirus a ‘Chinese Virus’) or as a prominent radio Mufti (also drawing from Trump’s ‘hoax’ playbook) does when speaking about a ‘media’ hype. Such suspicion, in a time of fear and danger, may well be the kind that could be sinful because it is without wisdom and it facilitates danger. Crises separate the chaff from the wheat, the charlatans from the scholars.
Islam — Religion of Mercy
If the response to fear and danger is to turn to God, then how we experience the divine is crucial. If God is ‘Most Merciful’ and the Prophet (s) is ‘a mercy unto all creation’ why do we listen to those who appropriate God and the Prophet for aims which are unmerciful, callous and refuses to see humanity in others? When the pandemic was seen to be affecting only China, it was divine punishment for their persecution of the Uighurs, and then it moved to Iran, and it was punishment for being Shias, and, I suppose the Italians were being punished for exposing us to their Catholic Carbs. Now it’s affecting the world and the punishment narrative continues as if God is punitive in essence, not forgiving and merciful; destructive and not the creator and sustainer; indiscriminate and pernicious, not just, kind and discerning. Especially those who rehearse the many names of God should display clarity of God’s attributes in the face of character flaws in the charlatans who carry weighty titles, wear the garb and talk the language, but display none of the wisdom, compassion and attributes of God and the Messenger (s).
Obstinacy + Blackmail + Labelling = Destruction
This logic takes another turn, however, when the virus is mainstreamed among Muslims — Sunni ones. For these charlatans it’s a test about whether you trust God or the evidence of your eyes. The evidence of your senses will tell you that about 16000 members of the Tabligh Jamaat refused to suspend their gathering (ijtima) in Kuala Lampur resulting in 50% of Malaysia’s infections being traced to the gathering. Today the entire Malaysia has shut business and communal worship. It’s a test of the strength of your faith as if faith is now defined, not by whether you pray, but if you pray in congregation! What’s the obligation and what’s the recommended supererogatory? To get his point across, at least the Mufti mostly uses emotional blackmail (like his fellow traveller, the Louisiana evangelical pastor, who defiantly told his defiantly convened congregation: ‘shake hands or are you sissies?’). However, the so-called ulema statement has no such scruples. For them they use the term ‘haraam’ in saying categorically that it is forbidden to close the mosques, to do compulsory prayers at home or to restrict numbers in the mosque. One would think them familiar with Imam Nawawi’s work that says even prayer in family congregation at home, will reap the rewards of the congregational prayer.
A False Choice: God IS Science!
The test for them is whether you have faith in God or faith in science and medicine. It’s a false choice! Scientific and medical knowledge were intrinsic to the very definition of knowledge in Islam until it was restricted to only the knowledge of worship. Before this we were leaders in science and in establishing the canons of medicine in pursuit of the Prophet’s (s) challenge that for every ailment, except old age, there is a remedy. If the charlatans today are so convinced that they are right to ignore science and medicine, then they should take an oath never to take any medicine or seek any treatment for any ailment they may have. This is the truthful path if you indeed believe that what afflicts you comes from God and the healing will come from God without any human precaution or intervention.
The Mosque — Spiritually Enriching for Men & Women?
These same people cry crocodile tears that the absence from the mosque and congregation is such a spiritual affliction that robs the believer of feeling connected, that diminishes the sense of ummah and that detracts from spiritual and ritual completeness. Yet, callously and without reflection, the Mufti fires off that ‘women have no business to be in the masjid!’ The first advice from those trying to hold off the closure of mosques is to prohibit women. This can’t be God speaking who holds each of us — men and women — equally accountable for our spiritual and worldly lives, nor can it be the Prophet (s) speaking who addressed and equally led men and women in congregational prayer. How is it that women have been deemed immune to the need for community, connectedness to the ummah and in need of spiritual and ritual completeness?
In this moment of rupture, when new habits and insights are formed, what do the charlatans really fear, other than that all women may now understand the benefits of being in the mosque and assert their right to be there, with the same passion that men now express in the face of its temporary closure? Or do they fear their irrelevance to the daily lives of Muslims. When you have driven theology with the sole mechanism of compliance to rules, and in times of stress and danger, those rules are then pragmatic rather than absolute, the enforcer of the rules may become less important.
What Do the Charlatans Fear?
They fear their monopoly over the intricacies of rules may be over as ordinary people work out for themselves the hierarchy of the maqasid (intents of Islam): they have learnt in this crisis the primacy of the preservation of life over other intents, and can therefore work out the primacy of ensuring your prayers individually or congregationally at home over your desire for praying in congregation in the mosque. They may also fear that pragmatism may enter the Muslim community where before we were dominated by absolutism: trust in God is absolute, but tying your camel is essential. God intervenes in human behavior through investing humans with common sense, not stupidity; wisdom, not memorized aphorisms; a sense of the common good, not self-righteous selfishness.
Most importantly, they fear their game may be up. For decades these charlatans have leveraged their interpretations of Islam to excuse the inexcusable and tolerate the intolerable and justify the unjustifiable. The result is that in the context of a predatory superpower we often allowed them to compromise the compassionate religion by equivocating on suicide killings, terrorist attacks on civilians, widespread misogyny, and internal takfirism (excommunication). Now that coronavirus has presented itself as predator that even attacks the superpowers, the exhortations of the charlatans to be patient, to withstand the test, to prohibit women, to defy governments, to expose yourselves and others to danger, and to disregard science and medicine carries less ambiguity. It is evil.
The Sunnah — Our Gift to the World
The charlatans have proven unhelpful, not only to Muslims, but also to the world. The world comes knocking on our door today to alert us to what we as Muslims have been doing forever. But we have been taught to do it in imitation, not out of understanding the real intents as taught by the Prophet (s): today the world practices intermittent fasting as a great health intervention and secular scientists have done the science on it; today the world prescribes the black seeds — after doing the science on it — as an antidote to digestive and respiratory problems and we learn these benefits from them while having the prescription from the prophetic tradition; and today we are amazed at the importance of hand washing in preventing disease, while ritually doing it forever.
A Test from God — Confronting Our Mortality
A test from God is not a punishment from God. A test is not to determine whether you are sinful or pure. That is divinely known already. A test is not about how stoically you suffer or how bravely you die. A test from God is to strengthen your sense of mortality, to build your resilience, to encourage self-reform, and to then live better! A test from God is to teach you responses to calamities and challenges: you consume less to mitigate climate change; you find cures and vaccines for diseases and illnesses; and you change lifestyles.