By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
18 April 2020
Religion, Marx argued was the ‘heart of a heartless world’. In times of crisis, religion binds the community together, gives hope and ultimately creates meaning for vast numbers of its followers. Meaning can only be created in social groups and therefore almost all religions in the world have rituals which prescribe some kind of group activity. As the French theorist of religion, Durkheim told us, religion is fundamentally about social solidarity created through group activity. Most religions therefore place a lot of emphasis on certain rituals which are nothing but the collective expression of the community. And yet, in a complete reversal, today we see that all religions are telling their followers to discard this fundamental pillar of ritual expression: they are suspending all ritual congregation and requesting their followers to stay at home. Between religion and coronavirus, it appears that the virus which is winning the day.
More strikingly, the appeal of the virus is much more as compared to religion. Whereas religion speaks to its respective followers, this virus is speaking to everyone: believers, non- believers, agnostics and atheists. The virus has become this great leveller, flattening centuries of religious boundaries. Through centuries, religions have created boundaries, compartmentalised people into exclusive and antagonistic belief systems. The virus, on the other hand, has in an instant laid bare the hollowness of such boundaries. It has made a higher human consciousness possible, bringing us together in order to face this unprecedented challenge. Thanks to this virus, all over the world, people are realising the need and importance of compassion and cooperation, except of course in places like India where some humans have used the virus to amplify religious and caste divisions.
So how has Islam responded to this crisis? Islam is not just a set of ideas but more fundamentally it is an orthopraxy wherein the correct ethical and liturgical practices of the faith become most important. Ethics informs behaviour and social conduct and that’s why for a believing Muslim, his interaction with fellow Muslim is as much a social act as it is religious. Muslims across the world shake hands and then hug when they meet a fellow Muslim or even others. It must have been really hard for them to forgo this cultural and religious practice since the current medical advice has been against such a form of greeting. Similarly, practicing Muslims partake of food from the same plate, believing it to be mandated by Islam. One of reasons why the virus spread within the Tablighis must also be because of their habit of eating from the same plate. It must be very distressing for these Muslims to realise that they will have to suspend this ‘Islamic’ practice for some months. Visiting the sick is considered akin to earning religious merit in Islam. Due to the social distancing norms, believing Muslims today are barred from earning any such merit. Unfortunately, there have been cases where Muslims have denied burial space to fellow Muslims who have died due to this virus. Human insecurity at times triumphs over the precepts of religion.
Another problem for Muslims has been the practice of congregational prayer. Skipping the five times daily congregational prayers easy, but to forgo Friday congregational prayers must have been a daunting challenge. After all, Friday prayers must be performed in a mosque, standing in queue shoulder to shoulder with fellow believers. Perhaps, not since the Prophet institutionalised this in 622 AD, have Friday prayers been stopped on a global scale. Ironically, the first country to ban Friday prayers in mosques was the theocracy of Iran; others hesitated but eventually decided to follow suit. This certainly has not been easy on the followers. Recently, Muslims attempted to gather at mosques on Friday in some parts of India. Thankfully, with the effort of the local administration and some community leaders, better sense prevailed and such prayers were called off. However, the Pakistani mullahs, against the advice of the government, are determined and even exhorting fellow Muslims to perform the Friday prayers in their mosques.
Problems will also arise when Ramzan starts and Muslims will have to perform their tarawih prayers which is again communal in nature. Moreover, during Ramzan, breaking of the fast is often done in a gathering of fellow believers, which again poses problems for the believer. During these trying times, it is best to remain indoors and break the fast within the safe confines of one’s homes. Muslim religious leaders have done well so far to appeal to Muslims to sacrifice congregational prayers. They should make another appeal regarding the religious conduct of Muslims during Ramzan.
It is entirely possible that the greater pilgrimage, the Hajj, will be cancelled this year. Already the Saudi government has cautioned Muslims to halt their Hajj preparations for this year. Although the Hajj is in July and chances are that the virus might subside by then, but it will be risky to allow a congregation of nearly 2 million Muslims in close proximity with each other. Muslims must know that this will not be the first time when the Hajj would be cancelled; it has happened nearly 40 times on earlier occasions due to a number of reasons, including massacres, epidemics and even robbery. In the year 865, the Abbasids launched an attack on Mount Arafat, killing numerous pilgrims and forcing the Hajj to be cancelled. Then in 930, the Bahrain based Qaranatians attacked Mecca, killed nearly 30,000 pilgrims and threw their bodies in the Zamzam, looted the grand mosque and stole the black stone from the Kaaba. The Hajj could only resume after a decade when the black stone when returned. Similarly, in 1831, the Hajj was cancelled due to a plague from India which decimated the pilgrims in Mecca. However, this would be perhaps the first time in its history that it will be cancelled due to a global pandemic.
Many Muslims initially triumphantly declared that their religion was the most scientific since it enjoined ablution before the performance of every prayer. They pointed out to some Quranic verses which extol cleanliness among the believers. However, they were quick to realise that such notions of hygiene were not very effective during this pandemic. Mostly, water for ablution is drawn from a common pool and since Muslims ritually wash themselves from the same pool, chances of their getting infected is very high. Some Islamists deliberately conflated the mask with the veil in order to drive home the point that veils are abundantly beneficial. This is simply nonsense as both are worn for very different reasons; while one is optional or temporary, the other, in most instances, is not.
Those who were driving home the point that Islam is the perfect religion and hence beyond critique, must today be confining themselves to their homes, not because of any religious reason, but due to very practical reasons enunciated by science. In their hearts, they must be realising that like most religions, Islam too is completely defenceless when faced with a submicroscopic, metabolically inert chemical code. Islam claims to explain anything and everything about human existence with complete certitude and yet it has no clue as to what has hit its followers. There is nothing within the teaching and practice of this religion which can prepare it’s believers to deal with this pandemic. Rather, it’s the opposite: the very act of practicing this faith (like other faiths) is a sure way of spreading the virus.
In the end, it is science, not Islam, which is teaching Muslims how to deal with this virus.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com