by Mohammed Ghaly, Ph.D.
During the times of massive crises like the current coronavirus pandemic, individuals and communities consult their “moral systems” looking for support and coping mechanisms. For religious communities, congregational rituals make an integral part of these coping mechanisms, which strengthen their relationship with God, the Omnipotent, who can provide the best support. However, mounting scientific evidence espoused with WHO guidelines, urged people and governments to postpone or cancel mass gatherings because they entail risks of spreading the new virus. In the beginning, Muslim religious scholars seemed divided, and sometimes even confused, about how to incorporate new scientific data within the long-established religio-ethical discourse on congregational rituals. This article is meant to give a historical and analytical account of what happened in this regard and how Muslims religious scholars try to engage with available scientific information.
Pre-Modern Discourse on Plagues
During the devastating plague that hit Cairo in 1430, people performed a special mass-prayer hoping that it would ward off the pandemic, which was killing about forty persons per day. The famous Muslim religious scholar, Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAqsqalānī (d. 1449), wrote that the rate of daily deaths following this mass-prayer increased to more than one thousand. Although the influence of the empirical evidence was evident, the scholar’s condemnation was premised on religious grounds; namely, there is no scriptural basis for such a special plague-ritual(1). However, continuing routine congregational rituals or gatherings in mosques was never questioned. One wonders, why was this the case?
Available medical information at this time was not conclusive enough to convince religious scholars about the contagious nature of the plague. The Miasma Theory, which goes back to ancient Hippocratic medicine, had wide currency among prominent physicians like Avicenna (d.1073) and Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288). According to this theory, plagues were caused by bad or corrupt air (miasma) emanating from rotting organic matter. Religious scholars were skeptical about the validity of this theory to explain the etiology of plagues. They argued that empirical evidence shows that plagues do hit cities known for their nice weather and good-quality air. If it is an airborne disease, they added, it should have had indiscriminately infected all living beings that inhale this air.
This unsubstantiated medical information widened the scope of religious reasoning. The plague was broadly framed as a divine blessing for the believers and those who patiently endured its difficulties were promised gracious rewards in the hereafter. The etiology of the plague was associated with invisible spirits (the jinn). Its pathogenesis was also explained in theological terms; the disease is noncontagious because it is only God who decides which ones will be infected. Medical advice was not totally ignored and people were urged to follow recommended preventive measures like avoiding the inhalation of rotten air, reducing food consumption, stopping physical activity, etc.1 However, many religious scholars opposed the medical advice that healthy people should not mix with infected individuals. This advice, the scholars argued, contradicts one’s trust in God (tawakkul) and the belief that He is the true agent behind all this. The best remedy for the plague, they explained, is to return to God by asking Him to provide help. Distinct sections on supplications to God during the time of plague was made an integral part of standard treatises on plagues.1
Impact of Modern Scientific Breakthroughs
From the nineteenth century onwards, scientific breakthroughs improved our understanding of the etiopathogenesis of pandemics. In the 1870s, the long-held Miasma Theory came to a definitive end and was replaced by Germ Theory. In 1894, the causative agent of the bubonic plague was discovered, the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which first spreads between rats and then passes to humans through rat flea vectors. In 1969, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that there are only four designated quarantinable diseases. Today’s patients who get infected with the diseases associated with classical plagues can now be treated in about 48 hours. For the novel coronavirus, peer-reviewed studies explaining its clinical characteristics and transmission dynamics were published very shortly (some in about one month) after the outbreak in December 2019.
Available facts show that the new virus is highly infectious and can be fatal, with no available vaccines or treatments. Only preventive measures can stem its spread, including minimizing human-to-human contact. Thus, some countries limit gatherings to the maximum of two persons. With these factual data in hand, religio-moral discourse cannot just rehearse the positions recorded in the classical treaties on plague without considering the moral impact of our modern scientific context. One cannot legitimize congregational rituals, which lead to the actual spread of the virus, by arguing that mosques were never closed during times of plague, worship houses are places of (spiritual) healing, not the spreading of pandemics, the virus cannot be infectious because it is God only who decides everything in life.
As recurrently stressed in the Quran (e.g., 25:2, 54:49, 87:3), Muslims believe that God created everything in the universe with great precision and that He let nothing work without meticulous and consistent governing laws (sunan kawniyya). These laws were inaccessible to our ancestors who lived during plagues, but they are available now. Conclusive empirical evidence demonstrates that the virus may differently affect people from different age groups but remains blind to people’s ethnicity, religious affiliation or social class. Ignoring this newly “revealed” knowledge, is as unethical as ignoring divine commands “revealed” in the Scriptures.
An increasing number of fatwas issued by religious institutions, including al-Azhar, Indonesian Ulema Council, Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, Islamic Society of North America, have shown good awareness of available scientific knowledge and promote the “pray-at-home” message. They consensually stressed that each individual can direct oneself to God anytime and anywhere, inside or outside the mosque. At times of emergency when someone’s health or life is at risk, religious scholars have always agreed that congregational rituals can be suspended, practiced at home or replaced by individual practices. Unlike the negative image portrayed by (inter)national media about instances of religious gatherings which exposed participants to risks, we have much more prevalent images of Muslims who were motivated by religious convictions as well. For instance, many Muslims worldwide committed themselves to preventive measures like social distancing and argued for their religious basis through the Prophetic advice that one should neither leave nor approach a plague-stricken area.
(1) ʿAsqalānī, Ibn Ḥajar al-, Badhl al-māʿūn fī faḍl al-ṭāʿūn (Offering Small Kindness on the Merit of the Plague), Riyadh: Dār al-ʿĀṣima, 1991.