Science, reason and faith in the time of coronavirus

Science, reason and faith in the time of coronavirus

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The great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha at the Citadel complex, in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo)

The coronavirus pandemic has already taken more than 175,000 lives and wrecked large parts of humanity’s routines, from economic activity to sports, education and religious life. Who will forget seeing Al-Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah empty for days or weeks and Pope Francis delivering Easter Mass from an empty basilica or, days earlier, giving a blessing in an empty St. Peter’s Square?

All religions of the world have been tested in various and unprecedented ways by this virus. Is this pandemic an act of God, some test or punishment? Should the faithful trust in medicine and science or pray and trust in their faiths? Will God intervene and somehow get rid of the pandemic if many devout people offer heartfelt prayers? Can religious activities (sermons, collective prayers, etc.) be conducted via television and the internet or are communal gatherings an integral part of them? Will this crisis bring people back to religion (if they conclude that the pandemic was because they had angered God) or will it drive many away (if they cannot understand why God let this suffering happen to even the nicest of us)?

These are all valid questions and many commentators have offered thoughts and analyses of the impact of the coronavirus on religion. 

I think this is a new example of the eternal debates between religion and reason and science. How does one approach the above questions: From the religious angle or from the rational, scientific side? And how does one determine what is essential and what is just habitual in one’s religious practice?

For example, I still do not understand why Islamic scholars have not announced that collective prayers (Friday’s and, soon, Ramadan’s Taraweeh and Eid’s congregational prayers) can simply be conducted via television. Everyone could sit at home and listen to the imam deliver the sermon and then lead the prayers, with people standing up in their living rooms and praying “behind him” (him being on the TV screen). Don’t worshippers, especially women, already do that when they go to a packed mosque and are directed to a side room with loudspeakers or TV screens? What is the difference between watching or listening to the imam in a separate room in the mosque and in one’s living room? 

What is preferable: To cancel collective prayers and sermons altogether because people cannot go to the mosques, or to conduct the prayers through TV screens with everyone sitting at home? If the Pope himself and countless other religious leaders can conduct ceremonies and deliver sermons and blessings virtually, surely Muslims can do so too. This is what I mean by religious people having to rethink their religious practices and determine what is essential and what is habitual.

On the theological level, how is one to think of the pandemic? What is God’s role and place in all this? What roles do reason and pure faith play in thinking about this?

The Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research surveyed more than 1,800 practicing American Muslims of diverse ages, levels of education and ethnicities. To the question “Is the coronavirus a punishment from Allah?” the respondents’ answers were equally split between no (“not at all” or “a little”) and yes (“a moderate amount,” “a lot,” or “a great deal”). And, to the question “Is the coronavirus a test from Allah?” 84 percent said it was a “major” test from Allah.

Here’s where it gets more interesting. The Yaqeen Institute’s paper, which analyzed the survey results and offered further commentary, cited hadiths from Prophet Muhammad that declare plague-like epidemics and other such afflictions as earthly punishments from Allah. These serve to remind us of God’s power and act to bring us back to Him to avoid “greater punishments” in the hereafter. However, the paper insisted that “it is beyond human perception” to know the exact causes behind such “nearer punishments” and who (if any people in particular) they are directed to. The paper added that this divine act can even be a blessing “for the believer who exercises patience, appropriately quarantines him or herself, hopes in reward from Allah, and accepts that whatever happens is from Allah’s divine decree.” But if one can’t make sense of such an act (why and against whom), how can one digest it? Or is that too rational?

People have to rethink their religious practices and determine what is essential and what is habitual.

Nidhal Guessoum

On the more scientific or rational side, many choose to focus on the Prophet’s recommendations on hygiene generally, and behavior during epidemics in particular. People cited hadiths in which the Prophet instructed Muslims to avoid places where an epidemic has appeared, or to stay there and not leave if one is already there, to separate the sick from the healthy, to regard cleanliness as part of faith, to seek medical treatment for any illness, etc. Many declared the Prophet as prescient, even perceiving social distancing in some of his statements.

Many also recalled the famous advice that the Prophet gave to a Bedouin who wondered whether he should tie his camel or rely on God: “Tie it… and trust in God.”

Indeed, this pandemic has reignited the debates of reason and (pure) faith: How to think of such events and how to act in consequence. Prophet Muhammad had already established the balance between the two — action and faith go hand in hand, not one trumping the other.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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