This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.
- Iran was the first country to ban Friday mosque prayers on 4th March.
- Malaysia has closed mosques under bitter protested from Muslims following the discovery that a religious gathering of 16,000 at a mosque near Kuala Lumpur had been responsible for the rapid increase in the spread of the disease. (Ho and Mokhtar, 2020)
- Turkey and Indonesia tried to continue, but in the end, the vast majority of Muslim states had closed their mosques by the end of March. (Ozalp, 2020)
- Pakistan is an exception.
- Ramadan daylight fasting through the month of April has been unaffected, but all iftar dinners (when Muslims congregate to break their fast) have been cancelled. Traditionally in the West, non-Muslims had also been invited to such dinners.
- Saudi Arabia suspended all entry into Iran for the Shi’a Hajj from the 27th February onwards.
- The main pilgrimage to Mecca (which takes place in late July) has not yet been cancelled, but it is possible that it will be.
- Apart from the religious issues, the ‘pilgrimage industry’ in Mecca and Saudi Arabia generally is very important economically. So any cancellation would mean significant economic pain, including big job losses.
- Initial reaction to the news of the Coronavirus effect in China and Iran was greeted with pleasure and attributed to God’s punishment by the rest of the Arab world. However, since the virus has spread and other states have gone into lockdown, the language has changed to conspiracy theories about Iranian ‘biological warfare’.
- A theological debate has raged around the response to the pandemic centred around the doctrine that Allah is the creator of all and therefore created the pandemic as well in order to ‘warn’ and ‘punish’ humanity. (Ozalp, 2020)
- This has made Muslims both fatalistic and perhaps somewhat casual about the effects of the pandemic, believing that the ‘righteous will be protected or saved’
- Muhammad Abdulhamid Qudah (Former Jordanian MP, cleric and Lecturer at the University of Amman) called the Coronavirus ‘a soldier of Allah’ in a recent sermon as, he argued, it had been sent to punish Muslims and the West as God is angry with the World.
- Bashir bin Hassan (Salafi Tunisian cleric) published a blog on Facebook in which he said that China was being punished by God for their treatment of the Uighurs.
- Kuwaiti cleric Othman Khamis stated on his YouTube channel that Allah was sending his wrath upon the world – turning to him will be the only way to end the pandemic. He drew comparisons with the Ten Plagues of Egypt.
- Others argue that Muhammad told his followers to seek remedies and medical treatment in times of plague and that this is a temporary trial to strengthen believers.
- The International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) published an fatwa ruling that prayer at mosques was forbidden and that Muslims should stay away from holy sites
- Anger has increased towards Muslims in India with news that a Tablighi Jama’at (TJ) gathering in New Delhi was a major cause of the spread of the Coronavirus. In the capital. (Bisht and Naqvi, 2020)
- The event’s sermon, the audio of which has become available online, records the TJ leader Maulana Saad calling the virus ‘god’s punishment’ and calling the idea that meeting together will spread the disease a lie. (Bisht and Naqvi, 2020)
- Of the 610 COVID-19 cases reported in Tamil Nadu (South India), 570 were linked to the New Delhi TJ event.
- Passions have been enflamed by some Indian Hindu Nationalist politicians and commentators talking in terms of a ‘Corona-Jihad’
- Yet it is clear that other religious leaders (such as Sikh sermons in Gurudwaras) also downplayed the virus’ effects.
- It is therefore more than likely that the TJ event was being used by Hindu Nationalists to their own advantage.
- In Sri Lanka, Muslims have been forced to cremate, rather than bury two COVID-19 victims. (Anon, 2020)
The Muslim majority states of the world have generally been slow to react to the effects of the virus. The combination of belief in the protection of the righteous in the time of Allah’s wrath against the world and the relatively slow time it took for Muslim states to become significantly affected by the virus meant that there was considerable complacency about the virus right into March. Yet even with the effects of the virus now clear to see, Muslim majority state governments (such as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia) have still required support from religious authorities in their respective states in order for the lockdown measures which are now in place to be implemented. Behind the actions and events themselves therefore lies a couple of important observations about what the COVID-19 virus responses tell us concerning the dynamics inside Muslim states and communities.
Firstly, it seems clear that, even Muslim states which have relatively strong civil government institutions such as those in Indonesia and Malaysia, the civil authorities are heavily reliant on the compliance and cooperation of the religious authorities in order to carry out their decrees. (Ho and Mokhtar, 2020) In Pakistan, Imran Khan has refused to impose a lockdown and it is likely that this is under pressure from senior clerics such as Ejaz Ashrafi (Tehreek-i-Labaik Party) who has made public his belief that the virus is a punishment of Allah. He and other clerics have argued that closing mosques and stopping prayers is incompatible with Islam. ((Janjua, 2020) This makes sense as it matches with the dynamics discussed in the previous brief on South and Southeast Asia which noted the increasingly religiously orthodox direction which those societies were taking. In that context there is some parallels with President Putin’s relationship with the Orthodox Church in Russia, along with similar dynamics seen in Turkey and India. (Juergensmeyer, 2010) All of these states have their own particular circumstances and nuances in terms of their socio-political and religious contexts, but the outworkings bear remarkable similarities.
Secondly, the virus presents a sticky theological problem for clerics and religiously -minded Muslims alike. For, whilst the early phase of the virus offered an opportunity to see the virus as the ‘wrath of God’ on the enemies of true faith, that narrative has had to be modified and nuanced (even rejected) as the virus has spread. (Ozlap, 2020) At a fundamental level it has raised serious theological questions about how and why Allah acts in the world. Some have continued with the same broad position, but there are increasing calls to see the virus as an opportunity to bring glory to Allah by seeking a cure. The interpretations of the virus can therefore be seen in the wider context of the revivialist debates which have been happening online and in madrassas. (Romm Livermore, 2012: 337) For there appears to be no waiting for recognised authorities in the Muslim world to give a definitive ruling on COVID-19 to their followers. Instead, there have been lots of localised responses by clerics as well as a raft of online chatroom discussion, especially on Salafi sites such as www.ummah.com .
It seems therefore that the COVID -19 pandemic will have interesting longer-term impacts both in relation to the way that Muslim states manage their internal religio-political affairs, but also in how they theologically interpret this. Originally seen as a punishment or a ‘cleansing’, it could have the impact of pushing Muslims towards greater religiosity. However, for some, the fatalism of some teaching might lead them to search for alternatives. Furthermore, at a political level, the handling of the crisis might be an important signal to some Muslims, either validating the righteousness of the style of Muslim government that they have, or, if it goes badly, seeing the virus’ poor handling as a judgement against a regime which was not ‘Islamic enough’. This has been the narrative of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood for decades against Muslim regimes which are seen to fail their people.
Therefore, ‘winning’ the narrative of the Coronavirus pandemic 2020 will be key for Muslim majority states. Furthermore, responses to the virus could shape the future not just of socio-cultural Islam, but perhaps even challenge fundamental doctrines about how Allah acts in the world.
Anon, (2020) ‘Coronavirus: Sri Lanka forces Muslims to cremate victims’ www.islam21c.com 4th April
Bisht, Akash and Sadiq Naqvi (2020) ‘How Tablighi Jamaat event became India’s worst Coronavirus vector’ www.aljazeera.com 8th April.
Ho, Judith and Faris Mokhtar, (2020) ‘How a 16,000-strong religious gathering led Malaysia to lockdown.’ www.bloomberg.com 17th March
Janjua, Haroon (2020) ‘Coronavirus and Islam: Pakistani clerics refurse to shut down mosques’ www.dw.com 31st March.
Juergensmeyer, Mark (2010) ‘The Global Rise of Religious Nationalism’ Australian Journal of International Affairs Vol. 64, Iss. 3, pp262-273.
Ozalp, Mehmet (2020) ‘How Coronavirus challenges Muslim’s faith and changes their lives’ www.theconversation.com 2nd April
Romm Livermore, Celia (2012) E-Politics and Organizational Implications of the Internet: Power, Influence and Social Change. Hershey (PA): IGI Global.