by Caterina Gagliardi*
The Covid-19 approach to the health emergency of Muslim countries may prove to be of considerable interest if one considers their specific social and legal connotations. For this reason, even though without any pretension of exhaustiveness, the following analysis proposes, on the one side, to understand to what extent the governmental dynamics of prevention of contagion – some of which are still in progress – have affected the systems of guarantee of liberties and fundamental rights; on the other side, it is intended to verify what has been the role of the Islamic religion in the process of adoption of the institutional responses to the crisis.
On the subject, it was considered interesting to listen to the point of view of two scholars, of Islamic religion, who live in those realities. In particular, the direct opinions of Dr. Tehseen Nisar, a Muslim woman of Pakistan origin and expert in Sociology of Terrorism at the International Security Observatory of the Luiss Guido Carli in Rome, and of Prof. Mohamed Arafa, of Egyptian origin, even if transplanted to the United States for years, and professor of law at Indiana University and Alexandria University, were collected.
As it emerged, the fight against the pandemic crisis represented a deep concern for all the Muslim Countries which, even if characterized by a considerable heterogeneity from the political and constitutional point of view, aligned themselves, in different times and with different modalities, with the instructions and measures indicated by the scientific authorities as necessary for the containment of the contagion.
However, the recommendations of isolation and social distancing have ended up affecting, on a substantial level, the individual and collective exercise of the hard-won freedoms in many Arab-Islamic countries. With regard to it, it was inevitable, in the light of the Shari’a, to question the legitimacy or otherwise of the measures of prevention.
The question arose with regard to the restrictions on the celebration of rites shared among the faithful and whose suspension was necessary when the risk of contagion became highly significant.
As reported also by Tehseen Nizar, for example, the Islamic feasts of Eid-ul Fitr, held at the end of Ramadan, and Eid-ul-Azha, celebrated in the last month of the Islamic calendar Zil Hajj, were affected by the adoption of the rigid guidelines which, introduced in almost all the Muslim countries, forced the citizens to remain at home, without being able to share the celebrations. On the occasion of Eid-ul Fitr, in particular, the faithful were forbidden to embrace and shake hands in solidarity. In Pakistan, as elsewhere, there were fewer congregations attending mosques on the occasion of these festivities.
Even the closure of places of worship has ended up affecting the traditional practice of Islamic belief. On the one hand, it was considered that the impossibility of going to mosques caused general discontent among the faithful; on the other hand, it was highlighted that the period of isolation was experienced as a great opportunity for spiritual growth. Many Muslims were, in fact, encouraged to better understand the teachings of the Koran and prophetic traditions, including those that explicitly refer to the instructions to be observed in cases of pandemic.
In any case, whether one adheres to one or the other of the theses sustained, the role of the Islamic institutions has been and continues to be important in overcoming the serious social-health crisis of Covid-19. Their leaders widely shared the precautionary strategies, legitimising their content in the light of the revealed legal sources, Koran and Sunna. So different were the revised religious prescriptions.
In Egypt, the ban on assembly has suspended not only the Eid, but also the public Iftar, the Itikaf, pilgrimages and all charitable activities, at least in their typical form. Other derogations have been introduced with regard to religious taxes and with regard to the burial procedure for the deceased given the impossibility of observing traditional rituals.
The obligation of community prayer on Fridays also gave way to the need to protect the right to health. In this regard, the Council of the Great Ulema of al-Azhar, in a communiqué of 25 March, pointed out that the health of the body is one of the most important aims of the Shari’a, justifying the possibility of not going to the mosque and allowing the prayer to be performed directly from home. The provision for a derogation is supported by the Council by referring to certain Hadith of the Prophet, specifically referring to the possibility of suspending religious customs in the presence of particular conditions, such as fear or illness.
Neither does the Emirate Council of the fatwa deviate from this guideline, which, presided over by the shaykh ‘Abdallah bin Bayyah, in fatwa no. 11 of 2020, insists on the need to comply with government directives on the prevention of contagion and considers Friday prayers at home rather than in the mosque to be lawful.
Also with regard to the observance of Ramadan, in the context of the onset and spread of the pandemic, the question has been asked whether and when the safeguarding of individual and collective well-being can be said to prevail over the duty of fasting. In this regard, the different position of the main Islamic religious authorities emerged: the Sunnite ones insisted on the need to comply with this precept as the Pillar of Islam, while the Shiite ones didn’t exclude the possibility of a renunciation in order to preserve the right to health.
It’s possible to see, in n view of the foregoing considerations, how the need to combat the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the attention the relationship between medical ethics and Islamic ethics, fuelling within religious institutions the debate between those who recognize or don’t recognize in modern science the instrument to rely on to control the evolution of nature. In this regard, Mohamed Arafa, though without going into the discussion of the question posed, believes that «it is good to pray. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should rely only on the religious idea, without considering the scientific results and facts». The religious representatives would also have the task of giving due recognition to the contribution of medical science.
Evident is, therefore, the mediation role assumed by the Islamic religious authorities between citizens and governments; a role that has generated quite a few doubts regarding their effective independence from political power. On the other hand, they are loaded with the burden of ensuring their communities the continuity of faith practices through the use of ‘alternative’ instruments of guidance and accompaniment. It was thus necessary, in Mohamed Arafa’s opinion, not to dwell on individual questions connected to religion, but to have a broader overview, also in a perspective of rethinking the prescriptions inherent to places of worship, symbols and rituals.
From the Islamic world has emerged, finally, the centrality that the juridical concept of solidarity, recalled in various Koranic verses and Hadith of the Prophet, can have in contrasting the pandemic emergency. In this sense, for example, the proposal for a universal institution of the Zakat seems to be moving in this direction, with the intention of making solidarity the fundamental motor of every action and infusing new life into moral and human responsibility.
Nevertheless, the dialogue with other religions may prove essential if we take into account the social responsibility of their leaders, which has become more evident as a result of the immediate approach with which they too have been called upon to contribute in the fight against the spread of the virus.
Taking up what ayatollah Alireza Arafi – rector of the International University at Mustafa in Qom – said, religious leaders have the task of cooperating to face together not only the current health crisis, but also other contemporary emergencies afflicting global society: injustice, discrimination, inhuman sanctions, environmental crisis, war, terrorism. The ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ test to which the epidemic has submitted and continues to submit the whole of humanity – without distinction of race, faith, language, culture – could probably generate the conditions for the concrete construction of a community of religions at the service of humanity.
* Ph.D. in Law and Religion, University of Calabria (Italy).
 In this regard, Tehseen Nisar reports that, although the alarm about the pandemic has been very serious in all Muslim countries, the measures adopted have been characterized by a substantial heterogeneity in terms of content and consequent effects. He adds, for example, that: “In Pakistan, in the first phase of the pandemic, a ban on religious gatherings and prayer in mosques was imposed; a ban that was slowly and gradually removed during the month of Ramadan. In Indonesia and also in Saudi Arabia, the most sacred places of Islam have been closed, as well as the Holy Kaaba (the House of God)”.
Mohamed Arafa relates the diversity of approach to the different internal dynamics of state policies.
 As Tehseen Nisar points out, in most cases both women and men have observed the Eid prayers at home because the greater the sense of protection from danger within their own homes.
 Such is the opinion of Mohamed Arafa, who maintains that the Muslim faithful have certainly practised religious rites at home. However, this circumstance has not made them fully happy in view of their actual willingness to pray in the mosque.
 This is what emerges from the reports of Tehseen Nisar who insists on highlighting the great spiritual opportunity that the pandemic has represented for the individual faithful, as well as for their families.
 The text of the communiqué can be found at http://www.azhar.eg/.
 The first of the Hadith recalled is taken from the Sahīh of al-Bukhārī and Muslim: “On a rainy day ‘Abdallah bin ‘Abbās said to his muezzin: “When you say, ‘I testify that Muhammad is the Envoy of God’ do not say, ‘Come and pray’, but rather say, ‘Pray in your homes’. People were amazed. He said then: “So did someone better than me. Friday prayer is an obligation, but I am sorry to put you in trouble by making you walk in the slippery mud. The second and third Hadith are taken respectively from the Sunan of Abū Dāwūd and the Sahīh of al-Bukhārī and enumerate some conditions in the presence of which it would be possible to exempt the faithful from going to the mosque, such as fear, illness and the fact of having consumed some food with a particularly intense smell: “He who hears the call to prayer and has no justification for not going to the mosque – he was then asked what the justification was and answered that it was fear or illness – the prayer he offers will not be accepted”, and “He who ate garlic or onion, stay away from us. Or, he said, stay away from our mosque and stay home.
 The content of the fatwa can be found at http://binbayyah.net/english/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Fatwa-11-COVID-19-final.pdf.
 In this sense Mohamed Arafa has expressed himself. Faced with the need to resolve the problems posed by the long suspension of collective religious life, he believes that «the Islamic clergy must act with an open mind, not closed on specific religious issues. They must be open-minded towards others. It is important for them to explain in a very broad way how precise the Islamic vision on freedom of religion and freedom of expression is».
 Even if not exhaustively with respect to the objectives of the survey set at the basis of the proposed question, Mohamed Arafa highlights the need to fight the global crisis together, with respect for religions, believers and colours. There isn’t a Muslim world and a Western world, but we must all stand together to counter the emergency.
 The news can be found at https://www.agensir.it/quotidiano/2020/5/23/fine-ramadan.
Un pensiero su “The Covid-19 pandemic in Muslim countries”
Nice to read about religion-backed efforts to follow scientific recommendations. I hope your vision of informed religious leaders playing an expanded role in the service of humanity proves to be prophetic.
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