It’s Not God Versus Covid-19
On March 19, 2020, California’s Governor Newson announced a state-wide lockdown affecting 40 million people. The state, America’s most populous, had until recently the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases, with my County of Santa Clara where Silicon Valley is located, leading the pack with over 302 cases, 108 hospitalized, and 10 deaths as of 4 PM March 22, 2020.]
Last Friday, March 20, 2020, the first day of spring, in the void of our mosque being closed ten days earlier, I spent the afternoon listening on-line to sermons and lectures from around the Muslim world about the current Covid-19 pandemic.
I was stunned and appalled that many ulama had framed the issue simplistically around “It’s Allah that we should fear, not Covid-19.” They refused to follow the WHO guidelines to refrain from mass gatherings. They continued with their congregational prayers, oblivious of the grave dangers they imposed upon themselves and their congregation. And from there, to the general community and far beyond.
They are being irresponsible and their actions reprehensible. The recent four-day, 15,000-strong Tabligh gathering in Petaling Jaya on Feb 27, 2020 triggered Malaysia’s second and much bigger surge of Covid-19 cases. Those attendees have now spread the pestilence throughout Southeast Asia and far beyond. The first Covid-19 death in Malaysia was an attendee at that gathering.
This fatal ignorance and willful irresponsibility span faith and countries. White Christian pastors in the conservative South openly defied the WHO protective guidelines, urging their congregations to shake hands and hug each other. At the Vatican in Covid-19-stricken Italy, Cardinal Burke called on the faithful to attend Mass!
Such determined defiance was not limited to God-fearing souls. The young in Florida and Australia flocked to the beaches, and in UK to mammoth concerts – the presumed invincibility of youth!
I found some solace in the pronouncements of the few wise, responsible ulama. Most welcomed and reassuring were from the incoming as well as outgoing Muftis of Singapore, Naizrudin Nasir and Fatris Bakaram respectively. Their sane, practical, and helpful advice was a much-needed antidote to the willful nonsense and dangerous rubbish emanating from the hordes of Muftis across the causeway.
We express our fear of Allah, Fatris reminded his flock, by following His teachings, as being grateful for the life and health that Allah has bestowed upon us. Nurture that precious divine gift so we could be of benefit to the community. In the current context, we must maintain our social distance and take all necessary preventive precautions to safeguard ourselves and our loved ones, while at the same time not endanger others. Meaning, follow those prudent WHO guidelines.
Fear of Allah also means that we should use our God-given intellect, not close our eyes and freeze our minds, he continued. Singapore was the first to close its mosques and canceled Friday and other congregational prayers.
Similar sentiments were expressed in Indonesia, alas by far too few. Among the rare precious voices was Imam Das’ad Latif. He went further and invited a physician to be on his podcast to discuss the pandemic and educate his listeners. Now there is an alim who is very much aware of the gaps in his own knowledge and goes out to find someone to fill it. Alas, such humility is glaring by its absence among Malaysian ulama. They already know it all.
In Zambabwe, Imam Munk, a preacher whose views on other social issues I do not share, expressed similar sentiment. Like the Singapore Mufti, he cancelled his congregational prayers.
Malaysia meanwhile continues on as usual, oblivious of the turmoil and mortal danger. The former Federal Mufti and now newly-minted Minister of Religious Affairs suggested that Imams shorten their sermons. The widely listened-to former Mufti of Perlis, Mohamad Asri, continued with his mass gatherings, mesmerizing his listeners and himself with his exquisite and prolonged recitations of obscure ancient Arabic texts.
He none-too-tactfully reminded the Minister of Religious Affairs that he had no authority over the states. Meaning, Asri was not bound by the ministerial edict. I would have thought that in a national emergency, with the virus not recognizing boundaries, Asri would gather his fellow Muftis to advise the Agung and his Council of Rulers on a national consensus.
If the Agung and his brother rulers could gather together in short order to dismiss former Prime Minister Mahathir, surely this Covid-19 pandemic is a much more pressing issue.
Malaysian ulama behave like out-of-touch psychiatrists who in discussing depression would endlessly quote Freud, Jung, and Maslow, while remaining blissfully ignorant of such modern insights as neurotransmitters.
In Brunei, the Sultan reminded his subjects that the virus is from Allah and that citizens must return to Him. No mention about washing hands or maintaining social distance.
With all those, I am blessed that my community here has an enlightened Imam Ilyas as our spiritual leader. It was he, after consulting his brother Imams in the area, who first suggested closing our masjid. Our secular Board quickly endorsed that, and the message was sent out right away, well before the Governor’s edict.
UK-born Imam Ilyas attended the local public school but pursued his Islamic education via the traditional route in India. He thus represents the best of Western liberal education and traditional eastern one, the former its inclusivity and open-mindedness, the latter, deference to precedents and traditions. He balances and synthesizes worldly knowledge and current insights with religious knowledge and spiritual values.
That is the kind of leadership contemporary Muslim societies desperately need.