On March 17th 2020, the Malaysian (Federal) Religious Department announced the closure of all mosques in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Five days later it announced the creation of a special task force to handle the remains of the victims. Both edicts affect only Federal territories. There is still no effective federal/state coordination.
It is humbling that an ultra-tiny packet of RNA could wreck such havoc on human civilization.
Beyond the social upheavals and economic devastations, this Covid-19 virus also inflicts consequential but underappreciated impact on the individual psyche, both the healthy as well as the infected. Despite advances in neuro- and behavioral sciences, there is still a huge void in understanding this facet of the pandemic.
This is where we need our spiritual and religious leaders. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, likewise there are no non-believers in a pandemic. We need and depend on a higher power to reassure us, and each other to protect and sustain us.
In this regard, I am heartened that my Imam Ilyas had recommended early the closing of our masjid. We could do our prayers at home, he advised.
Singapore’s Mufti too did likewise. Religion is about priorities, he emphasized. The top priority now is not to endanger ourselves and others. He went further. His organization has put out an informative public service video demonstrating how the virus could spread through hugging, handshaking, and prostrating, all activities associated with congregational prayers.
A church in America provides telehealth mental health services. It encourages its followers to maintain regular communications with their loved ones via phones, Facetime, and other platforms. It offers tips on keeping the conversations hopeful so as not to burden others with your anxieties. Other suggestions include reading together passages from the Holy Book, reviewing family pictures, and sharing stories.
Many religious leaders neglect this crucial role of guidance. Malaysian ulama, all on state payroll, instead engage in sterile sermons. We should fear Allah more than Covid-19, they bellowed, and that the virus is Allah’s punishment!
Words, more so religious ones or emanating from faith leaders, have consequences. Those pronouncements resulted in Malaysia’s second and much more devastating surge in new cases.
Imagine the lives saved, costs not incurred, and families spared needless grief had that Sri Petaling Tabligh religious gathering been cancelled. Nor has that crucial lesson been learned. There was a much bigger festival later in Indonesia, a nation ill equipped to handle the inevitable spike in new infections.
Those ulama have yet to own up to their accountability for these preventable tragedies.
Religious leaders have minimal knowledge on medical and public health issues; they should not pretend otherwise. Instead they should endorse those public health measures, using their religious knowledge to buttress the arguments. Likewise, Malaysian professionals should not abrogate their responsibilities by giving those bureaucrat-ulama veto powers.
Be guided by our prophetic traditions. If you hear of an outbreak in a land, do not enter it. If you are in it, then do not leave the area, goes one. Cleanliness is part of faith, is another. Our five daily prayers are preceded by wudhu, a general cleansing of the hands, face, and feet.
Yet Malaysians, instigated by their ulama, are obsessed with public ostentatious displays of their faith, with endless emotional du’as and mass sembayang tahajut. They should be reminded of another prophetic wisdom. First tie your camel securely, only then pray that it does not escape! In the current context, first observe social distancing and wash your hands often, only then pray and make du’a.
On another front, imagine the anguish of bereaved families when they could not administer the traditional funeral rites, as with washing the bodies. Or worse, when they breach hygienic principles, thus endangering themselves and others.
Indonesia’s Imam Das’ad Latif advice is instructive. He likened the pandemic to war, with the victims syahid (martyrs), destined for Allah’s special slot in Heaven. Thus the usual rites as with ablution and prayers could be dispensed with, as during the prophet’s time with those who died in battles. Such soothing words from an alim are a balm to a grieving family.
Stress, more so chronic ones, is deleterious to our immune system, and thus our resistance to viruses and diseases. This is aggravated by associated loneliness, psychiatric symptoms, and life events. Prayers, meditation, and mindfulness alleviate stress.
Modern neuroscience’s greatest achievement is to integrate these observations at the molecular level, of how stress hormones affect neurotransmitters or alter the conformations of our genes and thus their expression. Of greater significance is that those consequences are transmitted to the next generation and beyond, as indicated by studies on victims of mass starvation in China during Mao, and in the Netherlands during the WWII Nazi blockade.
In short, what my Imam Ilyas, Singapore’s Mufti Nazirudin, and Indonesia’s Imam Das’ad Latif are doing is harness their spiritual leadership to calm and guide their followers. By contrast, those fiery, science-challenged Youtube preachers put the fear of Allah in their listeners, aggravating their stress, the very antithesis of the purpose of faith.
Former Mufti and now Religious Minister Duzlkifli Al Bakri should be less an Imam, more an executive. With Ramadan around the corner, he should consult all the muftis to come up with a national consensus. Covid-19 does not recognize political boundaries, religious persuasions, or the calendar. Prepare people for the possible closing of mosques right up to Ramadan and Eid. We cannot risk turning Houses of Allah into Houses of Pestilence.
Religion is to guide and protect, not lead us into danger. Islam is a set of universal principles to guide us to and keep us on the straight path. It is not a compilation of rigid rituals to be mindlessly performed.