Can Religion Provide Solutions Or At Least Solace To A Pakistani Population In Grave Danger?
Almost every religious tradition in world history carries a myth along the lines of the Great Flood, narrated in the local idiom. In other words, it was a flood which affected the whole of mankind, according to religious traditions. This story is common in the Quran and the Old Testament. It is found in Babylonian lore around Gilgamesh. The Vedas also contain a story of great flood, which affected the whole of humanity. There is a repeated mention of pandemics in the Old Testament which were let loose on people by God Almighty as a punishment for disobedience. So the world of religious tradition is not completely devoid of a situation, natural calamity or pandemic that would affect the whole of humanity. In fact, it appears to be a common experience of the entire human race. Religious traditions all over the world have something in common— the mention of an ordeal that was common to the whole human race, this could be in the shape of Noah’s flood or the great pandemics mentioned in the Old Testament.
However despite the prevalence of stories about shared experience of mankind in such worldwide calamities, none of the religious tradition all over the world have come up with any plausible explanation for the coronavirus outbreak or a suggestion for overcoming this menace as part of joint effort of the human race. After all, the Great Flood in Noah’s times was preceded by the building of an Ark, which spared part of humanity. The Ark was a product of human hands and must have been an outcome of the prevailing technology in those days.
The Coronavirus outbreak, however, has not attracted a serious religious response of any kind so far. It is only science and medical technology on which human attention is focused at the moment for extricating people from this flood of viruses that has engulfed us all.
Pakistani society, which boasts itself to be a highly religious society, hardly produced a religious response to the crisis that could provide any solace to the human race as at this particular moment. Unfortunately, the great and humane religious tradition of Islam has not been brought to use in a creative manner to put forward a response that could help the whole of humanity.
It must be remembered at the moment that we are experiencing those moments in world history where we are sharing an experience with all of humanity—and this shared experience is being televised 24/7 without any interruption. Human creativity could have put forward a creative solution, a way out or at least some form of consolation after engaging constructively and creatively with the rich Islamic religious tradition.
But, perhaps the prevalence of a violent streak among our religious clergy and hatred of any kind of innovation have prevented the deployment of religious tradition in the service of a troubled humanity.
In Pakistani society, the response to the Coronavirus outbreak has been of three types, and all three indicate that the religious clergy is completely devoid of any capacity to constructively and creatively engage with the past or with the Scriptures to come up with a civic-minded response to the crisis. The three types of response could be summed up as follows
a) Clergy suggesting pseudo-medical solutions for the disease: I have personally heard a religious leader suggesting to his followers that they should slaughter three pigeons and take out their stomachs, where they will find a membrane. “Take three such membranes and cook them for a while in hot water and drink this water. There will be no trace of coronavirus!” the cleric said. He is no exception. There are a large number of such pseudo-scientists among Pakistani religious clergy who are coming up with numerous ‘solutions’ for the disease.
b) Clergy interpreting the Coronavirus as a punishment from Allah: this is the dominant streak among Pakistani clergy—they want to interpret Coronavirus as a punishment from God for the sins of humanity. A large number of them are suggesting that the Chinese have treated Muslims of Xinjiang badly and this in fact was a punishment against their misdeeds. But then they have to explain why the Western and Muslim countries are suffering. So according to them, the Westerners are as ‘bad’ as the Chinese,etc. But, they then insist, Muslims are not lagging behind in bad deeds. Hence the punishment in the form of Coronavirus.
c) The third explanation or response is coming from the sectarian section wing of the clergy and they have now started blaming the Shia Muslim pilgrimage coming back from Iran for the outbreak of the Coronavirus. They don’t take into account the fact that a large number of patients who have been declared positive for COVID-19 are coming back from Saudi Arabia after performing Ummrah. Thus they ignore the fact that the outbreak of the disease has no sectarian background and their narrow-mindedness will make it more difficult for the government of Pakistan to tackle the problem head-on.
As our clergy is deeply immersed in sectarian, parochial and tribalistic fervour, it will be useless to expect them to come up with a constructive or creative response. In fact, many of them – based on their response so far – simply don’t deserve to be heard on this topic at the world stage. But they will continue to pollute the minds of the Pakistani masses with their outlandish and harmful ideas about a public health menace that now threatens to devour hundred of thousands of lives in Pakistani society.
The history and trajectory of Islam becoming a world religion passed through many ups and downs: which also saw Islamic leaders coming to the rescue of local communities in times of need. The needs and wants of local communities sometimes demanded solutions to practical problems. In fact, the advent of all the major religions of the world predates the arrival of Germ Theory, but they nevertheless were there to provide solace or practical solutions towards the spread of diseases in local communities. For instance the Islamic practice of five prayers and five ablutions a day acted as a major prevention against diseases.
Up to pre-modern times religion was playing its role as a provider of solutions to the problems of humanity as a whole. These solutions were not of a scientific nature – and in any case, in pre-modern times, religion did not have any claim to be a handbook of scientific solutions. Yet it helped.
In Pakistan today, the few clerics who have supported the idea of social distancing—as proposed by the medical experts—to deal with the highly contagious COVID-19 seem to be under the influence of Pakistani state machinery. In some cases the wording of their statements mentions state influence as a factor in their support for the idea of social distancing.
A large number of the clerics are simply continuing with the Friday prayers according to the usual schedule – merely providing ammunition to opponents who consider them a public threat in such a situation.
Ironically, the state itself is bent upon using religion as tool to hide its own inefficiency and ineptness.
In Peshawar the provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa declared that they would consider any one dying because of the Coronavirus pandemic a Shaheed (religious martyr). A government which appears completely helpless in saving the lives of its citizens in the face of a medical emergency wants to make use of religious imagery to present death as a solace in these desperate times.
The psychological shock of more large-scale deaths may prove to be unbearable for Pakistani society and might disturb the political status quo. Will religion be present in such a situation to provide solace to the Pakistani people?
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.