COVID-19 & Religion: Why Are Pakistani Muftis Resisting Closure Of Mosques?

COVID-19 & Religion: Why Are Pakistani Muftis Resisting Closure Of Mosques?
Islamic scholars in Pakistan have been stubbornly resisting the closure of mosques in the face of a lethal pandemic like COVID-19. They have also failed to give any convincing reason for this suicidal behaviour. However, it seems that their secret reason is that, while they acknowledge the pandemic, they are not fully convinced that a disease can be transmitted from one human to another, clear evidence and modern medicine be damned. 

The secular case for closure of mosques during the ongoing pandemic in Pakistan is very straight forward: Pakistan is a poor, and religious country where - in the absence of any bars, cinemas and stadiums to speak of - mosques serve as the only community centers across the country. In the mosques, mass entry is not only free for all men but expected five times a day. Indeed, Pakistan should be able to substantially restrict the spread of the virus by closing down mosques and educational institutions. Conversely, keeping the mosques open means that all other efforts to contain the infectious virus will be rendered pointless.

Even if the above secular argument is cast aside, the non-cooperative behavior of Pakistani religious scholars is still very perplexing for four reasons. Firstly, mosques in practically all other Muslims countries have been locked down, including the two most sacred mosques in Mecca and Medina. In other words, Pakistani clerics are taking a path of their own, which probably the governments in other Muslim countries did not allow to their clerics. Secondly, mosques in Pakistan have not been locked down even for a day since the beginning of partial lockdown here a month ago. This means that there is a certain clarity of mind at work here that preemptively resisted the closure of mosques. Thirdly, the religious leaders have not made any notable demand for financial support from government in return for closing down the mosques; rather they have flatly refused to close the mosques at all. And lastly, the prominence in this entire crisis of religious spin-masters for the Pakistani establishment – the good old Mufti Taqi Usmani (who declared Bhutto’s land reforms un-Islamic and designed much of the prevalent Islamic banking system) and Mufti Muneebur Rehman (“our man on the moon”) – suggests that they are not telling us the truth.

The first thing to note in our search for truth is that plagues - understood as a disease suddenly inflicting a large number of people in a specific city or country - have existed for thousands of years. They famously featured in the exodus of Moses and his followers from Egypt in 1500 BCE. Athens experienced a devastating plague in 430 BCE that killed thousands of people. Michael W. Dols, in his groundbreaking 1977 study, “The Black Death in the Middle East”, notes that the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century was the sixth major outbreak experienced in the Muslim world, and that the most notable of the earlier outbreaks was the Amawas plague in Syria during the reign of Caliph Umar (also mentioned in Sahi Bukhari, 5729).

Next, we note that there is nothing in Quran that directly addresses the question of transmission of disease, but that there are at least six ahadith in Sahi Bukhari that contain the same refrain: “la adwa” [there is no contagious disease]. These ahadith, translated by Dr Muhammad Muhsin Khan for Maktaba Darussalam in Riyadh, are reproduced below:

  1. "(There is) no Adwa (no contagious disease is conveyed without Allah's Permission), nor Tiyara [nor is there any bad omen (from birds)], nor (is there any) Hama, Safar, and one should run away from the leper as one runs away from a lion."

  1. “"There is no Adwa (no disease is conveyed from the sick to the healthy without Allah's Permission), nor Safar, nor Hama." A bedouin stood up and said, "Then what about my camels? They are like deer on the sand, but when a mangy camel comes and mixes with them, they all get infected with mange." The Prophet said, "Then who conveyed the (mange) disease to the first one?"

  1. “"There is neither 'Adwa (no contagious disease is conveyed to others without Allah's permission) nor Tiyara, but an evil omen may be in three: a woman, a house animal."

  1. “No Adwa (no contagious disease is conveyed to others without Allah's Permission), nor Tiyara, but I like the good word."

  1. “There is no Adwa, nor Tiyara, nor Hama, nor Safar."

  2. “No Adwa.”

We may also note a seventh hadith, number 5771: “The cattle (sheep, cows, camels, etc.) suffering from a disease should not be mixed up with healthy cattle,” (or said) "Do not put a patient with a healthy person,"(as a precaution).

It is clear from the above that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself warned that lepers should be avoided and that diseased people and animals should be separated from healthy people and animals, respectively.

It is important to note at this point that the germ theory of disease now prevalent in the medical community across the world was developed in Europe only in the late 19th century. Until then, the physicians subscribed to the miasmic theory of ancient Greeks which attributed disease, including plagues, to a corruption of the environment, particularly the air (miasma).

Brill’s Encyclopedia of Islam, under the entry “waba” [plague], tells us that while medieval Muslim medicine, under Greek influence, also subscribed to the miasmic theory, “theological explanations contradicted the medical ones of an infected environment by claiming that disease comes directly from God, hence no infection should be feared.”

Brill’s also tells us that, “the beliefs and the behaviour of Muslims when confronted by epidemics of the plague were determined in the Middle Ages, and works of this era, especially those of Ibn Hajar al-Askalani in the 15th century, were regarded as authoritative in succeeding centuries.” About this Ibn Hajar, we are informed by Dols (aforementioned) that he was an Egyptian scholar who “argue[d] against the predominant view that plague resulted from a miasma or corruption of the air. Ibn Hajar believed that plague was inflicted on mankind by evil jinn or demons—a view not inconsistent with the Muslim belief that plague was sent directly by God.” This theory by Ibn Hajar is reminiscent of Imam Ghazali’s famous reasoning for denying that fire directly causes a ball of cotton to burn: “Rather we say that the efficient cause of the combustion through the creation of blackness in the cotton and through causing the separation of its parts and turning it into coal or ashes is God—either through the mediation of the angels or without mediation” (quoted in entry on Imam Ghazali at Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

However, there was one notable exception to these mainstream views noted above - Lisan-ad-Din Ibn al-Khatib (1313-1375), who was a polymath vizier in the court of Muhammad V of Andalus (now Spain). He was a witness to the plague that devastated Europe, and his hometown Granada, in 1348-49. He wrote a treatise afterwards on the plague in which he not only demonstrated its infectious nature but also addressed the hadith that denied such nature.

As regards the infectious nature of the plague, Ibn al-Khatib observed:

“If one asks, 'how can you admit the assertion, there is infection, when the revealed word denies this?' we answer: that infection exists, is confirmed by experience, research, insight and observation and through constantly recurring accounts. These are the elements of proof. For him who has treated or recognized this case, it cannot remain concealed that mostly the man who has had contact with a patient infected with this disease must die, and that, on the other hand, the man who has had no contact remains healthy. So it is with the appearance of the illness in a house or quarter because of a garment or a vessel; even an earring can destroy him who puts it in his ear, and all the inhabitants of the house. The illness can first appear in a town in a single house; then, from there, it can break out among individual contacts, then among their neighbours, relatives, and especially their visitors, until the breach becomes even greater. The illness can appear in coastal towns that enjoyed good health until there lands in them a man with plague, come from across the sea, from another coast where the plague already exists, as reports tell. The date of the appearance of the illness in the town tallies with the date of debarcation of this man… But there is nothing more wonderful at this time than the prison camp of the Muslims - may God free them! - in the Arsenal of Seville: there were thousands but the plague did not touch them although it practically destroyed the town itself. The report is also correct that the itinerant nomads living in tents in North Africa and elsewhere remained healthy because there the air is not shut in and the corruption proceeding from it could only gain a slight hold.” (Quoted in Manfred Ullmann, “Islamic Medicine”, Edinburgh University Press, 1978, p.94-95, emphasis added).

Next, Ibn al-Khatib’s scathing comments on blind adherence to the Prophetic tradition are eerily reminiscent of the ongoing criticism of the stubbornness of Pakistani clergy in the face of Covid-19:

One principle that cannot be ignored is that if the senses and observation oppose a revealed indication, the latter needs to be interpreted, and the correct course in this case is to interpret it according to what a group of those who affirm contagion say. In the Law, there are many texts that support this, such as his saying, may God pray for him and grant him peace: “The sick should not be watered with the healthy,” and the saying of the Companion: “I flee from the will of God to His will.” This is not the place for prolixity on this subject…. To sum up, to play deaf to such an inference is malicious, perverting blasphemy against God, and holding the lives of Muslims to be cheap. A group of pious people in the Maghrib have renounced [their previous view] to the people, bearing witness against themselves that they no longer give fatwas to this effect [i.e., not believing in contagion], in order to avoid being in the position of declaring it permissible for people to engage in suicidal behavior. God protect us from nonsense and grant us success in both speech and action.” (Quoted in Justin K Stearns, “Infectious Ideas: Contagion in Premodern Islamic and Christian Thought in the Western Mediterranean”, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2011, p.80-81. Emphasis added).

Lastly, we come back to the entry on “waba” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Islam to see the developments in the Islamic world since the 19th century that are also visible these days in response to Covid-19:

“The change came about through the influence of the Europeans resident in the Levant, who successfully applied the techniques of protection in use in Europe, and especially through the awareness on the part of rulers of Muslim states of the importance of the demographic factor in military, fiscal and economic spheres. Traditional resignation to divine will was replaced, at least in the higher echelons of the state, by a conception which sought to reconcile the Sharia with modern science and the interests of the state. From the 1830s onward, the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, equipped themselves with sanitary authorities and regulations, placing quarantine stations on maritime and terrestrial frontiers. These innovations were achieved with the aid of Westerners, diplomats and doctors, who saw an opportunity to enhance their influence. The rapidity of the results obtained, such that no cases of plague were recorded in the Ottoman Empire after 1844, resulted as much from the efforts of local sanitary institutions as from natural extinction of the temporary centres of the previous centuries. Later recurrences of the plague, few and of limited scope, were energetically combatted.” (Emphasis added)

To conclude, the religious leaders in Pakistan are evidently relying on manifestly erroneous statements against contagious diseases attributed by Imam Bukhari to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH); and secondly, unlike the governments in other Muslim countries, the governments in Pakistan (federal and provincial) do not have the requisite knowledge and force to prevail upon the power-hungry religious clergy to desist from spreading nonsense, nay death, in the name of Islam.

The author is a lawyer and a civil servant based in Lahore.