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Global - January 16, 2022

The Clergy And The Fight Against Covid – 19: Partners Or Adversaries?

 

 

By Ustaz Abubakr Siddeeq Muhammad

 

This was a paper I presented at the National Institute for Security Studies’ (NISS) Annual Global Health Security Module held on October 25th to 29th, 2021 at the Institute’s Auditorium, Lower Usuma Dam, Bwari, Abuja. Enjoy:

The organisers merit our gratitude for considering us worthy of their kind invitation to make this presentation. It is hoped that we will keep up to their expectation and prove our weight in gold.

It all started like a trifle; an outbreak of the virus in Wuhan, China, a few reported cases of both infection and death. Shortly afterwards the entire world was engulfed in the flames of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To answer the question in the topic of this presentation, the clergy are your partners and not adversaries. We have put our reputation on the line to admonish our congregants on the need to obey COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines. Whenever we speak about COVID-19 some people ask ‘How much have they given you?’, trying to create doubt or to discredit the information we convey. To these people, unless you have received money from the ‘COVID-19 enterprise’ which to them is a hoax, there is no reason why an Imam would warn his flock about the dangers of COVID-19 and how to take precautions.

Ignorant people do not know that Islam has scriptural evidence on epidemics and how the faithful should conduct themselves at the time of the spread of contagious diseases. The teachings on contagion are not confined to human beings. On the issue of sick camels, the Messenger of Allah, sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allah be upon) said: “let not a diseased one mix with a healthy one,” which seems to acknowledge the reality and impact of contagion.

 

The above Hadeeth made us comply with the social distancing and, later, the lockdown directive of the government. We took the trouble of removing carpets from mosques and told each worshiper to bring their individual prayer mats without sharing them with anyone. The two-metre space was maintained between one person and another during prayers. Of course, there were some dissenting voices who saw this form of worship as the ‘corona prayer’. Such people would form another congregation outside the mosque to conduct separate prayers devoid of social distancing protocol. When we caught this kind of rebellion around the National Mosque we took immediate action and dispersed those who remained obdurate.

EXPERTS IN IGNORANCE

 

It is only in religious matters that ignorant people are experts. A man who knows nothing in religion will argue against an informed position of a scholar of the scripture. This is only the case in religious matters. He reads one article or a verse or Hadeeth (sayings and actions of the Prophet) online and he deems himself a scholar who can speak with authority on any issue concerning religion. Other fields of expertise do not suffer from this brazen-faced display of ignorance. If a medical doctor speaks, for example, on any issue regarding his profession, nobody challenges his position other than his colleagues who may have a different opinion based on medical evidence. The same is true about a lawyer or an engineer. But on religion, every charlatan is an authority because he has googled the topic.

 

MUSLIM SCHOLARS AND COVID-19

During the lockdown COVID-19, we endorsed the precautionary stipulations by public health authorities banning all types of social gatherings. By way of implementing these stipulations, Muslim scholars called for the suspension of congregational prayers such as the five daily prayers as well as the Friday and Eid prayers. We advocated this view in the spirit of true reliance on God by respecting rather than neglecting the causes. If physicians and medical experts are unanimous that social gatherings lead to the spread of the infection and the contraction of the disease, then all types of gatherings should be avoided. Though nobody would come out to offer worship, the call to prayer (Adhān) was still made, with the addition of the phrase instructing worshippers to pray at home. In lieu of the Friday prayer, regular noon prayers were offered at home.

 

Thus, the call to prayer was made but people remained in their dwellings and observed all the prayers with their families without coming out to the mosques. For the first time in their life, during Ramadan, Muslims listened to the daily Tafseer (exegesis of the Glorious Qur’an) on their mobile phones or followed the proceedings via zoom. No Iftar (breaking of the fast) sessions in the mosques as we used to do before COVID-19. Taraweeh and Tahajjud (the evening and midnight supererogatory prayers) were offered at home. Eid prayers were not an exception as they were also offered with family members only, another first in our earthly existence.

 

We came to realise that hardship, restriction in the way we conduct our daily living and other inconveniences caused by COVID-19 as ‘much as they often had painful and tragic effects, they also reveal the human capacity to cope with difficult and challenging circumstances.’

SUSPENSION OF HAJJ 2020 AND 2021

Muslim scholars emphasised ‘the point that the obligation to perform pilgrimage to the Ka’bah in Makkah ‘is predicated on the conditions of ability (qudra) or feasibility (istiṭāʿa), which includes three main elements: physical health, financial means, and absence of impending dangers that may threaten one’s safety or life.’ The scholars indicated that if the pilgrimage is suspended due to concerns over the transmission of the infection, it will be permissible to postpone the performance of this act of worship until the following year. It should be noted that the Saudi government suspended travel into the country for the purpose of visiting the holy sites and performance of ʿumra, shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic (in late February 2020)….’ ‘Eventually, on June 22, the Saudi government took a decision not to suspend the pilgrimage but to allow it only for a limited number of pilgrims, from among those already residing in Saudi Arabia (Wizārat al-Ḥajj wa-l-ʿUmra 2020). Both of these decisions by the Saudi government restricting travel into the country for health concerns were endorsed by’ Muslim scholars around the world. The Saudi government 2020 decision limited the number of participants in the Hajj to only 10,000 while that of 2021 was increased to 60,000 pilgrims all from locals and residents within Saudi Arabia.

Religious scholars are partners and not adversaries in the fight against COVID-19 because ‘many people turn to’ them ‘for psychological relief during times of crisis to cope with worries, stress and anxiety related to disease prevention measures such as lockdown, restricted travel and social distancing.’

 

ABILITY TO INFLUENCE PEOPLE

Religious leaders are skilful in public speaking and communications. They influence thinking and shape social values and social responsibility through their preaching. They preach the faith which is an important source of spiritual energy that can be quite helpful in addressing this global threat by strengthening people’s confidence in their ability to withstand challenges and hardships. Moreover, religion also includes references to specific practices that can support the efforts to combat the pandemic such as emphasis on personal hygiene and cleanliness; health measures associated with contagion and quarantine; and emphasis on one’s role in the fulfilment of social and communal responsibilities

People’s attitudes towards public health messages are shaped by their religious beliefs and how their religious leaders respond to the messages. Thus, religious leaders have a strong influence on the health behaviours of their congregants. Religious leaders are in a good position to instil rationality among their congregants, that there is no conflict between preventive measures for communicable diseases and religious beliefs.

MEDICINE AND SPIRITUALITY

In recent years, research has shown that religious beliefs and practices are associated with various health aspects, such as the ability to cope with the disease, recovery after hospitalisation and a positive attitude in a difficult situation, including health. Also, faith or broadly understood spirituality is a force that helps to overcome the mental crisis as well as facilitate adaptation to the disease or the restrictions resulting from it.

There have to be ways to integrate spirituality into the clinical setting by including religion, spirituality and health in medical curricula. Many medical schools in Western countries have started to include courses on religion, spirituality and health into their curricula. The purpose, of course, is not to make religious scholars out of medical doctors, but, at least, a patient’s heart will be tranquil by seeing a doctor who knows exactly what to say to a distressed person at the time of stress from their religious perspective. Such soothing balm as coming from the doctor who knows about the religious and spiritual beliefs of one under his care will help the patient heal fast and resign to whatever their Maker destines for them.

Finally, the convenience and comfort of life most often cause a lack of reflection as well as pushing away disturbing thoughts. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused distinct human responses and reactions, has strengthened us and made us aware of the fragility of our human existence. We have been taught a lesson in humility, but we are also accompanied by feelings of powerlessness and fear.

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