Viruses and Certain Religious Beliefs: What is Deadlier?

It was almost impossible to predict how the events of the coronavirus pandemic would unfold. To many, what began as propaganda or scaremongering soon morphed into a living nightmare – some eventually even losing their lives to it. A virus that ravaged China, eventually set its sights on Iran, and in the space of a few weeks, it would terrorize the entire country. At the time of writing, three cities, Qom, Gilan and Mazandaran were placed on ‘red alert’, an ominous sign of the deterioration within, and a portent warning of the dangers awaiting everyone in the future (as Iranian health ministers and experts have repeatedly alluded to themselves if people do not abide by their advisory announcements).

Every day, we wake up to the news that a famous politician or a government official or a big scholar has passed away or has contracted the virus. Alongside these notable personalities, are the unsung heroes, who a fortnight ago, could have never pictured what the future would hold. A number of doctors, nurses and medical staff have also succumbed to the virus; the virus evidently not selective with his victims. One can only pray that things change for the better sooner rather than later.

Amidst all the chaos, a fervent debate has been sparked. What happens when the religious beliefs of some conflict with established medical teachings and what health experts of the country are advising since day one? Further, what happens when these very beliefs have the potential to expose others to grave danger?

My teacher Shaykh Haider Hobbollah – who has been sending us audio recordings of both Fiqh and Uṣūl lessons since the outbreak of the virus in Qom – today (lesson #105, March 7th, 2020) dedicated the Uṣūl lesson on the on-going situation, briefly shedding light on the aforementioned dilemma.

We were meant to begin speaking about the implications of Maqāsid-based ijtihād from today, but I would like to take a moment to speak about the crisis we are currently facing. As you all know, most of us have decided to self-isolate ourselves due to the coronavirus for the past fortnight. We have been conducting our lessons online during this period and trying to maintain things in order to the extent possible.

However, until now, I had no idea that such a virus could have led to such a dangerous intra-religious discord. I was expecting that dispelling a danger that threatens the health, well-being and life of a human, would have been a natural course of action to take and that it would have been one of our top priorities as humans, as individuals, as a congregation, as an ummah, as a nation, as a religious duty. However, what has surprised us in these last two weeks is what we always feared. The presence of a dangerous strand of thought amongst us, which has been fueled and constructed over the years, and this incident has truly exposed it for all of us.

On social media and on the internet, we have observed and read a plethora of things. The back and forth amongst politicians or amongst some scholars does not concern me right now. What concerns me is that the virus is growing day by day, sending many to the hospitals, suspending the lives of many, yet we are being harmed and injured by something other than the virus as well over the last two weeks.

We have been injured by a theological and emotional fallacy. This fallacy is being committed by some amongst the laity, and as well as some of the younger demographic amongst the scholars, not the top-tier scholars such as the philosophers, theologians, jurists and exegetes. This injury comes after the governments in Iran and Iraq began to disinfect some of the shrines and sacred places, or even temporarily shut down some of the shrines, or after what Saudi Arabia has done by suspending the ‘Umrah in one of the busiest seasons of Rajab. The authorities have done this because these are some of the riskiest places for various diseases to be transmitted given the number of people who visit them.

One would expect that such a protocol by the authorities would not be a cause of discontent, but it seems that this is not the case. This is because some are of the belief that these are the places where one goes to cure him or herself, that these places possess the ability to leave doctors speechless, and as such, it makes no sense to disinfect them. To disinfect is to essentially disrespect these sacred places. They ask disapprovingly, how could it be that while these Imams (a) are the curers and true doctors, their shrines could be considered the riskiest of places for transmission of disease? How can visiting the shrines of Ahl al-Bayt (a) become the cause of harm? The implication of such notions has deeply shocked and hurt these people.

Some go to the extent of quoting some traditions that state Qom is the city of immunity and when there is fear and danger to one’s life, they should take refuge in Qom. They ask, what happened to these traditions that were being quoted for all these years?

As per what I have read on social media and the internet, there appear to be two trends:

1) One trend is amongst the atheists and agnostics, who have taken this as an opportunity to make a mockery of religious folks and religion altogether. They do not realize that their mockery is an expression of their moral vices that are being exhibited in their ridicule of the other’s beliefs. They, who oft talk about the importance of being moral, the necessity of engaging in dialogue, respecting the opinions of others, fail to exhibit any of these traits during these times.

Some wrote that this virus displayed the superstitious nature of religious belief. They ask, where is your Allah (swt)? They ask, where is your Prophet (p) and the Ahl al-Bayt (a)? They claim that all of these religious beliefs have gone into thin air. Some have written that many of the religious speakers who for years have propagated the visitation of the shrine as a source of a cure for physical ailments, have themselves escaped these cities or have stopped visiting the shrines. Some atheists have gone further and declared these religious folks abandoning their cities as one of the reasons for the spread of the virus to other cities and countries.

In addition, even some religious people from amongst the Muslims – usually non-Shī’a – have written similar things on social media, making fun of Shī’ī shrines, their practices and rituals. They have brought the validity of Shī’ī beliefs into question.

2) The second trend is on the complete opposite end. There is a group of people from amongst the Shī’a who continue to insist we must visit these shrines even during these times as the shrines of the Ahl al-Bayt (a) are a source of medicine and healing. They paint the closing or emptying of the shrines as a tragedy, lamenting and rebuking others with questions like, “is this the loyalty we have shown to the Ahl al-Bayt (a)?”

Looking at these two trends, particularly the latter one, I do not want to engage in a technical theological discussion, nor a jurisprudential discussion, nor an extended discussion of the ḥadīth surrounding this subject. I just want to express my view on why and how we have reached this stage and why do we have a group amongst the believers who hold such beliefs. This is a brief personal analysis based on my observations, and not meant to be an extensive ijtihādī discussion:

1. Firstly, there is nothing in our religious thought that says Allah (swt) will not put believers through hardships, tragedies and calamities. We do not have the concept of the “chosen ones”, a group who is protected by Allah (swt) from all hardships in this world, living their lives in ease. Though Allah (swt) saved Banī Isrā’īl from Pharaoh, that did not mean the Banī Isrā’īl were never to be tested ever again. Due to this false notion, what transpired on the Jews in World War II made some of them question their beliefs, asking, where is God who had saved us from Pharaoh in the past – why is He not saving us today?

We know that Allah (swt) is with the believers, but what does that mean exactly? Does it mean that the believers are protected from all calamities and hardships eternally? Do Muslims have such an idea in their theology and philosophy? Does the Qurān convey such a thing? On the contrary, the Qurān speaks about the Prophets (p) and believers being killed and oppressed. Allah (swt) Himself says He (swt) will test us with hunger and fear and so on, and that the patient ones will be identified through these tests [see 2:155].

Faith does not result in the suspension of all hardships and calamities for the believers. We have had times where the greatest believers underwent calamities, culminating in the loss of their lives. On the other hand, we have traditions that state that faith dispels punishment from the believers, while disbelief will result in punishment and chastisement in this world for the disbeliever. In order to solve this apparent dilemma, we must acknowledge that this world is not the abode where everything will be solved. There is no absolute ease in this world. Religious sources are simply saying that belief – in general – has a role to play in the removal of punishment and chastisement in this world, but this does not mean this is the case absolutely and for eternity. Absolute ease and freedom from troubles is meant for the Hereafter. That is the ‘āqibah (end) for the muttaqīn (pious ones) [see 28:83].

The concept of ‘āqibah for the believers in the Abrahamic religion is what will transpire in the Hereafter. If believers do happen to be tested and tried with calamities in this world, this is not a valid ground for an atheist to claim the falsity of our religion; the religion made no such absolute claim that believers will never undergo the same trials that disbelievers face. In fact, the atheist has fallen victim to a crude idea of what the believers mean when they say that Allah (swt) is with them and his resulting critiques are based on such simplistic notions.

The ‘āqibah for the muttaqīn in the absolute sense is in the Hereafter. In this world, a believer enjoys relative benefit and advantage over a disbeliever. The believer has a portion of the ‘āqibah of the Hereafter in this world; he has a portion of the benefits and favours that Allah (swt) bestows upon them, but this is not absolute such that they cannot face any difficulties. Likewise, even a non-believer has some share of the blessings and favours of Allah (swt), even if it is less than a believer, but the absolute punishment and chastisement they face will be in the Hereafter.

As such, what we have here is not a simple black and white scenario whereby believers avoid calamities, while disbelievers are those who are subjected to calamities.

Our biggest problem is our fervent attempts to determine the secret behind Allah’s (swt) actions. We forget that we are only aware of some general principles, but we are not aware of how Allah (swt) Himself applies these general principles in each specific instance. Such a task is near-impossible to discern. For example, we may know that generally, earthquakes are a punishment or a trial, but we cannot label a certain earthquake as a punishment or a trial. Making such claims with certainty is an act of attributing something to Allah without knowledge and such an act is prohibited (ḥarām).

2. Secondly, I believe what has led to such a response from some segments of the Shī’a community is the way religious ideas and beliefs have been conveyed to people over the years. Religious thought, especially theology, has been conveyed and transmitted to people in the most lenient, most carefree and in the most emotional of manners. In contrast, when it comes to matters of istibrā’ and istinjā’ a very strict and precise approach is adopted to convey these teachings. We have observed certain scholars for decades, perhaps longer, quote weak traditions, teaching people the weakest of ideas as theological beliefs, concepts based upon the weakest of sources that the scholarly elite has never paid heed to, constructing a very vulnerable religious pyramid for the laity. These propagators have used everything, any tradition, any story, that places the Ahl al-Bayt (a) in some positive light, regardless of how baseless it happens to be.

Unfortunately, many scholars who know this as a serious problem have had to remain silent for one reason or another.

These propagators critique others who accuse them of being carefree in their approach by saying you cannot use such strict and precise methodology in matters of theology and faith. Well, what has been the result of such an imprecise methodology? We see the rise and spread of such unacademic, unscientific, unreasonable beliefs amongst the laity.

In the last two weeks, we have seen that this laity today is not even willing to listen to the Marāji’ and the greatest of jurists during this crisis. This is because their beliefs are based on emotions, not on anything sound, precise, investigative and academic. I ask you to tell me, which verse or ḥadīth says that shrines or mosques cannot be a place where disease is transmitted? These shrines, like any other physical place, are subject to the laws of this material world. Do these shrines not get dirty generally when there are a lot of visitors, and subsequently require cleaning? Is cleaning and dusting the place a sign of disrespect? Is it disrespectful to note that a shrine or a mosque has become dirty and unclean due to the presence of many visitors? Why have these holy places assigned workers to clean them regularly throughout the year? Considering these points, one wonders why it was not considered disrespectful previously, but today, if we wish to disinfect the place due to the possible spread of a virus it becomes a sign of disrespect?

The sacredness of a place does not mean it is not subject to the laws of the material world. The Prophets and the saints were subject to these very laws, akin to the rest of humanity, and it does not diminish their status in the slightest. Do away with your far-fetched, strange, emotional and baseless arguments.

Islamic and Shī’ī thought contains an abundance of rulings and maxims regarding the safeguarding of one’s life, and not causing harm to others. There are laws dealing with plagues and pestilence in Islamic law, and there is near consensus amongst the Imāmī scholars that such incidents need to be dealt with in a reasonable way by referring to the experts, who in this case are the doctors and other relevant authorities.

Since the last two weeks, we have seen all the great jurists and Marāji’ urging people to deal with this virus in a reasonable manner, urging them to heed the advice of the medical experts and doctors. This is the correct position and verdict that any Imāmī scholar would take. Yes during some periods of time – such as the Qajari era – when there was pestilence, we found a small group of jurists who were against the closing down of the shrines, but their reason was not grounded in the idea that such a move would be ineffective; rather, they believed it was a political conspiracy by the government to fight against religion. Though it was later discovered that there was indeed a pestilence, which claimed many lives, the position adopted by some jurists was based on their belief that this was a political lie. They did not believe that the shrine or congregations should remain open despite the risk of transmission.

We know that the Sharī’ah is built upon ease – this is a well-accepted principle amongst the Muslims. Principles like La Ḍarar and La Ḥaraj are extensively used and can lead to the abandonment of some of the most important acts of worship in Islam, like the Ḥajj and Ṣawm! If this is the case with the obligatory acts, then what does that say about the supererogatory (mustaḥabb) acts?

3. My understanding from the religious texts is that when it comes to ziyārah and performing acts of worship in these sacred places, the healing is primarily meant to be a spiritual healing, not a physical one. These places were not primarily designated nor constructed to deal with our physical ailments or to deal with such an epidemic. This is what the religious sources and the practice of the religious Muslims from the earliest centuries of Islam have shown us; sacred places, and mosques are primarily geared towards our spiritual care, spiritual training and a revival of our hearts. In fact, ziyārah can take place even from far, from a distance as has been mentioned in our traditions.

However, some individuals, due to their simple-mindedness or perhaps due to false propagation over the years, have begun to consider these shrines as replacements for hospitals.

When it is the case that one of the most significant concepts in Islam, namely du’ā, does not guarantee the acceptance of what we desire and wish without our associated physical exertion for what we are seeking, then how can we be so sure that visiting these places will definitively cure us of our physical ailments without taking into consideration preventative measures? This point is made in response to those who believe the notion that one’s mere visitation to such places will necessarily cure him of his physical ailments.

We do not deny that du’ā, ziyārāt, certain acts of worship like the congregational prayers, or for that matter any act of worship, have an impact on our physical and material lives. This is something all Muslims accept. But we do not have any concept in our religion that tells us to make these things replace doctors and medicines for dealing with physical ailments.

Yes, while in the past there was a group amongst the Sufis who believed things like du’ā and tawakkul are complete replacements for physical treatments, writing various works on this topic, such discourse is not prevalent anymore amongst Muslims and definitely not amongst Shī’ī scholarship. Have you ever heard of any significant Shī’a scholar asking for hospitals to be shut down, or for a ban on studying medicine, or the closing down of pharmacies, and instead, ordering the masses to simply do du’ā or to use the turbah of Imam Ḥusayn (a) or to simply go to ziyārah to resolve all your physical problems?

We seek treatment from physical ailments, which are things Allah (swt) Himself has blessed us with, and then leave the cure ultimately in the hands of Allah (swt). The doctor treats you, but Allah is the Curer and the Healer. Yes, these du’ās and ziyārāt have a role to play, but they are not replacements for doctors and medicine! Where did such an idea originate from? If some karāmāt (supernatural wonders) occur for some individuals in these places and they are cured of some physical ailment directly without the interference of a doctor, it could be a specific event which obtains solely for such individuals and not to be equally applicable to everyone else. We do not know the secrets behind these things and we cannot make a general rule out of these very limited and specific instances.

A temporary closing down of a shrine or a mosque is not in contradiction with any religious principle or theological belief of the Muslims. These places are primarily intended for one’s spiritual treatment and awakening. They were not primarily constructed with the intent of being hospitals for the treatment of our bodies. Even though they may have effects on our physical bodies, these remain secondary aspects of a shrine. If these places result in the transmission of disease, while the hospitals are the place one goes for treatment, this is not an attack on the sanctity and sacredness of the shrine! Some people think that believing that a disease can transfer in these places implies that the Imam or the person buried are themselves afflicted with disease and are the source of transmission. This is nothing but a fallacy being used to provoke people’s emotions.

At the same time, no atheist or non-Shī’ī Muslim should say this shows the falsity of your religion. Rather this shows the falsity of certain superficial teachings and perceptions that have been propagated by some speakers over the years. Such beliefs have no real presence nor existence in the foundations and premises of our theology, philosophy and jurisprudence as can be seen in the works of our respected scholars.

At the end, I invite myself and everyone else to continue to listen to what the health experts and other relevant authorities have been advising us during these times. We should not ignore their remarks through baseless and delusional arguments disguised as religious proofs. Not only will we be questioned for any self-inflicted harm, but more than that, we will definitely be questioned for the harm we bring upon others through our actions.

We hope that our societies and communities can raise the level of their understanding in order that they can engage with such dilemmas in a professional manner, instead of engaging in irrelevant polemics and disputes, as the pandemic continues to take away our lives.

I also request all of you to take precaution. Do not cause disturbance to yourselves and others. This itself is an act of worship if conducted for the sake of Allah (swt). Our beliefs tell us to deal with these situations in a responsible fashion, but at the same time, we cannot forget Allah (swt) as He (swt) is the one who has the power to change this situation.

We must use this time as an opportunity to increase our understanding of Tawḥīd and we must return back to Him (swt), We must pray to Him (swt) alone, asking Him (swt) to save us from this calamity – irrespective of whether it is a trial or a punishment. Our beliefs demand us to be attentive towards Allah (swt) at all times, but this does not mean we ignore the material reasons for this phenomenon and the physical ways to deal with it. We must use this as an opportunity to gain proximity to Allah (swt) and to remember death, particularly given the news we have been hearing everyday regarding the demise of many.

We must use this as an opportunity to recognize our petty position as humans, as we resemble a conceited cartoon, where a small invisible virus has brought us and the whole world to a halt. This is an opportunity to strengthen our souls, to further humble ourselves in front of Allah (swt), to further purify ourselves, to return back to Him (swt).

May Allah (swt) protect the Muslims and the believers, all the righteous people wherever they are by the right of Muḥammad (p) and his family (a).

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