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Religion During the Coronavirus Pandemic: Islamic Bioethical Perspectives

Published on: April 27, 2020
Published in: Covid-19, Global Health, Hastings Bioethics Forum

Congregational rituals of religious communities around the world have attracted attention for their possible threat of spreading the coronavirus. Negative Media coverage has generally depicted members of religious communities as more or less “reckless” groups whose “fanatic” convictions can make them harm others from inside or outside their religious traditions. However, what hasn’t been discussed is how this issue should be approached as a complex bioethical issue that concerns people worldwide, not only religious people, who need to understand the rationales and arguments that are employed to argue for or against a specific position. With the beginning of Ramadan, the significant month in Muslim calendar known for fasting and for the special congregational prayer of tarawih, paying attention to the nuances and complexities of this issue becomes especially pressing.

Arif Alvi, the president of Pakistan used Twitter last month to ask for help from Muslim religious scholars to address the question of congregational prayers in response to the new coronavirus. The Pakistani president tweeted the following, “I am thankful to Grand Imam Shaikh of Al Azhar & Supreme Council, for responding to my personal request to provide guidance to us with regard to Farz Jamaat & Juma prayers in mosques during #CoronaVirusPakistan attack. The details of Fatwa are below for our Ulema to take action.” The tweet is about the congregational performance of the five daily prayers (Farz Jamaat) and the congregational prayer performed on Friday in particular  (Juma prayers). “Ulema” refers to Muslim religious scholars.

The recently published WHO recommendations on practice guidance for religious leaders and faith-based communities attests to the global outreach of this complex issue. However, the top medical journals like New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet and Nature, which have addressed a wide range of Covid-19 bioethical issues, have remained completely silent in this regard, as has international bioethics discourse.

 To my mind, the dominantly secular nature of today’s mainstream bioethics is one of the main obstacles to incorporating the congregational rituals in the Covid-19 bioethical discourse. The areligious nature of modern bioethics was aptly explained by Albert R. Jonsen, (Emeritus Professor of Ethics in Medicine at the University of Washington. He described the move made by the theology-trained ethicists to the field of bioethics by saying that they “crossed the frontier from denominational ethics to bioethics. They doffed the intellectual garb of religious ethics and donned, if not the white coats of doctors, the distinctly secular mentality of modern medicine.” It is possible that this is what made bioethicists reluctant to address the question of congregational rituals, because it should usually be part of “denominational” ethics or “particular” morality. To fill in the current glaring lacuna in both public and academic discourse, I will further analyze this issue  through the lens of Islamic bioethics.

Islamic Bioethical Reasoning

Now, back to the president’s tweet to understand the internal dynamics of the Islamic religio-moral discourse. The Pakistani president encountered obstacles because of some religious scholars in the country who objected to suspending congregational prayers or closing mosques. He is aware that Islam knows no “central church,” where binding religious authority would be in the hand of an individual or institution. Religious scholars’ opinions are fallible and thus can be debated, criticized and even counterargued by other scholars. That is why the president asked other scholars and institutions to help him change the religio-moral landscape in Pakistan. Bioethical issues in general, including this one in particular, are typically open to different approaches, mechanisms of argumentation, and eventually different conclusions.

Here are the key arguments advanced by the scholars who opposed the position of the Pakistani president and those who aligned with him.

Opponents

Most of the arguments advanced by these religious scholars were characterized by an almost exclusively theological character, where scientific knowledge would be in the backseat or completely absent:

  • At times of horrible crises, like this pandemic where medicine fails to provide treatment, the best remedy is to direct ourselves to God. “It is not possible to get rid of corona without asking God for forgiveness,” a prominent Pakistani scholar Congregational rituals represent an essential and effective tool in this regard.
  • Ritual prayers are meant to “purify” people, both physically and spiritually, rather than spreading diseases, and mosques are places to receive divine blessings and mercy, not the coronavirus.
  • Muslim communities have witnessed many pandemics that were much more devastating than Covid-19, but mosques were never closed because of the fear of contagion.
  • The spread of the coronavirus does not fall outside the scope of God’s omnipotence, and thus cannot infect people without His permission. Keeping this theological fact in mind, the true Muslim should fear God rather than an invisible virus.

Proponents

Available data show that the majority of Muslim religious scholars sided with this position. The Egypt-based Supreme Council of al-Azhar, together with many other institutions, concluded that mosques can be closed and congregational prayers can be suspended. The key arguments in favor of this position, where scientific knowledge played a much more extended role, included the following:

  • Religious guidance on such bioethical issues should be premised on evidence-based, accurate and updated scientific information, which was not available to early religious scholars. Scientific knowledge should be framed as a reliable tool for exploring the laws in nature (sunan kawniyya) that God created. Respecting these laws is as religiously incumbent as respecting the rulings recorded in the religious Scriptures.
  • If this scientific knowledge demonstrates that mass gatherings do increase public health risks, the principle of nonmaleficence should be applied. The Prophetic tradition “No one shall inflict or reciprocate harm” is quoted in support of this argument.
  • Saving human lives is an essential and high-priority value in the Islamic religio-moral system. Thus, performing religious rituals in a way that would put people’s health and life at risk cannot be morally justified.
  • Muslim scholars always agreed that congregational rituals, including Friday Prayer, can be suspended in case there is serious risk for one’s health or life. Many of the risks approved by early scholars were much less overwhelming than those of the coronavirus pandemic.

These lines of argument by the two groups show that this type of bioethical discourse is not necessarily alien to the values and principles embraced by mainstream secular bioethical discourse. For instance, it is characterized by diversity and it has a global character where discussions in one continent would resonate in another one. Further, as stated by the  WHO recommendations, religious discourse is particularly “more likely to be accepted” on such issues than information coming from other sources.

To conclude, the current predominant bioethical discourse cannot claim to be truly “universal” without serious and critical engagement with religious deliberations.

Mohammed Ghaly is professor of Islam and Biomedical Ethics at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Islamic Ethics.  Twitter: @IBioethics

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