The Muslim world’s reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic helps to highlight some important aspects of the Islamic faith. It also reveals some important differences between Islam and Christianity.
Of course, there are similarities as well. The main one is that Muslims, like Christians, are praying to God to spare them and their loved ones from the contagion.
Still, the differences are quite instructive. One of the chief differences is that many Muslims have a fatalistic attitude toward life. When a Muslim says inshallah—“if Allah wills”—it’s not quite the same thing as a Christian saying “God willing.” Ours is a God of reason; if He permits something, even if we don’t understand why, we can be sure it’s for a good reason and, ultimately, for our own good. In other words, He’s not capricious, and He abides by the laws He has established. In Islam, on the other hand, Allah is conceived of as pure will, unbounded by reason or the laws of nature. Things happen, not because there are natural causes and consequences, but because Allah wills each event directly.
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From a strictly fatalistic viewpoint, there’s no sense in wearing masks, washing hands, or practicing social distancing. If Allah wills that you get the virus, you will get it; if he doesn’t, you won’t. Thus, some Muslims—most notably, members of the global Hizb ut-Tahrir movement—don’t insure their cars or wear seatbelts. When one’s time is up, it’s useless to take precautions.
Likewise, in the face of the epidemic, the Islamic revivalist movement Tablighi Jamaat held a massive conference in Lahore, which drew 250,000 attendees; another in Kuala Lumpur, which drew 16,000; and yet another in Delhi, which drew 3,000. Thousands of cases of Covid-19 in Asia and the Middle East have been traced back to these meetings.
Of course, one has to be careful when making generalizations about 1.7 billion people. It’s probable that a majority of Muslims worldwide do observe public health precautions. They trust in Allah, but they also pay attention to the health authorities. Even the emir of Tablighi Jamaat, Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, has said that it is permissible to follow “the doctor’s advice and take precautionary measures.” Yet this, he adds, only applies “to the extent that they do not cause suspension of your religious duties”—that is, attendance at mosque. Thus, “if you abandoned any of your religious duties due to your zeal to take precautions, God will pull his hand off you.”
Some Muslims believe that Allah will save them from the plague simply because they are Muslims, and other Muslims are taking every precaution. Yet, on the whole, it seems that Muslims are less prudent about the epidemic than other populations. In addition to the reckless behavior of Tablighi Jamaat, there have been numerous reports of Muslims in India, Europe, and Canada who have resisted government requests for social distancing. In the city of Qom—the epicenter of the epidemic in Iran—it was the clerics who resisted public health efforts to close the main shrine, even though the shrine was a known transmission site.
In The Closing of the Muslim Mind, Robert Reilly notes: “Since the effort of science is to discover nature’s laws, the teaching that these laws do not, in fact, exist (for theological reasons) obviously discourages the scientific enterprise.” Thus, says Reilly, “No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for well over seven centuries now.” He notes that “India and Spain each produce a larger percentage of the world’s science literature than forty-six Muslim countries combined.” Although there are many Muslim doctors and scientists, the habit of scientific inquiry is not encouraged by many schools of Islamic theology. Consequently, no one is expecting the cure for the coronavirus to come out of a Muslim country.
Hugh Fitzgerald, who has written extensively about Muslim culture, suggests that the United States and Israel are the two countries most likely to create the first coronavirus vaccine. Writing in the New English Review, he observes that “among the 40 or so research groups now working in a half-dozen countries on a coronavirus vaccine, none were to be found in any of the 57 Muslim countries that are members of the O.I.C. (Organization of the Islamic Conference.)
“Islam means ‘submission’,” writes Fitzgerald, “and the habit of mental submission to that authority—that is, to the Quran itself, and to the Hadith—has always been encouraged in Islam.” Meanwhile, he argues that Islam discourages the “free and skeptical inquiry” which “furthers the enterprise of science.”
Catholics who like to talk up the similarities between Islam and Catholicism ought to look more closely at the Islamic response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although Catholics, like Muslims, may see the contagion as a sign from God that people need to return to Him, they also understand that the virus is a natural phenomenon which follows the laws of biology and chemistry, and is thus subject to scientific study and scientific treatment. Like Muslims, they will be praying more; unlike many Muslims, they will also be taking reasonable precautions and supporting the search for a vaccine.
According to Catholic tradition, God has established a rational universe that operates according to the laws of nature. Catholic scholars do not see any contradiction between science and faith but have always sought to reconcile faith and reason. Early Muslim scholars were aware of the natural law tradition in Christianity but most eventually abandoned attempts to reconcile faith and reason. To require God to act in a rational way, they believed, was an attack on His sovereignty.
The coronavirus has evoked a range of responses from Muslim fundamentalists. Some take the fatalistic attitude. Some say that the virus is a “soldier of Allah” meant to assail non-Muslims. Some have even encouraged infected Muslims to deliberately infect non-Muslims. Others say the virus was created by Jews in order to target Muslims, and some believe that Muslims who die in an epidemic are martyrs who merit paradise.
Almost all of the responses should awaken Catholics to the fact that Islam is a very different sort of religion. Here’s one last example: Asia News reports two cases in Pakistan of Hindus and Christians being denied government food aid during the coronavirus crisis. According to the news story, “without the help of… a Muslim human rights activist, 120 Christian families in the district of Kasur (Punjab) would have starved.” Yet I would argue that the deniers of aid were actually being more faithful to Islamic law than the activist. The Reliance of the Traveler, a widely consulted manual of sharia law, states quite clearly that “it is not permissible to give zakat [alms] to a non-Muslim.”
A Muslim’s conscience might tell him to be careful about spreading a virus, or it might tell him to share food with a hungry Christian. But, according to the fundamentalists who dominate Islamic countries, the good Muslim is not supposed to consult his conscience. He is supposed to consult the book—either the Koran or a manual of sharia law—and follow the commands of Allah, no matter how arbitrary they may appear.
And he is not responsible for the consequences of his actions. Islam means “submission,” and the foremost duty of a Muslim is to obey. Indeed, the most frequently repeated phrase in the Koran is “obey God and his Apostle,” Muhammad. Fortunately, like the Pakistani activist who intervened on behalf of the Christians, some Muslims ignore the harsher mandates of their faith.
Photo: A cleric looks at an Iranian sanitary worker disinfecting Qom’s Masumeh shrine to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (Fars News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)