Wednesday 25 March 2020

The Corona Fatwas (1): Islam, pandemics and religious scholarship

As several Muslim countries are severely hit by the Corona virus/Covid19 outbreak, the faithful not only look to health authorities and medical specialists for official guidance and scientific information, they also have questions for Islamic religious scholars regarding the impact on the acts of worship (ibadat), first and foremost that of congregational prayer.

Egypt's Grand Mufti
One of the earliest responses came from Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta’, the Office of the country’s Grand Mufti. On 26 February 2020, Shawqi Ibrahim Allam, issued a fatwa or legal opinion on the relaxation of obligatory prayers, in which the matter was still very much approached as a Chinese affairs with little anticipated influence elsewhere. 

Nevertheless, the fatwa offers a lengthy consideration consisting of a wide variety of citations from Islamic legal sources written by historically important religious scholars on the effects of pandemics on religious practice. 

Allam invokes a hadith narrated by the Prophet’s wife Aisha on Medina as a safe refuge and quotes from writings on the plague by Andalusian jurist Abu al-Walid al-Baji (1013-1081CE).  Next he stresses the agreement of scholars on the conditions for easing the rules concerning prayer in times of cataclysmic events, quoting a range of  scholars from the  Maliki and Shafi’i schools of law, including the hadith scholar Imam al-Nawawi (1233-1277); but also mentioning Hanbali scholars, such as Ibn Qudama (1147-1223CE) and Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328CE). The latter specifically references the positions and actions of ‘Rightly-Guided Caliphs’ (al-khulafa’ al-rashidun) and ‘Pious Ancestors’ (al-salaf al-salih). He also draws on the sixteenth-century Afghan commentator al-Mala Ali al-Qari (d. 1605) and the contemporary Indian scholar Abd al-Salam Mubarakpuri (1909-1994).

Further clarifications followed on 17 March 2020. In two additional fatwas with even lengthier preambles, in which the Grand Mufti also mentions the importance of taking into consideration the advice issued by the WHO and decrees promulgated by the government to safeguard the welfare of the population, Shawqi Allam stresses that prayers remain obligatory even when communal gatherings are prohibited for health reasons.

Meanwhile confusion abound in the Muslim country that appears to be hardest hit so far by the pandemic outbreak: Iran. On 17 March 2020, there were media reports claiming that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i had issued a fatwa prohibiting unnecessary travel, meant to curb the practice of visiting shrines of the Shiʽi imams and other sanctuaries, which is a widespread practice among Iranians. Others denied that the Ayatollah had done so.

In his address to the nation on occasion of Persian New Year (Nowruz) and the Day of the Prophet’s Mission (Eid al-Mabʽath), a week later, Khamene’i only touched tangentially on the Corona Virus outbreak:
Of course, these days, we are faced with the spread of a rampant disease and pandemic. This virus is inflicting casualties and advancing in almost all countries in the world. Now, some countries announce what is happening in their countries and some do not. One understands from what they say that some of their statements are not very compatible with the reality. The virus is progressing. This disease is the manifestation of this ayah, “Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits of your toil.” It both causes panic – some people are really afraid – and creates economic problems. Besides, it inflicts loss, and it causes casualties and other damages. However, after that God says, “But give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere.” [The Holy Quran, 2: 155]. Patience is necessary here as well. Here, patience means doing the right thing and acting in a reasonable manner.
Because of the dire situation in Iran, the Supreme Leader did not deliver the speech publicly at the shrine of Imam Reza in the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad.

In the most populous Muslim country in the world, the Indonesian Council of Religious Scholars (Majelis Ulama Indonesia or MUI for short) had also issued a fatwa (Fatwa Nomor 14) offering a detailed nine-point opinion calling on Muslims to be cautious, avoiding taking part in congregational prayers in hazardous areas where the chance of transmitting the Corona virus was great. In a press conference, Dr Asrorun Niam Sholeh, secretary of MUI’s Fatwa Committee, explained that this legal opinion calling on Indonesian Muslims to act responsible and not endanger fellow citizens was underpinned by the importance of safeguarding the so-called al-dharuriyat al-khams (‘Five Necessities’; protection of life, religion, intellect, offspring and wealth) defined in the Higher Objectives of Shariʽa’ (maqasid al-shariʽa, the Islamic equivalent of a philosophy of law). 

Underscoring the significance of the proclamation was the presentation of the fatwa to the chairman of the Indonesian Mosque Council, former Vice-President Yusuf Kalla, who earned a reputation of efficient and effective leadership during the 2003 Tsunami disaster.

So far, the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR) has not come with a formal fatwa, issuing instead a statement (bayan). Released on 2 March, it opines that hazardous situations endangering public health are a valid reason for not taking part in congregational and communal prayers.

Muslims are also eyeing Saudi Arabia, where the Corona Virus crisis impacts not only on domestic religious practice, but where its effects also reverberate globally. Home to Al-Haramayn al-Sharifayn, the Two Holly Mosques of Mecca and Medina, where Muslims from all over the world congregate in large numbers year around, the Council of Senior Religious Scholars had to perform a balancing act. On 17 March 2020, it ruled that communal prayers at all mosques in the country would be halted, except for the Grand Mosque of Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. 

Abdullah al-Muni'

However pictures of a deserted square around the Kaaba for the sake of a massive sanitation exercise did go around the world. Then, on 23 March 2020, Shaykh Abdullah al-Muniʽ, a member of the Council of Senior Ulama, issued a fatwa calling for the death penalty for anyone infected with the Corona Virus who spread the disease in Saudi Arabia.

Aside from the hazards surrounding communal and congregational prayers, Saudi Arabia has another concern in connection to the Corona Virus: The impact it may have on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj), which is due to take place between 28 July and 2 August. Perhaps in preparation for the possibility of the stringent and monumental decision to cancel this year’s pilgrimage, the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives (KAFRA) released a statement, relating that throughout history there are forty recorded instances of a cancellation of the annual pilgrimage due to pandemics, political turmoil, and natural disasters.