The response of governments to the coronavirus has transformed the world.
Numerous basic freedoms have simply been suspended, removed, or severely curtailed. Were these freedoms removed by unelected despots and tyrants, bellicose juntas, or extremist religious theocracies?
No, these profound erosions of civil liberties were introduced by western secular democracies. The stated intention of these curtailments is to “save lives” by “flattening the curve,” the latter a reference to the graphic projection of the rate of transmission of the disease over time, a linguistic de rigueur in all corona virus discussions.
How have the Muslim communities in these secular democracies reacted?
What has informed our analyses, what has guided our response, and how have we managed diversity of opinion within our own community?
Muslims Who Want Masjids Closed Down?
Consider the situation in South Africa, a country in which there is no overt state aggression against Muslims and where religious freedoms are constitutionally protected. In South Africa, controversy within the Muslim community rages regarding the issue of congregational salah.
The law introduced to curb the rate and pace of corona transmission prohibits, by and large, all public gatherings. Given the breadth of the definition in the legislation of what a “public gathering” is, congregational salah falls within the definition.
This public gathering prohibition been effective since the end of March 2020 and, subject to further extensions, will endure at least until the end of April 2020. The effect then is that at least until the end of April 2020, congregational salah is prohibited.
Relying on international precedent and fatawa, some Muslim organisations and individuals consider such restriction as acceptable, given the shar`i imperative to preserve life.
Others however, whilst accepting the imperative to preserve life, are of the view that the closure of masajid does not accord with precepts of Sharia and that congregational salah, however limited and regulated, should be preserved, asserting that its preservation in a controlled, limited manner, does not contradict saving lives.
Muslim scholars and lawyers of the second opinion thus sought exemption from the President of South Africa to continue prayers. But the exemption was not granted. And now, they are considering approaching the civil courts for relief.
Now, these Muslims have not called for any disobedience of the law and are committed to using only legal means to procure the exemption. All they want is the ability to pray in congregation, safely and lawfully.
Shockingly, other Muslims have orchestrated a campaign to alienate and silence this group in order to impede their attempts to re-open the masajid. These campaigners have accused them of everything, from heresy to subversiveness to extremism.
We must ask: What precisely motivates those who actively seek to silence their fellow Muslims from pursuing legal means to achieve an outcome they believe best accords with Sharia and the interests of the community as a whole?
As with all in life, it starts with our belief.
In Defense of the Scholars
Why do some Muslims so quickly and unquestioningly accept the commandments of secular rulers and institutions regarding lockdowns, quarantines, and everything else? Where is the room for ikhtilaf and contrary opinion when it comes to those laws?
Perhaps as a direct consequence of living in a secular society, we have subjected the Sharia and matters of fiqh to “free for all discussions” in which all of us, learned, ignorant, prejudiced, biased, scholar, student, literate and illiterate alike, participate.
This perverse approach is characteristic of Muslims who do not live under the Law of Islam, who have not tasted its sweetness, and who place greater store and trust in secular man-made law and their own reasoning.
Sadly, many simply do not recognize that the Sharia is a self-standing, independent body of law, sourced from the Divine Quran and Sunna. As with any legal system, its interpretation and implementation is a matter of expertise.
Yet, having been taught for so long in secular society that our opinion (irrespective of our expertise) is so terribly important, we, as laymen, do not hesitate to express our opinion on matters of Sharia and complex fiqh, believing foolishly and improperly that our opinions are as important as, and as deserving of equal consideration as the positions of the scholars, past and present.
In fact, without much thought or scholarly endeavor, many delve into fiqh debates without hesitation, and often openly comment on and criticize centuries old juristic opinion and legal precedent in Islam, formulated by peerless scholars who embarked on lifelong, painstaking research to study and understand Islam and deliver rulings that accord with the Quran and Sunna.
On the contrary, depending on our secular ideological leanings, we are dismissive of them, and categorize them as “patriarchs,” “ misogynists,” “Wahhabis,” etc.
Many think it quite acceptable, in fact praiseworthy, to lambaste and ridicule scholars like Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, and Imam Malik, Shaykh Ibn Taymiyya, scholars who spent their entire lives in scholastic endeavor, who, faced years of imprisonment by despotic rulers because they would not cower to the immorality of unjust rule and deviance, who refused to compromise, to give the proverbial inch to the powers that be, powers who sought their endorsement for deviance and tyranny, and who, even when alone and forsaken by people, held firmly to the rope of Allah and stood for the truth.
Now contrast our approach to Sharia with our approach to secular law.
One will be hard pressed to find social media discussions among laypersons on the nuances of secular law and critiques of such law. Which social media “influencer” has delivered insightful comment on the role of intention in criminal law? Which businessman has seen fit to rally people to accept his interpretation of contract or mercantile law? We accept, implicitly, that these are matters, which, whist accessible to all, are not the arena for comment by all, not the arena for the ubiquitous “I think” approach, and certainly not the arena for “our opinions.” We accept that these are matters properly for the jurists, the judges and the legally trained.
It boils down to respect and deference for the law. Many have lost that respect for Sharia and fiqh. We prise open forcibly the doors of ijtihad in Sharia matters for all and sundry to express their opinions, but seal firmly and impenetrably, the doors of ijtihad in secular law.
We need urgently to rectify the situation because, unlike secular law, the priceless thread of divine revelation weaves through Sharia and fiqh. It is Tawhid that is its edifice, its bedrock.
The role of the Muslim scholar is thus not purely worldly. It stems first and foremost from belief, and it is inextricably linked to the afterlife. The Muslim scholarly approach does not accept intelligence devoid of belief, assertions devoid of proof, eloquence devoid of substance, popularity devoid of guidance, and political expediency devoid of truth. His role is nothing other than the noble pursuit of truth.
Why is this relevant to the lockdown?
We know that there are differing fatawa on whether or not salah in congregation at the masjid is and/or remains obligatory in this time of fear due to infection.
That such differences of opinion exist is not a sign of disunity. It is a characteristic of all bodies of law that jurists may differ on legal rulings and the application of the law to specified circumstances. Islamic jurisprudence is no different in this regard.
If we accept this, why would any Muslim find it so objectionable for other believers to follow a different but no less legitimate fatwa? Why would such a Muslim go to extreme lengths to block these other Muslims from pursuing prayer in the masjid, even going so far as creating a media campaign of: “We support the present restrictions” campaign in the Muslim community”?
Breaking the Law
The first misrepresentation from this campaign has been that seeking a relaxation of the lockdown through legal channels is tantamount to rebellion. This is simply untrue.
Obeying the law does not mean that one cannot seek redress from the empowered authority or a court in respect of the law. Ironically, seeking such redress is testament to having deference to and respect for the law.
What possible harm could accrue by such request or application?
If it is dismissed, the status quo (that the objectors support) would remain.
If it is granted, it would make praying in the masjid lawful for those wishing to do so, who would be required to do so in accordance with the ambit of the order or decision.
The same organisations that have peddled the falsehood that those wishing to seek legal avenues to accommodate masjid salah are breaking the law or are not showing sufficient deference to the law, are the very ones who praise South Africa as a country in which all people have access to justice.
Why then limit the right of a Muslim to pursue legal avenues available to all?
It makes absolutely no sense, unless what those who criticize the legitimate exercise of this legal entitlement wish to achieve is to restrict the exercise of legal rights by Muslims in respect of any matter pertaining to Islam to those (and only to those) that they determine to be appropriate, correct or politically acceptable.
Such conduct is deeply offensive and disturbing. It is reflective of a growing political chauvinism that has taken root in the Muslim community. These organisations are not gatekeepers to all matters deen related, to whom all Muslim activity must be channeled for vetting. No organisation in the Muslim community, individually or in association with others, can claim legitimately to represent all Muslims. Muslim organisations in secular states are not representative bodies in the true sense of representation. Whilst they may claim to represent what they perceive to be the interests of Muslims, they are no more than important groupings of like-minded people, governed by their individual constitutions who assert and pursue the objectives that are defined in their respective constitutions.
They are anything but mouthpieces and representatives of what is clearly a disparate community. To be “representative of” and to claim to “represent the interests of” are two very different things.
Claims by any organisation to being the “legitimate voice” of Muslims are thus neither warranted nor correct.
There are rumblings in some quarters that even if a Muslim organisation is able to procure an exemption for masjid congregation, that it should refrain from doing so because Muslims will be seen to be seeking inequality between faiths and this will somehow foment Islamophobia, or Muslims may be perceived as “ungrateful,” and that this labeling is somehow bad for our goodwill and political capital (the latter being a much revered concept in some quarters).
Subhanallah, brothers and sisters, if the unreasonableness and sheer irrational and misplaced, fear-inspired nature of these propositions do not immediately strike us, we are in deep trouble.
This claimed commitment to equality is illusory.
Where are the champions of equality when it comes to objecting to the special dispensation that has been afforded to mining houses to continue operating, and by doing so, subjecting close to 500,000 miners daily to the coronavirus? These laborers are the most vulnerable of the populace and there are valid concerns that they are, as a group, more immuno-compromised than most other sectors or groups.
It requires a quantum leap in logic to equate seeking exemption with seeking unfair inequality. The law itself allows for exemptions and no person, faith group, or entity is barred from seeking such exemption.
We might as well stop stocking halal meat in supermarkets because Islamophobes are already complaining about the inequity of the situation and the special treatment accorded to Muslims.
Are we really going to compromise the expression of our beliefs and stifle our activity as Muslims by what we perceive will be the reaction of those driven by prejudice and animosity towards our deen?
And if the Islamophobes’ reaction to our legitimate and lawful activity is odious, irrational, and filled with vile prejudice, so what? Can one honestly use that as a good reason not to support the inherently moral?
But the apologists go further. “No,” they argue, “Those who seek the relaxation of the regulations to allow for limited congregational salah give Islam a bad name!” They ask, rhetorically, “Why can’t they accept that we are not living in a Muslim country governed by Sharia and accept that Muslims are not special and are equal with all other faith communities? Why don’t they just keep quiet, count their blessings, and comply?”
Dear brothers and sisters, can we even momentarily, give credence to the view that deen al-Islam, the deen which Allah himself declares explicitly as the only deen acceptable to Him, is “equal” to disbelief?
Has the fear of man become so great that we willingly and without any compulsion are prepared to prevent our fellow Muslims from protecting the divine gifts of Iman and Islam, when Allah the Magnificent, the Sovereign, says:
“O you who believe! Whoever from among you turns back from his religion (Islam), Allah will bring a people whom He will love and they will love Him; humble towards the believers, stern towards the disbelievers, fighting in the Way of Allah, and never afraid of the blame of the blamers. That is the Grace of Allah which He bestows on whom He wills. And Allah is All Sufficient for His creatures’ needs, All Knower.” (5:54)
Many have become blinded to our culpable inconsistency and hypocrisy. In our daily lives, we disobey Allah publicly, or we do not object to other Muslims public displaying disobedience to Allah. Does that not destroy the image of Islam that we so zealously claim we wish to preserve? Where are the howls of protest, caution, and enjoinment to do the right thing then?
“That’s different,” the apologists will no doubt protest, “That’s freedom of choice!”
The circuity of such reasoning is scary.
There must come a time, and that time is now, to free ourselves from the paralyzing and stifling effects of downright unwarranted hypocrisy, political expediency, and fear mongering, that has all the hallmarks of cowardice. These ills result in irrational self- censorship and unwarranted collective self-restraint in asserting the eminently reasonable and lawful. It has already resulted in the completely farcical situation that Muslims are called upon to be grateful for the freedoms we have to practice our deen fully, but to be wary of actually asserting our right to do so, because such “impertinence” would result in those freedoms being removed!
What freedom is it that curtails us so? What religious freedom do we have if we are fearful of exercising and expressing it?
Servility to Man Is Not an Option
For some reason, Muslims in South Africa and elsewhere have been herded into a complete sense of submission in relation to absolutely everything that that government introduces. Any semblance of objection is actively discouraged out of fear that we would be jeopardizing our freedom of religion. This approach will result, if it has not done so already, in Muslims, making absolutely no contribution whatsoever, as a Muslim collective, to profoundly important socio-political activities and campaigns such as limiting the reach of the secular state control over religious affairs, campaigning against the intrusion of privacy, healthy, constructive public criticism of ill-advised, and incorrect government policy, and active campaigning for true social justice.
These activities are not disruptive of social order or reflective of an “ungrateful minority” that has no idea how lucky it is. On the contrary, they represent the essence of what being Muslim is, a campaigner for justice as defined by Allah, the true Legislator.
For example, have we even stopped for a moment to consider what the effect is and will be of the wholesale spying and monitoring powers given to the authorities recently under the pretext of curbing the coronavirus? Whilst we always act with decorum, whilst we abide by protocol, and whilst we treat all with respect, we never embrace servility to man and in so doing, dishonor the essence of who we are.
There is no need whatsoever, as has become the norm of late, to flatter and heap poetic praise on and gratitude to those in power. We are Muslim. We bow and prostrate only to Allah, for whom ALL praise is due. It merits repeating — we bow and prostrate only to Allah for whom all praise is due.
When we act, we do so without fear or favor of man, but with complete fear and favor of Allah. We obey Him and we do not seek recognition from anyone for doing the good that He guides and enables us to do, for indeed all good we do is only from Him.
Flatten the Curve of Oppression
In relation to the coronavirus, we hear daily just how important it is for Muslims to do the right thing, to save lives, and to act in a way that is preventative. This view is absolutely correct, and should be followed.
We must, however, apply our commitment to saving lives consistently. We cannot, if indeed we are people of integrity, adopt this approach selectively and restrict it purely to those matters that happen to accord with our own individual self interest and yet ignore this principle in relation to other matters involving millions of Muslims.
What about the cries of the oppressed?
We cannot restrict our role to feeding the oppressed, yet stoically avoid confronting the oppressors. We rightfully take preventative measures to protect people from contracting or transmitting the corona virus. We do so because we know that hospital beds are not the answer, preventing the need for the hospital beds, is.
What then of our brothers and sisters who are injured and slaughtered daily by the oppressive nations? Are we content only to provide hospital beds to the survivors of such oppression or to feed them in refugee camps?
Or will we be part of the group that protects them, and thereby prevent the oppressors from maiming and slaughtering them, obviating the need for refugee camps, feeding schemes and hospitals to cater for the displaced, hungry and maimed?
Will we provide our unflinching support to flattening the curve of oppression? Make no mistake: It is not history, but Allah, the Just, who will judge us.
May we worship Allah as He ought to be worshiped and may He bless us with His Divine guidance.