By Lawrence Pintak
Religion Unplugged, 17 April 2020
(OPINION) Coronavirus is bringing to the fore what is likely to be one of Islam’s most fundamental divides of the next decade: the rift between those Muslims whose worldview is being shaped by the modern world and those who are clinging to a literalist past.
It is epitomized by the willingness of a new generation of American Muslim leaders to openly criticize the views of some traditional religious scholars in the face of the pandemic.
“It is a clear divide between those who appreciate modern science and understanding, and those who are, not to be too harsh here, but let’s say in a different paradigm,” says Yasir Qadhi, an influential Houston-based American imam with close to one million followers on social media.
For Muslims in the age of coronavirus, where you prayed last Friday says much about where you fall on that emerging divide.
From the Grand Mosque in Mecca to Jakarta’s Istiqlal mosque, Muslim leaders around the world have taken the unprecedented step of cancelling Friday prayers and ordering their followers to pray at home. But a sub-set of literalists in the UK, continental Europe and across the developing world have pushed back.
“We have no intention of cancelling prayer services at this time,” said a spokesman for Senegal’s Mosquée Massalikoul Djinâne, one of the largest in West Africa. “Prayer is very important and constitutes an alternative way to fight the epidemic.” Responding to government demands that mosques close, another Senegalese Muslim leader insisted, “Religion and politics don’t have a hierarchical relationship.”
The government in Pakistan’s Sindh province, where Karachi is the capital, took the dramatic step of ordering a three hour curfew during Friday prayer times to prevent worshippers from defying orders to shutter mosques, resulting in clashes with police.
“It is not possible to get rid of corona without asking God for forgiveness,” said Pakistani Mufti Taqi Usmani, one of the most influential clerics in the conservative Deobandi school of Sunni Islam, who refused to order the closure of mosques.
Qadhi thinks such comments have no place in the modern world. “Even more pathetic, to be honest, is the claim by some fundamentalists that diseases are not contagious and that we need to trust God, and not be scared of the virus,” he said in an interview.
When I spoke to Qadhi on a recent Friday afternoon, he had just led the traditional mid-day prayers online, accompanied by just two other ritual leaders in his Houston mosque, which can hold 2,000 worshippers. “I was actually crying because it was just so overwhelming to see my massive mosque completely empty,” he told me.
Qadhi’s social media posts have been critical of Mufti Taqi and others who insist Allah will protect worshippers. “In other times, it’s an amusement at best or a nuisance at worst to see ill-trained students from madrasahs try to flex their literalist muscles against critical thinking & common sense. Right now, this attitude will inevitably cause deaths & CANNOT be tolerated. Avoid socializing!” he wrote on Twitter.
The comments sparked a vicious backlash from Muslim literalists abroad, some of whom say the outbreak is the work of Shaytan (the Devil) and use the hashtag #ShaytanVirus. Qadhi, who the New York Times called “one of the most influential conservative clerics in American Islam,” says he has been accused of disrespecting senior scholars. “They said, ‘Who do you think you are? You’re nobody compared to those big shots.’ I’m like, ‘Look, they are more noble than me, more senior than me, more elder than me, they’re more pious me, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re wrong.’”
Scores of COVID-19 cases have been traced to gatherings of hundreds of thousands of adherents of the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat in Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan in recent weeks. That has resulted in a wave of Islamophobic attacks in India, where #CoronaJihad has been trending.
Imam Sohaib Webb, a former Christian convert known as the SnapChat Imam for his eight-second sermons, says he admires the passion of those convinced Allah will protect them from the virus. “But passion is a dangerous thing,” he said in an interview. “And a lack of religious knowledge coupled with passion leads to a very bad outcome.”
The overarching message from American Muslim leaders is that there is a place for religion and a place for science. The ability to decide when to prioritize each is the essence of the emerging divide in Islam.
Replying to one critic on Twitter who praised the directive of a leading imam in the UK to keep mosques open, Qadhi tweeted, “[S]ome of my own teachers & Senior Scholars considered vaccinations kufr [a sign of disbelief in Allah]; or said Earth is stationary & Sun moves around it and to deny that is kufr. They are wrong, and I still love them & respect their worship and other aspects of knowledge.”
Jihad Turk, the founding President of Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School, is equally frank: “In places like Pakistan the cream of the crop goes into medicine and engineering and business and the bottom of the barrel gets shuffled to the madrassas. And so, the kind of thought leadership – if you can call it that – coming out of religious institutions is backwards in those places.” Add to that, he says, “in the typical way of looking at religion, you turn off your brain. So many people just don’t know how to reconcile being a thinking intellectual being and religion. And some of these people are brilliant. They’re brain surgeons and rocket scientists. But when they come to religion, they don’t know how to reconcile the two. And so, they turn off their brain and they just follow whatever the ridiculousness that they hear coming out of the mosque.”
“These are issues that were debated centuries ago by scholars, and the government can close the mosques by law, and Muslims are supposed to obey that,” says Hamza Yusuf, the president of Zaytuna College, which seeks to revive traditional Islamic studies in the West. “Islam is a religion that really respects reason and also expertise, and so in situations like this, scholars are supposed to defer to the experts who are physicians.”
Rationality and reason, he says, are at the heart of this: “The Prophet, peace be upon him, was once preaching about trusting in God, and he was asked by a Bedouin, ‘Should I just not tie my camel and trust in God?’ And he said, ‘No, tie your camel and trust in God.’ This is that balance that our tradition really emphasizes, but unfortunately a lot of people go to that extreme of trusting in God but not tying the camel.”
The Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA) is one of the most conservative sources of Islamic guidance in the U.S. But as early as March 3, it issued a fatwa giving permission for U.S. mosques to close if recommended by local health authorities. A second March 17 fatwa declared more forcefully that “AMJA requires the Muslims to follow the updates of the CDC and comply with its instructions, since it is the most relevant and trustworthy authority in this regard.”
“We have been saying, take the lowest ceiling, whether it comes from the government or it comes from public health agencies.” Dr. Hatem Alhaj, a member of the AJMA fatwa committee, told me. “So, when there is a conflict that is perceived between establishing the religious services and public health, we deferred to the CDC.”
Hatem is a former dean of the online Mishkah Islamic university. But he is not just an Islamic scholar. He is also a pediatrician at a New Jersey hospital, fighting against the virus on the frontline. Those Muslims abroad who are pushing back against closing mosques, he says, are choosing to “surrender to the divine” and “trust God instead of science,” which he considers a twisting of Islamic teachings.
“Life is more valuable than ritual,” says Jihad Turk. He calls “idiotic” the argument that praying at home instead of with other worshippers at the mosque on Friday is somehow not “authentic.”
All the Muslims leaders interviewed for this article emphasized that other religions also have their own nay-sayers when it comes to coronavirus. Of the 38 states that had imposed shelter-in-place orders by early April, eleven provided exceptions for religious gatherings and 20 percent of respondents to one national poll reported that they were still attending religious gatherings in person. Omar Suleiman, the founder and president of Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, says Muslims are no different than their American Christian or Jewish counterparts. “For every psychotic pastor that’s cramming two thousand people into a church, you’ve got twenty other churches that are doing service and assisting the food banks; so for every mosque that stayed open, you’ve got a hundred mosques that have food distribution points right now.”
Issues of generation and culture are also at work in this emerging divide between modernists and literalists. Suleiman says that until recently, it was the elderly who were arguing most strenuously to keep American mosques open. Many of them are naturalized Americans who are on WhatsApp groups with friends, family and spiritual leaders in the countries of their origin, often where the literalists hold sway. But as the death toll in the U.S. soars, they have also changed their tone.
“I see a shift in mentality because you’re starting to hear about your friends dying,” he says. “Every Muslim in America knows a Muslim in New York. So, therefore every Muslim in America now knows a Muslim that’s been affected by the coronavirus. So, I think the elderly also have sort of shifted their mindset.”
Qadhi, Turk, Suleiman and Webb are all under 50 years old and born in the U.S. They are part of a new generation of American Muslims leaders who studied in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other traditional seats of learning, but are shaped by the American culture in which they were raised. As I have written elsewhere, that worldview is in some ways reshaping Islam in America, which has traditionally been dominated by imams from places like South Asia and the Middle East who arrived here as adults or came specifically to preach, bringing with them an approach to Islam that reflected their home culture.
“There are Muslims in Egypt who have a more liberal view of the religion than I do,” says Dr. Hatem, an immigrant from Egypt, “but certainly, the cultural denominator must have an influence on your perspective, your outlook, your reality. Your culture is a huge part of this. So, there’s no denying that this is happening.”
Hamza Yusuf, who straddles cultures as both president of Zaytuna, located in Berkeley, CA., and a member of the fatwa council of the United Arab Emirates, believes the notion that the crisis underlines a divergence of Islam in the East and West is overstated. “I think that enlightened scholars have always had a hard time in every generation since the beginning of Islam with literalists for instance, or fanatics, or zealots,” he explains. “These are human problems and we have them here in the United States.”
But Omar Suleiman points out that there is plenty of precedent in Islamic history for worldview shaping religious interpretations. “One of the primary rules of fatwa [religious rulings] is that a fatwa can change according to time, place or situation.” That, he says, means it is natural for American Muslims to look to American Muslim scholars – not those in Cairo, Mecca or Karachi – to interpret Islam for their unique circumstances.
In many ways, Sohaib Webb is the embodiment of this clash of cultures. A self-described former bad boy hip hop DJ from Oklahoma who was once a member of the Bloods street gang, he also studied at Egypt’s renowned Al Azhar University and believes there are lessons in both the ancient teachings and popular culture. He recently posted this quote from a 13th century Sufi spiritual leader as a message for his students sheltered at home: “Nothing is more beneficial to a heart than a little isolation.”
While the “God will protect” rhetoric is being heard in some places abroad, the overarching advice American Muslims are receiving from their American spiritual leaders is summed up in one of Qadhi’s tweets: “Wash your hands physically. Cleanse your heart spiritually. Work like one who will live forever. Worship like one who will die tomorrow.”
But do it in your own home.
Lawrence Pintak was the founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. A former CBS News Middle East correspondent with a PhD in Islamic Studies, he is the author of five books on Islam and U.S. policy in the Muslim world, the most recent is America & Islam: Soundbites, Suicide Bombs and the Road to Donald Trump. Follow him on Twitter @lpintak and visit his website Pintak.com.