By Nadia Hussain
In the age of scientific rationalism and technological supremacy; we see mind, science, and machines, the only drivers and protectors of human. But, lately, this belief has become questionable since tiny virus invaded human world in an unprecedented way pushing world to lockdown and fear. This catastrophe raises deep existential questions of life and death.
It raises questions of human vulnerability, suffering, and mortality. Henceforth, the reaction to this pandemic is cautious yet also perplexing and disoriented for many. Atheists critique “Where is God in this pandemic? Some speculate that it is nature’s response to exploitation; and others see conspiracy of bio war at work here. Troubled with huge toll of deaths even in “global powers” with no effective insulin in near sight, many are wondering if there really exists God behind all this? The common judgement is that it is God’s verdict or critique from atheism.
For many, atheism is the simplest and most forthright response to this pandemic. For they see world as random, accidental laws of nature, with evil and injustice. Atheist response is to solve the intellectual problems in this world. But, though, it appears to many as solution the problem is it does not remove the suffering. In fact, it could be argued that “Atheism removes any possible hope” [i].
And, on the other hand, there is growing curiosity on the existence of God. In crisis, one seeks hope to stay afloat. And faith gives that hope. It is viewed as God’s judgement and people of faith try to navigate the “cause” and “message” of God behind this suffering.
In a New York Times article on March 10, 2020, Italian journalist Mattia Ferraresi wrote the following:
“For believers, religion is a fundamental source of spiritual healing and hope. It is a remedy against despair, providing psychological and emotional support that is an integral part of well-being. At a deeper level, religion, for worshipers, is the ultimate source of meaning. The most profound claim of every religion is to make sense of the whole of existence, including, and perhaps especially, circumstances marked by suffering and tribulation.[ii]
As per a poll recently conducted by the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research in the United States, the pandemic Coronavirus has increased the faith of the American people in God. Out of the 86% of believing Americans, 26% said their faith in God has grown while for 1% saw their faith declined in this pandemic.
2% of Americans who did not believe in God earlier have found faith in God whereas less than 1% lost the faith they had in God. As many as two-third of believers (of which 47% blacks and 27% whites) think the virus is a message from God to humanity: Change or perish.[iii]
The monotheistic faiths see suffering within the context of God’s power and mercy. Suffering and pain are laden with purpose. It has meaning and hope. Suffering unveils the meaning of our existence. It bares human vulnerability and transitory existence: We must die and return to God.
In Islam, there are two views on the causes of suffering, both of which resemble views held by its sister faiths, Judaism and Christianity. Suffering is either a test of faith or punishment of sin. Suffering tests belief, character and righteousness of a true believer. Suffering unlocks the soul and exposes it to God. It reminds of the truth of God’s revelation.[iv]
Suffering is also seen as a painful result of sin when physical or moral laws are broken. There is a message of repentance and purification before one perishes. Also, suffering carries within it hope in God’s reward. In calamity, believers must seek the tremendous benefits that may ensue from it likewise of a sick person. When a sick person is given a bitter medicine, one takes it even though one detests it. Yet one desires it for the healing it contains.[v] Pain can be a source of catharsis and elevation for a believer. “Whoever dies from a plague is a martyr”.[vi]
Also, people of faith see relatability and practical preventative measure for plague in religion. There are narratives of plagues available in religious literature like that of the Biblical Plague of the Philistines[vii] and the Plague of ‘Amwas in 639 during Caliph Umar.[viii] The urgent measure of the day: Quarantine, is evident in the prophetic tradition. Mohammed (pbuh) said: “If the plague breaks out in a region do not go there, but if you are already there, do not come out of it.”[ix]
Faith in God makes one aware that we do not have absolute control over affairs, so one submits.
In this submission to the will of God, one gets mental peace and inner courage to face suffering. The faithful are not counseled to lose hope or to indulge in asking “why” that lead to despair. The great struggle, or inner jihad, of human life is the struggle to control one’s self and live in total submission to God.[x] That is, believers must accept it as God’s will and live through it with faith while working actively to alleviate the suffering.
Of course, intellectual responses to this crisis of coronavirus is necessary. There is huge admiration for health service providers and great expectation from scientists to save humanity. But, while rationalism relies mainly on the strength of mind, faith recognizes the limits of human mind. “As humans we see only some parts, like floating fragments from a movie, but the bigger scheme is beyond our comprehension.”[xi]
Also, one reacts psychologically very different to this pandemic due to personal experiences. Some need intellectual answers specifically those who are the observers of suffering. But for sufferers an intellectual response is not necessarily enough. The tragedy of death and separation without farewell is terribly painful. But religion is like a balm of comfort to this wound of partition. The promise of God of His love, mercy and death as a step onto eternal life is a huge statement of affirmation for a relenting soul. Hope and Peace are assets of faith. With faith it is possible to navigate through crisis cautiously while maintaining inner strength and calm. We need to respond coronavirus in holistic way: intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
[i] Where is God in a Coronavirus world? John Lennox, Michael Ramsden, RZIM, Interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvLfuMlAi18&t=1267s
[ii] John Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus world?https://www.rzim.org/read/just-thinking-magazine/where-is-god-in-a-coronavirus-world
[iii] Is God Another Name for Chance? https://www.mid-day.com/articles/is-god-another-name-forchance/22864293
[iv] Suffering and the Problem of Evil https://www.patheos.com/library/islam/beliefs/suffering-and-the-problem-of-evil
[v] Sheikh, Muhammad bin Salih Al-‘Uthaimeen, Commentary on Kitab at- Tawheed, Volume 1, Darussalam
[vi] Ṣaḥiḥ al-Bukhari, no. 5733
[vii] The biblical plague of the Philistines now has a name, tularemia https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6363143_The_biblical_plague_of_the_Philistines_now_has_a_name_tularemia
[viii] The Black Death and the Rise of the Ottomans
[ix] Sahih al-Bukhari 5728
[x] Surkheel Sharif, Is Islam a Conquest Ideology? On Jihad, War, & Peace. April 16, 2018. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/surkheel-sharif/is-islam-a-conquest-ideology-on-jihad-war-peace/#ftnt_ref3
[xi] Elif Shafak, The Forty Rules of Love, PENGUIN BOOKS, UK 2010