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Do We Need Action Or Inertia To Fight COVID-19: Putting Tawakkul In Perspective

Action and tawakkul go together. In situational contexts, we need to make sensible, relevant and optimal effort and then put complete reliance on God for the result.


We live in a global risk society which, according to Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist specialized in risk and globalization, is “beyond controllability”. Entailing, one of the negative effects of globalization, with intensified growth in technological industry coupled with interconnectivity of political economies, is that risks, of whatsoever nature, will put equal considerations for all nations. The outbreak of Corona virus (Covid19), declared as pandemic by WHO, is the actualized reflection of the same. Although, the origin of the virus was Wuhan city of China, however, through travel and trade, the virus traversed nation-state boundaries and affected 188 countires so far. The valley of Kashmir, otherwise physically shielded by the great Himalayan mountainous range, lately, but finally, couldn’t escape the hunt of the virus. The first Covid19 positive case was officially confirmed on 18th March, leaving Kashmiri people terribly panic, unusual psycho-behavioural disposition, about survival. And, they aren’t alone blameworthy for being panic since the pandemic exposed the harsh truths of all societies, including the “acclaimed” champions of “civilizing mission”. The “toilet-paper crisis” in Australia, U.S President’s mocking racial comment calling Corona virus “China virus” and Italy’s “helpless state” despite being the member of EU, are few examples, out of hundreds, to substantiate this argument.

In the pandemic atmosphere, the problem with Kashmiri people, basically all religious people, is twofold. The first problem is how to engage with the scientificity of the “problem”-Corona pandemic? The second problem is how to relate the principles of faith to any sort of problem-solving method? In this brief write up, I will try to approach the second problem. This problem has essentially to do with the phenomenological understanding of the relation between faith (iman) and action (‘amal). Given the 1:100 spread ratio of the disease, the best available prevention suggested by the experts of medical science, particularly those specialized in virology, was “social distancing” or “self-quarantine”. Similarly, the central point of all medical advisories, coming from prominent institutions such as WHO and John Hopkins Center for Health Security, is to avoid all types of “gatherings” and “group interactions” including, temporarily, lockdown of public places and educational centres in Covid19 affected countires. Having considered the magnitude of the problem, the Saudi government, after seeking the consent of ulama (religious scholars), closed the doors of masjid-i-haram (sanctified mosque) and masjid-i-nabawi (Prophet’s mosque), let alone other mosques, for attendants. A similar position was taken by the Muslim community leaders, in consultation with ulama, in different European countries. However, the stand taken, though very late, by the local ulama of Kashmir, except few unheard voices, was quite ambiguous. It lacked lucidity of stand, objectivity of approach and integrity of knowledge. Instead, it was a “hotchpotch”; a reflective of “emotional arrogance”, unwillingness towards “flexibility”, and attitude of “monopoly over religion”. We heard repetition of “old power-controlling” statements like “this is our domain, doctors won’t decide it”. Similarly, we heard coming of statements “compartmentalizing Knowledge” into “worldly” and “religious” and, then, applying this categorization as a pretext to “monopolize” the authority on later.

The “controversial” stand of ulama, divided people, rather polarized, into two extreme lines. One, totally negating the role of “medical science” and everything associated with it vis-à-vis preventing spread of the disease. They justified their stand by simply referring to legal opinions of the ulama in this regard. The other “believing” in scientific theory of “cause and end” expressed their concern in a language giving subtle impression of “disbelief”.  They justified their stand by referring to scientific research. And, ofcourse, there were some “moderates” but unnoticed shades between the lines. In the context of controversy, the fundamental issue was about continuation or cancellation of salat al-jum’ah (Friday congregational prayer) and all five prayers for that matter. Those who supported continuing congregational prayer, and other collective prayers, used tawakkul as a theological reference. In their understanding, tawakkul literally implied “everything is controlled by God and everything moves towards its maqam (state) that God has predestined for it”. Such literal connotation of tawakkul, essentialize everything, including human action, as outcome of theo-determinism and reduce humans as mere puppets. Puppets, which are devoid of reason and free will and are mechanical ditto of divine command. This negative attitude of tawakkul justified their argument that “mosques will remain open in all conditions” because it is the Will of God (predetermined condition) that decides who and who will be infected and not the operational condition (contextual condition). Thus, if somebody is not Willed by God to get infected, despite ignoring all preventive measures, he/she won’t get infected and vice versa. Apparently it looks quite well since fundamental requirement of the Islamic creed (‘aqedah) is to believe that everything happens “by the Will of God”. But, when we put this argument in context, we are explored to new understanding, a new paradigm of tawakkul which action is not just validated but recognised as prerequisite of tawakkul.

Now, I refer to some authoritative and self-explanatory Prophetic texts to expose the “error” of this fatalistic understanding of tawakkul and clear some air around it. The first three references I chose have direct mention of words such as infection (disease), prevention and cure. The first hadith I refer is narrated by Abu Hurairah and reported by Sahih Bukhari (regarded as the most authentic book after Quran in Sunni tradition). The Prophet is reported to have said, “There is no disease that Allah has created, except that He also has created its treatment.” The hadith implies that both disease and its treatment are from qadar. Imam Bukhari has dedicated one full chapter to medicine (namely Kitab at-Tib) based on Prophet’s mention of diseases and their treatments. The same chapter mentions that Prophet himself was cupped (form of classical medicinal treatment which is still applied in Unani medicine). Does it mean that Prophet had (Allah forbid) no tawakkul in God or he challenged God’s qadar by applying scientific treatment? No, rather it affirms that “treatment” is itself God’s qadar. Also, it tells us that medication is not contrary to tawakkul. This is not my deductive assumption since exactly the same words are stated in a hadith narrated by Abu Hudhama from his father. The hadith goes, Abu Hudhama’s father said: “I said, ‘O Messenger of Allah! Is it permissible if I have ruqya (a kind of duwa) and apply medicine? Can anything from Allah’s qadar change with them (medicines)? He replied, “They (applying medicines) are also Allah’s qadar.” The answer of Prophet is remarkable since it puts qadar and effort in a coherent relational frame. Now, see the way our ulama are dealing with taking scientific precautions related to preventing spread of Covid19 and tawukkul, it clearly frames that the Prophet at this point should have said, “No, put your trust in Allah, you will be cured (without medication) if God willed to cure you.” Nevertheless, quite contrary to the way our ulama are defining tawakkul, Prophet encouraged medication. And, it is a well-established fact that precaution is the best medication.

The second hadith I chose is narrated by Abu Salamah and reported by Muslim (authentic collection of hadith in Sunni tradition after Sahih Bukhari). The Prophet is reported to have said, “There is no infection (without the Will of Allah). Do not mix the sick with the healthy.” The hadith seems self-contradictory if understood in the literal fatalistic framework. However, the two parts of the hadith are in total agreement when analysed comprehensively. The first part basically accentuates the “all-encompassing” eternality of God’s knowledge, knowing happenings and occurrences of the universe, including changing life of humans, when He had not yet created them. This implies, “no disease would affect humans” which is not in the knowledge of God. The second part of the hadith recognizes the value of human effort, clear precaution of “social distancing” in this case, and its relation with qadar (divine will). Implying, the “human effort”, after having the choice to take preventive measures or not, is in the God’s ultimate knowledge. A similar hadith to this effect is worth mentioning here. The Prophet is reported to have said, “If you hear of a plague in a land, then do not go into it. If it happens in the land where you are, then do not go out of it.” The hadith is narrated by Sa’d and its authenticity is agreed upon according to Bukhari and Muslim. This hadith fundamentally talks about preventing the spread of plague through precaution of “social distancing” by saying “do not go into it” and “self-quarantining” by saying “do not go out of it”. Had been taking precaution seen as something antagonistic to principle of tawakkul then Prophet would have outrightly annulled it and said, in straightforward terms, “have tawakkul in God, plague won’t harm us.” The same reasoning was applied by Umar (second caliph of Islam) when his decision of going back to Madinah and not entering into a plague affected land (Syria) was questioned by saying that “Aren’t you running away from qadar?” Umar replied, “We are moving from one qadar of God to another qadar of God.” What does it really mean moving from one qadar to other qadar? Does it mean “overcoming” Will of God? No, it doesn’t mean “overcoming” Will of God (based on God’s ultimate knowledge), rather it communicates the rational and scientific approach guiding “permitted choice” of human action. That is what Umar did. He basically applied the principle of tawakkul in its best form.

To strengthen my argument, the third hadith I chose is narrated by Anas Ibn Malik and reported by Tirmidhi. The hadith, authentic according to Al-Albani, illuminates the doctrinal and practical application of tawakkul in the reference of sunnah al-nabawi (the Prophetic way of dealing with things and situations). A (Bedouin) man came to the Prophet (with his problem of not being able to differentiate between tawakkul and tawaakul (inertia, carelessness) and asked: “O Messenger of Allah, should I tie my camel and trust in Allah or I should leave her untied and trust in Allah?” The Prophet said, “Tie her and [then] trust in Allah.” The articulate words of Prophet made it clear that the starting point of tawakkul is “positive action” and final point, after putting the appropriate effort through implementing permitted means, is to rely on God for the result. The Prophetic words “tie her” categorically denounce all those superficial assertions that mistakenly equate tawakkul with fatalism and discourage action. Had it been true, then Prophet would have never said “tie her” and then put your trust in Allah. Thus, “trust” can’t be applied in any reference if it is not supported by action. The two realities must go together. The fourth hadith I refer is narrated by Umar al-Khattab and reported by Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah. Umar heard the Messenger of Allah saying, “If you trusted Allah with due tawakkul, He would provide you sustenance as He provides for the birds; they go out empty stomachs and come back in the evening with full stomachs.” This is quite fascinating and perfectly realistic explanation of tawukkul. The Prophet has used an apt example to establish the truth of tawakkul and nullify the lie of fatalism. Birds are always in our observation. Birds leave their nests and go out flying hard, from morning to evening, to find their food. See, even for birds the condition of effort is important. They don’t get food while sitting inside their nests. According Wahid-ud-din Khan, when preachers quote this hadith, they usually miss the aspect of effort, the essence of this hadith, which, quite opposite to the message of hadith, promotes fatalism.

Having explained the practicality of tawakkul in the context sunnah al-nabawi, I draw following conclusions:

1. Action doesn’t challenge the belief of qadar; rather it falls within the scope of qadar. Thus, as Muslims we must eschew the belief that “we need not to act, because things happen due to qadar”. This belief is nonsense, irrational and full of ignorance. However, ofcourse, results are not in our hands. To have the good results, we should seek God’s intervention through duwa (supplication) and beseech His help to fill our effort with goodness.

2. Action and tawakkul go together. In situational contexts, we need to make sensible, relevant and optimal effort and then put complete reliance on God for the result. Thus, in the present pandemic context, when it is proved scientifically and rationally that “social distancing” is the best available prevention from the spread of Covid19, we must not feel problem, in our faith, to accept it. Because, it is the very faith that tells to do so and, it is suicidal, a sin, to do otherwise.

3. Medication doesn’t mean turning away from the belief of tawakkul since medication, by nature, is an effort to minimize or eliminated the disease and, by that way, it is a great service to humankind. Thus, it is quite fine with one’s faith to visit doctors for medication when one develops symptoms of any disease or even for normal regular check-ups.

4. We live in a world were knowledge has become ultra-specialized. One can’t claim mastery on everything. Our ulama need to understand it. They study in religious schools for years, but they fail to relate the text with the social reality (context). Relating text with context is an artistic work, demanding highest form of skill and proficiency, but our ulama (in local context) often times fail to do so. That is why; their legal opinions (futawa) are simplistic and lack rational appeal. For example, the recent fatwa regarding Covid19 mentions, “people should make shorts duwa’s, pray nawafil (voluntary prayer) at home and maintain distance while reading Quran in mosques.” The fatwa ignored logic of “social distancing” which ofcourse demands “people should avoid visiting mosques” until the spread of virus is controlled. To understand the changing context our ulama need to seek advice from experts of different fields so their opinions are legally, scientifically and contextually justified.

5. We as Muslims, having beyond-sky claims, need to revisit our relation with faith. We seem highly worried about missing j’amah salah (collective obligatory prayer), which is quite appreciable, but why don’t we ask ourselves that do we share the same concern for our “diminishing civility”. Do we acknowledge we have become socially, let alone morally, corrupt? Do we ever realize what harm (zulm) we have done to our environment? Please take note of it, “intentionally missing a faradh (obligation) is a sin” and faradh is not just all about salah, rather it has to do with our broader civility, our social attitude and our environmental attitude. We are still remaining sinful even after not missing a single prayer.

6. Let’s begin to reform (islah) our humanness, let alone our Muslimness, behave reasonably and cooperate for the “good” of all.