COVID-19: the many fault lines

Since the expressed objective of both religion and science is to reach the truth, it becomes important to see where the truth lies.

Coronavirus has exposed several fault lines in our individual and communal lives. We saw people taking a strong exception to the management of the pandemic when it was in its early stages in Pakistan. According to some media reports, an individual close to the prime minister used his influence to get some of the Pakistani pilgrims in Iran enter Pakistan at the Taftan border in contravention of the safety standards. The alleged quarantine mismanagement could wreak havoc in the country. There were apparent sectarian connotations to the narrative.

People also differ on the economic impact of the current lockdown. Some people argue that the poorer sections of society have been hit the hardest. Others insist that the lockdown was and remains the only option, and any compromise on this would have been an unmitigated disaster. The announcement of a relief package for daily wagers has allayed some of the fears but many questions remain unanswered. How, for instance, to ensure that the financial assistance will reaches the deserving. If the poor have to get out of their homes and join large gatherings, the very purpose of the lockdown would be defeated.

While there are many things on which people differ, the most elemental war being fought on social media is the one between those referring to God and religion and those referring to science. For a majority of Pakistanis, finding a clear distinction between those who mention religion, and those who mention science is itself fraught with dangers because of fundamental overlaps. The two groups may be characterized as science-deniers and religion-bashers, but the descriptions may not be helpful in the current times.

Those who see the issues in scientific terms argue that coronavirus has so badly pummeled the entire world that irrespective of how religious one may or may not be, the only recourse is to science. Even as they differ in their religious practices, most people agree that only some scientific breakthrough can mitigate the miseries caused by the coronavirus. Others argue that the failure on the part of the scientists to develop an effective vaccine against this virus is a failure of science itself. They argue that even if some of the diseases have been effectively contained in the past, fresh problems have been emerging and science has fallen short of providing credible answers.

There is a line of argument that the current situation is the result of gross human rights abuses in India and China. The Muslim population in the Indian-held Kashmir has been locked down for months. Around a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Turkic Muslims have been detained in internment camps in Xinjiang, they say. The world chose to look the other way, they say, that is why it has to face the challenge it does.

Others retort that if the coronavirus pandemic were the result of some human rights abuses in India and China, Islamic countries like Pakistan and Iran should have been immune to this problem.

Some people say that the virus was apparently transferred to human beings through the consumption of food that was not halal (kosher), such as bats and civets. The skeptics say that eating patterns are socially determined. After all, MERS-CoVemerged in Saudi Arabia, where camels were found to be the earliest hosts for the virus. Also, certain viral diseases are known to have started with animals considered halal for the Muslims, such as the goat, cow and sheep.

Since the objective of both religion and science is to reach the truth, it becomes extremely important to see where the truth lies and how predictions and projections based on various views might vary. The controversies brings to the fore the age-old question: are science and religion incompatible?

An extreme position is that faith and fact, or religion and science, are incompatible. One reason why religion and science may be incompatible is that, historically, no effort to reconcile the two has worked. Another reason is that the ways in which science and religion seek to understand the world are intrinsically different.

But a competing notion is that religion and science are not incompatible. Among a variety of such views, one point of view is that science is a subset of religion. Science concerns the natural world, whereas religion concerns both the natural and the supernatural.

A great Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who made substantial contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions, is believed to have been a devout Hindu. Ramanujan said that his mathematical formulae came to him as visions provided by a goddess.

While the relationship between religion and science is too complex, and the debate on this relationship is too entrenched and intractable, one can hardly fail to notice a dichotomy in Pakistan and the Islamic world in general. Pakistani educational curricula painstakingly highlight the contributions of Muslim scientists in previous centuries.

Muslim scientists revolutionised the world of science between 786 AD and 1258 AD. Medieval Islamic scientific achievements encompassed a wide range of subject areas, especially mathematics, astronomy and medicine. Other subjects of scientific inquiry included physics, alchemy and chemistry, ophthalmology, geography and cartography. However, the contribution of Muslims today to the domain of science and technology is dreadfully smaller than their share in the global population.

The diversity in the reaction of the Muslims to the slow growth of scientific knowledge in the Islamic world is not without interest. One position is that lack of scientific progress in the Islamic world is not particularly regrettable because modern science is guided by materialism and arrogance, and, as such, has done little service to human lives.

Another response is that Islam should be reinterpreted in the light of modern sciences so that it can be reconciled with the demands of modern times. This view was espoused by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, among others. The third view is that science and religion can work in their respective spheres independently because there is no fundamental dichotomy between religion and science.

Despite the diversity in the reactions of the Muslims towards the lacklustre performance of Islamic countries in the domains of science and technology, it is worth asking what the fundamental difference in the worldviews of the Muslims in the golden period of Islamic sciences (the period between 786 and 1258) and the Muslims of today is. What made Muslims in the Medieval Ages some of the greatest scientists of all times, and why do the Muslims today continue to debate the domains of religion and science?

In view of the mounting medical evidence that the COVID can be contained by reducing social distancing, religious scholars across the Islamic world have recommended a strict ban on congregational prayers. The Saudi government’s decision to ban entry to the two holy mosques is a telling example. However, the recent response of certain Pakistani ulema in the form of a fatwa was lukewarm and watered down with usual ifs and buts. Is a Muslim under a religious obligation to self-isolate if there is a genuine fear that he or she might infect others?

The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus, and may be reached at [email protected]

COVID-19: the many fault lines