The coronavirus pandemic has affected millions of lives and wrecked large parts of humanity’s life, from economic activity to sports, including education and religious life. Who will forget seeing the haram in Mecca (the space around the Kaaba) empty for weeks or months, and Pope Francis delivering Easter mass from an empty basilica or, days earlier, giving Urbi et Orbi (to the city and the world) blessing in an empty St Peter’s Square.
All religions of the world have been tested in various and unprecedented ways by this crisis. A number of questions have been raised. Is this pandemic an act of God, some test or punishment? Should believers rely on medicine and science or just pray and trust in their faiths? Will God intervene and somehow get rid of the pandemic if many devout people offer heartfelt prayers? Will religious activities (sermons, collective prayers, etc.) evolve in response to the new circumstances or will tradition prove more sturdy? Will this crisis bring people back to religion (if they conclude that the pandemic was because they had angered God), or will it drive many away (if they cannot understand why God let this suffering happen – to even the nicest of us)? How will science and religion interact during and after this pandemic crisis – will rationality make progress or will irrationality find fertile ground to flourish anew?
These are all important questions that not only apply to all religions but also interest all people, religious or not. They are new examples of the eternal debates between religion, reason and science. How does one approach the above questions: from the religious angle or from the rational, scientific side? And how does one determine what is essential and what is just habitual in religious beliefs and practices?
In the Islamic world, however, in addition to the above questions being raised and addressed – albeit not nearly with the attention they deserve – large sections of society have reacted in surprising and rather worrisome ways.