COVID-19 pandemic: Six long-term lessons
THE following are six important lessons that we Muslims can learn from the raging COVID-19 pandemic. The lessons are enduring and could be shared with non-Muslims as well.
Man is not running the show
Since the dawn of Protagoras’ (d. 420 BC) philosophy of relativism, according to which “man is the measure of all things,” and since the age of Renaissance humanism, according to which “mankind is at the centre of the universe,” “enlightened” man always pretended to be in control of his own destiny. He, rather than God, was the source of all value and legitimacy. Human reason and talents, rather than any metaphysical entity or source, were placed on a pedestal.
On account of the Scientific Revolution, which took place towards the end of the Renaissance period, giving birth to the intellectual and social movement in the 18th century known as the “Enlightenment,” and serving as a precursor to the subsequent modern and post-modern eons, this anthropocentric view was propelled to unprecedented heights. Man started at once to believe and behave as though he was in control of the whole earth. The whole universe became the target of his exploration and conquest ambitions. The modern man believed that he had the whole world at his feet, both literally and metaphorically.
In the process, the idea of God was relegated to the forgotten “absentee landlord” who lives “upstairs” from the world which humans inhabit. There was more and more antagonism between the modern man and Heaven. The total separation became inevitable. Resulting from the separation was the Death of God theology championed by a myriad of philosophers and theologians. The doctrine denoted the rise of secularity and total abandonment of traditional religious beliefs and practices. Perhaps the most emblematic of the trend was Friedrich Nietzsche’s (d. 1900) assertion that “God is dead.” Equally powerful was Stephen Hawking’s (d. 2018) belief that “there is no God; no one directs our fate.”
Thus, the COVID-19 plague is a slap in the face for the modern man and his irreligious civilisational headway. It became obvious that no amount of scientific knowledge and technological advancement can avail man of virtually anything when a Big One strikes. It also became clear that man’s scientific and technological progress – however massive it may appear to us on account of our prejudiced and flawed benchmarks – is extremely small and insignificant when juxtaposed with how infinite and complex the existential reality is.
Man’s ignorance of the world will always greatly outweigh his knowledge of it. Thus, no sooner does man confront an aspect of the endless unknown than he comes forth as a helpless and extremely vulnerable being. He wanders alone in the dark, dealing with issues on the basis of trial and error, which brings but little yield.
The way people conceive and react to COVID-19 is an unmistaken sign of humankind’s smallness and vulnerability. What they normally do, as much individually as institutionally, is a combination of arrogance and ignorance, masked with incredible occasional honesty and determination.
Man is only a creation and a servant (just as the virus in question is). Man has the Creator and Master and no matter what, there cannot be an exchange of titles. Only with his Creator and Master onboard can man realise his remarkable potentials and fulfill his destiny. Only with God as the Guide and the One Who Directs, or Manages (Mudabbir), furthermore, can man truly become somebody and “big,” leaving a worthy legacy for posterity.
Man is not running the show on earth. It is Almighty God, the Creator of life and us, who does. Still, there are so many leading roles to play whereby man can emphatically express himself and run after his grand goals. In doing so, man is not to pit himself against God and Heaven. Rather, he is to set himself against any negativity that may hinder him from achieving his pragmatic and sensible objectives. God and Heaven are man’s greatest allies on the journey.
COVID-19 should generate in the modern man a great deal of soul-searching, enabling him to think and act with both feet on the ground. His perpetual scientific and cultural haughtiness as well as waywardness are counterproductive, leading him in the long-term basically nowhere.
The Qur’an reminds that man has been given very little knowledge (al-Isra’, 85); that man was created weak (al-Nisa’, 28); that man is in need of God Who, in turn, is the One free of need and all wants (Fatir, 15); that knowing even his very soul, which is a heavenly component inside man, and which makes him the “person” and “intelligent being,” is beyond man and his limited capabilities (al-Isra’, 85).
Shaken but not derailed
COVID-19 is very subtle and dangerous. People must do whatever is in their power to reduce their risk of infection. They also must do their part in helping prevent the spread of the virus. The responsible parties should incessantly look for a cure, sparing no expense and every other legitimate means in doing so.
It is right here and right now that people need to show how responsible, compassionate and cooperative they are. This is not only about individuals, but also entire communities and the whole world. The stakes are high and the well-being of humankind is on the line. It is in these circumstances that selfishness, greed and irresponsibility can hurt most and that accountability, care and team work can be rewarding most. No risk or threat is to be taken lightly by any party.
However, we must bear in mind that the virus is nothing but God’s creation, and the pandemic is unfolding only because God so wills. There is a purpose, yet profound wisdom, behind the occurrence, even if we failed to comprehend them. There is always a blessing in disguise. But to come to the root of the difficulty, people need to cooperate with God – apart from cooperating among themselves – more intensely and more closely.
This is positively so because Almighty God does nothing that is purposeless, senseless and is intrinsically bad for people. His being Merciful, Kind, Benevolent, Loving, and Just is most pervasive and most compelling. According to the Islamic worldview, all that God does is meant to be beneficial for man and his earthly vicegerency mission, one way or another.
We also have to remember only what God wants will eventually befall us. If He decreed that COVID-19 will affect a person, no amount of awareness, care and preventive measures could frustrate His plan. Similarly, if God decreed that a person will not be affected by COVID-19, absolutely nothing could alter His decision.
This by no means tends to promote the idea of passive fatalism, just as it does not intend to land any support to the notions of complete freedom and indeterminism either. Human life is a delicately struck balance between the two opposing domains. Human life is the result of God’s divine will, plan and ultimate care. In it, there is no room whatsoever for coincidences, absurdities and injustice.
COVID-19 is another (just) act of God, which man should make the most of to deepen his knowledge of the self, others, the world and ultimately, God. It could likewise be a test and a punishment, about which people are not to pretend to be judges. So superficial is man’s acquaintance with the secrets of the higher order of meaning and experience that venturing into those things will inevitably lead to the baseless acts of speculating, hyperbolizing and conspiracizing, thus adding to the widespread confusion and panic.
God says in the Qur’an: “Say: Nothing will afflict us save what Allah has ordained for us; He is our Patron; and on Allah let the believers rely” (al-Tawbah, 51).
The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Be mindful of Allah and he will protect you. Be mindful of Allah and you will find him before you. If you ask, ask from Allah. If you seek help, seek help from Allah. Know that if the nations gathered together to benefit you, they will not benefit you unless Allah has decreed it for you. And if the nations gathered together to harm you, they will not harm you unless Allah has decreed it for you. The pens have been lifted and the pages have dried” (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi).
Yet another sign
Everything in the heavens and on the earth – permanent or otherwise, animate and inanimate – is a sign, attesting to the absolute truth. So is COVID-19.
The Qur’an is a revealed book of signs (ayat). The universe, too, with all its dimensions and manifestations, is a created “book” of signs (ayat). If the former is all about signs, because it is God’s Word (logos), the latter is all about signs as well, because it is the result of God’s Word (logos) “kun” (“Be!”), as a symbol of God’s divine creative power. Nothing happens without God’s will and command, symbolizing His greatness, presence, authority, omniscience, compassion, and providence. All that happens also casts light on the status and character of man and his honorable mission.
COVID-19 is yet another chapter in the ontological book of signs. Through it, people should perceive God’s Will and Power at work, repositioning their own wills and undertakings accordingly. While dealing with the pandemic wisely and decisively, they should use it to enrich themselves and enhance their relationships with the Creator and His creation.
COVID-19 as a sign – or a series of signs – should be used for understanding better the other equally, or maybe even more, remarkable signs that came to pass in history. By analogy to the origins, spread and impact of COVID-19, more light can be shed on earlier historical signs that created similar effects and generated parallel behavioral patterns.
(To be continued)