Science and Religion Amidst the Covid-19 Pandemic
That Malaysians have been under Movement Control Order (MCO) so as to curb the Covid-19 Pandemic is now too obvious to even need mention.
Yet, looking back, that such a control be necessary not only scientifically and medically but also from the point of view of Islam as a religion with its unique theologico-legal system was not instantly and widely held by the Muslim Community in Malaysia.
Then, a large number of them—in fact, many of them could be considered to share strong religious sentiments, even if most might not be regarded as frequent congregants in mosques—were hesitant, if not strongly opposed to such governmental measure, especially when the control has to involve restricting or banning the gathering of Muslims in such places of worship, including for the performance of the obligatory Friday prayer.
As a matter of fact, at that early crucial stage, in insisting that such acts of religious devotions be exempted from the control, many such Muslims have been seen or heard entertaining the idea that as far as the religion of Islam is concerned, and insofar as acts of worship are involved, the miraculous may happen; for, Allah is indeed All-Powerful.
That the aforementioned misunderstanding had occurred points out, among others, that there has been something wrong with the way Islam is currently taught in Malaysia.
Fortunately, since then, a number of figures—including from the Islamic religious establishments in Malaysia—have come forward with convincing explanations from the Prophetic Traditions as well as Islamic Law (fiqh) to ward off such fear of irreligiosity.
To many, even more eye opening is the fact that historically this is not the first time Muslims have to resort to such moves and measures in facing similar fears and challenges.
Nevertheless, in the many explanations and justifications offered, almost none has put equal emphasis, if not more, on scientific-theological grounds.
By this is meant the very first thing Muslims of earlier times had been taught when they began to learn the Creeds of Islam, the one referred to terminologically as Aqidah.
Among the necessary preliminaries, or sine qua non, of learning such creeds during those times is one’s good grasp of the difference—though not necessarily in an exclusive manner—of the three primary kinds of judgments which humans cannot avoid passing when assessing various matters.
The three are (1) judgments proceeding from the shariʻah (Islamic Law); (2) judgments issuing from human reason; and (3) judgments arising from the human experience of series of happenings in the world.
The standard terms employed to refer to them are al-hukm al-sharʻ (rendered into Malay as hukum syaraʻ), al-hukm al-ʻaqli (known in Malay as hukum akal) and al-hukm al-ʻadi (translated into Malay as hukum adat), respectively.
By the first kind of judgements are meant the five main categories of rulings in the Islamic Law, i.e., haram (forbidden), makruh (strongly disliked), mubah (permissible), mandub (commendable) and wajib (obligatory).
The second kind, in turn, refers to the three categories of rational estimation which logic is primarily concerned with, that is to say, mustahil (impossible), ja’iz or mumkin (possible; in Malay, mungkin) and wajib (necessary). [And mind you, do not confuse wajib belonging to the first kind with wajib of this second kind!]
The third kind consists in human efforts of establishing the sort of existential relation a thing has with another thing, be it positively or negatively, such efforts being based mainly on the recurrence of such things in the past, be the recurrence distant in time or quite recent.
To illustrate this last kind of judgments in simple terms, let us take the example of the relation between “one’s thirst” and “one’s act of drinking” as two occurrences.
In one’s assessment of the nature of their relation, one will have to judge based on at least one’s own experience of them before passing the reasonable judgment that one’s act of drinking relates negatively to one’s thirst, if not at all times, at least most of the times.
In so doing, one will also expect the same to hold water in the future while being aware that one may also be mistaken in one’s expectation.
In fact, such kind of judgments properly belongs to what we may generally regard now as the realm of science.
As to the relation between the second and third kinds of judgments, it should be noted that according to Islamic Theology (Ilmu Tawhid, Ilm Usuluddin or Ilmu Kalam), not only is the existential status of the entire creation in itself contingent (mumkin) but even all its parts—including series of events— are also possible.
Indeed, they as a whole are often referred to as al-mumkinat (the possibles or possibilities) in the sense that according to the mere judgment of human reason without recourse to actual human experience, just as they may or may not happen, they may happen this way or in any other way.
As such, to somewhat ascertain the way they have been and may also be subsequently, a person needs to take into account the actual human experience of them, particularly as recorded faithfully in history.
It is therefore quite obvious that much of the explanations and justifications which have been offered thus far seem to belong exclusively to the first of the aforementioned kinds of judgments whereas what many Muslims used to hold during that early stage of MCO—and perhaps, even now and in regard to other similar matters in the future—when resorting to the hope for miracles, actually relates to those two other kinds of judgments.
What really are miracles then?
A miracle, whether in the form muʻjizah (romanised Malay: mukjizat) belonging to the Prophets or karamah (romanised Malay: keramat) associated with saintly and rightly guided figures, is normally defined by Muslim scholars as “that which is contrary to ʻadah (Malay: adat).”
As alluded to earlier, an ʻadah is “the way a thing has been” so much so that the manner it has been recurring is regarded as its custom.
As nothing in the world is considered to be not the Acts of God (meaning God’s creation), another term which such scholars also frequently use to refer to ʻadah is SunnatuLlah, namely, God’s customary way of acting.
In other words, a miracle obtains when God wills to act differently from the way He not only has been acting but shall also act subsequently.
Thus understood, for people at large to expect the miraculous to happen is for them to wish for what is to be regarded as exceedingly rare and even then, too difficult to foresee.
It is similar to one’s expectation that fire will not burn.
That is why, when elaborating on events of the aforementioned nature vis-à-vis the normal course of human life, one of the greatest luminaries of Islam, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 1111), emphasised in his work Miʻyar al-ʻIlm (The Standard Measure of Knowledge) that for people at large to discard God’s customary way of acting in their hope for a miracle is tantamount to insanity and foolishness!
In short, although science as human enterprise and proven collective efforts is far from being perfect or infallible, it often provides us with strong and reliable grounds to decide on such worldly matters as public health, without having to forgo religion at all!