Miracles and Medicine
In facing the Covid-19 pandemic, Muslims in Malaysia are simultaneously confronted with the religion-science tension, mostly in the form of fiqh-medicine controversies, caused by polemical statements made by certain parties via online media regarding a number of issues such as the government-imposed restrictions on the performance of certain religious activities and routines as well as the validity of immunization initiatives on religious grounds.
All the aforementioned despite a famous saying attributed to Imam al-Shafi‘i (d. 820CE), one of the founders of the major Sunnite legal schools (al-fiqh), which sums up knowledge as consisting of two kinds: knowledge of fiqh which pertains to (the preservation of) religion and knowledge of medicine which pertains to (the health of) human body.
The ensuing tension is made worse by a large segment of the so-called religiously inclined Muslims either ignoring or being ignorant of, not only a more comprehensive perspective, but also the original intent, of fiqh.
In this regard, it is important for us to bear in mind that as a scholar who knew well about Imam Abu Hanifah (d. 767CE), also founder of another major Sunnite legal school, al-Shafi‘i most probably intended by fiqh in his aforementioned saying a meaning that is not restricted merely to knowledge of religious laws but includes as well the original meaning of fiqh as profound understanding of matters of religion in its entirety.
Such understanding encompasses and is rooted in religiously and epistemologically more fundamental knowledge which Abu Hanifah referred to as al-fiqh al-akbar (the major science of religion) and which provides the foundation and framework for fiqh in the legal sense and thus renders the latter purposeful and meaningful.
It is this major fiqh that was later refined in formulation, articulation and elucidation by succeeding scholars and became known by such other titles as ‘ilm usul al-din (the science of the principles of religion), ‘ilm al-‘aqa’id (the science of the religious creeds), and more technically, ‘ilm al-kalam (philosophical theology).
Defects in fiqh of this major and more comprehensive kind have led such segments of Muslims to entertain misplaced confidence in Allah’s omnipotence at the expense of the various health measures validly issued on the grounds of medicine and fiqh in the legal sense.
Inherent thus is their reliance on mere possibility of miracles which they believe can be granted when linked to genuine religious acts, pitted against empirically verified medical or scientific data.
For instance, some of them regard it possible that the infectious nature of the Covid-19 virus not affect those who are really observant of such acts as attending regular congregational prayers as performed during normal conditions.
In warding off such misplaced confidence, it is therefore pertinent that such Muslims pay attention to an explanation supplied by Imam al-Ghazzali (d. 1111), a great polymath and also a leading jurist in the Shafi‘ite legal school, pertaining to similar empirical matters of his time.
“If someone argues (regarding the cutting off of one’s neck being associated with one’s death) ‘how can you be certain of this when masters of ‘ilm al-kalam . . . hold that beheading is not cause of death, nor is eating cause of satiation, or fire cause of burning, but Allah Most High creates burning, death and satiation next to (‘ind) the presence of such matters, but not by (bi) them?’, we will then reply . . . that a master of ‘ilm al-kalam, if informed of his son’s neck having been cut off, will not doubt his death, nor will people of intelligence doubt that too. For, he does acknowledge the occurrence of death although he is disputing the mode of the relation (between beheading and one’s death). The dispute thus pertains to whether death is an (inherent) necessary concomitance (luzum daruri) with no possibility of change in its course or is by way of Allah’s customary acts (jaryan sunnatullah) in executing
His everlasting Will which admits neither replacement nor change. HENCE, THE DISPUTE ACTUALLY CONCERNS THE MODE OF THE ASSOCIATION (WAJH Al-IQTIRAN) BUT NOT THE ASSOCIATION ITSELF (NAFS AL-IQTIRAN). Therefore, do understand the aforementioned (properly) and know (well) that doubt about the death of one whose neck has been cut off is mere devilish insinuation (waswas) whereas belief in his death is certain and not susceptible of doubt!”
It is important for us to bear in mind that al-Ghazzali issued the above explanation while discussing empirical matters (mujarrabat). The Malay word “mujarab,” which in its common usage connotes medical effectiveness and efficacy, is actually derived from the aforementioned Arabic word.
It is also important for us to realize that such explanation was given by him in his famous work on logic, i.e. Mi‘yar al-‘Ilm (The Balance Scale of Knowledge).
It is in fact al-Ghazzali who, in the introduction to al-Mustasfa, his magnum opus in Islamic Jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh), has made it incumbent upon jurists, as on any other specialist, to have good mastery of logic before they could be considered to be so qualified, thus paving the way for the subsequent incorporation of logic as a necessary subject in the Muslim educational curricula of yester years.
Unfortunately, as far as the present-day Muslim educational curriculum is concerned, logic has diminished in significance and in a great number of cases has been excluded.
Hence, in order to curb the above tension from getting worse and minimise its recurrence in the long run, the religious education of Muslims at large should be reassessed and improved along the lines formulated by such great Muslim luminaries as the aforementioned.