RELIGION is one of the most potent forces of human civilisation. It satisfies our innermost needs and reflects our deepest yearnings. Nearly 84% of the world’s population claims adherence to some faith or the other.

Whether this faith is used as a force for good or for evil is, of course, another matter. Much depends on how adherents use or misuse their religion.

Like all laws and norms, religious doctrines are capable of whatever interpretation we wish to clothe them with.

The character of the interpreter often gets superimposed on the character of a religious doctrine. With the Covid-19 pandemic swirling all around us, institutionalised religion is facing several challenges.

First, is the issue of what is at the heart and soul of religion? Despite the pandemic and its imperative of social distancing, some religious leaders around the world continue to emphasise rituals, mass ceremonies and gatherings.

Most religious services emphasise collective worship, close contact, hand holding, sharing communion, and touching or kissing religious objects. These practices have to be avoided till normalcy returns.It is respectfully submitted that such avoidance will not weaken religion.

Most religions have teachings that profess the importance of assisting others, saving lives and not harming oneself. The Quran tells us: “If anyone saved a life it would be as if he saved the life of the whole humanity.”

The Bible says you “shall not test the Lord” (Matthew 4:7). This means that one should not take unnecessary risks and that “God helps those who help themselves”.

In Judaism, the Talmud emphasises the preservation of human life and this takes precedence over all other commandments.

It is respectfully submitted that despite the Covid-19 prohibitions, there is nothing to prevent us from emphasising the spiritual part of religion, giving importance to substance over form, and embracing the importance of love, compassion, tolerance, sacrifice and peace.

I am reminded of Surah Al-Baqara 2:177 (Yusuf Ali translation): “It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards east or west; But it is righteousness to believe in God, and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; To spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; To be steadfast in prayer, and practise regular charity; To fulfil the contracts which ye have made.”

I am reminded of the inscription on the Kamal Lazar Foundation that “all the world is a mosque”.

I am reminded that Islam has no clergy and no mediators between man and God. We can in all places, in and outside the mosque, establish a connection with the divine. Any place on earth can be a mosque and prayer is wherever there is the presence of God.

I am reminded of what Khalil Gibran wrote: “Is not religion all deeds and all reflections? … Your daily life is your temple and your religion.”

The movement control order is preventing us from going outside but it does not prevent us from going within the recesses of our soul to discover the untapped forces within.

Second, the constitutional right to freedom of religion is being used as an excuse by some religious leaders and religious communities around the world to defy the government’s severe but unavoidable restraints on collective expressions of faith.

In Italy, the United States, South Korea, Indonesia and India, there are clear acts of defiance against Covid-19 restrictions. In the long range, these foolish acts and counterproductive attitudes will bring a bad name to religion.

Malaysians have generally maintained a commendable discipline. But with the fasting month, the religious tradition of sharing and caring at the break of fast, nightly terawih prayers in the mosque, the celebration of Hari Raya Aidilfitri next month and the Haj pilgrimage from July 28 to Aug 2, there is bound to be sadness and even some desperation.

We must be reminded, however, that the Haj has been suspended about 40 times since the first pilgrimage in 629 CE, including for cholera outbreaks and plagues.

Third, some political and religious leaders in India, Europe and the US are exploiting the Covid-19 tragedy to foment hatred against racial and religious minorities.

Fourth, Covid-19 is a challenge to the authority and the self-anointed eminence of religious leaders in society.

The pandemic is a threat to their lucrative sources of income. Some fear that the impact of the epidemic on faiths could be similar to that of the 14th century bubonic plague on the Catholic Church in Europe.

In the initial days of the plague, religious leaders contended that the disease was a punishment from God for people’s sins. Prayers and penance were seen as ways to protect oneself from the epidemic.

But when the catastrophe continued despite all these pious exertions, people slowly started losing faith in the religious hierarchy. This culminated in one of the biggest revolutions in religious history: the reformation movement in Europe.

Religious leaders must, therefore, reinterpret their articles of faith, avoid resistance to civil authority, adopt a world view in which science and religion can go hand in hand and avoid fomenting religious intolerance and scapegoating of minorities, disbelievers, etc.

We all also have a role to play. As people of faith, we should turn attention to the beautiful tapestry of doctrines, principles, and beliefs in our religion that embrace the inter-connectedness of life, the importance of love, compassion, tolerance, sacrifice and peace.

The youth among us can supply their digital know-how to build good communication during the crisis.

The youth can work with the clergy to promote digital, theological discussions about the protection of human life and the need to halt gatherings and implement social distancing guidelines.

Religious leaders of all persuasions must come together over Covid-19 and support government efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus.

They must reanalyse religious practices and provide theological opinions on how faith practices or rituals can be adapted to meet the response of Covid-19.

Religious leaders must take to the media, email and other platforms to conduct daily prayers and worship, mobilise individual volunteers to serve the elderly and those at risk, collaborate on charitable initiatives, and serve as a reinforcement mechanism of government messaging.

Religious leaders have an urgent role to oppose scapegoating of other religions and incitements to bigotry or violence.

The government in turn must engage with religious leaders and religious organisations and must not ignore the factor of religion in its handling of Covid-19.

Involving official and unofficial religious organisations in mitigating this pandemic is important because enlightened religious leaders can rebut fatalistic understandings of the Covid-19 crisis and explain to the community what must be done from a religious perspective.

This article was first appeared in The Star on 23 April 2020

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