How are we to respond to what is happening in the world today? As Christians, as Muslims, how do we understand what is happening, in the light of God’s sovereign power?
Especially so when religious gatherings have sometimes been a stimulus for the spread of covid-19? In Malaysia, a gathering of 16,000 at a mosque near Kuala Lumpur at the end of February led to over half of the country’s cases, as well as some in neighbouring countries.[i] In India, an annual gathering in Delhi of the Tablighi Jamaat in March caused covid-19 to spread to thousands of people across the country, leading some Hindus to blame Muslims for India’s covid-19 crisis.[ii]
In countries around the world, including in the diaspora, many Muslims live in extended families with three generations under one roof, where it is impossible for elder people to self-isolate. Meals may involve eating from one dish and sharing utensils. Patterns of social intimacy and regular family visiting make the idea of ‘social distancing’ seem “both alien and absurd.”[iii]
Many Muslim countries have now banned the obligatory Friday prayers, which for men at least should be performed in a mosque and not at home. Some are now offering Friday sermons online.[iv] It seems likely that the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the biggest occasion in the Muslim calendar, is likely to be suspended.[v]
This Ramadan has been a bleak time rather than the usual month of celebration. The communal break-fasts at the end of the day with extended family and friends have not been possible. There have been limited opportunities to get out and shop for food: and for many workers and refugees, even getting subsistence food is precarious, and they are dependent on the goodwill of friends or community organisations doing food-drops. The tarawih (daily evening congregational prayers when everyone gathers together in the mosque) have been cancelled.
How are we to respond?
Muslims and Christians, we all believe in God’s sovereignty – therefore this is not outside his control or his will. People in both Muslim and Christian communities have seen this as a time to call for repentance, and for people to come together in renewed prayer. In some countries like Tanzania, this has led to a strong push for mosques and churches to be kept open for prayer.[vi]
Other Muslims argue that God expects people to take precautions, and that Islam strongly promotes cleanliness and washing. They point to Islam’s emphasis on cleanliness, stringent rules for pre-prayer washing, and to Qur’anic verses such as Al-Baqarah 2:222 which says that God loves those who purify themselves.[vii]
For Muslims, times like these are given as a test from God, to which people are meant to respond by growing in patience and resilience (Al-Baqarah 2:153-157). To grieve – about hard times, for festivals and family gatherings cancelled, even for the death of loved ones – may be to question God’s will, and is therefore a sin.
How do we respond as Christians?
We believe, with Muslims, in God’s sovereign power over all that happens – covid-19 and all its consequences are not outside God’s control. In Christ, we also believe that while God is transcendent, he is not arbitrary or capricious. Rather his nature is good, He is perfect Love. Beyond that, he has bound himself personally to us in a covenant relationship, sealed in Jesus Messiah’s death and resurrection.
What does that mean for us?
Like Muslims, we believe that suffering, testing times, can help us grow in endurance: and can help us become conformed to grow in the image of Jesus (Rom 5:3, 8:28-30). For Christ-followers, suffering goes beyond offering us the opportunity to grow in patience and endurance, to also grow in hope – a hope based on what Jesus has already done, on the gift of the Holy Spirit enlivening us, and on God’s promise that all things work together for good for those who love (being loved by) God (Rom 5:5ff, 8:28).
While we look to growing in hope, we are also allowed to grieve. Laments are part of the Bible’s prayer book in the Psalms.[viii] The shortest verse in the Bible is one of the most comforting: “Jesus wept,” (John 11:35), as he encountered the death of Lazarus and the sisters’ grief (even while he was planning to raise him to life). Grief, lament, acknowledges that disease and death are not part of God’s best plan for his world, and it is alright to mourn (even while the crucifixion of Jesus Messiah assures us that God can take the very worst and use it to fully accomplish his purposes).
Muslims and Christians, as we face covid-19, we both believe in a God who is sovereign. We both believe in an eternal life and that we are not limited to the events and circumstances of this life.
In Jesus, our belief is one of hope. We have hope now in God’s purposes for good in this life, and more than that, in his sure invitation in Jesus Messiah into eternal life with him. We hold onto a hope that goes beyond this earth.
Photo credits: https://www.flickr.com/photos/m5cjk/49832373461/; https://www.flickr.com/photos/alassiry/5266110056/; https://www.flickr.com/photos/rjfdalmeida/31257301614/.
(c) When Women Speak… May 2020
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women.
Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and DTh (Melbourne School of Theology).