Fear of the body and online piety: Turning to God in the era of COVID-19
By Kidhar P.T.
The spread of COVID-19 across the globe made people, first and foremost, afraid for their bodies. This had the undesirable effect of treating the other as potential threat to one’s health, as a source of danger to be kept at bay, leading to mental and physical solitude of people. In Giorgio Agamben’s terms, what befell the world was a “bare life”, wherein, denied of communications and relationships with fellow beings, the human race found itself solely concerned with basic necessities of life. The gravity of this situation was further shot up when the scientists’ failed attempts to develop an effective antidote, made many doubtful of science’s capacity to deal with similar health crises. This peculiar situation affected religious circles, particularly Islamic ones, in two ways. On the one hand, there were those who scathingly criticized Islam on the grounds that if there were a God, he would never let this situation come about since barren mosques devoid of worshippers is truly a sore sight for Him. On the other, seeing the embarrassingly desperate state of medical science, a large number of Muslims turned to God seeking remedies. Afraid that their bodies are no longer safe in the hands of medical science, religion meant the only panacea for them.
Among Muslims of Kerala, this turn to God was in the form of listening to Va’alu (a particular form of sermon in vogue in Kerala) and Majalis-al Adhkar (congregations of chanting), which were increasingly streamed online gaining countless subscribers per day. Interestingly, this time Va’alu wasn’t a mere reminder about afterlife, rather, considering the need of hour, the clerics tried their best to impart messages of Islam concerning the ways of protecting oneself from the pandemic and leading a peaceful family life. Shattering the dominant secular discourse that confined religion into the private space of individual, Islam was seen, in the lives of these people, taking over the scene and assuming the role of physical and spiritual mentor in a time when all doors remained shut.
Horror and Piety
In In the Dust of This Planet, Eugene Thacker speaks of horror as generated by man’s inability to comprehend the world he lives in. When reason is at its limits, the world appears too mysterious that it arouses inexplicable awe and horror. It is at these critical junctures that religion comes into rescue by, as Will Durant puts it, enabling man to complete, through hypothesis and belief, a world picture left irritatingly uncertain. Religion, as it were, makes the universe appear friendly with God as explanation for everything.
The spread of COVID-19 turned into a horror-evoking event with the unprecedented magnitude of infection and alleged omnipresence of the virus. It was seen as an invisible enemy incredibly fast in spreading contagion across bodies, confounding science to produce an antidote. The horror that this unfathomable situation engendered had the exciting impact of turning Kerala Muslims towards piety, towards religious means, which proved an effective source of solace for their troubled hearts. Thus, the pandemic was widely viewed by these Muslims as a test from God and admittedly, there were some, who went to extremes proclaiming it as a severe retribution inflicted by Him upon human beings due to their indulgence in sins. The religious leaders took it upon themselves to assure that the former narrative got upper hand. This is why, a hadith in which, when asked about contagion, the Prophet is reported to have said that it is a punishment God sends upon those he wills, but he would turn it a grace in favour of the believers, was repeatedly heard in online Va’alus and live spiritual congregations. Many saw this circumstance as a test of their faith, which they were expected to overcome through enduring patience and perseverance. Here, it must be noted that this doesn’t mean that these Muslims harboured apathetic stance towards health instructions by authorities or they thought that chanting some Qur’anic verses or relying upon other spiritual means makes necessary protocols and medications superfluous. They adhered to health instructions in letter and spirit while believing that a complete and most effective remedy is possible only through divine intervention, the reliability of which was further consolidated by the apparent failure of medical science. In sum, vulnerability of body and resultant horror became a catalyst for Muslims to rethink their life and consequently edify it through piety. It was, in a sense, religion affirming its relevance in concrete life, when everything was at loss.
The ban on public gatherings and open programs due to lockdown was a major boost for online media platforms – YouTube in particular. This was the case among Kerala Muslims, too. When the occasional Va’alu programmes – which were a source of spiritual nourishment – conducted in vast open spaces and small congregations for religious learning in mosques and other specially arranged areas, were banned, people felt disillusioned. This was effectively resolved when the ulema started to create YouTube channels in order to reach people. Thus, social media became a major source of piety, which through live sermons and Majalis-al Adhkar always reminded them of the divine panacea for the fear they had for their bodies. These types of Islamic platforms addressed the fearful impact COVID-19 had upon people in two ways.
First, medication by means of verses and chants. Muslims believe that certain Qur’anic verses and Adhkar reported in hadiths of the Prophet Muhammed have divinely inspired power to heal diseases, even deadly ones. The Holy Quran has described itself as a cure: “And we send down of Quran that which is healing and mercy for the believers” (Al-Isra’-82). Many studies and research have been conducted on the healing through Qur’an in many areas. For instance, a study conducted by Sooki, Sharifi and Taghorabi on 56 elderly people residing in Golabchi nursing home in Kashan found that the Quran was an effective factor of mental health in old people who reside in nursing homes. They found that the Quran recitation while staying in nursing home had significant impact on the mental health of 41.1% of the participants who lacked the index thereof. This is just one example from among such countless studies. In online Va’alus, people were repeatedly instructed to recite chapters and verses from the Qur’an. The last three chapters of Quran, Ikhlas (sincerity), Faleq (dawn) and Nas (people), regarded as the most efficacious in curing diseases when recited three times each day in morning and evening, were among those commonly prescribed. Likewise, the verses such as “Wa-ida-maridthu-fahuva-yashfeen” (And when I am ill, it is he who will cure me, Al-Touba, 14) and “Wayashfi- swudura-qaumin-mu’mineen” (Allah will heal the breast of also a most the believers, Al-Shuara’, 80) were also widely prescribed. Along with the Qur’anic verses, certain Adhkar reported in hadiths of the Prophet as having the effect of curing diseases, were in vogue, too. Most well-known and widely-chanted from them were “Bismillahilladi-la-yadurru-ma’smihi-shai’un-fil ardi-vala-fissamaai- vahuvassameeul-aleem (In the name of Allah who with His name nothing can cause harm in the earth nor in the heaven, and He is the All-hearing, the All-knowing) and “Bismillahirrahmani-rahim-vala-haula-vala quvvatha-illa-billah” (In the name of Allah, the most merciful and gracious, there is no might, no power except by God). A believer is required to repeat these chants in Arabic three times every day in morning and evening to have the desired effect. At variance with medicines scientifically proven which have universal applicability to some extent, the effect of these spiritual medicines is almost always dependent on a person’s belief.
As observed above, rather than putting emphasis on afterlife and prescribing Adhkar to secure glorious positions in heaven, the Va’alus were this time full of instructions to repeat the verses and chants believed to have the potential to repel the virus. In online spiritual congregations for Adhkar, the afterlife-related ones were put aside and those expected to have the capacity to secure the body were preferred. In both Va’alus and Adhkar congregations, a long prayer to God right before the end is usual, which is taken to be indispensable. These prayers, instead of being supplications to God for granting a better afterlife as usual, were directed to him to save all people, not only Muslims, from the grave danger of the pandemic. This created a situation where prayers began dominating Va’alu which usually consisted of a vast range of concerns with almost every dimension of Islam included. This is not to say that in Va’alu people were not at all reminded of obligatory religious rituals and performances. Rather, quite interestingly, even those aspects of Islam were presented in them as necessary means to acquire piety, which, as the preachers asserted, was the only reliable way to secure full protection of the body. Even now, when the severity of the pandemic has considerably dwindled, Islamic YouTube channels in Kerala with the largest number of subscribers are those that mainly stream prayers. A good example is Arivin Nilavu, a YouTube programme by well-known Vaiz (one who delivers Va’alu) Safvan Saqafi, who has gained 1.62 million subscribers so far. Another one, Noore Ajmer by Valiyuddeen Faizy, has 461thousand subscribers, whereas Musthafa Hudawi, also a famous preacher, has 72.6 thousand. In the case of Safvan Saqafi who began Va’alu like others concentrating on general religious issues, the transformation brought about by COVID-19 was immense as prayers and Adhkar began dominating his sermons. Many traditional healers having expertise in the Quran and hadith but without special potential for Va’alu, which requires a beautiful and captivating voice, also dominated the scene since what people needed most was protection of their bodies from the virus. Thus, prayers for betterment of health had the lion’s share of sermons, and those preachers who didn’t lend them much attention failed to get listeners.
Second, medication by medicines prescribed by the Prophet. In Islam, there is a branch of medical science known as Tibbunnabi (prophetic medication) which makes use of natural herbs to cure diseases. Among such natural medicines is black seed about which the Prophet has said that it is cure for all diseases save death. During COVID-19, the preachers had instructed people to drink water boiled with black seed in it, following the saying of the Prophet. Though apparently scientific, this type of medication has a deeper significance with regards to Muslims since they see it as part of devotion to the Prophet, adhering to whose each and every act is pleasing to Allah. In Va’alus and other online congregations, preachers combined this kind of practical medication with Qur’anic verses and Adhkar having healing capacity, bringing forth a beautiful picture of how piety turns a matchless panacea for unsettling diseases. This way, Islam showed its massive potential to engage with worldly concerns in a time when all that is religious is frowned at as being irrelevant and otherworldly.
In sum, the turn to piety widely seen among Kerala Muslims during the pandemic as a direct result of fear for their bodies left insecure in the hands of medical science was based on a very simple logic: being the cause of everything, God has caused the disease; and only supplicating to him through the Qur’anic verses, His words, and prophetic teachings will be of help. Also, this particular situation gave us a clearer picture of how spirituality, without losing its vitality, can adapt to a fast-changing world. Among these Muslims, a particular understanding of spirituality as conveyable solely through physical presence had wide currency, which was radically rewritten through online congregations necessitated by the lockdown. This peculiar situation, in general, proved a commensurate occasion for Islam to show its flexibility and heightened concern with the finite.
Kidhar P.T. is at present a research student at Darul Huda Islamic University, Malappuram, Kerala. He is a writer and independent research fellow, specializing in areas of Muslim culture, Sufism and Western philosophy. He is also interested in anthropology of religion and Islamic political activism.
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