close
Advertisement
Can't connect right now! retry

add The News to homescreen

tap to bring up your browser menu and select 'Add to homescreen' to pin the The News web app

Got it!

add The News to homescreen

tap to bring up your browser menu and select 'Add to homescreen' to pin the The News web app

Got it!

March 30, 2020

Creeds and corona

Opinion

March 30, 2020

The history of global pandemics makes an interesting study of how religious influences play out in people’s lives during crisis times. When the Black Death killed nearly half of Europe’s population during the Middle Ages, religion became central to explanations surrounding the plague’s emergence.

Sufferers turned to the Church for answers and were told that the plague was a punishment from God for their sinful ways. Priests warned that people’s indulgence in the pleasure of earthly lives’ had caused God to unleash his wrath upon them. This, initially, promoted a new wave of piety among the believers. But as people continued to die in large numbers and the Church failed to alleviate their miseries, believers began to question the very institutions they had relied on for stability. As the search for explanations continued, religious differences again became a source of conflict.

Based on the simple suspicion that fewer Jews had lost their lives in the plague, the Christian populace began persecuting Jews accusing them of poisoning public water supplies. Entire Jewish towns were wiped out as a result of this. The events during the plague had profound social and cultural impacts in 14th century Europe. Examining the 1918-influenza pandemic, journalist Laura Spinney, in her BBC article states that inhabitants of China’s rural interior assumed that angry demons and dragons had sent the illness.

In the hope to appease the enraged spirits, they paraded figures of dragon kings through the streets. Influenza ended up killing around 50 million people worldwide. Since then and now, the world has changed in fundamental ways. In terms of the devastation caused, the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be compared to either the Bubonic Plague of 1347-48 or the Influenza of 1918. But it’s fascinating to see how the religious dimension is still woven into the human experience today as it was back then. As the world stands in the grip of a burgeoning public-health crisis, religious influence is both shaping people’s responses to the crisis and religious practices are undergoing a change of sorts.

With nations scrambling to contain the spread of contagion, religious activities are being altered or put on hold in many parts of the world. We see worship services being suspended in favour of social isolation. For the first time in centuries, the congregations in Makkah have been cancelled. In Italy where the virus has hit the worst in the last few weeks, the Vatican announced the cancellation of Holy Week observances in Rome. In India, Sikh Gurdawaras have suspended their services while the Hindu festival of Nagar Kirtans also stands postponed.

But since religious believers are not an internally homogenous group, their responses also vary in the face of dilemmas. It is little wonder that certain religious sections are turning to their belief in the healing power of faith and promoting holy remedies to deal with the situation at hand. This is illustrated nowhere better than in India, where nationalist Hindutva men are seen bathing in ‘sacred’ cow dung and drinking cow pee to secure themselves from the Corona threat. We had previously seen how, in South Korea, a secretive fringe Christian sect had ignored official advice and ended up becoming the reason the infections spiked.

In Pakistan, local religious leaders declared that they would continue congregations in mosques, come what may. On a news talk show, Mufti Muneebur Rehman quoted references to demonstrate the power of congregations for a collective fight against the common enemy. Understanding the risks of community transmission, this was a dangerous narrative to promote. Such strong religious influence, however, is not limited to just Pakistan. A major evangelical church in Brazil just won a court battle to remain open. The church leader, Bishop Edir Macedo, snubbed the coronavirus as a fear created by the devil and argued that spiritual activities would help confront the ‘fear campaign’.

Apparent belief-based interpretations can cause one to ignore important ground realities. The manifestation of which is being seen as thousands of men across the country continue to assemble to perform religious rites as usual. But religious leaders have now modified their earlier stance. Egypt's Al Azhar has issued a fatwa permitting the suspension of Friday prayers due to the current pandemic. As images of deserted religious sites abound, the message conveyed to us by the guardians of religion is that public safety lies in staying at home.

It goes without saying that religious practice can never be isolated from the social context in which we exist. And for a vast majority of people, belief will continue to have the power to make them feel better.

Zoya is communications professional based in Islamabad.

Twitter: ZoyaNazir6