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The collective and moral nature of the question: ‘What is essential’?
We must first appreciate that the question at hand, of ‘what is essential,’ is unavoidably both collective and moral. That is, it forces us to decide, as a group, that some things are more important or valuable than others. Consider it first in the context of the Muslim community, in isolation from the rest of society. Of course, as a community we do not exist in isolation from the rest of society (which is crucial, though sometimes difficult to acknowledge and appreciate), but we consider it here simply for the sake of analysis. The decision whether to close the masājid as a precaution against the spread of COVID was an unavoidably collective one affecting the entire community. Logically, there is no way to leave this up to the individual. For to leave the masājid open, supposedly so that everyone can decide for herself whether it is ‘worth the risk,’ is essentially to decide for the whole community that leaving them open is worth the risk. Whatever decision we make affects the community as a whole. Secondly, such a decision unavoidably involves a value judgment. That is, it is a judgment about what is valuable (good, bad, more important, less important, etc.). For even though a great many empirical facts have to be taken into account (regarding the nature of the virus, the manner of its spread, etc.) to assess the likely results of any course of action, in the final analysis one must weigh one value against another. Is it more important to keep the masjid open, or to mitigate the risk to life and health? This latter judgment is within the scope of uṣūl al-fiqh, whose practitioners draw from the Qur’an and Sunnah methods for prioritizing the values and objectives of Shari’ah. In doing so, they take account of the empirical knowledge drawn from sciences related to the matter. Whether keeping the masjid open will pose a clear and present risk to life and health is a matter for epidemiology and related sciences. The question of whether mitigating that risk is a higher priority than keeping the masjid open, calls for a value judgment we should make based on revelation. In our new COVID-language, that is the question of whether opening the masjid is ‘essential.’ Is it worth the risk posed by the virus? The Islamic position is eminently rational. The dead cannot attend the masjid. Saving life thus takes priority over keeping it open. The only room for difference here is over the empirical question of whether it really does pose such a risk. There is no place in that discussion for scriptural citations and pious posturing. It is solely a matter of assessing the empirical evidence, an important topic treated here and here.