Elementor #4390

Elementor #4390


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The times call for Muslims not only to ‘find a place’ in the society and culture we live in, but to proactively participate in the effort to understand and respond to its crises. We can neither insulate ourselves, nor be drawn passively and blindly into the social fray, but must be positive agents in shaping and influencing it toward justice. The more aware we are of the dynamics that shape the culture, the more capable we will be of participating in society with clarity and agency. This requires, among other things in the current moment, recognizing and helping others to recognize the irreducibly collective and moral nature of the disagreements over our response to COVID-19, which is but one manifestation of a deeper crisis threatening the future of American society, and thus inevitably that of the American Muslim community, not to mention the world at large. I call this a crisis of public moral reality, and in this article I will explain what I mean by this, why I believe it is at the root of the social conflict that has erupted in American society in the wake of COVID-19.This conflict began to surface in the form of a debate over what activities are to be considered ‘essential.’ What is ‘essential’ vs. ‘non-essential’ activity? Our current circumstances have forced us to answer this question collectively, for the standard response to the threat of COVID-19 in most societies worldwide has been to close down all ‘non-essential’ public activity while leaving open the ‘essential.’ Explicitly or implicitly, this has been the underlying question driving public discussion, debate, and divisive politics ever since. The purpose of this article is not to criticize or support any set of public health measures, but instead to examine the nature of this question and the moral dynamics the COVID threat has revealed by imposing the question on society. I believe that a keen awareness here can give American Muslims insight into the nature of our social and cultural context and the prospect of a deeper engagement with and positive influence over the process of its development.   

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.[1] 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.[2] It is solely a matter of assessing the empirical evidence, an important topic treated here and here

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