SUMMARY DESCRIPTION: Dr. Abou El Fadl begins with a reminder that this pandemic, like every hardship, is a challenge and an opportunity to return to God, reflect upon oneself, and to find the place of God within ourselves. God is ever present, whether or not we choose to acknowledge that presence. Every living thing is created with its own form of supplication, its own recognition of the Divine. Human beings possess the distinct ability to choose whether to listen to the Divine or to distract ourselves. God reminds us repeatedly that we will be sent hardship so that we may return to and pay attention to God.
We exist as guests in a universe in which God is the owner. This universe is not for us to dominate or to fight over sovereignty, as it belongs solely to God. We can choose to be ethical, moral guests who recognize our status and discharge the obligations that a guest owes, or we can choose to ignore and violate the duties that we owe to the host, God.
In Surah Al-Baqarah, God teaches us our core belief as Muslims, by which we deal with every challenge we may face. The Prophet Muhammad brought the revelation of the Quran into our existence, cleansing us and teaching us a deep, non-superficial wisdom: The knowledge of ethics. It is knowledge that we would otherwise not know, that we otherwise are prone to ignore.
In Islam, to love is to not take for granted. In the same way that we are not expected to take God for granted, we must not take each other for granted, as one cannot truly love someone if they take that being for granted. Attempting to do so is unjust, the nature of justice is that relationship of reciprocity, and injustice is inconsistent with love and mercy. God teaches reciprocity in the Quran, telling us, "Be mindful of me and I will be mindful of you.” In modern times, human beings have become so self-centered that they have created a god who loves them unconditionally; a god that willingly dies out of an act of devotion, requiring nothing in return other than mere belief and recognition. Unethical love does not know the relationship of reciprocity and is indeed an ugly love.
If we are ethical in our relationship with God, we will be ethical in our relationship with ourselves. As we confront hardships that may tempt us to doubt our relationship with God, the best way to endure challenges is to learn the virtues of prayer, patience and perseverance, as God is with those who practice such virtues. God will test us, send us fear, hunger and loss of wealth; but those who are blessed are those who endure and persevere.
In Surah Al-Baqarah, we are reminded of the role of the Quran as a living prophet. The heart and the crux of this knowledge is to remember that God is in the core of our existence, that God is ever-present. To recognize the role of God in our existence is to recognize that our conscious truly belongs to God. The path to God is anchoring oneself in sabr – perseverance and endurance – and persistent prayer; so that when hardship comes, one does not despair, become convinced that God does not care about them or view life as pointless with no hope of getting better.
God has sent us a hardship with this pandemic, but the key of the matter is how one confronts this hardship: Do they persevere or despair? Many Muslims, when faced with hardship, mutter, “To God we belong and to God we return" (“Inna li ’llah wa inna ‘ilayhi raji ‘un”). There are many miserable, immoral, cowardly humans, humans who will sit passively watching injustice happen, that mutter this expression as their sole response to hardship. It is a statement that has become a form of moral cowardliness, a way to evade responsibility. But this statement, if properly understood and properly believed, could revolutionize one’s existence. If we truly believe that we will return to God and remind ourselves of this every time there is a hardship, then this statement should serve to underscore that during hardship, we are never absolved of moral responsibility and accountability.
The first thing hardship does is challenge us with the illusion of exceptionalism. When faced with a challenge, the first response brought by Shaitan is to believe that immoral actions, such as mistreating loved ones, is acceptable. Or, at a higher level, that hardships excuse the need for ethical obligation. Looking at the nature of ethics, it is easy to believe we have a moral order when no difficulty exists. But this order truly matters when there is hardship. For example, when war occurs, Muslims who may otherwise live as good Muslims may suddenly excuse the killing of fellow Muslims, civilians or children.
The most important thing about this pandemic is that it challenges us with circumstances that expose and challenge our inequities, forcing us to think about the role of the divine within and testing our mettle when it comes to our ethical order. This pandemic has forced us to prioritize the distribution of resources; in countries like Spain and America, the elderly and handicapped are often less prioritized than the young, productive and healthy. Members of society who most contribute to society, rather than members of society that need to be taken care of, are more likely to receive proper treatment.
The scarcity of resources is a test, presenting us with an ethical choice. If we choose to take care of the young over the old and the healthy over the sick, we fail the ethical challenge resulting from a lack of sabr. Sabr does not come from passively waiting for God to end the hardship, true sabr is to persevere with the ethical choice when confronted with hardship.
To say, "To God we belong and to God we return," is to remind ourselves that this universe has a sovereign and that sovereign has a moral order in place. In that order, everyone, regardless of capability or productivity, has the same rights to life. In fact, in Islam, seniors have rights that exceed the rights of those who are young.
To say, "To God we belong and to God we return," is to affirm that we live life with principles. Sometimes, this requires that we not just sacrifice efficiency, but our own lives. We cannot use our own lives as an excuse to fail in our moral obligations. At times of hardship, it is easy to use the excuse of safety to become selfish. But to fail to take care of our family, our neighbors, our senior citizens and our handicapped is a huge moral failure on a societal level.
To remember God's presence in our lives is to know that every issue is an ethical issue and therefore an issue of Godliness. In many Muslim countries, when confronted with shortages, resources go to the elite and the military before anyone else. Many civilians are dying from corona because they are not deemed worthy of treatment. In other countries, it is only the wealthiest in society that get adequate care.
As a hadith states, if God blesses a society with wealth or victory, it is not for the elite, but for the sake of the most disempowered in that society. That means that when confronted with the corona pandemic, the yardstick for if we truly pass this test is whether we take care of the most vulnerable in our society. God listens and responds to the disempowered before the rich and powerful.
We Muslims cannot keep repeating, “To God we will return" every time something bad happens, when our life fails to reflect a recognition of what that means. It means committing oneself to a moral, ethical existence.