God the Master Scientist COVID-19, Pandemics and Reconciling Religious Faith With Science

Accommodationists insist that during crisis moments like the current COVID-19 pandemic, scientists should lead with research and innovation while the believers should pray to God to bestow scientists with the knowledge to produce the needed vaccines.

Accommodationists approach pandemics with an understanding that prioritizes both religious faith and science. In this school of thought, there is an underlying agreement that science is important for human flourishing, and that it is equally important to admit that the search for objective truth has led scientists to questions that science cannot answer. Science, for accommodationists, cannot address all the questions that exist. It cannot answer why there is ‘something’ instead of nothing. It cannot explain how and why inanimate matter can organize to contemplate itself. 

Unlike the advocates of science-centrism, accommodationists do not believe in ideological scientism or the uncritical application of science to all human situations, including those that are not amenable to the scientific method. Instead, accommodationists would argue that the vaccines that will cure diseases like the novel coronavirus will come from scientists, but that the scientific knowledge needed for that invention is based on God’s design. God’s omnipotence is a part of the equation—the reason why, for example, Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica failed to account for why the planets tugging at each other’s orbits have not made the solar system collapse into the sun. 

To accommodationists, religion is important, not an airy-fairy form of metaphysical speculation or magical thinking. Both religion and science are founded on a belief in the existence of something outside the universe. For religion, it is an undefinable God. For science, it is a set of puzzling physical laws. With or without pandemics, science and religion speak to different realms of human experience, and the two fields of inquiry should be made to complement each other. Accommodationists insist that during crisis moments like the current COVID-19 pandemic, scientists should lead with research and innovation while the believers should pray to God to bestow scientists with the knowledge to produce the needed vaccines.

How would the people who believe there can be synergy between faith and science convince the faith-centric clerics to change their position? How can the actions and verbal pronouncements of the faith-centric clerics be carefully challenged before they develop into threats to public health? These are some of the questions religious clerics and scientists have had to grapple with since the outbreak of COVID-19. Religious clerics within the Islamic tradition initiated dialogue by looking to centuries-old Muslim texts and unearthing religious precepts that helped to clarify the dogmatic cul-de-sacs of their colleagues. For instance, Nigeria’s minister of communication and digital economy Shaykh Dr. Isa Ali Pantami, the imam of Abuja National Mosque Shaykh Dr. Ibrahim Ahmad Maqari, Grand Mufti of Nigeria Shaykh Ibrahim Salih al-Husseini, Director of the Centre for Islamic Civilization and Interfaith Dialogue Bayero University Kano, Shaykh (Dr.) Bashir Aliyu Umar, Imam of Dorayi Mosque, Shaykh (Dr.) Muhammad Sani Umar Rijiyar Lemo and others have cited a plethora of religious texts and examples from the historiography of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) to justify coronavirus responses and mandates. Such as the total lockdown of mosques, social distancing, the necessity of protecting life according to the second principle of maqāid al-sharīʿa, relying on prayers, asking for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and most importantly, the need for religious scholars to rely on sound medical advice before issuing religious pronouncements. 

The Significance of Accommodationists

The most important contribution made by accommodationists to the COVID-19 discourse is their unequivocal emphasis on the dichotomy between the agency of the clergy that addresses matters related to spirituality and the agency of medical experts who research diseases and pandemics. Hadiza Isma El-Rufai, wife of the Kaduna State governor, referenced this dichotomy when she tweeted, ‘Dear Muslims, Christians and Followers of Traditional Religion, Unfortunately, COVID-19 is here. Follow the advice of public health experts. They know more about this than your imams, pastors, babalawos, bokas, and shrine priests.’

While urging President Muhammadu Buhari to lockdown Nigeria for a month to curb the spread of coronavirus and ensure effective contact tracing, former presidential candidate of the Young Progressives Party (YPP), Kingsley Moghalu, also reiterated the dichotomy between clergy and medical experts when he tweeted, ‘Gatherings in churches and mosques should be avoided for now. It’s about science. God is the Master Scientist’.

The dichotomous distinction between the agency of clergy and the agency of health practitioners has precedence in the intellectual history of the Medieval Islamic world as well as in ancient Hausaland. In his book Taqīq an-nabaʾ ʿan amr al-wabaʾ, the Andalusian physician, Muḥammad ibn ʿAli ash-Shaqūrī, emphasized this distinction. He wrote, ‘Men of religion and reason, who were appointed to deal with the affairs of the Muslims, should prevent the people of ignorance and adventure from harming the people by giving them medicines and bleeding them without consulting the doctors.’

Similarly, in Maali al-insān al-mutaʿalliqa bi-l-adyan wa-l-ʿabdan, ʿAbd Allāh b. Fūdī stressed the importance of consulting medical practitioners, with the caveat that they must be Muslims and their medical treatments must conform with the alāl (lawful) and arām (unlawful) stipulations of the sharīʿa and not include substances like alcohol. In his text on Prophetic medicine Talkhīs aibb al-nabawī (a  127-page summary of Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Abī Bakr al-Qasṭallānī’s text Al-Muwāhib al-ladunniyya bi al-mina al-Muammadiyya), Muhammad Bello also reiterated the clause that Muslims should not be treated by Jewish physicians even though there were no records of Jews living in Hausaland before British colonialism. The ‘alcohol argument’ has been a subject of debate in the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in Ghana, where a report erroneously associated with the nation’s chief imam claimed that Muslims could take alcohol to fight the coronavirus. The spokesman for the chief imam later released a press statement to debunk the misleading report.

When Martin Luther was faced with plague in 1527 in Wittenberg, he did not wholly embrace the belief that faith would protect against infection. He combined his faith in God with practical steps to ameliorate the situation, including the provision of hospitals for the care of the sick. Similarly, when Islamic scholars encountered plagues and pandemics, they did not peddle conspiracy theories, nor did they wait helplessly and rely on prayer alone. They combined references to scriptural sources with active research on medicinal plants and herbs for possible treatments. 

Accommodationists in Nigeria may not necessarily be familiar with the works of Syed Ahmad Khan (founder of the scientific society of Aligarh), Said Nursi (founder of the Nur movement in Turkey), Maurice Bucaille (author of the Bible, the Quran, and Science), and Nidhal Guessoum (author of Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science). They might not even have read Ian Barbour’s ‘critical realism’ and his fourfold typology for the interaction of religion and science (conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration). Yet, like all of these figures, they believe in the quest to make religion compatible with modern sciences. In one way or another, some people of faith have reconciled the perceived tension between faith and science. For Muslim accommodationists, there is the nostalgic recollection of a golden age when Islamic societies in the Middle Ages were the scientific centres of the world. Muslims who were the dominant cultivators of science birthed modern universities and the notion of science as an empirical inquiry. What happened to that golden age?

‘The Storm Will Pass’

COVID-19 has come and it will go. As Yuval Harari said, ‘the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive—but we will inhabit a different world.’ While we are on lockdown, it will be beneficial for the Nigerian public to reflect on the intellectual stagnation that has kept us helpless for far too long. If you claim that Western science and civilization has no place for the creator of the universe, then what are you doing to create your science informed by spiritual values? Likewise, it is duplicitous to undermine the philosophical worldview of Western science and yet appropriate its benefits. For the post-COVID-19 world, it will be important to depart from imitative scholarship fixated on medieval texts alone and instead focus on creative learning that build upon the scholarship of the past and addresses modern concerns. It is time for religious scholars to unfreeze their intellectual stagnation and step out from their fixation on the philological attachment and preoccupation with medieval religious literature. It is important to revive the spirit of faith and scientific inquiry and embrace a holistic form of eclectic scholarship.

If classical scholars of the medieval period, including those in ancient Hausaland, had remain fixated on only studying the scholarship of the generation that came before them, they would not have left behind such a rich scholarly legacy that cuts across all fields of human knowledge including jurisprudence, science, psychology, medicine, economics, and philosophy. In the 19th century, ʿAbd Allāh b. Fūdī wrote Maali al-insān al-mutaʿalliqa bi-l-adyan wa-l-ʿabdan, where he touched upon issues of philosophy of medicine and medical ethics. He also wrote iyāʾ al-umma fī adillat al-aʾimma where he addressed issues of nutrition and balanced diet. In the same century, Muhammad Bello authored several texts on medical sciences in Islam, including Risālat al-amra al-kilyah wa ʿīlajia (a book on the treatment of kidney disease); Kitāb aibb al-muʾin al-musamma bi- ibb al-ʿayn (a book on the treatment of eye diseases); Ujalāt al-rakīb fī aibb al-aʾib (a book on medical sciences in Islam); Al-qawl al-manthūr fī ʿadwiyāt ʿillat al-bāsūr (a book on the causes and treatment of hemorrhoids and liver problems); Tanbīh al-Ikhwān ʿala ʿadwiyāt al-dīdān (a book on the effects of worms on the human body); Al-qawl al-sīnā fī wujūh al-tālyin wa-l-tamashshī bi-l-sīnā (a book on the medicinal qualities of the plant ‘cassia senna’) and others. All of these scholarly texts are a testament to the fact that the attempt to blend religion and science is not new. The modern-day definition of religious scholarship around theology alone is a departure from what used to be the norm of eclectic scholarship, particularly in Hausaland.

We need curious-minded and rational leaders like the ʿAbbāsid caliph Abū Al-ʿabbās ʿabd Allāh Al-maʾmūn ibn Ar-rashīd who will suppress the unavailing cycle of sectarian polemics that have consumed the public sphere. The productive energy of our society is much needed in the promotion of indigenous research and scholarship in all fields of knowledge. In a post-COVID-19 world, Nigeria needs a rebirth of learning, critical thinking, and a twenty-first-century ‘House of Wisdom’ that will produce great thinkers like Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan b. al-Ḥasan b. al-Haytham, Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad b. Aḥmad Al-Bīrūnī, and Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn b. ʿAbdillāh b. al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī ibn Sīnā

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