God, the Saudis and the coronavirus

Fouad Laroui
By Fouad Laroui

Writer, author of "Les Tribulations du dernier Sijilmassi”

Posted on Friday, 20 March 2020 14:32

A Saudi policeman prays in front of the deserted Kaaba in Mecca on 7 March 2020 © AP Photo/Amr Nabil /Sipa

If the Saudis truly believed what they preach, when faced with the coronavirus they would be satisfied with calling on everyone to implore the Creator for mercy. But by closing the Great Mosque of Mecca, they’ve proven that they’re capable of exercising common sense just like any agnostic or deist ruler.

Saudi Arabia has temporarily closed its doors to Muslim pilgrims. Riyad’s goal is to prevent an epidemic in the country home to Mecca and Medina, their reasoning being that COVID-19 could easily spread among mass gatherings of pilgrims.

Who can blame the Saudi government for worrying about the health of its citizens?

It’s one of the essential duties that any self-respecting country follows through with. We can only commend Riyad for this decision. Bravo, Riyad.

READ MORE: What coronavirus is changing for Muslims

Dualism in Islam

However, this common sense measure has an unexpected theological implication: by acting in this way, Saudi Arabia proves it doesn’t subscribe to the credo it has continued to disseminate in the Muslim world and beyond for decades.

This crude and simplistic – if not stupid – credo has caused tremendous damage worldwide and precipitated a decline in thought, particularly in the Arab world.

How did this happen? Well, basically, Islam has two different visions of God.

In the first vision, derived from Alpharabius or Averroes, once shared by educated Muslims today, God is conceived as the Maker of the world; He is no more or no less. Believers can only come to know him through studying his work, i.e., the world. Thus, they must devote themselves to science, or rather, sciences: physics, biology, astronomy, etc.

Such study is a pious act on par with charity or meditation.

In the second vision, God is conceived as a great, fastidious man perched on his cloud as he continuously observes the universe and, above all, mankind. (Why this fixation on men and not bonobos, for instance?)

He can only be known by way of what the Koran tells us about Him – and this text must be taken literally. So, if sura II refers to God’s throne, then there must be a throne somewhere and He is actually sitting on it. (After all, didn’t Michelangelo paint his lofty buttocks on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?)

Backed into a tight corner

Of course, this dualism isn’t unique to Islam.

It has been running throughout European thought since Aristotle and his “prime mover” concept; and dualism was expressed most clearly by Blaise Pascal, an absolute genius who unfortunately became a stubborn fundamentalist after he experienced a religious awakening: “I cannot forgive Descartes. […] [H]e would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God.”

If the Saudis truly believed what they themselves preach from Jakarta to Dakar, from Riyad to Rabat, they would be satisfied with calling on everyone to kneel down and pray and implore the Creator for his mercy.

By taking on common sense measures like other any agnostic or deist rulers, they’ve proven when backed into a tight corner, they know such rulers to be right.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Why oil-dependent economies must prepare for the worst

Against a mind-deadening religious movement

A personal, capricious God who intervenes at every moment all over the world, from helping Messi score a penalty kick to infecting certain countries with a virus, is childish and represents the basest level of thought.

Averroes was right.

We have to act in this world that has been given to us with its laws – which are for us to discover. Let’s hope that the Saudis will be consistent and from this point on and will dedicate their billions of dollars of oil money to scientific research and not to the dissemination of a daft thought system (“Be mindless,” Pascal said).

The Saudis could help develop vaccines to fight COVID-19, Ebola, AIDS, etc. Instead of being the greatest supporters of a mind-numbing religious movement, they could become the benefactors of humanity.

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