A Muslim Reflection on COVID-19

Asad Dandia on Faith and COVID-19

In response to COVID-19, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order announcing that all businesses except those declared “essential” must shut down their in-person operations. My dad’s job did not make the cut. He is a senior, commutes to work via public transportation, and has medical complications, all of which make him particularly susceptible to the virus. He was insistent on working–albeit with all the necessary precautions such as masks, gloves, and sanitizers–but I was terrified watching him leave for work every morning.

Even with union representation, he chose not to negotiate a solution. Only after I intervened by writing to his employer and union representative did he finally relent. He is at home now and allowed to keep his job once this is all over, though a new challenge has emerged in the interim: how to grapple with care in the absence of formal labor.

Any child of immigrants with overworked, delicate, and traumatized parents will have a similar story. My father, who immigrated from Pakistan with my mother in the 1980’s, has worked a range of jobs to make ends meet. He has worked for the last half-century of his life, to the point where work is all he knows, and he will likely work until his very last breath. Labor is so deeply embedded in his internal constitution that the idea of rest is anathema, a foreign land of uncertainty and fear.

In his first week of staying home, he would look for any reason to sneak out, such as to purchase supplies or groceries. Whenever he insisted that he must work to care for us, I had to remind him that his life is worth more than a paycheck, and that as a father, he is not expendable. The animating driver of our economic system today–neoliberal capitalism–has made so many of us feel that our value is conditional to our labor, leading us to frame care in economic terms. It didn’t help that within one week, pundits and politicians (typically belonging to a higher economic bracket) were speaking about the need to continue sending people to work in order to preserve the economy. For these believers, the Market was their god, “economic growth” their liturgical call to prayer, and the poor and weak–like my father–their sacrificial lambs.

Of course, to speak about the economy like it is a sentient being requiring our constant sacrifice is not novel. In fact, Karl Marx’s meditations over “the fetishism of commodities” argued that labor was “mystified” by unequal economic relationships caused by capital, separating workers from the product of their work. This resulted in what Marx called alienation, a phenomenon where the worker’s loss of control over the fruits of her work makes it feel as though the economy directed her actions in a metaphysical way. Marx held that labor could only be “demystified” when workers themselves could collectively regulate material production, and “when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature.” For Marx, escaping the mystifying grips of capital–and the metaphysical logic that he argued it created–required nothing less than mastery over material production. I tried to square this with my father’s thinking process, a believing Muslim who views metaphysics not as a tragic result of unequal economic relationships, but as inextricably tied to labor itself. And in a world that has already endured so much pain by the human quest for mastery, I wanted to rethink labor along ethical terms that go beyond Marx’s anthropocentrism.

The Qur’an records a fascinating story that took place in a time before history, when God brought forth the souls of all humankind to stand before Him and asked: “Am I not your Lord?” to which the reply was: “Indeed, we bear witness.” Muslims recall these primordial origins often in the case of death, with the epithet: “From God we came and to Him we shall return.” Because in this world, we are all in exile. And it is precisely because we are in exile that we work and toil to one day return home. And just as our souls bore witness together with those who came before and those who will come after, the Islamic tradition is a transgenerational collaboration between our past and our future, always taking place in the immediate present. In that sense, the material plane and the otherworldly plane are interlinked. To “demystify” labor is thus not to remove metaphysics, but to put it in its rightful place. But how does this translate into a theory of care for others?

In the Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have taken a night journey on a winged beast from Mecca to Jerusalem, where he led all the preceding prophets in prayer–prominent Biblical figures like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus–after which he goes from Jerusalem to the heavens above. At each level of the heavens, he is given a glimpse into various dimensions of the hereafter. At the very end, he comes into the presence of God–a domain where not even the angels can enter–and is given a command to call his followers to perform obligatory prayers. The command is given for fifty prayers, but after his friend Moses convinces him to negotiate with God and lower the number, it is eventually reduced to five, which remain central to Islam today. One can say that Moses and Muhammad were the first union organizers. Muhammad then returns to Mecca from this journey to complete the rest of his prophetic ministry.

I understand this story through three axes: The first is the horizontal axis, from Mecca to Jerusalem, symbolizing the outer rituals that one performs. How do these rituals cultivate a sense of discipline? The second is the vertical axis, from Jerusalem to the heavens, symbolizing the inner dimensions of those rituals. How do we internalize their wisdom to become ethical and loving beings? The third–and most crucial–is the diagonal axis, the return from the heavens back to Mecca, symbolizing the need to act as an instrument of the Divine on earth. How does the collective and habitual performance of rituals inform a sense of duty toward others?

The Prophet Muhammad’s journey to the heavens didn’t take place at the end of his life, but at a time when his community still had much work to do. After enduring intensifying persecution in Mecca for 13 years, he and his followers eventually fled to Medina to establish a city-state and build a shared ethical community. Thus, the order to pray did not signify a separation from the world, but a more meaningful engagement with it. What does meaningful engagement mean during the time of COVID-19, when prisoners–disproportionately black and brown–are left to suffer the virus alone, refugees are turned away at the borders, and millions endure the weight of job insecurity, a tattering healthcare system, and an uncertain future because of ecological disaster? To labor and care for them is where prayer becomes praxis.

Perhaps one can find some parallels in the writing of postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault, who theorized on the concept of “care of the self” which he traced back to Ancient Greece. For Foucault, to practice “care of the self” (axis one) was to acquire deep knowledge of how to act ethically toward others (axis two) and then to live out that mode of ethics in the world (axis three). While he is most popular for his theories on how structures of power shape people’s modes of existence, his later work shines light on the fact that, as human subjects, we can–and ought to–consciously reconstitute how we live in the world so that we can inaugurate creative new ways of embodying our ethics. But is that all there is to it?

As I reflect over my father’s predicament, I find value in Marx’s and Foucault’s theories in helping me rethink labor and care. The economy is not a God, nor should our conception of care be held hostage to economic structures foisted upon us. However, where Marx and Foucault center the human subject, I find that the Islamic tradition offers a novel intervention whereby “labor” and “care” are anchored in a Divine cosmological order that tethers us to past and present, an order upon which we all depend. Perhaps anchoring ourselves in something greater than ourselves that also tethers us to others can help us rethink our place in the world as well. In the Islamic tradition, amidst the turbulence, God remains constant and always in control.

In quarantine, for the first time in many years, I prayed together with both of my parents. We reenacted the same ritual on earth that was commanded to the Prophet Muhammad in the heavens, reminding us that our horizontal axis is interlinked with our vertical axis. My dad will be back to work once this is all over, whenever that is. In the meantime, he’ll find ways to make meaning of his days at home, while we all try to explore what it means to embody our diagonal axis.

How can we rethink theories of labor and care in ways that free us from centering either the market-as-god and man-as-subject? What if–in this rethinking–the Transcendental is not viewed strictly as a coping mechanism from supra-human structures, but as an animating agent within a Divine cosmology that offers dignified and novel means by which to overcome them? In the Quranic time before history, when God collected the souls of humanity–all of us–to bear witness, we affirmed right then that we have no other Lord over us, effectively liberating ourselves from the temporal and contingent. But embedded in our affirmation was also a commitment to one another, to the many who came before us and the many more who will come after.

Perhaps, as we grapple with these questions, we’ll enter a post-COVID world with new ways of being,  animated not by a desire for mastery over the world, but by a desire for dialogue with it in the service of ourselves and others. That evening, my parents and I concluded our prayer with a popular Quranic supplication: “Our Lord, give us good in this world and good in the hereafter, and shield us from the punishment of the fire.”

Because indeed, from God we came and to Him we shall return.

 Asad Dandia is a Brooklyn-born writer, organizer, and graduate student of Islamic Studies at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter: @DandiaAsad