The Indonesian government, according to President Joko Widodo (pictured), should be making all efforts to manage the coronavirus crisis. What will Indonesian Islamist clerics do, pray or find ways to take the president down? (Photo by Tracey Nearmy - Pool/Getty Images)
Coronavirus, now a global pandemic, received a different response in Indonesia than in most of the world. In February, when China was quarantining Hubei province, prominent Indonesian clerics were reducing the disease to a religious matter. As usual, the assertion was marked by religious claim of superiority and that God could easily be involved in daily life.
Instead of advising congregations in particular and Indonesians in general about the pandemic nature of coronavirus, many religious leaders were linking the virus to something supernatural that could be fought with prayers.
A popular preacher, Ustad Abdul Somad (also known as UAS), a graduate of Egypt's Al-Azhar University, in a public sermon given in Malaysia, told his congregation that coronavirus was God's army sent to protect Uighurs in China. On February 17, the statement -- under the title "UAS: Coronavirus is God's Army to Protect Uighur Muslims" -- was uploaded to YouTube's Hajinews TV channel. In his sermon, Somad seems to claim that Allah always helps Islamic people, even if they have been taking losses:
"Allah indeed love this umma [Muslim community]. The umma have lost their sultanate, the umma have lost their caliphate. The umma have lost them. Now, the umma just needs to read the Qur'an, to recite it. But God is still takes pity on them. I still feel pity to see you, God said, so God helped with all kinds of armies".
Somad was quoted as saying that as the Muslims observe a lifestyle in harmony with religious teachings and and different from the majority of the population, they have protection from the deadly virus:
"There is the latest God's army named corona. People who are living in Uighur (China), do not suffer this kind of virus. Many people are surprised why. One of the reasons is, they always do the ritual ablation before prayer, one of which is washing their hands."
As one of the most prominent preachers in Indonesia, Somad and his statement have many followers; also, it is country in which preachers or ulema [clergy] and their congregations tend to have a patron-client relationship.
On March 2, 2020, Indonesia's Ulema Council (MUI) joined the chorus. The MUI, the most powerful religious private institution in the country, then asserted that the coronavirus outbreak was not only God's army sent to fight the Chinese, but that it also came as God's rebuke.
"Ustad Somad who stated that Coronavirus is God's army is legitimate since if people are arrogant, Allah would then reprimand them," said MUI Deputy Chairman, Muhyidin Junaidy according to the journalist Edy Yuliansyah Sharif of Tagar.id. in an article entitled "MUI Defends Ustad Abdul Somad on Coronavirus as God's Army" on March 3, 2020.
"One of people's arrogance is eating food that has been forbidden in Islam," Junaidy said. "Allah is still reprimanding people through Covid-16 or Coronavirus even though the people who consume it are from the non-Muslim umma." He then quoted Surah Al-Baqarah 168: "O people! Eat of the lawful and pure things in the earth and follow not in the footsteps of Satan. For surely he is your open enemy."
According to the MUI leader, this verse is not merely for Muslims; God's order aims at all humankind. Coronavirus, he continued is God's reprimand: many people in those coronavirus-affected areas, including Jakarta, are still eating food, such as pork, that is forbidden by Islam:
"If we see it from a religious perspective, we can say it is a reprimand, since, people should not eat prohibited food. The religiously prohibited food can cause disease, so can human blood, pork, living animals".
He then said that Indonesians should be more introspective, and do more repentance, and ask God's forgiveness.
Indonesia's Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto and Indonesia's Vice President, Ma'ruf Amin also began linking the Coronavirus with religious doctrines and prayer. Speaking to a national Islamic conference on March 3, 2020, Terawan asked Muslims clerics to pray against the Coronavirus.
"We can only pray, and we do that also while working, taking action to detect [any virus infection]. If there is [a case of the coronavirus disease], we will respond to it. We are still checking and preventing [the disease]; we are [taking measures] according to WHO standards," Terawan said on February 28.
"I just landed here last night, after joining the Congress of the Indonesian Islamic Community. The visit was important, for I wanted to ask for a prayer," the minister repeated on March 4.
A congress was organized by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) on March 11-14, 2020. Vice President Ma'ruf Amin, a senior Muslim cleric who still heads the MUI and Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi were among the leading figures who attended. In his opening speech, Ma'ruf said many Muslim clerics had recited the qunut prayer while leading the dawn prayers, and that it could have been the reason why Indonesia had remained coronavirus-free.
"Many Muslim clerics recited the qunut prayer," he said referring to the Islamoc tradition, im which a qunut nazilah prayer is recited when the Islamic community faces a calamity, including a deadly plague. "I also read the qunut prayer to stave off danger, epidemics, and diseases. That is why the coronavirus is staying away from Indonesia," Ma'ruf said, Dewi Nurita continued.
These various claims no longer stand. Soon, sadly, the coronavirus swiftly moved beyond the prayer of millions of devout believers. On March 3, the president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, officially announced the first two cases of Coronavirus infection: a mother and a daughter were reported to have the virus after being in contact with a Japanese citizen while visiting Malaysia. Both patients were taken to a Jakarta hospital.
In an updated article on March 27, CNN Indonesia noted that the number of Coronavirus patients had reached "1,046 cases with 87 died and 46 others were successfully cured." Such information may of course prompt some Islamist clerics to pray even more for the Coronavirus patients. The government, the president mentioned, should be making all efforts to manage the crisis. What will Indonesian Islamist clerics, such as Somad and his supporters at MUI do; pray or find ways to take the president down?
Jacobus E. Lato is a journalist based in Surabaya, Indonesia. His articles appear in various media in Indonesia, Archipel and Latitudes.Nu. (Netherlands) and Gatestone Institute (New York).