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Covid-19. A black swan in the development of the Islamic Triangle?

Covid-19. A black swan in the development of the Islamic Triangle?

The Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region and their experiences during this pandemic particularly deserve consideration, given that the new Covid-19 preventive measures affect religious customs both directly and indirectly.

The coronavirus pandemic has reached all corners of the world and along with its spread have come serious adjustments to daily life. The introduction of social distancing, face masks, and stricter rules of hygiene, to name but a few, is quickly becoming the international standard. However, the religious, cultural, social, and political consequences of such rules may manifest in a multitude of ways as they are experienced by a diversity of populations. The Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region and their experiences during this pandemic particularly deserve consideration, given that the new Covid-19 preventive measures affect religious customs both directly and indirectly. Countries in the MENA region have responded in various ways to the Covid-19 crisis, resulting in different levels of virus contamination. In the present situation, by applying the triangular model proposed by Léon Buskens to some of these countries and evaluating the long-term effect of the pandemic, it appears that constitutional design and governance strategies – especially considering the degree of attention paid to the role of religious actors – can be crucial in providing an efficient response to the crisis.

In the “Islamic Triangle” model proposed by Léon Buskens, the interaction between Sharia, State law and local custom is key to understanding the behaviour of Muslims within the framework of Islamic law.[1]

Historical tension exists between Sharia and State law, and different degrees of “compromise"[2 between these sometimes conflicting elements have been reached across Muslim countries. Even though the codification process of Islamic Sharia that started in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought a gradual decline of the role of religious scholars, ruling elites still need their approval in order for government policies to gain religious legitimacy. So far, the most efficient strategies to fight the Covid-19 crisis have indeed come from those States where religious authorities have backed the political authorities. One example is Egypt, where the Grand Shaykh of the prestigious religious institute for Sunni learning, al-Azhar, urged people to pray at home, and approved the closing down of mosques for congregational prayers. In contrast, countries like Pakistan, where the clergy was not collaborative, have proved inconsistent in their resolve and coordinated ability to fight the pandemic.

In contrast to Egypt’s preventive measures, the Prime Minister in Pakistan decided to lift the lockdown restrictions early on. Pressed by the clergy, ignoring the plea of a group of senior doctors, in late May the Prime Minister decided to leave mosques open during Ramadan and ahead of the Eid festival, even allowing for mass prayers. At the beginning of August, the Covid-19 mortality rate in Pakistan skyrocketed. The relationship between State actors and religious actors seems to be key in the responses to the pandemic.

In the aforementioned triangular model, the third and final element is local custom. Yemen offers one of the best examples of its importance. Tribal ties constitute a fundamental basis of Yemeni society; in Yemen not only does tribalism reach a state-in-a-state dimension, but it also creates a form of “cultural tribalism”[3], meaning that the majority of the population self-identify as tribal.

Unfortunately, Yemen’s system is not responding promptly and efficiently to the emergency. Even though war and political instability are fundamental factors, the presence of many small rural communities without strong centralised leadership has brought additional challenges. Tribalism, coupled with civil war, has created a fragmented society in which individuals are further deterred from organising themselves effectively. Not only are many Yemenis "unable to afford travel costs" and "go to hospitals only when their illness becomes severe", thus further spreading the disease at home, but also there is no central leadership guiding these people through proper social distancing, thus causing outbreaks within communities. Tribalism itself – and probably also the social interactions typical of such a system – does not appear equipped to implement social distancing and self-isolation. With situations so dire, the UN referred to the conditions in Yemen as a “perfect storm”, launching a Covid-19 programme described as “the largest humanitarian operation in the world”.

Across the MENA countries, this unpredictable event – a possible “black swan” in the region’s history – has brought incredibly hard challenges. These challenges have highlighted aspects of the relationships between the components of the Islamic Triangle, particularly in their ability to have an effective and prompt response to emergency situations. Firstly, the relationship between State and Sharia: when constitutions institutionalise the position of religious scholars as well as their relationship with the central executive power, the formal recognition of religious actors as a fundamental cog in the wider mechanism of the State apparently leads the latter to a higher degree of collaboration with governments. Secondly, the relationship between State and local custom: Yemen shows that the lack of a strong centralised administrative power might preclude an efficient response to a dangerous crisis. Therefore, it is possible to think that this crisis may lead some countries to implement new governance strategies, as they pertain to the relationship between State, religious, and local actors. Does this mean that the coronavirus can help Islamic reform, as suggested lately by leading Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram?

I argue that potential institutional, constitutional, and procedural reform does not necessitate substantial reform of Islamic law itself, especially progressive reform. Historically the consequence of moments of national distress and vulnerability of the political systems has been increasingly radical Islamisation: the Six-Day War in Egypt, the 1979 Revolution in Iran, and the 2011 Arab Spring are examples worth mentioning. Where this particular crisis seems to be a definitively “black swan” event in the historical development of the Islamic Triangle, it apparently affects governance structures rather than substantive law provisions. New governance structures may bring about modern and liberal developments or instead more authoritarian developments justified by the emergency situation. Now more than ever, State, religious actors, and tribes should stick together in order to pursue the same aim: public health.


[1] Buskens, Léon. 2000. “An Islamic Triangle. Changing Relationships between Shari`a, State Law, and Local Customs." ISIM Newsletter (5), 8.
[2] Berger, M. and N. Sonneveld. 2010. “Sharia and National Law in Egypt (Ch.2).” In Sharia Incorporated: A Comparative Overview of the Legal Systems of Twelve Muslim Countries in Past and Present, edited by J.M. Otto., 84.
[3] Zwaini, al-, Laila. 2012. The Rule of Law in Yemen: Prospects and Challenges. HiiL Rule of Law Quick Scan Series, 50.

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