Khadija Mohamed Embaby and Amira Mittermaier
“Sometimes I believe things just got out of God’s hands”
“Is it possible for God, in the year of a global pandemic that has killed 1.75 million people and has infected 75 million people, to make sure my loved ones are safe? The answer is yes”
In times of profound uncertainty, what does God offer to believers? And how does uncertainty affect believers’ ideas about, and relations to, God? Engaging theology as it is lived on the ground, we lay out some of the ways that young Egyptian Muslims have been thinking about God in the midst of a global pandemic.
Based on interviews conducted between October 2020 and January 2021, we explore varied theological responses to Covid-19.[i] By “theology” we do not refer to the voices of orthodoxy but to ordinary believers’ lived and ongoing negotiation of God-human relations. Far from aiming for a representative account of present-day lived theologies in Egypt, we zoom in on how four young women grapple with questions about God during Covid. Our interlocutors are in their twenties and thirties and come from middle-class backgrounds. All have been exposed to some sort of liberal education. One is an engineer, another a pharmacist; one has a background in education, another in business. Two are married, and at least two are in therapy. All of them were born Muslim but they embrace different modes of religiosity—from conservative to agnostic to spiritually inclined. All were to varying degrees involved in the Egyptian uprising of 2011. We find that the legacy of the uprising affects their relationship to Islam and to God in two powerful ways. First, since the uprising, and even more so since 2013, religion has become a rather personal matter in Egypt, and a matter of experimentation.[ii] Second, for many of our interlocutors—far beyond this project—the uprising caused a crack in their faith. The pandemic came as a reminder of this crack. Experiencing fear for their parents and loved ones, loss of jobs, and financial instability, many of the questions that had been muted since the uprising reemerged. How, then, in the midst of this crisis and uncertainty, is God reencountered and rethought? How, from the privacy of their bedrooms and balconies, are Egyptians addressing God, speaking to God, and questioning God?
In what follows, we move from the why-question—why did God send Covid?—to the how-question—how to respond to Covid if it is interpreted as a divine sign or trial? As we will see, the responses are varied, and often one person will weave together different viewpoints. The line between divine trial and divine punishment is unstable, as is the line between divine intervention and worldly causes. Our interlocutors continuously (re)negotiate these lines within the context of their everyday lives. Well-established theological terms, such as balā’ (divine trial), lutf (divine grace), and tawakkul (trust in God), inform their attempts to make sense of Covid, but these terms do not offer ready-made answers. They are personalized and woven into individual life-contexts; they remain open-ended. At a time when a younger generation is questioning the authority of shaykhs and imams, and when a global crisis has thrown nearly everything into question, our interlocutors actively reclaim and appropriate the terms of the tradition. These terms do not provide closure. They offer tools for navigating uncertainty—not for resolving it.
Sign, test, or punishment?
Traditional Islamic theology does not offer a single interpretation for all calamities, both collective and personal. However, the Quran and Sunna often explain calamities as tests, as punishment for sin, or as a form of purification allowing Muslims to reach higher status with God. The official discourse on Covid offered by Al-Azhar, the authoritative voice of Sunni Islam in Egypt, echoed these traditional interpretations. Khaled Al-Gindi, a member of the High Commission for Islamic Affairs and a pro-state Islamic figure, referred to the pandemic as a “soldier” of God, and suggested that only God would be able to alleviate it. He urged people to face the crisis directly and take all necessary precautions.[iii]
But these official theological positions did not put an end to our interlocutors’ questions. They had different interpretations of the divine significance of natural disasters. Some saw Covid as a sign for all humanity, that people needed to pause and to stop what they were doing to the environment. For Youmna, the pandemic served as a reminder of previous disasters that God had sent to nations when they transgressed:
“Facing this is very scary. When you read about how God swept an entire population off the earth through a large-scale disaster. . . . It’s terrifying. We’ve been taught that catastrophes come in multitudes and that they are a form of punishment. . . . Then they become parables that we hear about: how x generation ended, how a caliphate ended, and so on”.
Youmna sees the pandemic as not only a sign but also a wake-up call, even a punishment.[iv] Along the same lines, Farah, who struggled with the fact that her wedding had to be postponed because of Covid, believes that the pandemic came to teach us something, both personally and collectively:
“I think it is a sign. Every one of us will read it differently. The way I read it is that we all needed to pause. We are indulged very much in this world so everything had to stop. I feel that nothing is certain. We thought we could just go to work every day and have no problems. Now with an unseen little thing everything is forced to stop. God was reminding us that nothing is certain”.
For others, the sign is not in the event itself. Rather, God’s message surfaces in individual reactions to the event. For Sarah, after the Egyptian uprising in 2011, the pandemic was just another event that her generation had to go through. After years of therapy and reshaping her understanding of God, Sarah came to the conclusion that natural disasters, wars, and pandemics have been around for years, and they do not necessarily have an immanent significance; rather, it is how these events shape us that makes a difference:
“Whether it is a revolution, a coup, an earthquake, or a natural disaster, it is not the event itself. How we deal with that event is where the divine message lies. So, if I had not been open to these messages, I would still have been crying and depressed and not learning anything”.
Neither Sarah nor Heba were satisfied with the idea that the pandemic was either a test or a punishment. The idea of a divine punishment, whether here or in the afterlife, seemed “naive” to them, especially when innocent people were losing their lives. In Heba’s words:
“I find the concept of test (balā’) to be very naïve, to be honest. It was one of the things I experienced when I took off the scarf. My family would tell me that I would get cancer and have my hair fall out as a punishment. . . . I do not believe in the idea of divine punishment. I believe He is here and I believe that He is quite fair. He does not control things and He does not bother with punishing me”.
Regardless of who they saw as being to blame for Covid, our interlocutors emphasized that there might be lutf (divine grace or blessings) hidden even in the biggest calamity. This belief is in line with a famous prayer (du’ā) for times of turmoil: “There is no refuge or escape from You except to You.” This prayer emphasizes the idea that God both causes calamities and provides refuge from them. Despite the inevitable disruptions and uncertainties caused by the pandemic, our interlocutors pointed to blessings they had felt throughout 2020. As Youmna notes, if her parents were to get sick, the only one who could save them is God. God, al-Jabbār (the Omnipotent, one of God’s 99 names), is the one who protected her father when he travelled through five airports in the midst of the pandemic. Logically speaking, her father put himself at risk—but God shielded him. Heba similarly marveled at the fact that, even though her in-laws tested positive shortly after she and her husband had visited them, she and her husband were spared:
“I couldn’t believe it. There are scientific facts but there’s also something else and you can’t just take that away. I believe there is a Creator—yes, there is a God—but not the terrifying figure people believe in. Before Covid I would say, maybe there is a Creator but that Creator doesn’t affect the universe. Now I think, yes, God is there, but He is far more merciful than people think. People are too hung up on the idea of punishment”.
Covid can act as a prompt to question God, but it can equally be a cue to marvel at God’s protection and mercy. Alternatively, it can provoke reflection on the vastly different effects the pandemic had on different people: Youmna was astounded by the fact that the same event was a disaster for some but a blessing for others. The crisis ultimately tamed her anxiety and deepened her faith. Youmna was stuck in Egypt for months after having only come for a visit from Canada, where she had been living for years. Thanks to Covid, she got to spend more time with her family than she had in a long time. Ultimately, God helped her get through the crisis safely. Youmna’s “Islam-based therapy” also played a role in how she dealt with her anxiety, shifting her focus toward God’s expectations of her in the here-and-now and helping her not to follow a negative chain of “what-ifs.”
Guilt and anger
Though Farah managed to come up with a tentative answer to why God sent Covid, she has struggled with a constant push and pull between trying to accept that whatever God wills is for her own good (khayr) and validating her discontent and anxiety:
“To some extent the crisis showed that I have weak faith. In hardships we’re expected to be patient and hold on to our faith. Even though I know that and I know I am being tested, I am not feeling it. I do not know if I should validate my emotions, or if it is weak faith”.
For Farah, attending to her feelings stands in tension with her faith in God. Sarah is similarly attuned to her feelings, but experiences less judgment about them. For her, focusing on emotions and reactions is itself a way of drawing closer to God. She has been through a lot, from having lost a younger brother in the war in Syria to being forced to leave her parents’ house after deciding to take off the veil. She has struggled with depression for years and has been haunted by feelings of defeat and despair since 2011. Like others of her generation, she reports feeling guilty for not “saving the world” or being able to stand up for justice, and even for merely surviving the uprising without being killed or detained. With the help of therapy, Sarah has begun to see God’s kindness (lutf) in the way she reacts to hardship. Faced with the pandemic, Sarah steers clear of why-questions and instead focuses on how she is coping with the crisis. God is part of the picture—not as the ultimate cause of things but as the source of her ability to survive:
“Now I do not think much about the crisis itself as much as I think about my own reaction to it and how God makes it easy on me. So in this Corona crisis, I took the intention to survive and used a bunch of coping mechanisms. That God enabled these modes of survival to work is [proof of] God’s own gentleness and kindness folded within the crisis. I now believe that our own intentions and reactions are what makes the difference. We might all go through the same event, but someone could learn something from it, and someone else could bypass it as though nothing happened”.
Sarah no longer feels that she needs to save the world. Saving herself, she says, is heroic enough. Freeing herself from the God-images she grew up with has meant finding God in new places, including her reactions to events.
But to the extent that God is understood to have sent COVID, is anger at God permissible? The question of theodicy is an old one, but, regardless of the many books written on the topic, our interlocutors still have to negotiate this question for themselves. Heba says:
“The problem is when a war or something big happens where people die for doing absolutely nothing. These things stimulate my questions even more. Where is God in relation to all of this? If He exists and He created them, why did He create them when He knows their end? My main question is: why?”
Youmna expresses a sentiment that others shared as well: “We don’t have the right to get angry at God, but we can still ask for clarification.” Although they might ask God for an explanation, our interlocutors strive to cultivate acceptance or tawakkul as a way of coping with uncertainty. For some, however, the sense of gratitude to and trust in God is conditional. Heba reflects on how her sense of God’s protection (satr) depends on her grandfather surviving Covid: “I will probably get angry at God if one of my loved ones dies.”
For some, Covid gave rise to an urgent need to strengthen their faith and enhance their piety, since the end might be near. This does not necessarily imply visible piety but can refer to inner states such as tawakkul. As Youmna puts it:
“I don’t think that God will look down at me for resenting this situation or for being anxious. But there’s a larger sense of responsibility that I haven’t felt before. I think it’s firmness in faith: tawakkul and rida (contenment with divinely ordained fate). It’s about how I react”.
Cultivating calmness and trust in God is not an easy matter. Dhikr (devotional recitation) and du’ā (personal prayers) are among the tools our interlocutors use in order to deal with the anxiety caused by the crisis. In line with a religiosity attuned to self-care, they note that they have been practicing recitations for their therapeutic effects. Sarah, for instance, organized weekly online recitation gatherings in the spring and summer of 2020, even though she does not stick to the five obligatory prayers.
“During this period, I used to organize an online weekly majlis (spiritual gathering). That made a difference for me. It made me calmer. I am not practicing. I only fast, but I do not pray at all. But I have been keeping my awrād (specific recitations). I used to feel ashamed of saying so, but now I feel that this is what I can do and this is how I feel”.
Though it is used as a therapeutic practice, dhikr is not secularized here. Rather, to Sarah, the psyche is itself a key site for engaging the Divine. Similarly, Youmna developed the habit of keeping a daily recitation at the beginning of the crisis, and hopes that she will keep up this practice even when the crisis is over. For her, asking for forgiveness (istighfār) and referring to God as al-Jabbār (the Omnipotent) puts her heart at ease and makes her calmer. Dhikr and du’ā are embedded practices in Islam, but they are highly personal and specific modes of connecting with God. Each of our interlocutors approached these practices differently, independent of their level of religiosity. All of them, though, used recitations and prayer as a way to express their desire to understand and to survive.
The Islamic tradition offers a range of resources for dealing with crises and calamities: intellectual resources such as the concept of divine trial, ethical resources such as the concept of tawakkul, and practical resources such as personalized prayers. Our interlocutors draw creatively and sometimes selectively on these tools, appropriating them and personalizing them to make sense of, and deal with, Covid. In line with a broader refashioning of religiosity post-2011 that makes God-human relations a more personal matter, our interlocutors grapple with God’s mercy, wrath, and signs within the context of their individual lives. Covid may be a sign for humanity at large but it is also a deeply personalized divine sign and challenge.
Like other belief systems, the Islamic tradition offers an interpretive frame for human suffering and pain across this life and the afterlife. Some strands of Sufism also embrace calamities as the only way to transcend oneself: this view emphasizes letting go and submitting to God, who is understood as the sole cause both of the calamity and of the cure; God is both disease and remedy. While we have touched upon how traditional concepts are taken up by present-day believers, our main goal here is not to trace the afterlife of traditional theology, but to illuminate how God is imagined, loved, rejected, doubted, believed in, or even lost in light of how these interlocutors interpret the pandemic.
God-imaginaries are inherently unstable, and the questions of what God wants to teach us through Covid and how one is to react are never fully settled. True understanding is inevitably deferred. Farah dreams of a future—in the afterlife—when she will finally understand:
“One of my biggest wishes is that I talk to God and He responds to me. I want to have a conversation with Him in paradise. I want Him to tell me, your marriage was delayed because of this-and-that, and Corona happened for this and that reason, and it was all better for you. I want Him to explain it all”.
Farah here paints a scenario in which everything eventually will make sense. There was a reason for it all, and it was all for the best. Situated in a distant future—or a different time altogether—this understanding is deferred. In this world, Farah, like our other interlocutors, has to continue living with uncertainty, not-knowing, not-fully-understanding.
As in the aftermath of the Arab Spring when believers wondered where God was in the midst of it all, these interlocutors employ their God-given capacity to question, and they refuse the ready-made answers offered by traditional theology. They struggle to remain patient as they wait for God’s mercy to unfold, even as they occasionally feel guilty about their struggles. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, some struggle to determine the line between worldly causes and divine intervention, making them renegotiate their understanding of God’s existence and His control over their worldly lives, not to mention their afterlives. As such, the crisis can also lead to a loss of faith, to even more uncertainty. Heba wonders whether things might have got out of God’s hands. Her question suggests that we might have to let go not only of the illusion of human control, but also the illusion of divine control.
Across all the personal experiences of God described in each interview, uncertainty is never fully resolved, and God’s gentleness (lutf) and testing (balā’) are experienced differently, though also collectively. This range of responses makes us wonder to what extent young people in Egypt—and across the Arab world more broadly—will renegotiate the official accounts provided by religious orthodoxy in their own post-Covid narratives.
Khadija Embaby is an independent Egyptian researcher. Her previous research work includes Oral History, Traditionalist Sufism and Post Arab-Spring socio-economic reforms in Egypt. She currently works as a research assistant at the University of Toronto.
Amira Mittermaier is Professor of Anthropology and the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Dreams that Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination (2011) and Giving to God: Islamic Charity in Revolutionary Times (2019). Building on these two projects and drawing on additional fieldwork in Egypt, Mittermaier’s current research works toward what she calls an “ethnography of God.”
This blog is a part of ‘Dossier Corona’, introduced by Religious Matters in the spring of 2020.
[i] The interviews were conducted by Khadiga Mohamed Embaby and are part of Amira Mittermaier’s larger project on God-human relations in Egypt. Interviews were conducted in Arabic but our interlocutors tend to weave English words into their narratives. Our analysis is grounded in ten COVID-focused interviews, as well as dozens of interviews more broadly focused on shifting God-imaginaries in Egypt today. In this piece, we highlight four interlocutors. All names are pseudonyms.
[ii] Since the 2013 military coup put an end to the brief period of Muslim Brotherhood rule, political Islam has been pushed to the margins in Egypt, or has moved underground. At the same time, the sense of disillusionment with politics extends far beyond the context of the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, the pluralization of religious views was arguably exacerbated by the closure of mosques due to COVID, a decision supported by al-Azhar in March 2020. The more centralized, state-surveilled religious discourses one finds in mosques dispersed into countless online spaces where one finds a wider range of views.
[iii] See this report from November 2020 in Al-Masry Al-Youm.
[iv] Bryan Lowe, in an article on Buddhist responses to COVID, provides a contrast to the Islamic interpretive possibility of “divine punishment.” Lowe lays out a complex understanding of deities who can both protect and destroy, but notes that he has not heard any prominent public figure in Japan refer to COVID-19 as divine punishment. On the question of punishment, note that some read COVID as a punishment not against all of humanity, but against particular sections. The New York Times has reported on supposed Muslim Brotherhood claims that COVID was a punishment against the military regime.
The images used for this post were retrieved (royalty-free) from unsplash.