Iran’s religious figures were incredulous at first when COVID-19 hit the country hard last winter. But after their followers went to mosques and shrines to pray for the coronavirus to go away, clerics split ranks over how to explain to their religiously devout followers the reason for and ways to manage the deadly pandemic.

A few misinformed clerics and religious preachers were the first to react to the virus. A professor at the Baghiatollah Medical Sciences University, Ali Karami, told his large following that COVID-19 was produced in enemy laboratories to harm people who were carriers of Iranian genes. His views came as people ignored lockdowns to go to shrines.

But as death tolls due to COVID-19 increased in Iran, the powerful religious seminaries were forced to take a stance. They did so by offering virtual advice and leading educational programs.

Generally, senior clerics from the seminaries encourage Iranians to turn to their faith to get through the coronavirus pandemic, which they label a difficult test. They also prompt them to seek redemption from sins from Imam Mahdi, a Shia figure worshiped in Iran who is said to be in hiding to return later to bring justice on earth.

Seminaries are trying to encourage people to get real about the virus.

But seminaries are also trying to encourage people to get real about the virus. An outspoken cleric, Rasoul Jafarian, dismisses conspiracy theories regarding the coronavirus, and urges Iranians to follow scientific guidelines to control the pandemic. When a man claiming to be a medicinal healer advised drinking camel urine to fight the virus, or a cleric forced hospital patients to smell a perfume he claimed could cure the virus, Jafarian lamented the absence of intellectual orientation in society to effectively address the pandemic.

Instilling reason back into society to cope with the pandemic is hard now. Jafarian bluntly reminds people that the virus will not go away by reading the Holy Quran, though he agrees that such acts of divine devotion could have a positive impact on mental health.

Ayatollah Ali Milani tells his followers to seek divine help through prayers, even if what they ask – which is for the coronavirus to go away – is not possible. But as for why prayers do not kill the virus, the ayatollah has some practical advice: The pandemic forces the mind to think, and this in itself is divine blessing.

“The pandemic forces the mind to think, and this in itself is divine blessing.”

Milani adds that giving alms could keep people away from danger, and lead to a longer life. But the reasons for giving alms should be viewed relative to the danger, in this case a deadly pandemic. He concludes that prayers and alms giving are necessary, but not the absolute answer to keeping the virus away.

Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi reminds Iranians who say the coronavirus is the result of human sins, that there is wisdom for all hardships that humans face. Some hardships include divine tests and the purging of sins, while others simply result from lack of human foresight or from human mistakes.

Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Fayyaz tells the public to follow the advice of the World Health Organization to contain the coronavirus. During the fasting month of Ramadan, he told people not to fast if their doctors advised – especially as it is also advisable to drink water frequently to battle the virus, and if fasting were to increase the risk of exposure.

In a religiously binding declaration or fatwa, Fayyaz said using masks and gloves are a duty. He calls on doubters to stop questioning the merits of the fatwa when they can see that health care providers are required to use face masks and gloves.

In general, Iran’s seminary establishment known as the hawza is now leading the national religious debate on the coronavirus. The hawza is organizing virtual hotline services to provide practical answers on how to cope with the virus, delivering online mosque and death services, and sending clerics to assist the sick.

The Hawza Special Staff on Coronavirus says Iranians are facing a non-military jihad as a result of hardships caused by the virus. In response, it uses clerics it calls media jihadists to send messages out, and offers online classes to train an additional 70,000 clerical students to help people stay safe.

“The pandemic requires a leap forward into the new age where Iranians no longer are susceptible to dream interpretations and superstitions.”

The religious debate on the coronavirus does not end here. A reform-minded cleric, Saeed Javadi Amoli, believes that the pandemic requires a leap forward into the new age where Iranians no longer are susceptible to dream interpretations and superstitions. Resorting to traditional beliefs, he insists, is not enough when people lack knowledge on how to face a deadly virus.

To address this knowledge gap, the hawza is expanding its virtual presence. Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi’s office is offering digital classes during lockdowns. Other clerics host video conferences. The hawza also offers virtual altars, is planning a virtual television program, and wants to get 7,000 religious preachers to go virtual.

These measures are critical for Iran where religion still matters to a large number of people, including clerics preparing to embrace the post-corona world. These same clerics are urging the state to abandon its extreme security outlook on digital activities, so that the hawza can encourage people to embrace new times, and engage with new virtual platforms.



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