Shia jurists have always paid special attention to scientific data when issuing ‘fiqh’ rules and there has never been a conflict between science and religion in Shi’ism as there has been in Christianity.
The outbreak of the coronavirus and the consequent closure of mosques, religious gatherings, holy shrines such as the shrine of Imam Reza (PBUH) along with some emotional reactions from Muslims may have highlighted the conflict between religion and science for some people. The advent of the month of Muharram and its mourning rituals on the heels of a resurgence of the coronavirus has again raised the issue of the relation between science and religion. However, the Leader of the Islamic Revolution has always stressed following the experts’ advice and recommendations, and also there has never been a conflict between science and religion among prominent Shia jurists the way there has been in Christianity.
Jurists: Trustees of Prophet and Fortress of Islam
In the Shia analytical system, what is at the heart of the management of religion is not the sacred words such as the ones in Qur’an, but the jurist’s understanding of the words, which is authentic and permissible by God to be trusted. In other words, the only authentic understanding of religion is the one obtained with a valid methodology of jurisprudence and ‘ijtihad’. Therefore, to cite something regarding Islam, one should not consider the words of any expert, but to take into account the words of jurists and mujtahids, who have made correct connections between verses and quotations and present the views of religion about various issues. Perhaps, it is for this reason that in narratives, jurists have been described as the trustees of the Prophet, his successors, and the pillars of religion, whose passing away would deal an irreparable and severe blow to the body of religion.
Religion-science conflict in the views of believers and jurists
With the development of new sciences in Western civilization, and due to its totalitarian approach to conquering the physical and materialistic world, it was felt necessary to outcast the old rival, religion. And perhaps, raising the idea of contradiction between science and religion was the best way to realize this goal. Widespread distortions in Christianity, along with mismanagement of the church, were other factors that exacerbated the conflict between religion and science among Christians.
With the globalization of Western civilization, the idea of science-religion conflict was spread to the Islamic world. If the believers of Islam had seen any conflict between science and religion, the Shia jurisprudence did not see any contradiction between the two at all. In the analytical system of jurists, a proper distinction was made between scientific data and theories based on the modern worldview. In other words, Shia jurists have always been in the service of reason and evidence, so much so that if they have solid data on a subject, and are faced with different religious readings for it and one contradicted the concrete data, they would easily put it aside as ‘corrupt reasoning’. Shia jurists have always paid special attention to scientific data when issuing jurisprudential (fiqh) rules.
Science and thematics of jurisprudential rules
Shia jurists have long considered their duty to be limited to issuing jurisprudential rules and have left the thematics to the experts of that particular area. The presence of different groups of experts in various economic, medical, etc. fields indicates the jurists’ reliance on and attention to specialized and scientific data.
To explain this, it should be said that every issue requires an appropriate ruling. For example, if the issue is about the fasting of a healthy person, then the ruling issued by the jurist is that the person is obligated to fast; however, if it is about a person with medical conditions, then the ruling will change and fasting will no longer be obligatory.
The jurists’ reliance on experts’ opinions is seen not only in thematics but also in the application of jurisprudential rules. Religious figures known as ‘marja’ taqlid’ (literally: source to follow) have always emphasized in their fatwas to follow doctors’ instructions. There are many examples in this regard, some of which you can read below:
Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi
Q: What is the religious ruling for those who have started to smoke or those addicts who insist on smoking despite being able to easily quit?
A: Smoking cigarettes and all kinds of tobacco is haram, and because quitting is possible even for addicts, no case of emergency is usually imagined unless it is prescribed by a well-informed physician and there is no difference between beginners and addicts.
Taking Ayatollah Makarem’s fatwa into account, it becomes clear that the reason smoking is haram is because of its harmful effects backed by medical experts. Since self-harm is prohibited in Islam, Ayatollah Makarem has declared smoking as haram, yet he has made an exception for the recommendations of medical experts.
Q: The ophthalmologist has forbidden me from fasting and said that I should not fast at all because of my eye problem, but I did not listen to his advice and started fasting. Is it obligatory for me to fast at all?
A: If you are assured by the words of a pious and trustworthy doctor that fasting is harmful to your eyes or even if you fear that it would be harmful, fasting is neither obligatory nor permissible for you.
This fatwa by Ayatollah Khamenei also shows the attention to the importance of experts’ knowledge in the Shia jurisprudential system.
In a more obvious example, we can refer to Ayatollah Sistani’s answer regarding the manner of holding mourning rituals in the month of Muharram during the coronavirus pandemic:
There are various ways to express grief and sympathy with the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and his holy family on this tragic calamity that has befallen Islam and Muslims, including the following:
- Significant increase in the live broadcast of the rituals through television networks and cyberspace; to this end, religious and cultural centers and institutions are advised to coordinate with eminent preachers and capable panegyrist, and to encourage believers to listen to the eulogies in their homes and similar places.
- Holding house gatherings at certain hours of the night or day, where only family members and relatives attend and listen to some mourning programs, either broadcast live on satellite networks or on the Internet.
- But in public, all hygiene rules and health instructions must be followed carefully. This means social distancing between people and using masks and other tools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
In this case, it is also necessary to limit the number of attendees to the recommendation of relevant authorities, which of course varies depending on whether the ceremony is being held indoors or outdoors and in which cities.
- Widespread distribution of Ashura symbols and raising flags and dark-colored monuments in squares, streets, alleys, and other public spaces, while taking care not to trespass into private property and the like, and comply with the country’s laws. It is advised, however, to include in these symbols parts of the words of Imam Hussein (PBUH) regarding the great reformist movement advocated by him and great poems and texts written about the tragedy of Karbala.
- About traditional foods served on this occasion, it is necessary to consider health protocols in their production and distribution, which means that in order to avoid crowds during the distribution, it is advised to only prepare dry food and deliver it to the houses of the believers.
All these examples indicate the care and attention given by great Shia jurists to scientific opinions regarding thematics and the application of religious rulings to the issue at hand.
Finally, it should be noted that science has a descriptive and prescriptive aspect. The descriptive or the laboratory and data-driven aspect of science has always been taken into account by Shia jurists, to the point where there has never been any conflict between science and religion. However, the point of conflict for some is only related to the prescriptive aspect of science, which mostly includes different worldviews.