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van den Heuvel, Noel; Freitag, Ulrike

Religion and pandemic

State, Islam and society in Saudi Arabia and Iran during the coronavirus crisis

In: (Ed.)
The MENA Region and COVID-19
Impact, Implications and Prospects

Routledge, London, 2022
Serie: Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Society

p. 107-124

ISBN 978-1- 032- 14581- 5, 978-1- 032- 14586- 0, 978-1- 003- 24004- 4

Religious communities have acted as vectors for the spread of the coronavirus. This might be seen to suggest that the crisis has sparked a confrontation between scientific rationalism and (irrational) belief. Using as examples pilgrimages and visits to shrines in two decidedly Islamic countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran, this chapter argues that the relationship between religion and science is far more complex. Iran tried to keep its shrines open to the public, whilst Saudi Arabia halted visits to Muslim holy cities. Both responses were grounded in the different interpretations of Islam which prevail in the respective countries. They gain particular salience through the relationship between the political system and the religious establishments in both countries. The chapter shows that, partly as a result of differences between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, and partly due to particular constellations emerging from the Iranian revolution, Iranian scholars have acted more independently from the state than their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, where political power is far more centralised. In both cases, we argue, political arguments prevailed in the end.