“#We_are_all_responsible”: Bio-power and the Early Saudi Religious Response to Pandemic
With a crisis like COVID-19 comes trepid opportunity, and in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s two holiest shrines, the once-defanged “religious police” have returned with a renewed public enthusiasm and an online performativity in guiding Saudis, spiritually, through an unprecedented fight against disease.
“…It was a curious exertion of what Michel Foucault called “bio-power”, or the technologies of control imposed, usually by a sovereign, on humans to preserve and regulate life.“
It was a curious exertion of what Michel Foucault called “bio-power”, or the technologies of control imposed, usually by a sovereign, on humans to preserve and regulate life. Indeed, these means of controlling the “bio” spheres of a polity have come into great salience over the past few months, not in the least part due to how sovereign authorities have mobilised to control, redirect, and refocus the movements of entire populations. This continues to be so now, as many countries appear to be adjusting to the “new normal” of a COVID-burdened world; but it was especially so as the pandemic accelerated globally in March, and public health authorities and security apparatuses were mobilised across the Arab world to curtail the movements of their populations.
The Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice however, far from being a public health institution, was one of the last tools of the sovereign that one would expect to engage in anti-COVID-19 bio-politicking. Providing a brief impression of how the Committee wrangled with the pandemic in the early months of March and April 2020, and narrated scriptural guidance for proper behaviour, is the focus of this article. There is a need to document how religious interpretation first intersected with the technologies of population control at this juncture in global history. ”
“…the Committee’s strength in wielding religious tradition perhaps makes it one of the only state organs capable of connecting public health ordinances with a rooted, historied moral code.””
In this instance, it is particularly of interest as the Committee’s strength in wielding religious tradition perhaps makes it one of the only state organs capable of connecting public health ordinances with a rooted, historied moral code. Here we can see the weaving of loaded religious meanings, texts, and symbols into a coherent public health narrative – a bio-political morality tale where the audience itself is responsible (to society and to their own spiritual wellbeing) for creating the ideal post-pandemic world. It stands as a unique and immediate example of how the state uses whatever bodies and cultural apparatuses it has at its disposal to regulate in a time of crisis, and how a state-directed exegesis is deployed as a tool for controlling the movements of entire populations.
For God and Country, #keep_to_your_home
While the combat of a pandemic has hardly been a historical role for the Committee, it has always had a hand in dictating to the Saudi population the correct way to behave in society. Although Saudi Arabia’s cavalier Prince Mohammed Bin Salman slashed its powers of arrest in 2016, pre-eminent Saudi scholar Madawi al-Rasheed noted that it was still at its core a device for exerting state control, albeit momentarily clipped to satisfy a public tired of its ultra-conservative forays into behavioural regulation.
She was mostly correct – it no longer carries the swaggering profile it once had with powers of arrest, but its responsibility for regulating the population’s ideals and norms is clear in its online boasting of the confiscation of illegal “wineries”, its flashy production of an all-male video promoting national unity, and frequent pictorial reminders of its on-the-ground presence. The Committee’s raison d’etre revolves around its ability to narrate what is right, what is wrong (along the lines of hisba, or the drive to enjoin good and forbid evil), and what this all means for you and your nation.
What, then, was the moral story it attempted to tell in the face of COVID-19? Tracking the online discourse of the Committee over the first few weeks of lockdown measures in Saudi Arabia shows how the Committee iterated first, the risk to humanity posed by COVID-19; second, the consequent obligation to stay home; and third, the spiritual reward of doing so. Further, in making these points it drew from a wealth of Islamic traditions surrounding personal curtailments in the interest of public good, but not without re-situating these readings within new contexts.
To the first and second points of the narrative, a March 27 tweet pressed the advisory hadith where the Prophet states that “There should be no harming [of others], nor reciprocation of harm [done by others]” – a maxim often interpreted as a legal base for “public interest” or maslaha in a number of Islamic legal traditions. The contextual cues at the end of the tweet, however, create a bridge between this injunction to recognise collective wellbeing and the current health crisis – below the quote, the Committee’s social media editors emblazoned the now widely-circulated hashtags “#Keep to your house”, and “#We are all responsible.” This is in addition to the consideration that this message was also preceded by tweets of the Committee’s leaders supporting King Salman’s fight against the disease.
It was likely, therefore, that a relationship was being drawn between the bodily and communal harm castigated by the hadith and the Saudi state’s campaign to combat COVID-19. They did not only highlight the severity of the virus, but the Committee’s writers located a typical religious condemnation of causing public harm squarely within the atypical context of the current crisis. Non-adherence to public health orders became not only an offence against state and community, but against spiritual-moral sensibilities as well.
“Non-adherence to public health orders became not only an offence against state and community, but against spiritual-moral sensibilities as well.”
A lecture delivered mid-March by the current head of the Committee, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sanad, drives the point home further by delineating some of the deeper ideas underwriting the Committee’s scriptural and traditional approach to COVID-19. Reminding the audience of the state’s in-progress actions against the evils of the disease, al-Sanad relays a hadith of the Prophet instructing:
If you hear about [a plague] in a land, do not go to it; but if [plague] breaks out in a country where you are staying, do not run away from it.
Its original context – a companion of the Prophet, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, facing a plague outbreak in the Levant – placed the hadith as a commentary on the sanctity of seeking refuge, in traditional readings of the account. Specifically, the variation of the hadith presented by al-Sanad has ‘Umar saying that to abandon the conquest of the Levant for the healthier lands of Medina would be “fleeing from God’s decree, to God’s decree.” In other words, while their initial endeavour might have been divinely-ordained, so too is the requirement to seek safety in the face of incalculable danger. It is also instructive that this event, the Plague of ‘Amwas, was one of the first public health crises in early Islamic history, and was addressed directly within established prophetic tradition.
Given that the most esteemed figures in Islam behaved in such a way during a plague, al-Sanad had no problem then stressing to his audience that “if epidemics occur in a country, it is necessary for one in that country to be patient… and not to flee from that country.” A prophetic recollection of the 7th Century enlivened once more through the bio-political discourse of the 21st Century nation-state, although in this case al-Sanad threaded the hadith to recommend seeking refuge in immobility, rather than refuge in escape.
Al-Sanad’s textual selections highlight the more emulatory, rather than coercive, dimensions of the moral story being woven, returning to this article’s third narrative point about the benefits of adhering to public health edicts. Instead of just employing the proverbial stick to discourage harming public health – it is also of interest for the investigation of bio-power and religious tradition to see what carrots the Committee used to encourage the public to stay home. For instance, again in that same lecture, al-Sanad relates another hadith where the Prophet elevates to martyr-status those who die while patiently outwaiting an epidemic.
The Committee’s pinned tweet at the time perhaps offers the best example of how the Committee encourages self-isolation, relating a hadith transmitted by one of the Prophet’s companions, ‘Uqba ibn ‘Amir:
I asked the Messenger of Allah, “How does one attain salvation?” He replied, “Control your tongue, keep to your house, and weep over your sins.”
The Committee’s author also embroiders the tweet further with the aforementioned hashtags, plus the instructive “#Sitting in my house.” In this context, and in consideration of the Saudi religious equivalent of #StayAtHome messaging in the dozens of tweets prior and after this message, the “keeping to your house” arises as the key message, even prerequisite to spiritual benefit. ”
“In this context, and in consideration of the Saudi religious equivalent of #StayAtHome messaging in the dozens of tweets prior and after this message, the ‘keeping to your house’ arises as the key message, and even prerequisite to spiritual benefit.”
However, as with all studies of discourse, the narrative-fitting of religious symbols, rather than the mere fact of their display, is what strikes as distinct in understanding this bio-political deployment of exegesis. In the hadith collection wherein this saying is recorded, Ibn ‘Amir’s recollection is actually sandwiched between statements abhorring slander and recoiling from the opportunity to enter into such sins of the “tongue”. Even Saudi Arabia’s own Ibn Baz, once the state’s figurehead of ultra-conservative religious guidance in the 1990s, interpreted the hadith as primarily warning against the temptations of slander, and that to recluse oneself away from the temptation of evil was preferable to exiting one’s home if they could not resist that sinful impulse.
In contrast, the Committee’s writers reframed the hadith to deliver an instructive tale centred more on the spiritual reward generated by a combination of public reticence and restraint in the face of crisis. This is not to say they have deviated from a normatively correct interpretation of Islamic history – Talal Asad, for instance, recognises Islamic tradition (rather than Islam-as-a-monolith per se), as a cumulative tradition where the “relationship of power to truth” forms part of contesting what is correct and incorrect. Rather, what is observable is an active construction of this cumulative tradition in Saudi state discourses on Islam, particularly surrounding the texts concerning public interest and health. They quite adroitly wove isolated ahadith into a broader narrative of the spiritual imperative to self-isolate, breaking from previous interpretative traditions to accommodate a new context. And textually, the moral story is just as clear: if you stay home, you preserve human life and avoid evil. As a result, you will reap spiritual rewards.
Islam(s) in Saudi Arabia and the Bio-political Shift
Religious traditions are known for their malleability and modularity; one can attest to their constant relevance for believers over centuries. In light of this, it is not entirely surprising that Islamic tradition, in particular a state-centric one, has been recalibrated in such a way to tell a moral story about COVID-19. This is especially so for the Committee, which has an infamous, draconian history in attempting to enforce “correct” conduct in such biological areas as proper diet, drug use, sexual relations, and the like, often to the discontent of more liberal sectors of Saudi society.
But what is also important is how this use of tradition has been instrumentalised by state elites in a Foucauldian push to completely regulate the movements of an entire country. This domain that one might expect to be filled with only health professionals and security apparatuses is also being filled by other centres of knowledge enlisted into war-like mobilisations against contagion. What the Committee has exegetically deployed against COVID-19 serves as a vignette, albeit a brief one, of the roles a modern state-employed ulama’ may play within the bureaucratic machinery.
“But what is also important is how this use of tradition has been instrumentalised by state elites in a Foucauldian push to completely regulate the movements of an entire country.“
The extent to which religious traditions transform moving forward, and how top-down power transforms the cultural systems they appropriate, will be a space to watch in the coming months, especially as the holy sites begin on slowly re-open to pilgrims albeit with heavy curtailments on international visitors. It raises questions about how believers outside of the state’s payroll will accept, question, and modify the religion being narrated to them, exposing a new field of public contest in the intersection between bio-politics and religious norms.
 See Karsten Schubert’s exploration of what a democratic bio-politics might mean for egalitarian health care and public health transparency, as well as Peter Mills’ questioning of how a state’s repressive bio-political tools might balance with public interests.
 The hadith exists within Imam al-Nawawi’s collection Riyadh us-Saliheen, Book 18 (On Prohibited Actions), hadith 1520.
Miguel Galsim is an alumnus of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University with an Honours degree in Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies. His research interests centre of Islam within political discourse and foreign policy histories in the broader Islamic world, such as a published chapter on Hamas’ self-presentations in “The Islamic Nationalism of Hamas: Syncretism, Discourse, and Legitimacy” in Tristan Dunning’s Palestine: Past and Present (2019).