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"The crisis is a reflection of what is already there"

Interview with Prof. Dr. Milad Karimi about Corona as a chance for social awareness and the role of religion in the COVID-19 crisis


Milad Karimi is Professor of Kalām, Islamic Philosophy and Mysticism and Deputy Director of the Center for Islamic Theology at the University of Münster. The interview was conducted by Ulrich Nitschke, head of the Religion and Development team at PIRON Global Development.

Ulrich Nitschke: As an Islamic theologian, what do you think - why is religion, even in times of crisis, apparently so susceptible to extreme positions and extremist abuse of religious narratives?

Prof. Milad Karimi: In my opinion, it is precisely in such a crisis that exactly that which is already present becomes apparent. In the crisis, we become more sensitive to listening to what is already being said and done. I do not think that we are seeing attitudes of people which are unknown to us. There are many egoisms. There are populists, right-wing radicals, extremists in general, who are looking for every opportunity to strengthen their ideology. In the crisis, whether we like it or not, we also notice: we are reduced to the essential. We are at home, we are with those with whom we live, but often that is exactly what hurts. When there is no crisis, we show a different habitus, i.e. we often live in the escape mode. We are not with ourselves. We do not take the time for what is important, because there is no cultivation for it. From a religious point of view, from my Islamic perspective, this time of crisis is a kind of mirror of what is already there. In the crisis, the essential suddenly becomes visible. I see myself, and I realize I cannot stand myself. In this density, in this almost timeless way. Days go by on which I do not even know what day of the week it is. Because I permanently work in such a way that the whole thing has nothing to do with weekdays. In this respect, something deeply religious comes to light: the timelessness.

Ulrich Nitschke: What does religion have to do with it? Or what is the religious dimension that becomes visible?

Prof. Milad Karimi: The religious becomes interesting and attractive because we realize that we have limited the religious to a kind of comfort zone or simple source of consolation. Religion is always good when we feel bad. Then God is this functional God with whom I seek comfort, salvation and healing. This interpretation of religion shapes our societies and the individual religious communities, which cultivate exactly this in their thinking and self-presentation. The whole of religion is then lost in a pastoral way. Otherwise, I do not see what role religion has. When my mother is in a hospital bed and I am not allowed to visit her, I can pray for her. But is that really religion? In this respect, the crisis seems to me - positively formulated - as a chance to reflect on the religious. What is the role of religion? If it is as I outlined earlier, perhaps a bit general, then we have a problem. Then the great potential of religiosity and faith is lost. Because religions do not seem to have any systemic relevance. That is where the real problem lies. We must revive religion as a systemically relevant factor. Not only hospitals and supermarkets must be open, but religions must be hope in society. This must be cultivated in a non-crisis period. In this respect, the crisis is a lesson for religious people and institutions to regain their own role.

Ulrich Nitschke: In most countries worldwide, religion is an integral part of everyday life. There are religious communities that follow the instructions of the authorities and rely on scientific findings about COVID-19. At the same time, there are religious groups and leaders who protest against restrictive measures and continue to gather; there have been mass contagions at religious events. Can the religious world reorient itself in these countries, where it plays a very central role?

Prof. Milad Karimi: Yes, I agree, but this central role is often not filled with life. Religion is central, but the centrality is attributed to the fact that I fulfil duties, go to the mosque, perform the corresponding prayers in the month of Ramadan. Here is the best way to ask: What did I do when I prayed? Everyone is calling for the churches to be reopened. I ask myself, what for? If religion is reduced to the fulfilment of duties, then that is far too little. Then I have not understood that my life should not serve religion, but religion should serve life. The reversal of this situation is a special lesson in this time of crisis. I may experience a lonely Ramadan, but in this solitude, I can ask myself whether this solitude is a filled solitude, a beautiful solitude for which we seem to have no sense at all. Religions are schools of loneliness. A school in which we may find peace with ourselves. We can ask ourselves, "What do I have in me in terms of potential, riches, weaknesses? Where is humility in my life?". This is something that is deeply rooted in almost all world religions. But many negative connotations of religion contribute to the fact that the real meaning of religion has escaped in such a way that we are no longer ready to open ourselves to another reality that is greater, greater than pilgrimages, greater than fasting and prayer.

Ulrich Nitschke: Has religion, especially the monotheistic religions, emptied itself through its ritualization? Religion is also always an expression, which only becomes spirituality when it is expressed – what do you think?

Prof. Milad Karimi: Absolutely! Religion without rituals is hardly imaginable. My life as a believer expresses itself in rituality. But the problem appears when the rituals become empty rituals, when my ritual action no longer tells me anything. In a crisis, the role of religion would be to make us realize that we live in a common world. Religion can help us to finally look for a common mission, a common mandate to take on the responsibility for all of us together. To shape a future that is peaceful and sustainable, instead of just following our own intentions. If we follow our own interest, we tend to create boundaries towards others.

Ulrich Nitschke: From your Islamic theological perspective, where do you see the chance to achieve exactly what you are formulating right now: more meaning, more grounding, more sustainability after the crisis?

Prof. Milad Karimi: There are facts. The churches are empty. This spatial emptiness, these empty places of worship, hurt my religious soul. I wonder whether the large churches in this time of crisis could not be opened to Muslims on Fridays. Mosques could also provide space for their fellow Christians. What would be the point of that? It would make sense for a religious institution to look and go beyond its own spaces, also for the time after the crisis. We do not have to share the other faith. But we would have an openness, would show religious sensitivity, would think and act together for the other. In my opinion, we do far too little of that.

Ulrich Nitschke: Where do you see the possibilities of interreligious cooperation when you suggest that churches could be visited by Muslims on Fridays and mosques by Christians on Sundays? Is our society ready for this?

Prof. Milad Karimi: If this act is based on reciprocity, it is an incredibly symbolic act of societal significance. When I notice that the churches are open for me on Fridays, then the churches are transformed forever for me. Before we engage in interreligious dialogue, we must think about whether I can become a place of prayer for the other person. If I cannot do that yet, then everything else is just pseudo debate. The point is to create a space for religion to be what it must be, namely a public actor of life. This public role does not mean power, but it means to support this life. I would say that we should renounce something fundamentally religious in order to do something instead that is greater than what we consider religion to be in its narrow form. My whole perspective on the question of the significance of religion in this crisis is a reflection on what it means to be religious. This question only lasts if I discover a sense of the essential, especially in such an extreme situation. The crisis is an opportunity to review and correct one's own way of life. Before and during the crisis, refugees are pushed away from Europe by force. Is this the lesson we want to learn from the crisis? Religion can ask thorny questions; its presence can be an imposition. Jesus of Nazareth and the prophet Mohammed were an imposition in their social contexts because they were promoting something greater.

Ulrich Nitschke: What do religious communities have to learn so that they can once again become this imposition, an impertinence? So that, from a spirituality or theology of crisis a new and more sustainable way of life can be created for our society?

Prof. Milad Karimi: I believe that the highest spirituality is to let spirituality be. In order to become an imposition, one has to get away from a spirituality that is merely external, for example in the form of rituals. For example, you could say in the church: my sermon today is that everyone sits for half an hour and finds silence within her- or himself. We can see the relevance of our own greatness in the fact that we minimize ourselves. I believe that only in this way we can regain our greatness even in a secular society by not claiming a place of our own. Unfortunately, we think that religion, within the society that is as it is, must have a role. But it seems to me that this does not quite work, because one is always one of many, because one is confronted with power interests and the expectations of one's own community. At this point religion is very far away from being an imposition. It is only a matter of coping with needs. During the time of crisis, I have not heard anything from any religious community that I did not know before. You can understand the familiar messages of comfort even if you are totally areligious. This cannot really be the last big message. The message could be not to wait until a crisis until we think about what we have to say as religions during the crisis. But when you are religious, you are always in crisis. A spiritual person always has a spiritual crisis. A spiritual crisis means that I think I am not good enough. I think if we practice enough in this personal spiritual crisis, we can be good conversational partners in the big crisis.

Ulrich Nitschke: In the book "In the Heart of Spirituality: How Muslims and Christians can meet", which you wrote with the monk Father Anselm Grün, you draw attention to this restlessness or inadequacy from the Islamic tradition. You say that the longing for the perfect is something that connects Islam and Christianity. Would that be a spiritual attitude for a different society?

Prof. Milad Karimi: I think it would be an offer, because then I would get a little further away from my own restlessness. I think this spiritual restlessness means finding the restlessness of the other person from within my own restlessness. Being able to discover the restlessness of the other, that is, religiously speaking, compassion. Compassion is also being with the other. ‘To be with’ is something deeply religious. For example, I love loneliness, because in my loneliness I become aware of the loneliness of the other. I think spirituality can be a blessing in this respect, not only for the present society, but also for a future society. There are always two elements anchored in spirituality. First, the path that leads away from me, the path away from selfishness. And secondly, by getting away from myself, I find myself. We also experience this in our secular life every day. It is much nicer to give a gift than to receive a gift. When I give something to a friend, I feel the highest level of happiness. Through giving one becomes greater. Then we become, if I may use Plato's words, more like God. Because God is a reality that gives, that is pure gift. Through that gift he does not become less God. To learn from this virtue of God is to be religious. We learn through the crisis that we can do without. The crisis is a profound experience if we reflect on how little we can be happy with.

Ulrich Nitschke: Is it not a bit cynical or from a position of luxury that we can afford such a view? We have satisfied all basic needs, while there are many people for whom this is not the case. In many countries there is not even water for washing hands, and if there is water, it is used for drinking or cooking, not for hygiene.

Prof. Milad Karimi: It is clear that this way of thinking about giving is born out of luxury, and therefore it is also a virtue of God, because he is the most luxurious of all, because he has everything. But it seems to me that we are also the ones who must first think about this. I believe that those who are needy anyway have no obligation to think about such things. Because we have also worked our way up at their expense. In this respect, I have the urge within myself to give more so that I have less, instead of demanding that those who have no water should share the little water they have. All the people who have died so far as a result of the Corona virus, and that is bad enough, are a minimal percentage of the people who have been slaughtered in Syria in recent years. But we think: Syria is Syria and Baghdad was Baghdad. And we are just here. As long as we are doing well, this is just a statistic that we read in the newspapers. But what if we just understand that we are connected as human beings? That is the perspective of religion.

Ulrich Nitschke: Corona has shown us globalization in a completely different way. There is a multitude of other zoonoses that could spread in a similar way. We are at the beginning of a societal vulnerability and susceptibility that we have never known before. This is also threatening our democratic systems.

Prof. Milad Karimi: Interestingly, there is nothing more democratic than a virus. A virus makes no difference. It perceives everyone to be the same. Religion cannot avert or predict a crisis, but it can give us an attitude towards the crisis. The development of attitude is something you seldom learn in school; attitude is not a school subject. It is something that we learn in dealing with each other. That means I can be a student or a worker, but I do not have the right attitude towards my work or my studies, my school, my family. To find this attitude, I think, is the original task of religion. At the same time, there is a great opportunity for the majority society to look more closely at educational institutions, and to listen more closely to whether this kind of education, which I do not get anywhere else in this form and in this intensity, can be healing for the social cohesion of our society.

Ulrich Nitschke: Hamburg is now the first federal state to begin with a curriculum for interreligious literacy. In its new strategy, the global interfaith movement Religions for Peace has pointed out the strengthening of the interreligious literacy of societies and communities as one of the major fields of action. In it, there is the hope for more respect towards the other, to accept differences without losing oneself in the process, but to benefit while being compassionate, walking together, listening, shaping creation together. I think this is a strong model of a theology that develops togetherness. What do you think?

Prof. Milad Karimi: A theology that is complementary, a theology that complements each other, that also keeps each other awake together. Mindfulness, a deeply religious virtue, is connected with it. Currently, we need an incredible level of mindfulness in the whole of society, so that we know when our hands are clean, how close we are to the other and so on. I believe that there is a multitude of potentials and learnings that are anchored in the religions, each with its own reasons and anchored differently, but which together are indispensable for overcoming the crisis.

Ulrich Nitschke: So, Corona could be a campaign for mindfulness, if we transfer this to society. Is that the main message of your interview? Corona as a chance for social mindfulness, would that be a title?

Prof. Milad Karimi: Yes, you could say that.

Ulrich Nitschke: What are your key insights during Ramadan this year?

Prof. Milad Karimi: Ramadan feels different every year. I am always living in anticipation of a new Ramadan; a Ramadan I have never had before. Since December I have been expecting: what will I feel most strongly this year? Unexpectedly, I felt something that I could not have predicted. This is of course also due to Corona. The experience of this Ramadan was special for me in that I felt that my fasting had never been shared as many times as during this Ramadan. I notice that in a certain way all of Germany is fasting with me during this Ramadan, that I feel much closer to all people and not only to my brothers and sisters in faith. I do not go to the mosque, I do not see my fellow believers at all. But I notice that in a certain way all people sacrifice. In a way everyone is sacrificing what they would like to do otherwise. These are in a certain way exactly the thought structures, the feelings that I otherwise only share with my community, and which have now become a basic experience for all people. I think that is the lesson I am drawing from this month. Ramadan is not just for me.

Ulrich Nitschke: I thank you very much for this insightful and wise conversation full of compassion and spiritual grounding.

Prof. Milad Karimi: Thank you very much.


Watch the full interview here (in German only):

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