Does Islam Guide In Situations Like Coronavirus Pandemic?

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As the Coronavirus has made its entry into the Muslim world, there have been a series of interventions at different levels to fight the pandemic that has already killed more than 6570 people across more than 125 countries with the death rate as high as eight per cent. The Muslim scholars and the clergy are playing a key role in helping governance systems to manage the crisis.

In a recent dispatch, Al-Jazeera reported that the pandemic is changing the way Muslims worship across the world as the faithful are taking precautionary measures to avoid getting infected. Saudi Arabia has already banned Umrah pilgrimage and stopped foreigners visiting Islam’s holiest sites. It has restricted its own residents from performing Umrah. For the yearly Haj (July 28 to August 2), Riyadh is still silent. Prayers at the Masjid-al-Aqsa have also been restricted.

Iran that is the virus hotbed in the region has already stopped Friday congregations. It compromised its criminal justice system by letting the prisons – convicts and under-trials – go home for the time being.

Singapore Muslim leaders have advised worshippers to use own prayer mats, and avoid shaking hands, according to The Straits Times. Masagos Zulkifli, a minister in charge of Muslim affairs in Singapore, was quoted telling the faithful that they should stay at home if they showed any coronavirus symptoms. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has called on mosques and Islamic schools to “keep your congregations safe”, by following the government’s advice. Tajikistan, which so far has no reported cases, has suspended Friday prayers.

Muslims in a south Kashmir shrine outwitting each other to get Tehri, food prepared in community kitchen on a day they participated in Salat-ut-Touba, prayers for repentance, to ward off Coronavirus. KL Image

The Middle East Monitor reported Egyptian Minister of Awqaf (Endowment), Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa saying that if Muslim scholars are asking the health ministry to prevent the Friday prayers over the fear of the coronavirus spread, the ban is “permissible”. He was speaking to a conference held at Egypt’s Al-Azhar University. “In the event of an epidemic that is considered a threat to humanity, necessary measures must be taken to protect the human beings,” he stressed.

Writing in The Independent, London, Robert Fisk stated that there have been clear guidelines in the Islamic history suggesting how to behave in case of mass morbidity like plagues. “Within only seven years of the death of the Prophet Mohamed, pestilence struck the entire region. The Plague of Amwas, named after a Palestinian village not far from Jerusalem (its modern Arab inhabitants were evicted by Israeli forces in 1948), killed 20,000, including the prophet’s own companion Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, and struck from Syria to what is today Saudi Arabia,” Frisk wrote. “In an earlier epidemic, the second caliph, Umar al-Khattab, was advancing from Medina to Syria – but turned back when he heard from Abu Ubaidah that a plague had broken out in Syria. He returned to Arabia, an act provoking a debate which has echoes even amid today’s coronavirus outbreak.” Muslim histories have lot of narratives about the plagues in the medieval era. “The Syrian writer Ibn al-Wardi, who was himself a victim of the plague in 1348, spoke of the Black Death emerging from “The Land of Darkness”. Up to 30 per cent of all Persians died in the 14th century. The great Arab traveller Ibn Battuta recorded 2,000 deaths a day in Damascus. Four years later, Mecca was struck by a plague apparently brought down the Haj pilgrimage route,” Frisk wrote.

The Guardian has a video of a Kuwaiti mosque on its website in which the Muezzin, who calls for prayers, asks the faithful to pray at home. The video caption reads: “A muezzin in Kuwait was heard saying ‘al-salatu fi buyutikum’ or ‘pray in your homes’ instead of the usual ‘hayya alas-salah’ or ‘come to prayer’.”

It is in this backdrop that we are reproducing a detailed easy that was lifted from the website of the California Islamic University. With a small but good faculty, this piece has apparently been written for the Western audience. Its details, however, have a universal appeal given the issues that mankind is confronted with. It has up to date references.

“In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population over a wide geographic area. The original goal of containment to affected areas shifted to slowing down the spread of the disease in order to ease the burden on healthcare institutions. Since Covid-19 has a higher transmission rate than influenza, SARS, and MERS, ‘social distancing’ measures are being encouraged to slow the speed of the outbreak. Rather than infect a large number of people in one month, it can be spread out over a year so that hospitalizations are spread out and the chance of survival through proper healthcare is increased. It is also suggested that coming warm weather may help slow the spread of the virus. A vaccine is expected to take about a year to develop. Given these latest developments in our understanding of Covid-19 from a medical perspective, Muslims must keep the following in mind:

Covid-19: An electron microscopic image of the 2019 novel coronavirus grown in cells at The University of Hong Kong

Islam teaches that all diseases such as the Coronavirus [Covid-19] are tests from Allah and a natural part of life. Such diseases afflict whomever Allah allows them to afflict and they take the lives of whomever He has decided to bring to an end. Tests are a natural, albeit difficult, part of life and should not be surprising for any Muslim when they occur. Allah says, “We shall certainly test you with fear and hunger, and loss of property, lives, and crops. But [Prophet], give good news to those who are steadfast.” [Qur’an 2:155]

Anyone who is afflicted with the illness, and is patient, will spiritually benefit from that test. The Prophet said, “Whatever trouble, illness, anxiety, grief, hurt or sorrow afflicts any Muslim, even the prick of a thorn, God removes some of his sins by it.” [Bukhārī #5641] Regarding illnesses leading to death, the Prophet was asked about the plague. He responded, “It is a torment with which Allah afflicts those whom He chooses, but He has made it a mercy for the believers. If a servant [of Allah]is afflicted with the plague and patiently remains in his town, realizing that he has only been afflicted with what Allah has determined for him, he will have the reward of a martyr.” [Bukhārī #5734]

Islam requires us to both put our trust in Allah and utilize the means to protect ourselves when possible.

The Qur’an teaches us, as told to the Prophet, “Say: Nothing will afflict us except what Allah has decided for us.” [Qur’an 9:51]

Simultaneously though, we should take precautions by using medicine when ill, or quarantine when threatened with illness.

During the lifetime of the Prophet, some people thought that using medicine may go against the concept of relying on Allah [tawakkul]. Those people asked, “Messenger of Allah, should we use medicine?”  The Prophet replied, “Yes, you may use medicine.  Allah has not created any disease without also creating its cure, except one: old age.” [Abū Dāwūd #3855, graded ṣaḥīḥ by scholars] The Prophet clarified that the use of medicine is permissible and even encouraged and that this does not violate the concept of trust in Allah.

The Messenger of Allah said, “An ill person should not mix with healthy people.” [Muslim #2221b] The Prophet also said, “Avoid a [contagious]disease the way a person flees from a lion.” [Bukhārī #5707] Therefore, taking precautions to avoid the spread of infectious disease is something prescribed in Islam. Anyone testing positive for Covid-19 is not allowed to attend community events since they would be harming other people, and that is prohibited. The same applies for people who have travelled to the most affected areas such as China, Italy, Iran, and South Korea.

Hundreds of Muslims offered special prayers, seeking repentance, in the shrine mosque at Khanqah in Dooru on March 15, 2020. KL Image: Shah Hilal

Imam Ibn ʿAbdul Barr [d. 1071 CE] wrote: “Anything that would inconvenience one’s fellow worshipers in the mosque such as anyone afflicted with diarrhoea… foul odour due to illness…infectious virus, or anything else that would inconvenience the public, it is permitted for people to keep such an individual away, as long as the ailment is present. Once the condition ceases, they may return to the mosque.” [At-Tamhīd]

Caliph ʿUmar went to visit Syria when the plague of ʿAmawās broke out in 18 A.H. He sought consultation from his advisors on whether to return to Madīnah, the capital, or continue on. One of them said, “You left for the sake of Allah so this plague should not stop you.” Others advised the opposite. ʿUmar decided to return to Madīnah. Abū ʿUbaydah rebuked him, “Are you fleeing from the decree of Allah?” He responded, “Yes, I am fleeing from the decree of Allah to the decree of Allah. If you had camels and they entered a land with two sides, one fertile and the other barren, and you grazed them in the fertile area, wouldn’t you be doing that by the decree of Allah? And if you let them graze in the barren area, wouldn’t you be doing that also by the decree of Allah.” ʿUmar’s statement demonstrates an excellent example of how to balance between relying on Allah and taking sufficient precautions.

Umar had also received advice from ʿAbdurraḥmān ibn ʿAwf who told him that the Messenger of Allah said, “If you hear that it (the plague) has broken out in a land, do not go to it; but if it breaks out in a land where you are present, do not go out escaping from it.” [Saḥiḥ Al-Bukhārī #5730, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim #2219] This advice is perfectly in line with one of the underlying objectives of the Sharīʿah [Islamic Law], which is to preserve life. Imam Al-Āmidī [d. 631/1233] wrote: “The rules [in Islam]have only been prescribed for the benefit of His servants. The fact that they have underlying purposes and wisdom is grounded in both consensus and reason.”

Srinagar Municipal Corporation staff sprays disinfectant as a precautionary measure against Coronavirus in Srinagar’s historic Jamia Masjid on March 13, 2020. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The underlying principle for the proper reaction to an infectious disease such as Covid-19 is the statement of the Messenger of Allah, “Do not cause harm, and don’t get harmed [lā ḍarar wa lā ḍirār].” [Muwaṭṭa’ #1435] This general statement requires some interpretation. Guidelines provided by public health institutions are often general and require some level of interpretation to correctly ascertain the threat to individuals and society. An ethico-legal evaluation must weigh both scripture and scientific research in light of theological imperatives.

Both preservation of the religion [dīn] and preservation of life are amongst the primary objectives of the Sharīʿah [Islamic Law].

Hardship [mashaqqah] is often part and parcel of many acts of worship in Islam, such as fasting on long, hot days. When difficulty reaches a certain threshold, some rules may be relaxed, such as when an injured person is allowed to sit during prayer instead of standing, or when an ill person may skip fasting in Ramadan and make it up later.

However, there is a difference between a concession [rukhṣah], where a rule is eased, and skipping an obligation due to absolute necessity [ḍarūrah]. Something prohibited may become allowed in dire circumstances, such as uttering words against Islam when being tortured, or even eating pork and wine when starving. These exemptions are explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an and come under the general wisdom mentioned in the verse, “Allah intends for you ease and He does not want to make things [unnecessarily]difficult for you.” [Qur’an 2:185]

Islamic guidelines require scholars to accurately [as possible]weigh the benefits/harms in this life and the afterlife before issuing an exemption on any required act.

Muslims busy in ablutions in the Jamia Masjid Srinagar. Muslims are supposed to clean part of their bodies including hands, toes, face, nose, mouth and ears before going to prayers five times a day. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Precautionary measures should be taken, or may be required, when there is a genuine threat of danger, and not a mere feeling of fear or panic. The threat assessment varies from one region to another and one person to another. A decision to suspend religious activities should be made after consultation with public health experts, and it must be consistent throughout a community to ensure it is neither excessive nor insufficient.

Shaking hands with other Muslims is not a requirement in Islam. In fact, initiating a greeting is considered a recommended act. Only responding to greetings is required. Therefore, shaking hands with ‘high risk’ individuals is discouraged, or even frowned upon. A fist bump or a hand-over-the-heart greeting suffices to convey love, affection, and send peace [salām] on others.

Friday Prayer [jumu`ah] is obligatory on adult males who are neither sick nor travelling. In order for the obligation to be lifted from these individuals, there must be credible warnings by public health institutions that there is actual harm in holding these gatherings. Furthermore, other such large gatherings such as weddings, public events, etc must also be cancelled in the area in order to prevent the unfair targeting of religious institutions for closure. The exemption varies from region to region. In an area where there are no credible warnings, those who are obligated to attend Friday prayer must continue to do so.

Friday prayer does not need to be performed in a mosque. It can be in a park, an office, or elsewhere. A Friday sermon can be only a few minutes long and the minimum number of people required to attend [according to the Ḥanafī school]is four.

While fear or concern does not have to reach the level of certainty, a highly probable fear or concern suffices to make exceptions or modifications to certain prescribed rules. Although the Covid-19 pandemic is being politicized, there is no reason to doubt the near-consensus of healthcare experts on the actual risk posed by the virus. In fact, the CDC has issued a clarification that there is little evidence to support using face masks to prevent the disease, though it minimizes risk to others [or should be used if caring for people who have respiratory illness]. This, and other statements, demonstrate that they are unlikely to be accused of causing an unnecessary panic or having other foul motives.

There is historical legal precedent in exempting people from the Friday prayer for reasons which may be considered less severe than Covid-19 concerns. The Ḥanbalī legal scholar Imam Ibn Qudāmah [d. 1223 CE] wrote, “A man may be excused for not praying Friday prayer [jumuʿah]… because of rain that makes the clothes wet, or mud that causes annoyance or stains the clothes. It was narrated that Ibn ʿAbbās said to the caller of prayer on a very rainy day: ‘When you say: I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, do not say ‘come to prayer’ but rather say ‘pray in your houses’. Some people found that strange, so he responded to them: ‘Are you surprised by what I just said? A person better than me did just that [referring to the Prophet].” [Al-Mughnī 1:366]

Contemporary scholar Shaykh Ibn ʿUthaymīn explained this exception as follows, “In the past, people used to suffer because of mud, because the marketplaces had dirt floors, and when rain fell it became muddy and slippery, so it was very difficult for people to attend the mosque. If this happens, then he is excused. But nowadays, that does not cause any problem, because the markets are paved and there are no dirt floors.” [Ash-Sharḥ Al-Mumtiʿ 4:317] It may be legitimately argued that concerns about heavy rain, even in the past, are less severe than the current infection concerns in certain areas.

Those who are at significantly higher risk of infection, such as the elderly and immune-compromised, may fall into the category of those who are ‘sick’ and be exempted from prayer, even in areas where the average adult male is not exempted. ‘Risk’ is relative, but there is room to err on the side of caution given the seriousness of the fatality rate of Covid-19 in the ‘high risk’ population.

Staff nurses and other officials of Chest Diseases Hospital Srinagar have started wearing masks following the apprehensions that some patients might be carrying the Coronavirus infection. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The five daily communal prayers may be performed alone or in a group. Although it is highly recommended to pray in a group, it is not required. However, given the current recommendations in many areas to prevent large gatherings, the daily prayers are usually much smaller gatherings than Friday prayer and may not be subject to the same cancellation precautions. Nonetheless, given the recommendation of ‘social distancing’ in many affected areas, there may be sufficient justification for reducing the number of group-prayers one engages in.

Muslims must not only care for their own wellbeing but the wellbeing of others.

The Prophet said, “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should not harm his neighbour.” [Bukhārī #6018] This can be extended to the person who is physically next to you.

The Centre’s for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] has explained that Covid-19 has an incubation period of 1-14 days before common symptoms of fever, dry cough, or fatigue show up in infected patients. During this period, a carrier has the ability to spread it to others through exposure to droplets from coughing/sneezing or by touching an affected surface and then touching the mouth, eyes, or nose. The assumed fatality rate of those infected is about 1%, but it is higher in those at risk. Therefore, even though many people who are infected will not be significantly harmed by the disease, they can seriously harm by spreading it to others who are at higher risk. This fact must be taken into consideration by people who are less-at-risk.

Muslims should benefit from the lessons that such tests teach us. Imam Al-ʿIzz ibn Abdussalam [d. 1262 CE] explained that a calamity has the following benefits:

It leads people to sincerity and causes them to repent for their mistakes. Pain or suffering that brings people closer to Allah is not actually a calamity, but a blessing in the greater scheme of things.

It is an opportunity to help others and gain immense reward.

It is an opportunity to appreciate the blessings that people having been enjoying but neglected due to heedlessness.

It gives people an opportunity to have their sins purified by being patient and responding in the correct way to the calamity.

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