We are living in unprecedented times. For most of us, our worlds have been transformed almost overnight. Nations and governments are in the midst of a struggle to contain the outbreak and maintain economic and societal harmony. Individuals face a struggle to maintain their physical and mental health.
The UK government, as well as most others across the world, have taken a multi-stage approach to dealing with the current Coronavirus pandemic. According to the UK gov.uk website:
“The fundamental objectives are to deploy phased actions to Contain, Delay, and Mitigate any outbreak, using Research to inform policy development.”
While it may surprise many, such policies reflect age-old guidance given by Islam to stop the spread of disease. In fact, those nations faring the best in this outbreak are those following Islamic guidance most closely.
Step 1: Personal Hygiene
The first aspect of the Prophet Muhammad’s guidance, peace be upon him, pertains to the individual. Islam lays great emphasis on personal hygiene and cleanliness. The Prophet, peace be upon him, taught his followers that:
“Cleanliness is a part of faith.”
Going further, Islam instructs that before each of the five daily prayers, one should wash thoroughly. Curiously, the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) advise the public that:
“Eighty percent of common infections are spread by hands. Washing your hands at least five times a day has been shown to significantly decrease the frequency of colds, influenza (the “flu”) and other infections. Not only will it help keep you healthy, it will help prevent the spread of infectious diseases to others.”
An act that has been mandated for every Muslim for fourteen hundred years, washing five times a day, now has clear scientific evidence for its efficacy in reducing infection rates, including Coronavirus spread.
Further, according to narrations, “Whenever the messenger of Allah sneezed, he would cover his mouth with his hand or a piece of cloth.” Again, such advice is being rampantly circulated today to prevent spread of virus-containing droplets and contain the current pandemic.
Step 2 – Delaying Spread Locally
Secondly, the Prophet, peace be upon him, provided guidance on how to contain a disease within a particular locality:
“The infected should not be taken into contact with the healthy.”
Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim: #2221
This was what the Founder of Islam taught with respect to animals and their owners. In modern terms, when applied to humans, this would entail social distancing and self-isolation. Combined with the modern ability to do mass testing, South Korea have adopted this approach with great success. They immediately began testing thousands of people, even asymptomatic individuals, at mobile centres. From there, they were able to identify who had the disease, and quarantine them appropriately.
Not only this, but though a central tracking app, Corona 100m, they then publicly informed citizens living within 100m of known cases exactly where the Corona positive cases lived.
Citizens then received detailed information regarding where the infected patients had been or visited over recent days, and also appropriately traced and tested any close contacts of infected patients.
As a result, the country has fared significantly better than many others in containing the disease and preventing deaths.
Step 3 – Preventing Spread Internationally
Thirdly, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, advised broad measures aimed at containing epidemics and stop them spreading to different lands:
“If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.”
Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, #5728
While some may criticise this advice, describing it as obvious or simplistic, in reality if followed in its entirety, this alone would contain the COVID-19 outbreak far more effectively than our current, often half-baked measures. For example, though air travel has been significantly reduced, passengers are still entering UK and US airports, and are being neither quarantined nor tested.
Moreover, had such restrictions been placed at the inception of the pandemic, its spread could have been hugely delayed or even prevented internationally.
Step 4 – Research
A great many verses of the Quran are dedicated to urging believers to study nature. Followers of Islam are encouraged to reflect upon God’s creation in a rational manner in many verses of the Quran. According to the Prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, it is the ‘bounden duty of every Muslim – man and woman – to acquire knowledge.’
While this instruction principally applied to spiritual knowledge, worldly knowledge was an inevitable side-effect of becoming literate, curious, and intellectually engaged. Moreover, gaining knowledge was necessary to serve humanity in the way a Muslim is exhorted to do.
Another narration tells us:
“He who issues forth in the search of knowledge is busy in the cause of Allah (God) until he returns from his quest.”
Tirmidhī, as collected in Riyadh As-Saliheen
In the first few centuries after Islam was founded, Muslim nations closely followed this guidance. In fact, a Muslim woman founded the first university, Al-Qarawiyyin, in Fez, Morocco.
Regrettably, ‘Islamic’ nations have long since fallen behind in this regard. However, the anti-scientific attitudes that some mainstream Muslim clerics espouse are categorically debunked by the Quranic attitude, which teaches people to study God’s creation and use their knowledge to benefit others.
Thus, those scientists who do research contributing to medical treatment and vaccines, do work that the Quran would endorse and encourage.
This view is supported by the words of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, who a century ago lived through a huge plague epidemic in India. He spoke in no uncertain terms in support of his ruling government and the vaccination programme which had been initiated at the time:
“There can be no doubt that until now inoculation is by far the best physical remedy that the government has found, and there is no denying that this remedy has proven to be effective. It is the duty of all subjects to make use of the means that are available to them so that they may relieve the government of the pain it feels for them.”
Noah’s Ark: An Invitation to Faith
The suggestion of many atheists today, that Islam stands opposed to science, is entirely baseless. In the case of COVID-19, finding a vaccine is likely to constitute a major breakthrough and ultimately be the single most effective act in saving lives.
Step 5 – Prayer
As should be clear, Islam advocates for many public health measures to help stop pandemics. It also gives guidance to individuals and nations on how to help others. Unlike some other religious groups, knowledgeable Muslims would never say that we should fight something like this with just ‘thoughts and prayers’.
In fact, when the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was asked by a Bedouin if he should tie his camel or leave it and trust in Allah, he said, “Tie your camel, and trust in Allah.”
Using our God-given capabilities to stop disease, is a form of prayer in its own right. In everything we do, we rely upon God for good results.
However, Islam also advocates for people to pray and ask God for protection and safeguarding from harm. God is under no obligation to accept this, but he may do out of his mercy. An account by the Ahmadi Muslim Reem Ikhlaf recently highlighted the efficacy of prayer.
As for those believers who may suffer or succumb to this virus, this is no punishment. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that even the prick of a thorn is an expiation for sins. He also said:
“Wondrous is the case of a believer; there is good for him in everything, and it is so for him alone. If he experiences something agreeable, he is grateful to God and that is good for him; and if he experiences adversity, he is steadfast and that is good for him.”
Sahih Muslim #2999
Thus, Islam gives people a framework in which they can understand their suffering. It also gives us a way — prayer — to help alleviate our individual and national suffering.
“A young officer, just returned from the fighting front in Flanders, says, “There are no atheists within a half mile of the front trenches.” Men may scoff and be indifferent when death appears to be a far-away thing reserved for some distant old age. But they become serious when it may descend suddenly from the clouds, or spring out of “no man’s land.”
~ St Andrews Cross, February 1918
Medical breakthroughs and public health advancements over recent decades have resulted in human beings living longer than ever before. Our material progress, however, has bred alongside it a feeling of complacency, even invincibility.
Naturally, when we feel in control of our destinies, when we can roam the earth and live our lives with ease, then many feel far too important to consider the existence of a Higher Power. Even if we do, we assume that that Power lies dormant, overtaken by Man’s scientific and technological abilities. Now, all these feelings are rapidly being unraveled by the reality that a tiny organism, a mere virus, has the potential to destroy almost everything we hold dear.
Islam reminds humans of their limitations, and the fact that that God’s Power dwarfs any that we may possess. In this vein, Muslims are taught several prayers to inculcate humility and perspective into their hearts.
“O Allah, Lord of sovereignty, You give sovereignty to whomsoever You please; and You take away sovereignty from whomsoever You please. You exalt whomsoever You please and You abase whomsoever You please. In Your hand is all good. You surely have the power to do all things. You make the night pass into the day and You make the day pass into the night. And You bring forth the living from the dead and the dead from the living. And You give to whomsoever You please without measure.”
Just as during the World Wars, we are coming face to face with our own mortality. As goes the popular saying ‘there are no atheists in foxholes.’
Given the difficulties we are all facing, forced now to live in isolation away from our usual haunts, perhaps now would be as good a time as any to reconnect with our spiritual selves. Perhaps we could spend some time in prayer, and establish a connection with God, the only Being that can ultimately save us from trials of both life and death.