The Coronavirus: A Muslim’s Perspective

This current pandemic and global crisis brought about by the novel Coronavirus strain has been a source of panic and worry for many, but it is also an opportunity for great reflection. There are important parallels between the necessary steps to combat the spread of COVID-19 and our Islamic tradition. God-willing, we can take advantage of social distancing to deeply appreciate our religion in ways that directly tie to tackling this issue. 

Purity in Islam

Abu Malik al-Ash’ari, the first emigrant to meet Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, reported:

The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “Cleanliness is half of faith.” (ibn al-Hallaj; bk. 2 num. 1).[1]

There cannot be enough emphasis on washing hands at this time. Purity, both physically and spiritually, is so significant in Islam that Muslim jurists dedicate the first chapter of their books on ritual worship to this topic. Tarik M. Al-Soliman says in his article “Environmental Purity and Cleanliness: An Islamic Perspective,”

Purity derives its legality, which furnished it with continuity and validity in the Muslim society, from, the Qur’an, the Prophet’s traditions, and scholars’ consensus.[2]

There are two dimensions of purity: that which deals with the tangible, and that which deals with the intangible. Tangible purity concerns the body, environment, and clothing.

Practicing cleanliness is a symbol of the ethics and morality of a person as a good follower of religious belief.[3]

Maintaining physical hygiene is not only highly advisable to protect one’s self from the transmittance of the novel Coronavirus strain, but is also a major aspect of being a Muslim in general. 

The legal element that proves the necessity of tangible purity is obligatory ablution, or ritual cleansing, before prayer. Ablution, along with the five prayers, maintains a biological rhythm in the human body. The various requirements of ablution are intimately tied to bodily health and infection prevention. Washing the nose during wudhu prevents microbe diseases and washing the arms activates blood circulation. Washing the hands, which we are constantly reminded to do these days, helps to prevent pneumonia by reducing the risk of infection from contact with fomites. Rinsing the mouth likewise prevents infections. To maintain oral health, Muslims may also use miswak (or “siwak”), a practice of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ noted by Imam al-Bukhari and other Muslim traditionists (muhadithun). 

“According to Islamic teachings, the spiritual purification has a very significant connection with physical cleanliness as it is the fundamental of faith for human beings.” [2] The marriage between tangible and intangible purity cannot be understated. The latter pertains to the purification of intentions and the common good. Many muhadithun open their books with the hadith “Actions are judged by their intentions.” Praying at home instead of in the mosque protects our elders and other immunocompromised individuals in our communities from being at risk of falling ill to this virus. Unfortunately, there has been some resistance to the closure of mosques. Some Muslims appear to either ignore or rebut the logic of staying home during public health crises. Meanwhile, there are videos of muadhins calling out al-salatu fi buyutikum (pray in your homes) instead of hayya alas-salah (rush to prayer) across the Muslim world.

Endless commentary attends—at present and historically—the concepts of purity and impurity, reflecting the enormous importance Islam endows in them. In Muslim societies, the muhtasib (supervisor of bazaars and trade in medieval times) was even assigned an executive position to enforce rulings related to health and hygiene in the streets and markets, 

by controlling its contents, patterns of uses, types of users (i.e., healthy versus sick) and their behavior, and the different activities taking place. These applications aimed at preserving the cleanliness, purity, and health of the environment.[2] 

The lack of these ethics in certain parts of the world, Muslim countries included, has brought us to the state we are in now. Impermissible foods in our religion are commodified and major negligence to public health adds insult to injury. There is wisdom in differentiating edible and inedible foods. Al-Soliman posits that Islamic rulings

are still applied by Muslims insofar as their personal hygiene, ablution, foods’ and drinks’ ingredients, personal behavior, pet care, and dressing are concerned.[2]

Of course, there are also many examples where modern Muslim societies do not prove to be up to par with these expectations be it due to lack of access to clean water or simply following different trends. In a break-out like this, we can take the time to think about our personal health practices and the ones our communities maintain at-large. 

Following Protocol

And Allah loves those who make themselves clean and pure.[4]

Following protocol to halt the spread of COVID-19 and to give hospitals more time and resources to cure sick patients should be seen as a virtuous behavior and an act of ‘ibadah (worship). Many of us may still be adjusting to social distancing, which can feel very sluggish and mundane. However, it is important we change our perspective and give meaning to our quarantine—whether voluntary or mandatory. When we value human life in remembrance of our Creator by actively cooperating as a collective unit, we are participating in a joint-effort of worship. 

In order to fulfill our duties to God, we must synchronize tangible purity with intangible purity. With the rapid spread of COVID-19, this means implementing certain preventive measures. Quarantine for epidemics is even mentioned in Sahih al-Bukhari. Pre-Islamic Arabs considered it obvious, after witnessing it with their camels, that “such maladies were transmissible directly from one victim to another: that is, they acknowledged ‘contagion’ (‘adwa).”[5] From the plague in Syria to the Black Death in Arabia, attitudes toward epidemic disease in Muslim history is “an eminently practical one: one avoids areas where epidemics are raging, and those who have never been before exposed to a particular disease feel very much more at risk by reason of this fact.”[5] People in the modern world have been able to grasp the fear of epidemics in all classic literature, but perhaps unable to fully understand the gravity of them, never having experienced their damage. Now that it is a reality, it has been unfortunate that precautionary steps are not taken too seriously by some. This is the false impression progressive theory gives us — we have been unable to accomplish what people have done millennia ago. We as a global community must limit our travel and local navigation to a minimum. Doing so in efforts to protect Allah’s creations will, by His grace, yield rewards. 

In “Epidemics and Ideas: Essays on the Historical Perception of Pestilence,” the author writes,

Ibn Ishaq reports that when a certain leader of the tribe of Quraysh in Mecca died of the smallpox, his sons for several days refused to go near the body to prepare it for burial, because the Quraysh fear smallpox as [other] folk fear the plague.[5]

We have to be this overly careful and fear the consequences of being irresponsible during this pandemic. While the recovery rate for coronavirus is optimistic for young people, those who lack humility, awareness, or both remain with the assumption that they will not be inflicted. Bedouins in history were repelled from contagious diseases not only because of instincts but because they were hyper-aware of their own insignificant physical and metaphysical existence.

There have been great feats of scientific discovery in Islamic history, and the pursuit of scientific studies is respected in our tradition. We can take this time to be grateful for doctors and other hospital personnel who are working diligently to recover those under their care. 

In a world where the nation-state is the primary distributor and arbiter of political and economic power, a deeply unfortunate cacophony of developments has pulled back the curtain on its fragility. We see how vulnerable humanity is with the spread of a virus. A threat in one corner of the planet is no longer confined to that village, town, or city. Global connectedness, as it were, has facilitated, not prevented, human suffering. Our susceptibility to sickness is a painful but necessary reminder of our mortality.

While these times can be scary, they are also very humbling. The importance of prevention and preservation of health is highlighted by the words of our beloved Prophet ﷺ, “There are two gifts of which many men are cheated: health (al-sihhah) and leisure (al-faragh).”[6]

Works Cited:

[1] ibn al-Hajjaj, Muslim. Sahih Muslim. Sunnah.com. Accessed 30 March 2020.
[2] Al-Soliman, Tarik M. “Environmental Purity and Cleanliness: An Islamic Perspective.” Journal of the Islamic Medical Association of North America, vol. 19, no. 3, 1987.
[3] Zain, Nurul Aminah Mat, and Fatmir Shehu. “The Concept of Cleanliness in the Perspective of Abrahamic Faith: Textual Analysis.” Al-Itqan Journal of Islamic Sciences and Comparative Studies, no. 1, Nov. 2018, pp. 95–115.
[4] The Qur’an. Surah at-Taubah, verse 108.
[5] Ranger, Terrance and Paul Slack Epidemics and Ideas: Essays on the Historical Perception of Pestilence. New York, Cambridge University Press, January 26, 1996. Amazon link to the book here. This is not a sponsored post.
[6] DEURASEH, Nurdeen. “Health And Medicine In The Islamic Tradition Based On The Book Of Medicine (Kitab Al-Tibb) Of Sahih Al-Bukhari.”Journal of the International Society for the History of Islamic Medicine, 2006. http://www.ishim.net/ishimj/910/JISHIM%20NO.9%20PDF/01.pdf.

Photo Credit: BlackDaffodil


About the Author: Sabrina Amrane is a writer for Traversing Tradition. She is a journalism and political science student. Her interests include history, literature, and politics.

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