Last Updated on 3rd January 2021
Aizaz Khan, Missionary, Canada
Every morning, like clockwork, I get two particular notifications on my phone. One tells me the weather in my local city and the other tells me the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in some part of the world. The real tragedy in all this is that we’re living in times where checking the number of deaths due to a pandemic is not so different from checking the weather – you can see how it’s changed since the night before, take a glance at the upcoming week’s projected forecast, maybe compare your city to another and even anticipate that it’s so unpredictable, you’ll be surprised just hours later.
It goes without saying, the unraveling of Covid-19’s timeline over the past several weeks has perplexed the masses – travel bans, social distancing, self-isolation and a newfound obsession with what are otherwise expected hygienic practices. All the while, one can’t help but wonder in amazement at the parallels that can be drawn between these preventative measures and those found in Islamic history.
After all, Islam has been handling pandemics for more than 1,400 years and an honest study of the traditions of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, demonstrates that infection control is inherent in Islamic practices.
Here are five of Prophet Muhammad’ssa teachings regarding pandemics:
1. Travel bans and quarantine
The Holy Prophetsa recognised and preached the importance of travel bans and quarantine in places contaminated with disease in order to mitigate the spread of illness. He said, “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; and if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
The wisdom in these teachings asserts that when confronting any outbreak, it is absolutely imperative that we assume the worst until we know otherwise (and act accordingly). Thus, strict travel bans imposed much earlier in Covid-19’s timeline could very well have curtailed the spread of the virus.
2. Social distancing and isolation
The Holy Prophetsa practiced social distancing as well. It is reported that a leprous man once wished to pledge his allegiance to him, an act that would require him to touch or hold the Holy Prophet’ssa hand. Keeping his distance, the Holy Prophetsa kindly sent word to him that his pledge had already been accepted and that he should return home. (Sunan Ibn Majah)
Regarding isolation, the Holy Prophetsa taught that those who are sick should not in any way compromise the community at large. He said, “Do not place a sick patient with a healthy person.” This teaching was extended to animals as well; “The cattle suffering from a disease should not be mixed with healthy cattle.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
In our current circumstances, social distancing and self-isolation have been frustratingly difficult for governments to impose. Ultimately, they have been compelled to lay heavy fines – in some cases up to $750,000 for failing to self-isolate – and even imprisonment for not obeying emergency laws.
In stark contrast to this, Muslims in the time of the Holy Prophetsa and thereafter practiced social distancing and isolation as if it was a religious injunction.
Hazrat Umarra once encouraged a leprous woman who was circling the Holy Ka‘bah in Mecca to go back to her home as it would be better for her (and others). After Hazrat Umar’sra demise, a man told her that the one who forbade her had passed away so she could go and circle the Ka‘bah as she pleased. She replied, “I am not going to obey him when he is alive and disobey him when he has passed away.” Indeed, this is a beautiful example that reflects the spiritual power and impact of the Holy Prophetsa and his rightly guided Khulafa.
If there is one thing people have learned over the past several weeks, it is proper handwashing techniques and thorough hygienic practices – a hallmark of Islam. Any Muslim child can quote verbatim the tradition that states, “Cleanliness is half of the faith.”
Before each of the five daily prayers, a Muslim performs an ablution that comprises of ritual cleaning from head to toe with clean water. The Holy Prophetsa also taught through his practice that the right and left hands should be used to handle pure and impure things respectively, further committing to a high standard of cleanliness on a day-to-day basis.
Furthermore, when he would sneeze, the Holy Prophetsa would cover his face and muffle the sneeze, effectively containing the spread of airborne bacteria and viruses. (Jami‘ al-Tirmidhi)
In essence, Muslims are taught that physical cleanliness and spiritual purity have a close affinity with one another. Thus, the Holy Quran teaches, “Indeed, Allah loves those who turn to Him [repenting] and he loves those who keep themselves clean and pure.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.223)
4. Seeking medical treatment
Islam, as taught by the Holy Prophetsa, is a practical and progressive faith-based system. The Holy Prophetsa encouraged people to seek medical assistance alongside relying on the power of prayer.
Once, he was asked by a group of Bedouins if it would be considered sinful if they did notseek medical treatment. He replied, “Seek (medical) treatment, O Slaves of Allah, for Allah does not create any disease but He also creates with it the cure, except for old age.” (Sunan Ibn Majah)
The Holy Prophetsa also clarified that seeking medical assistance coupled with divine intervention was the key to successful treatment; “Every disease has a cure. If a cure is applied to the disease, it is relieved by the permission of Allah the Almighty”. (Sahih Muslim)
5. Free medical care
Free medical care and financial assistance during a pandemic are crucial in successfully controlling the spread of illness. If the citizens of a nation know that they will be provided and cared for, they will be more likely to follow sanctions that could otherwise put them in financial distress.
The bait-ul-mal (government treasury) was conceptualised in the time of the Holy Prophetsaand formally established during the Khilafat of Hazrat Umarra. The taxes collected in this treasury were used to provide for the poor, disabled, elderly, orphans, widows and others in need. The government was also made responsible to stockpile food supplies in case of disaster or famine.
It is reported that Hazrat Umarra was on his way to Syria, when he came across a group of Christians afflicted with leprosy. He immediately ordered that a medical allowance be provided to them from the government treasury so they could seek medical treatment. Hazrat Umarra also ordered Muslims to keep a close watch on prisoners and provide for all of their medical needs as required.
In conclusion, the Holy Prophet Muhammad’ssa teachings around pandemics propose an infection control mechanism that calls for both faith and practical measures to be taken in order to effectively contain infectious diseases.
Today, world leaders have two equally important responsibilities – solving the Covid-19 crisis and improving the way we respond to outbreaks in the future. Without a doubt, the history of Islam’s battle against pandemics is indispensable and could very well guide our infection control systems now and in the future.