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Opinion: What plagues in Islamic past teach us about response to pandemics

Islam calls for acts that’d help preserve lives. Muslims should adhere to restrictions imposed to contain the novel coronavirus, as that’s what their faith entails

Zoya Rasul By Zoya Rasul
Updated on :
Opinion: What plagues in Islamic past teach us about response to pandemics

Covid19, the novel coronavirus that has reported cases from more than 200 countries has brought the world to a screeching halt. With global positive cases nearing 1.9 million, and deaths over 117, 700 the ideal response to this pandemic is unity and cooperation. But in India this ideal response has been adulterated with Islamophobia ever since the number of positives from those attended the Tableeghi Jamat at Nizamuddin Markaz rose.

As testing on attendees of Jamat ramped up, number of positive cases saw a sharp spike. It was quickly followed up with an aggressive misinformation campaign, fake news forwards and an bizarre focus on cases related to Markaz. Within days, the narrative shifted to rampant islamophobia with Muslims being seen as vectors of virus, on a mission to infect whole of India.

The scrutiny of actions of Markaz, brings us to a pertinent question: are the mandatory Islamic practices in contradiction with the preventive steps outlined by state authorities to contain this pandemic?

The answer is a straightforward No!

Islam and preservation of life

Among the core objectives of Islamic law, the preservation of life is second only to the preservation of religion. However, it’s critical to note that under dire circumstances, exceptions are allowed even in this regard. To save yourself from torture, you can utter words against Islam, or even eat forbidden things when starving. These exceptions are mentioned in the Qur’an and are in accordance to general belief how Islam is not to make life difficult for Muslims, “Allah intends for you ease and He does not want to make things (unnecessarily) difficult for you.” Qurán also states, “But whoever is forced [by necessity], neither desiring [it] nor transgressing [its limit], there is no sin upon him.”

Covid19 is an exceptional development, and merits how actions of Muslims be such that they do not endanger their own lives or that of others.

Incidents from history

One of the most cited incidents from the Islamic history concerning pandemics is related to Umar ibn Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam. When he was on a visit to Syria amidst a plague, he was stopped by his advisors who had gathered to greet him. He asked them if he should return to the capital city of Madinah. A section advised him to continue his journey for he started it for the sake of Allah. Others advised the opposite. Umar decided to return.

One of the renowned Sahabas (Companion of Prophet Muhammad), Abu Ubaydah present there, rebuked him, “Are you fleeing from the decree of Allah?” Umar responded, “Yes, I am fleeing from the decree of Allah to the decree of Allah.” Abdurraḥmān ibn ʿAwf who was also there backed Umar’s decision by reminding what Prophet Mohammad had once advised, “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 of it.” Umar didn’t enter the place and returned to Madinah.

Had people not flown out of China, what difference would it have made to the spread of pandemic?

Trust in Allah without being negligent

Tawakkul or trust in Allah is the bedrock of faith for Muslims. But, it definitely does not mean putting yourself to risks intentionally. When a Bedouin was leaving his camel untethered saying he trusts Allah, Prophet Muhammad asked him to tie his camel first and trust Allah.

There’s a hadith stating how Prophet Muhammad directed his men to flee from carriers of contagious disease as one would flee a lion.

Another misplaced argument is how praying regularly and being pious can save someone from the danger.
In epidemics that happened in early Islamic history, many prominent companions of Prophet Muhammad like Abu Ubaydah, Maaz ibn Jabal and as many as 25,000 inhabitants of the place died due to plagues or epidemics. It’d be foolish to assume that those men were sinners and plagues were a punishment.
The best perspective to look at a pandemic like this is to call it a test – a test that brings out the best of humanity, teaches us patience and value of everything that we have been taking for granted.

On Congregational Prayers

It has been reported in authentic texts how Prophet asked men to pray even the Friday congregational prayers at home in case of heavy rain or a possibility of harm. The call to prayers were altered accordingly even then, as they have been done now. Hence, there is no Islamic basis to justify congregational prayers in the face of a pandemic as serious as this.

A brilliant analogy on how a contagious pandemic spreads was given by Amr ibn al’Aas. He said, a pandemic is like a raging fire and humans are like the fuel. To put off the fire, it’s important that the fuel is cut off and hence he advised people to stay away from each other even if it required living in the mountains. Yes, that’s social distancing and isolation as a concept, propagated as early as 640 AD in Islamic history.

Amr Ibn Al Aas mosque Cairo Egypt
Amr Ibn Al Aas mosque, Cairo, Egypt

If we delve deeper, we can come across many more references, but none are in contradiction with what health organisations are advocating to fight Covid19.

(The views expressed above are the author’s own. Newsd neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)


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