I remember the first time I heard the word “pandemic”. When I was in high school, my biology teacher told us that we were overdue for a pandemic. He explained that throughout human history, large-scale diseases come and go in cycles. The last one was the Spanish Flu, and that was almost one hundred years ago. Since then, I lived through the SARS and Swine Flu (H1N1) scares, both of which came and went with little impact on my comfortable personal life in Alberta, Canada.
And here we are.
Every day there is new information about the coronavirus, known as COVID-19. Its spread has been incredibly fast. Of course it worries me. From toilet paper shortages, to self-quarantining, to overzealous YouTube preppers spreading doomsday warnings, and airlines shutting down travel, this virus has impacted almost every aspect of my personal life. But in times like this, I find comfort in my faith.
A punishment and a mercy
In Islam, every trial has a worldly and spiritual dimension to it. As a general rule, every worldly difficulty carries with it a spiritual test. There are numerous verses from the Quran and hadith (sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) that reinforce this, but I’ll focus on one in particular. Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha asked him about plagues and he said:
“It is a punishment that Allah sends upon whoever he wills, but Allah has made it a mercy for the believers. Any servant who resides in a land afflicted by plague, remaining patient and hoping for reward from Allah, knowing that nothing will befall him but what Allah has decreed, he will be given the reward of a martyr.” (Sahih Bukhari)
Let’s start with the first part: it is a punishment and a mercy.
For starters, we cannot say what this is a punishment for. Unfortunately with the coronavirus, even some Muslims are saying things like “This is a punishment for how China has treated the Muslims,” referring to China’s persecution of the Uyghurs. Some are even happy about it. But we should not take joy in people’s suffering, nor should we become racist and intolerant. The average person living in China has nothing to do with its oppressive government’s policies. As Muslims we affirm the words of the Prophet, but we do not have the say “God is punishing China because of this” because then we are speaking on behalf of God. Why and whom God chooses to punish is up to Him. If it was a hard-and-fast rule, then what about countries like Syria and Israel and Yemen, where Muslims face far more brutal persecution?
It’s also important to address the fact that racist and xenophobic attitudes have cropped up against Chinese people–and people who look Asian in general. Yes, it originated in China, but how it originated is important to note. I don’t have the space to cover everything, but I recommend this video by Vox: Why new diseases keep appearing in China. In short, the dietary practices of a wealthy minority have resulted in the outbreak of a disease that has become the defining plague of the 21st century.
Now, let’s talk about the mercy. This is related to the second half of the hadith: “Any servant who resides in a land afflicted by plague, remaining patient and hoping for reward from Allah, knowing that nothing will befall him but what Allah has decreed, he will be given the reward of a martyr.” What Prophet Muhammad is talking about is the essence of two concepts in Islam called taqwa and tawakkul. There are many ways to translate them, but these can be summed up as “a persistent awareness of God” and “trust in God”.
If you look at the wide range of hadith that mention the categories of people who die as martyrs, it is usually under extreme circumstances, including:
- being burnt
- being crushed
- dying in a battle
- dying in pregnancy
The Arabic word for martyr is shaheed, which literally means “witness”. One way of looking at this is that even in these extreme situations, where it is likely that your life is going to end, your heart is still at peace with God.
With a disease it can be very painful and drawn out. But by keeping your faith firm at the time of death, then we die as witnesses to our belief in God. The reward for that is nothing less than a direct ticket to Paradise, God willing.
Any pain and suffering we endure in this life is an opportunity to gain reward from God.
Umar ibn Al Khattab, the second caliph following the death of Prophet Muhammad, was once heading toward Sham (modern day Syria) when a plague broke out. A man named Abu Ubaidah came from Sham to greet him, and told him that the plague was decimating the people in Sham. Umar gathered the companions with him to decide what action to take. One of them came forward and said that he heard that Prophet Muhammad said:
“If you hear that there is a plague in a land, do not enter it; and if it (plague) visits a land while you are therein, do not go out of it.” (Sahih Bukhari)
This is the basic principle of modern-day quarantine, a concept that wouldn’t be formalized until the Black Death centuries later. The word “quarantine” comes from the Italian quarantina meaning 40 days, where ships docking in Italy had to stay in port for 40 days in isolation. However, the part I want to focus on is the follow-up conversation between Umar and Abu Ubaidah.
When the group decided to turn back and return to Medina, based on this hadith, Abu Ubaidah asked Umar, “Are you fleeing from the decree of Allah?”. Umar responded, “We are fleeing from the decree of Allah to the decree of Allah.”
The mindset of a Muslim relies on three aspects:
- everything that happens is by God’s will
- this world is only a temporary testing ground for the hereafter
- how we react to what happens in this world affects what happens to us in the hereafter
As Muslims, we believe that everything that happens is by God’s will. If something good happens, we should be grateful and if something bad happens, we should be patient; both of these reactions are awarded by God.
In talking about the will of God, or destiny, it’s easy to get lost in the freewill vs predestination debate. That’s beyond the scope of this post, but the lesson we learn from Umar is that just because we believe in predestination does not mean that we act careless. As the Prophet Muhammad once famously said, “Tie your camel, and then put your trust in God.”
In taking care of ourselves, there are both physical and spiritual preparations to take.
As for the physical component, it’s about keeping yourself safe, and following the instructions of health officials. This includes things like:
- washing hands frequently, especially after coming from outside, for at least 20 seconds
- avoid touching your face
- practice social distancing and self-isolation
- verifying news that you share (remember when some people were saying to drink bleach to kill the coronavirus?)
In general, follow the advice from authorities like the World Health Organization. It’s going to be uncomfortable for a while, but for us in developed countries it is imperative to follow these guidelines to contain the spread of the disease.
For every disease, there is a cure. And while that cure is many months away, we can still use spiritual preparations to keep us grounded.
In Islam, there are several supplications that Prophet Muhammad taught specifically related to plagues and illnesses. For example:
- “In the Name of God, with Whose Name there is protection against every kind of harm in the earth or in the heaven, and He is the All-Hearing and All-Knowing.” (3 times in the morning and 3 times in the afternoon/evening)
- “I seek refuge with God’s perfect words from everything He created.”
- “I seek refuge with God from vitiligo, madness, leprosy and all evil diseases.”
And the biggest lesson we can take is that if we take all of our preventative measures, both spiritual and physical, and we are still afflicted, then the least we can say is “Thank God this affliction was not in my faith.”
As of right now, we don’t know what the future will look like. Vaccines are being researched, but could take anywhere up to 18 months or beyond. Social-distancing is required to stop the spread of the disease, but no one knows how long these measures will be in place. The economy has been hit hard, institutions (including mosques and churches) have closed their doors and most people have to stay inside.
We want things to go back to normal, but we may have to square away with the reality that we may have to adjust to a new normal. At this point, we have no control over the larger picture. We can only control our individual actions and attitudes to try and keep ourselves, our families and our friends safe.
This whole event is a reminder that we are not invincible. As humans, we may think we have the world under our control, but then our entire civilization is brought to a halt because of something so small we cannot see it, and so indifferent to our economic or social standing.
To everyone out there who reads this, I hope you are safe and healthy. I hope that you take care of yourselves, and that you don’t lose hope.
And, above all, I ask God to bring us closer together in our humanity, even as we must keep our physical distance from each other.