This essay is part of the Islamic Moral Theology and the Future (IMTF) Project, generously supported by the John Templeton Foundation, and co-led by Maria Dakake and Martin Nguyen. See Dakake’s second lead essay for the project. See Nguyen’s second lead essay for a parallel line of inquiry. Click here to read all past contributions to Dakake and Nguyen's respective lines of inquiry.
The Muslim umma is internally diverse and reaches across a variety of continents, customs and cultures, yet it retains its sense of unity by virtue of a common set of moral precepts and religious beliefs. This holds true with regard to its treatment of contagious diseases. In the Islamic sources, contagious disease has been the focus of various statements from the Prophet Muhammad and from his Companions. As we will explore below, such explicit statements elevate the topic from morality to law and afford it a place in the wider system of Islamic law. This is important because, moral teachings typically do not establish binding rules, but the hadith rulings do and the ruling authorities may regulate contagious diseases in the light of public interest and Shari‘a principles
In general terms, the transformation of a moral precept into a legal norm represents moral progress in that the precept in question gains the critical mass of public support for it to become the subject of a binding law. Without this development, moral appeals to conscience lack positive inducement and put those who respond with self-restraint at a disadvantage with respect to those who are bent on transgression. In such cases, it becomes necessary to build ethical principles into binding instruments. A substantive harmony between morality and law enhances the prospects of implementation, and a disconnect between them also weakens that prospect.
In general terms, the transformation of a moral precept into a legal norm represents moral progress in that the precept in question gains the critical mass of public support for it to become the subject of a binding law.
Ethical norms are often rooted in religious beliefs, yet unlike religious beliefs which can be exclusive of other religions, ethical norms tend to be shared between followers of different faiths across territorial boundaries. It is advisable therefore to identify commonalities in ethical norms of wider humanitarian concern that could, in turn, be developed into legal principles of international human rights law. Specifically, the ethical norms surrounding proper behavior in the face of virulent, contagious disease has become newly significant in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hadith instruction on contagious disease is often conveyed in persuasive terms not necessarily confined to Muslims but also all interested parties, in which case they carry binding force for Muslims but only persuasive advice for others. Health regulations and advice, religious guidelines and law may all need to be utilized in developing effective prevention and management measures to control the spread of contagious disease.
Covid-19 is caused by a new coronavirus that was first identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Despite the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern at the end of January 2020, most of Europe and North America failed to take containment measures until the WHO declared it a pandemic on March 11, 2020.
The WHO declaration meant that Covid-19 was affecting exceptionally high proportion of the populations all over the world. Since Covid-19 has a higher transmission rate than influenza, SARS, and MERS, ‘social distancing’ measures were widely encouraged to slow the speed of the outbreak. Public health guidance during this crisis focused on several key interventions: testing and isolation of infected individuals, social distancing, wearing face masks, handwashing and respiratory hygiene, as well as limiting travel to and from affected areas.
Most legal systems, including the shari‘a, allow imposition of some limits on civil liberties on the grounds of protection of life and health. The shari‘a guidelines on contagious disease are, however, not well known and the general public even in Muslim countries are not well aware of Islam’s advice and its contemporary relevance to the management of Covid-19.
All of the above measures represent a limiting of personal and social freedoms. Most legal systems, including the shari‘a, allow imposition of some limits on civil liberties on the grounds of protection of life and health. The shari‘a guidelines on contagious disease are, however, not well known and the general public even in Muslim countries are not well aware of Islam’s advice and its contemporary relevance to the management of Covid-19. Threatened by a plague that has no known cure, Muslims can find in their religion an important coping mechanism, a source of emotional support, and occasion for empathy and care.
Islamic History and Sources
Muslim chroniclers have recorded five instances of plague in the Muslim world before the Black Death, which was considered the sixth. The first was the plague of Shirawayh that broke in 627-628CE in Mada’in, Iraq. The Sassanian king Siroes of Persia died from this plague in 629. The second was the plague of ‘Amwas that broke out in Syria and struck the Arab army at ‘Amwas (ancient Emmaus) in 638, during the time of the second caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, killing 25,000 Muslim soldiers and spreading also to Iraq and Egypt. The third was that of al-Jayrif, the “violent plague” that swept through Basra in 688, and in three days killed over 200,000 individuals in the city. The fourth was the plague of the Maidens (al-Fatayat), that struck Basra in 706, and mainly infected, it is said, young women. The fifth was the plague of the Notables (al-Ashraf) in 716 in Iraq and Syria – that was compared to the oppression of al-Hajjaj, the notoriously cruel Umayyad ruler of Iraq. In Syria the crown prince, Ayyub ibn Sulayman ibn ‘Abd al-Malik, died of it. Other plagues of smaller scale have also been recorded such that they can be calculated to have struck the Umayyad dynasty once almost every ten years. Reports further add that plagues lightened with the advent of the Abbasid dynasty in 750.
Of the two scriptural sources of Islam, only the sunna provides guidelines on plagues. The Qur’an does not mention diseases by name but makes general references to calamities that befell bygone nations, and also to the predestinarian view that disasters only occur within the all-embracing knowledge of God.
Al-Bukhari and Muslim both record the following hadith reports on plague (ṭā‘ūn):
“If you hear of the outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if it breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.” (Bukhari, Ṣaḥīḥ, #5728)
“When plague has struck, the faithful person who stays patiently at home, while knowing that nothing befalls him that God has not pre-ordained, earns the reward of a martyr.” (Bukhari, Ṣaḥīḥ, 5734)
“Death from a plague is martyrdom for every Muslim.” (Bukhari, Ṣaḥīḥ, #2830; Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, #1916)
(And with regard to animals) that:
“The sick should not be taken where the healthy ones are.” ( Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, # 2221).
These hadith reports consist mainly of containment and social isolation measures that restrict movement in and out of the pandemic-stricken areas. The instructions are all rational, not necessarily confined to Muslims, and could apply to others residing in the afflicted locality. However, for Muslims, adherence to the Prophet’s instruction becomes a part of the religion, whereas they would stand as rational advice and recommendation for others.
The Hanbali jurist, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350) elaborated on the rationale for these hadiths all of which ask the people not to enter the afflicted place. His five-point rationale is as follows:
1) To keep a distance from the causes of the disease.
2) To observe safety, as safety is the elixir of life and human well-being.
3) To avoid breathing air that may contribute to bodily corruption and disease.
4) To stay out of direct contact with the afflicted persons so as to avoid contracting the disease.
5) To protect the people against contagious diseases.
The last item in Ibn Qayyim’s rationale reflects the idea that one has a responsibility to protect both one’s own life and other people’s lives as a basic Islamic obligation. He seems to be echoing the fiqhi language of the five higher purposes of shari‘a, known as the ḍarūriyyāt (short for maqāṣid ḍarūriyya). These are the five essential purposes of shari‘a: protection of religion (hifz al-din), protection of life (hifz al-nafs), protection of rationality (hifz al-‘aql), protection of progeny (hifz al-nasl), and protection of property (hifz al-mal). These ḍarūriyyāt refer to protections that apply not only to Muslims but to all people regardless of color and creed, and thus these five things must be protected for all human beings. Muslim jurists unanimously recognize the primacy of ḍarūriyyāt. In this way, all valid religions, all life (nafs), even the lives of animals, and all rational values etc., merit protection under shari‘a.
“The last item in Ibn Qayyim’s rationale reflects the idea that one has a responsibility to protect both one’s own life and other people’s lives as a basic Islamic obligation.”
The Fatwa Issuance Authority of Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries and organizations such as the Al-Azhar Mosque and University of Egypt seemed to be following this rationale when they issued directives to prevent infected people from entering places of worship, insisting that they should worship only in their homes. The ministries of Islamic affairs also issued directives to cancel lectures and meetings and to limit the Friday sermons to an online medium. Saudi Arabia warned the Muslim world not to make financial commitments or concrete plans for the Hajj 2020. Imams of mosques were further instructed to educate the people during their online Friday sermons about procedures and practices they should follow due to this crisis.
Ethical views regarding illness
The universal applicability of ethical guidelines concerning illness can also be seen in the work of Isma‘il al-Bukhari, the renowned author of the canonical collection of Sunni Hadith, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhari, who has interestingly devoted a separate chapter to “Visiting the Sick Pagan – ‘iyādat al-mushrik.” Although the chapter title indicates a focus on visiting the sick “pagan (mushrik),” the chapter encompasses broader references to visiting those from other, non-Muslim, faiths as well when they are ill. In this chapter, there is a hadith on the authority of Anas ibn Malik that a Jewish boy who used to serve the Prophet Muhammad became ill. The Prophet went to visit him and then invited him to embrace Islam, and he did embrace Islam. Sa’id ibn al-Musayyib, a leading name among the Successors, narrated from his father that when Abu Talib (Prophet’s uncle) was on his death-bed, the Prophet visited him, even though he was not a Muslim. Difference of religion is thus no bar to showing kindness, especially with regard to visiting the sick, be it of young age or old. This reflects, in turn, the importance of the wider human fraternity (ukhuwwa insāniyya), toward whom the Prophet has also manifested and modeled moral responsibility, through his sunna.
“The Prophet has further clarified that the use of medicine was not only permissible but encouraged, and that this did not in any way violate the principle and moral attitude of trust in God (tawakkul): “God has created a cure for every illness. So seek medication for your ailment O God’s servants” (Abu Dawud, Sunan #3855).”
The Prophet has further clarified that the use of medicine was not only permissible but encouraged, and that this did not in any way violate the principle and moral attitude of trust in God (tawakkul): “God has created a cure for every illness. So seek medication for your ailment O God’s servants” (Abu Dawud, Sunan #3855). Islam, like some other religions, also subscribes to predestination, which may cause a certain tension between faith and reason, and between tawakkul and rational judgment. Free-will and predestination, and how they relate to one another, has aroused controversy among various Islamic theological schools, especially between the Mu‘tazila, who maintained a rationalist stance in favor of human free will, and the Ash‘ariayya who advocated predestination, while the Maturidiyya maintained a compromise between the two positions. The Qur’an proclaims: “God has created everything and measured it in due proportions” (Qur’an 25:2; see also Qur’an 4:59). Qur’an commentators conclude that this verse is indicative of God’s foreknowledge of all things, meaning that every single incident anywhere in the universe is known to God. It is suggested that the measuring (taqdir) mentioned in the verse means that God has specified the nature of all things, and determined their relationships to the other parts of His creation. One also reads in both the Qur’an and Hadith that God has subjected all things to the laws of causality and purpose. He has the power to act as He wills, even outside of causality by way of miracles; but for us, causality and reason is our torchlight to understand the world around us. God also says in the Qur’an: “God loves those who place their trust (tawakkul) in Him.” (Āl ‘Imran, 3:159). Along with tawakkul, supplication (du‘a) is also efficacious. In another hadith, Abu Khuzamah narrated from his father who said: “I asked the Messenger of Allah (S.A.W): ‘O Messenger of Allah! Do you think that the amulet we use, the medicine we use, and what we seek to protect ourselves contradicts anything from Allah’s decree (taqdir)?’ He said: ‘They are from Allah’s decree.’” (Al-Tirmidhi, Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, hadith no. 2065). Any benefit that results from medicine is, in other words, also dictated by taqdir.
“And no misfortune befalls the earth nor yourselves, save that it is in a Book before We bring it forth…so that you do not lose hope over what you have lost nor do you become elated for what you have gained.” (Qur’an 57:23)
Yet it remains to be said that the question of free-will and predestination still remains an unresolved issue, as the Prophet has also instructed the believers:
“Restrain yourselves when there is talk of predestination.” (al-Tabarani, al-Mu’jam al-Kabir, #10448)
The faithful person who believes in taqdīr and tawakkul is grateful in times of prosperity and success, and patient when adversity sets in. This is the great advantage of belief in taqdir, as seen in the following verse:
“And no misfortune befalls the earth nor yourselves, save that it is in a Book before We bring it forth…so that you do not lose hope over what you have lost nor do you become elated for what you have gained.” (Qur’an 57:23)
How predestination and free will relate to one another also remains unclear. The Prophet has shown in his teachings that predestinarian conceptions of God’s will and knowledge do not absolve Muslims of the obligation to take responsibility for their own doings:
Every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock. The leader is a guardian and is responsible for his subjects. A man is the guardian of his family and he is responsible for them. A woman is the guardian of her husband’s home and his children and she is responsible for them. The servant is a guardian of the property of his master and he is responsible for it. So every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock. (Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, # 7138, Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, # 1829)
Furthermore, no stigma nor guilt is to be attached to illness as the Qur’an proclaims: “There is not upon the blind any guilt, nor upon the lame, nor upon the ill” (Qur’an 48:17). On the contrary, illness begets divine mercy and spiritual reward. The renowned Companion, ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud, narrated the following hadith:
No Muslim suffers from harm because of illness or other hardships but that God Most High will remove his sins from him like a tree sheds its leaves. (Bukhari, Ṣaḥīḥ, #5667)
This is endorsed in another hadith narrated by the Prophet’s widow, ‘A’isha, who recounted that the Prophet had said:
No calamity befalls a Muslim but that God expiates some of his sins for it, even if it were a mere prick of a thorn. (Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, #2572)
In another hadith that al-Bukhari has recorded on the authority of Abu Hurayrah, it is said:
No fatigue, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor disease befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick of a thorn, but that God expiates some of his sins for it. (Bukhari, Adab al-mufrad, #492)
Health and hygiene
Most of the world’s great religions and philosophies, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism encourage the washing of hands before and after eating food, before prayer and before and after relieving oneself. This evidently means that faith can play an important role in the global efforts to promote hand hygiene, a key step in preventing the spread of the pandemic.
Such statements emphasize hygiene, yet there are also religion-related risks that increase the prospects of disease transmission. Most world religions encourage congregational prayers, which can also spread communicable diseases. It is common for religious ceremonies also to include physical contact, such as hand shakes, or kissing of religious items such as the Torah in synagogues, and Qur’an in mosques that may present additional challenges for control and reduction strategies.
Islam’s rules on personal hygiene include, in addition to washing hands and full bathing, brushing of teeth, clipping nails, washing and changing of attire, and avoidance of rotten food, which are all conducive to personal and public health. Those assiduous in personal hygiene are referred to in the Qur’an as the ones most beloved to God. The Prophet Muhammad has similarly emphasized cleanliness in a variety of contexts.
“Islam’s rules on personal hygiene include, in addition to washing hands and full bathing, brushing of teeth, clipping nails, washing and changing of attire, and avoidance of rotten food, which are all conducive to personal and public health.”
Most people of faith begin their day with purity-related rituals. A Muslim starts the day with ablution, which is an excellent practice for limiting the spread of germs. As stated in the Qur’an (5:6), ablution includes washing all the exterior parts of the body including hands, feet, face, mouth and nose. A practicing Muslim will do this five times a day, for religious reasons. This is nonetheless consistent, it may be added, with the WHO guidelines that recommend washing hands regularly with soap and warm water.
Hygiene also includes certain other simple actions with significant effects, such as covering the mouth when sneezing or coughing. Epidemiologists have noted that sneezing and coughing in close quarters are among the most efficient means of spreading COVID-19. WHO recommends covering one’s nose and mouth with fabric when coughing or sneezing and disposing of the fabric immediately. These are also recommended in Islam and support for them can be found in Islamic sources.
The Islamic conception of cleanliness also pertains to purity of the inner self. Success (falah) is thus described by the Qur’an as follows: “He has succeeded (qad aflaḥa), who purifies it [his inner self –nafs] and has failed, who has corrupted it” (Qur’an 91:9); “Truly, God loves the mutaṭahhirīn, those who are assiduous in keeping themselves clean” (Qur’an 2:222), which is inclusive of physical and spiritual cleanliness. The Qur’an also declares in an address to the Prophet to “clean your garments.” (Qur’an 74:4).
The high place of cleanliness in the overall schemata of Islam is encapsulated in the hadith that tersely declares:
Cleanliness is half of the faith – al-tuhuru shatr al-iman. (Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ #223)
In another hadith, recorded by both canonical Sunni hadith compilers, al-Bukhari and Muslim:
The Prophet (pbuh) said: Wash your hands after you wake up; do not dip your hand into a vessel before washing, for you do not know where your hand moved while you slept. (Bukhari, Ṣaḥīḥ, #162)
The Prophet’s widow, ‘A’isha, has also reported:
Whenever the Messenger of God (pbuh) wanted to eat or drink, he would first wash his hands and then eat or drink. (Nasa’i, Sunan, #257)
Washing of hands before eating is common but to do the same before drinking, as the Prophet is reported to have done, is somewhat unusual, and indicative of his special emphasis on hygiene.
Islam’s overt emphasis on cleanliness had clearly encouraged Muslim scientists, notably the physician, alchemist and philosopher, Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakariya al Razi (d. 925CE), known in the West as Rhazes, to formulate several recipes for soap-making. Soap from animal fat was produced in Europe which had an unpleasant smell. But hard toilet soap with a pleasant smell was first made in Egypt. In his book Al-Ḥāwī al-kabīr, one of the earliest medicinal encyclopedias of its kind, al-Razi also expounded the disinfecting properties of alcohol, and stressed its use on wounds, before, during and after surgeries, which increased the survival rate of the patients. This then became an established method in the first hospital built by the caliph Harun al-Rashid in Egypt in 805 CE. Soon, the use of alcohol spread from there to the rest of the Muslim world and to Europe.
In response to the question as to how Islam relates to technology and science with reference especially to Covid-19, one may refer to the higher purposes, or maqāṣid, of Shari‘a: The five essential maqāṣid, or ḍarūriyyāt, as already mentioned emphasise the protection of life, of progeny, and of rational judgment, which means that Islam is supportive of scientific inquiry that upholds these values without causing any harm. All scientific enquiry that brings benefit to humanity will also be deemed as Shari‘a-compliant. If science and technology can be used to facilitate better methods of detecting the spread of COVID-19 through testing, ascertaining the source of infection and tracing of all the contacts with the infected person, and also any laboratory techniques that may facilitate these ‒ would be deemed harmonious with the higher purposes of Shari‘a. This response would also subsume scientific enquiries that seek to develop a safe and effective vaccine for the deadly virus.
Furthermore, a number of the leading maxims of Islamic law (qawā‘id kulliyya fiqhiyya) can be utilized to ascertain harmony or conflict between Islam and science in combating COVID-19
Furthermore, a number of the leading maxims of Islamic law (qawā‘id kulliyya fiqhiyya) can be utilized to ascertain harmony or conflict between Islam and science in combating COVID-19. The leading maxim-cum-hadith declaring that “harm may neither be inflicted nor reciprocated in (the name of) Islam” is further endorsed by the broad and unqualified proclamation in another maxim that “harm must be eliminated.” This is fortified in turn by a number of other maxims, including:
Harm is to be measured according to its true proportions.
A lesser harm is tolerated in order to remove a greater one.
Harm may not be eliminated by its equivalent.
Legal maxims can thus offer guidelines on how religion and science can work together to fight contagious disease, or any disease, for that matter. On a similar note, the principles of maṣlaḥa (considerations of public interest), and of compelling necessity (ḍarūra) can provide supportive arguments for public health measures by governments, religious leaders and scientists in combating COVID-19.
The various hadith reports on plague, reviewed above, enjoin the faithful to observe movement control orders and public health guidelines when a plague breaks out in a locality. Furthermore, since the hadith directives are addressed directly to the Muslims, they may be observed even in the absence of government orders, or where no government may exist. That said, it is preferable to await government directives as technical issues may be involved to guide the general public.
A great deal of the substantive data reviewed in this article applies, mutatis mutandis, to all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims, because contagious disease knows no religion, nationality or class. Much of the Islamic discourse on disease, hygience and cleanliness, and the more theological themes of trust, congregational prayers, free-will and predestination also tend to be common features of major world religions and philosophies, especially the Abrahamic faiths.
Islamic teachings make it abundantly clear that religious leaders have a responsibility to provide appropriate advice and leadership in stopping the spread of disease. In the early days of COVID-19, the Muslims of Malaysia continued going to Friday congregation prayers despite the government orders asking them to pray at home. This situation continued until the mosque Imams began to comply with the orders and advised their congregations to comply. Only at that point did their congregations began to offer their Friday prayers at home. For congregational prayer is only recommended, wheras the protection of life is obligatory in Islam. It is important for the imams to ensure strict compliance with government safety orders at the earliest opportunity.
Government authorities also issued directives on COVID-19 that did not give adequate visibility to Islamic teachings on plagues. Had they done so at an early stage and informed the people, the prospects of compliance could have been significantly enhanced in areas with high numbers of practicing Muslims.
A typical Muslim response to the COVID-19 pandemic that merits attention in our closing remarks may be the one given by the Abu Dhabi-based Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, issued under the title “A Statement of Solidarity.” The health service personnel, doctors, nurses, and frontline staff as well as scientists and researchers, Muslim and non-Muslim, were all commended for their efforts to find appropriate medical treatments and vaccines as soon as possible. The hospital staff, patients and all others were invited to reflect on our human fragility and seek God Almighty’s mercy with the hope that He may grant us success and guidance to overcome the adversity we all faced. The Abu Dhabi Forum further stated: “we are like passengers on a ship, there being no way to save some without cooperating to save all” and therefore, “we call for collaboration between the developed and developing nations in response to this calamity.”
The killer virus afflicting us does not recognize territorial boundaries or distinctions between races, rich and poor. Hence it was an opportunity for us to reflect on our human equality and remember the teaching of our Abrahamic religions that every soul—whoever that soul may be—represents all of humanity. All Abrahamic religions oblige their followers to be assiduous in the safety, well-being, and protection of every soul from all infection and prejudice. Our Abrahamic faiths and our common humanity also nurture in us the hope that any cure or vaccine that is developed is made available to all without discrimination of any kind and free of profiteering.
Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Founding CEO of IAIS Malaysia, graduated from Kabul University, and then earned a PhD in Islamic and Middle Eastern Law at the University of London in 1976. He served as Professor of Islamic Law and Jurisprudence at the International Islamic University Malaysia (1985-2004), then Dean of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) from 2004-2006. He was Asst. Professor at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies; Visiting Professor at Capital University, Ohio; and the Wissenschaftskolleg, Berlin. He was a member of the Constitution Review Commission of Afghanistan (2003), and a UN shariah expert on the constitutions of Iraq, the Maldives and Somalia (2004-2005). He has published over 260 academic articles and 46 books. His works have been translated into foreign languages. He received the Isma’il al-Faruqi Award for Academic Excellence twice, in 1995 and 1997. He features in the book The 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World from 2009, to 2022). He received the King Abdullah II International Award 2010 in recognition of his intellectual contributions towards serving Islam and Muslims.
 This is the most important work perhaps next to Ali Ibn Rabban al-Tabari’s (d.772 CE) Firdaus al-Hikmah, known to be the first Islamic encyclopedia of medicine