Is the Coronavirus (Covid-19) a punishment from God?

Is the Coronavirus (Covid-19) a punishment from God?

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Following the outbreak of the Coronavirus, some Muslims around the world hurried to describe it as a sign of God’s wrath; to punish certain countries for their domestic or foreign policies, or to penalise individuals for their behaviour - their religious, political and ideological persuasions. Others jumped to the conclusion that it was an indication of the end of times and the fast approaching destruction of the universe.   

This pandemic, however, has not drawn lines between the rich and poor, the young and the old, people with faith or no faith, people who live in the East or the West, people who are politically correct and those who are not. We are, therefore, unable to draw any conclusions about the absolute wisdom of God behind this.   

Islamic history also teaches us that pandemics have occurred throughout history. The companions of the Prophet for example, were faced with such an ordeal, in the ‘Plague of Amwas’ (named after a Palestian village). This bubonic plague afflicted the people of The Levant - al-Sham (ancient Syria) between 638-639 CE and took the lives of thousands.

Historical accounts of the plague indicate that 25,000 Muslim soldiers and their families died because of it and that the plague spread across Syria as well as to Iraq and Egypt. 

In an attempt to reduce deaths from the epidemic the Caliph of that time, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, called for an advisory council from amongst the Emmigrants (Makkans who had settled in Medina) and the Helpers (the Medinan hosts). However they disagreed about what was to be done with regard to the epidemic. The advice of the leaders of the tribe of Quraish was to evacuate people ahead of the epidemic and this was accepted by Umar.

Umar summoned the military commander of Amwas, Abu 'Ubayda, to Medina in 639 CE (before the plague could reach him). Surprisingly however, Abu 'Ubayda refused Umar’s command, preferring to stay with his army in Syria. He believed that this was the decree of God and that he was not going to escape what God had decided for him and his army. 

Umar tried to persuade Abu ‘Ubayda that taking the necessary measure to protect oneself against possible infection was not against belief in God’s destiny. When he refused to take heed, Umar decided to travel towards Abu ‘Ubayda himself, to try and convince him. 

Pointing to the prohibition of the Prophet against a Muslim's either entering or fleeing a plague-stricken land, Abu ‘Ubayda protested: 

“How can I flee the decree of God”

 'Umar replied: 

“I am fleeing from the decree of God to the (another) decree of God"

'Umar further cited this parable to explain that while we believe in God’s decree we should still take precautions:

"Suppose that you come to a valley where one side is green with pasture and the other is bare and barren; which side would you let loose your camels, it would be the will of God, Is not it?  But you would choose the side that was green." 1

Umar ibn al-Khattab believed that in removing the people to a naturally healthier region he was making no attempt to flee from the command of God. He believed that because the disease was from God, then the cure is from God too. Umar wanted to demonstrate that God’s decree is unseen to us. We are not able to ascertain God’s actual plan and wisdom behind acts. We can make relative personal reflections and ponder over the incidents for our own personal benefit and growth but we cannot say for definite that this is exactly what God intended.

This is not the only example in the history of Muslims. Throughout history there have been numerous occasions of plagues and famine, which forced early Muslims to close mosques, prohibit congregational prayers and sometimes even Hajj (the pilgrimage to Makkah) was not held for several years.

Whenever there was a pandemic, history indicates that there were positive responses by Muslims in that they were concerned about saving people’s lives and thereby trying to minimise the risk of infections, rather than using it as an opportunity to blame and exclude others. See, for example, the prophet Muhammad’s teaching about this sort of situation:

"If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague outbreaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place." 

Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim

He also said: "Those with contagious diseases should be kept away from those who are healthy."

"Cleanliness is part of faith.

Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim

"Wash your hands after you wake up; you do not know where your hands have moved while you sleep." 

Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim

"The blessings of food lie in washing hands before and after eating." 

Abu Dauwd

These teachings of the Prophet (peace be upon him), value human life and give practical advice on how to prevent death, at a time long before our modern methods of hygiene. These teachings definitely do not make light of the death or misfortune of others.

The corona virus has made us question lots of things including the belief that we are in complete control of the World and our own lives. We may have many responses to this, but the most important among them are the necessity of humility, taking care of humanity, looking after our environment and the importance of global cooperation. It shows us how we are all so equal and in the same boat. 

 

1. at-Tabari, Cairo ed., vol. 3, p. 613, vol. 4, pp. 57- 65, 96-97, 10 cited in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 94, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1974), pp. 371-383.

18 Apr