Coronavirus Covid-19 has reached all countries and continents and has just recently been declared a global pandemic. Many are circulating all sorts of information, precautions and treatments as a response to this outbreak, leading to more anxiety, confusion, and possibly harmful behaviours. We should avoid relying on or passing around ‘information’ and ‘advice’ of this kind because it is not based on authoritative, verifiable procedures for ensuring that information is as reliable and useful as it can be. We must make sure that we look to the knowledge and advice of experts in matters about which we are ignorant ourselves. For health concerns we should rely on health experts, doctors, epidemiologists and others who have specialised in how diseases like this are spread, how (insofar as that is possible) they may be avoided, and how (insofar as that is possible) they are best treated. In the same way, for religious knowledge, for how we as believers should respond to afflictions of this kind, we must refer to those scholars who base their arguments on the Qur’an and sound sunnah. It is wholly wrong to listen to people who base their advice on dreams, intuitions and inspirations, on ‘secret’ knowledge of some sort – whether that knowledge is based on unverified (actually, unverifiable) ‘folk wisdom’ or (equally unverifiable) the charisma (usually, a learned proficiency in tricks to get attention and convince the vulnerable) of cult leaders, quacks and charlatans.
As believers, we must be mindful that all creatures including human beings are dependent on the Creator, and encompassed by His knowledge, power and mercy. This is an important fact about reality that we continually forget. Out of His mercy He sometimes sends upon us signs that are reminders to us of the near boundaries of our knowledge and understanding and powers. This affliction is one of those signs and it will test our faith and steadfastness. We should turn even more consciously to God, repent to Him, and resolve to sustain a way of life that is mindful of our dependence on Him. He says, “We shall certainly test you with some fear and hunger, and loss of property, lives, and crops. Then [i.e., after that warning] give good news to those who are steadfast ….” (Surat al-Baqarah, 2:155)
Those who are afflicted with the illness, and are patient, will be rewarded. The Prophet said, “Whatever trouble, illness, anxiety, grief, hurt or sorrow afflicts any Muslim, even the pricking of a thorn, God removes some of his sins by it” (Sahih al-Bukhari). The Prophet was asked about the plague. He responded, “It is a torment with which God afflicts those whom He chooses, but He has made it a mercy for the believers. If a slave [of God] is afflicted with the plague and patiently remains in his town, realizing that he has only been afflicted with what God has determined for him, he will have the reward of a martyr” (Sahih al-Bukhari).
Trusting in God necessarily entails that we should have resort to the manners, advice and instruction that He authorised when He commanded us to obey the Messenger and follow his example. The Prophet said: “O slaves of God get medical treatment, for God did not make an illness but He also made a medicine for it, excepting [only] old age” (the Sunan of Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, others). So, we should consult medical experts and health advisors. We should not travel to a place where the virus is already established, we should avoid going to those public places where there are more chances of catching it and then passing it on still further. ʿUmar ibn al-Khattab was on his way to Syria when the plague of `Amwas broke out. He consulted his advisors on whether to return to Madinah, or continue on. One of them said, “You left for the sake of God so this plague should not stop you.” Others advised the opposite. ʿUmar decided to return to Madinah. Abu `Ubaydah said, “Are you fleeing from the decree of God?” He responded, “Yes, I am fleeing from the decree of God to the decree of God…” ʿUmar had also received advice from `Abd al-Raḥman ibn `Awf who told him that the Messenger of God said, “If you hear that it [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 in order to escape from it.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim).
If someone is afflicted by this virus then they must make effort to quarantine and avoid close contact with other persons. People should only go outside for essential and urgent needs. They should avoid leisure activities and even unnecessary walking about in public spaces. Educational programmes should be paused or, if and when that is possible, carried on without direct personal contact (e.g. by video links). Family visits, wedding parties and other social gatherings should be reduced to the minimum. When we meet just say salam, don’t shake hands or hug or kiss each other. Generally, all authoritative advice on “social distancing” measures should be scrupulously adhered to in order to slow down the speed of the outbreak. The Messenger of God said, “An ill person should not mix with healthy people” (Sahih Muslim). He also said, “Flee from a leprous [contagious] disease the way a person flees from a lion.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
As for religious gatherings like daily congregational prayers or jumu`ah, those people who have any symptoms of the virus should keep away from the mosque or other venue of congregation. They should fear God and pray at home. Similarly, the elderly and others at higher risk of infection are exempted from the obligations of worship in congregation.
Since this virus works the way it does, sometimes the people who have it do not notice any symptoms for fourteen days or even longer. Thus, it is likely that some of those affected by it will, by attending the mosque, pass on the infection unknowingly. In this case, given that the risk is so obvious and so substantial, the duration of the prayer and khutbah should be reduced, or people should pray at home and jumu’ah should be canceled until the pandemic has passed. It was narrated that Ibn ʿAbbās said to the caller of prayer on a day of exceptionally heavy rain: “After you say: I bear witness that there is no god but God and I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, do not say, Come to prayer. Rather, say Pray in your homes.” Some people found that strange, so he responded to them: “Are you surprised by what I just said? A person better than me did just that.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim). A similar hadith has been narrated also by `Abdullah ibn `Umar. If in the event of exceptionally heavy rain people are allowed to pray at home, then for this coronavirus pandemic there is certainly authoritative precedent for the believers, guided by the teaching of the Prophet, to pray at home.
There is no authority, ever, to neglect the prayers altogether: the need to be mindful of God, for the sake of the individual and for the sake of the life of the believing community, takes precedence over other needs. That universal rule is applicable precisely because it is applied intelligently when unwilled necessities dictate, for the period of time in which those necessities last: these include physical incapacity (being unable to sit, or stand or prostrate) and mental incapacity (loss of consciousness, fevers, and the like). It is very well understood that in such circumstance, the forms of how an individual prays is changed, or the time when he or she prays is put off until capacity is regained. In the present situation, being in the midst of a pandemic, it is merely the congregational aspects and elements of the religious obligations that are changed. Nothing else.
And God knows better, so be mindful of Him!