One of my students who is a medical doctor in one of the hospitals in the UK asked me following:
Q: Some doctor brothers are having issues in hospitals at this critical time. They have been advised to shorten or shave off their beards because face masks do not fit properly and safely with beards and so carry a risk of transmitting the virus to others. Your guidance on this matter will be very appreciated.
Also, sometimes doctors are so continuously busy that they cannot pray on time. In this situation, can they combine the prayers?
Here is my response:
A: First let me take this opportunity to thank the medical staff in this country for their inspiring dedication to saving lives even at the risk of their own. The present crisis has placed a terrible burden on their shoulders, and they are carrying it in a way that should motivate the rest of us to be mindful of the needs of others above our own, and to serve those needs to the best of our ability. The doctors, nurses, paramedics and all the staff in hospitals and care homes and related care services deserve the applause of the whole country. May God bless them all and reward them in the best way.
Emergencies and compelling necessities are, by definition, different from the normal conditions. In normal conditions Muslims are expected to do all their religious obligations as best they can, and to attend to all aspects of their everyday lives. For times of emergency and compelling necessity, both the religious obligations and the everyday obligations are to be adjusted case by case for the duration of the exceptional circumstances. When the exceptional circumstances come to an end, and normal conditions return, then the religious and everyday obligations return to their norms. The general principle made clear both in the Qur’an and in the teaching and practice of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is to make life easier for people rather than harder, without condoning or indulging in the known forbidden things. The encouragement of the Qur’an and Sunnah is in the direction of tolerance and forgiveness, kindness and leniency; it is to give hope rather than to provoke despair. That principle applies in normal times; it applies even more so in times of emergency and extreme hardship.
For men to have beards is an emphasized sunnah in Islam; it is not mandatory. In times of hardship, one is excused from practising the sunnahs, even emphasized ones, when it is not possible to do so. In point of fact, even a mandatory obligation (fard) can, indeed should, be relaxed in the face of necessity for the duration of that necessity. For example, while travelling it is permissible to miss the sunnah prayers. An important command of the Qur’an and Sunnah is that we do not knowingly and willfully harm others or ourselves. For example, if a man’s skin condition is aggravated by wearing cotton or wool then he may (and should) wear silk garments, even though normally it is reprehensible for men to wear such garments In the situation, the question is addressing: there is a known and serious risk of harm, both to the health worker, and to the patients they are attending, if their protective equipment is not fully functional. In this case, individual interest and the general public interest come together. Therefore, Muslim health workers who, for religious reasons, have beards, should, also for religious reasons, trim their beards or shave them in order to make the protective equipment effective. When normal times return, they should grow their beards as they prefer.
The other question is even more straightforward. In situations of war, and other similar emergency situations, it is permissible to combine the two prayers, i.e., zuhr and ‘asr, and maghrib and ‘isha’. People are generally aware that combining the prayers in this way is permitted during the stress and hardships of travelling. So, it should not be a surprise that in life-threatening situations — for example, if doctors have to perform long procedures or be on hand for hours on end to face a stream of emergency case – Muslims are permitted to combine the prayers when need dictates.
(In fact, there is an argument that this permission extends also to livelihood-threatening situations: Imam Ibn Taymiyya (Kitāb al-Ṣalāh in al-Insāf fī Maʿrifat al-Rājiḥ min al-Khilāf) preferred the view of permitting combining of prayers for cooks and bakers and others like them who feared loss of their livelihood or the livelihood of others if they did not combine the prayers. Behind this is the general human concern that, even when it is not obvious, the public interest in the work of some people requires some leniency and flexibility is obligatory. That is why in the UK at the present time, and in other countries, the nation’s supply drivers are regarded as essential to dealing successfully with the pandemic emergency, as are health workers.