Reflections on a pandemic

As the world undergoes its greatest collective crisis since the Second World War, six of The Qarawiyyin Project’s contributors offer their reflections on the coronavirus pandemic and what we as Muslim women can learn from these trying times.

Maintaining hope on the frontlines

Dr. Aishah A.

It was not until the first COVID-19 death occurred in the hospital where I work in the UK that the coronavirus started feeling real to me; we had known the virus was coming, but now it was here. This week, my colleagues and I were informed that we will be deployed to the Emergency Department earlier than planned, so that we arrive before the bulk of the COVID-19 cases do. 

As a Muslim doctor, I worry. I worry about the holes in the welfare system that this virus will rip wide open — people with chronic lung conditions who are still working because they would rather die of coronavirus than homelessness, and the elderly in social isolation who, “aren’t afraid of dying, but of dying alone”. I worry about drug shortages, because it is not just toilet paper people are stockpiling (NB: you do not need 3 months worth of medication). I worry about what’ll happen if/when we have to start turning people away from the hospital.

I pray the NHS will make it through this pandemic intact. I pray one day to live and work under a system that prioritises the health and welfare of its people, rather than its economic success. I worry for my family. I worry for my friends. I worry for myself. 

As a Muslim doctor, I comfort myself with the knowledge that this virus is a test, and that my life and death have always been in Allah’s ﷻ hands:

وَلَنَبْلُوَنَّكُمْ بِشَيْءٍ مِّنَ الْخَوفْ وَالْجُوعِ وَنَقْصٍ مِّنَ الأَمَوَالِ وَالأنفُسِ وَالثَّمَرَاتِ وَبَشِّرِ الصَّابِرِينَ – الَّذِينَ إِذَا أَصَابَتْهُم مُّصِيبَةٌ قَالُواْ إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ – أُولَئِكَ عَلَيْهِمْ صَلَوَاتٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ وَرَحْمَةٌ وَأُولَئِكَ هُمُ الْمُهْتَدُونَ

“And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient. Who, when disaster strikes them, say, “Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.” Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the [rightly] guided.” [2:155-157]

At work, I wear a flimsy mask that will not protect me (because we’re running out of the ones that do), knowing with near certainty that I will get COVID-19. I am moving into an Airbnb soon so I don’t put my family at risk. I cannot imagine what Ramadhan will be like. 

But Alhamdulilah. 

Whilst it is easy panic, the task now is to stay calm and focus on what is in my control, and what I can do with the resources I have been blessed with. I’d like to think that’s good advice whether you are a doctor or not.

Tawakkul and the fragility of man

Aisha Hasan

Arriving back from abroad less than a month ago, I could have no idea that for the foreseeable future — the rest of the year at least — I would not be travelling again. Even less could I imagine that the highly, and often claimed irreversibly, globalised world in which we live would close down weeks later at an unprecedented rate. Yet here we are, watching everyday as borders shut, public life comes to a halt, and the globe’s most powerful governments flounder in the face of mounting chaos and uncertainty.

A unique characteristic of the modern world is its creation of the illusion of a pastless present: that the current order of the world is not only the best and most rational way of living, but has existed for some great but unspecified period of time. Although we study history, we so often study it in a way that disconnects it from our present — as events that took place at a time before science, or before modern morality, before knowledge.

As Muslims, we are too often enamoured by this misconception of perpetual power. We forget that the world as we know it, dominated by nation states, secular governance and international treaties, has barely existed for 75 years. As fellow Muslims suffer around the world, we restrict ourselves to ardent du’a for their relief, but can shy away from believing that any physical change could occur. How could anything interfere with such powerful structures that regulate the lives of billions?

Yet, Allah ﷻ has shown us of late that an obscure virus from the food markets of central China could transform the world in a matter of weeks. We believe such drastic change is possible when we see it, so why do we not believe when Allah ﷻ tells us:

و يمكرون و يمكر الله و الله خير الماكرين

But they plan and Allah plans, and Allah is the best of planners (8:30)

As we reap the lessons from this latest trial, we seek solace in our Lord’s magnificent power. We must also remember that He possesses not just the ability to heal and protect, but also to overcome the challenges that we as an Ummah consistently face. All He asks is that we trust in Him.

Seeking spiritual nourishment in seclusion

Sarah Bellal

Whenever I would make the du’a “Allahuma balighni Ramadan” — Oh Allah, allow me to witness Ramadan — I would picture myself in the rows of taraweeh. Little did I realize that, when I made that ask, I should have only thought of the pleasure of Allah ﷻ and attaining it no matter the circumstances. That remains the one and only goal, whether we lose our jobs, we fall ill, or the doors of the masjid close.

Our rituals of worship are conducted both privately and in gatherings. Maintaining sincerity is particularly a concern for us when performing ‘ibadah as a group, cautious not to allow the gaze of others cloud our intentions with the desire for recognition. For those of us who suffer from ostentation in gatherings, this period of isolation is undoubtedly an opportunity to renew our intentions in private conversation with Allah ﷻ.

Even for the person who attends taraweeh in the masjid with sincere intentions, however, it may be the case that they are using the jama’ah as a crutch. I can drive to the masjid, stand behind the imam from ‘isha to witr, and then go home and sleep feeling satisfied with myself. But what if I don’t reflect on any of the verses the imam recites that night? What if I robotically move to the next position of prayer as I hear the imam’s cue, without being conscious of my standing and prostrating before Allah, The Most High?

While we cannot predict the future that Allah ﷻ has written, we must still prepare for the possibility of spending Ramadan in seclusion, as well as replacing other communal forms of worship outside of Ramadan. For those of us who are not huffadh, we can practice praying qiyam while holding a mushaf. If you are accustomed to having a teacher hold you accountable with Qur’an memorization, now may be a time to hold yourself accountable and learn to be more independent.

Times like now, where we could flounder and reduce our overall level of ‘ibadah, or use them to gain strength, resilience, and independence, are the true test of our character. No one else can carry us towards Allah. But if we go to Him walking, He will come to us running.

Ma’qil bin Yasar reported that Rasulullah ﷺ said:

“.العبادة في الهرج كهجرة إلي”

“Worship during a time of trial is like making hijrah (emigration) towards me.”

Creating a community mindset

Heraa Hashmi

Aisha (ra) narrated an incident where a lady with her two daughters came to her asking for some alms, but she had nothing but one date, which she gave to her, who then split it between her daughters. When Aisha (ra) informed the Prophet ﷺ, he said, 

“Whoever is put to trial by these daughters and he treats them generously (with benevolence) then these daughters will act as a shield for him from Hell-Fire.” 1

Stories like this, of the generosity and sincere care for others the Prophet ﷺ and his companions modeled, are impossible to miss upon perusing any source on their lives. The sheer firmness with which they weathered the worst calamities — persecution by their own people, the years of boycott, the loss of family, wars — exemplifies the life of the one who orients it around Allah ﷻ, maintains tawwakul (trust in God), and upholds His guidance in helping others, even in troublesome and painful times. 

In a matter of weeks, a virus that had been named only occasionally in the news burgeoned into a pandemic. Between the worries over the consequences and the anxiety for the uncertain future is a moment to unite as a community and reflect on the capacity to effect change with the means we have.

The totalising force of individualism and deteriorating communal relationships has left people fighting for worldly benefit at the cost of others. The consequences of such a mindset are especially detrimental today: many are quarantined alone, the elderly are tucked into the corners of society, at a higher risk of infection as access to resources and care stretch thin. Meanwhile store shelves are emptied, with new regulations to stem stockpiling put in place as many are unable to find adequate supplies.

This pandemic requires, from each one of us, an acute consciousness for the lives of others. Mitigation and suppression strategies depend on an ethos of communal care, something that laws can enforce but must, in the end, stem from an understanding of duty and the rights others have upon us as Allah has commanded us to fulfill. 

وَاعْبُدُواْ اللّهَ وَلاَ تُشْرِكُواْ بِهِ شَيْئًا وَبِالْوَالِدَيْنِ إِحْسَانًا وَبِذِي الْقُرْبَى وَالْيَتَامَى وَالْمَسَاكِينِ وَالْجَارِ ذِي الْقُرْبَى وَالْجَارِ الْجُنُبِ وَالصَّاحِبِ بِالجَنبِ وَابْنِ السَّبِيلِ وَمَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ إِنَّ اللّهَ لاَ يُحِبُّ مَن كَانَ مُخْتَالاً فَخُورًا

“Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess. Indeed, Allah does not like those who are self-deluding and boastful.” [4:36]

Our understanding of the wisdom behind what Allah plans will always be limited. Yet, in the face of difficulties, we see the opportunity to reflect on our shortcomings and work towards building a mindset of sincere care and sacrifice. We seek protection in Allah and leave the results to Him. 

Keeping the past in perspective

Aaminah Y.

The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 has uncovered some unsettling realities and exposed the rise of an ignorant, indulgent and egocentric culture in our society.

For those of us fortunate enough to live our lives in comfort, we are not accustomed to the dramatic changes a pandemic brings. For many, this is the first time seeing mosque closures or the cessation of tawaf around the Ka’bah. It seems unprecedented, and some may be at a loss for what it may mean for their spirituality and faith. On one hand, the love and ghayrah for our places of worship is heartwarming (may Allah reward everyone for their sincere attachment!). However, the ignorance of our history really puts us at a loss here, for there is a precedent.

There were similar points of precariousness in the past: when a plague broke out in Al-Shaam and the Sahaba, may Allah be pleased with them, were unsure if they should head into the land. Abdul Rahman ibn ‘Awf (ra) narrated: “I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ say,

‘When you hear that [a plague] is in a land, do not go to it and if it occurs in a land that you are already in, then do not leave it, fleeing from it.'”

And thus Umar (ra) praised Allah and they turned back. This is the advice of our beloved Prophet ﷺ; in contemporary times, we can draw parallels with social distancing. It takes into account the sanctity of life, wisdom of self-isolation, and sincere compassion for others. Consequently, this is no longer optional advice from the government, but an ethical position embedded in our teachings.

There have also been various disruptions in Makkah, from dangerous floods to the infamous siege of 1979. Imam Dhahabi, may Allah have mercy on him, mentioned a drought so severe that the inability to bury the deceased caused a widespread epidemic, leading to the closures of mosques from Egypt to Andalus to Iraq. However, our ignorance of our past means events like these seem unprecedented and generate excessive fear and frenzy.

Islam also offers practical guidance on how to deal with the ensuing panic humanely; excessive stockpiling, hoarding and inflating prices for profit in times of shortages is completely against our teachings. Rather than blindly following the masses, we as Muslims must remember that our rizq is provided for us by Allah:

وَكُلُوا مِمَّا رَزَقَكُمُ اللَّهُ حَلَالًا طَيِّبًا ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ الَّذِي أَنتُم بِهِ مُؤْمِنُونَ

“And eat of the things which Allah (ﷻ) has provided for you, as lawful and good, and keep your duty to Allah in Whom you believe.” [5:88]

In testing times we must fall back on our principles. By looking at the past we can avoid falling into despair. Hardships have come and gone. What matters most is how we deal with them.

Coronavirus under occupation — A letter from Kashmir

Syed Rabea Bukhari

On 11th March, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic. Yet for Muslims in India, it is also almost a month since the riots rocked the capital city of Delhi, bringing unprecedented horror in its wake. Even though the violence has abated, a palpable disquiet can be felt in all the violence hit Muslim localities of north east Delhi. With over 50 dead, four razed mosques, and hundreds of burnt houses and shops, many Muslims are still either languishing in jails or have entirely gone missing. The psychological trauma, especially among children and women who have seen dead bodies flowing down the drains, remains unaddressed.

Following the WHO guidelines and global trends, India announced a lockdown last week to mitigate the virus’ spread. People have been directed to remain indoors. But while almost everyone has come to realize the gravity of the situation and people are voluntarily confining themselves to their homes, this lockdown, unlike the virus, is not egalitarian in nature. 

Whilst some are confined to their homes with adequate essential supplies, another part of the population, which lives hand to mouth, remains deprived of these basic arrangements. Forced to choose between the starvation and the coronavirus, staying at home is simply not an option for them. And Indian Muslims have to battle yet another obstacle; in addition to the risk of contracting the virus, their very survival is under threat daily from Hindutva mobs acting with impunity.

And Kashmir — my homeland, the place that I simultaneously yearn to be in and away from — has just emerged from a seven month long crippling military clampdown. In the aftermath of the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted Kashmir a semi-autonomous status in the Indian framework, the Muslim majority state has witnessed mass arrests of thousands of politicians, activists, students, and commoners along with the longest ever clampdown on phone and internet services.

Now as people have just started to move towards a new normal, the pandemic has again put the lives of Kashmiris on hold. Though people have been voluntarily observing the lockdown, the official apathy and unpreparedness to deal with the pandemic is glaring. For Kashmiris, working from home is not an option since the internet speed still remains throttled. Public health services have also faced the consequences of 2G internet speeds, as doctors have not been able to download reports and advisories, or even have access to general information regarding the pandemic. The stubbornness of the Indian government in not restoring 4G internet in Kashmir, even at this critical time, yet again speaks volumes as to how the state values its own interests over the lives of Kashmiri people. 

The occupation machinery has also attempted to use the pandemic to humanise the brutal reality of its repression. The same authorities that have been at the forefront of imposing a seven month long clampdown, mass arrests, torture and killings are now seen handing out advisories on how to preserve life in light of the virus! This is an even more brutal assault on people’s memories, attempting to erase the occupation’s crimes.

Left to battle this pandemic on their own, Kashmiris possess just one ironic advantage. Unlike many other places in the world, the acute sense of community and resilience developed over the years of military lockdowns has somehow worked in their favour. While other societies struggle to reconnect with their neighbours and the vulnerable in their communities, as they experience just a taste of the restrictions Kashmir has endured for decades, the resilience of Kashmiris endures in the face of this latest challenge.

Moments drip past as I stand in the rain outside. Rain pelts sharp on the wrinkled and worn down face of the woman sitting on the plastic chair but she doesn’t leave. Her son is missing. She has searched for him in the hospitals, police stations and wherever she could manage to reach. She shows me the photograph of her son and a worn out paper, which she thinks is a police report. I try to move ahead. Earth stretches its arms and holds my feet. I can not move. I see home, no matter whichever way I turn. Home — with all its suffering and helplessness. Home, like an open wound that would not stop bleeding. For a while I forget all about COVID-19 and the precautions; just like the children splashing mud water on each other, or the daily wage laborers clearing drains in this downpour, or the mothers removing the debris of their fallen homes to make room for cooking for their families, or the man crying and pulling out the grass from the grave of his martyred brother, or the woman running from pillar to post in a worn out slipper looking for her son. We have bigger demons to fight. 

2 thoughts on “Reflections on a pandemic

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