In this article, Dr Hisham Hellyer advises students of knowledge how they should navigate their thoughts, studies and daily responsibilities amid the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Verily, in every situation, there is a divine wisdom, because in every situation, God is the One who Permits; in every situation, he is the One who Benefits; in every situation, he is the One that is the all-encompassing Mercy. This situation that we are in, resulting from the pandemic, is no different. In reality, we always exist by the permission of our Lord, in every instant and every blinking of the eye. And so does this pandemic – and so will its end also be brought forth by God, the most High.
From the outset, this is not a time for panic, nor for anxiety. This is a time for recognising that our situations remain completely subject to the workings of the Lord of all that is, all that has been, and all that will be. It is a time for recognising that He has provided us with all that is required in this world, and that our orientation in engaging with life in this world (al-dunya) should always be the life to come (al-akhira). If at the end of this tribulation – and this tribulation will end – we will have realised more of the truth of that kind of recognition, then we will have learned something of the truth of ‘there is no might nor power except by God’ (la hawla wa la quwatta illa billah) – and that is worth a weight we cannot imagine.
Advice: Time Management
My advice to you is very simple. As one of our teachers said: the way to God (al-tariqa) is ‘time management’. Verily, life itself is about putting things into their right places, in those different times, during the day and the night. We should all take a reminder of that, as we proceed to learning, by force, new routines at present. What a boon and benefit it is to us that we are able to be conscious about this, in a way that perhaps we might never have been before.
Do not allow your routines to become aimless and unstructured – on the contrary, take this opportunity to structure your time properly, and apportion everything its correct due.
Counsel: seeing beyond the usual in suhba
Owing to the health advisories, that I do advise you follow, we will all be engaging in a level of ‘social distancing’ that we are unaccustomed to. It will come to an end. When it does, God willing, we will all have learned the value of different types of true companionship; both in terms of seeking our Lord in isolation; as well as being with people of goodness. And there is beautiful benefit in both.
Until that time, put structure into place as much as possible; whether in terms of your learning, your studying, your health, your work. Learn how to do so, and make the most of your time in being conscious about how you use it.
Recommendation to teachers and those who counsel
To that end: the advice I have received and the advice I impart to anyone else who is teaching: continue your classes. We live in a time when we can use technology for good, and for bad. Let us consciously use it for good, and take benefit from it, as a tool that God has permitted for us, even if we are far from one another. There are different systems for this. Be very grateful you have this ability and capacity. Not everyone does – there are people of this ummah who have been kept from each other due to war and conflict, and could not use the boons and benefits you have. Be grateful, and remember that gratitude is shown by using the gifts of God in ways that are pleasing to Him.
To those who impart counsel and guidance to others, as part of their responsibilities placed upon them by their teachers: your services are going to be needed. Your skills will be tested. Have faith that if you were given this task to fulfil, you will be given the strength to fulfil it. Be charitable and generous with those who reach out to you, and be grateful for the opportunity to assist them. It is a noble and praiseworthy act, rewarded by God, to be able to bring comfort to those who seek guidance and counsel.
Health Precautions and classes
There may be some of you who are considering attending classes in person: I strongly advise you do not do so, unless you can be completely assured that the appropriately strict health precautions are taken by the providers of those classes. We typically, for example, pray our daily prayers in teaching areas; which means that we are exposing our faces to the ground, where the virus can very easily spread.
Remember: people with COVID-19 can be completely absent of symptoms, and still pass it on. Even if you’re not worried about yourself, you must consider the threat to others that you might inadvertently infect. In general, I advise you to keep at least 7 feet distance between yourself and others; and that you pray at home in a clean space. The health measures that are recommended by the World Health Organisation are reasonable: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public
In my capacity as Senior Scholar of the Azzawia Trust in Cape Town, led by two of the khulafa’ of Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki, and a member of the Council of the British Board of Scholars and Imams, I assisted in the drafting of two pieces of advice on congregational prayers and other issues arising from the changes due to this pandemic. Azzawia issued a strong, straight-forward and short document, which can be accessed here, referencing the advice from the Higher Council of Azhar Scholars in Egypt.
A more comprehensive document is the BBSI, which sought to cover the range of issues the BBSI thought necessary, and the views of its membership. [http://www.bbsi.org.uk/coronavirus/]
In short, it is generally best you stay away from public places of prayer; and that you generally consider that the usual obligatory nature of the Friday prayer has been lifted.
Some students who are away from their homes and families overseas are wondering if they should travel back home. This is a decision that depends on a great number of factors. As for my own students, I have not advised that they travel. I do advise that those who are resident in any particular local to note that foreign students may need assistance, if only to receive funds from their families overseas: if you can help them by allowing their families to transfer funds to your local bank accounts, then do consider it, so that they may have support in buying essentials periodically.
Generally and particularly: be grateful
In general: be grateful. Yes, this is a time when a lot of our usual comforts are disrupted. But we are not in a state of war and suffering, unlike numerous refugees that are fleeing conflict areas like Syria or Yemen. If you begin to be tempted into feelings of anxiety, take those feelings, and turn that energy into supplicating your Lord to give lutf to those who are suffering in far worse situations than us. You are all in a state of tremendous privilege – do not forget that.
Remember also: every trial and tribulation has the opportunity to mean the raising of one’s spiritual station with regards to their Lord. Ponder on this, and reflect. It’s a reality of every situation. As Shaykh Abdal Qadir al-Jilani (may Allah be well pleased with him) said:
“… For those trials have the effect of making their hearts pure and free from sinful association, and from attachment to creatures, worldly means, wishes and self-willed desires. They are instrumental in melting them and smelting out the pretensions and passions, and the expectation of returns for obedient behaviour, in the form of high degrees and stations in the hereafter, in paradise and its gardens…
The sign that the trials are for the sake of spiritual progress is the presence of contentment, harmony, self-composure, quiet trust in the working of the God of the earth and the heavens, and annihilation within them until their eventual removal with the passage of time.”
So be of those who would have quiet trust in the working of the God of the earth and the heavens. This, too, shall pass.
Allah bless you, draw each of you and us nearer to Him.
Dr Hisham A. Hellyer
Ustadh Dr. Hisham A. Hellyer
Dr Hisham A. Hellyer is Professorial Fellow of Cambridge Muslim College (UK) and Senior Scholar of the Azzawia Trust & Al-Zawiya Institute (South Africa). As a widely published academic and commentator focusing on politics and religion in the West, the Arab world and Muslim communities globally, he concurrently serves as Senior Fellow at RUSI (UK) & the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (USA).
Born to an English father and to an Egyptian mother of ʿAbbāsī-Sudanese & Ḥasanī-Moroccan heritage, he was raised between London, Cairo and Abu Dhabi, before becoming educated at Sheffield and Warwick universities to post-doctoral levels in law and the social sciences. He studied – and studies – the Islamic intellectual tradition in the UK, Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and elsewhere, keeping the company of traditionally trained-scholars, including the likes of the Malaysian polymath, Tan Sri Professor Sayyid M. Naquib al-Attas, and Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, the khalifa of the Makkan sage, Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki.
With previous positions at and affiliations with the Brookings Institution, Harvard University, the American University in Cairo, and the RZS-Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation (CASIS), he is a frequent commentator and columnist in various media in the United States, Europe and the Arab world. Included in the scholarly section of the annual global ‘Muslim 500’ list of Georgetown University (USA) and RISCC (Jordan), he is also a council member of the British Board of Scholars & Imams. Among his written works are ‘Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans’ (Edinburgh University Press), ‘A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt’ (Oxford University Press) and “The Islamic Tradition, Muslim Communities and the Human Rights Discourse” (editor) (Atlantic Council)