Covid-19: An Islamic Perspective – Shaykh Seraj Hendricks
In this essay, Shaykh Seraj Hendricks who is one of South Africa’s most respected scholars, provides clear guidance on Covid-19 and how Muslims should take confidence in the rich Islamic legacy which prioritizes the sanctity of human life and health.
Throughout history various peoples and places have been afflicted by severe plagues and epidemics. Millions of people have been wiped out by these calamities. Each of these peoples had to confront, contend with and rise to the challenge of these blighting conditions. Muslims no less than anyone else. The Covid-19 pandemic – spreading from Wuhan in China – is the latest to assail the contemporary world.
Fortunately, we have a legacy undergirded by knowledge and wisdom, enveloped, as it were, in love and compassion. We need to embrace and share these timeless values with the rest of the world.
We cannot, on the other hand, fall into an abyss of pietistic delusions, rigorous ritualism and self-righteousness. At this level the Shari’ah offers a plethora of texts in the Quran and Hadiths which, in turn, precipitated one of the greatest responses in human history to matters of this order.
The following is but a sample of the many great doctors and pharmacologists who contributed to the evolution of medicine in its current incarnation:
a) 8th Century: Harun al-Rashid founded the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah). Here, many medical texts and ancient manuscripts were translated. With respect to a creative and energetic engagement of medicine, astronomy, science, mathematics and many other subjects, this marked one of the most productive periods of advancement – not only in Muslim history – but also in global history.
b) 9th Century: Abu Bakr al-Razi. Born in Persia he was a physician, chemist and teacher. Many of his books were later translated into Latin and Greek. His contribution to building hospitals was quite immense.
c) 10th Century: Surgeon al-Zahrawi (Abul Casis) was born in Cordoba. Apart from being the inventor of numerous medical instruments, he was the first to design an illustrated surgical book.
d) 11th Century: In Baghdad, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) composed the Canon of Medicine (al-Qanun fi l-Tibb). This was a five-volume book that included all the known medicine up to his time. His book was prescribed for hundreds of years in European Institutions of learning.
e) 12th Century: Ibn Rushd (Averrroes) was born in Cordoba, Spain. He was a polymath excelling in Islamic Law, Philosophy, Astronomy and Medicine. His aptitude for medicine was noted by his contemporaries and can be seen in his major enduring work Kitab al-Kulliyat fi al-Tibb (The Book Dealing with the Universals of Medicine). This book, together with Kitab al-Taysir fi al-Mudawat wa l-Tadbir (The Book of Particularities dealing with Facilitation of Medical Treatment and its Planning) written by Abu Marwan Ibn Zuhr, became the main medical textbooks for physicians in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim worlds for centuries to come.
f) 14th Century: The Ottoman, Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu was a surgeon born in Amasya, Northern Turkey. His famous work on surgery was called The Imperial Surgery. This is considered to be the first illustrated surgical Atlas and the last major medical encyclopaedia from the Muslim world. This book also features female surgeons for the first time.
The ideas and energetic creativity contained in the works mentioned above – while representing only a fraction of Muslim contributions to these and other sciences – capture the mood and spirit that defined the Muslim zeitgeist of those periods. Let us now look at some of the sacred texts both in the Quran and Sunnah that inspired this dynamic elan in Muslim communities throughout the Islamic world. Then let us also briefly look at some of the defining principles and maxims that later scholars developed and that served to animate the sacred textual narratives of the Quran and Sunnah into a living, breathing embodiment of creative and living Fiqh.
The need to address this matter becomes even more imperative in view of the dastardly incoherent responses to the current covid-19 pandemic by certain minority “Muslim” groupings. This has led to a state of shocked disbelief by both Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world. This minoritarian madness appears to have surfaced here in South Africa too. Reports indicate that more than twenty mosques in South Africa are under pressure to open their doors to congregational prayers and activities. What these people are clamouring for are unquestionably prohibited in Islam. Let us not mistake the fact though, that most of these minority groups are obsessed with power politics. Theirs is simply shameless power play. This is often the case with those suffering from minoritarian and certain forms of extremist complexes. These people are in serious need of attention, and possibly equally in need of psychotherapy. However, under the circumstances, there is a serious need to present a reasoned and grounded perspective on the matter.
As Muslims we need to be cognizant of the fact that we are fully responsible for the consequences of any irresponsible behaviour. The Quranic narrative is quite clear about the condition that whatever good we are beneficiaries of is what we have earned; and that whatever misfortune we might suffer is, likewise, a consequence of what we have earned.
لَا يُكَلِّفُ اللَّهُ نَفْسًا إِلَّا وُسْعَهَا لَهَا مَا كَسَبَتْ وَعَلَيْهَا مَا اكْتَسَبَتْ
No soul is burdened beyond its capacity. It receives every good that it has earned; and it suffers any ill that it has earned. (Baqarah, 2: 286).
The Quran is replete with references of this nature. Three of these are pertinent to our point:
ظَهَرَ الْفَسَادُ فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ بِمَا كَسَبَتْ أَيْدِي النَّاسِ لِيُذِيقَهُم بَعْضَ الَّذِي عَمِلُوا لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْجِعُونَ
Mischief (and corruption) have appeared on land and on sea because of what the hands of people have wrought. (Rum, 30: 41).
وَمَا أَصَابَكُم مِّن مُّصِيبَةٍ فَبِمَا كَسَبَتْ أَيْدِيكُمْ وَيَعْفُو عَن كَثِيرٍ
And whatever assails you of misfortune (and calamities) is a result of what your own hands have wrought, but He forgives many. (Shura, 42: 30).
كُلُّ نَفْسٍ بِمَا كَسَبَتْ رَهِينَةٌ
Every soul will be held responsible for its deeds (Mudaththir, 74: 38)
It is clear from these – and many other verses – that as people obligated (mukallaf) to observe the precepts of Islamic Law, that a huge measure of personal responsibility is vested in us. This is particularly pertinent with respect to circumstances such as Covid-19. The Quran prohibits us from wanton exposure to life-threatening situations:
وَأَنفِقُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَلَا تُلْقُوا بِأَيْدِيكُمْ إِلَى التَّهْلُكَةِ وَأَحْسِنُوا إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ
And spend of what you have in the Way of Allah; and do not let your hands contribute to your own destruction. (Baqarah, 2: 195).
There can be little doubt in the minds of most Muslim scholars, and lay people alike, that a wilful – and senseless – disregard for these Quranic precepts is shameless. A larger context for these precepts is provided by the many hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) and the position of his Companions with respect to plagues and epidemics.
Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said:
لَا عَدْوَى لَا يُورِدُ مُمْرِضٌ عَلَى مُصِحٍّ
Infection (and contagion) is not a matter of superstition! Do not mix the sick with the healthy. (Muslim).
In his encyclopaedic commentary on the Hadith collection of Muslim, Imam al- Nawawi states that the command “Do not mix the sick with the healthy” is a clear instruction to the effect that anything that causes harm must be avoided; and that, moreover, this act of avoidance would be in consonance with the concepts of preordainment and predestination as understood in Islam.
In Islam the question of the Decrees of Allah is one that envisages them as multiple and manifold. There is no one decree that forces a person in a particular direction.
The manifold nature of Divine Decrees, therefore, allows for a large margin of choice. This is evident too – mentioned later – by the response of Umar al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) during a time when he and his army encountered a plague while out in the battlefield. However, in the case of infectious and contagious diseases, the Hadith is clear about the fact that quarantine – or isolation – is mandatory.
Another Hadith that forcefully speaks about quarantine is the following:
Sa’ad reported that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said:
إِذَا سَمِعْتُمْ بِالطَّاعُونِ بِأَرْضٍ فَلاَ تَدْخُلُوهَا، وَإِذَا وَقَعَ بِأَرْضٍ وَأَنْتُمْ بِهَا فَلاَ تَخْرُجُوا مِنْهَا
If you hear about a plague in a particular place then do not enter it: and if it occurs in a place where you are present, then do not leave that place. (Bukhari).
A particular Hadith that has caused some unnecessary concern for some people is the following:
‘Aysha (may Allah be pleased with her) reported that she asked the Prophet (Peace be upon him) about plagues and he said:
أَنَّهُ كَانَ عَذَابًا يَبْعَثُهُ اللَّهُ عَلَى مَنْ يَشَاءُ، فَجَعَلَهُ اللَّهُ رَحْمَةً لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ، فَلَيْسَ مِنْ عَبْدٍ يَقَعُ الطَّاعُونُ فَيَمْكُثُ فِي بَلَدِهِ صَابِرًا، يَعْلَمُ أَنَّهُ لَنْ يُصِيبَهُ إِلاَّ مَا كَتَبَ اللَّهُ لَهُ، إِلاَّ كَانَ لَهُ مِثْلُ أَجْرِ الشَّهِيدِ
It is a trial that Allah sends upon whomsoever He wills, but Allah has made it a mercy for the believers. Any bondsman who resides in a land afflicted by a plague while remaining steadfast and patient – knowing that nothing will befall him except that which Allah has decreed – will be given the reward of a martyr. (Bukhari).
This Hadith must be understood in the context of the aforementioned Hadiths. In this way it becomes obvious that the one who patiently endures the misfortune of being subjected to a plague will be rewarded if he/she exercises the choice to remain in the afflicted area. There is certainly no reward for a person who leaves that place for a non-afflicted one, thereby escalating the potential for that disease to spread further. On the contrary, that would be a criminal act according to Islamic Law. This is precisely the case with those who are demanding unqualified congregational space in mosques and elsewhere. Given the current Covid-19 state, this is criminal. Period.
A telling case with respect to choices is the case of Umar ibn al-Khattab (alluded to earlier). The narration is as follows:
خَرَجَ إِلَى الشَّأْمِ حَتَّى إِذَا كَانَ بِسَرْغَ لَقِيَهُ أُمَرَاءُ الأَجْنَادِ أَبُو عُبَيْدَةَ بْنُ الْجَرَّاحِ وَأَصْحَابُهُ، فَأَخْبَرُوهُ أَنَّ الْوَبَاءَ قَدْ وَقَعَ بِأَرْضِ الشَّأْمِ. قَالَ ابْنُ عَبَّاسٍ فَقَالَ عُمَرُ ادْعُ لِي الْمُهَاجِرِينَ الأَوَّلِينَ. فَدَعَاهُمْ فَاسْتَشَارَهُمْ وَأَخْبَرَهُمْ أَنَّ الْوَبَاءَ قَدْ وَقَعَ بِالشَّأْمِ فَاخْتَلَفُوا. فَقَالَ بَعْضُهُمْ قَدْ خَرَجْتَ لأَمْرٍ، وَلاَ نَرَى أَنْ تَرْجِعَ عَنْهُ. وَقَالَ بَعْضُهُمْ مَعَكَ بَقِيَّةُ النَّاسِ وَأَصْحَابُ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَلاَ نَرَى أَنْ تُقْدِمَهُمْ عَلَى هَذَا الْوَبَاءِ. فَقَالَ ارْتَفِعُوا عَنِّي. ثُمَّ قَالَ ادْعُوا لِي الأَنْصَارَ. فَدَعَوْتُهُمْ فَاسْتَشَارَهُمْ، فَسَلَكُوا سَبِيلَ الْمُهَاجِرِينَ، وَاخْتَلَفُوا كَاخْتِلاَفِهِمْ، فَقَالَ ارْتَفِعُوا عَنِّي. ثُمَّ قَالَ ادْعُ لِي مَنْ كَانَ هَا هُنَا مِنْ مَشْيَخَةِ قُرَيْشٍ مِنْ مُهَاجِرَةِ الْفَتْحِ. فَدَعَوْتُهُمْ، فَلَمْ يَخْتَلِفْ مِنْهُمْ عَلَيْهِ رَجُلاَنِ، فَقَالُوا نَرَى أَنْ تَرْجِعَ بِالنَّاسِ، وَلاَ تُقْدِمَهُمْ عَلَى هَذَا الْوَبَاءِ، فَنَادَى عُمَرُ فِي النَّاسِ، إِنِّي مُصَبِّحٌ عَلَى ظَهْرٍ، فَأَصْبِحُوا عَلَيْهِ. قَالَ أَبُو عُبَيْدَةَ بْنُ الْجَرَّاحِ أَفِرَارًا مِنْ قَدَرِ اللَّهِ فَقَالَ عُمَرُ لَوْ غَيْرُكَ قَالَهَا يَا أَبَا عُبَيْدَةَ، نَعَمْ نَفِرُّ مِنْ قَدَرِ اللَّهِ إِلَى قَدَرِ اللَّهِ، أَرَأَيْتَ لَوْ كَانَ لَكَ إِبِلٌ هَبَطَتْ وَادِيًا لَهُ عُدْوَتَانِ، إِحْدَاهُمَا خَصِبَةٌ، وَالأُخْرَى جَدْبَةٌ، أَلَيْسَ إِنْ رَعَيْتَ الْخَصْبَةَ رَعَيْتَهَا بِقَدَرِ اللَّهِ، وَإِنْ رَعَيْتَ الْجَدْبَةَ رَعَيْتَهَا بِقَدَرِ اللَّهِ
Abdallah ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) left for Syria until they reached a place named Sargh. Here he met the commanders of the army, ‘Ubayda ibn al-Jarrah and his companions. They informed him that a plague had afflicted Syria. ‘Umar then addressed the people and said: “I will withdraw in the morning, so you too must return.”
Abu ‘Ubayda then said: “Are you fleeing from the decree of Allah?”
‘Umar replied: “Would that another had said so. O Ubayda! Yes, we are fleeing. But we are fleeing from the decree of Allah to the decree of Allah! Do you not see that if you descended with your camels into a valley with two fields, one fertile and the other barren, that you would graze the camels in the fertile one? You would graze in the fertile field by the decree of Allah and not the barren field (also there) by the decree of Allah!” (Bukhari).
In this case – with particular reference to the nature of Divine Decrees – ‘Umar al- Khattab demonstrated a much more coherent and balanced concept of the matter. This is the approach that has defined our classical legacy with respect to the question of Divine Decrees (or Qada and Qadr). Short of that, we could all be fatalists – which, too, is prohibited in Islam.
In addition to the textual evidence cited above, our classical scholars have also developed a host of precepts and axioms – based on their holistic readings of the texts – to aid and facilitate our understanding when confronted with challenges such as Covid-19.
Under the rubric of Maqasid al-Shar’iah (the Higher Objectives of Islamic Law) a number of principles have been devised. Six of the important ones – also referred to as the Kulliyat al-Sitt (the six universal principles) are the following:
a) The Preservation of Life – Hifz al-Hayat
b) The Preservation of Religion – Hifz al-Din
c) The Preservation of the Intellect – Hifz al-‘Aql
d) The Preservation of Progeny – Hifz al-Nasl
e) The Preservation of Property and Wealth – Hifz al-Mal
f) The Preservation of Human Dignity – Hifz al-‘Ird
To stand in violation of any of the above is considered a cardinal crime in Islam. To consider the Preservation of Life alone ought to be enough to wring the conscience of any Muslim.
وَلَا تَقْتُلُوا النَّفْسَ الَّتِي حَرَّمَ اللَّهُ إِلَّا بِالْحَقِّ
Take not life, which Allah has made sacred, except through justice and law. (al-An’am, 6: 151)
أَنَّهُ مَن قَتَلَ نَفْسًا بِغَيْرِ نَفْسٍ أَوْ فَسَادٍ فِي الْأَرْضِ فَكَأَنَّمَا قَتَلَ النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا وَمَنْ أَحْيَاهَا فَكَأَنَّمَا أَحْيَا النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا
If anyone killed a person – unless it be for murder or treason in the land – it would be as if he killed the entire humanity. And if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the entire humanity. (Al-Ma’idah, 5: 35).
Another subject in Islamic Law, also based on holistic and integrated perspectives, is referred to as al-Qawa’id al-Fiqhiyyah (Maxims of Islamic Law). There are five principle ones:
a) Matters are to be judged by their purposes and objectives – al-Umur bi Maqasidiha
b) Certainty is not removed by doubt – al-Yaqin la Yazalu bi l-Shakk.
c) Difficulty must be alleviated – al-Mashaqqah Tajlibu l-Taysir.
d) Harm must be removed (whether harm to oneself or another) – al-Darar Yuzal.
e) Custom has the weight of law – al- ‘Adah Muhakkamah.
The relevant maxim here is “Harm must be removed”. This is based on a Hadith of the Prophet (saw) where he stated “La Darar wa la Dirar – Intentional harming of oneself or another is forbidden.” (Malik, Ibn Majah, Bayhaqi and Daraqutni). According to the polymath Imam Jalal al-Din Suyuti, this maxim is intrinsically linked with the one before it “Difficulty must be alleviated.” In resolutely adhering to the rules and regulations imposed upon us by the deadly Covid-19 virus, we may eventually overcome the difficulties imposed upon us by this virus. It is our Islamic duty to adhere to all measures that are designed to protect us from the potential harm of the virus with the subsequent objective of alleviating the difficulties we have to endure. In this case the sabr (patient endurance) referred to earlier is an imperative under the circumstances. Human life is sacred in Islam. To disrespect the lives of others is unequivocal proof of the fact that one is undoubtedly bereft of self-respect.
With respect to the latter imperatives, a further precept referred to as Dhu Nuz’ati Jama’iyyah has been developed. This precept states that the general and collective interests of the public take precedence over individual and/or minority interests – particularly where such individual or minority interests unequivocally militate against the greater and collective public interests.
As it is in the case of demented groupings such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, this is a toxicity that must be dealt with unremittingly and with firm determination.
On a final note, let us remind ourselves that spreading fake news about a matter as serious as Covid-19 may have consequences as deadly as the virus itself. We need to shun all forms of paranoia, irrational fears and even flippancy and, instead, embrace responsible action in all that we do. We owe it to ourselves and the rest of humanity. Once again, the Quran is resolutely vocal about this:
وَإِذَا جَاءَهُمْ أَمْرٌ مِّنَ الْأَمْنِ أَوِ الْخَوْفِ أَذَاعُوا بِهِ وَلَوْ رَدُّوهُ إِلَى الرَّسُولِ وَإِلَىٰ أُولِي الْأَمْرِ مِنْهُمْ لَعَلِمَهُ الَّذِينَ يَسْتَنبِطُونَهُ مِنْهُمْ
When a matter related to public safety and fear reaches them, they broadcast it aloud. Had they only referred it to the Messenger and to those in authority amongst them, then those with the expertise would have been able to engage all the necessary investigations. (Nisa’, 4: 83).
As Muslims we can be proud of our legacy. We need to reclaim that legacy, so that once again we may become a productive and positive force in serving both Allah and the rest of humanity.
Shaykh Seraj Hendricks , Azzawia Institute (April 2020).
Shaykh Seraj Hasan Hendricks is an internationally recognised leading scholar of normative Sunni Islam, steeped in the rich legacy of the classical heritage, based in Cape Town, South Africa. He is Resident Shaykh of the Zawiyah Institute in Cape Town, and holder of the Maqasid Chair at the International Peace University of South Africa. Shaykh Seraj studied the Islamic sciences for more than a decade in the holy city of Makka, and was appointed as khalīfa of the aforementioned muḥaddith of the Ḥijāz, the distinguished al-Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawī al-Mālikī, master of the Ṭarīqa ʿUlamāʿ Makka – the (sufi) path of the Makkan scholars.
Shaykh Seraj Hendricks was a high school English teacher between 1980 and 1982 in Cape Town before leaving for Saudi Arabia in 1983 to study at the Umm al-Qura University in Makka. Before this, he spent many years studying at the feet of his illustrious uncle, the late Shaykh Mahdi Hendricks – erstwhile Life President of the Muslim Judicial Council and widely regarded as one of the foremost scholars of Islam in southern Africa. Shaykh Seraj was actively engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa during the 80’s and early 90’s.
Shaykh Seraj spent three years at the Arabic Language Institute in Makka studying Arabic and related subjects before being accepted for the BA (Hons) Islamic Law degree. He specialised in fiqh and uṣūl al-fiqh in the Faculty of Sharīʿa and graduated in 1992. During his studies at Umm al-Qura University, he was also a student of the late Sayyid Muhammad ʿAlawī al-Mālikī in Makka for a period of eight years and from whom he obtained a full ijāza in the religious sciences. He also obtained ijāzāt from both the late Sayyid Ahmad Mashur al-Ḥaddād and Sayyid ʿAbd al-Qādir b. Ahmad al-Saqqaf (d. 1431/2010). These scholars are all known as some of the pre-eminent ‘ulama of the ummah in the 20th century, worldwide.
After his return to Cape Town he received an MA (Cum Laude) for his dissertation: “Taṣawwuf (Sufism) – Its Role and Impact on the Culture of Cape Islam” from the University of South Africa (UNISA). He is currently at the tail-end of completing his PhD at the same institution.
Apart from fiqh and uṣūl al-fiqh, some of Shaykh Seraj’s primary interests are in Sufism, Islamic civilisation studies, interfaith matters, gender studies, socio-political issues and related ideas of pluralism and identity. He has lectured and presented papers in many countries, sharing platforms with his contemporaries.
He has translated works of Imam al-Ghazālī, and summarised parts of the Revival of the Religious Sciences (Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn), most notably in the Travelling Light series, together with Shaykhs ʿAbd al-Hakīm Murad and Yaḥyā Rhodus.
Some of his previous positions included being the head of the Muslim Judicial Council’s Fatwa Committee (which often led to him being described as the ‘Mufti of Cape Town’), lecturer in fiqh at the Islamic College of Southern Africa (ICOSA), and lecturer in the Study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Currently he is a member of the Stanlib Sharīʿa Board, and chief arbitrator (Ḥakīm) of the Crescent Observer’s Society, and has been listed consecutively in the Muslim500 from 2009 to 2018. He was also appointed Dean of the Madina Institute in South Africa, a recognised institution of higher learning in South Africa and part of the world Madina Institute seminaries led by Shaykh Dr Muhammad Ninowy. Shaykh Seraj is also a professor at the International Peace University of South Africa, holding the Maqasid Chair for Graduate Studies.
Shaykh Seraj has also been teaching a variety of Islamic-related subjects at the Zāwiyah Mosque in Cape Town, which together with his brother Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks, he is the current resident Shaykh of. Alongside his brother, he is the representative (khalīfa) of the aforementioned muḥaddith of the Ḥijāz, the distinguished al-Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawī al-Mālikī, master of the Ṭarīqa ʿUlamāʿ Makka – the (sufi) path of the Makkan scholars.