The Approach of Islamic Law to Contagion
How does Islamic law deal with communicable diseases such as the novel corona virus?
By way of definition, contagion is the transfer of a causative agent from its source to a susceptible individual, causing damage to body tissues. It may be either symptomatic or asymptomatic.
Safeguarding against communicable diseases is a precept in Islamic law. The primary texts falling in this sphere are too numerous to mention in the answer but all attest to the necessity of avoiding contact with infected individuals. For instance, Abu Huraira (may God be pleased with him) narrated that the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be with him) said, “Flee from a leper as you would flee from a lion.” In another report, the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Avoid the leper as you would avoid a lion.”
Fatima Bint Hussein narrated through her father who narrated through his father, Ali Ibn Abu Talib, that the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Do not fix your gaze on lepers and when you talk to them, keep a distance of a spear’s length between you and them.”
It was also narrated that a leper was among the delegation of Thaqif sent to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Upon learning of this, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) sent word to him that his pledge had been accepted and that he may return home.
Employing such preventive measures and adopting precautions for one’s safety and well-being are by no means inconsistent with divine providence. In the opinion of Imam Al-Badr Al-‘Ayni, the ratio legis of the Prophet’s injunction to flee from a leper as one would flee from a lion is to prevent cross infection of diseases that is likely to be caused by close contact with an infected person. In spite of this, the prophet emphasizes that transmission only occurs by God’s leave.
Establishing the Principles of Quarantine
Quarantine, a crucial component of preventing and containing infectious diseases, is not an entirely new concept. In fact, the modern concepts of ‘quarantine’ and ‘social distancing’ was in practice at the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and became embedded in Islamic law and practices. In a hadith narrated by Abu Huraira, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Do not put the sick with the healthy.” Imam Al-Qastalani wrote that this command comes in the context of avoiding the causes created by God Almighty that result in harm or death. Healthy servants of God are commanded to avoid such causes.
It is possible to draw parallels between modern strategies to prevent and contain infectious diseases and the concepts of ‘quarantine’ and ‘social distancing’ which are rooted in Islamic law. In fact, Islamic law took steps to reduce the risk of the spread of infection by restricting movement from and into regions affected by an epidemic. The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it and if it breaks out while you are in it, do not leave fleeing from it.”
Cleanliness and hygiene
Cleanliness is a key principle in Islam. Numerous texts in the Quran and Sunnah attest to the importance of maintaining physical and spiritual purity. In the Quran, God Almighty commands the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to purify his garments and describes His love for those who are pure in body, heart, and soul, “… and God loves those who make themselves pure.” This emphasis on physical cleanliness and purity is further reinforced in a Prophetic tradition by making a direct connection between faith and physical cleanliness; the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Cleanliness is half of faith.” According to the Maliki scholar Al-Qadi Iyad, the reward for cleanliness and purification is multiplied to equal half of the reward for faith because it cleans the body from ritual impurity and filth in preparation for standing before God Almighty. He goes on to say that faith is rendered complete when physical purity is coupled with spiritual and moral purity.
Islam takes a proactive approach to the prevention of certain diseases caused by poor hygiene and uncleanliness. The recommendations for proper hygiene practices in Islam are analogous to modern medical guidelines. The practice of ablution without which prayer is rendered invalid includes both hand washing and oral hygiene, both of which are part of preventive medicine. In addition, genital hygiene, particularly after urination, defecation, menstruation, and sexual intercourse is an indispensable part of the physical and ritual purity enjoined by Islamic teachings as indicated by the words of God Almighty, “Verily, God loves those who are constantly repentant and loves those who keep themselves clean and pure.”
God is the Creator of everything that exists, even the organisms that cause deadly diseases. Yet, He did not leave us without guidance to good health. Through His words and commands, and the Sunnah of His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him), we learn that cleanliness is a philosophy that permeates every aspect of our lives. Modern practices of physical hygiene and of responding to communicable diseases are in perfect harmony with Islam’s laws of health and with reducing the risk of catching or spreading infection.
And God Almighty knows best.