Dr. Mohamed ‘Arafa, Professor of Law at Alexandria University Faculty of Law, Egypt, discusses Islamic jurisprudence and the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the novel coronavirus flew globally in 2020, triggering widespread infections of the disease labeled COVID-19, a fresh challenge arose concerning how governments and legal experts could face this plague, predominantly in terms of law and rights in the Middle East and the Muslim world.
In Islamic law, the Qur’an and the Sunnah (Prophet Mohammad’s teachings) are the principal sources for the rules and concepts that guide Muslims’ lives and from which policies and responses can be derived. It has been argued – inaccurately – that solely adhering to Islamic principles could provide protection against COVID-19 infection.
Even so, vaccines have been developed and are starting to be administered worldwide, yet people are being selfish by prioritizing themselves over the humanitarian crisis. To what extent is Islamic Shari’a law able to adapt to the unexpected pandemic?
Tāʿūn (plague) is used to describe a condition involving the death of several individuals because of a wabāʾ (common disease). The moral justification for pandemics comprises its origins, causes, and (divine) objectives behind them. In a Prophetic ḥādīth, he described it as a punishment/punitive intent or rījz (torment) that was sent to the earlier nations.
Other Qurʾānic texts and ḥādīths designate that plagues can serve as a means of divine mercy and individuals who die of it will receive rewards. This description must be placed within the larger conceptualization of illness, difficulties/hardships, and as ībtīlāʾ(testing) for īmān (faith’s) verification.
The most normative statements that have been issued throughout the Muslim world to respond to a global public health crisis revolve around precise fīqh (juristic) principles. This includes “whatever is indispensable to fulfill the imperative is imperative and what leads to the prohibited is prohibited;” “the community’s public interest takes superiority over the individual (private) interests;” and “relieving hardship takes precedence over endorsing benefit.”
Also, “averting harm takes precedence over the acquisition of benefits and there shall be no damage and no infliction of damage” and “necessities render prohibitions permissible, and every necessity is to be assessed according to its seriousness, and what is permitted due to an excuse ceases to be as such with the cessation of that excuse.”
This collective fātwās issued by the International Islamic Fīqh Academy of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (IIFA) and the European Council for Fātwā and Research (ECFR) focused on the vital effort to integrate verified scientific information about the virus’s causes and how to limit its transmission. These fātwās begin with a synopsis of the Islamic view of plagues and epidemics.
The declaration places these events within the greater context of God’s conventional rules and customs in the universe, tied to a set of higher values. These norms comprise testing with adversities and calamities, which are meant to deter individuals against mischief and corrupt deeds, as well as boons/bounties to serve as rewards for good actions and as incentives to pursue the path of obedience and godliness.
The pandemic can be seen as a form of testing with adversity in response to performances as environmental abuse, depletion of natural resources, and breach of the ethical values that aim to preserve these resources. These actions have shaped a general imbalance status in the cosmic order and thus should serve as a reminder for individuals to consider the results of their deeds and to find ways to fix missteps.
Most of the fātwās during the COVID-19 pandemic focused on holding congregational prayers in māsjīds (mosques). ālAzhār’s scholars in Egypt are in ījma‘(consensus) on the “permissibility of suspending Friday and congregational five-daily prayers for the purpose of protecting people from the Coronavirus.” It acknowledged that with the contagious nature of COVID-19 and its transmission even through asymptomatic carriers, the disease establishes a substantial risk against people’s lives.
Sacred Islamic law has five essential māqāīsd (objectives) to prioritize that include protecting life, religion (belief), safeguarding freedom of thought, preserving the intellect (lineage), protecting property, and sustaining human dignity and integrity. Thus, the fātwā underlines that all necessary precautions to accomplish this goal should be taken.
Under these dārourāh (necessity) circumstances, Friday, as well as congregational prayers, can be suspended to limit infection. Prophet Mohammad confirmed that prayers can be suspended if going to the mosque becomes complicated or extremely inconvenient, citing heavy rain, illness, or concern over one’s safety, property, or family; plague outbreak, as one should not move to/out of a plague-stricken region if severely contagious, or in case one’s presence harms others or becomes a source of discomfort for others.
The fātwā indicates that ādhān (call to prayer) should still be made and people should pray in their own home with family members to follow public health guidelines. Saudi Arabia took a similar approach by citing relevant Qurʾānic verses and appealing to robust legal maxims on the need to prevent or remove harm. Likewise, the UAE banned all social gatherings.
The Dubai’s Islamic and Charitable Affairs Department (IACAD) said: Prayers can be performed in māsjīd [mosques] if only the worshippers continue to maintain the precautionary guidelines [and] should strictly avoid handshakes and any other physical greetings that breach physical distancing protocols…[in]person lectures, seminars, and Islamic lessons/studies remain suspended, however, worshipers have the option to virtually attend them [and] highly recommended to read the Qur’ān through smart devices…Organizing physical Rāmadān’s īftār (meal) social gathering(s) and donation tents is strictly prohibited [and] sādqāh (donations) should be directed through accredited charity organization…
Muslim scholars agreed in the spirit of true reliance on God by respecting rather than neglecting the causes. So, if physicians/medical experts are unanimous that social gatherings lead to infection and contraction of the disease, then all sorts of crowds should be avoided.
This permissibility by qīyas (analogical deduction) and ījtīhād (individual reasoning) extends to physical health, even over the realization of religious commitments in cases of conflict. Muslim scholars permit shortened prayer or forgoing ritual fasting in cases of travel or sickness.
In the same vein, hājj (pilgrimage to Meccā) is the other key ritual practice that was heavily affected by the restrictive measures to fight COVID-19. Considering border shutdowns, travel bans, and limitations to freedom of movement, the annual pilgrimage has been postponed, as the fātwā underscores that the obligation to perform pilgrimage is established on both qudrā and īstīṭāʿā (ability and feasibility) conditions, which includes three main elements: physical health, financial means, and absence of impending risks that may threaten one’s life or safety.
The fātwā explains that it is permissible to suspend pilgrimage and postpone this ritual due to infection concerns. Also, it indicates that in the absence of verified scientific evidence signifying that fasting Rāmāḍān negatively affects one’s immunity against the disease, breaking the fast due to the pandemic would be impermissible and those who are infected or sick in general should be assessed considering their own health conditions on medical expertise by their physicians.
However, medical professionals can become quite fatigued, which may impact their ability to observe the ritual fast during the daytime; thus, they can break the fast and make up for the missed days afterward.
In terms of ālMāslāh ālMursālāh (protected common good) – as a source of Shārīe‘ā – Muslim scholars agreed on reinforcing all and any necessary preventive measures suggested by medical experts and public health authorities (e.g., quarantines, self-isolation if infected and contact tracing, PCR tests, limiting the circulation of cash/coins, suspension of educational activities, lockdowns, etc.…) on the notion that the rulers (government) have the authority on the ruling to achieve public welfare (utility).
In Islamic law, the imposition of quarantine is mandatory to prevent the virus’s transmission, and it would be forbidden for infected people to conceal this information either from authorities or from family members and those who fail to do so must be legally punished. So, infected individuals who act negligently or recklessly should be reported to the public authorities to ensure that appropriate procedures are implemented.
Accordingly, it is a binding legal obligation to adhere to quarantine and lockdown practices in infected areas. Due to the lethal nature of the virus, going out of homes should be carefully regulated. Any negligent behavior that causes the transmission to others and consequently their death can serve as grounds for the penalties of qātāl shbh‘md (unintentional killing/manslaughter).
However, an infected individual should not be liable for this sentence if he/she ends up infecting others accidentally, despite taking all necessary safety measures. Some Muslim scholars condemn the idea of achieving community immunity through mass exposure to the virus due to its detrimental impact on vulnerable groups and argue that failure to provide care for curable conditions before they develop further complications would reach to recklessness/negligence by Shārīeʿā standards.
From an Islamic perspective, one of the main ethical queries concerns the ingredients of a specific vaccine and whether it contains a divinely prohibited item (pork gelatin) while considering the balance between the urgent need for this vaccine and the time and resources required. Salman Waqar, the General Secretary of the British Islamic Medical Association said, “the ingredient is likely to continue to be used in most vaccines for years [and] people from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca have said that their vaccines don’t contain pork gelatin.”
However, Muslim scholars agreed that according to Islamic law, consumption of pig-derived products and eating or using pork is forbidden when eaten, but if necessary – under dārourāh – to use by body injection, then there is no prohibition, especially in plagues or serious sicknesses.
Fātwās underscore that experiments for vaccine development should adhere to recognized ethical scientific standards. While the world waited for a safe, effective vaccine, physicians and health specialists endeavored to develop sufficient therapeutic techniques and drugs to help patients boost their immune systems and fight the virus.
ālAzhār’s International Center for Electronic Fātwā decided that withholding the plasma by recovered COVID-19 patients or selling it, without a valid excuse, was deemed sinful and hārām (forbidden). In December 2020, the Egyptian dār ālIftāā’ (main religious body to issue religious decrees), declared that the COVID-19 vaccine is hālāl (permissible) under Shārīeʿā.
It argued that vaccination is a moral “legal” obligation for all citizens and has given Muslims permission to use vaccines, even if the formula includes pig derivatives, and that most Muslim jurists from the Hānāfī, Mālīkī, and Hānbālī Schools of Islamic fīqh (jurisprudential thought) agree on this.
The UAE adopted a similar attitude and allowed the use of vaccines and encouraged people to get vaccinated based on Islamic law’s objective in protecting the human body, despite the vaccine’s non-hālāl ingredients, as it is appropriate to use when no other options are available.
Muslim jurists argued that COVID-19 is a highly contagious disease that can kill or permanently harm humans and that the vaccine is the only way to combat it, as preventive medicine, since it helps the whole population escape the high risk of infection.
One of the important, and perhaps distinctive, aspects of pandemics generally, and this one specifically, is the increased rate of fatality. The high rate of death cases creates added pressure on health and other designated facilities, to secure the essential resources to safeguard proper and dignified handling of the dead, as expected in normal circumstances. From an Islamic perspective, the issue of āljanāʾiz (funerals) includes washing, shrouding, prayer, burial, and consolation etiquettes.
The fātwā indicates that washing and shrouding of the dead body are required; however, if washing becomes impossible, spraying of water would be sufficient, otherwise, tāyāmmum (dry ablution with dust) can be the alternative, and if infeasible, this requirement can be dropped, and preventive health protocols should be followed. Also, this duty may be undertaken by remotely controlled devices if proper policies are applied, should such devices become available.
Muslim scholars agreed that individuals who died of COVID can be buried without showering or even dry ablution, to minimize chances of infection through direct contact with the deceased’s body. They confirmed that achieving the interest of those who are living, by protecting their life, takes priority over observing the rules pertaining to those who have died.
Moreover, this disease requires special training on how to avoid infection, which might not be available for this procedure, thus, the dead body can be buried in the body casket/bag, within which it was placed in the hospital, after offering funeral prayer. This prayer is a kīfāyā (collective) duty, which can be performed by those who are able and present but can also be performed in absentia (‘āyn duty: individually/congregationally).
The standard rule provides that burial should be in a Muslim cemetery and done in the region where the death took place (no obligation to move the body to a specific area, e.g., country of origin) even if the deceased’s written will indicate preference for burial in a different (distant) locality that require air travel. However, Muslim scholars affirmed that if burial in a designated Muslim cemetery becomes problematic, the Muslim’s body can be buried in a non-Muslim graveyard, particularly during emergencies as pandemics (Qurʾān 53:39).
Further, they do not approve of cremation, as burial in the ground is the most appropriate method befitting human dignity and that authorities must honor religious/cultural values. Also, the burial in concrete chambers/structures on top of the ground instead of the usual holes that are dug in the ground is permitted in necessary cases if bodies are treated with dignity and respect. Another fātwā urges Muslims living in the West to write their wills specifying that following death, bodies should be treated according to relevant Islamic norms.
Islamic law premises man’s position in the universe on two Islamic fīqh (juristic) principles: (a) Cālīphā (man’s stewardship), which means that man is not only a creature but also God’s cālīph (steward) on Earth, as God is the only proprietor of Earth and man is a mere beneficiary, and (b) man can exploit nature for his/her and other creatures’ benefit without depleting it, and the principle of āmanaāh (trust consider the principle of use not to abuse), namely that all resources created by God are placed as a trust in man’s hands and the needs of coming generations must be taken into consideration by man.
Islamic moral debates on the COVID-19 pandemic build on a current tradition that emerged in connection with previous precedents of epidemics and plagues. This practice began with commentaries on certain references in the Islamic initial sources, which ultimately developed into detailed and systematic dialogues across numerous genres of the normative tradition including theology, jurisprudence, and mysticism.
What is remarkable about this tradition is its constant evolution considering the recurrent episodes of outbreaks, which made current interpretation and reinterpretation necessary (avoid classicism). The example of contagion exemplifies this process of ongoing construction, as competing Sunnah reports have typically been reconciled to remove seeming contradictions – in line – with a more active rather than passive or fatalistic manner towards pandemics.
The recent Islamic responses to the pandemic should be placed within this evolving moral tradition, deriving from normative and empirical sources. It reflects significant changes and transformations that Islamic normative debates have endured in modern time via giving more room for collective deliberations and institutional interdisciplinary interpretations.
Moreover, the various fātwās reveal the extent to which progressively normative statements integrate modern scientific-medical knowledge and how much religious scholars collaborate with public health experts, at the local and global levels. As much as these declarations build on the extended Shārīe‘ā ethical tradition, they strive to accomplish the necessary conditions for the “continuing relevance” of the tradition, as the late historian Marshal Hodgson put it, by pursuing to meet the needs of modern Muslims and to address their evolving inquiries (Hodgson 1977, 1:34).
Dr. Mohamed ‘Arafa, LL.M., SJD, is a Professor of Law at Alexandria University Faculty of Law (Egypt) and an Adjunct Professor of Law and the Clarke Initiative Visiting Scholar at Cornell Law School.
Originally on jurist.org