The recent outbreak of the coronavirus, coupled with the worrying fact that there is no vaccine yet, has resulted in public health initiatives designed to prevent the spread of the virus.
Much attention has been drawn towards the importance of adopting good hygiene practices and cleanliness in order to stem the spread of this highly infectious virus. It was of no surprise therefore that at the top of the UK government’s action plan to fight the spread of the virus was to regularly wash hands for at least twenty seconds – approximately the same time it takes to sing happy birthday twice.
The increasing awareness through news outlets and social media platforms has seen a drastic behavioural change for many in regards to hygiene and cleanliness. Simple and seemingly insignificant hygiene practices have now become commonplace and routine for young and old alike.
Islam proclaims to be a universal religion, for all times and for all people, and as such, could not have possibly omitted this very fundamental issue. The Holy Prophetsaof Islam lived every word of the faith he preached and the Holy Qur’an has laid the principles and specifics of a good and healthy life. For example, there are commandments about sleep, rest, moderation in eating, abstinence from intoxicants, etc. The details are exhaustive and beyond the scope of this brief discourse.
As Muslims when we reflect upon many of these precautionary measures being highlighted in today, they are not something new, nor out of the ordinary. In fact, Islam has incorporated many of these fundamental aspects within its teachings and they form a part of the daily practices of a Muslim.
On this particular aspect of cleanliness and personal hygiene in Islam, we find that no religion has placed a greater importance than Islam. The Holy Prophet of Islam(sa) has emphasised cleanliness to such a degree that he regarded it as half of faith[i]. This is because in order for the spiritual progress of the soul, it is important to look after the physical health. The Promised Messiah (as), founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, expounding on how one’s physical body and soul are intrinsically linked, states,
“According to the Holy Qur’an, the natural state of man has a very strong relationship with his moral and spiritual states, so much so that even a person’s manner of eating and drinking affects his moral and spiritual states… That is why the Holy Qur’an has laid stress on physical cleanliness and postures, and their regulation in relation to all worship and inner purity and spiritual humility.”[ii]
Thus, before observing prayer, it is obligatory for Muslims to perform ablution (Wudhu) wherein one washes oneself from head to toe before each of the five daily prayers. Some Muslims who perform voluntary prayers will clean themselves more than five times. In fact, the Holy Prophet(sa) once asked his companions that if there was a river in front of one’s door and he took a bath in it five times a day, would they notice any dirt on him? They replied that not a trace of dirt would be left. The Holy Prophet(sa) said that this was the parable of the five prayers by which Allah removes sins.[iii]In his recent Friday Sermon, His Holiness, the Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, alluded to this very beautiful teaching whilst granting guidance to the community on the coronavirus. His Holiness (aba) stated,
“It is very important to act upon the precautionary measures that are being announced [by the health authorities]. Large gatherings should be avoided and those coming to the Mosque should also take special care. If anyone shows any signs of a slight fever, flu or body-ache, sneezing or other symptoms then they should not come to the Mosque. Mosques have rights upon the people that visit them. It is the right of the Mosque that no one should attend who can affect other attendees of the Mosque with a contagious illness. Those with contagious diseases should especially take care to avoid Mosques.”
His Holiness also stated,
“One preventative measure mentioned by the doctors is that one’s hands and mouth should always be clean. If one’s hands are unclean, they should not touch their face, or ensure that they use hand sanitizers or they should wash their hands regularly. However, for a Muslim – as is in our case – who pray five times a day and also perform the ablution in the correct manner, which includes cleaning the nose with water etc, then this high standard of hygiene is such that it can compensate for the shortage of sanitizers; as it is reported these days that owing to panic buying, entire shelves in supermarkets have been emptied of such products. Nonetheless, if the ablution is performed in the correct manner, this can not only help towards physical cleanliness, but one who performs the ablution would subsequently offer their prayers, which then in turn becomes a means for their spiritual cleanliness as well. Moreover, in these days we must pay particular attention towards our prayers.”
Similarly, the Holy Prophet(sa) of Islam placed great emphasis on brushing of teeth, combing hair, wearing fragrance, taking bath and to always be clean. The Holy Prophet(sa) even stated, “If I had not thought of the hardship that may be caused to my followers…I would have commanded them to brush their teeth before every prayer.”[iv] On another occasion, the Holy Prophet(sa) stated that there are five practices of a Muslim which are to be observed in line with one’s fitra (human nature); that is, trimming the moustache, shaving the armpit hairs, clipping the nails, shaving pubic hairs, and circumcision (in the case of males).[v]
In fact, in every aspect of one’s life and at every level, Islam has given invaluable guidance to uphold the highest standards of hygiene and cleanliness. Take example, food. Islam instructs not all that is created is for eating; animals and plants serve many diverse functions to support the highest form of life – The Human Race. There are poisonous plants and animals that are lethal on consumption, but used appropriately, provide source of valuable antidotes for diseases and poisoning. Likewise, there are certain foods that Islam has completely prohibited, namely that which dies of itself, blood and the flesh of swine and also that on which the name of any other than Allah has been invoked.[vi]Aside from the lattermost, the rest of the prohibitions are based purely on ensuring the purity of food. However, Islam has further stipulated a condition whereby even if the food is lawful and permissible to eat, it must be Tayyab i.e. good and wholesome. Elaborating upon this Qur’anic injunction, the Second Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra, states,
“Under the second condition, sometimes even lawful things become forbidden. Thus, for instance, the eating of goat’s meat is Halal or lawful; but if some meat becomes rotten and putrefied, it will not be Tayyab and will consequently not be permissible. This distinction between Halal (lawful) and Tayyab (good and pure) food is not to be found in any teaching except that of Islam.”[vii]
The importance of cleanliness and hygiene is not just limited to one’s personal capacity, rather Islam has greatly widened the scope of cleanliness. The Holy Prophet (sa) also instructed that to remove harmful things from the road is an act of charity (sadaqah).[viii] Furthermore, in the case of an epidemic, Islam teaches not to visit such areas to limit spread– a very simple guidance that already exists and will help contain so many diseases from spreading, not just those of pandemic proportion.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, washing of the hands has been particularly mentioned as an effective precautionary measure to counter its harmful spread. Islam has also placed great importance on this practice. In fact, not only does Islam encourage to keep the hands clean, but it has also restricted the use of the left hand for handling anything foul and unclean and to perform all other works with the right hand. In relation to this unique aspect of Islam’s teaching, the Fourth Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(rh), stated,
“These seemingly small injunctions draw a beautiful sketch of basic principles of health and hygiene. It is a well-known fact that the hands serve as carriers and transfer the dirt and germs to foodstuff and eatables thus causing the spread of many illnesses. In the first instance, Islam does not provide any opportunity for filth to come in contact with the body; in the second instance, by the continuous use of water to wash it helps to keep the body clean all the time. Having reserved one (left) hand to handle dirty things, it insists that the hands should be cleaned repeatedly. To take the precautions even further, it is forbidden to use the left hand for food and drinks, thus eliminating all possibilities of transfer of any contamination.”[ix]
Thus, Islam is a complete and comprehensive religion and has afforded ample guidance, from prayers to avoiding epidemics, etiquettes of eating and drinking, instructions on bathing to covering the utensils, not leaving food uncovered, dental hygiene and much more. In short, there are countless teachings in Islam which pertain to hygiene and personal cleanliness. As mentioned above his Holiness has guided us to follow government recommendations which as we can see, are clearly are in line with Islamic teachings. These habits should indeed become second nature for Muslims and form an integral aspect of their daily lives. Thus, when one truly reflects upon the universality of Islam, one wonders what great role it can play in the prevention of disease before it even spreads.
[ii]Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, p. 8
[vi]The Holy Qur’an, 2:174
[vii]Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra, Five Volume Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 271
[ix]Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh, Steps to Exercise, pp. 17-18