Man is protected from sickness in two ways, by [prophylaxis] and by [useful service]. The physician and the nurse who go into the district of yellow fever or typhoid or diphtheria or smallpox, who keep busy, who have, in the highest sense of the word, the true love of [service], who have gone into the work as mediums of mercy, will be largely protected just simply from their love of the work, from their delight in it. They have no fear. Fear is an overwhelming cause of sickness; those who fall prey to fear are likely to become sick, but those who face disease with no fear are likely to remain well; they do sometimes fall sick, it is true, but I believe it is because they begin to have fear in the work.
— James Tyler Kent (1849–1916), physician who specialized in epidemic diseases
Dear Zaytuna staff, faculty, students, and supporters:
Salam alaykum. I hope this finds all of you in the best of health and safety. Our sacred law holds preservation of life among the highest of divine objectives. During the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, the Bay Area was spared much of the harm that afflicted other parts of the country, largely due to the precautionary measures taken. Erring on the side of caution in our current pandemic seems prudent until we better understand what we are up against. Following the advice of local authorities regarding coronavirus, we have moved all Zaytuna College classes online, and many of our staff members are currently working from home.
We should keep in mind that plagues, wars, and natural disasters have vexed our species throughout human history and that these will remain a part of life on earth. In fact, epidemics are mentioned at least twice in the Qur’an—in the second chapter, Al-Baqarah (The Cow), and in the seventh chapter, Al-A¢rāf (The Heights).
These are indeed strange times: our authorities are telling us to wash several times a day, a lot of frivolous entertainment has been cancelled, bars have been shut down, interest rates are at zero, and the president of the United States is telling us to pray. In other words, for Muslims, this means keep practicing your religion!
It also means that this is an opportunity to get closer to God and to become more acutely aware of and grateful for God’s bountiful gifts that we so often take for granted and that for some are now threatened: security, sustenance, mobility, family, friends, and faith.
The Qur’an reminds us of our nature and our choices:
Surely the human being was created anxious, overwrought when touched by trouble, and tight-fisted when blessed with bounty—save for the prayerful who are constant in their prayer, who give a portion of their wealth for the beggar and the destitute, who recognize the reality of the Day of Judgment, who are fearfully concerned about their Lord’s punishment (for the punishment of their Lord is not to be felt secure from), who maintain their chastity (except with their spouses and legitimate consorts, for they are not blamed, while those who go beyond that are the transgressors), who respect their promises and pledges, who stand by their testimonies, and who are mindful of their prayers; they will be honored with gardens. (70:19–35)
Imam al-Qurţubī, who lived in times of great trial, said about the first verses mentioned above (“Surely the human being was created anxious, overwrought when touched by trouble”) that man is naturally inclined toward bad character when afflicted with trials of either good or evil. He explained that overwrought (halū¢) means that “if touched by harm, he becomes anxious and distressed; his heart succumbs to panic from the immense fear in it, and despair plagues him; and when blessed with bounty, he displays niggardliness and covetousness, failing to help others.” Imam al-Qurţubī continued:
Imam Aĥmad relates from Qatādah about God’s words, “those who are mindful of their prayers,” that Daniel, upon him peace, prophesized about the community of Muĥammad ﷺ, “They pray a prayer that had the people of Noah prayed it, they would never have drowned.”
The natural state of human beings who are not aligned spiritually with the celestial realm is angst—an existential dread that takes hold, a dissatisfaction with the way things are on earth. Some even designate our own modern materialistic epoch as the age of anxiety. The antidote to such a condition is true faith and the knowledge that everything comes from God. When we are afflicted with loss of life, limb, or property, we say, “To God we belong, and to God we return” (2:156).
For those who may lose their life from a pandemic or a plague, their reward in the hereafter is great. According to Ibn Ĥajar al-¢Asqalānī, in his book Giving Generous Aid in Explaining the Virtues of Plague, such a death equals in reward the death of one who dies defending his faith and country; among martyrs, no other deaths achieve such an exalted rank.
The Qur’an also tells us that those who turn to God in prayer in times of trouble and who are constant in their prayers and display high moral character do not suffer the slings and strikes of bad fortune; rather, they recognize that these trials and tribulations emanate from our Lord for our benefit, whether known or unknown. Athletes train in preparation for the test of tournaments; similarly, a believer’s prayer exercises his or her soul, so when the test comes, the soul doesn’t just survive it but thrives in it. The prepared soul experiences solace in the face of calamities. For those who have been wayward or whose souls are spiritually flaccid, these are excellent times to return to our Lord. Indeed, this is often the very purpose of the tribulation. The Qur’an reminds us, “Foulness, corruption, and pollution (fasād) have manifested on the land and in the sea from what humanity’s hands have earned, to make them taste some of what they have done, that perhaps they might turn back to God” (30:41).
Prayer abides as our greatest weapon against fear, panic, and despair. If anything troubled or alarmed the Prophet ﷺ, he hastened to prayer. So let us see the opportunity and the blessing in the tribulation. This particular viral visitation apparently began in the ancient and sagely land of China; interestingly, the Chinese ideogram for crisis also denotes opportunity. The Qur’an says, “Nothing will afflict you except what God has decreed for you” (9:51). Follow the guidelines and take the sound measures, but feel secure that what will be will be—the readiness is all.
I thank all of you for your sincerity, your hard work, your support, and your prayers for Zaytuna College—each of you with your beautiful name, and each with your beautiful qualities. May God preserve and bless all of you, may stillness surround you, may peace and tranquility descend upon you, and may you and your loved ones be spared the trials of these times.
President, Zaytuna College