Islam has prescribed certain guidelines to deal with infectious disease outbreaks that affect a community, or even the entire world. The recent ‘2019 novel coronavirus’ that originated in Wuhan, China is one such case in point.
The Prophet Muhammad said, “Do not cause harm, and don’t get harmed [lā ḍarar wa lā ḍirār].” [Muwaṭṭa’ #1435] This statement clarifies a general principle that is used in all aspects of life, and which appropriately applies in situations of outbreaks. A Muslim must avoid harming others if they are affected with a disease that has a likelihood of harming another person/people. Likewise, a Muslim must be careful not to get harmed, and must protect themselves appropriately.
It is important to clarify some misconceptions that have arisen among Muslims regarding the usage of medicine and dealing with outbreaks. Some people, during the lifetime of the Prophet, thought that using medicine might be against the concept of relying on Allah [tawakkul]. Those people asked, “Messenger of Allah, should we use medicine?” The Prophet replied, “Yes, you may use medicine. Allah has not created any disease without also creating its cure, except one: old age.” [Abu Dāwūd #3855, graded ṣaḥīḥ by scholars] The Prophet clarified that it is fine to use medicine, and even encouraged, and this does not violate the concept of trusting in Allah. In fact, it can be derived that the Messenger of Allah has encouraged the discovery of treatments for diseases since he indicated that they exist, and were created by Allah to eventually be discovered.
To clarify the issue more, we can look to the story of Caliph ʿUmar during the plague of ʿAmawās in Syria in 18 A.H. ʿUmar was on his way to Syria for the second time when he got news of the outbreak in the region. He sought consultation from his advisors on whether to return to Madīnah, the capital, or continue on. One of them said, “You left for the sake of Allah so this plague should not stop you.” Others advised the opposite. ʿUmar decided to return to Madīnah. Abū ʿUbaydah rebuked him, “Are you fleeing from the decree of Allah?” He responded, “Yes, I am fleeing from the decree of Allah to the decree of Allah. If you had camels and they entered a land with two sides, one fertile and the other barren, and you grazed them in the fertile area, wouldn’t you be doing that by the decree of Allah? And if you let them graze in the barren area, wouldn’t you be doing that also by the decree of Allah.”
ʿUmar had also received advice from ʿAbdurraḥmān ibn ʿAwf who told him that the Messenger of Allah said, “If you hear that it (plague) has broken out in a land, do not go to it; but if it breaks out in a land where you are present, do not go out escaping from it.” [Saḥiḥ Al-Bukhārī #5730, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim #2219] This advice is perfectly in line with the underlying objective of the Sharīʿah [Islamic Law] to preserve life. Imam Al-Āmidī [d. 631/1233] wrote: “The rules [in Islam] have only been prescribed for the benefit of His servants. The fact that they have underling purposes and wisdom is grounded in both consensus and reason.”
Furthermore, Islam’s emphasis on cleanliness in general, beyond just purifying the body for prayer, is quite well known. Also, the prescription to eat ‘pure’ food avoid the ‘impure’ is a theme mentioned throughout the Qur’an.
These Islamic guidelines will help to prevent harming oneself, or others.
[Shaykh] Mustafa Umar