Once upon a time…in a land far, far away…there was a tiny organism. It arose in a little-known area of the Orient…then spread like wildfire across the world. The rest, as they say, is history.
The events of the last few weeks are surreal – like something out of a disaster movie. It’s almost as if we’re waiting for Idris Elba – robed in a white coat and donning laboratory glasses – to swagger onto the stage, test tube in hand, and proclaim, “’ere it is lads – I’ve got the cure.” Yet there is no commercial break in sight. Instead, the world has grinded to a halt, with billions under lockdown. The Ka’bah is alone. The mosques have emptied. Historical landmarks the world over are deserted. Sports stadia are no longer thronging to cheering crowds. The hustle and bustle of life has been replaced with an eerie silence – a sense of foreboding.
What will future historians make of this time? Will they comment that, having enjoyed the longest period of peace and prosperity, the world was due a jolt? Others will argue: what peace? What prosperity? Look at Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar. Don’t forget the detention camps of Xinjiang. These future historians will argue: how could the Western Muslim community feel it could live in the lap of luxury – isolated and to a large part oblivious from the pain of the rest of the Ummah – and not expect a response from Al-Hasīb (The Reckoner)?
As we confine ourselves to our homes, concerned about empty supermarket shelves and with school gates closed, perhaps now we can appreciate that every child in Syria under the age of nine has been raised under the sound of barrel bombs. We can at least appreciate the sense of desperation experienced by mothers in Yemen as their babies cry in hunger. As we gaze outside at the beautiful sun-drenched landscape, we can empathise with the numerous scholars and political prisoners languishing in Saudi prisons, many of whom have not seen daylight for months. As we cuddle and appreciate our loved ones, we can think of our sisters languishing in Assad’s dungeons.
Time for God
It is a striking oddity of modernity that God is so absent from the conversation. It is even more stunning given the current biblical-esque scenes – conjuring stories of the plagues of Pharaoh – that there is no discussion about the existence of a creator. Not even a whisper as the shadow of death looms large.
Yet, without a moment’s hesitation, we believe in the existence of a microscopic organism (which the vast majority of us have not seen, heard, or felt) that has the ability to disable the old and the young, the sick and the healthy, and is transmitted by non-visible particles emitted during a cough or sneeze and can even ‘live’ for days on surfaces, waiting to ambush us. We believe all of this without question, because we see the effects of COVID-19. However, even though we see, hear, and feel the effects of a Creator all around us each and every day – in the miracle of ourselves and in the singing of birds, in the transpiration system of trees, in the warmth of sunlight – we still somehow are able to justify the denial of the existence of a Creator.
“And they will say: ‘Had we but listened or used our intelligence, we would not have been among the dwellers of the blazing Fire’.”
How can we deny the design of our immune system for which we will rely upon should COVID-19 strike us? A system in which specific antibodies (which cause pathogens to stick together so that phagocytes can engulf them) are uniquely produced to the antigen (proteins on the surface of the pathogen, in this case the coronavirus); a system that further involves memory cells that are created to rapidly respond to any potential future immune assaults. Can anyone seriously argue this design came about by chance?
Even Richard Dawkins accepted the beautiful intricacy of the universe cannot be explained by random chance, saying, “Darwinism is not a theory of random chance. It is a theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection … Natural selection … is a non-random force, pushing towards improvement.” Dawkins thereby gives divine qualities to an invented concept that cannot be grasped by any of the senses but is instead rejected by intellect and a building corpus of scientists.
The purpose of this article is not to debate the existence of a Creator, but to allow me to ask a simple question: if a vaccine for the coronavirus was found tomorrow and the scientist that discovered it said that the vaccine suddenly appeared on his desk – would anyone believe them? Yet those who deny the existence of a Creator require us to believe far more sophisticated processes such as viral replication or DNA transcription or planetary orbit or our imagination and emotions all came about by mere chance or a series of chance events. In this regard, Stephen Myer’s work Signature in the Cell is well worth a read, as is The Fortunate Universe by astrophysicists Geraint Lewis and Luke Barnes.
Like a revelation
Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks commented that COVID-19 felt like a “revelation”. For some, it does, but the question is: what is God’s message to humanity as a whole and to us as individuals?
Ibn al-Qayyim said that life is either being in a state of shukr (gratitude) or in a state of sabr (patient perseverance). Let us focus now on shukr in these testing times. First and foremost, let us consider our gratitude to Allāh for life itself, for all the happy memories and times of ease we have enjoyed. The leisurely visits to the shops buying fruit imported from Costa Rica or salt from the Himalayas seem a distant but pleasant memory. Eating from the finest restaurants choosing a different cuisine every time. The unhindered exploration of the world or the impromptu day trips. Our health.
We have lived a charmed life. As we remember and thank Allāh, let us also remember each other: the refuse collectors, the lorry drivers trucking through the night to bring us food, the supermarket checkout staff, the teachers allowing key workers to continue doing their crucial work, the journalists keeping us updated, and all who do so at risk to their own health for our benefit. We have much to be grateful for and many to thank. They are the unsung heroes and we salute them all.
What we should not lose sight of, however, is that we should also be grateful for COVID-19, as strange as that may initially sound. It may be a punishment for humanity’s transgressions, but it has also allowed many people to pause and reflect. No doubt, in the dead of the night, many people have asked themselves: What will happen after I die? What have I achieved with my life? Am I ready to meet God?
As you ask yourself these questions, ponder over the verse in the Qur’ān:
“And when your Lord comes with Angels ranks upon ranks.”
And then ask yourself – have you done enough to earn His pleasure? Do you have sins that you need to repent for in order to gain salvation? That must-see TV box set can wait. Use this time effectively to seek seclusion with your Lord and speak to Him. Open your heart, your dreams, your fears, and vulnerabilities to Him and then wait for the response. It will come. In a hadith Qudsi, our noble Messenger said:
“Allāh the Most High said, ‘I am as My servant expects me to be. I am with him when he mentions Me. If he mentions Me to himself, I mention him to Myself; and if he mentions Me in an assembly, I mention him in an assembly greater than it. If he draws near to Me a hand’s length, I draw near to him an arm’s length. And if he comes to Me walking, I go to him at speed.”
Imam Nawawi commented on this verse: “The scholars say that expecting the best of Allāh is to expect that He will have mercy on (the servant) and relieve him of hardship.” Imam Nawawi also said: “Al-Qādi ‘Iyād said that this means He will forgive (the servant) if he seeks such, will accept his repentance if he repents, will answer him if he supplicates, and will suffice him if he asks for something. It is also said that it refers to having hope and longing for relief, and this is more correct.”
Fleeing to Allāh
COVID-19 has also given us the opportunity to know our Rabb better. Rabb is often translated as ‘Lord’, but that doesn’t do this name of Allāh justice. Rabb can also be someone who nurtures and cares. If we consider that Allāh loves us more than our own mothers, we can ask ourselves: why has our Rabb sent this ‘calamity’ to us? One answer may be that it is for our own tarbiya – which is also hard to translate into English, but essentially means development.
Our Rabb wants the best for us and has a plan for each one of us. Some will grab this opportunity with both hands, reflect over their lives, and return to their Rabb. Others will while away time endlessly following the news, binging on box set after box set and becoming spiritually poorer than when the lockdown began.
COVID-19 has also allowed us to reflect on Allāh as al-Shafī’ – the one who cures. How often have we had a fever and reached for a packet of paracetamol without a thought of Allāh as the one who cures? We place our hope and expectation of relieving the fever in medication rather than in Allāh – is this not a form of shirk? To be frank, is anyone free of this? Our religion mandates us to take the means of cure (whether it is medication or social distancing), but we do so knowing they are from Allāh and that He, as al-Shafī’, is ultimately the one who cures us. Let us recall what Prophet Ibrahim taught us:
“And when I am ill, it is He who cures me.”
COVID-19 has also given us the opportunity to reflect over Allāh as al-Qahhār – the irresistible and dominant. Is there a military power in the world that has been able to defeat the coronavirus? Does any dictator, president, or king feel invincible to the coronavirus? Have the richest 1% not fled to New Zealand in their private jets only for the virus to follow them there?
Reflect on Allāh as al-Latīf – the subtle and gracious. Before COVID-19, how many of us appreciated our immune system? How many of us appreciated our earwax, which was designed to stop infections entering our ears? As Bill Bryson writes in his brilliant book The Body, “If we laid all the DNA in your body end to end it would stretch 10 billion miles, beyond the orbit of Pluto. Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system.” It is al-Latīf who looks after us both by day and night, and yet are we too busy or arrogant to thank Him for His gifts.
This lockdown and isolation is the perfect time for us to reconnect with Allāh. To worship Him as we have always dreamed of doing. To spend the nights in seclusion with al-Karīm, and to spend the days reciting and reflecting over His words. Don’t squander this golden opportunity. Heed the words of Umar b. al-Khattab who said:
“Our best days were the days of patience.”
One foot in the grave
It seems that the response to the pandemic falls into one of two camps: either to consider it fake news and a global conspiracy, or to stockpile and hunker down as if a nuclear holocaust is about to unleash. Both of these are reprehensible. This is not a global conspiracy. There are real men and women who were fit and healthy who are currently in ITU fighting for their lives. Do not add to the burden on the NHS – heed government advice to stay at home.
However, do not be overwhelmed by fear. You are alive – so live! Your date of death has already been recorded in the Preserved Tablet, which was written 50,000 years before creation. Reflect over the final words of Khalid b. Walid, the greatest warrior this world has ever known. On his death bed, Khalid turned to the people gathered around him and rhetorically asked: “Can you see any part of me that doesn’t have the scars of battle? I have plunged myself into the enemies so many times and been in situations where I thought I would be certain to die, yet here I am, about to meet my end on a bed. May the eyes of the cowards never sleep.”
If you are fit and healthy, help your neighbours and assist the elderly. Replace loneliness with kindness. Donate to food banks, many of which already struggling before this crisis. Replace pessimism with hope. Call your families and lift their spirits up. Play with your children. Fill your homes with laughter, not fear. Make the most of this opportunity and make it the best of times. You will never be given these days back.
Finally, whilst today is challenging and tomorrow may look dark, the real issue at hand is what you will build for the day after tomorrow. Allāh will make a way out for us. Humanity will get through this. But will we have learned our lesson?
 Al-Qur’ān 67:10
 Al-Qur’ān 89:22
 Sharh Sahih Muslim
 Al-Qur’ān 26:80
 Bill Bryson, The Body