The `Aqīdah of Illness

by Mateen A. Khan, Piscataway NJ

A version of this article was first published in Al-Madania Magazine.

At the time of writing this article, we find the world swallowed by a pandemic. Never has the world been as interconnected as today. Never have Muslims been so dispersed around the world as they are today. For this reason, our exposure to Covid-19 seems inevitable. As a part of Madania’s Our Creed Series, we’ll digress from our subject matter thus far to explain the `aqīdah of illnesses.

Whenever discussing disease, the `ulamā’ took it upon themselves to discuss the `aqīdah related to it first and foremost. They have always had the `aqīdah of the Believers as their paramount concern. They followed the footsteps of the Prophet ﷺ regarding disease vectors (disease-causing agents such as bacteria and viruses) when he said, “There is no inherently contagious illness.” Naturally, a Bedouin asked for an explanation saying, “Don’t you see how camels are like gazelles on the sand until a mangy camel comes to them, and they all get infected?” Even at that time, it was common knowledge that illnesses spread from one host to another. That knowledge was based on observation and perhaps early permeation of Greek science. This idea would later be extrapolated by Muslims from the Greek medical sciences notably in the time of Hārūn al-Rashīd.[1] Regardless, the Prophet ﷺ answered the Bedouin, “Who gave the disease to the first one?”[2]

(As an aside, I’d like to point out that the wording of the Prophet ﷺ is reminiscent of a solid, logical `aqīdah proof for every contingent object needing a Creator. The reader will recall in the last article in the Our Creed Series entitled, On the Universe and Its Creator, we introduced the idea of proof by infinite regression. Briefly, this is the idea that everything must have a beginning (i.e., a Creator), otherwise, it would not exist at this point in time. See that article for a more thorough explanation.)

Now, one can write a book unpacking the Prophet’s statement, but let’s refocus on the `aqīdah of illness. In the time of Jāhiliyyah, as the Bedouin’s statement indicates, people believed diseases had the inherent capability to move from one host to another. This was a process of self-replication and transmission requiring no outside (read: divine) force. Sure, they lacked the sophisticated knowledge of microscopic vectors as a cause, but the idea of contagious spread existed. Some thought it was a result of tainted elements inherently able to cause illness. Some thought the illnesses were endowed with this capability by Allah such that transmission no longer required Him. Others thought illnesses and their capabilities always existed as a part of nature, per se. Far from being restricted to Jāhiliyyah, many of us today hold a similar belief. We think the emergence and disappearance of diseases as solely a cause of bacteria, viruses, fungi, autoimmune processes, and so on. Science, being a godless endeavor and one based on the empiric alone, ends its pursuit of understanding there at the superficial level.

The Qur’an, however, was sent to convey a deeper and more holistic understanding. Our Book doesn’t undermine empiric observation, rather, it adds to science in a way that benefits us spiritually too. Allah ta`āla conveyed a few simple statements to clarify the reality.

قُلْ هُوَ اللَّـهُ أَحَدٌ

“Say, He is Allah, the One.” (112:1)

Tawḥīd does not only refer to Allah, Himself, but also to His actions. He, alone, is the Creator; the Creator of everything. His creating is absolute, and no movement or cause exists except that He brought it into existence.

قُلِ اللَّـهُ خَالِقُ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ

“Say, Allah is the creator of everything.”

Hence, He is the Creator of disease and cure. He is the Creator of vectors and their transmission because all of these are ‘things.’ Transmission and disease cannot be brought into existence by a vector. If they could, then the vector would have been the creator of the disease…but there is only one Creator.

 

An Islamic View

So, what IS happening here? The coming into existence of each thing is the point in time Allah brings it into existence. Meaning, when x event takes place, Allah normally brings into existence y event. This is correlation and not causation on the part of x. For example, when fire encounters dry wood, Allah normally creates heat and then, burning of the wood.[3] The causation of all things is Allah. We repeatedly observe the same phenomenon (e.g., Allah creating fire within the wood) because that is what He consistently creates. However, the correlation between two events is not necessary in and of itself. When Allah wishes to cause something else, He can do so. For example, although the result of fire is normally burning and heat, the Qur’an informs us of a different event with Sayyidunā Ibrahim.

قُلْنَا يَا نَارُ كُونِي بَرْدًا وَسَلَامًا عَلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ

“Allah said, ‘O fire, be coolness and safety upon Abraham.’” (21:69)

When Sayyidunā Ibrahim was thrown into a fire, Allah created coolness at that time rather than heat. In the hadith, we find another example. The Prophet ﷺ fasted for days on end without feeling hunger. Lack of food is normally followed by hunger, thirst, and weakness. Instead, during these days, he ﷺ said, “My Lord feeds me and gives me drink.”[4] By that, the Prophet ﷺ didn’t mean Allah caused food and drink to descend to him, rather, He did not create the sensation of hunger, thirst, and weakness in him as is normally the case.[5]

The case of disease is similar. The apparent cause before it, for example, the inoculation of the vector, is a sign or indicator of the sunnah of Allah as to what will likely happen next, the illness. Whereas one person sees the outward (the vector causing disease), the Believer understands more fully the work of His Creator. If His Master wishes to bring about the existence of a disease with the vector, then he worries little because Allah’s Messenger ﷺ informed us, “He made it a mercy for the Believers.”[6] Even in the case of death, the Believer is relieved as he ﷺ also said, “Epidemic disease is a type of martyrdom for each Muslim.”[7] It has been reported about Hafṣah bint Sīrīn, the great pious jurist, that she was asked by Anas ibn Mālik †, “What would you prefer to die from?” She replied, “From an epidemic.” He replied, “Indeed, it is a shahādah for each Muslim.”[8] When an epidemic strikes, we do not intellectualize the vector and fear it, because it is powerless. Rather, we understand the true cause is Allah, and we turn to Him.

Just as we look to the prophetic words to understand the reality of what takes place in illness, we again look back to the hadith to give us guidance as to what to do in those times. It is not permissible for one to think Allah will cause illness if He wills, and subsequently go wherever he wants and act recklessly. The Prophet ﷺ forbade it. It remains the Sunnah of Allah to bring illness into existence with the vector, so the Prophet ﷺ advised, “Do not mix the sick with the healthy,”[9] and “Move away from the leper as you would from the lion.”[10]

 

At this point, I would like to summarize in a way that opens the mind to the reality and binds the limbs in divine obedience. Once you digest the above, you will see the universe, not as a series of cause and effect, rather, you will see it as a masterful display of divine power. It behooves the Believer to then act in accordance with the dictates of His Creator. His every action is good, wise, and beneficial. His knowledge alone encompasses all that is beneficial for His servants, and we only know little of it. So, it is best for the servants and more befitting of our state that we be pleased with His decree, accept it wholeheartedly, and busy ourselves with what Allah and His Messenger ﷺ have commanded.[11]

 

[1] Dols, Michael. Medieval Islamic Medicine. Berkeley, Univ. of California Press 1984, Pg. 6

[2] Sahih al-Bukhari 5770, Sahih Muslim 2220

[3] On the molecular level, the process of oxidation appearing as an exothermic reaction, i.e., fire is just a series of events on the subatomic level brought into existence by Allah.

[4] Sahih al-Bukhari 1963, Sahih Muslim 1103

[5] Jāmi` al-Llālī Sharḥ Bad’ al-Amālī, pg. 30-31

[6] Sahih al-Bukhari 3474

[7] Sahih al-Bukhari 2830, Sahih Muslim 1916

[8] al-Ṭabaqāt al-Kubrā li Ibn Sa`d

[9] Sahih al-Bukhari 5773

[10] Sahih al-Bukhari 5707

[11] Qārī, Mulla `Alī. al-Mubīn al-Mu`īn lī Fahm al-Arba`īn. Dār al-Lubāb. Pg. 439.

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