The sun had set in Sargh – a border area that separated Makkah and Madinah from the lands of Sham.
Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Caliph of the Muslims, was resting after a long journey. He had come from Madinah along with other senior companions of the deceased Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Their destination was Sham, a magnificent state that the Muslims had snatched from the Byzantines only a few years ago.
“Assalamu alaykum, O Leader of the Believers.”
Caliph Umar looked up in surprise. The commanders of the Muslim army, headed by Abu Ubaydah ibn al-Jarrah, had come to visit him from Sham.
And they had brought for him a shocking piece of news.
“An epidemic has broken out in Sham.”
The caliph fell in a dilemma. Should he continue his journey or not? He called the other Companions in his travelling party, group by group, and consulted them.
“We have come out for a purpose and we do not think that it is proper to give it up,” said some.
“You have other people along with you,” said others, “including the Companions of Allah’s Messenger. We do not advise that you take them into this epidemic.”
What did Umar do?
What would you have done?
Back to 2020: COVID-19
Here we are fourteen centuries later, in a similar situation with COVID-19.
We are all suffering in some way or another. Our close ones are dying, we are losing work or getting underpaid, we can’t enjoy life normally like we used to do, we had to shut schools, universities, workplaces and shops.
And what more? We had to shut our mosques and stop attending congregational prayers, especially the Friday prayer. Those who still have the option to choose whether to go to the masjid or not face a dilemma like Umar.
Those who do choose to go are acting on their definition of tawakkul (trust in Allah): “Allah will save me from the virus. He is All-Powerful.”
Those who choose not to go are acting on their definition of tawakkul:
“The Prophet (peace be upon him) told us to ‘tie our camel’ or take precautions first, and then rely on Allah to take care of the outcome.”
The first group sneers at the second: “Don’t you trust Allah? Is COVID-19 more powerful than Allah? You are an ostrich, a weak Muslim. Go hide in your closet. We trust Allah. We will go attend gatherings of others who trust Allah.”
And the second group gets confused.
Umar (ra) was confused too, until he reflected and reached a decision.
Umar Reaches a Decision
Some elders of the Qurayish advised the Caliph:
“We advise that you should return with the people and do not take them to that place of epidemic.”
Umar agreed with them. It was not only his own life that he would be risking.
He announced to everyone:
“I will ride back to Medina in the morning, so you should do the same.”
Commander Abu Ubaydah disagreed. He was a very old friend of Umar, and old friends can really get under your skin sometimes. He asked cheekily to Umar, “Running away from the decree of Allah, eh?”
Umar replied, “Abu Ubaydah, if only it were anyone other than you! Yes, we ARE fleeing from Allah’s decree – TOWARDS Allah’s decree.”
Meaning: “If I were to go to Sham, get infected and die, it would be Allah’s decree. If I were to return now to Madinah, it would still be Allah’s decree.”
Note that both Abu Ubaydah and Umar were very senior Companions, very close to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and among the Ten Promised Paradise.
Which of them would you go with?
What Tawakkul Means in an Epidemic
What does tawakkul or trusting Allah mean?
You depend on Him: Are you depending on Allah to take care of you when you’re deliberately risking your own health and life?
As Mufti Menk says in his lecture “Is Dua enough for Coronavirus”, about those who sat reading Surah Yasin during a fire, “Allah will tell you, ‘Didn’t I give you two legs for you to walk [away from the fire]?’”
You believe that He wants good for you: So does He want you to wilfully expose yourself to danger?
You trust in the wisdom of His advice: Okay, we all trust that His advice is the best. But what did He advise us to do during epidemics?
A Hadith Comes to Light at the Nick of Time
Back in 639 CE, Abdur Rahman Ibn al-Awf, another of the Ten Promised Paradise, entered the tent. He had been absent all this time.
Now he said:
“I have some knowledge about this. I have heard Allah’s Messenger saying:
If you hear about it (an outbreak of plague) in a land, do not go to it; but if plague breaks out in a country where you are staying, do not run away from it.’ ” (Bukhari)
End of story. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said it. Period. You can guess what happened next.
Umar went back to Madinah with his party. Abu Ubaydah went back to Sham with his party.
Does Allah want us to risk our lives and that of others during an epidemic in the name of not running away from His decree?
No! He gave us two legs to walk away from danger, not to walk towards it!
Does Allah want us to risk our lives and that of others during the COVID-19 pandemic in the name of tawakkul?
Your answer: ______________.
Here is a short but powerful piece of injunction from the Quran:
… And do not kill yourselves [or one another]. Indeed, Allah is to you ever Merciful. (4:29)
Allah is the Most Merciful. He is merciful to us.
Are we merciful to ourselves?