More than 200,000 people have died from the COVID-19 virus around the world. In the UK, the death toll in hospitals alone passed 22,000 at the time of publication. Behind these numbers are individual stories of trauma and tragedy for thousands more family members and friends. Among those who have died, many staff members of the National Health Service (NHS) have succumbed to the virus.
The fact that these heroes died from contracting the very disease from which they have been trying to save others is particularly poignant. Many of the doctors to be killed by the virus in the UK were experienced medics with decades of service behind them. And many of them were Muslims.
This is an example of the disproportionate effect that the pandemic has had on Muslims. It is now widely recognised that this is the reality for other minorities. Although Muslims are not synonymous with an ethnic minority, many Muslims are from backgrounds that are more vulnerable than most to the effects of the virus.
For example, British Muslims are over-represented in the medical field. “Doctor” is one of the most respectable titles someone can have in the ethnic minority cultures which constitute the majority of Muslims in the UK.
There may also be a faith-based reason as to why so many Muslims become doctors. The sanctity of human life is central in Islam. In an oft-quoted phrase in the Qur’an, God says: “Whoever saves one life, it is as if they have saved all of mankind.”
Beyond the NHS, coronavirus seems to have hit the Muslim community in the UK particularly hard. One of the country’s youngest victims, Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, died at the age of just 13 with no family members allowed to be present in his final moments.
Because of the close-knit nature of many large Muslim families, as well as frequent religious gatherings that will have been taking place before social distancing came into full force, some have warned that virus transmission in the community is likely to have been higher than in broader society.
There is also the devastating financial impact. Even before COVID-19 struck, it was the case that Muslims were more than twice as likely to be in poverty than others in Britain. With widespread job losses and bereavements, thousands will be pushed to despair. A high proportion of Muslims are self-employed, a group that will have to wait until June to receive government financial assistance from a support package announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last month.
In the midst of all this trauma, many Muslims are turning to their faith for hope and inspiration. One key concept that we are reminded of, and that has been exemplified by the doctors who have lost their lives, is that of sacrifice.
This sacrifice is built largely on the Islamic concept of Sabr. Sabr is to have the patience to persist in doing the right thing even when it’s hard, whether that’s heading into a disease-ridden ward for a gruelling night shift or enduring self-isolation.
Sabr is also resistance in the face of temptation – such as the temptation to stockpile key supplies and forgetting the needs of others in the rush to take care of oneself.
Patience and sacrifice are in the DNA of Islam. The most obvious symbol of Muslim faith practice - the five daily prayers - is a sacrifice of time that reminds us of life’s fleeting nature and “purifies” the rest of our daily activities.
Zakat, which is effectively a Muslim “wealth tax,” is a sacrifice of wealth. Muslims around the world pay 2.5% of their liquid assets each year to the needy. This isn’t just charity - it is a core duty and one that “purifies” the rest of our wealth.
Just as Zakat has helped in the fight against coronavirus in Pakistan – by helping those who are out of work - it has also played a pivotal role in the UK, where the National Zakat Foundation’s quick-access hardship relief grants to destitute Britons have more than doubled in the last month.
And now Muslims are approaching the month of Ramadan. It’s a time when the community usually comes together and mosques and homes are even more lively. This year will be different. The mosques will almost certainly be closed and many families will have recently buried loved ones. Ramadan, with its discipline of fasting, will play a more important role than ever in helping us develop further our capacity for patience and sacrifice.
As humanity suddenly finds itself at the start of a long war against coronavirus, many will look inwards and ask themselves searching questions about purpose and meaning in their lives.
Perhaps we can all draw inspiration from spiritual values that can help us through the loss of both lives and livelihoods in these most trying of times.
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