‘May you live in interesting times’
Supposedly originating as a curse in Chinese, though used more colloquially as an expression in English – ‘May you live in interesting times,’ appears to be quite an apt descriptive phrase to chart the course of current events. Perhaps more so than usual, it carries with it an even bitter sense of irony.
Globally, the Coronavirus, or rather the specific strain called Covid-19, has in the face of a very short space of time, not only dominated pretty much all discourse, but resulted in severe restrictive measures being imposed on a sizeable portion of humanity at large. Outside of major international conflict, the restrictive measures that have been swiftly imposed upon populations are unprecedented in modern times. Media outlets report death tolls across continents by the hour; politicians reinforce their policy adoptions by the force of security agencies, and an international billionaire with a messiah-like complex, positions to think of himself as the ‘saviour of humanity.’
Although, unlike other forms of contagion witnessed in history, such as the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages, or the Spanish Flu of 1918, the death-toll in numbers is not at present what could be construed as reaching ‘apocalyptic’ levels. That said, one key message that is being reinforced throughout almost all mainstream media platforms, much to the delight of nefarious political forces, is a primordial, at times pathological, fear.
Trial by contagion?
During times of monumental upheaval, one can unwittingly be carried by the tide of events. To many, these events can seem to take on a life of their own; like a tidal current, pulling all along with it, drowning many, casting others to the rocks. And yet it is in these very times of adversity, that the wheat is separated from the chaff.
Collectively, as the nation professing the message of the last Prophet sent to all mankind, we publicly claim adherence to the divine unaltered revelation that he, peace be upon him, brought. Tests, trials or even the turbulence of a perceived pandemic, shouldn’t cause the message in that revelation to be relegated to the extent that even the most basic fundamental principles it outlines are not in the forefront of our minds or even oft-repeated. Being put to a test or trial, is a core message recurring throughout the Qur’ānic text:
ولنبلونكم بشيء من الخوف والجوع ونقص من الأموال والأنفس والثمرات وبشر الصابرين
الذين إذا أصابتهم مصيبة قالوا إنا لله وإنا إليه راجعون
And We will most certainly test you with something of fear and hunger; loss of property and lives and fruits; and give good news to the patient, Who, when a misfortune befalls them, say: Indeed, we belong to Allah and indeed to Him we will return [2: 155/156]
This is not the first and by no means will it be the last tribulation that we may witness during the course of our lifetime. While its effect and ramifications may well be profound, and even more far reaching than many would be willing to countenance, the very fact that the Qur’ān stipulates that tests will be made of us, should help to equip our mindset with the fortitude to endure it.
لا يكلف الله نفسا إلا وسعها
On no soul does Allah place a burden greater than it can bear [2: 186]
أحسب الناس أن يتركوا أن يقولوا آمنا وهم لا يفتنون ولقد فتنا الذين من قبلهم فليعلمن الله الذين صدقوا وليعلمن الكاذبين
Do people think they will be left alone after saying ‘We believe’ without being put to the test? We tested those who went before them: Allah will certainly mark out which ones are truthful and which are lying [29: 2/3]
Fear of the dark?
One can rather easily be caught up in the daily cacophony of fear that the mainstream media manufactures. Yet solace from the primordial fear of dying, particularly from a perceived pandemic, cannot be achieved in a maelstrom of messages that are devoid from reference to revelation. One need only look to the number of scare stories being circulated across social media platforms to see that. Emphasising this point though is not to make light of the pain that is naturally felt through bereavement. But the solace we have comes ultimately from the message delivered to us from the one who created all that exists – including life and death.
Death is the great leveller which will come to us all. From the moment that we are born we are taking one step, day by day, to our eventual demise. Whether we are to die young or old, from serious illness or even contagion, there is ultimately no escape. But the final revelation furnishes us with this understanding succinctly: that life and death have been created to try us; that the present life is not all that there is to existence. Beyond the realm of this world lies a hereafter to which we are all, inextricably, heading towards.
تبارك الذي بيده الملك وهو على كل شيء قديرالذي خلق الموت والحياة ليبلوكم أيكم أحسن عملا وهو العزيز الغفور
Blessed is He in whose hand lays the dominion, and He has power over all things. Who created death and life that He may try which of you is the best in deeds; and He is the mighty, the forgiving [67: 1/2]
كل نفس ذائقة الموت وإنما توفون أجوركم يوم القيامة فمن زحزح عن النار وأدخل الجنة فقد فاز وما الحياة الدنيا إلا متاع الغرور
Every soul shall taste of death, and you shall only be paid fully your reward on the resurrection day; then whoever is removed far away from the fire and is made to enter the garden he indeed has attained the object. The life of this world is but the comfort of illusion [3: 185]
Fear of death also carries with it other, indeed wider, profound ramifications. As we read in the eloquent tradition reported in the Sunan of Abu Dāwud al-Sijistāni, the Prophet peace be upon him forewarned of the calamitous implications that such enervation would bring:
حدثنا عبد الرحمن بن إبراهيم الدمشقي حدثنا بشر بن بكر حدثنا ابن جابر حدثني أبو عبد السلام عن ثوبان، قال قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم يوشك الأمم أن تداعى عليكم كما تداعى الأكلة إلى قصعتها فقال قائل ومن قلة نحن يومئذ قال بل أنتم يومئذ كثير ولكنكم غثاء كغثاء السيل ولينزعن الله من صدور عدوكم المهابة منكم وليقذفن الله في قلوبكم الوهن فقال قائل يا رسول الله وما الوهن قال حب الدنيا وكراهية الموت
Abdur-Raḥman ibn Ibrāhim al-Dimishqi narrated to us Bishr ibn Bakr narrated to us Ibn Jābir narrated to us Abu ‘Abd-al-Sallām narrated to me from Thawbān he said the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him said: The people will soon summon one another to attack you as people when eating invite others to share their dish. Someone asked: Will that be because of our small numbers at that time? He replied: No, you will be numerous at that time: but you will be like the rubbish that is carried down by a torrent, and Allah will take fear of you from the breasts of your enemy and cast ‘wahn’ into your hearts. Someone asked: What is ‘wahn’, O Messenger of Allah? He replied: Love of the world and dislike of death.
Circulating anonymous, often unverified information, most notably via social media, helps often inadvertently, to the climate of fear that is continually being programmed by government forces. That in turn, is solidified in mass consciousness by a passive, uncritical mainstream media. Greater diligence is required not simply to push back against this tide overall, but remain steadfast to the principle injunction we are instructed with, namely, to verify information:
يا أيها الذين آمنوا إن جاءكم فاسق بنبإ فتبينوا أن تصيبوا قوما بجهالة فتصبحوا على ما فعلتم نادمين
O you who believe! If an evil-doer comes to you with a report, verify it, lest you harm a people in ignorance then be sorry for what you have done [49: 6]
Helping to promote or circulate anonymous, unverified information can become even more calamitous, particularly when that is directly attributed to the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him. Although not peculiar to present events, memes are often circulated attributing unverified or untraceable statements to the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him. Often these are devoid of the original Arabic text; the channel of transmission (isnād), the primary companion narrating it from the Prophet peace be upon him, and which collection it has been cited from. Caution should always be exercised lest a commonplace false statement becomes directly attributed into revelation. The warning is indeed stark, as noted by a great many traditions in the corpus of Prophetic Sunnah, an example being:
وحدثنا محمد بن عبيد الغبري حدثنا أبو عوانة عن أبي حصين عن أبي صالح عن أبي هريرة قال قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم من كذب علي متعمدا فليتبوأ مقعده من النار
(Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim) And Muḥammad ibn ‘Ubaid al-Ghubary narrated to us Abu ‘Awānah narrated to us from Abi Haṣin from Abi Ṣāliḥ from Abu Hurayrah, he said the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him said: Whoever lies upon me intentionally, then let him take his seat in the fire.
A false equivalence
Pandemics, epidemics, contagion, is not something that has been obviated from the texts of revelation altogether. Many Prophetic traditions make mention of ‘Ṭā’un’ – plague, contagion. Arguably one of the most well-known traditions in this regard is to be found in Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhāri.
حدثنا إسحاق أخبرنا حبان حدثنا داود بن أبي الفرات حدثنا عبد الله بن بريدة عن يحيى بن يعمر عن عائشة، زوج النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم أنها أخبرتنا أنها سألت رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم عن الطاعون فأخبرها نبي الله صلى الله عليه وسلم أنه كان عذابا يبعثه الله على من يشاء، فجعله الله رحمة للمؤمنين، فليس من عبد يقع الطاعون فيمكث في بلده صابرا، يعلم أنه لن يصيبه إلا ما كتب الله له، إلا كان له مثل أجر الشهيد
Isḥāq narrated to us Ḥabbān reported to us Dāwud ibn Abi Furāt narrated to us Abdullah ibn Buraydah narrated to us from Yaḥya ibn Ya’mar from ‘Aisha, wife of the Prophet peace be upon him, that she asked the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him about Ṭā’un (plague, contagion) and the Messenger of Allah informed her saying: Ṭā’un was a punishment which Allah used to send on whom He wished, but Allah made it a mercy for the believers. None remains patient in a land in which Ṭā’un has broken out and considers that nothing will befall him except what Allah has ordained for him, but that Allah will grant him a reward similar to that of a martyr.
This is an incredibly important tradition that should be read more than once not only to discern the deep wisdom that it outlines, but to take heed from the solace that it also provides. Another famous tradition, again cited by Bukhāri, relates to an epidemic breaking out in the region of Syria, during the time of the second-Caliph, Umar.
حدثنا عبد الله بن يوسف أخبرنا مالك عن ابن شهاب عن عبد الله بن عامر، أن عمر خرج إلى الشأم فلما كان بسرغ بلغه أن الوباء قد وقع بالشأم، فأخبره عبد الرحمن بن عوف أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قال إذا سمعتم به بأرض فلا تقدموا عليه وإذا وقع بأرض وأنتم بها فلا تخرجوا فرارا منه
Abdullah ibn Yusuf narrated to us Mālik reported to us from Ibn Shihāb from Abdullah ibn ‘Aāmir that Umar went to Shām and when he reached Sargh, he got the news that an epidemic had broken out. `Abdur-Raḥman ibn `Auf told him that the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him said: If you hear that it 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.
Authentic traditions such as these set out general guidance concerning the approach to contagion. However, there has been a dangerous trend of late to try and seek to equate Prophetic guidance in this regard to the political actions of modern secular states. Some have even been trying to read into traditions what frankly isn’t there. Such an approach is gravely mistaken. There is a chasm between the mercy sent to mankind, the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, and the malevolent, unjust cliques that wield power oppressively over humanity.
Political viruses can be just as deadly as those at the microscopic level. One need only look to the history of the twentieth century to see how much incalculable suffering many of humanity endured being on the receiving end of such political contagion. Is, as the phrase has been coined, history about to repeat itself? Time will only tell. What can be discerned, is that there are dark political forces across the globe which are preparing the ground for enabling a level of surveillance tyranny unseen before in human history. The speed with which draconian restrictive measures have been introduced by governments, perhaps shows that commitment to the idea of human liberty, as opposed to slavery, is only skin-deep.
Even the most oppressive political regimes in recent living memory did not have the technological tools now being proposed at their disposal. While a sizeable proportion of people may even clamour to gleefully submit in servitude, here again, reference to the final revelation must be made paramount. The final revelation brought forth by the mercy sent to mankind, categorically stands in opposition to the very idea of mass surveillance.
Salvation does not reside in the nightmare scenario of an all-encompassing tyrannical surveillance, whether that is borne in the East or soon to be imported into the West. Salvation is only to be found in the divine guidance that has been sent to all of mankind. That is only antidote to the unyielding injustice that humanity finds itself subjected to.
قل هذه سبيلي أدعو إلى الله على بصيرة أنا ومن اتبعني وسبحان الله وما أنا من المشركين
Say: This is my way: I call to Allah with certain knowledge, I and whosoever follows me, glory be to Allah, and I am not one of the polytheists [12: 108]