Patience, sacrifice and zakat: An Islamic response to coronavirus

Muslim communities in the UK have been hard hit, but during Ramadan, the principle of zakat is a source of strength.

Islamic way to endure pandemic opinion/Iqbal Nasim
A volunteer dispenses hand sanitiser to devotees attending Friday prayers at Birmingham Central Mosque on March 13, 2020 in Birmingham, England [Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

Behind the coronavirus death toll numbers are individual stories of trauma and tragedy for family members and friends. 

Among the deceased in the United Kingdom are staff members of the National Health Service (NHS) who have succumbed to the virus.

The fact that they died from the very disease from which they were trying to save others is particularly poignant. Many of the doctors who have been 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. Although Muslims are not synonymous with an ethnic minority, many Muslims are from backgrounds that have been shown to be more vulnerable than others to the virus.

For example, British Muslims are over-represented in the medical field.

But even 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 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, 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 of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak.

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 is hard, whether that is 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 to forget 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 percent of their liquid assets each year to the needy. This is not just charity – it is a core duty and one that “purifies” the rest of our wealth. 

Zakat has played an important role in the UK, where the National Zakat Foundation’s quick-access hardship relief grants to destitute people more than doubled.

And now it is the month of Ramadan, a time when the community usually comes together and mosques and homes are even more lively.

This year has been different. The mosques have been closed and many families have recently buried loved ones. Ramadan, with its discipline of fasting, has played a more important role than ever in helping us develop further our capacity for patience and sacrifice. 

As humanity suddenly finds itself in a long war against coronavirus, many will look inwards and ask searching questions about purpose and meaning in their lives.

Perhaps we can all draw inspiration from the spiritual values that can help us through the loss of both lives and livelihoods in these most trying of times.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.