By Daisy Khan
When I finally heard my friend’s voice on the other end of the phone, neither of us knew yet whether she would live or die. Maria had been in the hospital for several days, but the novel coronavirus kept tightening its grip on her lungs. Just the other week, she was a healthy woman with a young family. Now, she strained to speak to me about all the things she still wanted to do with her life.
What type of reassurance could help a person in her situation? Lacking a miracle cure to prescribe her, or extra protective clothing for her caregivers, there was one source of comfort we could turn to: our shared Islamic faith. “You know, Maria, you’ll either get a second chance at life” I said, as I pictured her returning to her aspirations with the freshness of a newborn, free of sin. “Or you’ll get immediate entry into heaven. That’s the reward of a martyr.”
The Islamic concept of martyrdom has much to teach us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, about our current situation. Though the word “martyr” has been terribly distorted in mainstream America by extremists from across the political spectrum, its original meaning refers to anyone who suffers while bearing witness to the ways of God. Far from restricting martyrdom to death during combat, Prophet Muhammad said: "Five are regarded as martyrs: they are those who die because of plague, abdominal disease, drowning or in a collapsing building, and those who sacrifice themselves in God’s cause.” Islamic tradition also honors as martyrs those who are executed for protesting unjust rulers, women who die during childbirth, and students who are killed in the course of their studies. In such cases, a person who displays divine values through their actions – values such as righteousness, procreation, the pursuit of knowledge, and communal life – is revered as a Shaheed, one who bears “eyewitness” to the reality of God.
This idea, as with Islam as a whole, expands upon the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Acts of the Apostles, for example, those who were willing to endure persecution for spreading the message of Christ were described by the Greek term mártys, meaning “witness” or “testimony.” Their suffering was not, of course, a sign of divine punishment against them - but what about the victims of natural disasters, which sometimes appear to manifest God’s wrath? Here too we cannot judge that tragedy implies guilt. In the Book of Exodus, both the guilty and the innocent suffered under the fearful plagues of Egypt; the purpose of these afflictions was not simply to punish transgressions, but to exhibit the signs, wonders, and sovereignty of the Almighty.
It is often the righteous who suffer most in this world, and to recognize this is not to accept injustice passively, but to separate the idea of earthly fortune from that of moral worth. Who could be more worthy than our healthcare providers, despite their vulnerability to this horrific disease? Likewise the essential workers in government and business who are maintaining the vital functions of our society, even if underequipped and underpaid? Even those of us sitting vigil in our homes have sacrificed, in observance of a higher good, the celebration of holidays and the closeness of loved ones. Most tragically, families of the dying must abruptly cope with the absence of visitations and the suspension of funerals. It is the poverty-stricken, vulnerable, and oppressed who suffer most, however, as the ability to socially distance, work from home, or even wash our hands are privileges. This pandemic is a plight we all share in our own ways, and while some will be rewarded for waiting patiently indoors to stifle the virus’ spread, others will be rewarded for risking their own safety to directly help those in need.
Enduring such sacrifices, people across the world are acting together to overcome this coronavirus in what can be considered a global act of martyrdom. For those of us drawing inwards to our homes, this is a time for not only protection, but reflection, which allows us to bear witness to the power of God’s creation and invites us to align with its ways. As the Dean of Cambridge Muslim College, Hakim Murad has said, Muslims should consider this to be a 40-day retreat before Ramadan, and seize the benefits of seclusion and detachment. In this contemplative global witnessing, key divine truths become self-evident, as explained by the 13th century Egyptian mystic and jurist Ibn Attalah, who urged us to perceive “God and creation as two aspects of one reality, reflecting each other and depending on one another.” What is our pivotal moment of stillness revealing about the state of creation? Seeing marine life become visible in unclouded waters, and smogged skies give way to starlight, we are forced to consider our place in nature - and how much more disruption and grief will result if we continue to exploit it insatiably. My friend Maria, after two weeks in the most dire distress of her life, received a second chance. We, witnessing such awe-inspiring chaos and quiet - the signs and wonders of this pandemic - are receiving ours.