Three questions related to the on-going pandemic

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi

Being vaccinated while fasting:

I have been asked about whether it is lawful to take the covid-19 vaccine while fasting. For some people, the chance to be vaccinated will come during the fasting month of Ramadan, and they are wondering if they should try to postpone their appointments.

Sawm (fasting) means ‘abstaining from’. As a term of fiqh, sawm means abstaining from eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse from first light to sunset. Whoever, while fasting, deliberately eats or drinks (either to nourish himself or as a medicine) or deliberately has sexual intercourse, has committed a grave sin. We should bear in mind that (alongside circumstances like pregnancy and difficult journeys) in cases of severe, life-threatening illnesses, fasting is not obligatory and is, indeed, discouraged. In such cases the missed days of fasting in Ramadan must be made up as soon as the illness has passed or has become manageable without taking medicines every few hours.

The injection of medicine into a muscle or vein does not constitute eating or drinking because the medicine does not enter the body by mouth, the normal way that we eat and drink. It may very reasonably be compared to moisture seeping in through the skin, which does not amount to eating or drinking and which, if it happens, does not break one’s fast. So long as there is no intent, by means of the injection, to seek relief from the hardship of not eating and drinking during the day, then it is lawful. Self-evidently, if any vaccination were to be used as a substitute for food or drink, then it would be a grave sin and the fast would be invalid.

In sum, taking the covid-19 vaccine while fasting in Ramadan or outside of Ramadan does not invalidate the fast because it is for a legitimate medical purpose, necessary for the individual and society, and by no means a substitute for nourishment. Nor can it be likened to taking medicines by mouth. Muslims should not therefore seek to delay their vaccinations on account of fasting.

Women attending funeral prayers:

During lockdown the number of people allowed to attend funeral prayers has been severely restricted. Some have asked whether it is right for women to attend funeral prayers, perhaps having in mind the possibility, if it is not right, of enabling more men to attend.

Attending the funeral (janazah) prayer is prescribed for men and women alike. Abu Hurayrah narrates that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said:

“Whoever attends a funeral until he offers the prayer will have one qirat of reward, and whoever attends until the deceased is buried will have two qirats.” He was asked, “O Messenger of Allah, what are the two qirats?” He said, “Like two great mountains”.

(Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim)

The scale of reward is a measure of the importance of the duty, and there is no reason to suppose the duty and the reward are any less for women than for men.

The Prophet, peace be upon him, never forbade women to attend the funeral prayer or any other prayer, whether offered in a mosque, a house or an open space. Women used to offer the funeral prayer with the Prophet, peace be upon him, in his mosque, and they did so after his lifetime. `A’ishah narrates that when Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas died, the wives of the Prophet, asked if the funeral could be brought to the mosque so that they too could pray over him. (Sahih Muslim)

The difficult circumstances of lockdown restrictions, intended to help contain the pandemic, should not be exploited to prevent Muslim women from exercising their rights and duties as Muslims.

Women visiting graves:

As with attending the funeral prayers, people are asking if, in the circumstances of lockdown, women may be discouraged from visiting graves, because that makes more space for men to do so.

Visiting graves is a sunnah, because the Prophet, peace be upon him, used to visit the graveyard of Madinah regularly, and he instructed and exhorted people to do so. `Abdallah ibn Buraydah reported from his father that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: “I had forbidden you to visit graves, but now you may visit them. It will remind you of the hereafter.” (Sahih Muslim)

Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani says: “There is no harm in visiting graves to say prayers for the dead, and for the remembrance of the hereafter. This is the opinion of Abu Hanifah.” (K. al-Athar, 68)

It is certainly permissible for women to visit graves as long as they behave with calm and dignity, as men also are required to do. The purpose of visiting graves is to remember the hereafter, which is something women need to do no less or more than men.

A number of hadiths indicate that it is allowed for women to visit graves. `A’ishah reported:

“I asked: ‘What should I say when I pass by a graveyard, O Messenger of Allah?’ He replied, ‘Say: Peace be upon the believing men and women dwelling here. May Allah grant mercy to those who have preceded us and those who are to follow them. Certainly, if Allah has willed it, we will join you’ ”

(Sahih Muslim)

Muhammad al-Baqir narrates that Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet, peace be upon him, used to visit the grave of Hamzah every Friday. (`Abd al-Razzaq, al-Musannaf, iii. 572)

`Abdullah ibn Abi Mulaykah is reported to have said:

“Once `A’ishah returned after visiting the graveyard. I asked, ‘O Mother of the Believers, where have you been?’ She said: ‘I went out to visit the grave of my brother `Abd al-Rahman’. I asked her: ‘Didn’t the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, prohibit visiting graves?’ She said, ‘Yes, he did forbid visiting graves during the early days, but later on he ordered us to visit them’.”

(al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, i. 532)

However, if a woman cannot be patient and calm at the graveside, she should not go there. Anas reported:

“The Prophet, peace be upon him, passed by a woman crying by the grave of her son, and said to her, ‘Fear Allah, and be patient’. She replied, ‘What do you care about my tragedy?’ When he went away, someone said to her, ‘Indeed, that was the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him’. The woman immediately went to the Prophet’s house, where she did not find any guards. She called out: ‘O Messenger of Allah, I did not recognise you’. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘Patience is surely needed at the time of the first affliction’.”

(Sahih al-Bukhari; Sahih Muslim)

From these and other reports it should be clear that it is how a person behaves at the graveside that determines whether it is right for them to go there or not. A dignified patience with the will of Allah, petitioning Him and Him alone for forgiveness for the dead and for oneself, calm and steady reflection on the destiny of all mortals and on what awaits them hereafter – these are are the manners and motives that, whether for men or for women, determine whether they should or should not visit graves.

A general reflection

The three questions I have just responded to do have something in common. Behind each of them is a worry that, because someone somewhere at some time may abuse a permission, it is best to annul the permission and thereby prevent any abuse of it.

But that does not accord with the spirit and temperament of Islam as passed down to us through the teaching and example of the Messenger of Allah, upon him be peace. When a man reported that he had seized and kissed a woman in the marketplace, the Prophet did not then rule that the marketplace should be shut down or that women should be excluded from it so that no man would ever be subject to the temptation that the man had just confessed. Rather, the Prophet, upon him be peace, declared that the man had indeed done a bad deed, but that good deeds (specifically, attending the prayers) undo and prevent bad deeds, so he should be more committed to doing good deeds.

Certainly, it is possible that someone somewhere may at some time abuse the permission to accept a medically necessary injection by injecting himself with some form of food and drink to ease his way through the fast. It is hard to imagine this happening but it is theoretically possible. But that possibility is no excuse for preventing the individual and collective benefit of vaccination during a pandemic. Such vaccination is a necessity, and – to the extent that Allah has willed – a rare, one-time necessity. Not to permit it opens the door to very serious harm to public health.

In the well-known hadith summarised just above, the benefits of an open marketplace where men and women are going about their lawful activities cannot be sacrificed to block the sort of temptation and bad deed reported to the Prophet. No, it is far better to ensure that places for prayer are present in and around the marketplace – and that is what we find in most urban settings designed by Muslims. Often, the better solution is not to block a way to do bad deeds, but to open and multiply the ways to do good.

If any Muslim were to despair of holding himself to the discipline of fasting to such a degree that he would try to comfort himself by taking an injection of food or water, while pretending to others that this was medicinal, he would in reality not be comforted very well or very long. Sooner or later, he would hide himself away somewhere in order to eat and drink in the normal way. Doing so would be, as well as a humiliation for him and a proof of weakness, grievously sinful, especially in that he forgets that the fasting is for Allah, from whom there can be no hiding away of any kind, ever.

It is very obvious that the public benefit of vaccination during pandemic and of keeping marketplaces open for business far outweighs the possible private benefit of preventing some weak individuals from yielding to their weaknesses. But what of the two other situations, relating to women attending funeral prayers and visiting graves?

The harm from forbidding women to attend funerals or visit graves is not so obvious. But it is perhaps greater and deeper and longer-lasting. First of all, doing so imposes as a religious ruling something that departs from established practice during and after the lifetime of the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, and his clear instruction. Such departure can never be justified outside of very compelling short-term necessities, and is itself forbidden unless explicitly confined to specified conditions of time and place. 

Secondly, forbidding any Muslims (male or female) to exercise the rights and duties given them by Allah and His Messenger implicitly denies the finality and sufficiency of the teaching of Qur’an and Sunnah. And finally, forbidding women to attend funerals or visit graves just because they are women implies a belief that women are not capable of the manners and motives appropriate for attending funerals and visiting graves. Such a belief not only cannot be justified from the Qur’an and Sunnah, it is directly and copiously contradicted by them. Accordingly, to act on that belief does incalculable harm to the relations between men and women, to their understanding of their religious dignity and authority, to their attitudes to religious practice, and to their relationship with Allah. All of that constitutes public and private harms on a scale that cannot be measured.