Islamic ‘Hygiene’ Prevents COVID-19? That's the Claim Muslims Around the World Are Making

Relatives mourn over the grave of former politburo official in the Revolutionary Guard Farzad Tazari, who died after being infected with the new coronavirus, at the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery just outside Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Mahmood Hosseini/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

The Islamic world—minus Shia Iran, a point to be addressed anon—is not suffering from COVID-19 the way non-Muslim nations are because Islam naturally makes Muslims “cleaner” than infidels.

Such is the contention Muslims around the world are currently making. Thus, the recent article, “Coronavirus – an Islamic Perspective,” begins as follows:

Allāh has blessed us with a religion that is complete and perfect for all times and places.  Allāh tells us in the Qur’ān:

“This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favour upon you and have approved for you Islam as your religion”

We also have in the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), the best of examples, as Allāh says in the Qur’ān:

“Surely there was a good example for you in the Messenger of Allāh”

Whatever problem or issue a Muslim is facing [the article goes on to talk about coronavirus], he returns back to Allāh and his Messenger for guidance; there is nothing that happens in the life of a Muslim except that his religion has a solution to it.

The idea is that those who follow Allah’s commandments (as recorded in the Koran) and the prophet’s example (as recorded in the hadith)—in a word, those who uphold sharia—will not suffer what infidels suffer, in this case, COVID-19.

The fact that coronavirus is plaguing Iran—to us, a “Muslim” nation, to Sunnis (who make up 90 percent of Islam) a “heretic” nation—is actually strengthening this argument: Shias reject most hadiths used by Sunnis—that is, they reject what most Muslims consider authentic records of Muhammad’s example—and are therefore suffering accordingly.

From television programs to social media, Muslims everywhere are trumpeting these convictions.  They are attributing the relatively small number of COVID-19 cases among Sunni nations to Islam’s ritual washing (wudu, which is apparently less stringent among Shias).  They are, moreover, boastfully reveling in a hadith where Muhammad reportedly said, “Cleanliness is from belief.” This, they say, is proof that the more Muslims submit to the teachings of Islam, the “cleaner”—and therefore healthier—they become.

Certainly any teaching or axiom that extolls cleanliness is praiseworthy; however, the scholars (ulema) of Islam maintain that this particular hadith is weak (da‘if), meaning Muhammad likely never spoke it.

This raises the question: what did Muhammad say about cleanliness, washing, or anything else that touches on the topic of avoiding disease—and in the authentic (or sahih) hadiths, particularly the two most canonical among Sunnis, Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim?

For starters, we learn that the reason for ritual washing has little to do with hygiene. According to a reliable hadith, Muhammad said that “Allah will not accept any of your prayers if you have an occurrence without performing wudu.” When asked to clarify what is meant by an “occurrence,” the hadith narrator (Abu Hurreira) replied: “silent or loud farts” (Sahih Bukhari, Kitab al-Wudu).

Flatulence, of course, has nothing to do with contracting or preventing disease; rather, as this hadith indicates, it has theological significance in Islam—that of annulling prayers unless “washed” away.

What about washing simply for good hygiene? Does Islam prescribe that? Another hadith would suggest not: “We were with the prophet, and he went to defecate.  Food was presented to him upon his return, and he was asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah, will you not wash?’ He replied, ‘Why? For prayer?’”  In a slightly different—and more explicit—version, he responded, “I only wash for prayer.”

Both hadiths are contained in the authentic collection of Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Hayd, under a chapter (baab) the very title of which is transparent enough: “Permissibility for whoever has defecated or urinated to eat without washing [performing wudu] immediately.”

Another similar hadith appears in the same baab: “The Prophet went to the bathroom.  Food was [then] presented to him, and he did eat, without [first] touching any water.”

Then there are those authentic hadith which extol practices that most certainly do spread disease.  “The prophet never hacked and spat out phlegm without it falling in the palm of one of them [his companions].  Whoever caught it would [then] rub his face and skin [with it]” (Sahih Bukhari, Kitab al-Wudu).  His companions also used to “fight over the [dirty] water he had washed with” (whether to rewash with or drink is unclear).

In another hadith, Muhammad had no problem if someone expectorated in a mosque—so long as it was not in “Allah’s face,” meaning not while facing the qibla, and that the one spitting expels his phlegm out to his left (never right) side.  If unable to do so, the prophet demonstrated what should be done: he “spit on his [own] robe and rubbed one part against the other,” apparently to smear or thin out the phlegm from the fabric (Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Masajid).

So much for “cleanliness is from belief.”

Then there’s this: “Sneezing is from Allah, but yawning from Satan,” the prophet declared (Sunan al-Tirmidhi), and “Allah loves sneezing but hates yawning.” The reason?  Because “Satan laughs at whoever yawns” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Adab).

Thus and despite the fact that sneezing is a notorious germ spreader, whereas yawning is innocuous—wisdom holds that what comes out of, not goes in, a man is frequently more dangerous—here is the prophet of Islam decreeing the opposite: that sneezing, which explodes contagious germs in all directions, is a splendid thing—literally loved by Allah—and therefore certainly not something to be shunned; meanwhile, yawning, which has zero impact on health, is to be zealously guarded against.

It should be stressed that this exposition has been less about shaming Muslims—the majority of whom are unaware of the aforementioned hadiths—and more about deflating ongoing propagandistic boasts that the more someone “believes”—and therefore follows (true) Islam—the “cleaner” and less prone to catching a disease they become.

That this is demonstrably false is obvious in other ways.  In 2012, only Saudi Arabia—the home of Islam and its holy cities—was plagued by another form of coronavirus (MERS-CoV), which spread to humans from camels (the urine of which Muhammad recommended his followers to drink for “therapeutic” purposes in yet another sahih hadith).  A whopping 40% of the more than one thousand Saudis who contracted it died.

No, it seems that when it comes to mortality and disease, we are all more or less in the same boat.  Or, to quote a wise king, “time and chance comes to them all.”

Note: All hadith translations in this article are my own and based on the original Arabic.  Special thanks go to Brother Rachid, a former Muslim well-acquainted with Islam and author most recently of The Ideology Behind Islamic Terrorism.

Raymond Ibrahim, author of Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, is Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, Judith Friedman Rosen Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute.