Spiritual Disease and Muslim Health

Bismillah-ir Rahman-ir Raheem
May Allah send peace and blessing upon our Prophet Muhammad

If you look at diseases, many are ones in which the carrier is contagious whether or not they exhibit any of the disease’s symptoms, for example: the cold, the flu, HIV, and strep throat (i). While the cold seems very innocuous, seemingly causing little discomfort (comparatively), the others are far more serious, even fatal. Further complicating the matter is that even after people become symptomatic; it is possible that they hide their illness. In both cases (an asymptomatic carrier and an infected carrier who hides the symptoms), the patient is infected and contagious though you fail to see symptoms manifest in the carrier’s health and well-being. Whether or not you wish, simply by being in their presence you expose yourself to the illness that they carry.

Furthermore, the risk to health dramatically increases the more one is exposed directly to the vectors of a disease’s transmission. For example, being in the same room and breathing the same air as someone with the flu but without symptoms exposes the person to a certain level risk (ii). However, sharing a soda or glass of water with the person results in a spike to one’s level of risk.

Again it must be stressed that this risk is very much real, even when symptoms are completely absent (or hidden by the carrier).

Now, the situation becomes more interesting when people become knowledgeable about the carriers of disease. When healthy people learn of another’s infection (regardless of symptoms), you will see them begin to change their behavior to minimize their risk of exposure. This is a sign of a person’s knowledge. Such an individual readily acknowledges that the disease can spread, that the infected individual has the disease, and as a result, the individual takes necessary actions to eliminate the vectors of transmission (according to that person’s understanding).

So for example, I am a knowledgeable person. I go about my daily business taking general care to avoid exposure to unknown harms. I wash my hands when necessary; I keep my desk clean, I am conscious of things I touch. However, if one day I go to work and learn that my co-worker has caught strep throat, though the person shows no symptoms, I become overly cautious around the co-worker. I may actively avoid speaking with or going near him or her. Should I find that I touched anything with which he or she had contact, I would make haste to the sink and wash my hands. Without a doubt I would not share a drink or morsel of food with the co-worker. In other words, my ‘prophylactic’ behavior quickly changes in light of my knowledge vis-a-vis the carrier of disease.

In Islam, spiritual diseases are so-called because they very much mirror the physical diseases that afflict humanity. For example, spiritual diseases are of different types, with differing levels of severity, and which have different vectors of transmission specific to different times and environments (iii). A lesser known fact (amongst Muslims) is that just like physical diseases, many spiritual diseases are highly contagious. They can spread from one person to another, even if the carrier (iv) does not actively exhibit the symptoms. This being the case, what are some basic, tangible behaviors we can engage in so that we avoid contracting a spiritual disease?

Before listing a few behaviors, which should be of immense benefit to faithful practitioners, one must point out that the topic of spiritual disease and how to cultivate spiritual health is far more lengthy a topic than this simple essay allows.

That said, to quickly optimize one’s health, we can review a few basic prophylactic (v) behaviors which if followed can result in a decrease in risk vis-a-vis contraction of spiritual disease.

Don’t knowingly expose yourself to a disease.

This precaution can be summed up as follows:
• Part 1: If you see people engaged in sin (i.e., people with symptoms of disease), avoid their company while they are sinning (vi). When the Watchfulness of Allah is neglected and sins are committed, the sheyateen are gathered about the people, encouraging them and feeding off of their ignorance and darknesses (vii).

• Part 2: Abstain from as much sin as is possible (viii). Don’t use the drugs, don’t steal the desired objects, don’t purposefully hurt others, don’t express your anger destructively, don’t speak ill of one another. Sinning is the action by which a disease first appears and then worsens in your spirituality (ix). Such behavior is tantamount to purposefully exposing oneself directly to the disease (breathing in the exhalation of a diseased person, sharing drinks with someone afflicted with the stomach flu, etc.). It is a time when the disease enters into you. This simple step however, can be quite difficult for many people. If you find yourself in this case (post-infection, having committed a sin), you can attempt to remove the contagion by taking some medication, of which the best is seeking repentance (x). Those with addictions (very bad diseases): don’t despair and abandon repentance (xi). That only worsens the disease to the point of hellfire (as despair in the Mercy of Allah is from the shaytan). Allah loves those who come to Him with a mountain of sins seeking forgiveness and Allah loves those who continually turn to Him in repentance. (xii) (xiii)

Avoid (or minimize exposure to) carriers of a spiritual disease, even if they do not exhibit symptoms.

It should be emphasized that the hearts of sickened people can spread their disease to your heart simply by proximity, whether or not they exhibit symptoms! (xiv) (xv)

Seek out and surround yourself with those who are not diseased themselves but are successful in curing and assisting the diseased. (xvi) (xvii)

The benefits of this action should be sought out even if you are in a horrible state yourself and given to sin as in the old adage: “Put a donkey into a cave of salt and over time the donkey turns to salt.” By associating with healers of disease, you make yourself available to treatment and allow for the identification of diseases and cancers in their infancy, before they explode, metastasize or otherwise threaten your inner stability. An added benefit to spending time with the pious is that you slowly absorb their spiritual knowledge (xviii). Some people have a hard time realizing the very real spiritual benefits of physical proximity to pious people. One example that best illustrates this noble truth is the hadith regarding the out-loud halaqa zhikr included in both Muslim and Bukhari, included in its entirety here for your benefit:

Our beloved Prophet (saw) said that there are special angels that roam the Earth, looking for gatherings of dhikr. When they find a group they call one another and encompass the gathering in layers until the first heaven. After the gathering glorifies Allah (swt) the angels return to their lord.

Allah (swt) asks His angels, Where have you been? (Even though He already knows; when one loves someone he loves hearing his name mentioned by others). The angels will inform Allah (swt) of the name of the gathering.

Allah (swt) will ask His angels “What were my servants doing?” The angels will reply: “They were praising You, magnifying Your Name and glorifying You.

Allah (swt) will ask them “Have they seen Me?” The angels will answer: “No, By Allah! They have not seen You.” Allah (swt) will say: “(They are praising Me without seeing Me,) what if they had seen Me” The angels would answer: “O Lord, if they had seen You, they would have glorified You more intensely.”

Allah (swt) will say: “What were they asking for?” The angels will reply “They were asking for Paradise!” Allah (swt) will say: “Have they seen Paradise?” The angels will say: “By Allah, no, they have not seen it.” Allah (swt) will say “What would they do if they had seen it?” The angels will reply: “If they had seen Paradise, they would become more attached and attracted to it, and would seek it with a greater zeal and enthusiasm!”

Allah would ask the angels “What were they seeking refuge from?” The angels will reply they were seeking refuge from the Hell (fire). Allah would then ask the angels: “Have they seen the Hell (fire)?” The angels will say: “By Allah, no, they have not seen it.” Allah will say “What would they do if they had seen it?” The angels will reply: “If they had seen the Hell (fire), they would fear it even more and ask refuge from it with greater intensity.

Then Allah will say to the angels I make you witnesses that I have forgiven them. One of the angels will say: “O my Lord, someone was there who did not belong to that group, but came for some other need.” (That person came for some purpose other than dhikr.) Allah will inform the angels that the benefits of sitting in a gathering of Dhikr are such that anyone who sits with them, for whatever reason, will also have his sins forgiven.”

Prevention is the best cure (an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure).

We know the benefit of eating right and the dangers of not eating properly, so to be healthy, we strive to eat the rights types of foods and avoid unhealthy foods. When the weather outside is cold, we dress well to keep our immune systems up. If the environment includes gases or other material hazardous to our health, we take the proper precautions such as medical masks, goggles, shields, etc. And we know that even if we fall victim to one disease, we continue to prevent ourselves from acquiring new diseases. In our society today, the best of prevention comes in the form of remembrance (zhikr) and deep contemplation (fikr).

Zhikrullah is such an important form of ibadaat that should one abandon it (naoozubillah), Allah assigns for them a personal shaytan (in addition to the one that normally whispers to them!) (xix). And one can view salat is a form of zhikr (xx), protecting you from all sorts of diseases (xxi). Furthermore, Prophet Muhammad (saw) was commanded to be with the types of people who make zhikr (Zakireen) (xxii). What a status the zakireen have, that Allah Himself commands His Servant to associate with them! Such an ibadaat that wards off shaytan and indeed attracts the foremost of Prophets must be inculcated.

Likewise, Fikr has such a high station, not only because it is mentioned in thousands of ayats (as a means of increasing one’s faith), but also because Allah many times upbraids unbelievers accusing them of not doing fikr (explaining that their lack of Fikr was cause for them going astray) (xxiii). Throughout the Qur’an, Allah reminds us that in all things, there are signs for believers who investigate and do fikr on them.

So for the sake of His promises as regards the benefits of fikr, and through just such a fikr on physical disease, it is hoped we obtain a deeper knowledge of spiritual disease. In conclusion, this small fikr on outward diseases and our behavior vis-à-vis their prevention affords us a measure of insight into the world of inner, spiritual diseases through which we navigate on a daily basis. May Allah grant us all success in warding off the spiritual diseases with which sheytan constantly tries to infect us, and may He lessen any diseases to which we may have fallen victim, AMIN Ya Rabb.

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[i] http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/spread.htm

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000678.htm

[iv] A carrier is someone infected with a disease.

[v] i.e., protective

[vi] Qur’an 4:140: “Already has He sent you Word in the Book, that when ye hear the signs of Allah held in defiance and ridicule, ye are not to sit with them unless they turn to a different theme: if ye did, ye would be like them. For Allah will collect the hypocrites and those who defy faith – all in Hell” Translation: Yusuf Ali.

[vii] Jabir bin ‘Abdullah (Rahmatu Allayhi) reported God’s Messenger as saying: When a person enters his house and mentions the name of God at the time of entering it and while eating the food, Satan says (addressing himself: You have no place to spend the night and no evening meal; but when he enters without mentioning the name of God, the Satan says: You have found a place to spend the night, and when he does not mention the name of God while eating food, he (the Satan) says: You have found a place to spend the night and evening meal. (Sahih Muslim, Book 23, Number 5006)

[viii] Qur’an 6:120: “Eschew all sin, open or secret: those who earn sin will get due recompense for their “earnings.” Translation: Yusuf Ali.

[ix] The Prophet said: “When a slave commits a sin, a black spot appears on his heart. But if he give it up, seeks forgiveness and repents, his heart will be cleansed, but if he repeats it, (the blackness) will increase until it overwhelms his heart. This is the raan which Allaah mentions: ‘Nay! But on their hearts is the Raan (covering of sins and evil deeds) which they used to earn’ [al-Mutaffifeen 83:14].” (Narrated by al-Tirmidhi, 3257; Ibn Maajah, 4234

[x] Ibid.

[xi] It was said to al-Hasan al-Basri (Rahmahtu Allayhi): Would not any one of us feel ashamed before his Lord to seek forgiveness from his sin then go back to it, then seek forgiveness then go back to it? He said: The Shaytan would like you to feel that way; never give up seeking forgiveness.

[xii] Abu Hurayrah (Rahmahtu Allayhi) reports that the Prophet said that his Lord said: “My slave commits sin, then he says, ‘O Allah, forgive me my sin.’ Then Allah says, ‘My slave has committed a sin, but he knows that he has a Lord Who forgives sin and takes away sin. So I forgive My slave.’ Then he commits sin again, and says, ‘O Allah, forgive me my sin.’ Then Allah says, ‘My slave has committed a sin, but he knows that he has a Lord Who forgives sin and takes away sin. So I forgive My slave.’ Then he commits sin again, and says, ‘O Allah, forgive me my sin.’ Then Allah says, ‘My slave has committed a sin, but he knows that he has a Lord Who forgives sin and takes away sin. So I forgive My slave.’ …” narrated Al-Bukhari (7507) and Muslim (2758).

[xiii] Al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (Rahmahtu Allayhi) said that Ibn Abi Dunya (Rahmahtu Allayhi) narrated that ‘Ali (Radi Allahu Anhu) said: “The best of you is every tempted one who repents (i.e., every time he is tempted by this world, he repents).” It was said, “What if he sins again?” He said, “He should ask Allah for forgiveness and repent.” It was said, “What if he sins again?” He said, “He should ask Allah for forgiveness and repent.” It was said, “What if he sins again?” He said, “He should ask Allah for forgiveness and repent.” It was said, “For how long?” He said, “Until the Shaytan is defeated.”

[xiv] Hasan Al-Basri (Rahmahtu Allayhi) said: “Do not sit with the companion of innovation; for verily he will sicken your heart.” [Al-Bi'dah wan Nahee 'Anhaa pg.54]

[xv] Related by Abu Musa (Rahmahtu Allayhi) who said that the Prophet said: “The example of a good pious companion and an evil one is that of a person carrying musk and another blowing a pair of bellows. The one who is carrying musk will either give you some perfume as a present, or you will buy some from him, or you will get a good smell from him, but the one who is blowing a pair of bellows will either burn your clothes or you will get a bad smell from him.” (Sahih Bukhari Vol: 7 No: 442)

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] .Qur’an 9:119: “O you who believe! Fear Allah, and be with those who are true (in words and deeds)” Translation: Yusuf Ali

[xviii] As footnote 15 above, Sahih Bukhari Vol: 7 No: 442

[xix] Qur’an 43:36-37 “If anyone withdraws himself from remembrance of (Allah)The Most Gracious, We appoint for him an evil one, to be an intimate companion to him. Such (evil ones) really hinder them from the Path, but they think that they are being guided aright!” Translation: Yusuf Ali

[xx] Qur’an 20:14: “So establish prayer for My remembrance.” Translation: Sahih International

[xxi] Qur’an 29:45: “…and establish Regular Prayer: for Prayer restrains from shameful and unjust deeds; and remembrance of Allah is the greatest (thing in life) without doubt. And Allah knows the (deeds) that ye do.” Translation: Yusuf Ali.

[xxii] Qur’an 18:28: “And keep yourself (O Muhammad) patiently with those who call on their Lord (i.e. your companions who remember their Lord with glorification, praising in prayers, and other righteous deeds) morning and afternoon, seeking His Face” Translation: Mohsin Khan

[xxiii] c.f. Qur’an 36:77 – 83

3 Responses to “Spiritual Disease and Muslim Health”

  1. Disease is divergence from the normal, gaussian mean, but not all deviation is disease because of the reserve capacity and ability of the body to adjust to variations. The demarcation between pathology and normal physiological variation can be fine. The definition of disease is very relative being affected by age, gender, culture, beliefs, socio-economic status, attitudes, and prevalence of diseases. Definition of disease considers several dimensions that may operate singly or in combination: moral or spiritual, biological or pathological, psychosocial, or normative statistical. Overall disease is a state of dis-equilibrium, khuruuj al badan ‘an al i’itidaal. A distinction must be made between disease as a pathological manifestation and illness that is a subjective feeling. Symptomatology is perhaps a better indication of disease severity because it includes the personality of the patient and reactions. Thus the same pathology does not produce the same symptomatology in all patients. Those with strong iman may complain less about pain than others. Prognosis is an empirical estimate of the future course of the disease based on available data and is not definitive because the final outcome is part of the knowledge of the unseen, ‘ilm al ghaib. The physician does not have the privilege to say anything definitive about the future prognosis. There is a 2-way interaction between diseases of the heart, amradh al qalb, and diseases of the body, amradh al badan. The Islamic position is to approach most diseases empirically and to be guided by experimental science. Islam rejects superstitious beliefs and practices in all their various forms and manifestations.

  2. These letters should strictly contain questions about spiritual diseases and their remedies. If however there is a mas’alah (Deeni question) related to one’s spiritual disease then there is no harm in mentioning it.

  3. Jolyn Grodi says:

    Great article.

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