A boy reads the Quran in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by: Ayene / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

Over the past year, the National Muslims COVID-19 Response Committee in Kenya has encouraged people across the country to social distance, wear masks, quarantine, increase hand-washing, and support one another through this challenging year. But its job has not been easy.

At the onset of the pandemic, a 13-year-old Muslim boy was killed by a stray bullet from a police officer violently enforcing the country’s curfew. Separately, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Nairobi, Eastleigh, was specifically targeted in the city for a lockdown, preventing movement in and out of the area after a spike in the number of COVID-19 positive cases, putting a strain on local businesses.

The lockdown was announced the day after the committee had worked tirelessly to convince people in the neighborhood to trust the government's approach and get tested.

“The people lost trust in us,” said Mohamed Karama, chair of the committee.

But despite the challenges, he says they have made progress. One of the strategies they use is identifying a series of verses and sayings from Islamic texts to help Muslim communities in the country to understand the pandemic better and encourage people to adhere to public health measures. It then trains Imams across the country who relay this information to communities.

“I think the most important thing is for Muslims to be able to contextualize religion into the pandemic,” Karama said. “It's not enough for us just to use the public health guidelines. We have to look to support from the scriptures.”

He said that other organizations, including those of different faiths, can use similar messaging when creating programming to connect with people about the pandemic.

“Packaging all of these [Islamic texts and health] messages together made it easy for us to access the Muslim community and their acceptance of our efforts.”

— Mohamed Karama, chair, National Muslims COVID-19 Response Committee

COVID-19 as a punishment or test

To better understand what is happening, the committee has seen that Muslim communities in Kenya have looked at COVID-19 as either a test on humanity or punishment for bad deeds, Karama said. This is found in these texts:

“Evil will not be evident and will be conducted openly except that plagues will be flashed on them and diseases that were never seen in populations before them in the past.” Hadith Ibn Majah 4019.

“And certainly we shall test you with something of fear, hunger, loss of wealth, lives and fruit but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere.” Quran 2:155.

This last verse was “very, very relevant to COVID,” Karama said, adding that “it was possible for us to convince the Muslim community that if we take it as a test ... God says he gives good tidings to those who persevere through this in a positive way.”

Avoiding the disease

The committee has also turned to Islamic practices in promoting infection control. For example, Islam instructs people to wash their hands five times per day for prayer, Karama said, adding that the Quran encourages precaution: “O you who believe, take your precaution.” Quran 4:71.

The committee also promoted the idea that it is not enough for people to rely purely on Allah, but they need to play an active role in prevention, Karama said.

“Run away from plague the way you would have run from a lion.” Bukhari 5707 and Ahmad 9722. In these sayings, "running away means taking all the necessary precautions to ensure that you do not contract disease," Karama said.

Vaccination

The committee promotes the use of vaccines — in particular the AstraZeneca and University of Oxford developed vaccine because it is available in Kenya — by using the Islamic principle that “you should not do any harm to anybody and no harm should be done unto you,” Karama said.

But he said the task ahead in the coming months is challenging because there are many conspiracy theories associated with vaccines. Over 325,500 people have been vaccinated in Kenya. The country received just over 1 million doses through the COVAX Facility at the beginning of March.

He is optimistic, though, about the power of using Islamic texts to promote COVID-19 vaccines. He did a small survey of 30 people in a community in Kenya who initially said they would not take a vaccine. After they were given information that linked religious principles to the vaccine, 28 of these people changed their minds and agreed to take a vaccine.

He said the committee will also promote the Islamic principle that says that if something’s benefits are higher than the risks, people can move forward with a practice, Karama said.

Quarantine and flexibility

The committee has used Islamic texts to promote quarantine as salvation for believers, Karama said, referencing a text where the Prophet Muhammad’s wife asked him about the plague:

“He told me that it was a punishment sent by Allah on whom he wished, and Allah made a source of mercy for the believers, for if one in the time of an epidemic plague stays in his country patiently hoping for Allah’s reward and believing that nothing will befall him except what Allah has written for him, he will get the reward of a martyr.” Bukhari 3474.

There are also principles of Islam that also call for flexibility when necessary, Karama said, adding that this is important to emphasize when the pandemic creates circumstances where religious practices might increase transmission.

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Karama said that the messaging has largely been accepted, but there has been some resistance. For example, there is a belief in Islam that when people pray closely together, the devil cannot pass through them. A few Imams in Kenya resisted efforts to social distance in mosques because of this, he said.

Reducing stigma, alleviating suffering

While many of those that contract COVID-19 face stigma, Karama said his team has referenced Islamic texts to encourage Muslims in Kenya to be compassionate:

“The believer is not a defamer, nor does he curse others and nor is he immoral or talk indecently.” Tirmidhi: 1977, Ahmad 3839.

The committee found it useful to package public health measures with overall promotion of a person's spiritual well-being, he said, including asking people to support one another.

"Packaging all of these messages together made it easy for us to access the Muslim community and their acceptance of our efforts," Karama said.

This included the use of texts that said Allah punishes people — even if they are good — if they stand idly by while others suffer, Karama said: “Shall we all be punished while amongst are good people?... Yes, if evil deeds increase.” Bukhari 7059.

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a global health reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.