Islam isn’t just at the heart of the terror threat posed by the Islamic State. The religion is also contributing to the other major crisis plaguing the globe: the spread of Ebola.
Islamic burial rituals are a key reason why health officials can’t contain the spread of the deadly disease in West Africa.
Many of the victims of Ebola in the three hot-spot nations there — Sierra Leone and Guinea, as well as neighboring Liberia — are Muslim. Roughly 73% of Sierra Leone’s and about 85% of Guinea’s people are Muslim. Islam, moreover, is practiced by more than 13% of Liberians.
When Muslims die, family members don’t turn to a funeral home or crematorium to take care of the body. In Islam, death is handled much differently.
Relatives personally wash the corpses of loved ones from head to toe. Often, several family members participate in this posthumous bathing ritual, known as Ghusl.
Before scrubbing the skin with soap and water, family members press down on the abdomen to excrete fluids still in the body. A mixture of camphor and water is used for a final washing. Then, family members dry off the body and shroud it in white linens.
Again, washing the bodies of the dead in this way is considered a collective duty for Muslims, especially in Muslim nations. Failure to do so is believed to leave the deceased “impure” and jeopardizes the faithful’s ascension into Paradise (unless he died in jihad; then no Ghusl is required).
Before the body is buried, Muslims attending the funeral typically pass a common bowl for use in ablution or washing of the face, feet and hands, compounding the risk of infection.
Though these customs are prescribed by Shariah law, they’re extremely dangerous and should be suspended. Mosque leaders must step in to educate village Muslims about the dangers of interacting with corpses.
Ebola victims can be more contagious dead than alive. Their bodies are covered in rashes, blood and other fluids containing the virus.
“Funerals and washing dead bodies in West African countries have led, to a great extent, to spread the disease,” a World Health Organization spokeswoman recently warned.
WHO has issued an advisory to Red Cross and other relief workers in African Muslim nations to “be aware of the family’s cultural practices and religious beliefs. Help the family understand why some practices cannot be done because they place the family or others at risk for exposure.”