CRUCIBLE: Disease, Fear, and Shifah Tradition

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/10 September) – There is probably no moment of history where the generations of akhiru z-zaman or latter days have been privileged with much amenity with their lifestyle so unique and sophisticated compared to a few generations ago. Yet, living in our time comes with heavy price, as there is no period of history, too, where today’s generation has been faced with fear in practically all fronts shown particularly in increasing frequency of natural disasters, recurrence of wars, and spread of diseases and plagues.

Ebola and MERS-CoV

Few days ago, for instance, two Filipina nurses arrived from the Middle East allegedly infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Corona Virus (MERS-CoV), although the Department of Health (DOH) reported later that they were found negative of said virus. The mood set is such that said disease is very dangerous. It is viral and contagious too. And even as MERS-CoV is yet to be neutralized, the Ebola Virus has become a global concern especially in Western Africa where more than 3,000 people have been infected and more than half of them had died.

Fear grips us, as there are other equally potent diseases apart from Ebola Virus and MERS-CoV that are wreaking havoc on people and communities across the globe like Smallfox, Influenza, Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection/ Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV-AIDS), Cholera, Polio, and few others.

Meantime, breakout of new diseases continues to lurk around. Mind you, the issue underpins equally important subjects like the search for vaccines as a noble thrust of medicine; and contrapuntally, how such thrust must have been the object of preying eyes from global corporations and giant pharmaceutical companies in their attempt to corner markets. As news is heavily sensationalized, we are being made to ride on a global fear where we could hardly even make rational decisions on what we should do.


In this regard, we need to review the shifah or healing tradition in Islamic thought and how it has been developed in various phases of history that allowed the ummah or the Muslim community to hold on to an anchor or foundation – something that provided her stability and flexibility as well in light of threat and fear from major diseases, epidemics, and plagues. This tradition provides us ways into which we are able to position ourselves in the face of global threat of rare diseases.

The word shifah is mentioned four times in the Holy Qur’an. It connotes both spiritual and physical healing. In Suratu l-isra, the Holy Qur’an says:

“We send down (stage by stage) in the Qur’an that which is a healing and a mercy to those who believe: to the unjust it causes nothing but loss after loss (82).”

In another verse, the Qur’an reads:

“And thy Lord taught the Bee to build its cells in hills, on trees, and in (man’s) habitations (68);

Then to eat of all the produce (of the earth) and find with skill the spacious Paths of its Lord: there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colors, wherein is healing for men: Verily in this sign for those who give thought (69).”

There is a hadith (saying) of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) from the collection of Imam Ahmad narrated by Usama bin Shuraik:

“I was with the Prophet (SAW) when the Bedouins came to him and said: O Messenger of Allah should we seek medicine? He said, Yes O slaves of Allah, seek medicine, for Allah has not created a disease except that He has also created its cure, except for one illness. They said, and what is that? He said: old age.”

Medicine and the Ummah

These verses and hadith (Prophetic saying) are essentially injunctions enjoining us to avail of all sources of shifah or healing including medicine. It is probably the reason why there is a rich discipline or history of medicine in Islamic thought. Muslim doctors benefited from Greek works of Hippocrates and Galen as they innovated more in the field of medicine as early as the 8th century. Hence, they engraved their names in the annals of medical history. Prominent among them were Jabir bin Hayyan (known as Geber), Al-Razi, Al-Kindi, and Ibn Sina, and few others. After the Greeks, their works laid down the foundation of medicine that developed in the West. If we read their works, we will realize that they were the precursor of medical science today. They espoused scientific methods including the use of experimentation in various fields including medicine, chemistry, and so on. In one of the works of Geber, he wrote:

“The first essential in Chemistry is that you should perform practical works and conduct experimentation for he who performs no practical work nor make experiments will never attain to the least degree of Chemistry. But you, O my son, do experiments so that you may acquire knowledge. Scientists delight not in abundance of material; they rejoice only in the excellence of their experimental methods (p. 75).”

This form of scientific instruction is very much present in many other fields of science that were developed by Muslim scientists including their mastery, for instance, in Chemistry – a reason why the word Alchemy whose Arabic root word is “kimia” developed immensely during the medieval period. What is pronounced in the medicine they conceived is the attempt to develop a notion of healing that is comprehensive suggesting that medicine forms part of the whole metaphysical and cosmological concept of Islam with man located at the center; thus, in the work of Geber, man does not exist by himself. S/he serves as the axis of both macro and micro world (alam kabir and saghir) that serves as the environment where s/he lives and thus creates certain balance or equilibrium in oneself. Thus, a tilt or change in that balance would create disease or sickness.

This view probably explains the two works of Ibn Sina wherein the first is entitled “Kitab ash-shifah” (The Book of Healing). But if you read that book, there is almost nothing in it that talked about medicine. What it discussed are logic, reason, ethics, mathematics, and so on. But yet the title he provided is “shifah” (healing). You could only appreciate Ibn Sina’s work on what we know today as medicine if you read his “al-kanun fi t-tib” or the “Canon of Medicine” which served as the encyclopedia of medicine during that peak of Islamic experience. I think Ibn Sina’s way is to provide not just a physical description how to treat disease and sickness; but since the physical dimension of man or jasm is conceived as connected to the ruh or to the higher self and to the larger environment as well, then Ibn Sina came up with no less than a treatise on the “philosophy of life” in his “Kitab ash-shifah.”

I have a personal experience on how, at one time, in King Khalid Center in Riyadh where this work of Ibn Sina was displayed. In my visit to that Center few years ago, I noticed many Arab and Muslim scholars surrounded that piece of work that was enclosed in a glass. But I noticed that book was already published in Rome in the 16th century. It must be that many works of Muslim philosophers in the past were burned during the reign of Arab empires and dynasties due to religious, political, and sectarian reasons. Thanks to many Western countries for preserving those works. Somehow, when it was realized that such a work of Ibn Sina was timeless, then it was procured back to form part of the Islamic heritage in Saudi Arabia.

What we are trying to say is that there was selective appreciation of the works of Muslim scholars including medical doctors due to sectarian tendency that developed in the Muslim world; so that the works of Muslim scholars became more influential in Europe than in the Muslim world at certain points.


When we dwell on shifah tradition in Islamic thought, it is because there are lots to learn on the Qur’an and Sunnah and life experience of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) particularly on how to develop certain attitude in the face of fear over a spreading disease or plague, epidemic and so on. In fact, there are ahadith (Prophetic traditions) that speak of the attitude we carry in case there is a plague. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said: “If you hear it (a plague) that struck a land, do not enter that land. And if it breaks out in a land that you are residing in, do not go out of the area escaping from it.”

This speaks of the early foundation on the notion of quarantine, where people have to be treated or isolated in an area known to have with possible diseases. In our time, of course, medical technology has become sophisticated; then one can treat certain people and provide them health care in secluded places. If there is a plague in the land, it is not allowed for people in that community to get out to avoid the spread of contagion in other communities or countries. Rather, there is a need to cure the patients in a particular area. If plague is unavoidable, then such a disease is viewed in different angle. A hadith of the Prophet reads: “The plague is a martyrdom for Muslims.” This speaks of an attitude to diseases. It is something that one should accept as s/he and community struggle for cure instead of contaminating other people or other countries and communities.

Black Death

Incidentally, you might be surprised that even in the time of the Prophet there was that experience of plague somewhere in Syria. And in succeeding generations, for instance, plague became the cause of massive death particularly in Europe and in the Middle East and Africa in the 14th century. By the way, no less than the parents of Ibn Khaldun, the great historian and sociologist, died due to the “Black Death.” It is described as “devastating pandemic” that killed around 75 million to 200 million from 1346 to 1353.

Accordingly, the cause of “Black Death” came from oriental rat fleece living in black rats. It spread through the Silk Road from Central Asia and spread throughout Europe including Egypt and Makkah in 1349. It is a plague called “Yersinia pestis.” What is significant to know is that, the origin of “Black Death” comes from animal that was transferred to man. This is the same trend of contemporary diseases like MERS-CoV that originated accordingly from camel’s milk while Ebola comes possibly from fruit bats. It was transferred to man and became very deadly.

What we are saying is that, what is happening today is simply a recurrence on fear about some disease outbreaks although in relatively milder intensity unlike in the past. Hence, if we don’t have the right attitude and the way we relate with this development, then we could be gripped with fear. As we know, many of these diseases like MERS-CoV and Ebola are spreading in countries where many Overseas Filipino Workers are working. It has even become a serious concern even in a far place like ours. Finally, when we say that the search for vaccines of either Ebola or MERS-CoV is noble, we are critical however of global corporations and giant pharmaceutical companies riding on issues about disease and medical technology and so on as they could possibly prop up global fear and use them for their own profit.

Estrogen and global profit

In a different but parallel case, there was an issue on how menopause – a phenomenon where woman reaches certain age and develops some physical or hormonal changes – has become the object of interest in Germany during the Nazi period where the idea of “menopause treatment” was developed. There was rivalry for the discovery or control of certain hormone that came to be known as estrogen. It was promoted as a menopausal treatment to slow aging, to stop hot flashes, and to avoid pregnancy and miscarriage, and so on. What is significant is the fact that estrogen was developed from various experiments using animals like cow, horse, stallion, and mare.

The rivalry started in 1938. By 1941 synthetic estrogen was found out to be carcinogen, that is – it causes cancer. But it was only by 2002, when it was publicly declared that it is cancerous after close to around 16,500 women who took synthetic estrogen had developed endometrial cancer. What is important to note is that, even when it was already found out that synthetic estrogen causes cancer as early as 1941, pharmaceutical companies continued to sell estrogen the world over. Indeed, big corporations had the propensity to use or ride on an issue on what is supposedly natural physical process like menopause by developing menopausal treatment to profit from it.

What we are saying is, yes, the search for vaccines for particular disease is noble. But there is a hidden issue beyond it that we all have to be conscious of as global corporations are engaged in fierce rivalry to corner market. While other people are dying, unscrupulous interest groups are benefiting immensely. In this regard, the shifah tradition and its simplicity is made even more attractive especially for the masses and the downtrodden as it will help them handle their fear and uncertainty.

Finally, as we are quite familiar with the view that diseases or sicknesses while negative and thus we have to look for ways to cure them, yet, at certain angle, they could also be viewed as a form of tests allowing us to draw strength; so that, this allows us to develop the correct attitude how we deal with sickness and diseases; henceforth, shelving us from global contradiction and injustice.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A slightly revised khutbah delivered at the UP Institute of Islamic Studies on 05 September 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].