Washington and its media stenographers won’t tell you this, lest they look intolerant, but 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.
The document added: “Identify a family member who has influence with the rest of the family and who can make sure family members avoid dangerous practices such as washing or touching the body.”
The warning appears to be falling on deaf ears, however. Last month, Red Cross workers in Guinea were attacked by family members while trying to bury Ebola dead safely. In Sierra Leone, moreover, a family took Ebola-ridden bodies secured in body bags from the Red Cross, opened them up and exposed all members of the family to Ebola. They all contracted the disease and died horribly soon after.
The UN warns that if the spread of Ebola can’t be contained within 60 days, it could turn into a global plague. The West African infection rate is expected to jump from 1,000 a week to 10,000 a week.
US President Obama the Chief Muslim argues that suspending travel with these West African nations would do more harm than good. But the practice of these Islamic religious customs is even more reason to do so. Even Saudi Arabia, the center of Islam, is now barring pilgrims from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea from traveling to Mecca for fear of them bringing the virus into the kingdom.
So what’s stopping us from barring travellers from those countries? Muslims of course!