With one year or more after the spread of covid-19, the world is still suffering its repercussions. In this report, we shed light on a different challenge that Muslims face as a result of this virus. For Sri Lanka’s Muslims, there is challenge related to the fear of not being able to bury loved ones in dignity according to Islamic traditions. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world which have made cremations mandatory for people who have died or are suspected as having died from COVID-19. This is not permissible according to the Islamic Shari’ah which states that dead bodies must be buried according to certain rituals.
Muslims in Sri Lanka
There are four main religions in Sri Lanka: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. The majority of Sri Lankan society are Buddhists. According to Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Muslim community makes up around 10% of all population. For decades, Muslims suffered the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka, and were the target of Hindu - Tamil attacks, but after that, attacks were concentrated by some Buddhist militants, as a result of which there was violence resulting in the killing of Muslim members, the burning of their shops and homes and attacks on their mosques, as well as violence between groups of Muslims and other Buddhists.
Government discrimination against Muslims
Since the death of the first Sri Lankan Muslim from coronavirus on March 31, 2020, some media outlets have openly blamed the Muslim community for spreading the disease, even though only 11 deaths have been officially recorded in the country, according to BBC. Since then, the government began to take more strict measures. The government is implementing a policy of forced cremations of the dead people who have died of the epidemic, which Muslims regard as an infringement of their religion which honors the dead by burying them. The government insisted to do so while the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that there is no evidence that corpses pose a risk of epidemic disease, as most pathogens do not survive long in the human body after death.
Local and International reactions
Recently, the United Nations has condemned forced cremation of deceased COVID-19 patients in Sri lanka, especially in the case of Muslims and other minorities in the country, as it goes against their religious beliefs. UN human rights experts said in a joint statement, “There has been no established medical or scientific evidence in Sri Lanka or other countries that burial of dead bodies leads to increased risk of spreading communicable diseases such as COVID-19." On the other hand, the Muslim Council of Britain is set to launch legal action against the Sri Lankan government over its forced cremation policy. Sri Lanka's Muslim Council accused the government of trying to provoke the Muslim community as there are still tensions between Muslims and Buddhists since the deadly 2019 Easter bombings carried out by local jihadists.
With the increased protests, the Republic of Maldives declared that it studies burying Sri Lankan Muslims in its lands. In this context, the Head of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka expressed his thanks to the government of the Maldives for this generous offer, but he stressed that the Council does not support this action. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which includes 57 members, also expressed concerns about the cremation of dead bodies, and called for the need to allow Sri Lankan Muslims to bury their family members according to their religious beliefs. The Organization also called in a statement to respect the rituals of burial of the dead in the Islamic faith.
Islamic Legal Opinion about cremation
Cremation is considered by Islam to be forbidden, Allah says in the Holy Quran "Indeed, We have dignified the children of Adam.” (Surat Al-Isra-70) In Islam, funeral rites are prescribed by the divine law. Burying the dead is the method ordained. Islamic belief holds that only Allah knows what is good or bad for us and that the body should be treated with the utmost respect either a live of dead. Burning the dead is considered a form of mutilation, which is forbidden by Allah.
Al-Azhar Fatwa Global Center explained that according to Islamic tradition, the burial of a deceased person is a collective obligation (farḍ kifāyah) on the Muslim community. This obligation consists of ghusl (ritual pathing of dead bodies) and kafan. If, however, there is an epidemic, a matter to be verified by the medical authorities is to prove that the disease can be transmitted from the dead to those who touch him. In this case, they would only pour water on him in whatever way they could without touching him, while taking all the precautionary measures to prevent the transmission of the disease to the handler.
For its part, Al-Azhar Observatory for Combatting Extremism appeals to the authorities in Sri Lanka to respect Islamic rites as to honoring the dead in affirmation of its respect for human rights and religious freedom. The Observatory warmly thanks the Republic of the Maldives for its prompt response to the issue, a thing which defuses the crisis and reduces tension. The Observatory calls upon Muslims in Sri Lanka and those who stand in solidarity with them to stay calm and not to slide into violence that might destabilize their country.