To Wash or Not To Wash the Ebola Dead?

To Wash or Not To Wash the Ebola Dead?

The title clearly hints the dilemma the two article reveals. With increasing death toll of Ebola in West Africa, Muslims in Liberia in particular have been cautioned against washing the bodies of people who died from the Ebola disease to avoid the spread of this vicious virus. That is, when Muslims die, Islam handles death much differently. Relatives and often family members personally wash the corpses of the dead. Such ritual is considered to be a collective duty for Muslims and failure to do so is believed to leave the deceased impure. A member of the World Health Organization (WHO) publicly made a statement that such Islamic burial rituals are a key reason that health officials cannot contain the spread of this deadly virus in West Africa. 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.”

The question I want to raise is: to what extent should we be accepting explanations backed up by, or rooted in religion?

In my opinion such activity of washing dead bodies believing that it purifies the deceased is a form of a myth deriving from Muslim communities in Nigeria. I recognize from learning in Dr.Hexham’s lecture that anthropologist John Middleton seemed to treat with respect when it comes to defining what myth means and whereby his definition does not undermine individuals that adhere to myths. According to Dr.Hexham’s book, Middleton once said that “myths enable people to make sense of their lives and their world (past and present) but also be used to direct them for the future”. As with Nigerians, I sincerely believe that washing the bodies of those who died from Ebola is a ritualistic behavior that is a way for them to pay respect for the last time to their loved ones.

Although I feel sympathetic towards Muslim Nigerians who has lost a loved family member to the vicious Ebola virus, and even though I understand that myth is a way for people to deal with the present and is a ritualistic behavior to pay respect, I agree with the WHO on the need to prevent from these people washing Ebola infected bodies. I may sound very critical and some may find it offensive however I present my opinion that: these devout Muslims in Nigeria are selfish in some aspects. It is indeed bitter to call someone selfish however, my explanation for them being selfish is because of the fact that they are risking the lives of millions not only in their own country but threatening the lives of millions world-wide just because of their religious rituals, more generally speaking; their religion. I firmly believe that everyone in this world has a common right that must be respected and protected at all times— basic human rights. More specifically, when it comes to matters that deal with health.

In summation, I am suggesting that: whatever one’s belief may be rooted in (whether it be religious and otherwise) in justifying one’s own actions and the consequences as a result of their actions, such reasons cannot be treated as equally important and valid as the safety of others’ health. The health of others should not be compromised for a person or a group of people’s belief system.

One thought on “To Wash or Not To Wash the Ebola Dead?

  1. RELS #349
    By Eek

    Thank you for your blog post.
    The topic that you discuss is right in the middle of what many claim to be the battle between science (politics) and religion. You claim that Nigerians are “selfish” for not following the rules that WHO established for them, and I find that claim unreasonable.
    While it is easier to apply the rule of law like in other cases (posted @ over religious and cultural views, I am afraid the issue that you are talking about is quite more complex as it is on international scale.
    I believe that you look at the issue from a cosmopolitan point of view that basically claims that one universal morality and law have to be established between all nations and cultures. A common criticism is asking what these universal moral laws would be, so that they would apply to anyone. Cosmopolitanism, along with pluralism, are part of the two agendas that the United Nations present. Unfortunately, for many religious people, the politics of preserving the basic needs for life is a primary concern for the UN despite cultural beliefs. Also, from the article, we are unable to see much actions from the Nigerian state to try to educate the people to ensure better survival. Looking from the perspective of Muslim Nigerians, one may disregard the advice of WHO doctors due to the lack cultural knowledge.
    This is the reason why I believe that none of us is able to bash the people for their culture and beliefs.

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