When Fatima Hamouma was just eight years old, she had to spend three hours every day walking and standing in line to get water for her family. Then she had to haul her heavy burden back home. Though most of the time, the water was dirty and not safe to drink - her family had no choice. In Niger, an African country that is 90 percent Muslim, Fatima and more than 80 percent of the population in rural areas have no access to safe drinking water. Niger has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. That’s not surprising. Around the world, the lack of safe water and sanitation is the leading killer of children, extinguishing over 8200 young lives every single day.
Fatima’s story is replicated every day by millions of women and girls who must trudge for hours, often along unsafe, deserted paths, to collect whatever water they can find for their families. Some will be molested. Bodies will break down over time under the backbreaking weight of containers weighing up to 40 pounds. Mothers won’t have enough time to grow food or create additional income or care for sick family members. Young girls like Fatima will drop out of school to help, or they’ll quit school when they don’t have the privacy they need because their schools don’t have proper sanitation facilities. Families are tethered to the cycle of poverty. They are not alone. 800 million people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion lack the dignity of basic sanitation.
As in every world religion, water holds a special, even sacred role, and that is true in Islam. It’s clear why. Water is the source of all life and the means for purification. In the Koran, “water” is referenced over 60 times. As a religion born in the harsh deserts of Arabia, Islam recognizes water as a precious resource. Before the advent of Islam, the original law “Sharia” was a series of rules about water use: the shir`at al-maa’ were the permits that gave right to drinking water.
And so it is hard to continue to stand by as something we take for granted - access to clean water and sanitation -- is a crisis of deadly proportion around our globe that’s taking a disproportionate toll on our Muslim brothers and sisters. The Muslim population is rapidly growing in many parts of the developing world, like Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa, where the water/sanitation crisis is particularly deadly. For example, the Muslim population sub-Saharan Africa is projected to grow by nearly 60 percent in the next 20 years. The World Health Organization (WHO) which lists 25 dangerous diseases as “water-related” says their death toll ranges from three to six million deaths each year, affecting mostly children in these developing regions. This is not the vision of the Prophet Muhammad (praise be his name).
So on this day of Mawlid, the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (praise be his name), as we celebrate Mawlid in different ways, I ask that we all reflect on the meaning of his life and message and what he calls on us to do.
As Muslims, we are called by God to help others “and cooperate in righteousness and piety” (Koran 5:2) We have a strong history of caring for our community in the countries of greatest need. There is no greater need than safe water, the source of all life.
There is good news. Unlike so many complex issues, this one is solvable. The technology is there. For example, Islamic Relief works in Malawi, a country listed among the least developed. There they are helping bring safe water and sanitation to even this most remote corner of the globe; it’s the essential foundation to any further progress.
What’s missing from these projects isn’t technology, it’s us. We need to speak up. We need to insist these projects are prioritized and help make sure they are dramatically ramped up with far wider support. Whether it’s malnutrition, sustainable farming, disease prevention, poverty reduction, even peace, every effort to improve life must fully incorporate water and sanitation development to succeed. As people of water and light, we should be among the world’s leaders to make a “water for all” vision a life-giving reality. Together, we can honor each other and live our purpose.” “…From water We have created all living things. ...” (Koran 21:30).
Every day millions of “Fatima’s” pray to Allah. For what? Maybe for safe water for her family, so that she can stay in school, so her young sibling doesn’t die of preventable disease, so her mother can spend more time, safely at home.
As Muslims, our communities, mosques, and schools must prioritize and support water and sanitation work. Water is fundamental to any future. It is fundamental to our future. I ask, what would Muhammad do, praise be his name?
For more information and ways to get involved:
Imam Mohamed Magid is president, ISNA (Islamic Society of North America)and executive director at ADAMS (All Dulles Area Muslim Society).