He had been sick for a few days, and it suddenly became much worse. What started out as “the flu” was rapidly turning into a life-threatening illness. His cough was becoming severe; his fevers were very high, up to 105; his lungs looked and sounded terrible. Even though he was already in the hospital and receiving appropriate treatment, his condition worsened. His breathing became more rapid and shallow. His blood pressure began to fall quite rapidly, progressing to shock. His mental alertness, previously quite normal, began to quickly deteriorate.
Ashura, which is January 19, is the tenth day of the first month of the Islamic calendar. In Shi’i Islam, it is perhaps the most important day of the year, when Shi’i Muslims gather and commemorate – some by self-flagellation and injury – the brutal murder of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein. For the rest of the Muslim world, however, Ashura is a day of fasting and reflection, a commemoration of the Exodus of the Children of Israel out of Egypt. In a sense, Ashura is the “Muslim Passover.”
So, what does someone’s terrible illness have to do with Ashura? Does the day of Ashura have some sort of healing process? No. Ashura, which is the story of the Exodus, is a story of hope. Just as the boots of the Egyptian taskmasters were brutal and bitter, so too can be the ravages of disease. It can, in fact, be as enslaving as the Egyptians were to the Hebrews. Just as it seemed almost impossible that the greatest empire on earth, Egypt, would yield to two men coming out of the desert, to free slaves that had been chattel for centuries, sometimes people can be so sick that the thought of recovery seems so far and remote.
Yet, with God, all is possible. With God, the Children of Israel were freed from centuries of bondage and the greatest force on earth was utterly defeated. The same is true with critical illness. There have been patients who have been so sick, that I thought for sure, death would overtake them. Yet, death never came. They gradually recovered and walked out of the ICU. Praise be to God. It is what I love about critical care medicine: it always keeps you honest, and it always reminds me that life and death is not in my hands, and I am quite happy and proud to admit that.
To mark Ashura, Muslims are encouraged to fast the day along with the day before or the day after. God willing, I plan to fast to mark Ashura this year, which is a big deal for me because, I really love my morning coffee, and it is hard to part with it outside of Ramadan. Yet, fasting to commemorate the Exodus is no problem at all, because the story of the escape of the Children of Israel is a happy one for me (and having Ashura be in the winter, when the days are short, does not hurt, either). Besides, fasting for my man Moses is the least I could do to honor his prophethood.