Islamic Response to Pandemics and Plagues

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The terms ta’un (plague) and waba (epidemic or pestilence) have been well-recognized as diseases since early Islam. The Holy Qur’an describes them as “Da’bbah (insects) being brought forward, out of the earth.”(1) 

In the Ides of winter 2020, COVID-19 emerged as an epidemic encompassing the globe in a matter of weeks. On a blessed Friday, March 27, thousands of Ahmadi Muslims gathered around Muslim Television Ahmadiyya at the appointed time of 1:00 PM UK Time to hear the Friday sermon from the Khalifa of Islam. Instead, a strange sight greeted them. The Khalifa of Islam graced viewers from his offi­ce instead of the mosque. He informed the community that he had “decided to deliver a message from my office to address and talk to you, instead of delivering a [Friday] Sermon, not observing the Friday congregation.”

Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, many world governments had implemented restrictions on various activities that involved people getting together. Our Imam was there to remind us that we must be mindful, listen to our governments, and act accordingly, even when it comes to the performance of a primary religious duty, such as offering the Salat (prescribed prayer in Islam) in congregation, even the Friday service.

The first plague that befell humanity after the advent of Islam was the Plague of Shirawyah (627–628 AD) in Iraq (Ctesiphon) occurring during the life of the Holy Prophet (sa). The second was the Plague of Amwas (638-639 AD) in Syria, which wreaked havoc during the second Khilafat. Hazrat Umar (ra) was traveling towards Syria and stopped at Sargh, where the army camped. A delegation met him and suggested avoiding Syria due to the prevalence of pestilence. After the consultation, Hazrat Umar (ra) accepted their suggestion to return to Madinah and not proceed further. The commander, Hazrat Abu Ubaydah (ra), questioned the decision, ‘Are you fleeing from the decree of Allah?’ to which the Khalifa responded, ‘Yes, ‘we are fleeing from the decree of Allah to the decree of Allah” (1). Hazrat Umar (ra) understood that whatever happened because of his actions was from the decree of Allah, so he followed the direction of the Holy Prophet (sa) that,

“If you hear of a plague in a land, then do not go into it. If it happens in a land where you are, then do not go out of it. ” (3) 

Perhaps the oldest infectious disease in the world is that of leprosy. During the life of the Holy Prophet (sa), many people were afflicted with it, though it never reached epidemic levels. A tradition found in several hadith collections tells the story of a delegation sent to the Holy Prophet (sa). The narration says that Thaqīf ’s delegation included a man with leprosy. The Prophet (sa) sent a message to him, “Go back, for we have accepted your pledge of allegiance”. (4) 

A mention of leprosy brings to mind a gruesome image of falling flesh and other physical deformities. It is a highly visible disease and has a historical stigma associated with it. It is interesting to note that the infection spreads from person to person by nasal secretions or droplets (4,4), much like COVID-19 today (5). When we consider the above tradition and the method of transmission, it becomes evident why the Holy Prophet (sa) was unwilling to directly meet the delegation if one among their members was a known leper. 

The Holy Prophet (sa) gives further guidance that a Muslim should flee from the leper as he would flee from a lion. Similarly, another tradition asserts that a healthy person should not associate with lepers for a prolonged period and should keep a spear’s distance from them (6). It is interesting to note that the length of the spears used by Arab warriors was approximately 6.5 feet (7). 

In recorded history, there have been three major plague pandemics of considerable medical and historical importance. First, was the Plague of Justinian in the mid-sixth century, the second was the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, and third was the Bombay Plague in the late nineteenth century. The Bombay Plague was a sign from God, in favor of the Promised Messiah (as) as foretold by him in 1898. The Black Death had a devastating e­ffect on the Muslim world, as it did in Europe. The immediate e­ffects were labor shortages, unharvested crops, declining morals, a fear of social and religious gatherings, and a severe decline in infrastructure, local economies, and trade. 

Ibn Khaldun, an eminent Arab scholar of the time, writes in his legendary work, Al-Muqaddimah (An Introduction to History):

“Civilization decreased with the decrease of humankind. Cities and buildings were laid waste, roads and way signs were obliterated, settlements and mansions became empty, and dynasties and tribes grew weak. The entire inhabited world changed. (8)” 

Another Muslim historian of the time who wrote about the plague was Ahmad Ibn Ali al-Maqrizi. His account is recorded in A History of the Ayyubids and Mamluks and provides a horrific image of the devastation wrought by the plague in 1349: 

“By January 21, Cairo had become an abandoned desert, and one did not see anyone walking along the streets…Debris piled up in the streets. Everywhere one heard lamentations, and one could not pass by any house without being overwhelmed by the howling. Cadavers formed a heap on the public highway, and funeral processions were so many that they could not ‑le past without bumping into each other. (9)” 

Unsurprisingly, the social and religious gatherings were canceled as, 

“No one issued an invitation to a feast during the whole time of the epidemic, and one did not hear any concert. The call to prayer was canceled in various places.” 

However, congregational prayer continued in some places. Records indicate that young men gathered for the five daily prayers, which were mostly followed by funeral prayers. They did nothing during the day other than burying the dead, repent, and wait for the plague to snuff­ their life (10). The plague was mild inbeginning; however, when the people saw no end to it, the government requested everyone to fast for three days, then meet in the desert for the communal prayers. People from all faiths joined the communal prayers; when they returned, most carried the disease (11). Islam does not forbid communal prayers; however, the guidance of the Holy Prophet (sa) is to stay a safe distance from people who are infected (see above example of a delegation with a leper) as well as to follow the law of the land. It is unfortunate that even today, people ignore the teachings of Islam, often mistakenly assuming that trusting in Allah’s decree means we should not act to safeguard ourselves. 

A segregation camp during bubonic plague outbreak, Karachi, (then) India

The Bubonic Plague reared its ugly head for the third time at the dawn of the 20th Century in Bombay. Being a global port, any attempt to stop the spread would have meant the disruption of the British global trade networks. The British Raj dismissed the outbreak, blaming the living spaces as being filthy and unsanitary. However, the situation spiraled out of control, and the plague spread to Punjab and Uttar Pradesh (12). The Promised Messiah and Mahdi, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) was foretold of this plague and promised by Allah that his community would remain safe (13). Despite Allah’s promise of safety, the Promised Messiah (as) followed the precautionary guidance given by the Holy Prophet (sa) and would wash his hands each time he handled a letter that would arrive from plague-stricken areas (14).

Fast forward to the last decade, the Ebola outbreak of 2014 was a terrifying near-miss, so to speak. With thousands of West Africans dying a horrifying death, the residents of the developed world were faced with a frightening reality, a reality in which oceans and deserts offered little, if any, protection from a pandemic. All it would take was for one infected person to get on a plane, and the deadly virus would spread around the world. The Ebola outbreak taught one critical lesson to the world: epidemiologists and medical personnel should be fully equipped to respond at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, this lesson was promptly forgotten. As the COVID-19 began claiming lives in the Wuhan province of China, economic and political measures took precedence over public health and safety, causing much chaos in the period that ensued. 

Leading by example, the current head of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, Khalifatul-Masih V (May Allah be his Helper), is guiding us towards a safer future. It would be wise for Muslims to follow in the footsteps of the Khalifa, take this pandemic seriously and follow the guidelines put forth by the local governments.

While the world is busy re-learning the lessons from the past thousand years of pandemics and plagues, the shortage of food is becoming a reality. The Plague of Amwas, the Black Death, the Influenza Flu (Spanish Flu) had a great deal in common at their worst, as well as a common feature of their aftermath: the famine that followed the plague. COVID-19 appears to be on the same footing as its predecessors (15). The question we should be asking at this stage of our pandemic is perhaps a soul-searching question: Should we follow the teaching of the Holy Qur’an that tells us how to escape the imminent famine (16) or revert to the hoarding tactics of yore?

This article appears in the Summer 2020 issue.

References

1. The Holy Qur’an (27:83) 

2. Sahih Al Bukhari 5730 (Book 76, Hadith 45) / USC-MSA web (English) Vol 7, Book 71, Hadith 626 (sourced from Sunnah.com) 

3. Long M.L. (2011) Leprosy in Early Islam. In: Schumm D., Stoltzfus M. (eds) Disability in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Palgrave Macmillan, New York 

4. https://www.leprosy.org/leprosy-faqs/ Accessed: May 19, 2020 

5. COVID-19: How and Why the Virus Spreads Quickly. https://www.scienti­camerican.com/podcast/episode/-covid-19-how-and-why-the-virus-spreads-quickly/ Access: May 19, 2020 

6. Naeem Al Safhai. Tibe Nabwi, vol 1. p 355 

7. History of al-Tabari Vol. 21, The: The Victory of the Marwanids A.D. 685-693, p. 20 [footnote 82] 

8. Ibn Khaldun – The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, translated by Franz Rosenthal. Pantheon Books, 1958. volume I, 64-65 

9. Translation taken from Aberth, John. The Black Death: the great mortality of 1348-1350: a brief history with documents. Springer, 2016. Chapter 19. 

10. Dols, Michael W. “The comparative communal responses to the Black Death in Muslim and Christian societies.” Viator 5 (1974): 269-288. 

11. Dols, Michael W. “The comparative communal responses to the Black Death in Muslim and Christian societies.” Viator 5 (1974): 269-288. 

12. Lynteris, Christos. Ethnographic plague: con­guring disease on the Chinese-Russian frontier. Springer, 2016. pp 23-5 

13. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), Tadhkira (Islam International Publications, 2009), 295. Also, see the English book Noah’s Ark (Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad) for further details of the plague. For Urdu, see Kashtee Nooh, page 4, October 5th, 1902 

14. Al-Fazl, Vol 11, Number 88, page 9 

15. ‘Instead of Coronavirus, the Hunger Will Kill Us.’ A Global Food Crisis Looms. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/world/africa/coronavirus-hunger-crisis.html Accessed: May 20, 2020. Also see: The World Is Headed for a Food Security Crisis. Here’s How We Can Avert It. https://time.com/5216532/global-food-security-richard-deverell/ Accessed: May 20, 2020. African perspective is represented here: Ellison, James G. “‘A Fierce Hunger’: Tracing the Impacts of the 1918-1919 In‑uenza Pandemic in Southwest Tanzania.” In The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918: New Perspectives, edited by Howard Phillips and David Killingray, 221-29. New York: Routledge, 2003. For Black Death related famine evidence, please see: Did famine worsen the Black Death? https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2016/01/did-famine-worsen-the-black-death/ Accessed: May 20, 2020. 

16. See commentary of Surah Yusuf for details on dealing with famine. Also see commentary for the verse Surah al-An’am, Ch.6: V.142

Last modified: July 2020

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