Today we are experiencing an unprecedented event in our world history, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to tear through our global fabric. As of the writing of this article in late May 2020, the disease has taken over 300,000 lives worldwide, with nearly 5 million cases reported and, in the United States alone, there have been over 90,000 deaths and 1.5 million cases reported, the most of any country in the world. As a result of this crisis, Americans are looking to their leaders at the Federal, State, and local levels for guidance and answers. Although some guidelines have been established, many people are still left confused as to whether they should continue to follow the principles of quarantining and social distancing, while balancing the demands of increased amounts of job losses, mental health problems, and isolation from friends and family.
Like many other Americans, Muslims have also suffered from this pandemic. They are spending time in prayer and study of the Holy Qur’an, while seeking guidance, mercy, and relief from Allah Almighty. However, Muslims not only look towards prayer and the teachings of the Holy Qur’an for guidance in our current time, but also look to the life and of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) and his companions for any guidance, examples, or directions to follow from history. When looking at the times of early Islam, the Plague of Amwas is an example of an incident that occurred approximately five to six years after the demise of the Holy Prophet (sa) and was an event that he had prophesied would take place soon after his passing.
As historical context, a few years before his death, during the Battle of Tabuk in 630 AD, the Holy Prophet (sa) prophesied six events that would take place between the time of his passing and the Last Day. In a Hadith narrated by ‘Awf bin Malik (ra), the Prophet (sa) said:
“Count six signs before the Hour: my death, the conquest of Jerusalem, two mortal plagues that will take you [in great numbers]like the plague of sheep [depletes them], then wealth will be in such surplus that a man will be given a hundred gold coins and still be unsatisfied, then there will be a tribulation that will not leave an Arab home without entering it, then there will be a truce between you [Muslims], and Banu al-Affar (Byzantines) which they will betray, and march against you under eighty flags, and under each flag will be twelve thousand [soldiers]” (1).
The Holy Prophet (sa) passed away in 633 AD, and within five years, the Plague of Amwas (also known as the Plague of Emmaus) had struck the Muslim community in 638–39 AD. During this time, this Bubonic Plague primarily impacted the region of Islamic Syria and took the lives of over 25,000 Muslim soldiers and their family members. Historical records indicate that this was likely a resurgence of the Plague of Justinian, which started in Pelusium near modern Suez and spread across Egypt and Europe in the early 540s. Amwas was a town that had been a primary camp for the Arab Muslim troops outside of Jerusalem in Syria. Like many plagues at the time, the first strike happened in early 638, and then it returned in 639. The cause of this plague may have been due to the famine and drought in Syria, which may have caused plague-infected rodents to seize upon food that was being hoarded and stored by people at the time (2).
During this time, Hazrat Umar bin Khattab (ra) was the second Khalifah to lead the Muslim community after the demise of the Holy Prophet (sa). As history shows, Hazrat Umar (ra) was a man of the people, and upon hearing news of this plague, he wanted to be with his people and see if there was anything that he could do to alleviate their suffering. In particular, one of his closest companions, Abu Ubaidah (ra), was located in this area. After refusing to return to Madinah, where Hazrat Umar (ra) was located, Umar then decided to leave for Amwas and inspect it for himself. Upon reaching the area on the outskirts, in the town of Sargh, where the plague was not yet rampant, Hazrat Umar (ra) took counsel from his companions to determine the best cause of action. Not surprisingly, there were conflicting opinions about whether to enter or to leave the area of the plague.
At one point during the deliberations, one of the companions shared a Hadith from the Holy Prophet (sa) that stated:
“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).
Upon hearing this, Hazrat Umar (ra) decided that to protect the overall Muslim community from suffering even greater loss, he would leave the area afflicted by the plague and return to Madinah. Upon hearing this decision, Abu Ubaidah (ra) asked the Khalifah:
“Do you flee from the decree of Allah?”
Hazrat Umar (ra) replied:
“Would that another had said so, O Abu Ubaidah! Yes, we are fleeing from the decree of Allah to the decree of Allah. Do you not see that if you had camels descending in a valley with two fields, one fertile and the other barren, you would graze in the fertile field by the decree of Allah, or you would graze in the barren field by the decree of Allah?” (4).
This incident from the life of Hazrat Umar (ra) shows that he understood the importance of taking action when based on sound reason and logic, as it would also be a way of fulfilling the decree of Allah. Instead of trusting blindly that Allah would protect him and his community from the onslaught of the plague, Hazrat Umar’s (ra) pragmatic actions, coupled with his deep prayer, allowed him to make the best decision for the betterment of the entire Muslim society for which he was responsible.
As we reflect on these teachings and apply them to our current Covid-19 pandemic, there are a few insights that become blindingly clear.
- First, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) through his foresight and wisdom provided not just the early Muslim community, but humankind as a whole with the same pragmatic solutions of quarantining and social distancing 1,400 years ago that we are seeing our leading scientific experts instruct us to follow today. Again, this innate wisdom was not just based on Divine connection with Allah, the All-Knowing, but was grounded in a practical application of dealing with the realities of illnesses of the time.
- Second, the example of Hazrat Umar (ra) is one of the specific actions we, too, can take during this crisis. Although many states are moving towards a re-opening, we must continue to learn from this example and not be too hasty in how we re-engage with our communities. Islam demands that people not only rely on Allah for mercy and ease but also to use common sense in making decisions that will not only impact their well-being but the well-being of those around them.
In short, the Plague of Amwas was not only a powerful moment in history for the early Muslims; it continues to be a living example for people all around the world today. We pray that Allah continues to help us navigate through our ‘new normal’ and continues to relieve us of the many burdens we are facing individually, as families, and as a global society.
This article appears in the Summer 2020 issue.
1. Sahih Al Bukhari 3176 (Book 58, Hadith 18) / USC-MSA web English) Vol 4, Book 53, Hadith 401 (sourced from Sunnah.com)
2. Dols, M. W. (July–September 1974). “Plague in Early Islamic History”. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 94 (3): 371–383.
3. Sahih Al Bukhari 5730 (Book 76, Hadith 45) / USC-MSA web (English) Vol 7, Book 71, Hadith 626 (sourced from Sunnah.com)
4. Sahih Al-Bukhārī 5729 (Book 7:Hadith 130) (sourced from https://yaqeeninstitute.org/justin-parrott/reconciling-the-di vine-decree-and-free-will-in-islam/#ftnt34
Last modified: July 2020