Is Contagion Real? Giving Context to Prophetic Wisdom
Published: April 16, 2020 • Updated: October 3, 2020
Author: Dr. Ovamir Anjum
For more on this topic, see Faith in the Time of COVID-19
Could it be that God’s message that is so conscious of human welfare that it relaxes the duty to offer congregational prayers due to rain, to fast the otherwise obligatory days of Ramadan while traveling, to perform the Hajj pilgrimage in case of the insecurity of the journey, and permits shortening of prayers during travel or due to fear of attack, refuses to make an allowance in the case of a pandemic? In a pandemic in which what is at stake is not convenience but lives, and lives not only of the few who worship but of the innumerable many who may come in contact with them? Could it be that the divine message that emphatically encourages the practice of medicine and quest for cure by declaring that God has created a cure for every disease would deny the empirically established fact that germs spread disease, that contagion is real?
Allegedly, the answer to this rhetorical question is not obvious to some because of a statement of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ denying contagion that appears in the canonical collections of hadith. Admittedly, Muslim authorities who would deny the fact of contagion today are exceedingly rare—I haven’t come across any even in the wonderland of social media. Nearly all the ulama and religious authorities accepted it well before its deadly spread became self-evident. There were exceptions, such as the large Muslim religious gatherings in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and elsewhere against the general recommendation that led to unfortunate spread. These were, by and large, exceptions to the rule. Much of this destructive behavior was underpinned not by a religious objection to contagion but disinformation, conspiracy theories, general religious and scientific ignorance, all of which feed a general attitude of carelessness. Our concern here is only with a proper understanding of the Prophetic guidance on the matter, the lingering doubts about which both prevent a proper understanding and celebration of faith and properly motivated, positive, and proactive action of the kind that could save lives and alleviate suffering.
How could contagion be true if God’s Prophet ﷺ said otherwise? The only way for many to hold on to faith under such conditions is by alienating it from their actual life—marked as it is by modern science and technology and their presumptive reliance on natural causality. Incidentally, the modern, secular mind often welcomes this kind of charming religiosity that could not possibly challenge a naturalist, materialist understanding of the world. It is not only compatible with but even longs for an enchanted world when people, in their spare time, worshipped sacred trees or animals and sought aid from the spirits of their ancestors. The nostalgia for a bygone world of fairy tales serves as an opiate for the harsh realities of a meaningless, unjust world. Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic we confront today serve as reminders of the deeper and ubiquitous danger this alienation poses even to worldly life and ethics. The threat it poses to faith and eternal things is greater.
To return to the dilemma at hand, how ought we respond to the words of the Prophet ﷺ that are, if soundly received and understood, the infallible foundation of faith? The million-dollar question here, as always with interpreting words spoken in a world vastly separated from our own, is: What exactly did God’s Messenger ﷺ say and mean? Did he mean to recommend or obligate a course of action—that one should treat claims or observation of spreading illness, as in the spread of diseases caused by germs as false or impious? Does believing in or taking caution according to this recommendation, let alone engaging in medical research, therefore, constitute impiety? This cannot be the case. One has only to consider the hadith report itself and the surrounding texts to conclude this much.
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Let us consider the tradition in question. The Messenger of God ﷺ declared in a sound report, on the authority of Anas b. Mālik, that
“There is no ʿadwā and no ṭiyarah, but I like al-fa’l.” They asked, “What is al-fa’l?” He replied, “A good word.”
The term ʿadwā has come to be rendered in English as ‘contagion’ and ṭiyarah can be rendered as omen-seeking (the details of how pagan Arabs did so, while fascinating, are not immediately relevant). Another version of the report gives a more helpful explanation of fa’l: “It is a good word that one of you may (over)hear” (Muslim #2223)—that is, one may hear something good being said and feel optimistic as a result. In modern Arabic, the related term tafā’ul has come to mean optimism.
So, there it is. The Prophet ﷺ said that contagion is not real. Or did he? Anyone who has a modicum of expertise in hadith or Islamic jurisprudence knows never to arrive at a conclusion based on a single hadith. Hadiths are anecdotes picked out from an entire ecology of Prophetic commands, practices, policies, and actions that are singled out for authentication but must be put back into their context for understanding. This means at minimum that one must consider all (or most) of the versions of any given hadith and all the other surrounding hadiths on the subject. Hadith experts know that hadiths always exist in multiple versions and one has to collect and evaluate all of them. No small amount of damage has been done to the message of Islam and hence to humankind by the proliferation of unsound or uninvestigated hadith reports by pious, well-meaning preachers. This turns out to be true for the case at hand.
A more complete version of the hadith given by Abu Hurayra, as recorded in al-Bukhārī (and Muslim #2220),
There is no ʿadwā, no ṭiyarah, no hāmah, and no ṣafar, and run from the leper like you would from a lion.
The additions are revealing of the nature of the general import of the statement: hāmah (seeking omens in birds) and ṣafar (the belief that the month of Ṣafar is a bad omen for marriages, etc.). This tradition not only adds two more practices to the forbidden list, it alters the original impression altogether. Why run from the leper if there is no possibility of infection of disease from one person to another? What does contagion have to do with fortune-telling and omens?
Contagion is, therefore, real and the duty to act accordingly is emphasized in a far stronger and more general command, also reported both in al-Bukhārī and Muslim on the authority of Usāma b. Zayd,
If you hear of the plague in a land, do not enter it, and if it occurs while you are there, do not leave it.
Effectively, the Prophet’s words can be understood to mean quarantine in response to contagious diseases such as the plague (ṭāʿūn) and leprosy (judhām).
The nature of the Prophet’s concern becomes even more clear as the anecdote unfolds in the report of Abū Hurayra in a longer version also reported in al-Bukhārī and Muslim:
[Upon hearing that there is no ʿadwā,] a Bedouin said, “O Allah's Messenger, What about the camels which, when in the desert run strong like deer, but when a mangy camel mixes with them they all get infected with mange?” To that Allah’s Apostle replied, “Who, then, conveyed it to the first (mangy) camel?”(Bukhārī #5770)
In yet another version of the tradition, possibly of the same incident, Abu Hurayra continues that the Prophet ﷺ added,
Do not place the healthy camels with the sick ones.(Muslim #2221)
From these reports, it becomes abundantly clear here that the Prophet ﷺ did not deny that people and camels do get infected. His original statement could only mean, then, that the cause of disease is not the transference of the spirits—sick camels do indeed infect the healthy ones, so do not yoke them together. But still, the illness ultimately starts somewhere. That ultimate source of this occurrence, like that of all things, is God, not spirits or omens.
Perhaps the most startling evidence of the Prophet’s attitude toward contagion appears in the following report. When a man of Thaqīf afflicted with leprosy came to pledge allegiance to the Prophet ﷺ and declare his Islam, the Prophet told him to stay away and sent a message to him saying, “We have accepted your allegiance, so now go back.” (Muslim). Guided no doubt by God, he acted unequivocally in accordance with the best guidelines of “social distancing” today!
This leaves the puzzle of the phrase that raised the original concern: “no contagion.” To parse it further, the form lā X could mean “there is no X” as in “X is not real, so do not believe in it or act accordingly.” It could perhaps mean that “X is not real, but act as if it is.” Put differently, this grammatical form could mean do not believe that X or do not practice X, and the immediate meaning is inclusive of both. Since the Prophet ﷺ decidedly acted as if X, we seem to have a contradiction. But this contradiction cannot be real given that neither the Prophet ﷺ nor his audience, who otherwise questioned him about any incomprehensible words or perceived contradictions, sensed any. We must conclude that the negation of ʿadwā did not mean the negation of contagion in the Prophet’s or his audience’s mind. It seems, therefore, that he only negated a certain understanding of contagion.
Recent historians have uncovered fascinating details about the social and religious imagination in pre-Islamic societies of the Near East (referred to in scholarship as Late Antiquity). It helps us conclude with confidence that ʿadwā was not an ancient version of the germ theory of infectious diseases, but a kind of superstition about how people (or animals) get sick as a result of something that can be best expressed in English as ‘transferable evil spirits.’ The Prophet ﷺ denied that superstition while acting in accordance with the general medical knowledge of the time. Rather than implying that belief in God’s total power requires abandoning caution and medicine, he stated emphatically that proper belief in God requires respecting natural causation that, no doubt, God has instituted.
What is the significance of his denying a certain understanding of contagion while embracing its effective truth? The operative distinction here is between natural causes attributable to worldly things and supernatural causes that were attributed willy-nilly to “divine” beings, sacred forces, and spirits. This way of classifying things may sound strange to modern ears in a world where even God’s existence is disputed, but the heavens in medieval imagination—be it Christian, Jewish, or pagan—were populated by a whole slew of invisible beings, both “divine” and demonic, that intervened between God and men. The theory that illness is a result of such spirits, therefore, was not only an Arab belief, it was quite widespread. The Prophet ﷺ, it would seem, meant to reject that belief.
But lest we read too much into it, the theory of quarantine took centuries to develop, and there is no indication that the Final Apostle of God ﷺ was sent to instruct humanity in germ theory. It is tempting to read our modern understanding into the Prophetic words for his recommendation is the perfectly reasonable course of action—even by the standards of our contemporary scientific knowledge—for the actual response to contagious diseases.
The reductive mind that dismisses all non-sensible realities as nonsensical, however, should find no comfort in this explanation. Both the student of Islamic knowledge and the believing Muslim should rest assured that the Prophet’s rejection of these pre-Islamic beliefs and practices did not amount to a total disenchantment, or what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has called the emergence of the “buffered self” in the modern West—a self that feels self-sufficient and subject to nothing but the natural, sensible causes. In contrast, the medieval (Taylor has in mind primarily Christian) self was porous, constantly aware of its vulnerability to innumerable invisible things: demons, spirits, saints, angels, even pagan gods, and so on. The Prophet ﷺ, in contrast, sought refuge incessantly in Allah alone—he would frequently say “O Allah do not leave me to myself (nafs) for a moment”—and denied all powers, demi-gods, demons, saints, and “supernatural” actors that, in other religious worldviews including that of the Arab pagans, littered the heavens and the earth. Jinn, devils, and angels do exist, but with their agency so truncated as to become less than that of humans, and for the purpose of worship and fulfillment of needs, irrelevant. The Islamic philosophy of self, so to speak, leaves the human self always and utterly open to God’s power—no thought can occur, nor harm nor benefit, nor happiness nor grief, nor inspiration nor motivation, without God’s leave. Natural causes, however, are different: they are real enough, and they do not pose any threat to God’s omnipotence. They are to be believed in and sought after in one’s practice.
The Prophet ﷺ, similarly, spoke approvingly of al-fa’l, the feeling of optimism upon hearing a good word. In one tradition in al-Bukhārī, he said, “There is no truth in omens [lā ṭiyarah] and the best of it is al-fa’l,” which means that he may have considered optimism based on accidents of speech as falling in the same category of omens, but there was no harm in feeling good based on them. It did not threaten the exclusiveness of divine omnipotence, perhaps because it could be easily explained within the paradigm of exclusive divine omnipotence. When someone praises you or says something like, “I am sure you can do it,” no harm is being done in the feeling of pleasure, hope, and inspiration you may have as a result. Sports coaches’ locker room speeches, in other words, are mostly okay if not for all the swearing.
On other occasions, the Prophet ﷺ spoke frequently (as did the Qur’an) of dreams and how they are the last remaining vestige of inspiration after the end of prophethood through which God may continue to inspire His righteous servants.
The Prophet’s intense concern with agency and causality—namely, power attributed to beings and things other than God—is evident in another well-known incident. When his son Ibrāhīm died and he was stricken with grief and his doting Companions fell into mourning, it so happened that the sun eclipsed that day and they quite naturally associated the two things: the sun too was grieving the death of the Prophet’s son. But the Prophet ﷺ would not have it:
The sun and the moon do not eclipse for anyone’s death or life. They are, rather, two of the signs of Allah. When you see them, offer prayers.(Bukhārī #3201)
What the Prophet ﷺ rejects in the aforementioned hadiths is the supernatural causality attributed to either the false gods or things or rituals or times and places themselves. It is not the number 13, nor the black cat crossing your path, nor the bird droppings, nor the direction in which the bird flew, nor the eclipse of the sun or the moon, nor the location of the stars that have any effect on your fate.
It could be, of course, that God will show you signs in different ways: perhaps the beauty of the bird in your window is a sign that you should take that new job offer? There is no harm in such inspiration so long as you understand the utter subjectivity of such a feeling—that God showed this to you alone. But when attached to a schema of supernatural effects and superstitious beliefs, these innocent occurrences become symbols and reminders of beings and powers other than Allah. So long as we understand the causality and are not in danger of attributing it to a false god, there is no danger that we will worship that thing as God. But if we do: if we worship natural causes effectively by pitting them against God’s power in any way, or by denying God’s power behind, and above, all natural causes, then we have fallen into another form of polytheism.
This meaning is conveyed best by him to whom God had given the most eloquent and comprehensive expression. Answering his beloved wife, the Mother of the Believers Aisha, the Prophet ﷺ said, about the plague,
The plague is a punishment that Allah sends on whom He wishes, yet for those among the afflicted who believe, it is a blessing. None remains patient in a land in which plague has broken out and believes that nothing will befall him except what Allah has ordained but that Allah grants him a reward similar to that of a martyr.(Bukhārī #5734)