We’ve Been Here Before: Plague and Pestilence in Pre-Modern Islamic History
Published: April 17, 2020 • Updated: October 6, 2020
Author: Abdul Rahman Latif
For more on this topic, see Faith in the Time of COVID-19
In the Name of Allah the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
On the 27th of Rajab, Muslims traditionally gathered in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus to commemorate the Miʿrāj, the Ascension of the Prophet ﷺ. Ibn Kathīr writes that on that day in the year 749 AH, during the Black Death, “People did not gather as usual because many had died from among them, and many were busy with taking care of their sick and their dead.”1
This year of 1441 AH, on the 27th of Rajab, most community gatherings at masjids were once again not taking place.
We’ve been here before, though the mortality rate is far lower this time and advances in hygiene practices, medical care, and public awareness give us much to be grateful for. Allah’s Greatness has not diminished, nor has our ummah’s resilience.
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In this short paper, I take a quick look at a few incidents of and reactions to plague and pestilence in pre-modern Islamic history.2 The goal of this paper is not to accumulate historical census information nor to create any single comprehensive account, but rather to draw a few lessons from the experiences of Muslims before us. Everything that Muslims did in the past is not sacred, but it is profoundly human, and like us they were grappling with Islam, the will of God, and a developing tradition that we too have inherited even if their understandings and interpretations of events were not always the same as ours.
Early perceptions of the origins of plagues
Plague and pestilence, ṭāʿūn and wabāʾ—though the exact understandings of the terms are more complex than those translations credit—commonly occurred throughout Islamic history.3 Just as we grapple to understand the causes of such illnesses, Muslims of the past similarly attributed the emergence of widespread disease to medical and/or spiritual factors. In the pre-modern period, Muslims believed that an imbalance in the body’s humors caused by bad air/miasma sparked plagues and pestilence. At times, they even attributed the emergence of such diseases to pricks from evil Jinn. The science may have been wrong (or at least different from today), but ultimately many minds worked to make sense of the phenomena, even as the belief that it was contingent on the will of Allah prevailed. Finding an etiology and accepting the power of Allah are not mutually exclusive. Nor are taking precautions and trusting in Allah—at that time, taking precautions may have meant spending time in open spaces with better air; today it means isolation and following the consensus of medical professionals.
The Prophet ﷺ described plagues as mercy and martyrdom for the believers and possible punishment for others. In a hadith now oft-quoted for its alignment with scientific advice, the Prophet ﷺ said the following with regards to plagues, “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.”4 When the plague struck Syria during the khilāfah of ʿUmar (RA), the companions debated the meaning of the above hadith and sought to determine how best to protect the army stationed there.5 They collectively demonstrated the difference between caution and fear; they accepted what was happening as the decree of Allah; they were not worried about dying but did their best to prevent it.
A few visceral ‘human’ responses to disease in late antiquity
Just as difficult times such as ours often spur very human reactions, those who came before us, including our pious predecessors similarly demonstrated and/or witnessed very human responses to plagues. Probably the first recorded epidemic that the early community directly encountered was the sickness of Medina. Many of the muhājirs, when they emigrated to Medina, were not accustomed to the local climate and fell grievously ill. A hadith in Bukhārī, which is found in several historical accounts, states that Abū Bakr (RA) and Bilāl (RA) both contracted the disease.6 The narration states the following:
When Abū Bakr's fever got worse, he would recite (this poetic verse): “Everybody is staying alive with his people, yet death is nearer to him than His laces.” And Bilāl, when his fever deserted him, would recite: “Would that I could stay overnight in a valley wherein I would be surrounded by idhkhir and jalil (kinds of good-smelling grass). Would that one day I could drink the water of the Majanna, and would that [the two mountains] Shāmah and Tafil would appear to me!”
Their reaction was to use poetry to describe their situation or their desires. As a classical mode of expression, both in pre-Islamic Arabia and throughout Islamic history, the use of poetry to express one’s deepest emotions is hardly surprising. Aesthetic responses help us process and make meaning of our situations. Abū Bakr (RA) used his sickness to contemplate death, and we too should take this as an opportunity to remember our mortality and the grave. Bilāl (RA) missed his home, Mecca, and was not reluctant to say so. He wasn’t complaining about being in Medina but he also was not the picture of stoicism. We can be human in the face of difficulty, we can and should feel loss, grief, and nostalgia—we just have to keep turning towards Allah.
During the same plague that hit Syria mentioned above, several companions died, including Muʿādh b. Jabal, Abū ʿUbaydah, Faḍl b. ʿAbbās, and Abū Jandal.7 The plague ultimately claimed thousands of lives. al-Yaʿqūbī writes that prices soared and people began to hoard wealth.8 ʿUmar RA responded by prohibiting hoarding. The grocery store shortages of today, due to all the panic buying, are not entirely unique to the present, though aggressive capitalism and individualism have undoubtedly amplified the trend. Hoarding was wrong then and it is wrong now.
In a widespread account, an early Abbasid official visited Damascus. Damascus had been repeatedly struck by plague and pestilence in the Umayyad and pre-Islamic periods. Now, under Abbasid rule, there were no epidemics. The official saw this as a blessing of Abbasid rule and told the people to be grateful for it. One person remarked, “God is too just to give you power over us and plague at the same time!”9 The person meant that God in his infinite justice would never cause the people of Damascus to suffer both a plague and an implied disastrous rule by the Abbasids at the same time. This anecdote suggests that there was a decline in epidemics and tells us about real or imagined local resentment to the Abbasids in former Umayyad strongholds. But the main reason the account was so often cited, is probably because of its comic resonance. Muslim scholars loved a good literary riposte, and this certainly qualifies. As with memes today, there is some light-heartedness to be found in these situations—an indication of human resilience in the face of difficulty.
A 14th-century discussion of plague: The treatise of Ibn al-Wardī
Discussions of the Black Death in most historical accounts—and in much of our Western education—focus almost exclusively on Europe. Even the dating of the peak of the pandemic, 1347 to 1351, focuses on its spread in Europe. Muslims were by no means immune from the tragic plague—Stuart Borsch estimates that almost half of Egypt’s population had perished from the disease or its societal effects by the late 15th century.10 Ibn al-Wardī experienced it firsthand in Mamluk lands and eventually died of it himself. He wrote a poetic treatise on the plague that is worth briefly examining on its own.
He believed that the plague was a punishment from Allah but, rather than focus on that punishment, he sought refuge and hoped for a chance at moral and spiritual improvement. He remarked, “We ask God’s forgiveness for our souls’ bad inclination; the plague is surely part of His punishment. We take refuge from His wrath in His pleasure and from His chastisement in His restoring.”11
When describing the causes of plague, he wrote, referencing the belief in bad air at the time, “They said: the air’s corruption kills. I said: the love of corruption kills.”12 Whether today’s pandemic is deemed a punishment or not, Ibn al-Wardī’s statement is not wrong. We see that corruption today—greed especially—is a reason why this pandemic is not being dealt with as it should be and why so many people are endangered. The hoarding of medical materials, the lack of investment in healthcare, insistence on keeping the economy open for the sake of large corporations, price gouging—the examples of this obsession with accumulation go on and on. Corruption literally kills.
Ibn al-Wardī, like the companions before him, accepted what was happening as the decree of Allah and even found reasons for optimism in a painful situation. He wrote, “I fear not the plague like others do. It’s just one of two ‘happy’ fates: If I die, then I rest from foes; if I live, my ears’ and eyes’ illness abates.”13
Ibn al-Wardī demonstrates the crucial difference between acceptance of Allah’s decree and fatalism. By writing about the plague, by continuing to write amidst the devastation it wrought, he wasn’t succumbing to a tragic situation but recording what was happening and continuing to try to make sense of it. Acceptance does not mean a failure to act. He wrote that “When the Muslim endures misfortune, then patience is his worship.”14 The Islamic notion of patience is not passive.
Devout medieval reactions to sicknesses and disasters
When the Black Death and later recurring plagues struck Cairo in the 14th and 15th centuries, the dead were so many that funeral processions looked like camel caravans.15 Sometimes bodies were left in the street or dumped in the river. But despite the terror of the time, Muslims did their best to maintain ritual purity and continue burials. Normalcy was disrupted, but their consistency in acts of faith continued and so did the fulfillment of their obligations to each other. We cannot do jumuʿah these days but we can keep up our prayers and our fasts and discover the spiritual benefits of retreat. We can use technology to give salāms to people we haven’t spoken to in a while, and people we would otherwise see regularly. When the Black Death struck, many people thought, rightfully so, that it might be the end of the world. Yet, for the most part, they were not paralyzed by apocalyptic fear. The Prophet ﷺ said, “If the Resurrection were established upon one of you while he has in his hand a sapling, then let him plant it.”16 Even when the world is ending, we are to persist in what good deeds we can, to finish what efforts we are able to.
When plague and pestilence struck, pre-modern Muslims would often respond with an abundance of worship, not just an abundance of caution. In 449 AH, pestilence overcame Ahwāz. Ibn al-Jawzī describes the people’s reaction as turning back to Allah, increasing in good, and abandoning all sinful behavior stating, “All repented. And they spent in charity the majority of their wealth, they dumped their alcohol…”17 In the face of the Black Death in Cairo, a prayer for reprieve similar to that done when calling for rain in the midst of drought was conducted on the desert outskirts of the city.18 Extra fasts were also done. Recitations of the entire Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī commenced. Such readings, in addition to the recitation of the Qur’an, were traditional responses to pestilence and devastation more generally. The Qāḍī of Damascus had a dream in 749 AH when the plague was striking nearby Anatolia.19 In the dream, he saw the Prophet ﷺ, who said that the people should recite Sūrat Nūḥ three thousand three hundred and sixty times and ask Allah for relief from the present situation. The sūrah, unsurprisingly, involves asking for protection and is a reminder of human survival in the face of calamity. The people conducted the recitation. They asked forgiveness for their sins and they slaughtered many animals to give meat to the poor. Regardless of whether plague is a mercy, a punishment, or neither, our reaction today should not be despair, regret, and selfish cruelty but rather devotion, repentance, and selfless charity.
Incidents of masjid closures due to pestilence
One of the most trying experiences for Muslims today in the present crisis involves grappling with the closure of masjids. However, this is by no means the first time masjids have closed due to illness, though the scale of current closures is unprecedented. In 395 AH, due to pestilence and plague, Qayrawān’s masjids in modern-day Tunisia were empty.20 Qayrawān has historically been renowned as a center of learning and religiosity so this was undoubtedly a notable situation. In 448 AH, masjids in al-Andalus closed due to pestilence and famine.21 And during the Black Death in Egypt, many masjids and shrines were shut.22 In these incidences, the closures were probably not due to prevention like today, because their understanding of the disease was different. They likely happened because so many people were sick, so many had died, and so many were taking care of the sick. In either case, both then and now, preoccupation with the preservation of life was a valid reason for closure.
In his medieval chronicle focusing primarily on Egypt, Ibn Taghrībirdī (d. 874 AH) mentions over and over again the occurrence of plague in the 8th and 9th centuries. When discussing notable figures, a common refrain he uses is that the individual in question died of the plague.23 He sometimes compares different plagues in terms of how devastating they were to the population.24 His references to plague make for a very depressing read, but the silver lining is that his history always moves on; the plague subsides, he recognizes the existence of a curve and its peak, or another particular event draws his attention away from and past the disease. Ibn Taghrībirdī lived through recurrent instances of plague, but this is not all his history is about; it is something that happened to his subjects but was not his sole focus.
Our current situation will pass inshāAllah someday soon. It will be a line of history, an element in a chronicle. There will be a peak and there will be a decline. May Allah protect us, there may even be a recurrence. People we know may succumb to the disease, people we know of may pass away. The world may change, but history will move on. We are going through something significant but, as with Ibn Taghrībirdī’s chronicle, it is not all that is happening and it is not all that is important—e.g., we still have the spiritual blessings of Ramadan to think about, there are still oppressed Muslims in the world we should be working for. Historical accounts teach us that we should react with caution, patience, and increased worship and care for each other. They also teach us that we have moved past this before. As Allah says in the Qur’an in Sūrah Raḥmān, verses 26-27, “All on earth perishes. And the Face of your Lord, Owner of Majesty and Honor, persists.”
Recommendations for further reading
If you are interested in learning more about the plague and pestilence in Islamic history, al-Suyūṭī has a work listing various accounts here. Michael Dols, who I’ve cited extensively, has many works on the subject in English. Dr. Elaine van Dalen recently compiled an excellent list of English and Arabic sources here on epidemics in Islamic history. Finally, the Ottoman History Podcast produced an episode on plague in early modern and modern times that adds additional valuable information to our discussion.
1 Ibn Kathīr, al-Bidāyah wa-al-nihāyah (Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, 1988), 14:263.
2 I want to say briefly that the authenticity or accuracy of many early historical accounts is difficult to confirm—not that plague or sickness occurred, but that specific people actually said the statements attributed to them. We should keep in mind though that for Muslim historians, accuracy was not the only or even the most important thing they were concerned with. They made arguments about their own times through these histories, they edified, they critiqued, and they did so much more. We cannot always glean exactly what happened, but we can get an idea of how people of the historian’s time or the time they wrote about may have understood what was happening.
3 See Lawrence I. Conrad, “Tāūn and Wabā,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 25, no. 3 (1982): 268–307.
4 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, no. 5728.
5 Michael W. Dols, “Plague in Early Islamic History,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 94, no. 3 (1974): 376–77.
6 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, no. 1889.
7 Ibn Kathīr, al-Bidāyah wa-al-nihāyah, 6:226.
8 Many thanks to Shabir Agha Abbas for this reference. Al-Yaʿqūbī, Tārīkh al-Yaʿqūbī (Beirut: Dār ṣādir, n.d.), 2:150.
9 Dols, “Plague in Early Islamic History,” 380.
10 Stuart J. Borsch, The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study, 1st ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 15.
11 Ibn al-Wardī, “Account of Reports on the Pestilence (Risala an-naba' 'an al-waba'),” Near Eastern Numismatics, Iconography, Epigraphy and History: Studies in Honor of George C. Miles, ed. Dickran K. Kouymjian, trans. Michael Dols (Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1974), 454.
12 Ibn al-Wardī, 454.
13 This couplet was translated and shared on social media by Kevin Blankenship. With thanks to Daanish Faruqi.
14 Ibn al-Wardī, 454.
15 Michael W. Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), 240, 245, ACLS Humanities E-Book.
16 Musnad Aḥmad, no. 12491.
17 Ibn al-Jawzī, al-Muntaẓam fī tārīkh al-mulūk wa-al-umam (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīyah, 1992), 16:17.
18 Dols, Black Death in the Middle East, 247–48.
19 Ibn Taghrībirdī, al-Nujūm al-zāhirah fī mulūk Miṣr wa-al-Qāhirah (Cairo: Dar al-Kutub), 10:203.
20 Ibn Idhārī, Kitāb al-bayān al-mughrib fī akhbār mulūk al-Andalus wa-al-Maghrib (Beirut: Dār al-Thiqāfah, 1983), 1:257.
21 al-Dhahabī, Tārīkh al-Islām al-kabīr (Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʿArabī , 1993), 30:25.
22 Dols, Black Death in the Middle East, 246.
23 Ibn Taghrībirdī, al-Nujūm, 15:218.
24 Ibn Taghrībirdī, 15:156.