Against “flattening the [curve of] diversity of approaches” to Muslim understandings of contagion in a time of pandemic :: Part One

By Justin Stearns

Part One: Sources and Approaches

The global spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 during the first months of 2020 exposed Muslims to a contagious pandemic on a scale unknown in living memory, prompting unprecedented public health measures in Muslim majority countries, and leading many Muslims to reflect on the ways in which past Muslim communities had responded to infectious disease. The temptation for academics scrambling to contextualize current responses to this pandemic, as for many modern-day Muslim scholars drawing on selected Prophetic traditions or looking to individual prominent religious authorities of the past, has been to identify a singular past Islamic attitude to pandemics that can help justify or explain a specific response to this one. This flattening of past Muslim scholarly and social responses into an easily digestible and employable singular tradition does a disservice to the richness of past Muslim thought regarding contagion an epidemic disease. In this short blogpost, I will briefly draw attention to some aspects of this richness and briefly reflect on the main challenges we face when we parse premodern religious and social responses to epidemic disease.

Sources for thinking about disease and contagion

Epidemic and contagious diseases played a role in Muslim lives from the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century onwards, as is reflected in what became the six Sunni canonical collections of Prophetic traditions, compiled in the ninth century.[1] The main contagious diseases that the Prophet himself encountered were leprosy in the case of people and mange in the case of animals, and this body of traditions contains both injunctions to flee lepers and not to water sick and healthy animals together. The same body of traditions contains accounts of the Prophet denying contagion along with other pre-Islamic beliefs, himself eating with lepers, and emphasizing that contagious diseases originated with God. The case of plague was distinct. While the Justinian plague had ravaged the Middle East from the mid-sixth century onwards, Muslims did not encounter it until their armies entered the Levant in battle against the Byzantines in the late 630s during the rule of the caliph ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (r. 634-44).[2] The accounts of  ‘Umar approaching the plague-struck Levant and turning back at Sargh at the border of Syria and Arabia, the Companion Mu‘adh b. Jabal delivering a sermon demonstrating trust in God by stating his readiness to die of the plague (which occurred shortly thereafter at ʿAmwās (in what is today Israel/Palestine), and the Prophet stating that the plague was a mercy for his community, through which it would achieve martyrdom, distinguished this disease from other contagious diseases in narratives of the early Muslim community.

During the long ninth century Sunni Muslims collected Prophetic traditions into collections that would become canonical for succeeding generations (the situation was distinct for Muslims who would come to regard themselves as Shiʿa). During that same century,  scholars from diverse religious backgrounds living under Muslim rule were translating and building upon Greek, Syriac, and Sanskrit medical texts.[3] In the body of medical works by Ibn Sahl b. Rabbān al-Ṭabarī (d. after 240/855), Qusṭā ibn Lūqā (215/830–297/910 or 308/920), Muḥammad b. Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (d. 311/923), and Ibn Sīnā (d. 428/1037) we find a wide range of diseases and phenomena described as contagious.[4] With most such diseases, such as leprosy, physical contact was seen as necessary for disease transmission. Epidemic diseases were different and the fashion in which they afflicted large groups of people suggested a common agent was responsible, i.e. corrupt air or miasma.

Here is a brief account of the humoral framework in which this medical tradition largely operated and which it built on the paradigm set out by Hippocrates (d. 370 BCE) and refined by Galen (d. 210): each individual possesses a temperament (choleric, sanguine, jaundiced, phlegmatic) that was the result of that individual’s particular constellation of the four humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile). A physician wishing to consul a remedy for any sick individual would need to take that individual’s environment and lifestyle (including sleeping, eating, sexual habits) into account.[5] This medical tradition, which was rich in its internal debates and arguments. But it was not isolated from religious thinking. Any attempt to project a science/religion binary into premodern Islamic intellectual history obscures the ways in which the so-called transmitted and rational sciences were studied side by side and often influenced each other. The extent to which these different constellated bodies of knowledge influenced each other is seen nowhere better than in the genre of Prophetic medicine, which, by the time it was fully formed as a genre in the fourteenth century, brought humoral medicine into dialogue with relevant Prophetic traditions on disease.[6] It is much the same when it comes to epidemics and their discussion in Islamic jurisprudence.

Epidemics in Islamic Jurisprudence and Ethics

Legal discussion of epidemic disease (wabāʾ) and plague (ṭāʿūn) did not begin with the pandemic of plague that swept the Muslim Mediterranean in the fourteenth century. But this discussion certainly proliferated in its wake. Before (and after) this period, we find long discussions of relevant Prophetic traditions in commentaries on collections of related traditions, recommendations regarding leprosy in the manuals of market inspectors (ḥisba manuals) and numerous, often laconic, mentions of the epidemics that struck populations in chronicles.[7] The discussion picks up following the Black Death, with numerous plague treatises being authored in both the Mashriq and Maghreb and forming a genre that overlaps with the juridical opinions (fatwā, pl. fatāwā) from the same periods.[8] In these sources, the discussion of epidemic disease and how Muslims should respond to it draws on not only from commentaries on Prophetic traditions and medical texts, but also on debates in Sufism and theology that focused on the responsibility of the believer to his fellow Muslim and the transmission of disease in light of God’s immanence. An early and influential example of such discussions can be found in the thirty fifth chapter of al-Ghazālī’s (d. 1111) Revival of the Religious Sciences, on “Faith in Divine Unity and Trust in Divine Providence (Kitāb al-tawḥīd wa l-tawakkul).”

Treatises written in the Mashriq in the years immediately following the plague—I’m thinking here of Ibn al-Wardī’s (d. 1349), and al-Manbījī’s (d. 1383) texts—tended to downplay the plague’s contagiousness (Ibn Abī Ḥajala (d. 1375)’s treatise is an exception). In the Maghrib, we get a glimpse of the underlying ethical stakes for jurists in the opposing views of the two Granadan scholars Ibn Lubb (d. 1381) and his sometime student, the vizier Ibn al-Khaṭīb (d. 1374).[9]Whereas Ibn Lubb denied the plague’s contagiousness and stressed that a believer should not shirk his duty to his fellow Muslim, Ibn al-Khaṭīb emphasized the danger of interaction and argued that the Prophet’s statement denying contagion needed to be interpreted in light of what he himself was seeing happen in Granada (a sentiment echoed in even more vivid detail by his contemporary in Almería, Ibn Khātima [d. 1369]).[10]

It is worth pausing here on the position of Ibn al-Khaṭīb and contrasting it with that of the fifteenth-century Egyptian scholar Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī (d. 1448), who addressed the plague both in his influential commentary on Bukhārī’s collection of Prophetic Traditions and in a book-length plague treatise.[11]  Ibn Ḥajar vehemently denied the contagiousness of plague, a disease that killed two of his daughters. He argued that those who died of the plague had been pierced internally by jinn and were, following the respective Prophetic tradition, martyrs provided they had confronted the disease with the appropriate attitude (i.e.,  as with a war, you could not achieve martyrdom by fleeing confrontation; instead, it required pious steadfastness).

Modern scholarship — though not all recent Muslim commentators on the response to COVID-19 — has taken Ibn Ḥajar’s stance as broadly representative of Muslim attitudes in line with later European travelers’ accounts of Muslims behaving fatalistically towards the plague, while depicting Ibn al-Khaṭīb as an exceptional voice that flouted Islamic orthodoxy.[12] In doing so, it has risked flattening not only the diversity of approaches taken by Muslim scholars. It has also facilitated broader characterizations of an intellectual decline in the Muslim world along with a rise in stultifying orthodoxy. When we consider the two examples of Ibn Ḥajar and Ibn al-Khaṭīb’s writings on epidemics more closely it becomes clear that both considered scriptural, medical, and empirical evidence in coming to their decisions regarding the plague. Ibn Ḥajar could even be considered to have been more rigorously empirical. He noted that the plague didn’t kill everyone in the same house, and reasoned that it couldn’t be contagious. In doing so, his logic corresponded with our current understanding of plague transmission as much as did Ibn Khātima’s recommendation that one not buy the clothes of those who had died of the plague: Bubonic plague (as opposed to pneumonic) is in fact not contagious: it requires a vector, most likely a flea, to travel between one human host and another. And when premodern scholars did argue for the contagious nature of the plague and other diseases, they did so within a profoundly different understanding of disease etiology than we have inherited today from the laboratory revolution of the second half of the nineteenth century.

This brief aside should function as a check on our modern rush to find premodern corollaries of our current understandings of the plague, a point as important and relevant to social and legal historians as it is to historians of science. With the plague reoccurring every 7-10 years (with substantial regional variation) throughout the Mediterranean and its hinterlands from the fourteenth into the nineteenth century, Muslim scholars continued to wrestle with what had become an endemic problem for their societies. One common-place observation regarding Islamic jurisprudence bears reiterating here, especially considering the space I have given above to Prophetic traditions and their commentary. In formulating legal opinions, jurists did not simply adduce sources of scripture to provide an answer (even when it appeared that they were doing only this). Instead, they drew upon scholarly precedent and their own understanding of legal principles in choosing which scriptural sources and previous interpretations to privilege over others.[13] The variation in which precedents they considered relevant, and their understanding of relevant empirical evidence, helps explain how some scholars entirely omitted Scriptural sources and interpretations with which they disagreed.


[1] Here and throughout I am drawing on Stearns, Infectious Ideas: Contagion in Premodern Islamic and Christian Thought in the Western Mediterranean (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2011). On the relevant hadith and their commentaries, see Ibid., Chapter One. The best comprehensive study of the Justinian plague in the Middle East remains Lawrence Conrad, “The Plague in the Early Medieval Near East,” Princeton University PhD, 1981.

[2] For an overview of the narrative the plague of ‘Amwās, see Stearns, “‘Amwas, plague of” Encyclopedia of Islam, 3rd edition. For detailed studies of this narrative, see Josef van Ess, Der Fehltritt des Gelehrten (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 2001), and Lawrence Conrad, “ʿUmar at Sargh: The Evolution of an Umayyad Tradition on Flight from the Plague.” In Story-Telling in the Framework of Non-fictional Arabic Literature, edited by Stefan Leder, 488–528. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998).

[3] This post covers only Sunni materials, with the exception of the Zaydī scholar al-Shawkānī’s treatise, which itself is based entirely on prior Sunni sources. While I have not launched a comprehensive search through Shīʿa religious literature regarding writings on the plague, my general impression is that it was not a topic that attracted as much interest from Shīʿa scholars. I am not satisfied with this impression and look forward to future work on this question.

[4] ­See Stearns, Infectious Ideas, Chapter Three.

[5] The literature on Galen is extensive. For an overview on Hippocratic medicine in its Galenic recension being a shared Christian and Muslim heritage, see Stearns, “Disease: Confronting, Consoling, and Constructing the Afflicted Body,” in Iona McCleery (ed.), A Cultural History of Medicine in the Middle Ages (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, forthcoming).

[6] See Irmeli Perho. The Prophet’s Medicine—A Creation of the Muslim Traditionalist Scholars (Helsinki: University of Helsinki, 1995).

[7] For a discussion of lepers in Ibn ‘Abdūn’s, the market inspector (muḥtasib) of Seville, twelfth century manual, see É. Lévi-Provençal, Trois traites hispaniques de ḥisba (Cairo:Institut français d’archeologie orientale, 1955), 50.  Compare with Kristen Stilt, Islamic Law in Action: Authority, Discretion, and Everyday Experiences in Mamluk Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 83-87, for an account of a muḥtasib’s actions in fourteenth century Cairo.

[8] On the genre of plague treatises, see Lawrence Conrad, “Arabic Plague Chronologies and Treatises: Social and Historical Factors in the Formation of a Literary Genre.” Studia Islamica 54 (1981): 51–95.

[9] On these two texts, see Michael Dols’ articles, “Ibn al-Wardī’s Risāla al-naba’ ʿan al-waba’, a Translation of a Major Source for the History of the Black Death in the Middle East.” In Near Eastern Numismatics, Iconography, Epigraphy, and History: Studies in Honor of George C. Miles, edited by Dickran K. Kouymijan, 443–55. Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1974, and “Al-Manbijī’s ‘Report of the Plague’: A Treatise on the Plague of 764–65/ 1362–4 in the Middle East.” In The Black Death: The Impact of the Fourteenth- Century Plague, edited by Daniel Williman, 65–75. Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, State University of New York, 1982.

[10] For the opposing views of Ibn Lubb and Ibn al-Khaṭīb, see Stearns, “Contagion in Theology and Law: Ethical Considerations in the Writings of Two 14th Century Scholars of Naṣrid Granada.” Islamic Law and Society 14 (2007): 109–29.

[11] See Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī. Badhl al-Māʿūn fī faḍl al-Ṭāʿūn. 1411. (Riyad: Dār al-‘Āṣimah, 1990) and Ibid, Fatḥ al-Bārī bi-Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī. 28 vols (Cairo: Maktabat al-Kullīyāt al-Azharīyah, 1978), v. 9, 172-74; v. 11, 11-13; v. 21, 276-81 and 377.

[12] See the foundational and rightfully influential work of Michael Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977). On Ibn Ḥajar, see Ibid,. 111ff, and on Ibn al-Khaṭīb, Ibid., 93-94.

[13] I’m passing quickly over a substantial literature here, but for an insightful and nuanced approach see Behnam Sadeghi, The Logic of Law Making in Islam: Women and Prayer in the Legal Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), Chapter One: A General Model.

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