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

By Justin Stearns

Part Two: Diversity and Change in Scholarly Approaches to the Plague

Jurists’ ongoing engagement with how to respond to epidemics speak to the vibrancy of this ongoing discussion, even as a quick comparison with chronicles shows that the juridical discussion did not map cleanly onto social responses. In the late fifteenth century, the chief judge of Granada, al-Mawwāq (d. 1492), addressed a series of questions on plague and contagion to the chief judge of Tunis, al-Raṣṣāʿ (d. 1489), asking about the cause of the plague and what he held the proper response to be.[1] In his response, al-Raṣṣāʿ argued at length for jinn being the causative agent of the plague and for the plague not being contagious. Following Ibn Ḥajar, he saw in the plague a source of martyrdom for the sincere believer and like Ibn Lubb, stressed the importance for Muslims to take care of the sick.  When it came to other diseases, drawing on the occasionalist framework of Ashʿarī theology, al-Raṣṣā‘ argued that while God could create proximity to the sick as a cause, one should not refer to disease transmission as a cause even as one can take medical and spiritual actions to prevent it.

Several decades later, at the other end of the Mediterranean, when returning from the Hijaz in 1512, the Kurdish scholar al-Bidlīsī (d. 1520) heard of the plague having broken out in Cairo and chose to return to Anatolia without visiting Egypt.[2] Once arrived and having heard that others had criticized his action, he penned a passionate treatise on the plague and dedicated it to the Ottoman sultan. In it, he laid out a comprehensive argument for the necessity of avoiding the plague within a framework that explained how God’s foreknowledge of events did not entail Muslims not taking the necessary precautions to protect themselves.

Unlike Ibn Ḥajar a century before, he never mentions the traditions that describe the plague as a mercy or as martyrdom, but stressed the importance of protecting the Muslim community and advises Muslim rulers to prevent populations from being exposed to the plague. As far as plague etiology is concerned, al-Bidlīsī reconciles a spiritual origin of the disease and the agency of the jinn with its effects on mankind’s humoral composition (in this his stance, in other ways the opposite of Ibn Ḥajar’s, came close to his Egyptian predecessor). Al-Bidlīsī’s treatise and his argument for fleeing the plague was to prove an inspiration to the Algerian scholar Ḥamdān b. ʿUthmān (d. ca. 1842) in the nineteenth century when he wrote his own treatise arguing for the implementation of the European innovation of the quarantine.[3]

In seventeenth-century Morocco, the prominent Amazigh theologian, logician, and Sufi al-Yūsī (d. 1691) devoted a number of pages of his Discourses to a proper understanding of contagion.[4] Accepting disease transmission in the case of the plague, al-Yūsī was at pains to explain that God caused disease in each and every individual — as He did everything at every moment — but that He did so in a habitual fashion that man could rely upon. On the one hand, al-Yūsī wasn’t breaking new ground and in many ways his views are similar to those laid out by al-Ghazālī in his Revivalwhen he discussed using medicines — but al-Yūsī’s insistence on man’s ability to ascertain God’s Habit, including in the way that disease was transmitted, was exceptional among Ash‘ari theologians. While his use of occasionalism was the same as al-Bidlīsī, he never mentions jinn as causative agents, and we have some evidence from other sources that he openly advocated fleeing the plague. Al-Yūsī’s views on this subject were not shared by all subsequent Moroccan scholars, including the prominent Sufi and Qur’anic exegete Ibn ‘Ajība (d. 1809), who penned a plague treatise stressing the need to take care of one’s fellow Muslim.[5]

Only a few years after Ibn ‘Ajība was describing how Sufis could use the plague to test their trust in God, the prominent Yemeni jurist and Zaydī reformer al-Shawkānī (d. 1834) wrote a plague treatise that also denied contagion, and drew heavily on Ibn Ḥajar’s commentary on Bukhārī’s collection of Prophetic Tradition.[6] For al-Shawkānī, the subject was primarily one of reconciling potentially contradictory Prophetic traditions and his treatise reflects an awareness of the debate that had been occupying scholars going back to Ibn Qutayba nearly a thousand years preceding him. Al-Shawkānī’s treatise was out of step with some other prominent Muslim views of his day, for it was in the 1830s that the Ottoman Empire and Mehmed Ali’s Egypt first began to religiously justify imposing quarantines against the plague (see also my above mention of the Algerian scholar Hamdan Khoja’s advocation of the quarantine).[7]

This attenuated survey of Muslim writings on the plague demonstrates on the one hand an extended engagement with the question of epidemic disease that drew on legal, ethical, and spiritual imperatives to provide disparate Muslim communities with solutions. Yet it also speaks to how little we know about how premodern Muslim communities responded to individual outbreaks of the plague. While we possess individual impressionistic descriptions in chronicles of communities gathering in processions or collective prayers outside of cities, and general claims of numbers who died overall or on a given day or month, we have nothing like the detailed archival picture that Ruth MacKay has been able to eloquently assemble of the terrible outbreak of the plague that struck Castile between 1596-1601, killing hundreds of thousands (this was possibly that same outbreak that, further south, killed the Moroccan Saʿdi ruler Aḥmad al-Manṣūr [d. 1603]).[8] So, while we should pay close attention to normative writings of Muslims on the plague, we need to simultaneously remember that with some notable partial exceptions — the excellent work of Stuart Borsch and Nükhet Varlik comes to mind — we have no similar fine grained studies of the ways that Muslim states and communities responded to this challenge.[9]


A closing caveat. This post has focused on the legal and medical responses to the plague.  Premodern Muslim societies also had recourse to prayers, talismans, and invocations against the plague that I have not described here, and the boundaries between these and the discourses detailed here were porous.[10] It is a heuristic, and perhaps a necessary one, to consider material and occult means of healing as distinct when we describe them as approaches, but we must keep in mind that they often overlapped to the point of being indistinct.[11]

But to conclude: We are living through a pandemic, and the trauma of human suffering that we are collectively witnessing encourages us to reflect on the ways in which past societies have faced similar challenges. Understandable as this impulse is, if we want to comprehend this history, we need to avoid the temptation to find in individual opinions or interpretations antecedents of our own as this would elide the fact that past generations perceived the world through different hermeneutic filters and constituted empirical evidence differently. Without wishing to push the social constructivist envelope too far: these societies experienced diseases through frameworks that led them to parse scripture, sensory information, and reported experience profoundly differently than we do now. Our readings of their responses thus should proceed from a place of profound empathy of these differences rather than from a teleologic or apologetic desire to identify antecedents of medical understandings that followed the laboratory revolution of the nineteenth century. What studying Muslim responses to epidemic disease does offer us is a valuable window on the diversity of Islamic legal, ethic, and spiritual thought and past efforts to meet intellectual and social challenges, the richness of which is of immediate relevance today.


[1] See Stearns, Infectious Ideas, 132-37.

[2] For my reading of al-Bidlīsī’s treatise, see “Public Health, the State, and Religious Scholarship: Considering sovereignty in Idrīs al-Bidlīsī’s (d. 1520) arguments for fleeing the plague,” in Ben-Dor Benite, Geroulanos, and Jerr (eds.) The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic Perspectives on the History of a Concept (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 163-85.

[3] See Stearns, Infectious Ideas, 152-57.

[4] My initial reading of this passage can be found in Infectious Ideas, 137-38, but for a clearer translation and its full context see now al-Yūsī, The Discourses. Trans. Justin Stearns (New York: NYU Press, 2020), 245-51.

[5] See Stearns, Infectious Ideas, 150-51.

[6] See al-Shawkānī, “Itḥāf al-Mahara bi-l-kalām ʿalā ḥadīth lā ʿadwā wa lā ṭiyara.” Great Library of Sanaʿa, No. 137. Reprinted in Al-Fatḥ al-Rabbānī, 4:1941–63 (Sanaʿa: Maktabat al-Jil al-Jadid, 2002).

[7] On this context, see Stearns, Infectious Ideas, 157-59, where I also discuss the Moroccan historian al-Nāṣirī’s (d. 1897) opposition to quarantine and his criticism of the Sa‘dī sultan Aḥmad al-Manṣūr.  For the Ottoman adoption of the quarantine, see also Andrew Robarts, Migration and Disease in the Black Sea Region: Ottoman-Russian Relations in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

[8] Ruth MacKay, Life in a Time of Pestilence: The Great Castilian Plague of 1596-1601 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[9] Both scholars have written copiously on this issue of plague in Mamluk Egypt and the early modern Ottoman Empire, respectively. To begin, see Stuart Borsch, The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005) and Nükhet Varlik, Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: The Ottoman Experience, 1347-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[10] A survey of some of these is given in Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East, 123-24.

[11] See, for example, the recent and excellent study of Liana Saif, “Between Medicine and Magic: Spiritual Aetiology and Therapeutics in Medieval Islam,” in Siam Bhayro and Catherin Rider (eds.), Demons and Illness from Antiquity to the Early Modern Period (Leiden: Brill, 217), 313-38.

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