“It was a Memorable Day” – Plague Gatherings and their Critics

By Younus Mirza

The Grand Umayyad mosque in Damascus played an instrumental role in the various responses to droughts and plagues. It is here that the great hadith collection of al-Bukhārī was read and various prayers and supplications were organized.  


In a previous Islamic Law Blog post, Justin Stearns argues that we need to explore the diversity of Muslim responses to pandemics rather than citing individual prophetic reports or statements by famous scholars. Rather than looking at simple antecedents to our current COVID-19 crisis, it would be better to look at the range of responses to plagues within human history and examine how various communities responded in different ways based on their knowledge and contexts.

In this post, I will analyze how the medieval population of Damascus responded to the medieval Black Death in a similar way as they did to droughts and thus put plagues in the category of “natural disasters.”[1] Because “natural disasters” came from God or were part of his divine decree, worship was directed solely to Him in lifting the disease from the land. The “natural disasters” were not seen as having originated from other groups, such as minorities, so we do not see largescale scapegoating. Rather, the religious authority organized a gathering similar to the rain prayer (ṣalāt al-istisqāʾ) which was designed to unite the community around the common crisis and affirm God’s ability to end it. However, critics argued that the gatherings were a religious innovation (bidʿa) as no analogy (qiyās) could be drawn to prescribed ritual prayers. Moreover, they contended that disease and deaths in fact increased after these gatherings demonstrating their ineffectiveness and potential harm.

The Flagellants were a movement which arose in certain parts of northern Europe in response to the Black Death.  They would publically flog themselves as an act of expiation. 

The Rain Prayer (Ṣalāt al-Istisqāʾ)  

The rain prayer (ṣalāt al-istisqāʾ) is a prayer ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad who is believed to have performed the prayer himself amid an intense drought. The Prophet responded to members of his community who asked that he pray for rain by assembling the faithful, giving a short sermon, and then leading them in two units (rak‘as) of prayer.[2]Reports state that immediately after the prayer clouds appeared and it began to rain. The rain prayer appears to be a response to pagan traditions where Arabs would call upon stars or idols for rain.[3] Early Islamic texts, such as al-Muwaṭṭaʾ of Mālik b. Anas (d. 179/796) further establish that the prayer was meant to affirm God’s omnipotence and supremacy. One tradition states that when the Prophet Muhammad would pray for rain he would say “God! Send rain to Your faithful servants and Your creatures. Spread your mercy and renew the life of this dying land of Yours!”[4] The prayer was performed by early caliphs, such as ʿUmar, and has been continuously performed by Muslims communities throughout history and up until the present day.

Early Islamic legal texts, such as al-Muwaṭṭa’ of Mālik b. Anas (d. 179/795), discuss the rain prayer and ascribe it to the practice of the prophet Muhammad. 

Response to the Black Death as a Form of Rain Prayer (Ṣalāt al-Istisqāʾ)

In a previous blog post elsewhere, I discussed how the Black Death united the population of medieval Damascus and led to a massive gathering.[5] The famous Qur’ānic exegete and historian Ibn Kathīr[6] (d. 774/1373) chronicles that on Friday, 5 June, 1348 (7 Rabīʿ al-Awwal 749), after the congregational Friday prayer (jumʿa) the judges and a group of people attended a public recitation of the famous ḥadīth collection of al-Bukhārī (d. 256/870) and prayed that God would lift the plague from the land. As the plague got worse, it was announced on Monday, 21 July 1348 (23 Rabīʿ al-Thānī 749) that the inhabitants should fast three days and that they should come out on Friday and implore God to raise the plague from them.[7] For the following three days, most of the people fasted and some slept in mosques, spending the night praying as they did in the month of Ramadan. On Friday, the inhabitants emerged encompassing the entire population of Damascus – the Jews, Christians, Samaritans, elderly, children, poor, rulers, notables, and judges. All came after the early Morning Prayer and made their way to the “Mosque of the Foot” south of the city. At the mosque, the city’s inhabitants called on God until daybreak or midday. Ibn Kathīr ends his observation exclaiming that “it was a memorable day” (yawm mashhūd).

The famous traveler Ibn Baṭṭūṭa was also an eyewitness to the event and records it in his famous Travels devoting a special section to the day. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa additionally emphasizes the equality of the gathering stating that on Thursday night “the rulers, notables, judges and all different (social) classes gathered in the (Umayyad) mosque until it became crowded and they stayed the whole night. Among them were people praying, remembering (God), and calling out (to him).”[8] After the Morning Prayer, they all left together on foot and in their hands were Qur’āns (al-maṣāḥif). Among them were the “Jews with their Torahs and the Christians with their Gospels.”  Everyone was crying, imploring and seeking intercession with God’s Books and Prophets.[9]

What is fascinating is that this event follows an almost identical structure to previous rain prayers in Damascus. Ibn Kathīr records a similar event which occurred thirty years earlier where he was also an eyewitness. However, this time, the problem was not a plague but rather an intense drought. On April 2nd, 1419 (10 Ṣafar 719), it was called out to fast in preparation for the rain prayer (istisqāʾ).[10] It was further decreed to read the ḥadīth collection of al-Bukhārī and “the people prepared, supplicating at the end of each prayer and after the lectures (khuṭab), and implored God for rain (al-istisqāʾ).”[11] On the following Saturday 7 April (15 Ṣafar), the entire inhabitants of the land (kharaja ahl-balad bi-rummatihim) went out to the Mosque of the Foot. Among these people was the representative of the Sultan and the rulers who were walking (not riding as they would have normally done) and they were crying and imploring God. The people gathered at the Mosque and it was a “remarkable site” (mashhad ʿaẓīm). As part of the rain prayer, there was a sermon which was performed by the Shāfi‘ī judge Ṣadr al-Dīn Sulaymān al-Jaʿfarī (d. 725/1325) and the people audibly said “amen” after his supplications. When people woke up the following morning, rain came “by the will of God, his mercy and kindness, not from the power and strength (of people).”[12] The people became ecstatic (fariḥa al-nās faraḥan shadīdan) and the rain encompassed the entire land. Ibn Kathīr closes the episode by saying “To God is praise and benevolence, He is one, (and) there are no partners to Him.”[13]    

This account follows the same structure of the response to the plague – the great ḥadīth  collection of al-Bukhārī was read, fasting preceded the event, and people processed to and prayed at the Mosque of the Foot.[14] Ibn Kathīr highlights how the rulers joined the event, walking (not riding), and crying and imploring God. Everyone, including the ruling elite, humbled themselves before God and they directed their worship only to him. Moreover, the “entire population” was present demonstrating the communal nature of the event. It is not clear here whether non-Muslims attended but Ibn Kathīr’s language is inclusive such that they could have been present.[15] Ibn Kathīr’s final comments are essential as he puts the result of rain on the mercy and kindness of God, not the “power of people.”  He ends by saying “that there is one God and there is no partners to him.” The statement epitomizes the meaning of the rain prayer in that the prayer affirmed the absolute oneness of God.[16]

Ibn Kathīr’s (d. 774/1373) famous history “the Beginning and the End” (al-Bidāya wa’l-Nihāya) presents eyewitness accounts of how the inhabitants of Damascus responded to droughts and plagues.

Implications of the Plague Gatherings as a form of Rain Prayer

The fact that the inhabitants of Damascus responded to the plague in a similar way to a drought has important implications regarding religious authority and the unfortunate practice of scapegoating. First, the inhabitants reacted with a united front which was based on a shared crisis and strong religious authority. As Michael Dols argues, “The ulamaʾ in medieval society were able to formulate normative attitudes and to guide popular reactions toward the Black Death.”[17] At least in Damascus, we don’t see the development of fringe, extremist or apocalyptic movements which rejected the established religious authority and began to develop their own responses to the plague. For instance, in parts of Europe, we see the rise of the Flagellants, who engaged in extreme purifying rituals such as publically flogging themselves. The movement was never sanctioned by the Church but did have some grassroots and popular support.[18] Rather the Damascus religious authority was able to create a new practice which was based on the precedent of the rain prayer. The rain prayer was an already established ritual in Damascus and had roots in the Prophetic legacy, the example of the early Muslim community and the various Islamic schools of law. To order the community to engage in a gathering similar to the rain prayer was not too much of a mental shift and therefore gained wide support and appeal among the population.

Moreover, the fact that the community saw the plague as a form of drought has significant implications in regards to scapegoating which was one of the tragic legacies of the Black Death and natural disasters in general.[19] In certain parts of Europe, Jews were blamed for the plague and burned alive as a way to expiate the community.[20] However, medieval inhabitants of Damascus understood the plague affecting the entire community in a similar way to how a drought impacts everyone. Prophetic practice further focused the community on praying to God to end the calamity rather than blaming one segment of the community for its occurrence.  The rain prayer was meant to unite the community against the common natural disaster and ask God for its cessation. As Ibn Kathīr and Ibn Baṭṭūṭa both observe, religious minorities were visibly present at the gathering and were praying with the rest of the population. They further do not record any retaliation against them in Damascus.

Plague Gathering Critics

News of the Damascus plague gathering would travel throughout the Mamlūk Empire and it would eventually be replicated in other parts, most notably in Cairo in 822/1419 and 833/1430.  However, despite their wide-spread popularity, the gatherings did have their critics. In his plague treatise (Badhl al-māʿūn fī faḍl al-ṭāʿūn),[21] the famous ḥadīth scholar Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 852/1449)[22] argued that the plague gathering in Damascus was a religious innovation (bidʿa) which did not have precedence in Islamic history.[23] Speaking in the next century and citing secondary sources, Ibn Ḥajar contends that the 749/1348 gathering actually increased the disease when it was in fact less before.[24] He then moves to explain that a plague (re)appeared in his hometown in 23 January 1430 (27 Rabīʿ al-Thānī 833) and at the time only 40 people had died of the disease. After it was called out to fast three days, people went out on Friday, 29 January (4 Jamāda al-Uwlā) to the desert which was a similar practice to the rain prayer (istisqāʾ). People gathered, prayed for an hour and then returned to the city. However, by the end of the months,  the deaths numbered a thousand a day and continued to increase after that.[25]

After the gathering, there were various fatwās regarding its practice. Some of the scholars supported it based on previous precedent, especially the fact that the Mamlūk Sultan Malik al-Muʾayyad (d. 824/1421) participated in a previous plague gathering and found it beneficial.[26] A group of scholars further attended the gathering with him and did not object to it. However, others ruled that not participating in such gatherings was preferable in order to avoid the dissention (fitna) it could cause )within the community( both if the prayers were answered and if they were not. If the prayers were answered, there was a danger in people becoming pretentious. If their prayers were not answered, then the people would have a negative impression of the scholars and righteous and of supplication in general.[27]

Ibn Ḥajar then interjects his own opinion saying that if these gatherings were permissible, then there would be some precedent from the early community (salaf), the jurists around the world, their followers and previous generations.[28]However, no report has reached his generation, no tradition from his contemporaries exists and there is no written legal precedent (farʿ masṭūr) from any of the jurists. For Ibn Ḥajar, the words of supplication and the characteristics of the supplicant have particularities and inner reasoning – every prayer is unique and has a specific form which is suitable to it. What is relied on is that ritual prayers should be strictly followed and there is no room for analogy (qiyās).

To illustrate his point, Ibn Ḥajar gives the example of the eclipse prayer (kusūf) where the sermon and admonishment (takhwīf) has a different form than that of drought.[29] Moreover, the prayers that are transmitted on natural disasters and calamities (nāzila) such as famine and disease are different than that on the eclipse prayer (kusūf) and the rain prayer (al-istisqāʾ).  Whoever conflates the various prayers “has innovated in a religious matter which is not part of it and it should be rejected.” Here Ibn Ḥajar paraphrases a popular prophetic report on religious innovation and the importance of preserving the forms of ritual prayers.[30] Ibn Ḥajar then gives another example of keeping the different prayers distinct by citing the eponym of his legal school al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820) who believed that there was no group supplication (qunūt) in the rain prayer (in contrast to other prayers such as the dawn/fajr prayer). Ibn Ḥajar ends the section believing that al-Shāfiʿī himself would support his position (and God knows best). For Ibn Ḥajar, each prayer – whether it be the eclipse or rain prayer – had a distinct form which should only be performed for its prescribed reason.

Ibn Ḥajar explains that the plague gatherings were in fact one of the reasons why he decided to write this plague treatise where he gathered various ḥadīths (related to plagues) and commentaries on them.[31] He decided not to go out in the 833/1430 gathering and did not attend the earlier gathering with al-Malik al-Muʾayyad (in 822/1419), even though he was particularly close to him.[32] What he anticipated would happen – an increase in deaths – occurred in both circumstances, and there is no strength and power except with God, the most high and great.[33]

Ibn Ḥajar ends his argument stating that he has not heard about any time, especially in the era of the Companions and Successors, when people gathered in response to the plague in the same way they did for the rain prayer (istisqāʾ) except in the year 749/1348 (in Damascus).[34] In Ibn Ḥajar’s view, they gathered, prayed, and returned back to the city but the affair became more difficult and they did not attain what they intended. What occurred almost 85 years later in Cairo (in 833/1430) had the identical result (kiffa bi-kiffa).[35]


In summary, the scholarship has noted the occurrence of plague gatherings but has not sufficiently discussed their similarities to rain prayers and the subsequent debate that ensued. The fact that medieval Muslims of Damascus understood the plague as similar to the drought has important consequences in how they reacted to its occurrence. Just as the rain prayer brings rain which lifts the drought from the land, the inhabitants hoped that their gathering would in a similar way lift the plague from their city. Moreover, the population did not see the plague as originating from a particular group of people and therefore did not scapegoat anyone.[36] The plague was like a drought where everyone was affected and needed to pray to God for its cessation. The Damascene religious authority was therefore able to effectively create a ritual that united the population and did not lead to fringe movements or scapegoating.

Nonetheless, the plague gatherings did have their critics especially when the gatherings started to be replicated in other parts of the Empire such as Cairo. The famous ḥadīth scholar Ibn Ḥajar argued that the gatherings did not have any precedent in Islamic history and that there was no room for analogy in ritual prayer and supplications. Each prayer had a distinct form and reason and it was wrong to apply one to another. Moreover, in his observation, the plague gatherings did not prevent deaths but rather they increased after their occurrence demonstrating their ineffectiveness and harm. The debate thus demonstrates how social responses to the pandemics built off precedents and established traditions which had popular support. Yet, critics were frequently present asking whether the responses conformed to proper religious practice and questioning whether they attained the desired result.


[1] The secondary sources do reference this connection between the various plague gatherings and the rain prayer but more work needs to be done to understand the implications of this analogy. See Michael Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977), 248; Justin Stearns, “New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death,” History Compass 7, no. 5 (2009): 5; Justin Stearns, Infectious Ideas: Contagion in Premodern Islamic and Christian Thought in the Western Mediterranean (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 164.  Also, Stearns notes that these plague gatherings were unique to the “Mashriq, specifically Cairo and Damascus.” Stearns, Infectious Ideas, 161.

[2] T. Fahd and P. N. Boratav, “Istisḳāʾ,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, Second Edition, eds. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs (Leiden: Boston: Brill 2020).

[3] Mālik ibn Anas, Al-Muwaṭṭaʾ: the Recension of Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā al-Laythī (d. 234/848), eds. and trans. Mohammad Fadel and Connell Monette (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Published by the Program in Islamic Law, Harvard Law School, 2019), 188.

[4] Mālik ibn Anas, Al-Muwaṭṭaʾ, 187.

[5] Dols references this event but does no connect it with ṣalāt al-istisqā’. Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East, 251.

[6] For more on the life and works of Ibn Kathīr see Younus Y. Mirza, “Ibn Kathīr, ʿImād al-Dīn,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, eds. Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas and Everett Rowson (Leiden: Boston: Brill 2016).

[7] Ibn Kathīr, al-Bidāya wa’l-nihāya, ed. Ḥasan Ismā‘īl Marwa (Damascus: Dār Ibn Kathīr, 2009), 16:41.

[8] Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, Riḥlat Ibn Baṭṭūṭah al-musammāh Tuḥfat al-nuẓẓār fī gharā’ib al-amṣār wa’l-‘ajā’ib al-asfār, ed. ʻAbd al-Hādī Tāzī (Rabat: Wizārat al-Thaqāfah, 2004), 1:325. For a strong translation of this episode see Ibn Baṭṭūtah, The Travels of Ibn Battutah, ed. Tim Mackintosh-Smith (London: Picador, 2002), 39.

[9] The famous Mamlūk Egyptian historian al-Maqrīzī also notes this procession and gathering but it does not seem that he was an eyewitness to the event. However, the fact that he notes the gathering in his history demonstrates that the news of the event had become widespread and was influencing other gatherings. See al-Maqrīzī, Al-Sulūk li-ma‘rifat duwal al-mulūk, ed. Muḥammad ʻAbd al-Qādir ʻAṭā (Beirut: Dār al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya, 1997), 4:85.

[10] Ibn Kathīr, al-Bidāya wa’l-nihāya, 16:141.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] For the acts of processions and fasting as a response to natural disasters in Europe see Jussi Hanska, Strategies of Sanity and Survival: Religious Responses to Natural Disasters in the Middle Ages (Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2002). For a specific discussion regarding Valencia see Abigail Agresta “From Purification to Protection: Plague Response in Late Medieval Valencia,” Speculum 95, no. 2 (2020): 371–95.

[15] However, despite the enormity of the drought, it did not seem to have reached the same level as the Black Death since Ibn Kathīr does not note any deaths and his language does not signal the same level of desperation.

[16] However, there are some key differences in that the plague gathering was performed on Friday while the rain prayer was done on Saturday. Also, the rain prayer had a sermon where the plague gathering did not.

[17] Michael W. Dols, “The Comparative Communal Responses to the Black Death in Muslim and Christian Societies,” Medieval and Renaissance Studies 5, no. 1 (1974): 286.

[18] As Jussi Hanska explains, “The important thing is that despite the participation by some members of the clergy, the flagellant processions seem to have been essentially a lay movement.” Hanska, Strategies of Sanity, 61.

[19] As Hanska explains, “The need to find guilty persons manifested itself, for example, in psychotic witch-hunts for scapegoats in connection with epidemics and other major disasters. Since it was not a question of man-made disasters where it is easy to point the finger at someone, and since there was no scientifically relevant information about the causes of natural disasters, it is no wonder that the role of scapegoats was given to outsiders. Those who were not members of the community and bound by its rules were always looked upon with suspicion, and in exceptional circumstances they were always potential victims.” Hanska, Strategies of Sanity, 176.

[20] Samuel K. Cohn, “The Black Death and the Burning of Jews,” Past & Present 196, no. 1 (2007): 3-36.  For more on medieval Christian and Muslim views of Jews and contagion see Stearns, Infectious Ideas.

[21] Ibn Ḥajar al-ʻAsqalānī, Badhl al-māʿūn fī faḍl al-ṭāʿūn, ed. Aḥmad ʿIṣām ʿAbd al-Qādir Kātib (Riyadh: Dār al-ʿĀṣima, 1991).

[22] For more on his life see F. Rosenthal, “Ibn Ḥadjar al- ʿAsḳalānī,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, Second Edition, eds. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs (Leiden: Boston: Brill 2020).

[23] Ibn Ḥajar, Badhl al-māʿūn, 328.

[24] Ibn Ḥajar, Badhl al-māʿūn, 329. However, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa contended that the deaths decreased after the plague gatherings, especially in relation to Cairo. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, The Travels, 1:325. The famous Egyptian historian al-Maqrīzī also notes that the deaths decreased. Al-Maqrīzī, Al-Sulūk li-ma‘rifat, 4:85.

[25] Ibn Ḥajar, Badhl al-māʿūn, 329. Al-Maqrīzī chronicles this plague gathering in 833/1430 and also notes that the death’s increased after the event; Al-Maqrīzī, Al-Sulūk li-ma‘rifat, 7:204.

[26] Dols speaks about this massive gathering and translates some chronicles on the event. Dols, Black Death, 238.

[27] Ibn Ḥajar, Badhl al-māʿūn, 329.

[28] Ibn Ḥajar, Badhl al-māʿūn, 330.

[29] Ibid.

[30] J. Robson, “Bidʿa,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, Second Edition, eds. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs (Leiden: Boston: Brill 2020).

[31] Ibn Ḥajar, Badhl al-māʿūn, 330. Ibn Ḥajar notes that he started compiling the book in the year 819/1416-17.

[32] Joel Blecher explains that, “Ibn Ḥajar cultivated a particularly close relationship to al-Muʾayyad, attaining a level of trust and influence he was never able to replicate with al-Muʾayyad’s successors….” Joel Blecher, “Ḥadīth Commentary in the Presence of Students, Patrons, and Rivals: Ibn Ḥajar and Sahīh al-Bukhārī in Mamluk Cairo,” Oriens 41, no. 3-4 (2013): 269.

[33] Ibn Ḥajar then goes on a tangent in that he prefers the prayer of Adam and Eve “Oh Lord, we have wronged ourselves…” (8:23) over the one “Oh Lord remove this punishment from us verily we are believers” (44:12) since the former was accepted by God while the latter was made by a group of disbelievers and eventually rejected.  During the plague outbreaks, there was a dream that people should make the prayer found in 44:12 but Ibn Ḥajar found this prayer to be inappropriate and not substantiated by precedent.      

[34] Ibn Ḥajar, Badhl al-māʿūn, 331.

[35] Dols states that Ibn Ḥajar eventually agreed to the legality of the plague gatherings with the other scholars of Egypt but I do not see this within the text. Dols, The Black Death and the Middle East, 120. Dols also adds that the plague gatherings became popular in Egypt in the 14th and 15thcenturies.

[36] As Dols states, “The Muslim writers on the plague did not dwell on the guilt of their co-religionists even if they did admit the plague was a divine warning against sin. Prayer was supplication and not expiation.” Dols, The Black Death and the Middle East, 285. Nonetheless, Stearn cautions that Dols’ observations were made from a limited number of sources and that Christians and Muslims often shared similar views of the plague. For instance, Stearns ends his article asking “To what degree did representatives of these traditions borrow from each other’s theological considerations of plague, much as they did with medical knowledge? More extensive comparative work may well give us answers to these and other questions, and will work against any all too facile reductionism when discussing religious responses to the plague.” Stearn, “New Directions,” 7. See also his Infectious Ideas where he states in the Introduction, “Instead of reducing Muslim and Christian understandings of contagion to a clear opposition between two approaches characterized by religious or civilizational labels, I attempt to delineate the parameters that directed these two groups of intellectuals toward qualitatively distinct constructions of contagion.” Stearns, Infectious Ideas, 11.

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