During Umar bin Khattab’s caliphal rule, early Muslims experienced a sum of disasters which convinced them that the Day of Judgement is upon them.
During the last 1400 years, every generation of Muslims have had at least some groups and/or leaders who assured others that the Day of Judgement is imminent, yet the force of this conviction of impending apocalypse was perhaps never stronger than in the year 639 of Common Era (18 of Hijri).
The primary reason for this certitude was prophet Muhammad’s two hadeeths: 1) The prophet Muhammad, holding out his middle and index fingers, said, “My advent and the Hour (of Judgement) are like this (or like these),” namely, the period between his lifetime and the Day of Judgement is like the distance between his two fingers, i.e., very short (https://sunnah.com/bukhari/68/50). 2) During the Ghazwa of Tabuk while he was sitting in a leather tent, the prophet said, “Count six signs that indicate the approach of the Hour: my death, the conquest of Jerusalem, a plague that will afflict you (and kill you in great numbers) as the plague that afflicts sheep, the increase of wealth to such an extent that even if one is given one hundred Dinars, he will not be satisfied; then an affliction which no Arab house will escape, and then a truce between you and Bani Al-Asfar (i.e. the Byzantines) who will betray you and attack you under eighty flags. Under each flag will be twelve thousand soldiers.” (https://sunnah.com/bukhari/58/18).
The prophet died in the year 632 CE, Muslims conquered Jeurasalem in 638 CE, and during the same year the regions of Levant and Arabia experienced such a severe famine that according to historian Ibn Abi Hajala, the sand of the Arabian peninsula turned black and thousands died due to hunger. He adds that caliph Umar’s body turned so weak that companions feared his death was upon him, and that in the Muslim chronicles the year 638 CE (17 of Hijri) was recalled as the Year of Ashes.
Since historically plagues have often followed famines, it is no surprise that soon after the famine a series of plagues began appearing in many Middle Eastern cities. In the Levantine city of Amwas (Emmaus Nicopolis), where Muslim army had been camping, the plague spread with such swiftness that according to several Muslim historians within a few days more than 25,000 Muslim soldiers died, including several prominent companions of the prophet. (Note: the figure of 25,000 shouldn’t be taken literally, as pre-modern historians often meant by such numbers to signify a large amount of people; there was of course no way to count the specific number of bodies.)
The most prominent among these companions was Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, who is among the ten companions preordained by the prophet to be one of his companions in paradise. Abu Ubaidah was appointed by caliph Umar the head of Muslim army in Syria replacing Khalid Bin Waleed, and under his competent leadership Muslim army won a series of battles, moving from Jerusalem to Beirut to Damascus with lightening speed. Umar had even said that if Abu Ubaidah had stayed alive, he’d have been the one appointed as the third caliph. But after Abu Ubaidah’s unfortunate death during the infamous Plague of Amwas, Umar conferred the governorship of Damascus on the competent shoulders of Muadh ibn Jabal. But soon after even he died, along with his son Abdul Rehman and his two wives. The prophet had said about Muadh that he will lead all Muslim scholars into the gates of paradise. The person who replaced him was Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan but soon plague took his life too. The fourth person to be appointed the governor of Damascus was Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan who was fortunate enough to survive the plague and thirty years later announced the beginning of his own caliphate and in doing so launched the Umayyad caliphate that continued for next hundred years.
Meanwhile, during the year 639, according to several hadeeths and Arab historians, caliph Umar traveled with two military battalions towards Syria, but when he reached the borderland region of Sargh, he met Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, Yazid ibn abi Sufyan, and Shurahbil ibn Hasana, all three of them had traveled down there from the garrison town of Amwas to inform him that a plague had spread at a brisk pace along the cities of Syria and he’d be better off returning back to Medina with his soldiers. According to the famous 9th century Arab historian Abu Jafar ibn Yazid al-Tabari, the caliph first consulted the early migrant ‘Muhajirun’ Muslims of Makkah and then the Medinans, but both groups differed. One said that it’s not wise to return after heading out to fight in the service of God, and the other said that it is a caliph’s duty to protect his soldiers and thus it is logical to return. Then Umar sought the view of those Makkans who had converted to Islam after its conquest by the Muslims. They were quick to suggest that the army should immediately head back. “This time, no two men among them disagreed, but they all said, ‘Return (to Medina) with the men; this is an affliction that may bring about our ruin.’”
Next morning, as narrated in The History of al-Tabari Volume XIII (Trans. Gautier H. A. Juynboll), when Umar got ready to leave, Abu Ubaydah said to him, “Are you fleeing from God’s providence?” “Yes,” Umar replied, “I flee from one divine ordinance to another. Don’t you see? Suppose a man goes down into a riverbed with two slopes, one fertile, the other barren, does the one who grazes his animals on the infertile slope not do so according to God’s ordinance, and does the one who grazes his animals on the fertile one not do so according to God’s ordinance?” Umar went on, “If somebody other than you had said this, Abu Ubaydah, . . . ,” (presumably Umar meant he’d have punished him). Then he went with him to a spot away from the people. While the men were thus busily readying themselves to depart, suddenly Abd al-Rahman bin Awf appeared on the scene. He had been following at a distance and had not been present yesterday. He exclaimed, “What on earth is the matter with the men?” So he was told. Then he said, “I know something about this which is relevant.” Umar said, “In our eyes you are a truthful and honest man,- what can you tell us?” Abd al-Rahman said, “I heard the Messenger of God say: ‘When it comes to your notice that there is a pestilence in a certain country, do not go near it, and if it breaks out while you are in it, do not flee from it then.’ Therefore, Abd al-Rahman concluded, “nothing should make you leave this place except those words.” Umar exclaimed, “God be praised, so leave, all you men!” Then he departed with them. (https://sunnah.com/bukhari/76/44)
What follows after the departure of caliph Umar is narrated by Al-Tabari in these words:
“According to Ibn Humayd—Salamah—Muhammad b. Ishaq— Aban b. Salih—Shahr b. Hawshab al-Ash’ari—someone from his clan who, after his father had died, was left behind to take care of his mother and was an eyewitness of the plague of Amwas, (in other words Shahr’s stepfather), “When the disease became widespread, Abu Ubaydah stood up among his men and delivered the following speech, “Men, this sickness is a mercy from your Lord, a request from your Prophet Muhammad and it has caused the death of the pious who died before you; I, Abu Ubaydah, ask God that He assign to me my share thereof.” Suddenly he suffered (an acute attack of) the disease, as a result of which he died. Muadh ibn Jabal was appointed as his successor over the people. He went on: Then, after that, (Muadh) delivered a speech in which he said, “Truly, men, this sickness constitutes a mercy from your Lord, a request from your Prophet and it has caused the death of the pious who died before you; I, Muadh, ask God that He assign thereof a share to my family.” Then his son, Abd al-Rahman bin Muadh, suffered (a sudden attack of) the plague as a result of which he died. Then Muadh stood up and prayed for a share of the disease for himself, after which it smote him. Indeed, I saw him looking at his palm, then he kissed the back of his hand and said, “I prefer not to have anything of this world (together) with what (I have) in you (i.e. my hand).” When he had died, Amr bin al-‘As was made his successor over the people. Amr stood up to address the people and said,” “Men, when this sickness strikes, it spreads like wildfire, so let us run away from it to the mountains.” Then Abu Wathilah al-Hudhali said, “by God, you are known to us as a liar. While you were still no better than the donkey I sit on, I had already become a Companion of the Prophet.” But, he went on, “by God, this time I will not reject what you say. I swear by God, we should not stay here!” Then he departed and the people went with him and scattered in all directions. Eventually God took the plague away from them. He went on: News of this opinion of Amr bin al-‘As reached Umar bin al-Khattab and, by God, he did not raise objections to it.”
In fact, Umar appointed Amr bin al-‘As head of the Muslim army in Egypt, and he famously led the Muslim conquest of Egypt within the next five years.
It is vital to give the Sargh and Plague of Amwas accounts in detail here because during the next several centuries Muslims were beset with an interminable series of plagues and pestilence, and this Sargh debate, along with three germane hadeeths, were rehashed each time by Muslim scholars in their dogged debates about how to countenance these plagues. One of those hadeeths was mentioned above by Abd al-Rahman bin Awf, and the second one is included in Sahih Bukhari according to which the prophet said, “‘No Adwa (i.e. no contagious disease); nor (any evil omen in the month of) Safar; nor Hama (a bird used to foretell future) exists.’ A bedouin asked, ‘O Allah’s Messenger! What about the camels which, when on the sand (desert) look like deers, but when a mangy camel mixes with them they all get infected with mange?’ On that Allah’s Apostle said, ‘Then who conveyed the (mange) disease to the first (mangy) camel?’” (https://sunnah.com/bukhari/76/84)
And according to the third hadeeth, “Narrated Aisha (the wife of the Prophet): I asked Allah’s Messenger about the plague. He told me that it was a Punishment sent by Allah on whom he wished, and Allah made it a source of mercy for the believers, for if one in the time of an epidemic plague stays in his country patiently hoping for Allah’s Reward and believing that nothing will befall him except what Allah has written for him, he will get the reward of a martyr.” (https://sunnah.com/bukhari/60/141)
Thus keeping in mind the judgements of prophet’s companions at Sargh, and the three aforementioned hadeeths, Muslim scholars and jurists have had three foremost opinions on plagues and pestilence: 1) that all plagues and pestilence are a gift from God to believers but God’s wrath for unbelievers, and that a Muslim who dies due to a plague is a martyr, 2) that a Muslim should neither enter a plague-infested region nor escape from it, and 3) that there is no truth to contagion, all disease and deaths are directly from God.
(Side note: I’ve got to mention here Lawrence Conrad’s excellent paper, Umar at Sargh: The Evolution of an Umayyad Tradition of Flight from the Plague. Conrad is the preeminent historian of plague and medicine in the medieval Muslim world, and in this paper he scrutinizes the evolutionary nature of the seven riwayaats of the Umar at Sargh narrative and convincingly concludes that it’s an invention of 9th century Arab historians involved in debate over the nature of plagues, that there is no doubt Muslim army was stuck with a major plague and that many prominent companions died including Abu Ubaidah, but it is doubtful if Umar had ever led an expedition towards Syria (since no rowayaat properly explains the nature of the expedition), and that even if he had taken an expedition, the debates are certainly invented. He argues that each of the seven riwayaats of the epidsode has bits added to it for literary and rhetorical purposes, and that in this case the riwayaats were adopted by later muhaddiths.
He writes, “The Umar at Sargh tradition provides a valuable example of how an account that in its earliest extant form simply seeks to report Umar’s journey and the reason for its failure, could be so elaborately revised and altered as to lose almost all contact with its original basis (insofar as we have access to this stage of the process) by the time it reached its fully developed form. Specifically, it illustrates how a sophisticated Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad could evolve from what had earlier been a simple historical khabar.” He adds, “it bears notice, however, that the Umar at Sargh materials do not support the commonly asserted position that the genre of akhbar originated from that of hadith, indeed, they illustrate development in precisely the opposite direction.” Later, “the actual journey is henceforth reduced to the role of a frame story that provides the setting for an effort to address major doctrinal and theological issues that had not drawn the attention of earlier tradents. Specifically, the tradition now raises the problem that as all things – including plague – come from God, flight from stricken places and prudent cautionary measures against the epidemic would seem at least to reflect deficient faith, or even comprise defiance of the will of God. The advice of three groups of Muslims neatly sets the stage, an altercation between Umar and Abu Ubayda, soon to fall victim to the Plague Amwas, poses the issue of divine will, and a solution is found in Umar’s parable of the herdsman in the wadi. The tradition of the Prophet, however, lacks the authority to settle the matter, and rather only introduces the problem. In this and all subsequent versions, the Qur’anic motif of consultation with the Companions proves to be crucial.” And finally, “If it seems reasonable to concede that Umar ibn al-Khattab actually did undertake a journey that was terminated prematurely by the outbreak of plague in Syria, the fact remains that even the later tradents, creative in so many other ways, were at a loss as to what to make of this journey. Only the last version, heavily embroidered in all respects, goes so far as to say that Umar was ‘on a campaign’ (ghaziyan), but which campaign? Such lack of differentiation is in itself suspect, and no other source knows of any military expedition led personally by Umar, to Syria or anywhere else.”)
All of this gets infinitely more fascinating once we expand our field of vision in both space and time from Hijaz and Syria to the greater Middle East and the Mediterranean world and from merely the 630s to the entire 6th and 7th centuries and beyond. Because around 150 years before the year 639, Christians of the Byzantine Middle East and Persia had convinced themselves that the world is about to end. (Hence, the thesis of many scholars, Stephen J. Shoemaker prominent among them, that Islam was a natural, though uniquely Arab, product of the greater Mediterranean zeitgeist of the Late Antique 6th and 7th centuries, and that the prophet Muhammad and early Muslims were motivated by their belief in an imminent apocalypse.) There were several reasons for this belief among 6th century Christians: 1) Using dates given in Bible, Christian clergy figured that the world will not age beyond 6000 years, and by calculating the ages of prophets they estimated that the age of the world had already reached 6000 years during the sixth century. 2) Christian Bible’s Book of Revelation had prophesied that right before the second coming of Jesus, the world will be enveloped in a series of wars, famines, plagues, and earthquakes. And sixth century had indeed been a long century of quite literal darkness enveloping the Mediterranean world and beyond, ushering with it several episodes of plagues, famines, earthquakes, a Late Antiquity version of climate change, indeed a “Global Cooling,” and to top it all, a century long tug of wars between the Roman/Byzantine empire and the Persian empire. These endless calamities had hollowed out both these grand old empires, politically and financially, to such an extent that a new group of warriors were able to emerge from Arabia and in quick succession topple both.
(It’s a four part series. The first part deals with the Plague of Amwas and, briefly, its impact on debates about plagues among medieval Muslim scholars, and historicity of the Plague of Amwas tradition. Second part expands to the Justinian Plague (the most fun part). Third one on the 6th century Byzantine Persian wars and the rise of Islam. Fourth part on the 4 major plagues during the Umayyad period given in Muslim historical traditions and, briefly, the rise of Abbasids.)
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History of al-Tabari: The Conquest of Iraq, SouthWestern Persia, and Egypt Vol XIII (Trans. Gautier H. A. Juynboll)
Arabic Plague Chronologies and Treatises Social and Historical Factors in the Formation of a Literary Genre, Lawrence I. Conrad
TA ‘UN AND W’ABA: Conceptions of Plague and Pestilence in Early Islam, Lawrence I. Conrad
The Comparative Communal Responses to the Black Death in Muslim and Christian Societies by Michael W. Dols
Epidemic disease in central Syria in the late sixth century: Some new insights from the verse of Hassān ibn Thābit, Lawrence I. Conrad
Abraha and Muḥammad: Some Observations Apropos of Chronology and Literary “topoi” in the Early Arabic Historical Tradition, Lawrence I. Conrad
Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic, Lester K. Little
Historians and Epidemics: Simple Questions, Complex Answers, Jo N. Hays
‘For Whom Does the Writer Write?’: The First Bubonic Plague Pandemic According to Syriac Sources, Michael G. Morony
Justinianic Plague in Syria and the Archaeological Evidence, Hugh N. Kennedy
Crime and Punishment: The Plague in the Byzantine Empire, 541–749, Dionysios Stathakopoulos
Bubonic Plague in Byzantium: The Evidence of Non-Literary Sources, Peter Sarris
Procopius and the Sixth Century, Averil Cameron
When Numbers Don’t Count: Changing Perspectives on the Justinianic Plague, Monica H. Green
Rejecting Catastrophe: The Case of the Justinianic Plague, Lee Mordechai, Merle Eisenberg
Ancient Yersinia pestis genomes from across Western Europe reveal early diversification during the First Pandemic (541–750), Marcel Keller and others
The Political and Social Role of Khurasan under Abbasid Rule 747-820, Elton L. Daniel