Mawtana Rabba and the Role of Climate Change and Plague in the Rise of Islam

Part Two:


Modern tree-ring dating techniques inform us that during the 6th century CE most of the world was enveloped in a 125-year-long mini Ice Age . It was caused by 1) eruption of an immensely powerful series of volcanoes in Ice Land during the years 536, 540 and 547, and 2) in the south west corner of Central Americas (modern el-Salvador), during the year 540, eruption of a volcano of such great power that it is counted among the top 10 most destructive volcanoes of the last 7000 years, and due to which the Maya civilization suffered a catastrophic collapse with more than 100,000 deaths.

The colossal volume of smoke released from these two volcanoes kept most of the world in a foggy darkness for many years, sun’s warmth remained distant, and average global temperature even during the summer months remained between two and twelve degrees celsius. Sixth century Roman historian Procopius wrote that “sunlight was as faint and empty of warmth as that of the moon.”

Due to this paucity of sunlight and its warmth during the sixth and early seventh centuries, most of the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Central Asia suffered a devastating series of famines, thousands emigrated from Central Asia to Middle East, Persia, Europe and India, but Arabia’s otherwise barren deserts enjoyed a historic period of high-yielding fertility.

Then in 541, a bubonic plague emerged in Egypt and spread with such swiftness that in a short while pathways from Egypt to China and the island of England began filling with dead bodies. The original culprit was a bacteria named Yersinia pestis which transmits to humans via flea carrying rats. An infected person starts to notice black or purplish buboes popping up on the skin, along with high fever, and if not treated, the person would most probably die within ten days.

During the next 200 years, between 536 and 745, Justinian plague kept recurring every ten to fifteen years. It seems from the writings of sixth century historians that the plague began in Kush (Ethiopia) and spread its trail of destruction via Egypt and Yemen to Palestine (Levant), Constantinople, and eventually, China and England. But modern genetic research reveals that Yersinia pestis first emerged in the Central asian mountain ranges of Tian Shan (heavenly/celestial mountains), also called Tengri Tagh (God/spirit mountains) in Turkic, evolved there, and possibly transmitted via trading vessels from India and Indian ocean to Africa and Egypt.

The principal sources available for studying this plague are written in four languages: primarily Syriac (the liturgical language of eastern Christianity), and then Greek, Latin, and some Arabic. Contemporary Syriac accounts named the plague “mawtana rabba.” The generic term for pestilence or epidemic disease in Syriac is mawtana, “mortality,” which corresponds to “waba” in Arabic, or sometimes simply mawta, “death.” A “great plague” is called a “mawtana rabba.” Later historians named it the Justinian Plague.

The lengthiest account on “mawtana rabba” is found in the Syriac Ecclesiastical History of the Bishop John of Ephesus. John (Youhanan in Syriac) of Ephesus was a native of Amida (modern Diyarbakr) in northern Mesopotamia (southern Turkey), and had the misfortune of traveling from Egypt to Constantinople in 541 AD. In Palestine, John wrote that he saw entire town populations wiped out. “During the tumult and intensity of the pestilence,” he wrote, “we journeyed from Syria to the capital. Day after day we, too, used to knock at the door of the grave along with everyone else. We used to think that if there would be evening, death would come upon us suddenly in the night. Although the next morning would come, we used to face the grave during the whole day as we looked at the devastated and moaning villages in these regions, and at corpses lying on the ground with no one to gather them.”

According to John, some people carried corpses all day, while others spent the day digging graves. Houses and farms were abandoned; animals forgot their domestication. “Crops of wheat in fertile fields located in all the regions through which we passed from Syria up through Thrace were white and standing but there was no one to reap them and store the wheat. Vineyards, whose picking season came and went, shed their leaves, since winter was severe, but kept their fruits hanging on their vines, and there was no one to pick them or press them.” In his Lives of the Eastern Saints, John reported on one monastery that buried eighty-four of its members who had died of the plague. He writes that in Constantinople, more than 10,000 were dying each day, and when the number exceeded 230,000 the administrators stopped counting.

Other Syriac writings contain details of later outbreaks in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, including the Chronicle of Zuqnın, whose monastic author, in recounting the epidemic of 743–745 under Umayyads, specified that the victims had swellings in the groin, the armpit, or the neck. The Zuqnın Chronicle records a pestilence (mawtana) that broke out in Mesopotamia in during 546 and 547 CE, and a great pestilence (mawtana rabba) that broke out at Amida in during 557–558 CE, where 35,000 people died within three months.

The principal Greek source is the work of the historian Procopius of Caesarea, who was present at the court of Justinian in Constantinople in the early 540s. In his Persian War, Procopius wrote, “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated. . . . It started among the Egyptians. Then it moved to Palestine and from there spread over the whole world. . . . In the second year it reached Byzantium in the middle of the spring.” He says that for the majority of those struck, fever was the first sign, then developed after a few days a bubonic swelling, either in the groin, in the armpit, or beside the ears. He reports that the mortality rose alarmingly, eventually reaching more than ten thousand each day. Procopius also mentions that the emperor himself was taken ill. Justinian, however, recovered and reigned for two more decades.

The lawyer Agathias undertook to continue the history of Procopius. He wrote that after 544 when plague ceased in Constantinople, it had never really stopped but simply moved on from place to place, until it returned to the city almost as though it had been cheated on the first occasion into a needlessly hasty departure. This was the spring of 558, when “a second outbreak of plague swept the capital, destroying a vast number of people.” The form the epidemic took was not unlike that of the earlier outbreak. A swelling in the glands in the groin was accompanied by a high fever that raged night and day with unabated intensity and never left its victim until the moment of death.

In churches, temples, roads, and caravanserais people would often drop dead. Many died while hoisting the dead bodies of their loved ones. One Nestorian priest from Basra wrote that a seemingly healthy man strolling in front of him suddenly opened his mouth wide, winced as if a knife had ripped him, and then dropped dead. John of Ephesus painted such haunting images in his account as if narrating a zombie movie: healthy people in streets swirling down as if dazed and died, their bellies stretched beyond human limits, mouths wide open, lifeless eyes staring at howling winds, hands reaching out as if clasping their souls back, and then their bellies would rip, spilling pus mixed with blood which would run down the streets as if water. Women quarters filled with bodies, their mouths open, and bellies stretched wide. An unbearable stench tyrannizing entire cities.

From the North African city of Carthage, we have testimony of the Latin poet Corippus. In 549 he recited at Carthage his epic poem, the Johannis, on the recently concluded war between the Byzantine army and Berber tribes. In the midst of the war a terrible pestilence arrived by sea. Death was so widespread, he reports, that people became desensitized to it, no longer shedding tears even for their loved ones or observing those rites traditionally due the deceased. Social breakdown was further evident in the scramble among survivors to take possession of the properties and belongings of the victims. Wealthy widows were more sought after than young maidens. References to a later plague epidemic in North Africa, in 599 and 600, are found in the correspondence of Pope Gregory the Great.

Modern historians advise caution in accepting these accounts and numbers prima facie, and it’s true that often medieval authors gave high numbers only to signify the intensity of an event. But what’s undeniable is that almost all of these chronicles share same tale of horrors, of symptoms and signs, of periodic waves, that had devastated their home towns. The contemporary narrative sources available to the historian, be they from East or West, written in Latin, Greek, Syriac, or Arabic, speak with one voice in describing the plague as having had a major demographic impact on communities, urban and rural alike. 

Not unlike most modern maladies, “mawtana rabba” too first descended upon the impoverished neighborhoods of a city, and then advanced to the palatial elites. And somewhat like the modern world, all sorts of rumors on its possible causes started to spread before the plague’s actual descent. The rumor among Palestinians was that dark headless men holding long copper rods were visiting the cities from the ocean every night in glistening copper boats. In Constantinople, people started acting on the odd rumor that if plates and pots made with clay were to be thrown on the ground from the top most windows of the house, the plague will flee. First the men and women of one neighborhood began throwing down their dishes, then second, and third, and for three days nobody was to be seen at the city streets because all were busy slinging their dishes down. And when that didn’t work, people started acting on another rumor that the angel of plague approaches them in the form of a priest or monk, and they started yelling at priests and monks to leave them alone, that they still have time left in this world. When leaving their homes, people would hang tags with their names and addresses on their necks.

Even those who managed to recover suffered intense fatigue for years, buboes emerging and popping, spilling pus down their bodies, not a single strand of hair left on their heads. It became hard to distinguish a monk from a commoner.

Usually plague-ridden dead bodies were buried in mass graves outside the city gates, or they’d be collected in large stacks and tossed via boats into oceans. As the numbers of dead escalated, cities further dipped into chaos, and people began abandoning the traditional religious rites offered for their dead. When no one was left to sink or bury the dead, the emperor Justinian ordered his ministers to invite the tribes inhabiting the mountains, and offer them as much gold as they might want but to do this godawful job. According to his minister Theodore, these tribals first stamped down on these bodies and then bundled them together, then they buried them inside giant pits dug outside the city.

The volume of trade and of production declined generally in the mid-sixth century. In some places, new housing ceased. The coastal cities (the greatest centers of wealth) were hit first and hardest, and perhaps their weaknesses rippled through the Mediterranean lands. Both Kulikowski (in Visigothic Spain) and Peter Sarris (in Byzantine lands) have detected attempts to tie increasingly scarce labor to land, attempts especially notable in a time of legal and economic turmoil.

In his edict, Justinian complains of how, in the wake of the plague, tradesmen, artisans, and agricultural workers had given themselves over to avarice and were demanding twice or even three times the prices and wages that had hitherto been the norm. The emperor decreed that those responsible for issuing wages and stipends to building workers, agricultural workers, or any other group of workers were not to credit them with anything more than their customary remuneration. Likewise, Banaji’s statistical analysis of Egyptian land-leases recorded among the papyri would appear to record a marked improvement in the security of tenure enjoyed by lessees from the middle of the sixth century onward. From the first half of the sixth century to the second, the proportion of leases of indefinite duration increased from 17.2% to 39.4%. The proportion of leases of only one year’s duration declined over the same period from 29.3% to 9.1%

That the plague visited Yemen appears to be corroborated by the inscription of Abraha on the dam at Ma’rib dated 543 CE, which refers to death and sickness striking the community at Ma’rib; the dam was repaired when the fatal epidemic had passed. This outbreak of bubonic plague lasted longer in the east. At the end of his account of the three years of plague, John of Ephesus remarks that “these same calamities still persist in the eastern territories and are not over.” The pre-Islamic Arab poet Hassan Ibn Thabit records the pestilence, described as “the stinging of the jinn,” devastating the rural population of the empire’s eastern fringes. It appears to have reached China by the early seventh century.

“Mawtana Rabba” kept returning in waves for more than 200 years. The Syrian Christian priest Evagrius wrote that during the last decade of 6th century “in a total of 210 years from 541 to 750, there were about eighteen outbreaks of the plague.” This amounts to an average of one outbreak about every 11.6 years. This seems to apply to the first six plague waves for which we can compute the inter-epidemic intervals for Constantinople. These range approximately from eleven to seventeen years, with an average of 14.2 years, a fact corroborated by Evagrius, who records that the plague seemingly broke out during the first or the second year of the indiction cycle, indicating a periodicity of roughly fifteen years. From the thirteenth to the eighteenth wave, Syria was reportedly hit on all six waves, with inter-epidemic periods ranging from five to nine years and an average of 6.6 years.

Not unlike our times, people in sixth century reached for all kinds of explanations. We know, via archeology, that there was a spike in construction of new churches and monasteries. On the other hand, according to John of Ephesus, some Egyptian and Palestinian towns returned to worshipping their idols. As the plague was ravaging Egypt and Alexandria in September 541, crowds in Constantinople gathered round a woman who had gone into ecstasy and was claiming that in three days time the sea would rise and swallow everything. Agathias narrates case that occurred in Constantinople in 557 when the city had been visited by a devastating earthquake. Some individuals claiming to be prophets or possessed by demons began announcing that even worse catastrophes were imminent. These are some of the many testimonies that bear witness to the eschatological climate that must have been dominant at the time. Historian Procopius wrote from Constantinople that, “a plague of such deadly nature has spread from Egypt and Palestine to the rest of the world that it seems the end times are imminent.” 

The plague was perceived in both a religious and a rational way. According to the religious approach, plagues were an expression of divine retribution or punishment, and the result of human sins, either individual or collective, and that it announces the end times. This was a notion central to both popular Greek and Jewish thought. Although in the New Testament, Christ does not present disease as a necessary result of sin, the Christian interpretation of disease established and stressed exactly this relation. In Byzantine texts dealing with the plague, this was the dominant opinion. Collective sin of people bringing about the just divine wrath in the form of the plague. In two polemical instances, this transgression is not presented as collective, but as individual: Justinian, termed “lord of demons” in Procopius’ Anecdota, is made solely responsible for the plague, as is the iconoclastic Emperor Constantine V by iconophile authors.

Youhanan Bar Penkaye wrote that this collective onset of famines, earthquakes, and plagues is an irrefutable sign of end times. Procopius wrote that there could not be an earthly or natural explanation of this plague, it must have been sent directly from God almighty himself. John of Ephesus wrote that an angel whose duty is to dissociate humans from worldly desires and to guide them on a spiritual path towards God is responsible for this plague, that in his eyes this plague is a lash of mercy from God, and an opportunity to plead God for forgiveness. On the other hand, according to the Greek priest Zachariah, this plague was directly from Satan who was left on a leash by the God so that he could punish people for their sins.

Contrary to this divine aetiology, a rational interpretation of disease had been first established almost a thousand years ago by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: “I do not believe that the ‘Sacred Disease’ is any more divine or sacred than any other disease, but on the contrary, has specific characteristics and a definite cause.” According to him, epidemic diseases were defined as follows: “When a large number of people all catch the same disease at the same time, the cause must be ascribed to something common to all and which they all use; in other words to what they all breathe.” This definition was later adopted by the other great medical personality of Antiquity, Galen, and retained its authority throughout the Middle Ages in both Islamic and Christian world. The malignant air responsible for these outbreaks was called miasma.

Even more remarkable in this respect is Anastasius of Sinai’s Questions and Answers, a work written at the very end of the seventh century. Question 114 addresses the topic whether it is possible to escape the plague by fleeing to another location. Anastasius answers with a piece on the origin of plagues. They either break out as a result of divine chastisement or because of corrupt air, vapors, pollution, and stench. In the first case, they cannot be escaped, but in the second, with God’s will, flight to a location with healthier air will often help avoid death. This is Anastasius’ effort to offer a compromise between “Hellenistic rationalism and Christian views on direct divine intervention,” between a “pre-Christian medical and physiological tradition” and the Judeo-Christian model of disease as “chastisement from heaven . . . designed to drive out the evils afflicting the body politic.”

To what extent was this series of plagues, famines, and the little Ice Age responsible for the destruction of the Roman and Persian empires and the emergence of Islam?

Historian Peter Sarris writes in his excellent book Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam that “a diminution in tax revenues caused by the demographic impact of bubonic plague and aristocratic tax evasion appears to have occasioned mounting difficulties in paying the army. It is in this context that we should understand the attempted reduction in military pay proposed by the Emperor Maurice in 588.” (In 588 the garrison at the important frontier city of Martyropolis simply handed it over to the Persians, declaring that they ‘would not be ruled over by a shopkeeper.’ That same year, much of the imperial field army, stationed at Monocarton near Edessa, rose up in rebellion against the Emperor Maurice’s proposed 25 per cent reduction in military pay.)

He notes, “Failure to pay the army adequately or on time, however, tended to lead to desertion, defection, or revolt, as most vividly revealed by the Eastern field army’s response to Maurice’s attempted cuts. Moreover, at some point in the late sixth century, it appears to have become common for the cash component of the stipend issued to garrison troops to be paid in copper rather than gold. Consequently, the collapse in the purchasing power of the copper follis from the reign of Justin II onwards is likely to have had ever more pronounced implications for the loyalty and morale of the military rank and file, as well as of the civilian population of the empire.”

Eventually, Rome under the astute leadership of Heraclius managed to defeat Persia, but, according to professor Sarris, “The Eastern Roman Empire was thus restored territorially, but it was a shadow of its former self. The imperial concentration on the East had necessarily led to a further weakening of its position in the Balkans … Many of the cities of Anatolia and Asia Minor had been ransacked by the armies of the shah or exhausted by the fiscal demands of Heraclius’ war effort. In Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, the reassertion of imperial control at this point must have been largely nominal.”

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In Part three, Mawtana Rabba in Persia, more on the 6th century war between Rome and Persia, and the five waves of plagues under Umayyads.

Part 1: https://www.brownpundits.com/2021/10/09/the-plagues-of-justinian-and-amwas-the-200-years-long-series-of-plagues-and-pestilence-and-the-conquest-of-muslims-over-rome-and-persia/

Bibliography:

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

The Plagues of Justinian and Amwas: The 200 years long series of plagues and pestilence and the conquest of Muslims over Rome and Persia

Part 1:

 

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.)

(If you like what I do, please consider supporting me:  https://ko-fi.com/syedmuzammil1225 )

Bibliography:

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

Brown Pundits