Just as difficult times such as ours often spur very human reactions, those who came before us, including our pious predecessors similarly demonstrated and/or witnessed very human responses to plagues. Probably the first recorded epidemic that the early community directly encountered was the sickness of Medina. Many of the muhājir
s, when they emigrated to Medina, were not accustomed to the local climate and fell grievously ill. A hadith in Bukhārī
, which is found in several historical accounts, states that Abū Bakr (RA) and Bilāl (RA) both contracted the disease.6
The narration states the following:
When Abū Bakr's fever got worse, he would recite (this poetic verse): “Everybody is staying alive with his people, yet death is nearer to him than His laces.” And Bilāl, when his fever deserted him, would recite: “Would that I could stay overnight in a valley wherein I would be surrounded by idhkhir and jalil (kinds of good-smelling grass). Would that one day I could drink the water of the Majanna, and would that [the two mountains] Shāmah and Tafil would appear to me!”
Their reaction was to use poetry to describe their situation or their desires. As a classical mode of expression, both in pre-Islamic Arabia and throughout Islamic history, the use of poetry to express one’s deepest emotions is hardly surprising. Aesthetic responses help us process and make meaning of our situations. Abū Bakr (RA) used his sickness to contemplate death, and we too should take this as an opportunity to remember our mortality and the grave. Bilāl (RA) missed his home, Mecca, and was not reluctant to say so. He wasn’t complaining about being in Medina but he also was not the picture of stoicism. We can be human in the face of difficulty, we can and should feel loss, grief, and nostalgia—we just have to keep turning towards Allah.
During the same plague that hit Syria mentioned above, several companions died, including Muʿādh b. Jabal, Abū ʿUbaydah, Faḍl b. ʿAbbās, and Abū Jandal.7
The plague ultimately claimed thousands of lives. al-Yaʿqūbī writes that prices soared and people began to hoard wealth.8
ʿUmar RA responded by prohibiting hoarding. The grocery store shortages of today, due to all the panic buying, are not entirely unique to the present, though aggressive capitalism and individualism have undoubtedly amplified the trend. Hoarding was wrong then and it is wrong now.
In a widespread account, an early Abbasid official visited Damascus. Damascus had been repeatedly struck by plague and pestilence in the Umayyad and pre-Islamic periods. Now, under Abbasid rule, there were no epidemics. The official saw this as a blessing of Abbasid rule and told the people to be grateful for it. One person remarked, “God is too just to give you power over us and plague at the same time!”9
The person meant that God in his infinite justice would never cause the people of Damascus to suffer both a plague and an implied disastrous rule by the Abbasids at the same time. This anecdote suggests that there was a decline in epidemics and tells us about real or imagined local resentment to the Abbasids in former Umayyad strongholds. But the main reason the account was so often cited, is probably because of its comic resonance. Muslim scholars loved a good literary riposte, and this certainly qualifies. As with memes today, there is some light-heartedness to be found in these situations—an indication of human resilience in the face of difficulty.