Lessons from the Hadith of the Plague

The words of the Prophet Mohammed can help Muslim societies answer urgent questions during the COVID-19 crisis.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne
April 23, 2020

In times of crisis, when life or death is at stake, believers turn to their religion to understand the situation they are experiencing. This is why in Muslim societies, where the scourge of COVID-19 is rampant, we often hear the words of the Prophet Mohammed quoted: "If the plague breaks out in a region do not go there, but if you are already there, do not come out of it."

This prophetic tradition (hadith) is evoked by Muslims to answer the practical and urgent questions of the day: "What to think? "and "What is to be done?”

I was in Senegal when the first cases of COVID-19 were declared. The alarm was sounded, and at the beginning there was fear of "religious" resistance to quarantine and stay-at-home measures. Renounce Friday prayers in the mosque? Out of the question. Cancel planned celebrations by the different Sufi brotherhoods (to which a majority of Senegalese Muslims adhere) that lead to gatherings of hundreds of thousands in religious capitals such as Touba or Tivaouane? Impossible.

Fortunately, the state took the time to explain and gain support for its actions from the country's spiritual leaders. Airport closures, prohibitions on religious gatherings, and night curfews became the norm. Admittedly, the decisions were dictated by common sense and science to the Senegalese secular state. Nevertheless, they are a contemporary translation of the hadith of the plague.

The hadith teaches first of all that to challenge God by tempting the devil is the negation of the consideration that one must give to others, to those fellow human beings that the Koran calls "the children of Adam." Which means that he who goes to a religious gathering has not only decided that his faith dictates that he should gamble with his own health and that of the fellow devotees with whom he makes a crowd, but also on that of his fellow citizens who do not share the same persuasion, or who have no religious conviction at all.

In other words, God's decree does not speak against common sense. To disregard common sense and what science dictates is neither a manifestation of the intensity of one’s faith, nor the self-confident surrender to God that true faith demands.

When science has defeated the plague, the lesson of the hadith of the plague must continue to remind us that religion finds its meaning when it is the religion of humanity.


A headshot of a bespectacled African elderly man with grey hair

Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a scholar of Islam, is the chairman of Columbia University’s French and Romance Philology department. His field of research includes Boolean algebra of logic, history of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, African philosophy and literature. This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.