The act of takfīr (‘declaring someone a non-believer' [1]) represents one aspect of how the religious cleric oversteps the limitations of a religious fatwā and threatens both the safety of individuals and the stability of whole societies. Such a transgression ought be included in the roster of reprimand and punishment, like all actions that result in crimes and felonies. 


THERE IS ANOTHER aspect of the Muftī’s transgression of the limitations of a religious fatwā, and this is when he interferes in scientific matters that belong to scientists in the true sense of the word; this too is related to the issue of takfīr.

What we want to demonstrate in this article is that the negative aspects of a misleading fatwā may go far beyond excommunicating a specific person or threatening his life, to spreading death throughout an entire society as a cultural prerequisite.

We have no predilection for judging the dead and judging history, but many contemporary issues can only be understood by considering their long history and deep origins. We are not among those who place the responsibilities of the past on the shoulders of the jurists alone, since these are part of a diverse and complex general system that cannot be reduced to some hasty juridical rulings. Nevertheless, the reality is that the dominance of the “jurisprudential mentality” has resulted in an inflated, unlimited role granted religious jurisprudence and a shrinking of other fields of knowledge. It has also resulted in the expansion of the jurisprudential institution at the expense of other cognitive and social institutions, for which societies and peoples have far more certain need. So, in this article, we will present the argument that some misleading fatwā have been the cause of the death of millions of Muslims, men, women and children, a number that has exceeded the victims of the Mongol and Tatar invasions.

This happened in what is known as the greatest epidemic, the Black Death that swept over the entire world in the 14th century, the century in which Ibn Khaldūn[2] lived, who was greatly impacted by the plague, having lost his parents and many of his elder family relations to it. The epidemic reached Tunisia between the years 1348 and 1349, and in the foreword to his Muqaddima Ibn Khaldūn described it as:

a destructive plague which devastated nations and caused populations to vanish. It swallowed up many of the good things of civilization and wiped them out … Civilization decreased with the decrease of mankind. Cities and buildings were laid waste, roads and way signs were obliterated, settlements and mansions became empty, dynasties and tribes grew weak … It was as if the voice of existence in the world had called out for oblivion and restriction, and the world had responded to its call.

The very presence of someone like Ibn Khaldūn at that time is evidence that the tendency of reason had not yet been extinguished, except that we are aware of the position taken by the religious scholars of law towards Ibn Khaldūn, their hostility towards him and their refusal to integrate his knowledge into the epistemological system that they controlled. Among those who fought him during his life we might mention in the Arab West Ibn ‘Arafa,[3] who was one of the great Mālikī jurists, and among those who despised him and disparaged him after his death, we might mention the easterner Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī,[4] a Shāfiʽī jurist and author of the most important commentary on Al-Bukhārī’s Ṣaḥīḥ. [5] Ibn Ḥajar also lost some of his family members to the plague.

The epidemic constitutes ‘a divine mercy’ since it enables a Muslim to achieve martyrdom

The people flocked to Ibn Ḥajar to provide them with fatwās regarding this great calamity that had befallen them. He accordingly issued an Epistle with the title that summed up its content:  Badhl al-Mā’ūn fi Faḍl al-Ṭāʽūn – “The aid of the Helper on the Benefits of the Plague”! The jurist and hadith scholar Ibn Ḥajar informed them that the Prophet said:

The plague is a testimony to my Nation, a mercy for them, and a punishment for the unbelievers.

The Nation of Muhammad should therefore not be afraid of the plague, but should await it with joy and gladness. For whosoever dies from it will gain martyrdom and be counted among the ranks of the martyrs. It follows, of course, that people were not to consult doctors in his matter because, as he says,

the doctors have wearied of attempting to treat this, and for all their skills have acknowledged that there is no cure for it, nor cause of it other than the One who created and ordained it.

And since the jurist considers himself the representative of the ruling Creator, he is the one who should take on the responsibility for guiding people in his regard. From starting with searching for ways to prevent the epidemic or treating those affected by it, the issue moved on to defining the etiquette of how to accept it and celebrate it as a mercy from the Lord of the Worlds and a path to martyrdom for the Muslims. As for the assumption, made by the medical doctors, that the plague was contagious, this was prohibited on religious grounds and turned into an expression of disbelief. Al-Bukhārī’s commentator had this to say:

The conclusions of doctrines on this contagion are four in number:

The first is that the disease is contagious purely by its nature – and this is the saying of the infidels;

The second is that the disease is contagious by the mere fact of God Almighty’s creation of it to be so, and so consigned it, and cannot be overridden unless the sufferer undergoes a miracle or some divine dispensation, and thus will be deferred. This is the teaching of Islam although it is a probability only;

The third is that the disease is contagious, but not by its own nature, but through God’s establishment of the habit that it should be so, in the same way that He established the habit that fire causes burning but that this may be overridden by the will of God Almighty, albeit that such an overriding is generally rare;  

The fourth is that the disease is not at all contagious by its nature, but anyone contracting this disease is due to its being created by God – to Whom be glory –  from Whom it originates in the first place.  This last is the probably origin of the infection.

If it is thus proven that the epidemic is not contagious, then there is no longer any need to pay attention to what the doctors have said about it. Instead the hadīth scholar and jurist is to review the Qur’ānic verses, the hadiths and the opinions of the jurists who preceded him or his contemporaries.

The overall picture that the reader emerges with is that the epidemic constitutes ‘a divine mercy’ since it enables a Muslim to achieve martyrdom without having to burden himself with the  trouble of participating in wars – the badge of martyrdom will to his own home if his intentions are pure and his determination proven. Thus, if he cherishes himself and wishes to be safe from the epidemic then he must, according to the opinion of the hadith scholar and jurist Ibn Ḥajar, repeat the prayer for the Prophet in a specific form, a form which he detailed in his Epistle. Among other means of prevention, as he indicates from the work of previous jurists, are; drinking mud, inhaling the vapour of ‘ūd-wood and frankincense, or imitating the braying of a donkey! However, if the plague catches up with a person in a village in which he resides, then he has no choice in the matter: he must not flee from the affected place because to flee like this constitutes evading one’s fate, and he must wait for God’s judgment in this.

Ibn Ḥajar introduced this issue of epidemics into jurisprudential research, and it thus became a specialty of the jurists

Ibn Ḥajar introduced this issue of epidemics into jurisprudential research, and it thus became a specialty of the jurists. Although Al-Suyūṭī who died in the year 1505 did not live during the period of this plague, he saw it as his duty as a jurist to simplify the jurisprudence on this subject for the generality of the legal scholars. He thus provided a summary of Ibn Ḥajar’s Epistle and the addenda made by subsequent scholars on the issue of the plague, giving it the title: Kitāb mā Rawāhu al-Wāʽūn fī Akhbār al-Ṭāʽūn – ‘What Those in the Know have Stated Concerning the Plague’. Al-Suyūṭī was asked to give a fatwā on the question of the plague, and in order to make it easier for the enquirer and others like him to memorize the answer, he gave his answer in the form of an urjūza poem. This is the text:

Praise be to God (to worthily begin)

and to the Chosen One let there be praise!

Heed now a response to a query, made plain 

an exploration asked not in vain:

No pestilence it was that caused thee the care,

nor sickness of frame, nor foulness of air –

‘Twas the Messenger of God who deigned to declare

that the jinn alone were the cause of the pain.

For the God of the Throne empowers these all

when sins and lusts are rife overall,

To witness to that which the pure soul awaits,

while those who deserve it will meet their foul fates.

All this we are told in a ḥadīth that is sound,

in which no weakness nor ailment is found.[6]

Who, then, a Prophet’s ḥadīth would ignore,

and rather the philosopher’s trifles explore,

That is a man devoid of sound sense,

who renounces the faith and the Prophet’s lore.

These are the verses Al-Suyūṭī made,

– that God ease the anguish and accept what he prayed!

And it seems that this urjūza poem was widely spread due to its being easy for the jurists to memorize.  They used to recite this to those who sought fatwās about epidemics, a request that was made frequently in the Islamic world until modern Western science rescued them from it. Yet due to the considerable fame of Al-Suyūṭī’s urjūza, as a celebrated Shāfiʽī jurist and hadīth scholar, and one who considered himself a reformer of the tenth century and its outstanding mujtahid,[7] some still maintain that whoever wants to prevent an epidemic must memorize this urjūza and chant it out loud, so that the epidemic will recede.

Such issues may seem to be something from a long and vanished past were it not for the fact that Ibn Ḥajar is the greatest commentator of Al-Bukhārī’s Ṣaḥīḥ and is the authority in this field. His book Fatḥ Al-Bārī is the reference for all muftīs to this day, due to the many works by Al-Suyūṭī that populate our libraries from the Red Sea to the Atlantic.

The mentality that handled the issue of epidemics in this way, and deprived people of measures that medicine could have provided, notwithstanding how limited these were in that era, is the same mentality that interpreted the Qur’ān, explained the hadith, collected fatwās and compiled the body of jurisprudence. It represents, to this day, the religious reference point and the authoritative argument. There is no place for any religiosity that lies outside of its mechanisms and categories.

[1] See Glossary.

[2] Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406) is famous for his groundbreaking work on the sociology of history, contained in his Muqaddima (‘Introduction’) to his history. (Ed.)

[3] Abū ‘Abd Allāh Ibn ‘Arafa al-Warghammī (1316-1401) a Tunisian Imam and the most illustrious representative of the Mālikī school of jurisprudence. His conflict with Ibn Khaldūn was due to his suspicion that he had non-religious motives. (Ed.)

[4] Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī (1372-1449) whose work is considered “the final summation of the science of Ḥadīth”. His work on al-Bukhāri’s Ṣaḥīḥ is known as Fatḥ al-Bārī. (Ed.)

[5] Abū ʽAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Ismāʽīl al-Bukhārī (809-867 AD) collected in his Ṣaḥīḥ collection of the hadīth of the Prophet some 70,000 hadīths – others say that he collected 200,000 hadīths – but he considered no more than 2,726 hadīths not to be repetitions of others, and 7,397 to have complete chains of transmission, including repeated hadīths. (Ed.)

[6] Al-Suyūṭī is here punning on soundness and weakness in the human body, with the technical terms on ‘soundness’ and ‘weakness’ in the validity of the hadīth. (Ed.)

[7] A scholar who exercises ijtihād in his interpretation. See Glossary: ijtihad.

Main image: ‘St. Bernardo Tolomeo’s intercession for the plague in Siena’ by Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1735)

Bust of Ibn Khaldun in the entrance of the Kasba of Bejaia
Badhl al-Ma’un fi Fadl al-Ta’un
(Download the Arabic text here (7.5 MB)
The tomb of Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani in Cairo (Fouad Gehad Marei, 2009)