A pilgrim during epidemic

How the Hajj was performed during the plague or cholera

A pilgrim during  epidemic
Photo: pixabay.com

At different times, humanity has faced epidemics: terrible diseases that spread over vast spaces through animals and travellers. At such a time, strangers were treated with suspicion and undesirability: whether this stranger would bring some kind of infection. COVID-19, which is evolving into new and possibly more dangerous strains in its contagiousness, is no exception here. Meanwhile, at all times, pilgrims have sought to travel to holy places. Karim Gaynullin, a columnist for Realnoe Vremya, tells how it happened during the epidemics in his article for our publication.

How believers met the pandemic

In a sense, public worship is a small kind of pilgrimage — from home to church or pilgrimage to another area. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the question of Friday prayer for Muslims and Sunday services for the Christians immediately became acute — should they be carried out or cancelled for the benefit of humanity? Since the beginning of the pandemic, humanity has already managed to try everything: Friday prayers were held limitedly, cancelled completely — and there were even attempts to conduct them online (however, many were outraged).

Let us also recall the first curiosities in the Islamic world: great unrest among the Shiites (this is one of the two main currents within Islam) about the restriction of pilgrimage to holy places: Qom (Iran) and Karbala (Iraq). As a result, the Iranians simply could not close access to the ziyarats (graves) of revered saints: in response to the closure of the mazar of Fatimah bint Musa (daughter of the seventh Twelver Shia Imam, Musa al-Kadhim) and the Imam Reza's mazar in Mashhad, crowds of believers began to break into the halls of mausoleums.

However, on the whole, believers met the new reality calmly: after all, similar curiosities were also encountered in the secular world — when concerts or other public events were cancelled. For example, a significant movement of “anti-vaxxers” was formed in the United States, led by Republican politicians — so significant that Biden has to come out with regular messages to Americans.

Epidemic and Hajj in the depths of centuries

Surprisingly, the epidemic directly entered one of the two sources of the sacred corpus of the Muslims — the Sunnah. The Sunnah contains the utterances of the Prophet Muhammad himself, while the Quran — the direct speech of Allah. Thus, in one of the collections of sayings of the prophet, “Sahih” of al-Bukhari, it is said:

“And if any servant (of Allah) who is in any area [where the plague broke out] does not leave there, remaining there, showing patience and hoping for the reward of Allah, knowing that nothing will befall him except what Allah has ordained, then he will receive the same reward as a martyr who died for the faith.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)

The thing is that the birth of Islam coincided with the plague epidemic that swept Eurasia. Some historians cite the weakness of Sasanian Iran and the Byzantine Empire — the two superpowers of that time, neighbours of prophetic Arabia — as one of the reasons for the success of subsequent Muslim conquests.

Photo: wikipedia.org

Therefore, the blessed prophet was aware of the danger of epidemics, and he ordered his followers, in fact, to isolate themselves in such cases. At the same time, it is obvious that during the pilgrimage the believer leaves his locality. The Prophet warns against this.

There have been cases in history when the pilgrimage to the shrines of Islam was suspended — of course, more often for military reasons than for epidemiological reasons.

The very first documented case of obstruction of the pilgrimage to Mecca occurred in pre-Islamic times. Information about this has been preserved exclusively in Muslim sources, in particular the surah of the holy Quran “Elephant”. Mecca was a holy Arab city even before the birth of Islam, and the Hajj rituals have their roots in a much older time. In 570 A.D., corresponding to what the Arabs call “the year of the elephant”, the governor of Yemen, Abraham, the governor of the powerful Ethiopian Abyssinian Empire, decided to destroy the Kaaba in order to make the Yemeni Sana with the Sana Cathedral the pilgrimage centre and spread Christianity among the Arabs. According to legend, Abraha was attacked by flocks of birds who “threw stones of baked clay at them (Yemenis)". The events of “the year of the elephant” are considered a miracle that precedes the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.

A case that has become unprecedented in the history of Islam is the attack on Mecca by the sect of ultra Shiite Qarmatians in 930. The robbers managed not only to kill tens of thousands of people, but also stole the sacred Black Stone from the Kaaba temple and desecrated the sacred Zamzam spring, dumping the bodies of the murdered pilgrims there. The Black Stone returned to Mecca only 20 years later.

The “success” of the Qarmatians sect in 1979 was repeated by a group of ultra Wahhabis, led by Juhayman al-Otaybi. He and his followers rebelled against the ruling al-Saud family, seizing the Haram complex and taking the pilgrims hostage. Then the House of Saud had to resort to the help of a French tactical unit — which was unprecedented, because, according to Islam, Mecca is a forbidden city for non-Muslims.

Photo: wikipedia.org

In the 19th century, humanity experienced many deadly outbreaks of cholera. In 1846, about 15,000 people died of cholera in Mecca. Because of this, the pilgrimage was suspended in 1837 and 1846. In 1865, a large conference was convened in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, following which quarantine measures were introduced in the Hejaz. In total, from the 30s to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, there were about 30 outbreaks.

The pilgrimage was also suspended due to the plague epidemic in 1814, when about 8-9 thousand people died in Hejaz.

Finally, in 2014, due to the Ebola outbreak in Africa, Saudi Arabia stopped issuing visas to the countries with a high prevalence of the virus, including Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Christian Holiness and the pandemic

Christians, as well as Muslims, have different attitudes to restrictive measures. The most radical refer to the verse from the Gospel of Mark: “They will take snakes in their hands, and even if they drink deadly poison, it will not harm them.” On the other hand, Christians have been dying since the beginning of the epidemic, both priests and spiritual fathers have been dying. Historically, hospitals were often opened at monasteries and monastic orders (as in the Islamic world — at waqfs).

With the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, already on March 18, 2020, Pope Francis preached a sermon on the need for careful attitude in difficult periods, hinting at relationships during epidemics. Among the Orthodox churches, the Ecumenical Patriarchate was the first to react, suspending services in churches of its jurisdiction and closing monasteries from parishioners. The ROC closed the churches on March 29.

Source: wikipedia.org

Anyway, over 2000 years of history, Christians have encountered many epidemics. The very first known was the plague already mentioned in the chapter about Islam during the reign of Emperor Justinian, in the middle of the 6th century. The result was the weakening of Constantinople, which preceded the Arab conquests of the following century.

A difficult time for the ministry fell on the century of Pope Clement VI. Then Europe suffered a very devastating epidemic of bubonic plague. The Pope declared that what was happening was the result of the wrath of God. Mass unrest went further, and the masses decided that this anger was the result of the actions of the Jews. In response, Clement VI condemned the pogroms committed by the new plague sects and issued several papal bulls condemning the accusations against the Jews.

During the Crusades, the Crusaders founded in Palestine, the place of pilgrimage for all Christians, the Order of St. Lazarus — especially for lepers. Hence the word “infirmary”.

Karim Gaynullin

The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.