Malevolent Spirits, Noxious Vapours, and the Will of God
Islamic Theology and the Explanation for Disease Transmission, from North Africa to Southeast Asia
This article describes Islam’s theological approach towards disease transmission. Modern commentators, including many conservative Muslims, argue that Islam is theologically predisposed to deny disease transmission, particularly in the context of the plague, instead framing illness as non-communicable. Whether an individual contracts a disease, they claim, is a consequence of Divine Will, as the originator of that disease in the first place. No room exists for lesser causative factors, like contagion. However, a review of Islamic scripture and the pre- and early modern Muslim responses to it across regions as diverse as North Africa and Southeast Asia reveals a far richer and more complex understanding. While several ḥadīths do ostensibly deny contagion, Muslim jurists and medical practitioners have, far from reading these as denials of disease transmission in all its forms, positioned such statements alongside other ḥadīths acknowledging the reality of that phenomenon. Utilizing the theological principle of secondary causation, they have imparted congruence to these statements, creating a theological space in which disease can be passed from one host to another without compromising the integrity of the Divine Will. The recent COVID-19 pandemic foregrounds the importance of re-discovering and re-emphasizing these interpretations, especially as small yet persistent groups of Muslims refuse vaccination in the belief that God alone can protect them from illness. Such views arguably misunderstand Islamic teachings.
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