On Meaning Of The Hadith “There Is No Contagious Disease”
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
According to a famous hadith in Sahih Bukhari, Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said:
لا عدوى ولا طيرة، ولا هامة ولا صفر
There is no infection, no evil omen, no hama, and no serpent in a hungry belly (safar).
Problematizing the apparent meanings
The above translation done by an orientalist James Robson is actually how many people tend to understand this hadith as a negation of infection or communication of disease. The history of experiences of regular infectious diseases and epidemics, on the other hand, leave no doubt even to a person without knowledge of biology or microbiology that certain diseases do have contagious nature. The current pandemic of coronavirus (COVID-19) is just a case in point.
The hadith is indeed authentic having been related by a number of companions including Abu Huraira, (1) ‘Abdullah b. Mas‘ud, (2) Ibn Abbas, (3) Sa‘d b. Abi Waqqas,(4) Jabir b. Abdullah,(5) ‘Abdullah b. ‘Umar, (6) and Anas b. Malik. (7) There is no reason to question its veracity.
Other narrations/versions of the hadith
So, did the Prophet (ﷺ) plainly deny an observable fact? When we study the hadith more carefully taking into account other narrations of it, we arrive at a conclusion different from the superficial understanding.
According to another relatively detailed narration of the hadith;
أبا هريرة، يقول: قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: «لا عدوى ولا طيرة، ولا هامة ولا صفر، وفر من المجذوم كما تفر من الأسد»
Related Abu Huraira: Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, ‘There is no contagion, nor is there any bad omen (tiyara), nor is there any vermin calling for revenge (hamah), nor is there a serpent in the belly (safar), yet flee from a leper as you would flee from a lion.”(8)
Here the final part of the hadith “yet flee from a leper as you would flee from a lion” clearly contradicts the apparent meanings of the first phrase “there is no contagion” asking for further deliberation.
Another similar hadith goes as:
The Owner of Livestock
عن أبي هربرة، أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قال: لا عدوى، ولا هام، ولا صفر، ولا يحل الممرض على المصح، وليحلل المصح حيث شاء، قال: ولما ذلك، يا رسول الله؟ قال: إنه أذى
Narrated Abu Huraira: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “There is no contagion (‘adwa), nor is there any vermin calling for revenge (hamah), nor is there a serpent in the belly (safar). The owner of sick livestock, however, must not stop at the same place as the owner of healthy livestock, but the owner of healthy livestock may stop wherever he wishes.” They said, “Messenger of Allah, Why is that?” The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “(Because) it is harmful.”Malik b. Anas, al-Muwatta bi-rwayat Abu Mus‘ab al-Zuhri, (Beirut: al-Resalah Publishers, 1412 AH) Hadith 1989 (9)
Here the Prophet (ﷺ) clearly mentioned that healthy cattle should not be brought to a place where cattle suffer from some contagious disease elaborating that doing so was indeed harmful.
These reports, therefore, make it clear that in denying “‘adwa” the Prophet (ﷺ) did not mean to deny the observable phenomenon of contagious nature of certain diseases. He was actually hitting at something else. The flow of the hadith tells us that it was about denouncing certain pre-Islamic beliefs of superstitious nature.
The denounced “‘adwa”, therefore, did not refer to simple plain fact of spread of an infectious disease it rather was the belief that certain diseases spread by themselves which ignored Almighty Allah as the ultimate originator of everything. The underlying message, therefore, was that the affecting agency was not a disease itself rather it was subjected to divine will in its spread or otherwise from one body to another.
We now turn to another narration of the hadith which reports a Bedouin’s query on the same lines as the apparent reading alongwith the Prophet’s (ﷺ) response which provides evidence to make sense of the seemingly contradicting parts of the hadith.
أن أبا هريرة رضي الله عنه، قال: إن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قال: لا عدوى ولا صفر ولا هامة» فقال أعرابي: يا رسول الله، فما بال إبلي، تكون في الرمل كأنها الظباء، فيأتي البعير الأجرب فيدخل بينها فيجربها؟ فقال: «فمن أعدى الأول؟
Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “There is no contagion (‘adwa), nor is there a serpent in the belly (safar), nor is there any vermin calling for revenge (hamah). A bedouin stood up and said, “Then what about my camels? They are like deer on the sand, but when a mangy camel comes and mixes with them, they all get infected with mangy.” The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Then who conveyed the (mange) disease to the first one?”(10)
Yet another narration of the hadith actually provides the fuller context and relates to us the complete saying of the Prophet (ﷺ) in this context.
عن أبي هريرة، قال: قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: ” لا يعدي شيء شيئا، لا يعدي شيء شيئا “، ثلاثا، قال: فقام أعرابي، فقال: يا رسول الله، إن النقبة تكون بمشفر البعير، أو بعجبه، فتشتمل الإبل جربا، قال: فسكت ساعة، ثم قال: ” ما أعدى الأول، لا عدوى، ولا صفر، ولا هامة، خلق الله كل نفس، فكتب حياتها وموتها ومصيباتها ورزقها “
Narrated Abu Huraira: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “One thing does not infect another by its own agency,” repeating it three times. So a Bedouin said: “Messenger of Allah! When mange effects a camel it spreads to all the camels around.”
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) paused for a moment and said: “Who caused the first one to be diseased? There is no contagion (‘adwa), nor is there a serpent in the belly (safar), nor is there any vermin calling for revenge (hamah). Allah created every soul, determining its span of life, (time and cause of) its death, its afflictions, and its provisions.”(11)
This narration being the most complete provides the actual context and thus clarifies the real meanings of the hadith. The Prophet (ﷺ) basically refuted the idea that anything could be effective on its own and when a Bedouin asked a question related to spread of diseases based on his experience with camels the Prophet (ﷺ) made a rhetorical rejoinder on cause of infection in the first camel.
Thereafter while rejecting different superstitions common amongst pre-Islamic Arab pagans he said “there is no contagion” and reiterated the basic beliefs of Islam that Allah not only created souls He also decreed the details of their life and death.(12)
Accordingly, “there is no contagion” has to be understood in the light of initial thrice repeated saying, “One thing does not infect another by its own agency.”(13)
Breakup of what the Prophet said
We thus learn that the Prophet (ﷺ) did the following together;
(a) Denied a conception on contagious diseases
(b) Ordained keeping oneself away from someone affected by a contagious disease mentioning that it indeed meant harm
(c) Highlighted that someone actually controlled and affected disease in the first place
(d) Reiterated that it was Allah who decreed life, death, and all the afflictions one suffers in life
Whereas, the above points are not deduced or inferred from the sayings of the Prophet (ﷺ) rather these are plainly stated in his very own words tells us that far from denying the fact of certain diseases spreading from one person or animal to another, the Prophet (ﷺ) meant to highlight that the diseases did not spread on their own, rather it was Allah, the Almighty, who decreed their spread or otherwise.
What confirms this is the fact that other things denounced alongwith “spread of a disease by its own agency” (‘adwa) were beliefs of similar nature about experienced facts. Safar referred to a superstition about hunger being caused by bite of a serpent in the belly(14) and hama to a superstition about the a vermin that the pagan Arabs believed came out of head of the murdered calling for his revenge.
While both hunger and the impulse for revenge were experienced facts there was no basis of a serpent in the belly causing hunger pain or a vermin emerging from the corpse of the murdered. Likewise, while certain diseases did spread from one human or animal to another it was not their own agency but rather Allah’s decree that caused its spread, whatever the observable source or means.
Even at causal level, upon entry of infectious microbe into a body its possible effects are governed by efficiency and response of host body’s innate immune system. The response of the immune system itself is contingent upon scores of complicated and interdependent variables such as genetics, environmental factors, previous disease history, microbe exposure and evolution pathways, nature and timing of exposure, what else is happening in a body at that time. All this makes it rather easier for anyone to realize and be reminded of the fact that the ultimate causation of everything rests with Allah alone.(15)
Accordingly, the Prophet (ﷺ) concluded the talk by mentioning that it was Allah who decreed life, death, and any troubles and provisions that one finds in his lifetime. He, therefore, highlighted that all that befalls one in this life was only from Allah and one should never be oblivious of this fact.
Besides a condemnation of the pre-Islamic superstitions the hadith also serves as a corrective in the modern world imbued with secular outlook which is akin to paganism in attributing independent agency to mortals; human, objects, or microbes. The attribution even if not theorized and dogmatized is there at least by the way of exclusive focus making people oblivious to the Creator and Lord of the universe and His commands.
Other relevant hadith reports
Getting back to the original query; ‘if the Prophet (ﷺ) denied the fact of some diseases being contagious?’ let us quickly refer to a few more hadith reports that affirm our conclusion that the Prophet (ﷺ) did not preach any kind of fatalism by denying the fact of contagion.
عن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم أنه قال: «إذا سمعتم بالطاعون بأرض فلا تدخلوها، وإذا وقع بأرض وأنتم بها فلا تخرجوا منها»
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.”(16)
Likewise when a leper came to pledge allegiance to the Prophet (ﷺ) which was typically done by putting hand in hand, “the Prophet (ﷺ) sent a message to him: ‘We have accepted your allegiance, so you may go.’” (17)
Far from denying the universally known fact of certain diseases being contagious, the hadith was actually a refutation of the pre-Islamic pagan Arab beliefs and superstitions. The Prophet (ﷺ) in fact preached and ordained isolation and quarantining to check the spread of infectious diseases.[divider]
References & Notes:
(1) Al-Bukhari, al-Sahih, (Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers, 2007) Hadith 5707, 5717 et al.
(2) al-Tirmidhi, Abu ‘Isa, al-Jami’, (Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers, 2007) Hadith 2143;
(3) Ibn Majah, al-Sunan, (Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers, 2007) Hadith 3539; Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Hadith 2425
(4) Al-Sijistani, Abu Dawud, al-Sunan, (Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers, 2008) Hadith 3921; Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, (Beirut: al-Resalah Publishers, 2001) Hadith 1502
(5) Muslim b. Hajjaj, al-Sahih, (Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers, 2007) Hadith 2222 (107-109)
(6) Al-Bukhari, al-Sahih, Hadith 5753
(7) Al-Bukhari, al-Sahih, Hadith 5756
(8) Al-Bukhari, al-Sahih, Hadith 5707
(9) Malik b. Anas, al-Muwatta bi-rwayat Abu Mus‘ab al-Zuhri, (Beirut: al-Resalah Publishers, 1412 AH) Hadith 1989; unlike other recensions (riwayat) of Muwatta that of Abu Mus‘ab mentions that this hadith comes from Abu Huraira; al-Baihaqi too has it from Abu Huraira through two independent connected isnad. See, al-Baihaqi, Abu Bakr, Sunan al-Kubra, (Beirut: DKI, 2003) Hadith 14239-14240
(10) Al-Bukhari, al-Sahih, Hadith 5717
(11) Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Hadith 8343; the hadith as it appears in Musnad of Ahmad b. Hanbal is narrated from Abu Huraira by Abu Zur‘a ‘Abdul Rahman b. ‘Amr b. Jarir; see also, al-Tirmidhi, Abu ‘Isa, al-Jami’, Hadith 2143 where the same Abu Zur ‘a relates on the authority of an unnamed person from Ibn Mas‘ud from the Prophet (ﷺ). With al-Tahawi, however, the report comes from Abu Zur‘a from Ibn Mas‘ud through “a man from the companions of the Prophet (ﷺ).”
Except if it is a mistake on the part of some sub-narrator, it helps us identify the unnamed teacher of Abu Zur‘a in the version with al-Tirmidhi as Abu Huraira. See, al-Tahawi, Abu Ja‘far, Sharh Ma‘ani al-Athar, (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kitab, 1994) Hadith 7057; for more on Abu Huraira relating from Ibn Mas‘ud, see ‘Abdullah b. Ahmad, al-Sunnah, (Dammam: Dar Ibn Qayyim, 1986) Hadith 1192 and al-Ghumari, Abu al-Faid, al-Mudawi li-‘Ilal al-Jami‘ al-Saghir wa Sharhaiy al-Munawi, (Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Makkiyya, 1996) Vol.2, 481; see also, al-Bazzar, Abu Bakr, al-Musnad, (Madina: Maktaba Ulum wa al-Hikam, 1993) Vol.4, 269 Hadith 1438; al-Baihaqi, Abu Bakr, al-Asma’ wa al-Sifat, Edited by Zahid al-Kawthari (Cairo: Maktaba al-Azhariyya li al-Turath,n.d.) 126; also, al-Mizzi, Jamal al-Din, Tahdhib al-Kamal, Edited by Bashar Awwad Ma‘ruf (Beirut: Al-Resalah Publishers, 1980) Vol.16, 126
(12) What further confirms this meaning is that while at first Abu Huraira narrated both the hadith “there is no contagion (‘adwa)” and the hadith forbidding the owner with sick livestock from stopping over at the place of the healthy livestock, overtime he stopped narrating the “no contagion” hadith while continuing to narrate the hadith about mixing of healthy and sick livestock.
He became so adamant in refusing to narrate the “no contagion” hadith that it made his student Abu Salama b. ‘Abdul Rahman (d. 94) wonder if Abu Huraira had forgotten it or if he thought it had been abrogated. (Muslim b. Hajjaj, al-Sahih, Hadith 2221 (104)) While the question of abrogation does not arise in such cases, the suggestion of forgetfulness too seems farfetched.
It rather appears that overtime Abu Huraira thought that the “no contagion” hadith was no more relevant after the Islam had fully prevailed. In a bid, therefore, to keep the laity from falling into impression of contradiction across the sayings of the Prophet (ﷺ) he stopped narrating it. See, Al-Qurtubi, Abu al-Abbas, al-Mufhim lima Ashkala min Talkhis Kitab Muslim, (Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 1996) Vol.5, 626
(13) Translation of the “لا يعدي شيء شيئا” phrase in the hadith as, “One thing does not infect another by its own agency,” follows Edward William Lane’s rendering of it. See, Lane, E. W., Arabic-English Lexicon, (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1968) Book I, 1978 cf. Al-Jawhari, Abu Nasr, Taj al-Lugha wa Sihah al-Arabiya, (Beirut: Dar al-‘Ilm al-Malayin, 1987) Vol.6, 2421
(14) There are variant explanations of Safar in this context. Whereas, some like Malik b. Anas thought it referred to changing the sequence of the month of Safar in view of the restrictions attached to it, (Abu Dawud, al-Sunan, Hadith 3914) others held that Safar here referred to a serpent that pagans of Arabia used to believe caused hunger by biting in the belly.
This latter interpretation of Safar has been reported from a companion Jabir b. Abdullah as well and since he has also related this hadith of the Prophet (ﷺ), his explanation has been adopted here. See, Muslim b. Hajjaj, al-Sahih, Hadith 2222 (109). Al-Bukhari too preferred this explanation.
(15) This paragraph is actually an only slightly emended reproduction from a post of Sh. Salman ibn Nasir, here.
(16) Al-Bukhari, al-Sahih, Hadith 5728
(17) Muslim b. Hajjaj, al-Sahih, Hadith 2231 (126)