When the very first coronavirus reports emerged, I had a suspicion that Iran would be a target of the world’s anger. The spread of Covid-19 to the Middle East was as inevitable as history because the Muslim pilgrim routes have always acted as a channel for pestilence. But however honest or dishonest Iran’s response to the virus has been, contemporary hatred for Shia Islam in Sunni Muslim lands and the anti-Iranian bias of the western world was going to turn poor old Persia into a plague pariah.
A virus that clearly had its origins in China is now supposedly turning Iran into a menace to us all. The New York Times announced that it was emerging “as a worldwide threat”, spreading the coronavirus “to a host of neighbouring countries”. The Jerusalem Post declared that Iran had “now set the Middle East ablaze with fears of coronavirus”. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo said Washington was “deeply concerned by information indicating the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country.”
It was inevitable, of course. After originally denying that it had shot down the Ukrainian passenger jet over Tehran on 8 January, Iran’s word was not going to be trusted when it announced its first coronavirus deaths. The holy city of Qom had itself suffered 50 fatalities, one of the country’s own MPs claimed to the horror (and denial) of the government. Of the 139 people testing positive in the country, even its health minister admitted he was a patient after dripping perspiration at a televised press conference. With 19 officially admitted deaths in a week, it did not help when an Iranian cleric announced that the very fabric of the golden-domed mosques of Qom would protect its pilgrims. This was truly medieval in its fantasy.
Iran’s neighbours piled on the grief. The Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia all pointed at Iran as the source of their own virus outbreaks – accurate enough in that the victims (even in Lebanon) appeared to have arrived from Tehran – but for a world which has for years collectively isolated and sanctioned Iran and deprived it of the very basic commodities, including medical equipment, this is surely a grotesque act of hypocrisy. The virus coincides with the great pilgrimages to Qom. Had it broken out a few months later, then the most dangerous source might have been – and could still be – this midsummer’s Haj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Coronavirus does not respect Islam.
Nor Christianity for that matter. Early records show that Muslims in the Middle East thought that Christians might be spared the Black Death when it arrived in the region. They were not.
Within only seven years of the death of the Prophet Mohamed, pestilence struck the entire region. The Plague of Amwas, named after a Palestinian village not far from Jerusalem (its modern Arab inhabitants were evicted by Israeli forces in 1948), killed 20,000, including the prophet’s own companion Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, and struck from Syria to what is today Saudi Arabia. In an earlier epidemic, the second caliph, Umar al-Khattab, was advancing from Medina to Syria – but turned back when he heard from Abu Ubaidah that a plague had broken out in Syria. He returned to Arabia, an act provoking a debate which has echoes even amid today’s coronavirus outbreak.
Should we stay where we are amid a pestilence? Or run for home? Early Muslims apparently contented themselves with a supposed quotation from the prophet himself – its historical accuracy is equally open for debate – in which Mohamed said that if plague “is in a land, do not approach it; but if it occurs in a land while you are there, do not leave to escape it.”
Scholar Yaron Ayalon has pointed out that both Muslims and Christians faced the philosophical as well as physical question of contagion. “If a disease could be transmitted from one person to another, there should be a way to prevent it, and if so, the argument that epidemics were a divine punishment for man’s sins would be harder to sustain.” Some Muslim writers suggested that even though contagion existed, it was up to God to decide whether a person should become ill.
For hundreds of years, of course, the Middle East and the Islamic world had a surer grasp of medicine than Europeans possessed. A Christian Arab from Iraq, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, for example, translated both Hippocrates and the Roman physician and surgeon Galen of Pergamon. But a 16th-century Muslim historian in Mamluk Egypt said that dying from the plague was equivalent to a martyr’s death in battle – we should perhaps predict the reawakening of this idea in the modern Middle East – and even suggested, apparently quoting the prophet, that Medina and Mecca were surrounded by angels and thus no plague could enter the cities. This was surely an early version of the Qom cleric who has just claimed that the very mosques of the city would protect pilgrims.
Muslim records of the great plagues which scourged the Islamic world are even scarcer than the European documents which recorded up to 800,000 deaths from the Black Death in England alone in the 14th century. Arab historians believe that the plagues originated in Mongolia and there is little doubt that they moved along the Silk Road – at the speed of armies and camels rather than airliners, of course – to Persia (Iran) and then to the Levant (Syria, modern-day Lebanon, Palestine and modern-day Israel, and then Egypt). The Syrian writer Ibn al-Wardi, who was himself a victim of the plague in 1348, spoke of the Black Death emerging from “The Land of Darkness”. Up to 30 per cent of all Persians died in the 14th century. The great Arab traveller Ibn Battuta recorded 2,000 deaths a day in Damascus. Four years later, Mecca was struck by a plague apparently brought down the Haj pilgrimage route.
In 1347, the Black Death infested Cairo and wiped out a third of the population at the rate of a thousand a day, according to historian and journalist Max Rodenbeck, who records 55 plague outbreaks in the Egyptian city, including 20 epidemics within just over 150 years. “Fatally,” he wrote, “ruler and ruled alike continued to ascribe the plague to heavenly anger.” The sheikh of Al-Azhar was certain that this was God’s punishment for men’s fornication and for women who would “adorn themselves” and walk in the streets. As late as 1835, an English visitor to Cairo recorded how his landlord, banker, doctor, donkey driver, the relatives of his servant and a magician all died of the plague which took the lives of around another 70,000 souls.
I doubt if the cruel story of Middle Eastern contagion counts for much in the White House – or among the Sunni monarchs of the Gulf. Within the region’s refugee camps, in Syria, in Iraq, in Jordan and Lebanon, however, history hovers a little closer. Compared to the ancient plagues, coronavirus – the description “pandemic” aside – is an infinitesimal threat to humanity. But its spread is of a speed that past generations in the Middle East would understand. The plague reached Italy at almost the same moment it struck Alexandria in Egypt. The Silk Road knew no sectarian or national divisions. Nor did the pilgrim routes of Islam.