Plague and Pestilence in Safavid and Qajar Iran

The recent Covid-19 outbreak has caused a lot of discussion and debate amongst Iranians and non-Iranians on the nature of the disease and on the methods of containing it. Amongst the laity, some of these opinions range from extreme conspiracy theory level material to solutions being offered by pseudo-health experts wearing the garb of scholars, to simple straight-forward explanations that the disease was brought into Iran and spread as it has been spreading in any other country, in which case quarantining and isolation happen to be some of the most effective methods of containment.

There are numerous ways a disease can spread, including the possibility of transmission through animals (whether through consumption or indirectly). The possibility that certain diseases could have originated from the human consumption of animals carrying a disease was something pre-modern Muslim scholars had already mentioned explicitly in some of their medical works. See for example this 10th/16th century excerpt:

“Pestilence is spread either due to evaporated moisture from a carcass or human bodies after a battle, which mixes into the air; or it is due to the contamination of the water inside the earth which absorbs into its minerals, which eventually come out of the earth and their contaminated moisture mixes with the air, water, vegetation or the farmlands, corrupting them. Subsequently, when animals eat these plants and then when humans eat those animals, the temperament of the soul and body alters, developing pestilence which leads to widespread death…”1

Iran has been struck by the ṭāʿūn (plague) and wabā’ (pestilence) on many occasions and what is occurring now with the outbreak of Covid-19 is not a unique moment for the people of this land (though it is a new experience for this generation, hence why in recent remarks, Sayyid Khamenei stated that at the end of this outbreak, the experience it will bring will be invaluable). Some of the earliest descriptions we have of epidemics breaking out in Iran are from the Safavid era. Even during the Qajar era, between 1820 CE and 1903 CE, Iran saw several outbreaks in total. An outbreak began in 1821 which originated from the Persian Gulf regions; in 1829 disease was transmitted into Iran from India and Afghanistan; in 1845-47 once again disease from India and Afghanistan entered Iran and managed to kill 12,000 people in Tehran just in the year 1846; between 1851 to 1853 an outbreak took the lives of 15-16,000 people in Tehran; in 1867-69 disease broke into Iran from Iraq; in 1889-90 another outbreak began from near the Persian Gulf region; and in 1903 an outbreak which originated in Iraq and the Persian Gulf was transmitted to Iran.2

During these outbreaks, one of the methods employed by government officials and as well as the citizens to avoid getting infected was to refrain from entering an infected city or to leave a city that was facing an outbreak. During an outbreak in 893/1487 in Tabriz, the Shah refrained from entering the city, and likewise in 951/1544 and 952/1545 Shah Tahmasp decided not to enter the city of Tabriz which was an epicentre of an outbreak. In 985/1577 Sultan Muhammad Khudabandeh abandoned the city of Qazwin due to an outbreak, and in 989/1581 during an outbreak in the city of Qom, people left the city to save their lives though the disease still managed to kill 5-6,000 people over the span of 3 months.3 In 1001/1592 people abandoned the city of Qazwin, and in 1002/1593 people abandoned the city of Isfahan only returning back after four months.

This practice of abandoning cities during an outbreak was also widespread during the Qajar era when people in the thousands would leave and move to nearby villages or travel to higher elevations, for example there are reports that inform us how certain rulers and the rich would move near Mount Damavand. Some reports show that in 1270/1853 so many people had died in Mazandaran due to an outbreak that residents did not want to bury the bodies and most of them evacuated the city.

We do not find any mention of quarantine during the Safavid era, possibly because it was believed that the transmission of disease happens through air and quarantining would not do much to prevent such transmission. Only on a rare occasion is such a practice mentioned, usually quarantining just a single individual for weeks or months, and it seems its later enforcement by Colonialists on Muslim lands was seen as giving further dominance to a practice originated by the disbelievers. 19th-century travelogues and documents show Iranian scholars and doctors attacking the phenomenon of quarantine, some even writing poetry against it, considering it against the practice of their predecessors, and an imitation of the disbeliever.

In 1253/1837 when the Qajar prince Keykavous Mirza (son of Fath Ali Shah), a doctor himself and as well as the government’s representative for the city of Qom, was going for Hajj, he was quarantined in Gaziantep, Turkey. During his stay, he says these foreigners are scared and paranoid of disease hence they force all travellers to go through 7-10 days of quarantine. He then goes on to say:

“It is now commonplace for the ancestral rules to be abolished and abandoned, and to follow the practices of the foreigners. They have lost their own laws, distanced themselves from it, and have become students in the laws and practices of the disbelievers. They believe they are at height of intellectual maturity, but totally unaware that they have drowned in an abyss.”

We also find Muḥammad Ibrahīm Ṭūsī Khorasānī (d. 1305 AH) -popularly known as Ḥassām al-Shuʿarā’ – during his quarantine in Sulaymānīyyah writing a lengthy poem condemning the phenomenon of quarantine.4 This negative view of quarantine may sound absurd to us today, but the poor conditions of many quarantining centers, often built on travel routes between major cities or on borders, alongside the perception of it being a foreign innovation of dealing with an outbreak, would often lead to such devaluation of it.

In any case, one of the reasons for widespread transmission was the lack of seriousness given to travelling between cities, when those carrying disease would end up transferring viruses to other cities. Today during the Covid-19 outbreak, we have seen Iranian health authorities repeatedly having to ask people to avoid unnecessary travel in order to drive home the seriousness of potential transmission of disease through such negligence. Another practice that would lead to the transmission of the disease was the practice of people carrying the bodies of their loved ones from their cities to the shrines in other cities and burying them there. For example, in 985/1577 the government announced: “Do not carry the bodies of the dead and sick from Qazwin to Qom, and if someone does so secretly, they will be dealt with legally…”.5 In fact, one of the reasons for the breakout of the plague in Qom in the year 989/1581 was the bringing of the bodies of those who had died due to the disease in Tabriz to the city of Qom to be buried there.6 With emotional attachment towards these shrines often at an all-time high during such times, people would often forget the beliefs learned in basic theology that those buried in these shrines – be it Prophets, Imams or saints – were themselves vulnerable to disease and sickness and that there is nothing in the divine sources that informs us with certainty that such places are not vulnerable to the transmission of disease.

The Safavid era was also a period where Akhbārī scholarship had significant influence in constructing a worldview based solely on the religious texts. In fact, during this period, efforts were made to give medicine, astronomy and other sciences a religious outlook – meaning, basing them on religious traditions. Since the realm of health and medicine was not an exception to this we find scholars offering opinions on the rightful measures to deal with such outbreaks. Sayyid Niʿmatullah Jazā’irī (d. 1112/1701), an influential Akhbārī scholar and a student of ‘Allāmah Majlisī, wrote a treatise titled Musakkin al-Shujūn fī Ḥukm al-Firār min al-Ṭāʿūn in which he discusses the reality of death, the causes of the plague, the ruling on escaping from it (whether it is obligatory, recommended, prohibited, or detested), whether the time of death can be increased or decreased, and what is expected of the rulers and scholars during an outbreak.

Jazā’irī writes this treatise in 1103 AH (around 1693 CE) in the city of Shushtar. He explains that a plague had broken out in areas of Turkey and Syria, after which it spread to Baghdad and other holy cities in Iraq, subsequently travelling to Basra and then into Iran. Jazā’irī says this plague led to the death of many scholars and righteous servants of Allah (swt) and the seminaries and mosques became vacant. He describes this year as the Year of Sorrow, taking inspiration from the year in which Khadīja (s) and Abū Ṭālib (r) passed away.

When he begins describing why the plague is spreading, he explains it away as a punishment for transgression and tyranny in some regions:

“You have learned by now that the plague is a punishment upon a nation, and these are the disbelievers and the sinners, while it is a mercy upon others, and these are the believers. This is why we see the repeated occurrence of the plague in Syria and its surrounding lands, because the cause of the plague is the atmosphere and its changing conditions, and Syria is befitting of that since its atmosphere is delicate and infections spread quicker in such atmosphere; and the other reason is sins and transgression, and Syria is also a befitting place for it due to the presence of the graves of the Banī Umayyah, their disgusting bones, and their impure soils, and its people in the past and in recent times have remained enemies of the Ahl al-Bayt (a). As for Baghdad, then the presence of the grave of Abū Ḥanīfah and ‘Abdul Qādir (Gilānī) are sufficient for the abundance of pestilence and plague in the city.”

He then goes on to explain the vices of Abū Ḥanīfah for the next few pages to justify the presence of the plague in Baghdad. After Baghdad he begins to explain why the plague hit his own birthplace, the city of Jazā’ir, given its Shīʿa population. He argues that for an outbreak to occur in a city populated with righteous believers is from the signs of the reappearance of the Imam (a) and many traditions apparently allude to this. When describing the reasoning for why Basra has been hit with the plague, he once again says that this is expected given the vices of the residents of the city and the continual presence of corruption in the city since they took up arms against Imam ‘Alī (a) in the battle of Jamal.

Jazā’irī then laments the presence of the plague in the city of Ḥuwayzah, a city populated by the Shī’a and in which numerous scholars and righteous individuals lost their lives. He says we have never heard of this city being affected by such outbreaks and that this plague was transmitted to it through Basra when a number of Basran residents entered it. In an attempt to explain how the plague could have broken out to such an extent, he says that the residents of this city were previously extreme in their love of the Ahl al-Bayt (a), but Allah (swt) guided them through the scholars. However, traces of their exaggeration still remain amongst some residents such that they will say, “May ‘Alī increase your life”, “May ‘Alī provide you sustenance”, “May ‘Alī cure you” and so on. He also says that since many of the town’s residents are originally Bedouins, they still uphold certain practices and rituals of warfare which is the cause of a lot of discord (fitan) in the town. Finally, he mentions a tradition that jealousy is divided into 10-parts, 9 parts of it is divided amongst scholars and 1 part amongst the laity and acknowledges that jealousy is a widespread problem in Ḥuwayzah. These could be taken as possible reasons for why disease spreads to such an extent in such a religious city.

In the last section of the work, he outlines what is expected from scholars and rulers. He says that when an outbreak occurs, it is necessary for the scholars to encourage people to repent, to inform them to stop committing sins, to ask them to give charity, and to encourage them to fast for three days. The scholars should take all the people, the elderly men and women, the children, even the animals, out of the city, preferably to an open space like the desert, to lament, mourn and supplicate to Allah (swt) bareheaded. He says that the rulers and the rich of the city should also accompany this group, as Allah (swt) loves to see them humbled.

He then goes on to say scholars should also take people up to an elevation so that they can drink water from there and avoid drinking from the infected lands. However, if this large gathering of people is going to cause harm and further spread disease, then scholars and rulers should command them to disperse and if people want to escape from the plague, no scholar has the right to condemn them nor prevent them from leaving an affected city. In his legal discussion on whether people should leave the city or not during an outbreak, he primarily engages with a number of scholars from amongst the Ahl al-Sunnah, since some of them maintained the position that it is prohibited to escape a plague as it goes against the concept of reliance (tawakkul) upon Allah (swt). These Sunnī scholars would also cite numerous traditions attributed to the Prophet (p) in which he apparently says one should not leave a place where a plague has spread. Jazā’irī quotes these traditions and engages with them and critiques the position of some of these Sunnī scholars. He concludes that escaping from an outbreak is not in contradiction with having reliance upon Allah (swt).

In terms of taking people to an elevation, it is interesting to note that Cyril Elgood (d. 1893-1970) the honorary British physician to the Shah of Iran, and historian in his work Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate from the Earliest Times Until 1932 also makes a similar observation. He mentions that due to the elevation upon which Iranian cities are located, Iran is almost never the origin of disease and plagues, rather it has always been affected by neighbouring countries.


  1. Kitāb-i Ṭibbī, by Kamāl b. Nūr (d. 974/1566), pg. 69-71.
  2. Public Health in Qajar Iran, by Willem Floor.
  3. See Khulāsah al-Tawārīkh, by al-Husaynī al-Qumī.
  4. See Safarnāmeh Ḥijāz wa ‘Atabāt
  5. Khulāsah al-Tawārīkh, by al-Husaynī al-Qumī, vol. 2, pg. 648.
  6. Ibid., pg. 723.

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