By now, the effects of the COVID-19 virus have touched all domains of public life across the world. Public alarm and government interventions abruptly upended life to the extent that economic, political, and social norms are wholly unrecognizable for billions of people. One domain that has received less attention is that of religion, especially the impact of quarantines and curfews for congregational activities. In a country like Morocco, where the state claims authority over the domain of religion, such policies take on even greater significance. Beyond its military-imposed 6 AM to 6 PM curfew, the Moroccan Supreme Council of ‘Ulama—a state religious body within the Ministry of Islamic Affairs—ordered the temporary closure of all mosques and implored worshippers to perform prayers from home. The policy’s religious implications sparked pockets of backlash: protesters in Fez and Tangier thronged to demand the reopening of mosques, and state security officials arrested the Salafi preacher Abu Naeem for a YouTube fatwā rejecting the state’s religious justification for the closures.
On one level, none of this is unique to the Moroccan or Muslim context: religious organizations across the world have differed in their approaches to religious gatherings, from complete disregard to innovative solutions. In the Moroccan context, the tensions between political, scientific, and religious considerations for policymaking likewise is not a new phenomenon. Beyond its close regulation of religious law and political expression, the Moroccan government routinely works to balance a strong commitment to upholding Islamic institutions while projecting a distinctly "moderate" and "tolerant" version of Islam. The recent decision to close mosques, far be it from a widespread controversy, nonetheless offers a moment to reflect deeper on how public voices invoke certain touchstones of knowledge to arrive at decisions so implicated in religious discourse. In Morocco, as elsewhere, the simultaneous public appeal to scientific, religious, and indeed historical knowledge conjures a dizzying array of assumptions serving as the basis for action in crisis.
The historical trajectories of such actions and ensuing public debates are also less ‘unprecedented’—perhaps the foremost buzzword of the COVID-19 experience—than they may appear. With due deference to the immediacy of current public health research, I propose that some historical anchoring in the discourse of past debates—indeed beyond the actions and policies themselves—are instructive to present debates. That is, the way in which political and intellectual figures past balanced the exigencies of mortal danger with their complex of worldly and spiritual anxieties can shed light on the doubts and unknowns that characterize this experience. In Morocco, the social and religious contentions concerning the very concept of plague and quarantine from well over a century ago provides striking insights for this purpose.
Aḥmad al-Nāṣirī and Kitāb al-Istiqṣā
In 1895, the Moroccan scholar and historian Aḥmad al-Nāṣirī published a magisterial work of history entitled Kitāb al-istiqṣā li-akhbār duwal al-Maghrib al-aqṣā ("The Book of Inquiry into Moroccan Empires," hereinafter Kitāb al-Istiqṣā). The work itself embraces the enormous pretention of recounting the entire history of Morocco, from the pre-Arab and pre-Muslim Berber era to his contemporary society under Sultan Hassan I (r. 1873-1894). In doing so, the text reifies the notion of an "independent political" Moroccan state at a moment when the inevitability of colonial rule became increasingly apparent. Throughout its constituent volumes, al-Nāṣirī evinces a keen interest in the broader world around him and its increasingly pan-national intellectual trends. This spirit, one that Eric Calderwood forcefully argues as a distinct figment of "modernity," frames al-Nāṣirī’s telling of his country’s own history and how it reflects on his present. It is amidst the epic retelling of this history that al-Nāṣirī arrives with a deeply vested interest in the political and religious dimensions of plague.
Plague and Quarantine: The Anxieties of Sultan Aḥmad al-Manṣūr (r. 1578-1603)
In the fifth of Kitab al-Istiqṣā’s nine volumes, al-Nāṣirī takes up the Saʿdian Dynasty, whose sultans ruled Morocco from 1549 to 1659. Based in Marrakesh, the most well-known Saʿdī sulṭān, Aḥmad al-Manṣūr, ruled over a territory spanning contemporary Morocco, Mauritania, and Mali. It is within his extended and florid biographical narratives of al-Manṣūr that al-Nāṣirī first broaches the topic of disease and its containment. The specific chapter, entitled "The Uprising of Crown Prince Muhammad Shaykh Maʾmūn against his Father al-Manṣūr and Its Causes," begins as a searing indictment of al-Manṣūr’s son al-Maʾmūn’s moral depravity, a problem that apparently weighed heavily on the Sulṭān. Al-Nāṣirī recounts that al-Manṣūr had been living in Fez, yet upon preparing to return to Marrakesh, he received an alarming letter from Abū Fāris, his other son and representative (khalīfa) in Marrakesh. In the letter, Abū Fāris reported the outbreak of plague (wabāʾ) in the southern Sūs (Sousse) region and in Marrakesh itself. Al-Nāṣirī proceeds to quote the entirety of Sultan al-Manṣūr’s decisive letter of response.
From the outset, al-Manṣūr’s letter succinctly addresses his son’s warning: he instructs Abū Fāris to leave Marrakesh "if any signs of the plague appear, even the smallest bit, even on one person" (179). In that case, Abū Fāris should make his way to the coastal city of Salé, where apparently an antidote (tiryāq) awaits his consumption. More crucially, al-Manṣūr then prescribes two additional measures for Abū Fāris to protect himself and the city entrusted to his guardianship. First, al-Manṣūr orders that no piece of his mail originating in the disease-afflicted region (Sūs) be taken into his home—rather, Abū Fāris should have his scribe open it elsewhere, read it independently, and then come to inform him of its contents. Secondly, al-Manṣūr continues, "I recommend to you that if the plague appears, you close off the area and leave safely and soundly" (182). In other words, in a severe outbreak, Abū Fāris should seal entry to and exit from Marrakesh, ostensibly to avoid risk of further spread, and leave while he still can. Like the previous point, this recommendation appears based on nothing more or less than the pragmatic association of human movement with the spread of disease. At no point in the letter, as quoted by al-Nāṣirī, does al-Manṣūr express anxiety about the social or political implications of these measures. After addressing a few other ancillary matters, al-Manṣūr implores his son to keep him apprised of the situation and concludes his missive.
The Historian’s Ambivalence: Al-Nāṣirī’s Digression on Quarantine and Sharīʿa
Following the letter, al-Nāṣirī resumes his historian’s voice to ask the reader to pay attention to two matters: first is the fact that al-Manṣūr permitted his son Abū Fāris to leave Marrakesh upon any sign of the plague, even though, according to al-Nāṣirī, "this matter is impermissible (maḥẓūr) in shariʿa" (183). Second is the fact that al-Manṣūr ordered Abū Fāris not to touch any of the mail coming to him from the infected region of Sūs. According to al-Nāṣirī, this second point clearly evokes "the actions of Europeans (al-Faranj), and those who go their way, to preserve themselves from plague: [actions] called quarantine (al-kurantīna)."
Al-Nāṣirī’s narrative then turns personal, explaining that the issue of plague and quarantine has been on his mind since he traveled from his hometown of Salé in March 1879 (late Rabīʿa I 1296 AH). That being the "year of the plague," the topic of how to address such calamities arose in conversation one day when al-Nāṣirī met a group of jurists (fuqahāʾ) in the coastal city of El Jadida. Al-Nāṣirī recalls that the men began discussing what the Christians (al-Naṣārā) have done in such situations, namely this concept of quarantine: confining the population, forbidding interregional travel, and prohibiting the accompaniment of other people. Al-Nāṣirī recalls being enthralled by this discussion, adding that he later came across competing legal opinions on the matter within the famed travel report of Egyptian diplomat Rifāʿa al-Ṭahṭāwī. Most famous for his musings on Parisian culture and government, al-Ṭahṭāwī recounts disembarking at the port of Marseille and immediately being forced into quarantine due to his foreign provenance. Al-Ṭahṭāwī uses that occasion in his own narrative to consider how Maghribī religious scholars have addressed quarantine, comparing the opposing opinions of a Tunisian Mālikī scholar with a Tunisian Ḥanafī scholar. Al-Ṭahṭāwī reports that the Mālikī’s opinion forbade quarantine on the basis that its measures are considered "fleeing [God’s] justice" (al-firār min al-qadāʾ). By contrast, the Ḥanafī scholar’s opinion permitted quarantine measures based on (unspecified) proof texts from the Qurʿān and Sunna. Upon encountering these conflicting opinions, al-Nāṣirī reports his growing desire to revisit the matter and establish the valid Islamic legal ruling (ḥukm sharʿī) for instituting quarantine.
Al-Nāṣirī asserts that the best way to approach the legal ruling for quarantine is to weigh the benefit (maṣlaḥa)against the harm (mafsada) that it incurs. To do this, al-Nāṣirī appeals explicitly to the Mālikī methodological principle (aṣl al-fiqh) of maṣlaḥa mursala, by which jurists may establish rulings in the absence of scriptural evidence. The qualified jurist relies on individual reason to determine whether an action conforms to the underlying purposes of sharīʿa (maqāṣid al-sharīʿa) by weighing its benefits and harms. The jurist then may determine the preponderance (rujḥān) of either benefit or harm in the practice, thereby conferring its Islamic legal status as licit or illicit. Al-Nāṣirī enthusiastically takes on this task and proceeds to outline the normative attributes that one may expect from imposing a quarantine.
Starting with the benefits, al-Nāṣirī recognizes that quarantine is supposed to ensure the safety (al-salāma) of a nation from the plague. Yet he immediately hedges on this presumption: "[But] this benefit, as you see, is neither determinate nor probable, because safety is not related to [quarantine] as they claim." Al-Nāṣirī reasons that rulers invoke it while exaggerating the danger, and worse yet, that people under quarantine fall ill anyhow from the disease that they intended to flee. Compelled by the ambiguity of quarantine’s efficacy, al-Nāṣirī brusquely concludes that "the benefit of quarantine is doubtful or lacking. If it is as such, then shariʿa would not take it into consideration" (184).
Having so briefly assessed quarantine’s principle benefit by doubting its veracity, al-Nāṣirī then turns to its harms. He states that these detriments may be categorized as both worldly (dunyāwī) and religious (dīnī)—a two-fold categorization that he did not afford to its benefits. As for the worldly detriment, al-Nāṣirī articulates an anxiety with striking contemporary resonance: that quarantine measures cause irrefutable harm to commerce by confining people, forbidding their movement, and impinging on their markets. The author does not elaborate the point further, allowing the succinct base appeal to human livelihood to speak for itself.
Al-Nāṣirī then takes up the question of religious harms stemming from quarantine, especially its impact on the faith of common believers (al-ʿāmma). The essence of this harm is that imposing quarantine could distort the beliefs (ʿaqāʾid) of commoners by rankling their trust (tawakkul) in God’s capacity for protection: "for commoners—due to their lack of understanding—these phenomena give rise to delusions, they believe them, and they fall into the trap of weak faith (ḍiʿf al-īmān)" (184). Al-Nāṣirī’s logic thus implies that the faith of common believers is easily shakable, especially if they are forced by fear into a practice with unclear benefits. On top of this, Al-Nāṣirī situates these dire religious consequences within a well-trodden religious and political trope of his time: the justifiability of emulating of foreigners (iqtadāʾ al-aʿjām). This question in fact pervades many of the other parts of Kitab al-Istiqṣā, along with, among others, the work of al-Ṭaḥṭāwī that he cited previously. For al-Nāṣirī, the embrace of quarantine fits unfortunately well within this dubious history: as whenever "foolish" (ḥamqāʾ) commoners aggrandize foreign ways, such imitation will lead to the much-loathed state of social rebellion (fitna), "and what harm is worse than that?" (185).
He concludes the assessment of quarantine’s harms by citing two other jurists who expressed similar opinions. One jurist, Egyptian scholar Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qasṭallānī (d. 923/1517), addressed the topic in an exegesis (tafsīr) of Qurʿān 4:102 (Sūrat al-Nisāʾ). Al-Qasṭallānī interprets the verse as an appeal to humanity to be on guard against disease and even their obligation to use available medicines to treat them. Here, al-Nāṣirī agrees with al-Qasṭallānī that any means necessary should be taken against plague, such as avoiding infected areas and taking medicines approved by doctors. However, al-Nāṣirī adds that this obligation clearly excludes any means that would result in a legal harm (mafsada sharʿiyya) "like this quarantine" (185). Al-Nāṣirī likewise cites his contemporary al-Hāshimī b. Khaḍrāʾ, then Qāḍī of Marrakesh, who agreed that skepticism is well warranted: "as for the ruling on quarantine, it is prohibited (min al-ḥaẓr) as you mentioned," Bin Khaḍrāʾ wrote in a letter to al-Nāṣirī. For Bin Khaḍrāʾ, this is namely due to its association with "fleeing from [God’s] justice" (cited previously in al-Ṭahṭāwī), the harm of which outweighs quarantine’s benefits. Al-Nāṣirī reports that Bin Khadrāʾ then cited numerous texts that he (al-Nāṣirī) excluded for length, relying on the clarity of the ruling without them. Bolstered by these two voices, al-Nāṣirī concludes his personal digression and returns to the history of Sultan al-Manṣūr’s own death from the very plague that so worried him (186).
Analysis: Reason, Jurisprudence, and the Uses of History
This brief excursus that al-Nāṣirī presents as historical commentary contains a rich and diverse array of historical insights for both his own period and the contemporary moment. Perhaps most relevantly, it demonstrates how a public intellectual voice concerned with pandemic articulated its dangers within concurrent and sometimes competing political, social, and economic anxieties. Despite his negative assessment, al-Nāṣirī does not deny the danger of plague or the logic that human proximity contributes to its spread. He endeavors instead to weigh quarantine’s broader consequences within the rubric of maṣlaḥa mursala, a Mālikī legal methodology that 1) presupposes no textual evidence for the issue, and 2) presupposes the Islamic jurisprudential qualification for its undertaker. Al-Nāṣirī therefore appeals to his own judgment, arguing that the supposed benefits of quarantine cannot outweigh its potential consequences on human faith and livelihood. In the end, he gives credence to these ostensible harms to argue that quarantine is forbidden in sharīʿa.
The normative benefit of quarantine and indeed al-Nāṣirī’s own historical narrative of Sultan al-Manṣūr offer paradigms in favor of quarantine, yet al-Nāṣirī ultimately subordinates these to anxieties that clearly speak louder to him. Such rationale has been all too clear in the current moment, as governments and politicians, thrill-seekers, and conspiracy theorists alike shroud scientific data in conspiracy and doubt. Here, I propose that the lesson is not so much one to look back and deride al-Nāṣirī’s lack of knowledge and/or ambivalence about public health in his assessment—it is indeed too simple of a conclusion and somewhat ahistorical. Beyond accounting for the limited biological knowledge at his disposal, it is difficult to reject wholly the validity of concerns that he articulates. The worldly detriment that he mentions—the impact of quarantine on economic livelihood—has loomed large in the United States and elsewhere as social interaction has come to a sudden halt. At the same time, al-Nāṣirī logically equates the skepticism of Western practices with a dire fear for the faith of his countrymen. In an era when narrative of Islamic "decline" and European supremacy pervaded Muslim intellectual discourses, this argument should not come as a surprise. Indeed, the fact that al-Nāṣirī so readily and quickly adopts tropes like Western imitation and fitna demonstrates how underlying social anxieties—then like now—pervade and indeed shape our responses to these questions.
Al-Nāṣirī’s exploration of quarantine through the lens of Islamic normativity likewise sheds light on Islamic legal reasoning as it existed in this context and persists today. The contemporary Moroccan state has adopted the jurisprudential concept of maṣlaḥa mursala as a pseudo national creed that embodies the ideal of Moroccan Islam’s flexibility. The ensuing rulings based on maṣlaḥa mursala are thus highly circumstantial, meaning that a scholar could declare the same action licit or illicit depending on the context (or the scholars could disagree). As al-Nāṣirī’s own writing suggests, the sources of knowledge for doing so may be as varied as political norms, scientific knowledge, and/or spiritual preservation. This means that a jurist then or now could invoke maṣlaḥa mursala to come to a starkly opposite view of quarantine: that the benefit of saving lives outweighs the harm that quarantine inflicts. This points, on the one hand, to Islamic jurisprudential reasoning’s potential flexibility for addressing novel issues of time and place. On the other hand, however, jurists naturally cannot embark on such discretionary endeavors free of the political and social exigencies of their own times and places. This becomes even more pronounced when evaluating the normativity of a question with such unknown dangers and consequences. Notwithstanding the Islamic ideal of independent jurisprudential reasoning, al-Nāṣirī’s intellectual undertaking thereby shows the simultaneous efficacy yet ephemerality of such legal methodologies.
Finally, this section of Kitāb al-Istiqṣā tells us as much about the enterprise of telling history as it does about the content of that history itself. That is to say, the anecdote on al-Manṣūr recounts a snippet of a 1000-plus year history, one that involves the Sultan al-Manṣūr and his movements amidst impending pestilence. However, Al-Nāṣirī diverges from that historical narrative itself to digress into his own thoughts about quarantine based on al-Manṣūr’s words. The ensuing excursus, however, scarcely mentions al-Manṣūr’s decisions: instead, they recount al-Nāṣirī’s own personal narrative—his life in "the year of the plague"—and grappling with the permissibility of quarantine. This, of course, results in an exhibition of his own legal-intellectual approach by which he concludes that sharīʿa rejects it. In this way, al-Nāṣirī’s excursus on nineteenth-century quarantine emerges as the main substance of the text, while the historical narrative of al-Manṣūr itself is merely pretext. Regarded as such, a historical work like Kitāb al-Istiqṣā holds as much, if not more, historical value for al-Nāṣirī’s own time than that which he recounts. Whether al-Manṣūr sustained a similar crisis of conscience three centuries prior, he becomes for al-Nāṣirī’s history a crucial case study in the tension of expediency and legality. Consciously or not, al-Nāṣirī writes himself into that narrative as the final arbiter of this timeless political and moral dilemma.
It remains to be seen, of course, what future historians and public voices will conclude about the social and economic casualties of pandemic. Without doubt, the anxieties underlying political control, economic capacity, and social standing will continue to frame these reactions alongside, or in spite of, scientific assessments. In contemporary Morocco, this has included state led religious and scientific justifications for quarantine—as well as coercive measures to enforce them. At the same time, we who see ourselves enduring an unprecedented challenge will not stop trying to look to the past for answers. Doing so will involve not merely invoking comparable incidents past, but inevitably reading them through the lens of our present challenges. At the intersection of moral and legal reasoning, scientific knowledge, and effective policy making, our historical narratives themselves loom large over the choices available for the path forward. Indeed, what we write today about this history—no less, a musing on quarantine in nineteenth-century Morocco—will provide a potent source for future assessments of our actions in this uncertain moment.