Smallpox and God

(67 Posts)
sashh Sun 10-Mar-13 05:36:21

One of my classes of ESOL students can't understand that I'm an atheist so they brought in a friend with good English to try co convert me or at least educate me.

One question I asked was that, if Allah made everything in the world for a reason, was it a good or a bad thing that smallpox has been eradicated.

From my point of view it is a triumph of science and undoubtedly a good thing.

I wondered what other people think. I don't think I'm going to change my mind, but I think it is an interesting point.

So, is the eradication of smallpox a good or a bad thing?

LeMousquetaireAnonyme Sun 10-Mar-13 05:53:25

Surely if Allah made the smallpox he also gave man the ability to get rid of it as some kind of a lesson <? baffled>

I am atheist too and can't understand the logic of god directing everything but not man's evolution and the way of dealing with its environment.

It is a good thing for now. There is probably something we missed and will bite us in the ass later though, as with every progress but we will be able to deal with it when the time arise.
<that is purely a scientific opinion though not what you are after>

specialsubject Sun 10-Mar-13 12:28:24

tell them to look up the effects and history of smallpox.

Knowsabitabouteducation Sun 10-Mar-13 12:37:53

Is this thread just targeted at Muslims?

crescentmoon Sun 10-Mar-13 14:30:27

were you the one arguing that treating smallpox is thwarting the will of God or was it the person you were speaking to saying that? it would show a very deep ignorance of the Islamic teachings and history of medical and scientific enquiry if it was the person you were speaking to arguing that.

as muslims we are supposed to have a firm belief that there is a cure for every disease on earth because of the narrations of the prophet muhammad (pbuh) on disease and sickness.

"There is no disease that Allah has created, except that He also has created its treatment." (Bukhari)

"Make use of medical treatment, for Allah has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it, with the exception of one disease... old age." (Abu Dawud)

"Allah has sent down both the disease and the cure, and He has appointed a cure for every disease, so treat yourselves medically." (Dawud)

"The One who sent down the disease sent down the remedy." (Muwatta)

muhammad (pbuh) let it be known amongst people that it was almost an obligation to seek treatments and cures for sickness. i say this because he (pbuh) was asked whether precautionary measures and protective medicines would ward off what God had destined and he replied...

"All of these measures themselves, are part of destiny. So be treated and God will cure whomever He wills to cure" (Al Asqalani, Fath Al Bari, Bukhari)

on one occasion when Umar ibn al Khattab - the 2nd leader of the Muslims - decided not to enter a city that had reports of plague coming from it, Khalid Ibn Al Walid another famous companion challenged his decision saying 'Are you running away from a fate that God has already determined?' thinking it was impious to be seen to be avoiding that city. Al Khattab answered him "Yes I am running away from a fate that God has determined, to a fate that God has also determined"

historically the drive in the Islamic world for medical and scientific knowledge was spurred by the hadiths quoted above and others on seeking knowledge being akin to faith...

crescentmoon Sun 10-Mar-13 14:37:36

i would have written more OP but just saying i agree with you,

"From my point of view it is a triumph of science and undoubtedly a good thing."

but that to me, it is also the fulfillment of the promise that 'for every disease there is a cure so seek the cure'. it is upon humans to use their intellect to find cures and treatments - the only thing in Islam that raises us above animal is our intellect we do not believe man is created in the image of God.

sashh Mon 11-Mar-13 03:21:55


Thank you once again for your clear explanations of Islam. I wasn't arguing it, just asking for the Islamic view.

I'm assuming from your post that vaccination is, in Islam, the same as treating and curing that illness. Is that right?


Not just for Muslims, it just happened to be a Muslim person I was talking to.

crescentmoon i so enjoy reading your informed posts!

crescentmoon Tue 12-Mar-13 02:56:11

Thanks sashh yes vaccinations are about the preservation of health of an individual and the rest of the community. I'm pretty pro modern medicine and according to many scholars rules on 'impurities' such as substances containing animal elements which normally are avoided are relaxed when it comes to medicines.
One example is the meningitis vaccine that must be taken for the annual Hajj - you can't get a hajj visa without proof you've taken the vaccine. It is porcine based but its seen as the 'lesser evil' as there's no alternative and the harm of 'not' taking it far outweighs anything else.
As for the information I posted laptop and sashh its from one of my favourite books 'the fiqh of medicine' which i always recommend to people for its historical as well as information on socio-medical legal positions.

mummytime Tue 12-Mar-13 03:16:56

Variolation or the inoculation against Smallpox using live material, was actually introduced to the UK via Turkey and Persia. (So the Islamic world.)
In fact the Islamic world preserved and advanced a lot of Scientific and Medical knowledge through Western Europe's Dark and Middle Ages.

crescentmoon Tue 12-Mar-13 03:37:21

mummytime that's very interesting. I just looked up the history of the smallpox vaccine online on and here and both say innoculation was brought to the UK and by that to the rest of europe in the 18th by

"lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador, learned about variolation in Constantinople. In 1721, at the urging of Montagu and the Princess of Wales, several prisoners and abandoned children were inoculated by having smallpox inserted under the skin. Several months later, the children and prisoners were deliberately exposed to smallpox. When none contracted the disease, the procedure was deemed safe and members of the royal family were inoculated. The procedure then became fashionable in Europe."

Thanks sashh and mummy I learnt something new through this thread.

PedroPonyLikesCrisps Tue 12-Mar-13 07:38:14

"Yes I am running away from a fate that God has determined, to a fate that God has also determined"

This quote epitomises religious texts in general. It effectively says that whatever someone does, they can explain that it's what their god had planned for them. Pretty meaningless really.

In terms of the vaccine, it along with every other vaccine we have developed is a testament to the incredible work which our scientists do every day. To suggest that god expects us to find these cures is an insult to science.

Snorbs Tue 12-Mar-13 07:51:31

I build a trap-filled maze. There is one safe way out but it's very difficult to fond and every wrong turn will either kill you outright or at least cripple you.

I drop a load of people in the middle of the maze. Eventually someone makes it out alive.

As I have effectively provided them the "cure" (a safe way out) am I morally justified in making the "disease" in the first place?

Snorbs Tue 12-Mar-13 07:52:08

That should, of course, be "find".

sashh Tue 12-Mar-13 09:41:50


I may have to get that book. Teaching IT at the moment but if/when I get back to health and social care it will be useful for the debate I do.

I think I've said it on here before but basically I tell students they are nurses on a ward with an elderly man. He does not speak English, you do not speak his language.

His son has told you that he is a Muslim and very devout so he does not want to take any opiates

It is the middle of the night, the old man is in pain. You have opiate painkillers. They have been prescribed to him what do you do?

And regardless of what you do what impact will that have on you as a person?

crescentmoon Tue 12-Mar-13 11:27:07

hello pedro, i knew we would run into each other sometimes soon.

quickly on your last point,

"In terms of the vaccine, it along with every other vaccine we have developed is a testament to the incredible work which our scientists do every day. To suggest that god expects us to find these cures is an insult to science."

does it detract from the great work on vaccines by scientists that it was Muslims who brought innoculation/variolation/vaccination to the western world? in 1706 in the americas a north african muslim slave Onesimus described the procedure to his master Cotton Mather who after learning that other slaves had also been variolated read about the methods in Turkey and it was used to deal with a smallpox outbreak in Boston in 1721. (got it from here with further references).

as i learnt from mummytimes point, the concept of vaccination/ variolation in Europe came to the UK from the Muslim world where "variolation was also practiced throughout the latter half of the 17th century by physicians in Turkey, Persia, and Africa. In 1714 and 1716, two reports of the Ottoman Empire Turkish method of inoculation were made to the Royal Society in England, by Emmanuel Timoni, a doctor affiliated with the British Embassy in Constantinople,[7] and Giacomo Pylarini. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Ottoman Constantinople, is widely credited with introducing the process to Great Britain in 1721. Source material tells us on Montagu; "When Lady Mary was in the Ottoman Empire, she discovered the local practice of inoculation against smallpox called variolation."[8] The procedure had been performed on her son and daughter, aged five and four, respectively. They both recovered quickly."

it was also practised by Muslim africans in Sudan and spread more widely through africa thought because of trade and pilgrim routes. (

in the Muslim world, the push for scientific information, on medicine, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, biology etc came directly from the religious teachings of Islam. Jim Al Khalili, the 2013 President of the British Humanist Association did a well researched documentary series on the link between the rapid rise and period of scientific enquiry in the Muslim world which began within 100 years after the rise of Islam and lasted 600 years. (Science and Islam Part 1)

in the western world, the age of scientific enquiry came 1600 years after the rise of Christianity - the 'Age of Reason' of the 17th century. so it is different histories that determine our worldviews on religion and science.

crescentmoon Tue 12-Mar-13 11:39:31

as for 'whatever someone does is already planned by God'

lets take out God and religious texts, forget about them, and talk science...

if you consider the activity of the human brain, there is no scientific proof of a soul or a non physical self capable of making choices.

there are physical laws which the electrical and chemical events in the brain obey. the molecular biologist and militant atheist Francis Crick said... ''You' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules". Patrick Haggard the British brain scientist says 'As a neuroscientist you've got to be a determinist. Under identical circumstances you couldn't have done otherwise. There is no 'I' which can say "I want to do otherwise".

neither Crick or Haggard are oddballs,both come firmly within the conservative science camp. the majority of scientists in the field actually would deny free will not because of the religious texts which say that whatever someone does it is already known and 'with' the Creator God, but that everything about the molecular and physical activities of the brain are in principle predictable. you cannot do or choose something outside of the physics and chemistry of your brain.

but then pedro, can a criminal, a rapist or a murderer, stand in a court of law and use this argument of determinism as a defence against their actions? could they argue purely on scientific grounds that there is no free will and that their crimes were predetermined and outside of their control because their actions came only from neurological occurences.
instead of looking for signs of mental impairment as with the case last year with Anders Breivik in Norway, it would be very easy to assume that actually, no human being has any choice in their actions and that everything is already determined by genes and the connections in the brain. why then should we punish wrongdoing?

i can no more use 'it was my brain not me' in the court of law than in the court of God. this is how i understand God's will vs God's will.

crescentmoon Tue 12-Mar-13 11:54:02

dear sashh i would send it for you as a gift, pm me your address. its definitely NOT a book for trying to convert someone, its technical and about historical medical ethics in Islam on abortion, euthanasia, family planning, compensation in the case of a medical malpractise etc. i found it interesting knowing that such issues were discussed with great seriousness hundreds of years ago by scholars of law, not scholars of medicine, and it changed my views and positions on different issues. asfor that dilemma you put to your students

"It is the middle of the night, the old man is in pain. You have opiate painkillers. They have been prescribed to him what do you do?

And regardless of what you do what impact will that have on you as a person? "

i would really find it very hard to know what to do. the only part of the "Fiqh of Medicine" i could find online was chapter 5, "on the liability of medical practioners" found here...

im off now until probably tomorrow so please excuse me if i dont reply until then.

PedroPonyLikesCrisps Tue 12-Mar-13 22:55:27

Crescentmoon, I don't really understand your first point. It doesn't matter what religion the scientist were or where they brought the science from. It's still an incredible achievement for mankind which shouldn't be washed down with the suggestion of divine intervention.

And on your second point, science doesn't suggest that individuals' actions are predetermined. There are many ways that particles interact and interfere with each other to change their course (so to speak).

peacefuloptimist Wed 13-Mar-13 06:45:32

"I build a trap-filled maze. There is one safe way out but it's very difficult to fond and every wrong turn will either kill you outright or at least cripple you."

I think your analogy is flawed. You are suggesting that the only way we can deal with disease is through fatal trial and error (taking a wrong turn and dying or getting seriously injured) and that our only mechanism for dealing with disease is to find a cure.

Yes there are diseases however, God has provided us with different tools to deal with it not just one. Firstly, we are not just sitting ducks unable to help ourselves. We have intellect. We can observe the world around us and learn what is likely to be harmful to us and cause us to be sick and die. Therefore we can avoid those things. It is not inevitable that I will catch potentially fatal diseases. I can take precautions to avoid them. In fact it is very easy to avoid catching many diseases such as STDs, food-borne diseases and sanitation related diseases. We are also able to observe what makes a difference to the illness so are able to learn how to treat the symptoms of disease and how to improve our chances of not dying.

Secondly we have language so we can pass the knowledge that we have gained on to others so that they may benefit and be able to prevent themselves catching diseases, transmitting them or even so that they know how to treat the disease. People have been using herbal/plant remedies to treat diseases for thousands of years. Researchers found that people in different parts of the world tended to use the same or similar plants for the same purposes. Some may be off the mark completely but others do work, which is why alot of scientific research is now going in to investigating herbal medicines and testing medicinal benefits of chemicals found in lots of plants.

Thirdly and most importantly our bodies have natural defence mechanisms to protect us from disease and are equipped with the means to cure ourselves if we do catch a disease. Im talking about our immune system of course. Think about it. You are exposed to millions possibly billions or even more microorganisms that have the potential to make us sick (pathogens) every single day but how often do you get sick? For most people this is not very often. Of those times that you do get sick how often do you actually need to get treatment? The diseases that the majority of us are afflicted with the most often (influenza, colds etc) we are most of the time able to recover from them without any medical intervention. We are capable of producing something like 10 billion different types of antibodies leading scientists to state that our bodies are naturally equipped to fight virtually any microbe that exists. Also once we get a disease and are able cure us of the disease we become immune to it for life. That is a serious weapon in our arsenal of getting out of the maze. Vaccinations against infectious disease utilise this natural innate defence mechanism possesed by all human beings to protect us from diseases. Even babies who have the most vulnerable immune systems can be protected from within by their mothers breastmilk which we know produces antibodies.

I hope this makes sense (my brain is a bit sleepy so I may be rambling at points).

Snorbs Wed 13-Mar-13 08:46:59

Take polio (or malaria, or smallpox, or whooping cough). The human race as a whole didn't have the capabilities to develop an effective anti-polio vaccine until the 20th century. Until that point, millions of people throughout the preceding millennia had been disabled or even killed by poliomyelitis and there was little if anything we could do about it.

The people disabled and killed by polio before we had a vaccine are the people who are injured or killed stumbling around the maze in my analogy.

If I follow you correctly, you are stating that a god created both the polio virus, and the intellectual capability in humans to eventually produce defences against that virus. If so, does that absolve that god from any moral responsibility towards the huge numbers of people who were crippled before the vaccine was able to be developed?

That my maze has a safe exit and it's their fault if they can't find it, does that absolve me of any moral responsibility towards those people who were injured or killed because they didn't know the way out?

niminypiminy Wed 13-Mar-13 09:48:28

Snorbs your problem is an interesting one because of the assumptions it builds in about God.

Firstly, it is anthropocentric - it puts humans at the centre of the maze - and conceives of the problem of God's purposes as concerning humans over and above all other life forms.

Secondly, it assumes a strong version of divine determinism, in which the possibilities for human agency are decided in advance by God.

I cannot speak for Islamic conceptions of God, but neither of those assumptions accords with the Christian conception of God.

In the first place, Christians hold that while humans are made in the image of God, his entire creation is equally dear to him, and that his purposes encompass his whole creation, not just the human part it. The Ebola virus is equally a part of creation, equally dear to God, and equally part if his purpose. We cannot wholly know what his purposes are -- we have glimmers of them -- and so we cannot know what role pathogens play. What we can say is that the creation as a whole is an extraordinarily various outpouring of his love.

Secondly, and following on from that, free will is central to Christian ideas about the creation. Each life form has its own free will -- in the most minimal sense, this would be that it is free to be the thing that it is. The Ebola virus and human beings equally have free will. For God to protect humans from the Ebola virus would mean taking away the free will of the virus.

Rather than a one-exit trap, a rather different image (and one that I think would more accurately reflect Christian conceptions of God) would be an entangled bank, clothed with plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling about in the damp earth ... all these forms complexly dependent on one another, including on each others' deaths, and all striving to be what they are to the fullest extent.

Snorbs Wed 13-Mar-13 10:47:12

I put humans at the centre of the maze because, as far as I am aware, no other species uses intellect to adapt its environment to anywhere near the extent that humans do. Eg humans develop vaccines, rats don't.

Whether an antropocentric view of creation accords with your particular version of Christianity or not is interesting. My Christian schooling told me that humans were the Abrahamic God's special creation and that we had dominion over every other animal. I think there was more than one Bible verse that backed that up. And it wasn't like the Abrahamic God asked a bunch of hamsters to built the Ark, was it?

Of course, you are entirely free to believe what you want and still call yourself a Christian. It's no skin off my nose. But do bear in mind that many other Christians may not agree with you so you may want to be a bit cautious about making sweeping statements concerning what Christians as a whole do and do not believe.

I'm not sure where divine determinism comes in. I was talking ethics. Specifically, I was talking of the morality of the stated Islamic position that the Abrahamic God created both disease and remedy and that it's up to us to find it.

Creating a world and its inhabitants and then torturing them with terrible diseases is, in my opinion, morally reprehensible. I was trying to come up with an analogy to explore if also providing a (potentially) hard-to-find remedy makes that moral position any better. I'm not sure it does.

The Ebola virus and human beings equally have free will. For God to protect humans from the Ebola virus would mean taking away the free will of the virus.

So you are saying that a central tenet of Christian belief leads to the inescapable conclusion that viruses have free will equal to our own. How do they exercise that free will? If viruses are equally as cherished a part of Creation as us, does that mean that there will be Ebola in Heaven?

We cannot wholly know what his purposes are -- we have glimmers of them -- and so we cannot know what role pathogens play. What we can say is that the creation as a whole is an extraordinarily various outpouring of his love.

Sorry, but that's bizarre. "He created us and the many things that kill us in horrible ways. We don't know why but we do know He did it with love!" Huh?

niminypiminy Wed 13-Mar-13 11:29:39

<briefly, because I have to go to work> I know that Christians have different views -- I should probably have said 'one possible Christian position is...'. You are raising what is known in theology as 'the problem of evil', and I was giving one possible answer to that problem.

It is true that there are Bible verses that speak of man as the dearest of God's creations, and having dominion over the animals. Theologians, however, generally don't have a simplistic and literal view of the Bible.

As to whether there will be viruses in heaven, I have no idea. But it's not something that especially troubles me because I'm not very given to thinking about heaven in that way at all.

Is it not possible that he loves viruses? After all, they are extraordinary things.

Snorbs Wed 13-Mar-13 11:46:33

With respect, your stated answer to this problem of evil seems to essentially boil down to "I have no idea whatsoever why god does what he does. But I'm sure there must be a good reason."

I would find that intellectually unsatisfying. How about you?

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