THE BLACK DEATH IN MUSLIM AND




by Michael W. Dols






In the middle of the fourteenth century a devastating andemic of plague, commonly known in European history as the Black Death, swept through the entire Mediterranean world.1 This cataclysmic event caused a dramatic demographic decline in Muslim and Christian countries and provoked definable communal responses.2

The impact of the pandemic on Christian Europe is fairly well known since the Black Death has been the subject of considerable scholarly attention.3 This interest has led to a misconception of the Black Death as primarily a European phenomenon. Regrettably, the Black Death in the Orient has not attracted a comparable interest, but this neglect should not be interpreted as an indication of its lack of historical significance.4 The famous fourteenth-


1 This study is based, in part, upon a more extensive investigation of the transmission and impact of the Black Death on Muslim societies in the Middle East,    North  Africa, and Spain. The effects of plague in Muslim society naturally afford further material for compari­son with the European experience, particularly    with regard  to economic and demographic consequences.

2 At the outset, there is a need for caution because of the lack of research on the demograph­ic history of the Middle East. It is impossible to prove that the     dramatic  differences in the contemporary reactions of Muslim and Christian societies were due to a marked difference in population decline. It is improbable,    in my  opinion, that there was a greater decline in European population which would have caused greater social tension and alarm. A general assessment of the   etiological    conditions for plague in the Middle East would tend to suggest the opposite.

3 The extensive literature on the European phase of the Black Death, with special at­tention to Great Britain, has been conveniently summarized by three recent    works: Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (London 1969) with a helpful bibliography, George Deaux, The Black Death 1347 (London 1969), and J. F. D.    Shrewsbury, A History of Bubonic Plague in the British Isles (Cambridge 1970). On the subject of communal reaction, see especially Stephen d’Irsay, “Defense    Reactions during the Black Death, 1348-1349” Annals of Medical History 9 (1927) 169-179.

4 The pertinent works on plague in the Middle East include: Gaston Wiet’s translation of three historical texts dealing with the Black Death in Egypt (“La   grande    peste noire en Syrie et en Egypte,” Atudes d’orientalisme d~di~es ~i la rn~moire de L~vi-Proveni~al 1 (Paris

century Muslim historian, Ibn Khaldun, who lost his parents and a number of his teachers during the Black Death in Tunis, recognized the import of the pandemic for Islamic civilization:


in the middle of the eighth [fourteenth] century, civilization in the East and West was visited by a destructive plague which devastated nations and caused populations to vanish. It swallowed up many of the good things of civilization and wiped them out. It overtook the dynasties at the time of their senility, when they had reached the limit of their duration. It lessened their power and curtailed their influence. It weakened their authority. Their situation approached the point of annihilation and dissolution. Civilization decreased with the decrease of mankind. Cities and buildings were laid waste, roads and way signs were obliterated, settlements and mansions became empty, dynasties and tribes grew weak. The entire inhabited world changed. The East, it seems, was similarly visited though in accord­ance with and in proportion to (the East’s more affluent) civilization. It was as if the voice of existence in the world had called out for obliv­ion and restriction, and the world had responded to its call.5


The pandemic was transmitted from central Asia and spread throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. Based on contemporary Arabic


1962) 367-384); David Ayalon’s (Neustadt) study of “The Plague and Its Effects upon the Mamluk Army,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1946) 67-73; Abraham Udovitch’s interpretation of the economic decline of Mamlilk Egypt due partially to plague (R. Lopez, H. Miskimin, and A. Udovitch, “England to Egypt, 1350-1500: Long-Term Trends and Long-Distance Trade,” Studies in the Economic History of the Middle East ed. by M. A. Cook (London 1970) 3. 93-128; and Jacqueline Sublet’s study of the plague treatise of the Egyptian jurist Ibn Hajar al-’Asqal~ni (“La peste prise aux rets de la jurisprudence: Le traite d’Ibn Ilajar al-’ Asqalani sur la peste,” Studia Islamica 33 (Paris 1971) 141-149). In addition, particular attention is drawn to population decline in the Middle East, attributable in part to plagues, in Eliyahu Ashtor’s Histoire des prix et des salaires dans l’orient medieval (Paris 1969). I would like to express my gratitude especially to Dr. Udovitch and Dr. Sublet for their very generous encouragement and advice on this topic. As for the older literature, Jean Marchika announced an exhaustive study of plague epidemics from the Black Death to modern times in his introduction to La peste en Afrique septentrionale (Algiers 1927) 10. This thesis was to form only a part of the larger work; I have been unable to locate the author’s proposed study. The historical studies on plague epidemics by pre-twentieth­century scholars were severely handicapped by their ignorance of the actual pathology of plague, which was discovered only at the end of the nineteenth century. These include:E. d. Wolmar, Abhandlung uber die Pest (Berlin 1827): C. J. Lorinser, Die Pest des Orients (Berlin 1837); Alfred von Kremer, “Uber die grossen Seuchen des Orients nach Arabischen Quellen,” Sitzungsberichte der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaf ten (Phi Philosophisch­Historische Classe) 96.1 (Vienna 1880) 69-156; and G. Sticker, Abhandlungen aus der Seuchen­geschichte and Seuchenlehre, 2 vols. (Giessen 1908-1910), which relies heavily upon von Kremer’s study. Unfortunately, there is no study of the Black Death in the Far East; such a work based on the Chinese sources would be highly desirable.

 Ibn Khaldfln, The Muqaddimah, trans. F. Rosenthal (Princeton 1967) 1. 64.

COMMUNAL RESPONSES TO THE BLACK DEATH                                                                  271




and Latin sources, we can be certain of the existence of the three major forms of plague (bubonic, pneumonic, and septicaemic) in these regions. In any historical comparison of the role of the pandemic in Muslim and Christian societies we can assume as a constant the medical nature of the disease itself. In addition, almost all of the medieval physicians believed that the immediate cause of this disease was a pestilential miasma or corruption of the air; this belief was broadly accepted in both societies due to their common reliance on the theory of epidemics found in Hippocrates and elaborated by Galen and Ibn Sina (Avicenna), the greatest medical authorities for the fourteenth­century physicians.6 Therefore, in the Oriental and Western plague treatises there is similar advice for improving or changing the air in a plague-stricken community.

This medical advice is only one element of the defensive communal reactions of the two societies. A study of the more general communal responses to the same sharply focused and unavoidable stimulus is one way of arriving at a cross-section of cultural values and practices at one moment in time.7 To delineate more clearly the respective values and practices of late medieval European and Middle Eastern societies at the time of the Black Death a comparative analysis will be employed. Such an explicit comparison brings insights into the basic natures of both cultures. In dealing with elusive social attitudes and their communal expression, comparative analysis may guard against a parochial and simplistic interpretation of human behavior.



6 Hippocrates, Epidemics 1 and 3, ed. and trans. W. H. S. Jones (New York 1923) 1.139-211; Galen, Medicorum graecorum opera quae exstant, ed. C. G.    Kuhn  (Leipzig 1821-1833) 7.287-294; and Ibn Sina, al-Qanun fi t-tibb (Cairo 1877) 3.64-66, 121-122. There were numerous and contradictory explanations    for the  nature of this miasma; a far greaterempha­sis on natural causation is given in the European treatises, especially astral influence as the remote cause of    the miasma.    Professor Campbell has attributed this celestial explanation to the strong influence of the University of Paris’s Consultation on most of the later    European treatise    writers (A. M. Campbell, The Black Death and Men of Learning [New York 19311 14-16, 37, 123-124). The theory of the unfavorable   conjunction of the major    planets as the cause of pestilence was largely derived from Arab astrology; see, for example, E. S. Kennedy and David Pingree, The   Astrological History of    Masha’allah (Cambridge, Mass. 1971) text: fol. 217; trans.: 54-55. Planetary ideas are present but not prominent in the plague   treatises, poetry, and historical    accounts of the Black Death in the contemporary Middle East and Spain. This may be due to the fact that Ibn Sina, the major   medical au­thority for the Muslim    writers, gives only slight reference to the underlying influence of celestial conditions in his description of plague miasma as   a remote cause for the changes in the    air; the terrestrial corruption of the air receives greater attention (65). Moreover, Ibn Sina is known to have written a   work expressly against astrology; see    Manfred Ullmann. Die Medizin im Islam (Leiden 1970) 254.
7 The psychological impact of historical disasters, such as the Black Death, was the topic of William L. Langer’s presidential address to the American Historical    Association in 1957:“The Next Assignment,” The American Historical Review 63 (January 1958) 283-304; see also Langer, “The Black Death,” Scientific    American (February 1964) 114-122.

After reviewing the European Christian understanding of the Black Death and the remarkable reactions to it, I shall give fuller attention to the less well known Muslim responses to the disaster. It will become evident that the European Christian and the Muslim reactions were quite dissimilar, and the comparison of these differences tells us much about what is essential to the identity of each culture. Faced with the specter of death in a particularly horrible form, the values and attitudes around which lives were constructed met their severest test. We shall be compelled to examine the religious roots of each culture to understand better their differing responses.


The Black Death was variously interpreted by contemporary European writers. The pandemic was considered, however, by most European observers to result directly from the pestilential miasma, and it was believed that the disease was contagious, which accounts for the important protective measures taken by the Italian cities and the widespread advocacy of flight as the best means of escaping the epidemic. The physicians mention natural causations of the disease (such as an unfavorable conjunction of the planets, or earth­quakes) among the remote causes of the miasma. Yet only one European treatise gives a concrete remedy against the astrological causes of plague; the customary recommendations were flight and prayer8

The most commonly held opinion about the ultimate cause of the plague pandemic was religious: the European Christian viewed the Black Death as an overwhelming punishment from God for his sins and those of his fellow Christians. Despite the other interpretations of the disease, this view is the only one that satisfactorily explains the extraordinary forms of communal behavior that took place in many parts of Europe during the Black Death. This supernatural solution was propagated by the Church and is reflected in contemporary European art and literature.9 The chronicles of the fourteenth century almost always attribute the affliction to divine retribution for the wickedness of European society.10 Langland summarizes the common view succinctly: “These pestilences were for pure sin.”’-’



8 Campbell (n. 6 above) 65. Professor Campbell’s monograph is devoted, in part, to an examination of the opinions on the Black Death by contemporary European    physicians. Although instructive about medical theory and practice, this examination is highly restrictive and cannot be said to reflect the general European    interpretation of the disease. The phy­sicians’ views should be balanced by other sources such as chronicles, sermons, vernacular literature, and art.

   Johannes Nohi, The Black Death (London 1961) 78-79; Raymond Crawfurd, Plague and Pestilence in Literature and Art (Oxford 1914).

10 Ziegler (n. 3 above) 35. William Langland, Piers Plowman B. 5. 13.

Based directly on biblical and classical precedents,12 a conviction of personal guilt and a need for individual and collective expiation were engendered in the faithful Christian. His attitude to the Black Death is well illustrated by the European communal response. This response took the forms of the flagel­lant movement, the persecution of alien groups (particularly the Jews), and a pessimistic preoccupation with imminent death.

The flagellant movement was based on a belief in the mortification of the flesh as suitable penance for men’s sins. Beginning in mid-thirteenth-century Italy, a series of natural disasters convinced many that God’s wrath was visiting men as a punishment for their sinfulness. This concept was acted out in expiatory pilgrimages and processions in an attempt to divert or allay God’s chastisement. The processions recurred continually during the later Middle Ages.13 From their inception, an implicit element of the flagellant movement was its participation in the millennial ideas that Professor Cohn has shown to be a significant theme of late medieval Christendom, stemming especially from the millennial scheme of Joachim of Fiore.14 Self-flagellation was “a collective irnilatio Christi, a redemptive sacrifice which protected the world from final overwhelming catastrophe, and by virtue of which they themselves [the flagellants] became a holy ~lite.”15

During the Black Death this holy elite became a messianic crusade without a putative messiah. A recent historian of the Black Death in Europe has described the movement in the following manner:


As the fervor mounted the messianic pretensions of the Flagellants became more pronounced. They began to claim that the movement must last for thirty-three years and end only with the redemption of Christendom and the arrival of the Millennium. Possessed by such chiliastic convictions they saw themselves more and more, not as mortals suffering to expiate their own sins and humanity’s, but as a holy army of Saints.16


The flagellant movement was a complex social phenomenon. Its apoca­lyptic ambitions proved to be an incentive to personal mysticism, anticleri­calism, and social revolutionary ideas such as the destruction of private wealth. The flagellants were also intimately associated with the second major feature of the European reaction to the pandemic: the persecution of the Jews.


12 See L. Fabian Hirst, The Conquest of Plague (Oxford 1953) 6-16. Despite Hirst’s mis­information and errors about plague in Muslim society, his work is the      best medical history of plague.

13 Ziegler (n. 3 above) 87-88; Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, rev. ed. (New York 1970) 127-147.

14 Cohn (n. 13 above) 108-113; see the recent study by Marjorie Reeves, The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A Study in Joachimism (Oxford 1969).

15 Cohn 142.                             
16 Ziegler (n. 3 above) 92.



The massacres of the Jews during the Black Death were unprecedented in their extent and ferocity until the twentieth century. The first attacks on the Jews resulted from the accusation that this unassimilable community had caused the pestilence by poisoning wells; this was neither new (Jews had been accused and massacred in southern France and Spain during the plague epi­demics of 1320 and 1333), nor confined to the Jews alone. Lepers, gravediggers and other social outcasts, Muslims in Spain, or any foreigners were liable to attack; the hunting down of plague salvers continued well into the seventeenth century. But in September 1348 the forced confessions from ten Jews in Chil­lon were adduced to support this fantasy and to implicate all European Jews.’7 A second wave of massacres from the middle of 1349 was instigated by the propaganda of the flagellants. In many cities of Germany and the Low Coun­tries (Frankfort, Maine, Cologne, Brussels) the destruction of the Jewish popu­lation was led by the flagellants, aided by the masses of the poor.’8 Pope Clement VI finally condemned the flagellants in 1349 after two bulls in the same year against the persecution of the Jews had been ineffectual.

Besides the immediate economic and social causes that have been pointed out for the Jewish persecution,19 one must also consider the image of the Jew as Anti-Christ which was commonplace in Europe during the later Middle Ages. As closely related to Christian millennial ideology as the reverse is to the obverse, this image was fostered by the Catholic Church and gained con­siderable momentum from the time of the First Crusade. At its origin was a predisposition to seek a weak, unpopular, and easily identifiable scapegoat as the source of evil—the enemy of militant Christendom.

In general. European Christians reacted to the Black Death with profound guilt and fear, which religious attitudes about the mortification of the flesh of Len transformed into extreme penance; there seems to have been a deep pessimism and sometimes a renunciation of. life itself.20 Professor Huizinga has suggested that the whole “vision of death” found in late fourteenth and fifteenth-century European literature may be described by the word macabre, and it is from this late medieval period that we derive the meaning of macabre as something gruesome and morbid.21 The awareness of imminent death and of the transitory nature of life is extrarodinarily prominent in late medieval documents, as seen in testaments and endowments.22 It is not illogical, how­ever, to find the opposite reaction of hedonism as a form of release from this


17 The analysis by H. B. Trevor-Roper, The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Other Essays (New York 1969) 90-192, is       remarkably suitable to the interpretation of this “craze..  ~ Cohn (n. 13 above) 139.     

19 Ziegler (n. 3 above) 97-109.

20 Ibid. 274-276; Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (New York 1964) 74-78; J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (New      York 1954) 27-52; Langer, “The Next Assignment” (n. 7 above) 298.

21 Huizinga 138-151.                              

22 Campbell (n. 6 above) 171-174.



danse macabre. Moreover, the natural inclination of survivors to escape the contagion by fleeing from a plague-stricken region was encouraged by European physicians and clerics. The pandemic brought to the fore the discontinuous view of human existence in Christianity, that is, the end of all things in the Apocalypse.

In the complex psychological response to the Black Death, the natural preoccupation with death was therefore not inconsistent with a vision of the biblical Apocalypse. Many believed that the end of the world had come, plague being the apocalyptic rider on the white horse. In an account of the island of Cyprus during the pandemic, an Arabic chronicler testifies to the Christian belief by his remark that the Christian Cypriots “feared that it was the end of the world.”23 The Black Death did not create these forms of reaction or the ideology that lay behind them; it was a stimulus, despite its irregularity of attack, which exposed the nerve system of late medieval Christian society.




The Middle Eastern interpretations of the Black Death display a diversity of opinions similar to that of the European accounts.24 Yet, the dominant Muslim view of plague was set forth in the formulation of three religio-legal principles, which directly affected communal behavior: (1) plague was a mercy from God and a martyrdom for the faithful Muslim; (2) a Muslim should not enter nor flee from a plague-stricken land; and (3) there was no contagion of plague since disease came directly from God.25 These three major precepts regarding plague were inherited by Muslim scholars at the time of the Black Death from earlier experiences of plague epidemics. The recurrences of the Plague of Justinian, beginning in the mid-sixth century, struck the Middle East during the early, formative period of Islamic civilization.26 These plagues,



23   Al-Maqrizi, as-Suli2k li-ma’ rifat duwal al-mulOk (Cairo 1936-1958) 2.3.776.

24 This discussion of the Islamic interpretation of plague is based primarily on my study of the corpus of plague treatises written by the Muslim jurists and the       relevant /iadith lit­erature; a survey of the Arabic treatises was read to the meeting of the American Oriental Society at Harvard University, April 7, 1971       (“The  Arabic Manuscript Sources for the His­tory of Plague from the Black Death to the Nineteenth Century”).

25 See Sublet (n. 4 above); Dr. Sublet has investigated the Islamic juristic principles regarding plague based on the most complete and representative Arabic     plague  treatise:Badhl aI-md’On fi fadi at-ld’an by Ibn IIajar al-’AsqalAni, d. 852/1449.

26 Most of the Arabic plague treatises include a chronology of plagues following the Plague of Justinian in the Middle East, in addition to a consideration of the      biblical plagues. For an introduction to the history of the Plague of Justinian, see J. N. Biraben and J. LeGoff, “La peste dans le haut moyen Age,” Anna les:      economies, socWt~s, civilisations 24.6 (Paris 1969) 1484-1510. Von Kremer’s study of epidemics in the Middle East is based largely on his edition of one     plague  treatise and its chronology, as-SuyfitI’s MO rawdhu 1-wO’ iln ft akhbdr at-id’ (in (n. 4 above) 144-156. This treatise is a greatly abridged version of Ibn

which vitally affected the early Muslim conquests, caused the creation of this fund of opinions that were later collected in the form of legal traditions Q~a­wMilh).27

All three traditions were attributed to the Prophet. Mul~ammad was re­puted to have prohibited flight from a plague-stricken community, and this belief was the subject of considerable controversy between the caliph and his military commander in Syria when plague struck the Arab army severely at ‘Amw~s in 17-18/638-639. The prevalence of the other two principles cannot be established so firmly in this early period but were fully established by the later Muslim jurists in the eighth and ninth centuries. Accordingly, Muham­mad was understood to have denied the pre-Islamic Arab belief in contagion. Consistent with this idea that plague was a divine selection is the principle that plague was a mercy from God for the faithful Muslim but a punishment for the infidel. While the latter was based on biblical sources, the claim for a mercy and martyrdom was a major theological invention of Islam and is, to my knowledge, unique to Semitic religions. In the variable lists of the five Muslim martyrdoms, deaths by plague and by battle are always included; both are equal in God’s favor and the believer is assured of reaching paradise. Moreover, the descriptive terminology of plague is closely related to that of the actual fih~id or holy war. The ideology of the jihad may have served as a



   ~ajar al-’AsqalAni’s (as-Suy5~i’s teacher) Badhl al-md’iln ft fadl af4d’iln, DAr al-Kutub (Cairo) MS no. 2353 tasawwuf and Ibn AM ~ajalah’s Daf’ an-niqmah ft     5-saldf ‘aId na ar-rahmdn, Escurial MS no. 1772, fols. la-87b. The chronology of epidemics by as-Suyi4! was brought up to his own time; the work was    composed during the plague epidemic of 897/1491-1492 in Egypt. Von Kremer’s emended chronology of the years of epidemics (107-143)——not necessarily    plague—suggests the possible incidents of plague in the Middle East after the Plague of Justinian. For the first important plague epidemic in Islamic history, the    “Plague of ‘AmwAs (‘AmawAs),” see at-Tabari, Ta’rikh (Cairo 1960-1969) 4.60, and The Encyclopaedia of Islam, ed. 2 (Leiden 1960- ): “‘AmwAs” (J.     Sourdel- Thomine); hereafter referred to as El 2 (El 1 refers to The Encyclopaedia of Islam, ed. 1 ILeiden 1913-19341). A fuller discussion of this topic will be     found in my article “Plague in Early Is­lamic History” which will appear in the Journal of the American Oriental Society 94.3.

27 See A. J. Wensinck, Concordance et indices de Ia tradition musulmane 22 (Leiden 1936) 2-4; esp. the traditions citied in al-BukhAri, Kitdb al-/Omi’ as-~aJgi~     (Leiden 1864) 2.209 and 4.59-60. Apparently the earliest and most important history of plagues and the related had iths was composed by al-Mad&’ini (d.      225/840 or 231/845); the work is lost but was incorporated into the writings of Ibn Abi d-DunyA’s (d. 281/894) Kitdb aI-i’tibdr, which was utilized by the later      writers. The ~iadtth literature furnished the late medieval authors with a precise Arabic terminology for plague, and it is this. hadith literature that constitutes the       bulk of the material found in the plague treatises written from the time of the Black Death. Parallel to this development was a medical interest in plague which       can be traced from the early Arabic medical compendia based on the medical views of Hippocrates and Galen; for example, ‘AlI ibn Rabban at-Tabari, Firdausu       l-Hikmat or Paradise of Wisdom, ed. M. Z. Siddiqi (Berlin 1928) 328-331, and Max Meyerhof, “‘All at-Tabari’s ‘Paradise of Wis­dom,’ One of the Oldest      Arabic Compendiums of Medicine,” Isis 16 (1931) 31, 51.



conscious and useful analogy for the Muslims jurists when they were confronted by the problems of plague and of explaining the traditions of the Prophet.

It would be unreasonable to assume that these three religio-legal tenets were universally characteristic of the Muslim response to the Black Death. While there was no question that the ultimate cause of plague was divine, the legal scholars argued both for and against these precepts in their plague treatises.28 As for the first principle, there is historical and literary evidence that plague was considered by some men as a warning or punishment by God, arising perhaps from natural human anxiety and native Christian and Jewish attitudes. The chroniclers relate the enforcement of Muslim laws, particularly against alcohol and moral laxity, during the plague epidemics of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.29 There is an obvious incompatability between the beliefs in plague as a divine punishment and as a divine reward. Within this spectrum of beliefs there was also the view that plague was a natural calamity—a neutral event—which an unknowable God had decreed. The latter interpretation is most consistent with the historical accounts and represents the “consensus” of the jurists and popular attitudes. As for the unique theo­logical claim that plague was a mercy and martyrdom, it may have been both comforting and confounding for the distressed Muslim; it had the virtue of preserving the belief in a compassionate and merciful God. At the very least, there was no unanimity of opinion about the specific reason for plague; this lack of agreement eliminated the possibility of a single ideological basis for social activism.

Much the same may be said for the issue of flight from a plague-stricken community. Some jurists disagreed with the prohibition against fleeing, and there is historical evidence that clearly shows that there was flight from the countryside to the major cities. This might be explained by the attraction of food reserves in the cities (considering the long duration of the Black Death) and the opportunity to escape from the land and to obtain higher wages in the cities. Furthermore, the dispensing of plague prophylaxes and the or­ganized religious ceremonies at the principal shrines in the urban areas may have exerted an attraction over the rural population. In any case, the Black Death and the recurrent plagues accelerated a pattern of rural depopulation which was perceptible to Arabic historians in the following century and a half. In contrast, there was certainly flight from the cities as well; we are told, for example, that the people of Fust~.t (Old Cairo) during the Black Death fled



28   See n. 24 above.

29 Ibn Hajar (n. 26 above) fols. 6a-7a, 122b; Ibn Abi Hajalah, (n. 26 above) fols. 42a-43a; Ibn Hajar, Inbd’ al-ghumr bi-anbd’ al’-umr (Cairo 1969) 1.351;      al- Maqrizi (n. 23 above)777;Jean Sauvaget, “D~crets mamelouks de Syrie,” Bulletin d’~tudes orientales 2 (Damascus 1932) 11-15, 24.


eastward from the city, leaving it in ruins.30 The sultan and his amirs also fled from Cairo to Siry~iqtis and remained there from the beginning of Rajab 749/25 September 1348~’ until the end of Ramadan/22 December.32 Yet, despite the enormous problems created by the pandemic, there is no evidence to suggest that the machinery of government and religion broke down alto­gether in the most important cities such as Damascus, Cairo, or Alexandria. The historical accounts of the attempts by the government to count the dead either in the mosques or at the city gates argue strongly in favor of the main­tenance of urban functions and activity. The popular religious ceremonies also argue against massive flight from the urban regions and the belief in contagion. Edward Lane, a keen observer of traditional Muslim society, noted that during the severe plague epidemic of 1835 in Cairo—for which he notes no unusual popular reaction—that “from a distrust in fate some Muslims even shut themselves up during the prevalence of plague, but this practice is generally condemned. A Syrian friend of mine who did so nearly had his door broken open by his neighbors.”33

As for the third problem of contagion, the Andalusian scholar Ibn al-Kha~ib has attracted European attention for his observation and forceful statement of the contagious nature of the Black Death.M This points, however, to the exceptional nature of Ibn al-Khatib’s belief and the weight of opinion against him. Ibn al-Khatib was the only Muslim writer to my knowledge to argue against the accepted interpretation of plague; his forthright statement is pro­bably one of the portions of his writings which gave support to his enemies in their later persecution of him as a heretic.



30  A1-Maqrizi, al-Mawd’iz wal-i’tibdr bi-dhikr al-khi~af wal-athdr (Bfll~q 1854) 1.637; see his similar remarks for the at-Tabb~nah section of Cairo, near the      Citadel, during the Black Death (1.361).

31 Al-Maqrizi (n. 23 above) 780; al-Maqrizi clearly states (781) that after the funeral of ‘Abdall~h Manufi in Cairo (Ramacl~n 749 AH) “the amirs returned to      Siryaqos”; cf. Ayalon (n. 4 above) 72.

32 Al-Maqrizi (n. 23 above) 781.


~   Edward Lane, Arabian Society in the Middle Ages ed. Stanley Lane-Poole (London 1883) 10. For the same plague epidemic in the Middle East, we have the travel account of A. ~V. Kinglake, Eothen (Lincoln Nebraska 1970 reprint), which is virtually “A Journal of the Plague Year.” Kinglake observed, particularly, the severe mortality in Cairo and the traditional Muslim practices. Compared with the massive flight of the Europeans due to their obsession with contagion, “the Orientals. . . have more quiet fortitude than Europeans under afflictions of this sort, and they never allow the plague to interfere with their religious usages” (250-251). ‘There were no outward signs of despair nor violent terror” (268).

~‘ Ibn al-Khatib, Muqni’ at as-sd’il ‘an al-marad al-hd’il, Escurial MS no. 1785, fols. 39a-48b; the text has been edited by M. J. Muller in the Sitzungsberichte der Kdnigl. Bayer­ischen Akademie der Wissensehaf ten zu Miinchen (Munich 1863) 2. 1-34: “Ibnulkhat!b’s Bericht uber die Pest.” See El 2: “Ibn aL-Khatib” (J. Bosch-VilA); Hirst (n. 12 above) 51; T. \V. Arnold and A. Guillaume, eds., The Legacy of Islam (Oxford 1931) 340; and Ulimana (n.6 above) 179, 246. For the European views of contagion, see Campbell (n. 6 above) 56-63.



The importance of these three principles to Muslim society was in what they did not affirm: they did not declare that plague was God’s punishment; they did not encourage flight; and they did not support a belief in the contagious nature of plague—all of which were prevalent in Christian Europe. These principles appear to be borne out by the reports of the general communal responses to the Black Death in the major cities in the Middle East.

The Muslim reaction to the Black Death was characterized by organized communal supplication that included processions through the cities and mass funerals in the mosques. There is no indication of the abandonment of religious rites and services for the dead but rather an increased emphasis on personal piety and ritual purity. Besides the regular religious services in the mosques, the oral recitation of the ~aw3dith, particularly from the Sa of al-Bukh~ri,33 was a customary practice during the Black Death and later recurrences of plague. Surely, at the time of the Black Death, the chapters that dealt spec­ifically with plague as well as related traditions were read aloud. The oral presentation of the traditions must have effectively communicated to the illiterate masses the three major tenets regarding plague.

It is reported that pious men were stationed at various places of worship in Cairo and FustAt in order to recite the funeral prayers. Many men left their normal occupations to profit from the funerals, as by chanting the funeral prayers at the head of processions.~ These processions from the mosques or homes to the cemeteries filled the streets of Cairo during the Black Death. They were so numerous that they could not pass in the roadways without disturbing one another.37 Moreover, there were pious visitations to the graves in the common belief that the souls of the deceased resided in the tombs.

Mass funeral services took place during the Black Death in the important mosques of the cities. For example, an Egyptian historian tells us that on one Friday after the public prayer in the large Mosque of al-I~I~kim in Cairo, the funeral prayers were recited over a double line of coffins that reached from the maqs0rah~ to the main entrance. The im~m or prayer leader stood at the threshold of the entrance door, and the people stood behind him on the outside of the building.~



~   El 2: “al-Bukhkri” (J. Robson).

    ~ Al-Maqr!zi (n. 23 above) 781.                                      

    ~ Ibid. 782.

~   A box or compartment for the ruler which was built near the mihrdb or prayer niche.


~‘ Al-MaqrizI (n. 23 above) 782. This report is probably based on the lost segment of the history of Ibn al-Fur~t, a contemporary of the Black Death in Cairo; fortunately a brief part of his description of the Black Death is preserved in Iba Ijajar (n. 26 above) fols. 130a-130b. See also the report of Ibn Kathir, who witnessed the mass funerals at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, in al-Bidayah wan-n ihdyah Ii at-ta’rikh (Cairo, n.d.) 14. 227-228. During the Black Death and recurrent plague epidemics, the funeral services in Cairo were used as one method by the government to determine general mortality. See for example, Ibn Taghri Bird!, an-Nu jam a~-$hirah Ii mulak Mi~r wal-Qdhirah, History of Egypt 1382-1469 A.D.,



Ibn Taghri Birdi, a major historian of Mamhlk Egypt, gives a personal account of his life during the severe plague epidemic of 833/1429-1430 in Cairo, which may be typical of the educated urban class’s reaction to plague. He and his friends would return home from the Friday prayer and the mass funerals, and they would take account of how many were present among them to compare with the number on the following Friday. Each man was resigned to die, Ibn Taghri Birdi relates, each having made his will and repented. The young men carried prayer beads in their hands and did little apart from at­tending the prayers for the dead, performing the five daily prayers, weeping and directing their thoughts to God, and showing humility.~

An important part of urban activity in response to the Black Death was the communal prayers for the lifting of the disease. During the greatest severity of the pandemic, orders were given in Cairo to assemble in the mosques and to recite the recommended prayers in common.4’ Fasting and processions took place in the cities during the Black Death and later plague epidemics; the supplicatory processions followed the traditional form of prayer for rain (is us­q~’). As the Black Death worsened, a proclamation was made in Damascus inviting the population to fast for three days and to go out on the fourth day (Friday) to the Mosque of the Foot, in order to supplicate God for the removing of this scourge.42 Most of the Damascenes were reported to have fasted, and several spent the night in the Umayyad Mosque performing the acts of faith as in the ritual during Rama n and reading al-Bukh~rI. On Friday morning the inhabitants of Damascus came out from all sides, including Jews, Chris­tians, Samaritans, old men and women, young infants, the poor, amirs, notables, and magistrates. Before the morning prayer, they marched from the Umayyad Mosque to the Mosque of the Foot and did not cease chanting the prayers throughout the day.43




ed. and trans. William Popper, University of California Publications in Semitic Philology (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1915-1963) 18.71; 22.93-94.

40 Ibn Taghri Bird! 18.72.

41 A number of these prayers are suggested in the plague treatises; for example, Ibn klajar (n. 26 above) fols. lOlb-119b. The prayers are mostly in the common form of “seeking refuge” (ista’ddhah, iltijd’ah) with God, based on portions of the Qur’an which are felt to be efficacious against disease or hardship. Many of these verses are used for inscriptions on amulets and talismans. See also Jan Knappert, Swahili lstamic Poetry (Leiden 1971) 1.87, and C. E. Padwick, Muslim Devotions (London 1961) chap. 6.

42 See Wiet (n. 4 above) 383 n. 38.

~ Iba KathIr (n. 39 above) 14.226; for other reports of the same event, see al-Maqrizi (n. 23 above) 780; Ibn AM Ijajalah (n. 26 above) fols. 75a-75b; and Ibn Batt04ah, Voyages ed. and trans. C. Defremery and B. R. Sanquinetti (Paris 1854) 1.227-229. There is an excellent description of this ceremony in Cairo and its procession out to the desert during the plague epidemic of 822 AH in al-Maqrizi, as-Sut0k, Bodleian Or. MS no. 458, fols. 141a-142b and (with minor variations) in Ibn Taghri Bird! (n. 39 above) 17.64-67. Although this



Another distinguishable characteristic of the Muslim reaction to the pandemic was the occurrence of and belief in supernatural visions and events associated with the disease. Previous to the communal supplication in Damascus, a man had come from the mountains of Asia Minor to visit the famous scholar and judge of the city, Bah~’ ad-DIn as-Subki, and informed him that when plague had occured in Asia Minor, he had seen the Prophet in a vision. The man had complained to Mul~ammad about this calamity that had struck the people, and the Prophet declared to him: “Read the siirah of Noah” 3,363 times45 and ask God to raise from you this affliction.” This was announced in the city, and the people assembled in the mosques to carry out these instructions.46 For a week the Damascenes performed this ritual, praying and slaughtering great numbers of cattle and sheep, whose meat was distributed among the poor.47 Similarly, a letter of the governor of Aleppo arrived in Cairo informing the government that a pious man had seen the Prophet in a dream. The man had also complained to the Prophet about the plague, and the Prophet had given him a prayer to recite. A number of copies of this prayer were made and sent to Uam~, Tripoli, and Damascus.48

Further examples of supernatural events during the Black Death are to be found in the plague treatises.49 In all probability plague was a stimulus to popular veneration of saints~ as is evidenced in the modern Middle East at the time of natural calamities. Thus, it was reported that during the Black Death the tombs of the prophet Matt~ and Hanzalah ibn Khuwaylid (brother of Khadijah) were revealed to the people of Manbij (in northern Syria). Streams of light were said to have shone from the shrines of sheikh ‘Aqil al-Manbiji and sheikh Yanbub outside of the city, and the light from them came over the city. Also, light came from the tomb of sheikh ‘All and his shrine on the northern side of the town. The lights passed from onto the other, and they came together and lasted for four nights until the light blinded the people of Manbij. The judge of the city observed this and gathered witnesses, and then he reported it to the provincial capital of Meppo.6’ Similar supernatural



ceremony included sacrifices, there are no reports for the Black Death or later plagues of pre-Islamic animal sacrifices where an animal would be used to transfer the evil from the plague-stricken community. In such a ritual a camel might be led through parts of a town so that the beast would attract the pestilence upon itself; then, the animal would be strangled in a sacred place. For these rites, see J. Cheihod, Le sacrifice chez tes Arabes (Paris 1955) 123.

~   Qur’~n 71.

~ It should be 3,360 times, according to al-Maqrizi (n. 23 above) 779.

46 Ibn Kathir (n. 39 above) 14. 226.

    ~ AI-Maqrizi (n. 23 above) 779-780.                                       

     48 Ibid.

~ Ibn Hajar (n. 26 above) fols. llOa-llOb.

~TIgnaz Goldziher, Muslim Studies ed. and trans. S. M. Stern and C. B. Barber 2 (London 1971) 255-341.

~‘ Ibn al-Ward!, Tatim.mat aI-mukhtamr /i akhbdr al-bashar (Cairo, 1285 AH) 2.353-354.



phenomena may have been common in the countryside during other plague epidemics; the Arabic chronicles and plague treatises, however, are far more informative about urban activity and orthodox beliefs and relate only extra­ordinary reports of rural events. It can be safely asserted, however, that there was no development and official support for a common protector against plague comparable to the cult of SainL Roch (or Saint Sebastian) in Christian Europe.

The plague treatises also attest to a large number of popular magical beliefs and practices concerning plague, which should be interpreted as a significant element in the total religious response of Muslim society. The amulets and talismans, incantations, and magical inscriptions that were directed against plague were not unique phenomena; they were only part of a vast body of magical beliefs and practices that are more familiarly associated with the “evil eye.”62 In general, the magical practices took the form of either specific prayers and incantations (which should be said at a certain time and manner) or magical objects, such as inscribed amulets. The inscriptions were comprised of magic squares, cabalistic letters, and talismanic signs. Both the prayers and inscriptions were based primarily on the use of the “divine names” of God (al­asma’ al-4usnT),~ which have occult properties. Most of the Arabic writers have drawn their information from the major work on the magical use of these divine names by Ahmad ibn ‘All al-BunT (d. 622/1125), entitled Shams al-ma arif al~kubr7.M The magical practices emphasizes the popular belief that plague was inflicted on mankind by evil jinn rather than as the result of the corruption of the air.5~ The same belief in jinn as the vehicle of plague was observed in Morocco at the beginning of this century.~






52 The only example of an amulet specifically directed against an epidemic, to my knowl­edge, is illustrated in Rudolf Kriss and Hubert Kriss-Heinrich, Volksgtaube im Bench des Islam (Wiesbaden 1960-1962) 2, p1. 78. IA and IR; description, 93. The common use of amulets against plague and other diseases is noted but no examples are given in M. Remand, Description des monuments musutmans du cabinet de M. Le Duc de Blacas (Paris 1828) 1.62.

~   See El 2: “al-asm~’ al-husn&”’ (L. Gardet); Kriss and Kriss-Heinrich 68-71.

~   Ahmad ibn ‘All al-BOni, Shams al-ma’dni/ at-kubrd (Cairo n.d.). On the topic of repulsing plague, see 4.74-75.

~  Ernst Zbin·den, Die Djinn des islam und der Alt onientatische Geistergtaube (Berne 1953)

75-96.    Ibn Hajar argues for the agency of the jinn against the common miasmatic theory of plague which is found in most European and Oriental accounts (n. 26 above, fols. iSa­37a). Von Kremer maintains that the idea of the jinn as the vehicle of plague had died out completely and was replaced by the idea of divine punishment in the later Middle Ages (n. 4 above, 102); this is clearly denied by Ibn Hajar’s discussion and the popular magical beliefs and practices.

56 Edward Westermarck, Ritual and Belief in Morocco (London 1926) 1.271. See also the interesting legend of an Egyptian peasant and the plague-bearing jinn recounted in Renb Basset, Milte et un con tes, Mcits des Mgendes arabes (Paris 1924) 1.123-125.



The comparison of Christian and Muslim societies during the Black Death points to the significant disparity in their general communal responses. But has not the description of the Christian reaction stressed the exceptional rather than the typical responses? For were there not comparable magical beliefs and practices, religious services and prayers? Undoubtedly there were, although mass communal funeral services, processions, and journeys to the cemeteries were greatly limited by the common European belief in contagion, as seen in the slaluli sanitari of the Italian cities,57 and the advisability of flight.58 Conversely, the Arabic sources do not attest to the “striking man­ifestations of abnormal collective psychology, of dissociation of the group mind,”59 which occurred in Christian Europe. Fear and trepidation of the Black Death in Europe activated what Professor Trevor-Roper has called, in a different context, a European “stereotype of fear”;~ the collective emotion played upon a mythology of messianism, anti-Semitism, and man’s culpability for his sins.60

Why are the corresponding phenomena not found in the Muslim reaction to the Black Death ‘61 The stereotypes did not exist. There is no evidence for the appearance of messianic movements in Muslim society at this time which might have associated the Black Death with an apocalypse. In Islamic history the religious leader who heralds the final judgment and the end of the world is known as the mahdr. The doctrine and the growth of mahdist movements usually gained adherence on the fringe of Muslim civilization and are charec­teristic of popular Muslim culture, for there is no dogma of an all-encompasing expectation of an apocalypse in Sunny or orthodox Islam corresponding to its role in medieval Christianity. Orthodox Islam, as opposed to ShY’ ism and oth­er millennial Muslim sects, has never developed a doctrine of an apocalypse.63 This feature of Islamic theology may be due to the lack of a Qur’~nic basis~



~  E. Carpentier, Une vitte devant Ia peste: Orvieto et la Peste Noire (Paris 1992) 131-134.

~ See, for example, ibid. 124-126 and W. M. Bowsky, “The Impact of the Black Death upon Sienese Government and Society,” Specutum 39 (January 1964) 1-34. These two excellent regional monographs represent the most profitable manner of further investiga­tion of the Black Death in Europe. They are based on     very rich archival material; unfor­tunately, comparable records are not extant for the major cities of the Middle East and North Africa for the same period,     which places a severe limitation on similar research.

69 Hirst (n. 12 above) 17.

60 Trevor-Roper (n. 17 above) 165.

61 Ibid. 98, 185; demonology and witchcraft may be added to this mythology.

62 Von Kremer has attempted to minimize the differences between the reactions of Christian and Muslim societies to the Black Death. While he concedes that     there was no persecution of Jews in the Orient, he uncritically associates the religious fanaticism of the flagellants in Europe with the dervish orders in     Muslim society (n. 4 above, 102).

63 For the esoteric apocalyptical literature of the Shi’ah, see E12: “djafr” (T. Fahd).

64 See H. A. R. Gibb and J. H. Kramers, Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden 1953): “‘Isa.” (There is no mention of the mahdi in the Saliih of al-Bukh~ri     or Abs Muslim.)




comparable to the Christian book of Revelation.65 In any case, our sources for the Black Death in the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain were written, admittedly, mainly by the articulate urban ‘ulamti’ or religious scholars, but certainly they would have been sepsitive to the development of messianic movements in the hinterland, since they were generally opposed to violent socioreligious innovation, not to say social revolution.66 Furthermore, the fact that there was no certainty that plague was a divine punishment for sin removed the impetus for a cohesive puritanical and revivalist popular movement.67

The impact of the Black Death poses the question of the Muslim attitude toward minorities. The unassimilated communities were tolerated in medieval Muslim society and, in this instance, were not held responsible for the ravages of the pandemic.68 However theoretical, the legal tenet against contagion of



66 On this point, the Book of Revelation was the least popular book of the New Testament in Byzantine or Greek Christian theology; this may help to explain a corresponding lack of apocalyptic expectations in the Byzantine chronicles, either for the Plague of Justinian or the Black Death. Professor Trevor-Roper suggests a similar contrast: the Greek Orthodox Church, unlike the Catholic Church, “built up no systematic demonology and launched no witch-craze” (n. 17 above, 185). Moreover, there is a closer parallel between the fatalistic Muslim attitude toward the disease and the Byzantine Greek concept of blind and arbitrary tyche which directs the affairs of men; see Speros Vryonis, The Dec tine of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islam izat ion from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century (Berkeley 1971) 409, 418.

66 A. N. Poliak, “Les r~voltes populaires en ~gypte ~ l’~poque des Mamelouks et leurs causes ~conomiques,” Revue des etudes islamiques 8 (Paris 1934) 255.

67 There is a large literature on the history of millennial movements but very little inves­tigation of comparative Semitic (Christian, Judaic, and Muslim) messianic movements. Particularly, the nature of apocalyptic doctrines and their relation to millennial movements in Islam have not been the subject of any modem study. A clear presentation of the popular belief in the mahdi in the fourteenth century, which includes its relation to sz2f i beliefs is given by Ibn Khaldfln (n. 5 above) 2.156-200. See also Gibb and Kramers (n. 64 above) “al-Mabdi,” “al-Dadjdj~l”; Eli: “al-kiyam5” (D. B. Macdonald); M. G. S. Hodgson, “A Note on the Millennium in Islam,” Millennial Dreams in Action, ed. S. L. Thrupp (New York 1970) 218-219; M. Galal, “Essal d’observations sur les rites funeraires en ~gypte actuelle,” Revue des etudes islamiques 11 (Paris 1937) 249-252; Ignaz Goldziher, Mohamed and Islam (New Haven 1917) 240-247 and bibliographical references to mahdist doctrine 284; and L. C. Brown, “The Sudanese Mahdiya,” Protest and Power in Black Africa ed. Robert I. Rotberg and All A. Mazrui (Oxford 1970), 145-168. For two mahdist movements during the Main-16k Period, see Poliak (n. 66 above) 255-256.

68 There were sumptuary laws against the ahl al-dhimma (“people of the covenant” or protected non-Muslims) in the Middle East, which were enforced with varying degrees of severity. During the MamlSk period in Egypt and Syria, Jews and particularly Christians (Copts) were subjected to increased discrimination and violence for various reasons. For a review of the position of the dhimmjs in the Mamlilk Period, see C. E. Bosworth, “Christian and Jewish Religious Dignitaries in MamlOk Egypt and Syria: Qaiqashandi’s Information on Their Hierarchy, Titulature and Appointment,” International Journal of Middle Esta Studies (January 1972) 64-66; see also Poliak (n. 66 above) 269-271. For the general study



plague would have militated against the accusation of the minorities. In no case is there a direct causal relationship to be found between the Black Death (and subsequent plague epidemics) and the active persecution of minorities as in Europe.69

The Christian belief in plague as a divine punishment for men’s sins was preached by clergymen deeply committed to the idea of original sin and man’s guilt arising from his essential depravity, as well as to a fundamental contempt—both Christian and Stoic—for this world. The Black Death was the occasion for the vigorous realization of these ideas. However, there is no doctrine of original sin and of man’s insuperable guilt in Islamic theology.70 The Muslim writers on plague did not dwell on the guilt of their co-religionists even if they did admit that plague was a divine warning against sin. Prayer was sup­plication and not expiation.

In contrast, the general reaction of Muslim society to the Black Death was governed by its interpretation as only another common natural disaster. This was the view of the majority of the ‘ulamW as exemplified by the treatise of Ibn Hajar al-’ Asqal~nL7’ The Muslim attitude toward the cataclysmic nature of plague seems to be more closely related to the view found in Thucy­dides’s description of the “Athenian Plague” rather than to the then contem­porary European experience of the Black Death. A comparison may be drawn between the use of language employed in the accounts of plague in Thucydides and the Arabic historical sources, especially al-Maqrizi and Ibn Taghri Birdi. The detailed descriptions are used to show the awful power of the disease as an incalculable disaster that defies human reason and control. Plague is revealed as a permanent aspect of the human condition; for the Greeks, plague is pathos like war.72 For the Muslims, this incalculable event is fated by God for mankind, as are other diseases, droughts, or floods. It is possible to see in the Muslim communal ceremonies, as well as the more popular belief in jinn and the veneration of saints, a relatively successful defense against natural anxiety and guilt for having survived the death of others: a stereotype of



    of dhimmi status, see E12: “dhimma” (C. Cahen) and S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society 2 (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1971) chap. 7: “Interfaith Relations,     Communal Autonomy, and Government Control.”

69 See Ibn Taghri Birdi, who was strongly in favor of discriminatory practices, for instances of sumptuary legislation: (n. 39 above) 17.67-69; 18.5; 19.109, 125,     137; 23.56. M. Perlmann, “Notes on Anti-Christian Propaganda in the MamlOk Empire,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 10 (London 1942)     854, discusses a case of incendiarism at the beginning of the year of the Black Death in Syria (749 AH), which is taken from an anti-Christian tract by al-Asnawi     (d. 772/1370); there does not appear to be any relation between the two events.

70 See Georges C. Anawati, “La notion de ‘p~ch~ originel’ existe-t-elle dans I’ Islam?” Studia Islamica 31(1970) 29-40.

71 Sublet (n. 4 above) 148.

72 See A. Parry, “The Language of Thucydides’ Description of the Plague,” Institute of Classical Studies, Bulletin 16 (University of London 1969) 106-118.



submission to divine order. From a modern point of view, the cessation of feeling or “psychic numbing” may be said to have characterized the life-style of the survivors.73

It may rightly be asked whether we can really explain the apparently pacific, collective, and controlled Muslim reaction to the Black Death as largely the result of theoretical theological principles. There is good reason to believe that we can. The essential vehicle between theory and practice was the com­munal leadership of the ‘ulami’ who were not only the religious ~lite but also the social and administrative elite in the late medieval Muslim city.74 It is instructive that, unlike contemporary European treatises,75 the Muslim tracts are not primarily the work of physicians but are the work of this communal dlite. The Muslim and Christian treatises testify to a further contrast in the intellectual authority of the two religious establishments over their societies during a period of acute crisis. On the whole, one is struck by the fact that the interpretations and arguments of the Muslim jurists take fuller cognizance of the beliefs and practices of their community than the European treatise writers.76 For example, the latter are almost entirely silent about the perse­cution of the Jews77 and the flagellant movement. The ‘ulanu7.’ in Muslim society were able to formulate normative attitudes and to guide the popular reaction toward the Black Death.

In this regard, the sixteenth-century plague treatise of the Ottoman jurist T~shkopruz~de (d. 968/1560) is particularly instructive. In his discussion of the question of flight from a plague epidemic, he states as usual that changing the air was most desirable during a plague epidemic because of the common belief in plague miasma; the author recommends that one should go to a place where the disease is ordinarily not to be expected. Due consideration must be given to certain conditions, however, such as not violating the requirements of civil responsibilities (al-huqiiq al-madaniyah) or the social ties within the



73 Robert Lifton, Death in Life (New York 1969) 500, 503.

~ See the excellent sociological description of the ‘ulamd’ during the MamlOk Period by Ira Lapidus, Muslim Cities in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass. 1967) 107-115, 130-142; see also M. G. S. Hodgson, “Islam and Image,” History of Religions 3(1964) 232-233, 236.

74 See Campbell (n. 6 above) 6-92.

76 A careful scrutiny of the legal treatises of the ‘utamd’ demonstrates the active applica­tion of Muslim scholarship to the problems arising from a plague-stricken community. For this reason, I take strong exception to von Kremer’s interpretation of the Muslim treatises as proof of the decadent intellectual rigidity of late medieval Islam (n. 4 above 94-98). Von Kremer disregards the contemporary European views of plague and the fact that similar questions were being posed. The clerics of the Reformation, most notably Martin Luther, argued whether a Christian should flee from plague or whether his duty was to remain and trust in God. Furthermore, a good deal of von Kremer’s criticism of Muslim society was based on the erroneous belief that plague was caused by miasma.

77 S. Guershberg, “La controverse sur les pr~tendus semeurs de la Peste Noire d’apr~s les trait~s de peste de l’~poque,” Revue des dudes juives 8 n.s. (1948) 3-40.



family. Further, obedience to the decision of the communal leader (mukhldr) with regard to moving away or remaining must be preserved. If changing the air by flight cannot be undertaken because: (1) the epidemic is universal; (2) the fear that the plague victims would be neglected; or (3) the need to preserve the commonweal of the community (which is an essential tenet of Islam) from disruption and disorder, the people are simply to remain and improve their circumstances by cleaning their houses and fumigating the air with various scents and fresh fruits.78

The prescriptions of T~shkopruz~de for a Muslim community at the time of a plague epidemic bring into focus the contrasting orientations of the two re­ligions. The Black Death touched upon the central theme of Christian teaching concerning evil and human suffering; Western man took the plague epidemic as an individual trial more than a collective, social calamity. The Islamic tradition, however, has not concerned itself to the same degree with personal suffering; the central problem for the Muslim is the solemn responsibility for his decisions that affect other men’s lives and fortunes within a purposeful creation. The cosmic settings of the two faiths are wide apart in their emphasis: where the Muslim’s primary duty was toward the correct behavior of the total community based on the sacred law, the Christian’s was with personal redemption. Where the Qur’an supplied guidance, the Bible furnished consolation. For the Muslim the Black Death was part of a God-ordered, natural universe; for the Christian it was an irruption of the profane world of sin and misery.

In sum, it would be as great an error to discount the religious interpretations of plague as motives and limits to communal behavior as to discount the classical medical theories of plague which underlay most of the medical remedies and treatments in both the East and West. Taken together, the medieval Christian ideas of punishment and guilt, militancy toward alien communities, and millennialism are raised to crucial significance in contrast to the Muslim understanding of the Black Death. The operative European Christian concepts were lacking in Muslim society as were their unattractive consequences of religious fanaticism, persecution, and desperation. The predominant theological views of the two societies set the framework for normative attitudes and the prescriptions for communal behavior in which human nature found expression and form when confronted by the Black Death.


Department of History

California State University

Hayward, California 94542, U.S.A.



78 T&shkoprilz5de, Majm0’at ash-shifd’ ti-adwigat al-wabd’ ma’ rasd’ it lit-Bus fclmi, Berlin MS Landberg no. 999 (Ahlwardt no. 6378). fol. 34a.

~ M. G. S. Hodgson, “A Comparison of Isl&m and Christianity as Framework for Religious Life,” Diogenes 32 (1960) 70.