A history of the plague

David Tresilian , Tuesday 13 Feb 2024

A 15th-century Arabic disquisition on the plague has appeared for the first time in English translation, writes David Tresilian


Popular interest in the perennial human struggle against disease reappeared in 2020 with the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to economic and social lockdowns across the world and whose complex after-effects are still with us.

Not only did the virus have devastating effects in terms of long-term sickness and loss of life, but it also disrupted the world economy, leading to the failure of supply chains, massive increases in public debt, and jolts to inflation rates worldwide. While the short-term consequences of these are slowly being unwound, their longer-term impacts are unknown.

It is not surprising that attention has turned to how previous generations tackled the spread of disease. Few today share the optimistic view that diseases that once laid low hundreds of thousands are only a matter for the history books, and as a result many people have been looking again at earlier accounts of the struggle against them.

These include mediaeval European accounts of the plague – the so-called Black Death in the mid-14th century that killed up to 60 per cent of the population – and later ones such as of the diseases that killed up to 90 per cent of the North and South American populations after the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century.

However, there may not have been the same attention paid to stories of disease outside the European or American context, including in the Middle East. This situation may now be set to change following the publication of an English translation, apparently the first, of the Merits of the Plague (Badhl al-ma’un fi fadl al-ta’un) by the 15th-century Egyptian writer Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani.

Born in Cairo in 1372 and occupying a series of important posts including as Egypt’s most senior judge before his death some 80 years later, al-Asqalani is best known today for his commentaries on the hadith or traditions about the Prophet Mohammed collected in his work Fatḥ al-bari fi sharh sahih al-Bukhari. However, he also wrote many other works that well display the kind of reasoning deployed in his major commentaries, including his book on the plague where he reviews the religious traditions bearing on it and gives his views on how it should be understood by believers.

Al-Asqalani did not live through episodes of the plague or other epidemics on the scale of the Black Death, which in the Middle East, like in Europe, lead to the death of something like half the population, but he was all too familiar with more minor ones. In 1416, he lost both his daughters to an outbreak of the plague, and as a historian and legal scholar he was very much aware of the ways in which periodic episodes of disease had shaped the history of the region.

His book includes an appendix giving all the then known episodes of the plague or similar epidemics in the region, dividing them by Islamic dynasty. There were five of these in the early years of Islam, he says, followed by further epidemics at regular intervals during the Umayyad and Abbasid Dynasties, culminating in what he calls the “Great Plague” in 1348-1349, in other words what was called the Black Death in Europe, the worst to have ever struck the region.

Though al-Asqalani does not cite him in his otherwise comprehensive collection of quotations from eyewitnesses of this event, the Great Plague left traces in the famous Travels of the 14th-century Moroccan writer Ibn Battuta, who encountered it on his way through the eastern Mediterranean to Mecca.

Arriving in Alexandria in August 1348, he found a city devastated by the plague with the death toll peaking at over 1,000 a day. However, this was almost as nothing compared to the situation in Cairo, which Ibn Battuta went to in September. There he found a city traumatised by the sheer extent of the deaths and suffering, adding that “I went to Cairo and was told that during the plague the number of deaths had risen to 21,000 a day.”

Writing some decades later in 1377, the originally Tunisian writer Ibn Khaldun, who spent much of his scholarly life in Cairo, wrote of the apocalyptic impacts of the Great Plague in his famous “Introduction” (Muqaddima) to his encyclopaedic work on world history.

It “devastated nations and caused populations to vanish,” he wrote. Dynasties across the Islamic world “approached the point of annihilation and dissolution,” as a result of the epidemic. “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.”

Born in 1332, Ibn Khaldun would have been in his teenage years when the Great Plague struck, and in fact both his parents died of it when it hit his native Tunis. It would have made up the background to his formative years, and he would have had first-hand memories of it.


Merits of the plague: Al-Asqalani’s book is divided into five sections looking at the origins, causes, meanings, and responses to epidemics of plague and other diseases as these had been given by previous mostly religious writers.

In his introduction, he says that he was asked to “collect all the reports on the plague, comment on the unusual ones, facilitate an understanding of them, interpret them, clarify their implications for the religious law, and give an account of their types.”

    According to translators Joel Blecher and Mairaj Syed, the immediate stimulus for the book was probably al-Asqalani’s own experience of the 1416 plague that took away his daughters as well as a further outbreak in 1430 that almost cost him his life. He started to write the work after the earlier outbreak, completing it 15 years later after he had himself apparently developed symptoms of the plague but had fortunately made a full recovery.

    “The central goal was the investigation and synthesis of the vast corpus of hadiths on the plague and the many dimensions of Muslim ethical, legal, theological, historical, and political discourses on diseases, epidemics, and natural disasters more generally,” Blecher and Syed write. “For the educated public, the book offered a practical guide to those responses to the plague that were securely rooted in the example of the Prophet and his Companions.”

    Al-Asqalani begins by presenting reports that hold that the plague is a form of divine punishment before examining views on its causes and characteristic symptoms. He quotes from the 11th-century Muslim philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina), author of the famous Canon of Medicine, who thought that the plague was caused by a “poisonous substance” that corrupts the blood and leads to symptoms such as the swelling of “the soft glandular parts of the body, usually under the armpits or in the groin.”

However, al-Asqalani rejects that view for one of his own, which is that the plague is caused by the pricking of the skin by malignant jinn or demons, since this explanation, consonant with the idea found in Avicenna that the cause of the plague is “a stirring up of the blood,” likely provoked by the jinn, is better than the one that says it is caused by bad air or a poor climate. Epidemics of the plague can “occur during the most balanced seasons and in regions with the healthiest air and the most pleasant water.” As a result, the view that it is caused by poisonous air or water cannot be the correct one.

Al-Asqalani develops the central contention of his book in its third section, which, as suggested by its title, is that the plague “presents an opportunity to practice patience and social care, allowing one to achieve merit or even martyrdom in the sight of God,” in the words of his translators.

A crucial part of al-Asqalani’s reasoning is given in his interpretation of various hadith that indicate that those who die from the plague should be considered martyrs, though only if they fulfill certain conditions. They should not have made an attempt to flee, since merit requires that they “intend to obtain God’s reward, having full hope in his promised bounty. It requires that he [the martyr] knows that God predetermines whether the plague strikes him or passes over him. This means that he must not be discontented if the plague strikes him.”

The fourth section discusses whether it is permissible to flee an outbreak of the plague, bearing in mind both the general principle that the plague can be an opportunity to acquire merit and the various injunctions found in religious reports that often, but not always, enjoin individuals to stay despite the risk to them.

Weighing up the content of these reports and considering possible interpretations, al-Asqalani decides that despite the existence of other reports that say that believers should not deliberately put themselves in danger, as well as the powerful example of the Caliph Umar who turned away from Damascus when he was told that it was affected by the plague, the right thing to do is not to seek to flee from an outbreak of the plague or other epidemic.

“Umar’s act of returning before entering the country in which the plague had occurred was not to flee from it at all,” al-Asqalani writes in his commentary. “His case is the same as that of a person who intended to enter a house, saw that there was a blazing fire that it was impossible to extinguish and avoided entering it so that it did not strike him. This is a form of precautionary avoidance of danger that risks life, which is an obligation.”

There is a significant difference between cases of this sort and that of someone already resident in a country when the plague strikes, he says. He quotes the 11th-century theologian al-Ghazali, who points out that there may be additional reasons that help to explain the prohibition on leaving a city afflicted by the plague, such as the need to attend to the sick and contribute to the general welfare. His overall conclusion is that “the one who stays patiently, resigned to God’s will, will get the reward of a martyr.”

In the fifth and final section of his book, al-Asqalani considers what responses to the plague are lawful. It is perhaps above all in this chapter that he cashes out the promise, mentioned by Blecher and Syed, to give answers to practical questions.

These include whether it is lawful to pray for plagues to be lifted, and, if so, under what conditions, whether plagues may be considered analogous to other natural calamities, and whether advice given in the case of plagues also applies in them, and whether plagues could be considered generally life-threatening situations, in which case there would be important consequences for inheritance.

“The genius of Ibn Hajar’s work,” Blecher and Syed say in their introduction, “lies in its ability to grapple with this apparent contradiction [between recompense and retribution], positing, through the compilation of hadiths and scholarly opinion from centuries past, a novel argument: it is precisely at one of history’s darkest moments, when God appears most punishing and capricious and death invades every home, that God’s mercy is most expansive.”

Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, Merits of the Plague, trans. Joel Blecher and Mairaj Syed, London: Penguin, 2023, pp268

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