Muslim Responses To The 14th Century Black Death

The history of Islam, from its very inception, is filled with narratives regarding plagues and pandemics. Each one different to another, it has always caused a stir each time and brought about many deaths. Whilst less attention was given to the cause of each plague or pandemic, it allowed the Muslims in history to focus on the more important and pressing matter; What shalt we doth in these circumstances? Whilst this question is the focal point of this article, I hope to cover the history of plagues in Islamic History in another post soon.

I have chosen to discuss the Black Death as it transpired during the time of Ibn Khaldun, who happens to be the world’s leading historian to the Muslim & Western World. By discussing a plague that took place during his time, not only can we benefit from the communal response of the muslims at his time, but we can also learn Ibn Khaldun’s view on the matter. 

It wasn’t until Ibn Khaldun was 17 years old that the Black Death plague made it’s presence between the years 1347 – 1351. Recorded as being one of the most fatal and catastrophic pandemics in human history, it was not known as Black Death until many years after it happened. Affecting Europe, Asia and North Africa, it’s mortality rate was extremely high and ranged between 75-200 million. 

Unlike the Christians at the time who believed that this visitation of the Black Death was a punishment from God, Muslims steered away from adopting such a thought. 

So what exactly did the Muslims do in the 14th century whilst such an outbreak took place. Well, firstly, it was vital for them to view such a pandemic and other such events as chances to be involved in organised communal supplications. This was at the core of their response. 

Dols (2019) spoke extensively about how the Muslims reacted throughout this pandemic and I think there are many lessons we can take from this.

The Muslims ensured that they grasped firmly onto their rich tradition and there was no sign of abandoning any religious rites. Funerals were regularly processed and there was a great amount of emphasis on personal piety and ritual purity.

There was also an emphasis on the oral recitation of the Hadith. Books and Hadith compilations such as Sahih al-Bukhari were profusely recited, as it has been and still is the habit of Muslims to recite this in times of need. Communal prayers also took place for the lifting of the disease.

Fasting also became the tendency for many, with places like Damascus making a proclamation for people to fast for three days and to go out on the fourth day to the Mosque in order to supplicate to Allah for the removing of the pandemic.

Many of the Muslims at the time spent their time praying throughout the night, as prophetic traditions (Hadith) tell us that the last portion of the night is the most meritorious for those wanting to involve themselves in acts of worship.

What’s more, there are records telling us that inhabitants of Damascus, which included Jews, Christians, the old and women, young children, the rich and the poor as well as the notables, all marched from the Umayyad Mosque chanting prayers throughout the day. 

Meanwhile over in North Africa, Ibn Khaldun was only 17 years old when this pandemic made its presence. Both his parents passed away from it as well as several of his teachers. It was a testing time for him. Social, political and economic turmoil were other problems amidst this catastrophic event, which made it a difficult task for Ibn Khaldun to pen down his writing. Normans had just taken over Sicily and the Muslim rule of Spain had been reduced to Granada. Alluding to the sheer immense effect of the Black Plague, he comments on it in his book:

“Indeed, the entire inhabited world changed. It was as if the voice of existence had called out for oblivion, and the world had responded to its call.” (Ibn Khaldūn 1967)

Focusing on the initial part of this statement, what Ibn Khaldun is referring to is the outward signs of civilisation. Large cities, mansions, settlements, roadways and connecting cities have now all vanished. However, to Ibn Khaldun, and Muslims in general, this means one thing; a new beginning.

Though this Black Death event may have caused much harm, Ibn Khaldun, as positive as he was, couldn’t help but note that this marked a new beginning. After all, this was the crux and main matter of his work; civilisations rise and decline and then rise again. He mentions, “When there is a general change of conditions, it is as if the entire creation had changed, and the whole world had been altered, as if it were a new and repeated creation, a world brought into existence anew.” (Ibn Khaldūn 1967, 30).

Whilst this may be a different course of action to take in matters like this, it does in fact provide a lesson for us all in these unprecedented times. With the COVID-19 pandemic and all its challenges it has brought forward, we can only hope that once it’s over, it paves a way for us into a more promising future and allows us to take heed and appreciate what we once took for granted.

References

Ibn Kathīr, I., n.d. Al-Bidāyah Wa-Al-Nihāyah.

(1975). Viator: v. 5: Mediaeval and Renaissance. University of California Press.

Russell Hopley (2016) Plague, Demographic Upheaval and Civilisational Decline: Ibn Khaldūn and Muḥammad al-Shaqūrī on the Black Death in North Africa and Islamic Spain, Landscapes, 17:2, 171-184, DOI: 10.1080/14662035.2016.1251035

Gould, George Milbry (1966). Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine. Blacksleet River.ISBN 978-1-4499-7722-1.

DOLS, M., 2019. BLACK DEATH IN THE MIDDLE EAST. [S.l.]: PRINCETON UNIV PRESS.

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