The Islamic World to 1600
The Black Death, known in medical terms as the Bubonic Plague, was a fatal disease that ravaged much of Asia and Europe in the mid-14th century. The name, Black Death, was actually not used in either Europe or the Islamic world at the time, but it later came into use in English as a description of the high mortality rates suffered in regions affected by the Plague. For a further discussion of the Plague in Europe, please see The End of Europe's Middle Ages Tutorial.
|The End of Europe's Middle Ages Tutorial - The Black Death|
Although the devastation the Plague brought to Europe in terms of lives lost was immense, the Islamic world arguably suffered more, because plague epidemics kept returning to the Islamic world up to the 19th century. Muslim populations thus never recovered from the losses suffered because of the Plague, a demographic shift that arguably helped Europe to surpass the Islamic world's previous superiority in scholarship. The Muslim historian, Ibn Khaldun, who lost his parents to the Black Death, wrote of its devastation:
Civilization both in the East and the 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 responded to its call. God inherits the earth and whomever is upon it.
(Source: Michael W. Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East, Princeton University Press, 1977, p. 67.)
The Islamic world had suffered at least five major plague epidemics before the Black Death in the 14th century. In 639, one of these outbreaks killed 25,000 Muslim soldiers in the army of Umar, the second Muslim caliph, yet the Black Death was far more deadly than any of the previous plague epidemics that had hit the Islamic world. This strain of the disease probably originated in the Central Asian steppe at the beginning of the 14th century. It spread through Mongolia to China and India, then west across a major overland trade route through Persia and the Crimea to the Mediterranean, and from there it spread south into North Africa and Arabia, and north into Europe. Although exact numbers are difficult to pinpoint, it is believed that between one quarter and one third of the populations of Europe and the Islamic world were lost to the Black Death.
People in both regions believed that the plague was an airborne disease, in which case no contagion, or vehicle for spreading the disease, could be blamed. It was not until an outbreak of the plague in Hong Kong in 1894 that scientists determined that the disease was spread primarily through fleas who carried it from rats - its original host - to humans. In the medieval period, however, with no scientific explanation for the disease available, both Christians and Muslims believed that the plague was of divine origin.
In Christian Europe, people believed that the plague was punishment from God for the sins of all Christians. The Christian doctrine of original sin also factored into the European view of the plague, because they believed that the disease was God's punishment to humans for having been born in sin. Also, death was always treated as punishment in Christian Europe, and the idea that the widespread death caused by the plague might be due to something other than God's wrath was not considered.
Islamic theology held different views about the plague. Muslims agreed with Christians that the disease was the work of God, but they did not necessarily view it as a punishment. Muslims preserved their belief in a compassionate and merciful God, and thus they believed that death from the plague was an offer of martyrdom from God. They formed three basic tenets for coping with the plague:
(Source: Dols, p. 23).
Muslim doctors and scientists often had a difficult time in reconciling these tenets, particularly the third one, with growing evidence that a contagion indeed existed. As well, doctors often felt obliged to try to treat people infected with the plague in any way they could, which conflicted with the Islamic theological view that the disease had been sent by God and therefore must simply be endured. Theologians also encountered problems when the plague hit the holy city of Mecca in 1349, likely the result of pilgrimage traffic during the Hajj. The Prophet had promised that no disease would ever come to either Mecca or Medina. Some Muslims explained the Plague's presence in Mecca as the result of unbelievers living there, while others rejoiced in the miracle that it never spread to Medina.
Regardless of its theological interpretations, the Black Death wreaked havoc on communities of many different religions, causing widespread death wherever it went. In the Islamic world, it had a particularly devastating effect militarily and economically. The rapid spread of the Plague through armies affected the outcome of several minor wars throughout the Islamic world. Even the strong Mamluk army in Egypt was sufficiently devastated by the Plague that the decline in its military capabilities was a significant factor in its demise and eventual defeat to the Ottoman Empire in the early 16th century.
Economically, the scarcity of goods caused by the labour shortage resulted in higher prices, while many foreign goods were not available at all, because of Plague-related deaths among foreign merchants. A decline in artistic creativity also followed the Black Death, as many artisans and architects died. The legacy of the continuous shroud of death during this period is demonstrated by many Persian miniatures of the time, which often depicted scenes of death and mourning.
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