Ibn Khaldun on the Black Death


The Black Death reached Tunis is 1348, when Ibn Khaldun was 17. In it he lost both parents and several teachers to whom he was very close. He lived through a period, as Albert Hourani puts it: “Full of reminders of the fragility of human effort”. His experiences led him to create a new and original philosophy of history, his central theme being why nations rise to power and what causes their decline, set forth in his Introduction to a Universal History, The Muqaddimah.

Plague Undermines Civilization

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, and 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.

tr. Rosenthal

On Air Pollution and the Plague

The commonest cause of epidemics is the pollution of the air resulting from a denser population which fills it with corruption and dense moisture…. That is why we mentioned, elsewhere, the wisdom of leaving open empty spaces in built-up areas, in order that the winds may circulate, carrying away all the corruption produced in the air by animals and bringing in its place fresh, clean air. And this is why the death rate is highest in populous cities, such as Cairo in the East and Fez in the West.”

tr. Issawi

Translations are from Franz Rosenthal’s three-volume translation, The Muqaddimah, second edition 1967, Princeton University and from Charles Issawi’s  An Arab Philosophy of History: Selections from the Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332–1406), revised edition 1987, Darwin Press. The Muqaddimah is also available on line at https://asadullahali.files.wordpress.com . There is a non-academic article on Ibn Khaldun at https://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/200605/ibn.khaldun

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