Ibn al-Wardi – On the Advance of Plague – 1348

Ibn al-Wardi (1292-1348/9) was a Syrian historian and geographer.

The Plague frightened and killed. It began in the land of darkness. Oh, what a visitor! It has been current for fifteen years. China was not preserved from it nor could the strongest fortress hinder it. The plague afflicted the Indians in India. It weighed upon the Sind. It seized with its hand and ensnared even the land of the Uzbeks. How many backs did it break in what is Transoxiana? The plague increased and spread further. It attacked the Persians…and gnawed away at the Crimea. It pelted Rum with live coals and led the outrage to Cyprus and the islands. The plague destroyed mankind in Cairo. Its eye was cast upon Egypt, and behold, the people were wide awake. It stilled all movement in Alexandria. The plague did its work like a silkworm. It took from the tiraz*factory its beauty and did to its workers what fate decreed.

Oh Alexandria; this plague is like a lion which extends its paw to you. Have patience with the fate of the plague, which leaves of seventy men only seven.

Then, the plague turned to Upper Egypt. It also sent forth its storm to Barqah. The plague attacked Gaza, and it shook Asqalan severely. The plague oppressed Acre. The scourge came to Jerusalem and paid the zakat**[with the souls of men]. It overtook those people who fled to the al-Aqsa mosque, which stands beside the Dome of the Rock. If the door of mercy had not been opened, the end of the world would have occurred in a moment. It, then, hastened its pace and attacked the entire maritime plain. The plague attacked Sidon and descended unexpectedly upon Beirut, cunningly. Next, it directed the shooting of its arrows to Damascus. There the plague sat like a king on a throne and swayed with power, killing daily 1000 or more and decimating the population. It destroyed mankind with its pustules. May God the Most High spare Damascus to pursue its own path and extinguish the plague’s fires so they do not come close to her fragrant orchards.

Oh God, restore Damascus and protect her from insult. Its morale has been so lowered that people in the city sell themselves for a grain.

Oh God, it is acting by Your command. Lift this from us. It happens where You wish; keep the plague from us. Who will defend us against the horror other than You the Almighty? . . .

How many places has the plague entered. It swore not to leave the houses without [taking] their inhabitants. It searched them with a lamp. The pestilence caused the people of Aleppo the same disturbance. It sent out its snake and crept along. It was named the “Plague of the Ansab.” ***It was the sixth plague to strike in Islam. To me it is the death of which our Prophet warned, on him be the best prayers and peace.

One man begs another to take care of his children, one says goodbye to his neighbors. A third perfects his works, and another prepares his shroud. A fifth is reconciled with his enemies, and another treats his friends with kindness. One is very generous; another makes friends with those who have betrayed him. Another man puts aside his property; one frees his servants [slaves]. One man changes his character while another mends his ways. For this plague has captured all people and is about to send its ultimate destruction. There is no protection today from it other than His mercy, praise be to God.

Nothing prevented us from running away from the plague except our devotion to the noble tradition. Come then, seek the aid of God Almighty for raising the plague, for He is the best helper.

Ibn al-Wardi goes on to mention the medical precautions taken in Aleppo:

 Oh, if you could see the nobles of Aleppo studying their inscrutable books of medicine. They multiply its remedies by eating dried and sour foods. The buboes which disturb men’s healthy lives are smeared the Armenian clay. Each man treated his humours and made his life more comfortable. They perfumed their homes with ambergris and camphor, cyprus and sandal. They wore ruby rings and put onions, vinegar, and sardines together with the daily meal. They ate less broth and fruit but ate the citron and similar things.

In the Muslim world, there was a tension between the learning of the physicians, based on classical medicine and the religious tradition, based on the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. According to the latter, disease of any kind came from Allah, perhaps as punishment for sin, and any attempt to avoid it was impious and anyway pointless, because no matter where one fled, if it was Allah’s will, one would die. The question of contagion was, therefore, in a sense irrelevant. To die of plague was considered martyrdom and martyrdom was highly desirable, as affording immediate entry into paradise, hence Ibn al-Wardi’s words, contrasting the attitude of the Muslim and the non-Muslim:

The dwellers of Sis are happy with what afflicts us, and this is what you can expect from the enemies of the true religion. God will spread it to them soon so that He will put plague upon plague.

The plague is for Muslims a martyrdom and a reward, and for the unbelievers a punishment and a rebuke. When the Muslim endures misfortune, then patience is his worship. It has been established by our Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, that the plague-stricken are martyrs. This noble tradition is true and assures martyrdom. And this secret should be pleasing to the true believer. If someone says it causes infection and destruction, say: God creates and recreates. If the liar disputes the matter of infection and tries to find an explanation, I say that the Prophet, on him be peace, said: who was infected the first? If we acknowledge the plague’s devastation of the people, it is the will of the Chosen Doer. So it has happened again and again.

Ibn al-Wardi wrote some verses on the plague, two days before he died of it at Aleppo in 1349:

I am not afraid of the plague as others are – It is a martyrdom, or else a victory. If I die, I rest from rivalry and strife, If I live, my eye and ear [understanding] will be healed

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

*tiraz  – officially produced textiles of the highest quality, generally with calligraphic inscriptions, or the factories where they were woven.

** zakat – alms-giving (2.5%), religiously mandated in Islam.

*** ansab – sacrificial alters from before Islam.

Owing to libraries being closed due to our present plague, I was not able to find a translation for Ibn al-Wardi’s text. The quotations here are taken from the internet and were often not credited. I believe the most probably sources are the following.

Michael W. Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East, (Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1977).

Michael W. Dols, “Ibn al-Wardi’s Risalah Al- Naba’ ‘An Al-Waba’, A Translation of a Major Source for the History of the Black Death in the Middle East,” in Dickran K. Kouymjian, ed. Near Eastern Numismatics,  Iconography, Epigraphy and History (Beirut; American University of Beirut, 1974).

There is an extensive literature on the Black Death, but an in interesting article on the different perceptions of contagion in Islam is:

 “There is no contagion, there is no evil portent”: Arabic Responses to Plague and Contagion in the Fourteenth Century, Robin S Reich – available on-line at www.academia.edu

And a useful survey of Arabic Plague literature:

Lawrence I. Conrad, Arabic Plague chronicles and treatises in Studia Islamica no.54 (1981) pp.51-93.

N.B. In case I have infringed copyright on any occasion, please notify me and I will immediately delete the post.

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