What were the effects of The Black Death in the Muslim world?

Both Wikpedia's page on The Black Death's migration and The Black Death have information regarding the effects of Black Death in the Muslim world without any sources attached to them.

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The Black Death had a similarly devastating effect on the Muslim world as it did in Europe. Although we are less sure of the mortality rate compared to Europe, it was probably a little lower.

The short-term effects described by contemporary and near-contemporary sources speak of labour shortages, unharvested crops, declining morals, a fear of social and even religious gatherings, and a breakdown or serious decline in infrastructure, local economies and international trade.

The long-term effects are more difficult to gauge, not least because the plague reappeared several times in many regions. Generally speaking, though, the masses were less well-off. New powers, such as the Ottomans and the Safavids did emerge, but these cannot be attributed solely (or perhaps even minimally) to the plague.


As with Europe, any estimate of the numbers who died involves much guesswork - in fact, even more so in the Muslim world:

If the much better European records are an indication, perhaps 50 to 60 percent of people in the affected areas died. Cairo, Islam’s largest city, lost a reported 300 per day in early October 1348 and 3,000 per day a month later, for a total estimated at 200,000 dead of an initial population of perhaps 500,000.

Source: Joseph P. Byrne, Encyclopedia of the Black Death

Byrne also notes that:

Civil and religious authorities famously did little if anything to prevent spread of the disease, though Muslim charity would have seen that victims were well cared for individually or in the bimaristans.

Although this view was certainly not held by everyone in the Muslim world, one Islamic scholar of the time from Syria, Muhammad al-Manbiji, said that

Prayer for lifting the epidemic is abhorrent because plague is a blessing from God; at least, a Muslim should devoutly accept the divine act.

Original source: Michael Dols, The Black death in the Middle East

Citing a number of sources, including John Kelly's The Great Mortality (2012), Sean Martin's The Black Death (2011) and Diane Zahler's book, also entitled The Black Death (2009), the website Materia Islamica states:

North Africa and Western Asia are...believed to have had a mortality rate of some 33%...However, records from Asia have not been studied extensively by historians, and the numbers remain speculative.17 Additionally, North Africa and Western Asia may also have had a lesser death toll overall when compared to Europeans, although reasons for this are not entirely clear.17 Other estimates range from between 25%—50% of the population between 1347 to 1351 alone.

The social and economic impact was, as in Europe, enormous. The Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun (1332 - 1406) lived through the plague but lost his parents. He wrote (originally cited in Robert Gottfried's Black Death):

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.

Another Muslim historian who wrote about the plague was Ahmad Ibn 'Ali al-Maqrizi. His account, in A History of the Ayyubids and Mamluks, was written 60 or 70 years after the event but he knew Ibn Khaldun and likely had access to sources since lost. This is worth quoting at some length as it leaves the reader in no doubt as to the devastation wrought by the plague 1349. The source of this translation is John Aberth, The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350 - A Brief History with Documents

On the immediate impact of deaths:

By January 21, Cairo had become an abandoned desert, and one did not see anyone walking along the streets...Debris piled up in the streets...Everywhere one heard lamentations, and one could not pass by any house without being overwhelmed by the howling. Cadavers formed a heap on the public highway, funeral processions were so many that they could not file past without bumping into each other,...

Source: Ahmad Ibn 'Ali al-Maqrizi, Aberth (trans)

Unsurprisingly, law and order broke down:

...some people appropriated for themselves without scruple the immovable and movable goods and cash of their former owners after their demise. But very few lived long enough to profit thereby,

Source: Ahmad Ibn 'Ali al-Maqrizi, Aberth (trans)

Equally unsurprisingly, on social and religious gatherings,

No one issued an invitation to a feast during the whole time of the epidemic, and one did not hear any concert.... The call to prayer was canceled in various places,...

Source: Ahmad Ibn 'Ali al-Maqrizi, Aberth (trans)

However, as the last sentence implies, there were exceptions and thus varied responses:

An important part of [Muslim] urban activity in response to the Black Death was the communal prayers for the lifting of the disease. During the greatest severity of the pandemic, orders were given in Cairo to assemble in the mosques and to recite the recommended prayers in common. Fasting and processions took place in the cities during the Black Death and later plague epidemics; the supplicatory processions followed the traditional form of prayer for rain.

Source: Michael W. Dols, 'The Comparative Communal Responses to the Black Death in Muslim and Christian Societies.', cited in 'Religious Responses to the Black Death'.

Almost all economic activities were devastated, not least agriculture:

The plague emerged at the end of the season when the fields were becoming green. How many times did one see a laborer, at Gaza, at Ramleh, and along other points of the Syrian littoral, * guide his plow being pulled by oxen suddenly fall down dead, still holding in his hands his plow, while the oxen stood at their place without a conductor.

The soldiers and their valets left for the harvest and attempted to hire workers, promising them half of the crop, but they could not find anyone to help them reap it.

Source: Ahmad Ibn 'Ali al-Maqrizi, Aberth (trans)

The military was not spared either. Referring to the land grants revenues from which 'Mamluk commanders and elite soldiers' received their pay,

The endowments passed rapidly from hand to hand as a consequence of the multiplicity of deaths in the army. Such a concession passed from one to the other until the seventh or eighth holder, to fall finally [into the hands] of artisans, such as tailors, shoemakers, or public criers, and these mounted the horse, donned the [military] headdress, and dressed in military tunics.

Source: Ahmad Ibn 'Ali al-Maqrizi, Aberth (trans)

More generally,

Most of the trades disappeared...the price of linen and similar objects fell by a fifth of their real value, at the very least, and still further until one found customers ....

Thus the trades disappeared: One could no longer find either a water carrier, or a laundress, or a domestic. The monthly salary of a groom rose from thirty dirhams to eighty.

Source: Ahmad Ibn 'Ali al-Maqrizi, Aberth (trans)

In the longer term, in Egypt at least, Stuart J. Borsch in The Black Death in Egypt and England shows how the price of wheat rose while wages for occupations such as water carriers, doorkeepers and custodians fell by +/- 60% between the periods 1300-1350 and 1440-1490.

On declining morals and a lessening of humanity, the Chronicle of Damascus by Muhammad ibn Sasra says that:

Men’s occupations have ceased, the hearts of the rulers have become hardened, the rich have become haughty toward beggars, while the subjects perish and misfortunes increase.

Cited in: Joseph P. Byrne, The Black Death (2004)

  • 1
    A useful forum for the discussion of this & related issues is "MEDMED-L". This list's blurb says: "MEDMED-L is an unmoderated forum for communication among scholars studying medicine in the medieval period. The list manager is Monica Green, Professor of History, Arizona State University, [email protected]." and "To manage your subscriber account, access the Archives, or to unsubscribe, go to lists.asu.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A0=MEDMED-L" Commented May 16, 2018 at 22:53
  • @kimchilover Unfortunately, I'm getting a message 'Error: No output produced' on this link. Commented May 17, 2018 at 5:46
  • 1
    I think you have to send an email to Prof Green and sign up. The snippet above is boilerplate from the list's digest, one issue of which a friend (who subscribes) passed on to me. Commented May 17, 2018 at 12:25

This video details how the Black plague effected Egypt with a special focus on the economy. You can skip through the first 14 minutes. The nice thing here is that this a lecture by Stuart Borsch, Assistant Professor in History Department at Assumption College, and he gives primary source references to his points.

I would also take a look at M.W. Dols,The Black Death in the Middle East (Princeton, 1970)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
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    Commented Sep 28, 2020 at 13:00

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