Silent Sources of the History of Epidemics in the Islamic World: Literature on Ṭāʿūn/Plague Treatises


From 1347 onwards, new literature emerged in the Islamic and Western worlds: the Ṭā‘ūn [Plague] Treatises. The literature in Islamdom was underpinned by three things: (i) Because the first epidemic was a phenomenon that had been experienced since the birth of Islam, ṭā‘ūn naturally occurred on the agenda of hadith sources, prophetic biography, and historical works. This agenda was reflected in the treatises as discussions around epidemics, particularly plague, as well as the fight against disease in general in a religious and jurisprudential framework. (ii) Works aimed at diagnosing the plague and dealing with various aspects of it tried to explain disease on the basis of Galenic-Avicennian medicine within the framework of miasma theory, thus deriving their basis from this medical paradigm. (iii) Finally, the encounter with such a brutal illness prompted a quest for all possible remedies, including the occultist culture. This background shaped the language and content of the treatises at different levels.

This article first evaluates the modern studies on plague treatises written in the Islamic world. Then, it surveys the Islamic historical sources in order to pin down the meaning they assign to the concepts of wabā’ [epidemic disease] and ṭā‘ūn [plague]. Certain medical works that were the resources for medical doctrines and terminology for plague treatises are also evaluated with a focus on these two concepts. Thus, the aim of this survey is to understand the general conception of epidemic disease and plague in the Islamic world before the Black Death (1346-1353). I discuss and analyze the characteristics of the Ṭā‘ūn literature, which constitutes the main subject of the article and present a database on the literature. While the works from the Mamluk and Ottoman periods constitute a continuous tradition in some respects, Ottoman treatises differ from the Mamluk works in terms of certain features, especially content. Although this study touches on the common aspects of the works from the two periods, it instead analyzes this literature with a focus on points where the two traditions diverge.


Epidemic plague Ṭā‘ūn/Plague Treatises Kalām Hadith Islamic Medicine Mamluk Studies Ottoman Thought Ottoman Medicine Idrīs Bidlīsī Taşköprīzāde