Ibn al Khatib, the Black Death and Granada

The Black Death, the plague of 1348-1349 in Granada wiped out one third of the population but it transformed the Christian and the Islamic world in Andalus. At the time of great political unrest the last thing any empire was praying for was a disease that would jeopardize political, economic, social stability and in the 14th century we see this happening in the world where Islam and Christianity came head to head in most of those areas.

But talking about the politics of the time is another blog piece;  instead I would like to introduce a clever polymath of his time, someone who was relatively unknown to the medical community, Lisan Al -Din Ibn Al Khatib.

He was a pioneer and just one of the many polymaths of Andalus. One of the greatest things about scholarship in the Medieval times is the striking nature of talents and Ibn Al Khatib is firmly placed amongst them. He was a poet, writer, historian, philosopher, physician and politician at the court of Granada. We could delve into many of his poems but as we live in times of the pandemic, let us focus on his writings on the plague and epidemics.

Before him Greek and Roman medics explained epidemics of infectious diseases by the miasmic theory, meaning that the pollution of the atmosphere spreads diseases. This idea is congenial to Muslim theology and is used as a reference in the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) reported by Sa’d as the Prophet stated:  “If you hear of a plague in a land, then do not go into it. If it happens in land where you are, then do not go out of it.  (Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5396, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 221).

Ibn Al Khatib wrote on the nature of epidemics and the nature of contagion and spreading of diseases centuries before Louis Pasteur experimented in Europe. His main book on the contagious nature of epidemics is titled Muqni’at sa -sa’il an marad ak-ha’il and can be found in the Biblioteca Escorial (the historical residence of the King of Spain).

Ibn Al Khatib was exploring an idea of contagion well before a unified theory was formed (around 1546) and he wanted to put the hadith literature available about diseases to test. He firmly believed that the elements of proof are in “experience, investigation, insights, personal observation and reliable reports”. This was one of the reasons he gathered so many enemies which later caused his exile, punished for heresy and atheism,  and possibly his strangling in prison. What distinguishes his work is his focus on contagion (al adwa). In his work, he details his observations:

“It becomes clear to anyone who has diagnosed or treated the disease that most of the individuals who have had contact with a plague victim will die, whereas the man who has had no exposure will remain healthy. A garment or vessel may carry infection into a house; even an earring (al-halak) can prove fatal to the man who has put it in his ear. The disease can make its first appearance in a single house of a given town, then spread from that focus to other persons-neighbors, relatives, visitors. The disease can break out in a coastal town that had been free of the disease until a plague victim landed there, coming across the sea from a town where plague is raging. The date at which plague appears in the town coincides with [i.e. occurs a few days after] the debarkation of this carrier. Many people remained in good health who kept themselves in isolation from the outside world, for example the pious Ibn Abi-Madyan in Sale. He believed in contagion; therefor he laid by a store of provisions and bricked up his house, sequestering his large family. The town was severely stricken, but no one in his household took ill. There are many accounts of communities remote from highways and commerce that remained unscathed. There is also the remarkable example of the prisoners in the Arsenal at Seville who were unaffected even though the city itself was hard hit. Other reports tell us that itinerant nomads who live in tents in North Africa remained free of disease because the air is not shut in, and the corruption from it is only mildly infectious.”

Ibn al Khatib was, like many others,  ahead of his time in many respect. Although he was a master politician ( and at some point running the day- to- day functioning of the sultanate)  he also developed a personal friendship with Ibn Khaldoun whom he helped to gain political power in Granada. He, in return, gave Al Khatib shelter in Fez in 1371 when he flew his enemies, the chief qadi of Granada and his protege Ibn Zamrak accusing him of apostasy.


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