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New Medieval Books: Merits of the Plague

Merits of the Plague

By Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani, translated by Joel Blecher and Mairaj Syed

Penguin Books
ISBN: 9780143136613

Part of Penguin Classics, this is a translation of an early fifteenth-century work about the Black Death and plagues. Written in Egypt, it is a valuable addition to our understanding of the pandemic and how people reacted to it.


One of the most important and influential works on the plague in Islamic though is Ibn Hajar’s al-‘Asqalini’s Merits of the Plague, a fifteenth-century book that is here translated from Arabic to English for the first time. The book wrestles with debates over the origins of the disease, the most effective responses to it, and the meaning of suffering and mass death. In doing so, the author crafts a compelling, if counterintuitive, argument: there is merit in the plague if one understands it as an expression of God’s will and an opportunity to practice patience and care for others. To make the cases, the author weaves together evidence from stories about the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions, medical works, law books, anecdotes from firsthand experiences, tales of unseen spirits, death-count registers, and plague-era poetry that spans eight centuries and the known Muslim world. In this way, Merits of the Plague is both a profound meditation on the plague as well as a classical anthology of medicine, law, history, traditions, and literature about pandemics in the pre-modern world.


Who is this book for?

Pandemics including the Black Death have been a trending topic in recent years, with many historians and medievalists writing and teaching about it. This book offers a much-needed perspective from the Islamic world. Being part of the Penguin Classics series also makes it relatively affordable so it should also attract a wide audience of readers.

The translators:

Joel Blecher is an Associate Professor at The George Washington University, where he specializes in Islamic History. Mairaj Syed is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California – Davis.


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