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The Plague of 'Amwas 638 or 639CE

Medieval Islam and Response to Plague
from Michael Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (1977) pp. 20-25.

[Note: the printed version contains many footnotes]

The later chroniclers quote al-Mada'ini to the effect that there were five great plagues in Islamic history before the Black Death." The Muslim historians cite the "plague of Shirawayh" as the first plague epidemic in the Muslim era. It occurred in 6/627-628 at Ctesiphon (Madd'in)," whose name is derived from Siroes (Kobad II), who succeeded Chosroes II in 628 as the Sassanian king of Persia." Siroes himself died of plague in 629. Comparing this epidemic to others, as-Suyuti quotes Ibn Asakir's history of Damascus about a "plague of Yezdigird,"" which must refer to a later appearance of plague during the reign of the last Sassanian king, Yezdigird II (634-642). Ibn Qutaybah does not mention the plague of Yezdigird, but merely says that there was a long period between the plague of Shirawayh and the "Syrian plague."" The plague of Yezdigird may simply be another name for the important epidemic in Syria.

The epidemic in Syria is known as the "plague of `Amwas (or 'Amawas)"" because it struck severely the Arab army at `Amwas, ancient Emmaus, in 17/638 or 18/639." It is probable that as-Suyuti's suggestion that plague reappeared soon after its initial outbreak accounts for the two dates. Accordingly, Sayf ibn `Umar related that the plague of Amwas occurred twice: it struck in Muharram and $afar, disappeared, and returned again, and "many people died in it to the advantage of the enemy [the Byzantines]."" The historical accounts of the plague of 'Amwas state that about 25,000 Muslim soldiers died and that plague spread to the rest of Syria, as well as to Iraq and Egypt. The epidemic had been preceded by a severe famine in Syria-Palestine that may have predisposed the population to the disease. Famine is often associated with the appearance of plague epidemics, possibly as a result of lowered human resistance and the attraction of food reserves in human settlements, which brought the plague-infested rats into closer contact with men.

The Caliph `Umar summoned Abu Vbaydah, the military commander in Syria, from `Amwas to Medina in order to prevent his death from the plague epidemic in 18/639. Knowing Abu `Ubaydah's courage and his loyalty to the army, the Caliph concealed his purpose and ordered him to return on an urgent matter. Abu 11baydah realized the Caliph's intention and refused, preferring to stay with his army in Syria." Therefore, the Caliph `Umar set out for Syria and came to Sargh, where he met Abu Thaydah and called a council of the military leaders. The council was divided on the issue and disagreed about what was to be done with regard to the plague epidemic. Finally, (Umar accepted the advice of the leaders of the tribe of Quraysh (the tribe of the Prophet), to quit the region of the epidemic. Referring to the prohibition of the Prophet against a Muslim's either entering or fleeing a plague stricken land, Abu `Ubaydah protested that they were fleeing the decree of God. Not wishing to disagree with his military commander, `Umar wisely replied with a parable: "Suppose that you come to a valley where one side is green with pasture and the other is bare and barren; whichever side you let loose your camels, it would be the will of God. But you would choose the side that was green."" According to another version of this justification of flight, Muslims would be "fleeing from the decree of God to the decree of God."" The Caliph argued that in removing the people to a naturally more healthful region he was making no attempt to flee the command of God, thereby establishing a precedent for fleeing a plague epidemic. `Umar then commanded Abu Ubaydah to take the army out of the infected area, while the Caliph felt justified in returning to Medina.

These events surrounding the plague of `Amwas are very important because they demonstrate contemporary Muslim attitudes toward plague and directly affected later religio-legal explanations of the disease. Three principles, derived from the teaching of the Prophet, influenced the actions of the early Muslim community:

(I) plague was a mercy and a martyrdom from God for the faithful Muslim and a punishment for the infidel;
(2) a Muslim should neither enter nor flee a plague stricken land; and
(3) there was no contagion of plague, because disease came directly from God.'

These three religio-legal tenets provoked sustained controversy, due to the constant reappearance of plague epidemics. As was evident during the plague of `Amwas, disagreement with the principles was caused by the difficulty of accepting the horrible disease as a blessing and a martyrdom, the natural propensity to flee, and the empirical observations of contagion. It would be unreasonable to assume, therefore, that these tenets completely describe the Muslim response to plague at this time or during the later Middle Ages, but they do set the framework for normative communal behavior."

With regard to the first principle, some men (motivated perhaps by natural human anxiety and native Christian and Jewish attitudes) considered the epidemic as a warning or punishment by God. In this manner, the plague epidemic was believed to be a divine punishment or warning for the moral laxity of the Muslims. For example, it was said that this plague occurred in Syria because the Muslims there drank wine, which Islam prohibits; therefore, by the order of Caliph `Umar, Abu Ubaydah had the offenders lashed.' Nonetheless, the belief in plague as a mercy and a martyrdom is evident; it was contained in the speech of Abu `Ubaydah to the army at `Amwils and was expressed in the council held by the Caliph at Sargh. This belief was popularly expressed in a poetic description of the plague of 'Amwas from Ibn `Asakir's history of Damascus:

How many brave horsemen and how many beautiful, chaste women were killed in the valley of `Amwas.
They had encountered the Lord, but He was not unjust to them.
When they died, they were among the non-aggrieved people in paradise.
We endure the plague as the Lord knows, and we were consoled in the hour of death."

Apart from these views was the belief that God had sent the disease, and men should simply accept it. This belief is also found in discussions concerning the second principle. Whether one fled or remained in a plague-stricken region, God had already decreed one's death. This is the substance of the argument of Abu Musa al-Ash`ari regarding plague." When some friends came to see him in Kafah, he asked them not to stay, because someone in his home was ill with plague, and advised them to go out to the open spaces and gardens of the city. He states the popular belief that whoever left a plague stricken land believed that if he stayed he would die, and whoever stayed and was afflicted would think that if he had left he would not have been stricken. Implicit in this story is not only the common practice of fleeing the disease but the recognition of contagion, despite the fact that the Prophet had denied the pre-Islamic belief in contagion. In any case, a Muslim was not to be blamed for fleeing, according to Abu-Musa, for God had already determined each man's fate. Abu Musa supported his argument for flight by citing the decision of `Umar during the plague of 'Amwas when Abu Musa had been with Abu `Ubaydah in Syria. -- Paul Halsall Internet History Sourcebooks Project IHSP Facebook Page:


Source: Michael Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (1977) pp. 20-25.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

Paul Halsall, January 2023

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