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Infectious Ideas

Contagion in Premodern Islamic and Christian Thought in the Western Mediterranean

Justin K. Stearns

Publication Year: 2011

Infectious Ideas is a comparative analysis of how Muslim and Christian scholars explained the transmission of disease in the premodern Mediterranean world. How did religious communities respond to and make sense of epidemic disease? To answer this, historian Justin K. Stearns looks at how Muslim and Christian communities conceived of contagion, focusing especially on the Iberian Peninsula in the aftermath of the Black Death. What Stearns discovers calls into question recent scholarship on Muslim and Christian reactions to the plague and leprosy. Stearns shows that rather than universally reject the concept of contagion, as most scholars have affirmed, Muslim scholars engaged in creative and rational attempts to understand it. He explores how Christian scholars used the metaphor of contagion to define proper and safe interactions with heretics, Jews, and Muslims, and how contagion itself denoted phenomena as distinct as the evil eye and the effects of corrupted air. Stearns argues that at the heart of the work of both Muslims and Christians, although their approaches differed, was a desire to protect the physical and spiritual health of their respective communities. Based on Stearns's analysis of Muslim and Christian legal, theological, historical, and medical texts in Arabic, Medieval Castilian, and Latin, Infectious Ideas is the first book to offer a comparative discussion of concepts of contagion in the premodern Mediterranean world.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. ix-xiv

Disease, and especially epidemic disease, has played an influential or even central role in human history. Not too long ago, when the focus of historians was largely political, and disease made at best an anecdotal appearance in standard historical narratives, such a statement would have needed justification. But in the past half century, historians and scholars have argued convincingly that disease has been ...

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pp. xv-xvi

My thanks go first and foremost to my advisers Michael Cook and William Jordan, with whom I had the good fortune to study at Princeton. Graduate school was for me a challenging, rewarding, frustrating, and often humbling experience, but both of my advisers not only gave me the tools to begin to ask the questions in which I was interested, but also, through their examples, impressed upon me ...

Chronological List of Relevant Muslim and Christian Scholars Who Wrote on Contagion in the Premodern Period

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pp. xvii-xx

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Introduction. Contagion and Causality in the Study of Premodern Muslim and Christian Societies

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pp. 1-12

This book deals with how Muslims and Christians in the premodern world conceived of contagion and what meaning they gave to it in their theological, medical, and literary writings. Within this vast subject, I have focused my study on contagion as discussed by authors living in Iberia and North Africa during the premodern period. This project began as a study of the effects of the ...

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1. Contagion in the Commentaries on Prophetic Tradition

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pp. 13-36

In the middle of the eighth/fourteenth century, after the Black Death had swept through the Mediterranean region and Europe, the Granadan vizier Ibn al-Khaṭīb (d. 776/1374) composed a medical treatise on the epidemic entitled That Which Satisfies the Questioner regarding the Appalling Illness (Muqniʿat al-sā’il ʿan al-maraḍ al-hā’il). Toward the end of the work, the author observes ...

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2. Contagion as Metaphor in Iberian Christian Scholarship

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pp. 37-66

In her essays on epidemic disease, Susan Sontag argues powerfully against granting diseases metaphoric significance. She observes that by describing diseases with figurative language, we force upon the ill a host of associations that determine both the nature of their sickness and the significance of the state of those suffering. To help them confront their condition directly, it is vital to strip ...

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3. Contagion Contested: Greek Medical Thought, Prophetic Medicine, and the First Plague Treatises

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pp. 67-90

The Black Death arrived on the Iberian peninsula near Almería in June of 1348 (Rabīʿ I of 749), from where it spread throughout the Naṣrid kingdom of Granada, reaching Granada itself in the winter of 749– 50/1348– 49 and Málaga in March of 750/1349.¹ While it is difficult to know how many people were killed by the epidemic—and its demographic impact may well have varied ...

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4. Situating Scholastic Contagion between Miasma and the Evil Eye

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pp. 91-105

The Authors of the plague treatises written in Christian Iberia and much of Christian Europe following the Black Death had little doubt that the disease that had ravaged their communities was contagious. It is, however, much more difficult to determine what it meant to them that the plague could be transmitted from one person to another. The difficulty of the issue is marked by the ...

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5. Contagion between Islamic Law and Theology

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pp. 106-139

This Chapter takes up the issue of how Muslim jurists in al-Andalus and North Africa responded to the Black Death and how theological considerations influenced the way these jurists addressed the issue of contagion. The material considered here is distinct from, though related to, that discussed in chapters 1 and 3, where contagion is explored first as an exegetical problem posed by ...

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6. Contagion Revisited: Early Modern Maghribi Plague Treatises

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pp. 140-159

Numerous Europeans and Muslims in the early modern period saw a firm division between European and Muslim attitudes toward epidemic disease—and used this difference to demonstrate the inherent “rationality” or “piety” of their respective religious or cultural traditions. In this chapter, I argue that Muslims have always held differing opinions as to the contagious nature of ...

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Conclusion. Reframing Muslim and Christian Views on Contagion

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pp. 160-167

In 1974, while working on what became recognized as a groundbreaking book on the Black Death in the Middle East, Dols published a short article entitled “The Comparative Communal Responses to the Black Death in Muslim and Christian Societies.”² In this article he set out a remarkably clear opposition between Christian and Muslim responses to the Black Death, discussing both the ...

Appendix A. Contagion in the Christian Exegetical Tradition

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pp. 169-174

Appendix B. The Presence of Ashcarism in the Maghrib

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pp. 175-186


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pp. 187-243


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pp. 245-266


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pp. 267-279

E-ISBN-13: 9781421401058
E-ISBN-10: 1421401053
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801898730
Print-ISBN-10: 0801898730

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700366
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Infectious Ideas

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Subject Headings

  • Diseases -- Causes and theories of causation -- History -- To 1500.
  • Medicine, Medieval -- Western Mediterranean.
  • Epidemiology -- History -- To 1500.
  • Medicine -- Religious aspects -- Islam -- History -- To 1500.
  • Medicine -- Religious aspects -- Christianity -- History -- To 1500.
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