[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Articles such as this will appear permanently on www.MESPI.org and www.Jadaliyya.com. Email us at info@MESPI.org for any inquiries.]

The global experience of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two and a half years—I am writing in the spring of 2022—has brought with it a renewed interest in public health and, when it comes to the Middle East, broader interest in how populations there experienced, confronted, and responded to previous pandemics. For the interested reader, there is fortunately a rich field of scholarship to turn to on this subject, one which breaks down roughly along a premodern/modern divide. This division, while not to be overemphasized, is defensible to the extent that the modern period brought with it colonialism and imperialism, the development of new conceptions of diseases and their transmission, and the rise of new centralized understandings of public health with the appearance of comparatively strong nation-states in the twentieth century. The recommended readings follow this premodern/modern divide, with some of them—especially those focused on the long nineteenth century—productively blurring this heuristic distinction.

The readings below address epidemic disease in a variety of ways, often due to a large extent to the sources they rely on (a factor that also influences the premodern/modern divide), ranging from intellectual to social, economic, and political history. A nuanced understanding of epidemics requires an engagement with all of these aspects, but our understanding is partial for many of the regions, communities, and periods. In a sense, the very strengths of the scholarship of the last few decades have revealed how much more work remains to be done.

These recommended readings should be approached in the context of two recent excellent bibliographic essays for the ISIS History of Science Critical Bibliography series that provide points of entry into the now substantial bodies of literature dealing with epidemic disease in the Middle East. These essays are distinguished by the transparent nature of the review process, so that the reader can follow along to see how the authors have engaged and responded to the editorial comments as well as the external reviews:

Nükhet Varlık, “Plague in the Mediterranean/Islamic World,” IsisCB Special Issue,edited by Stephen P. Weldon and Neeraja Sankaran (April 2021).

Monica H. Green, “Global Health in a Semi-Globalized World: History of Infectious Diseases in the Medieval Period,” IsisCB Special Issue, edited by Stephen P. Weldon and Neeraja Sankaran (June 2021).

The premodern experience of epidemic disease:

Michael Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (New Jersey: Princeton University 
Press, 1977).

Even after 45 years, Michael Dols’ monograph on the Black Death remains essential as the first comprehensive study of plague (as well as a bibliographic gateway onto what went before). While scholars may take issue with individual points of his study—I have—this book offers a survey of the social and economic impact of the Black Death of the fourteenth century, the intellectual arguments Muslims offered for the plague’s significance, and the ways in which inhabitants of the region responded. It has a strong bias toward Egypt and the Levant and takes the plague treatise of the fifteenth century Egyptian scholar Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani (d. 1448) as paradigmatic for Muslim responses in general, but anyone interested in epidemics should start here.

Nahyan Fancy and Monica Green, “Plague and the Fall of Baghdad (1258),” Medical History 65 (2021), 157-77. (Listen to the Ottoman History Podcast episode here on this article within the broader context of Green’s work).

Conventional narratives of the plague portray it as having affected the region in three waves or pandemics (see Varlik’s bibliographic essay for why this is problematic): the Justinianic plague of 541-750, the Black Death of 1347-1722, and the current COVID-19 pandemic that is linked to an outbreak in Hong Kong from 1896. While little of this narrative continues to be seen as accurate for the Middle East by scholars working in the field, it is only recently that a strong argument for the bubonic plague having appeared in the Middle East between the eighth and fourteenth centuries has been made. In this article, Nahyan Fancy and Monica Green show how the plague was present in Baghdad following the Mongol defeat of the Abbasids in 1258. Many questions remain, considering that no subsequent sources speak to the plague’s presence in the Middle East before the fourteenth century. Although for contemporary Ethiopia, see now Nahyan Fancy, “Knowing the Signs of Disease: Plague in the Arabic Medical Commentaries Between the First and Second Pandemics,” in Death and Disease in the Medieval and Early Modern World: Perspectives from across the Mediterranean and Beyond, edited by Lori Jones and Nükhet Varlık (York Medieval Press/Boydell & Brewer, 2022), which itself draws on Marie-Laure Derat, “Du lexique aux talismans: occurrences de la peste dans la Corne de l’Afrique du XIIIe au XVe siècle,” Afriques 09 (2018), 1-34.

Lawrence Conrad, “Arabic Plague Chronologies and Treatises: Social and Historical Factors in the Formation of a Literary Genre,” in Studia Islamica 54 (1981), 51-95.­­­

––––––, “āʿūn and Wabāʾ:Conceptions of Plague and Pestilence in Early Islam,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 25, no. 3 (1982), 268-307. 

––––––, “Epidemic Disease in Central Syria in the late Sixth Century: Some New Insights from the Verse of Hassān ibn Thābit,” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 18, no. 1 (1994), 12-59. 

———, “A Ninth-Century Muslim Scholar’s Discussion of Contagion,” in Contagion: Perspectives from Pre- Modern Societies, edited by Lawrence Conrad and Dominik Wujastyk (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000): 163-77.

———, “Umar at Sargh: The Evolution of an Umayyad Tradition on Flight from the Plague,” in Story-Telling in the Framework of Non- fictional Arabic Literature, edited by Stefan Leder (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998): 488-528.

In 1981, Lawrence Conrad defended his dissertation, “Plague in the Early Medieval Near East” (PhD diss., Princeton), as yet the only monograph length work that engaged with the sixth to eighth century plague pandemic that struck the Mediterranean, and which represented a formative experience in the seventh century when encountered in the Levant by the expanding Muslim community. The dissertation was never revised into a book, but Conrad drew on it to publish a number of important studies, some of which appeared in edited volumes and have not received the recognition they deserve. Conrad’s studies should be compared with the formidable study by Josef van Ess on the theological environment in which the early Muslim community experienced the plague and the ways that this shaped later Muslim understandings of epidemic disease [Josef van Ess, Der Fehltritt des Gelehrten (Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag C. Winter, 2001)].

Nükhet Varlık, Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: The Ottoman Experience, 1347–1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Nükhet Varlık, ed., Plague and Contagion in the Islamic Mediterranean (ARC Humanities Press, 2017).

Few scholars have done as much recently for the study of plague in the Middle East as Nükhet Varlık. Her 2016 monograph, her edited volume, her numerous articles criticizing the Eurocentric historiography of an earlier generation of scholars, and her forthcoming book on the second plague pandemic make her body of work indispensable for anyone wishing to understand the impact of plague on the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic world in general. In addition, see her bibliographic essay above; her Global History Podcast here; and her Ottoman History Podcast here, where she appears in conversation with Orhan Pamuk! Varlik’s work is focused on the Early Modern period, albeit with implications for both the late Medieval and Modern period; and the social, economic, and political aspects of the plague pandemic.

Stuart Borsch, The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study(Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005).

———, “Plague Depopulation and Irrigation Decay in Medieval Egypt,” The Medieval Globe 1, no. 1 (2014), 125-156. 

Stuart Borsch and Tarek Sabraa, “Plague Mortality in Late Medieval Cairo: Quantifying the Plague Outbreaks of 833/1430 and 864/1460,” Mamluk Studies Review 19 (2016), 115-48. 

Stuart Borsch and Tarek Sabraa, “Refugees of the Black Death: Quantifying Rural Migration for Plague and Other Environmental Disasters,” Annales de Démographie Historique 2 (2017), 63-93.

Considering the degree to which historians as well as pundits have framed pandemic disease and social responses to it within civilizational paradigms, comparative work that examines populations in the Muslim Middle East and other regions is unfortunately rare. Stuart Borsch’s comparison of how the Black Death impacted Egyptian and English society in the fourteenth and subsequent centuries stands out and should be read alongside his later essays that refined his initial conclusions, including his collaborations with Tarek Sabraa on quantitative estimates of the plague’s demographic impact. Borsch’s main historiographic contribution is to focus on the ways in which depopulation impacted Egypt’s (and England’s) agricultural and irrigation systems.

Justin Stearns, Infectious Ideas: Contagion in Premodern Islamic and Christian Thought in the Western Mediterranean (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2011).

In this book, I compared the intellectual traditions Muslims and Christians drew on in response to the social and spiritual challenge posed by the plague in Iberia and North Africa during and after the Black Death. The book’s intervention was both to stress how much these populations had in common in terms of their medical understanding of disease and why the significance they granted to plague and contagion differed due to their engagement with discrete scriptural and theological traditions. The main challenge the book posed to prior historiography was to argue that a significant body of Muslim scholars accepted disease transmission, ignored the Prophetic tradition that stated that dying of the plague resulted in martyrdom, and rejected a fatalistic attitude toward epidemics. In doing so, I argued against tropes that were a staple of early modern European discourse about Muslims, and which had received support in Dols’ work through his choice of the fifteenth century Egyptian scholar Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani’s plague treatise as characteristic of Muslim responses in general. I expanded on the arguments laid out in this monograph in two subsequent book chapters: “Disease: Confronting, Consoling, and Constructing the Afflicted Body,” in A Cultural History of Medicine in the Middle Ages, edited by Iona McCleery (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021): 63-85; and in “Public Health, the State, and Religious Scholarship: Considering Sovereignty in Idrīs al-Bidlīsī’s (d.1520) Arguments for Fleeing the Plague,” in The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic Perspectives on the History of a Concept, edited by Ben-Dor Benite, Geroulanos, and Jerr (New York:Columbia University Press, 2017): 163-85.

The modern Middle Eastern experience of epidemics:

Nancy Gallagher,
Egypt’s Other Wars: Epidemics and the Politics of Public Health (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990).

———, Medicine and Power in Tunisia, 1780– 1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

In her two volumes on different aspects of epidemic disease in the modern Middle East, Nancy Gallagher’s scholarship remains groundbreaking. Her first volume on Tunisia’s experience of epidemics in the long nineteenth century demonstrated how in the interaction between colonial powers and Middle Eastern states, debates around public health were always shot through with economic and political interest. Unsurprisingly, European interest in regulating movement across the Mediterranean and implementing quarantines was as much about their economic profit as it was about preserving communal well-being. In her second book, Gallagher turned to Egypt’s twentieth century response to epidemic disease and colonial and postcolonial efforts to advance public health, a topic that remains surprisingly understudied. But see now:

Christopher Rose, “Implications of the Spanish Influenza Pandemic (1918-1920) for the History of Early 20th Century Egypt,” Journal of World History 32 (2021), 655-84;

Laverne Kuhnke, Lives at Risk: Public Health in Nineteenth-Century Egypt(University of California Press, 1990).

The same year that Gallagher published her study of Egypt’s public health policy in the twentieth century, Laverne Kuhnke came out with her study of Mehmed Ali’s nineteenth-century reforms in medical education and the workings within Egypt of an International Quarantine Board. Kuhnke laid out the anti-contagionist views of the first director of the new Egyptian Medical school, Antoine Clot, and his ultimate deference to Mehmed Ali’s own belief in the contagiousness of disease and the efficacy of the quarantine system.

Khaled Fahmy, In Quest of Justice: Islamic Law and Forensic Medicine in Modern Egypt (University of California Press, 2018).

Building on his own earlier work on Mehmed Ali’s reform of the Egyptian military, substantial archival work, and the scholarship of Kuhnke and others; Khaled Fahmy’s expansive discussion of the introduction of modern medicine into Egypt is an impressive and necessary work of scholarship that deals with much more than quarantines and epidemics, but is required reading for anyone interested in those as well. Although the latter does not deal extensively with epidemics, it is well worth comparing it with Ellen Amster, Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956 (University of Texas Press, 2013).

Michael Christopher Low, Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).

The focus of Low’s book is not on epidemics per se, but the role played by the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the administration of the hajj—an eloquent story of contested sovereignty and the workings of the Ottoman Empire during an age of European imperial expansion. Yet, the issue of cholera and the challenge that it posed to the hajj was significant and it offered Low a valuable to lens through which he could explore the impact of epidemic disease on human mobility and imperial sovereignties during the last decades of the Ottoman Empire. As such, his work builds and expands on Gallagher’s earlier work on Tunisia and can be productively read against Andrew Robarts, Migration and Disease in the Black Sea Region: Ottoman-Russian Relations in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2016). Listen to Low’s Ottoman History Podcast here!

Salvatore Speziale, Il contagio del contagio. Circolazione di saperi e sfide bioetiche tra Africa ed Europa dalla peste nera all’AIDS (Città del Sole Edizioni, 2016).

––––, “Epidemics and Quarantine in Mediterranean Africa from the Eighteenth to the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Mediterranean History 16 (2006), 249-58. 

––––, “Naissance de la santé publique en Tunisie,” in Islam et revolutions médicales, le labyrinthe du corps edited by Anne Marie Moulin (Karthala, 2013): 45-58.

The readings I have referred to so far have been heavily biased toward Anglophone scholarship, something that brings its own blind spots with it. For more than two decades, Salvatore Speziale has been publishing, largely in Italian, on the history of epidemic disease in Tunisia and North Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His work represents one of most sustained considerations of the working of the quarantine system implemented by nineteenth-century empires and North African states and as such should be read alongside Low and Robarts’ work, as well as the earlier writings on the quarantine regime of Daniel Panzac, the Eurocentric bias of which have now been noted by Nükhet Varlik (see her bibliographic essay cited above). For those unable to access Speziale’s 700 page summa­ —Il contagio del contagio—the two shorter pieces above in English and French offer a glimpse into his work.

Mustakim Arıcı, “İslâm coğrafyasında salgınlar tarihinin sessiz kaynakları: Taun/Veba risaleleri literatürü,Nazariyat 7, no. 1 (April 2021): 93-148.

The most recent and comprehensive study of the plague treatise as a genre, including an attempt to list all known examples, has been carried out by Mustakim Arıcı, who is part of a group of scholars in Turkey who are actively studying and translating plague treatises. For anyone interested in intellectual responses to the plague, this study, in which the author surveys recent literature on the subject before listing ninety different examples from the ninth to the twentieth century, is an essential place to begin.


Any such short survey of “essential” readings can justifiably be accused of having committed omissions, and the list I have given here could certainly be lengthened. The most problematic omission, however, is doubtlessly scholarship produced in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian. Anyone working on the history of pandemics in modern North Africa, for example, will need to refer to the pioneering work of Muḥammad al-Bazzāz [Ta’rīkh al-Awbi’a wa-l-Majā‘āt bi-l- Maghrib fī-l-Qarnayn al-Thāmin wa-l-Tāsi‘ Ashara, (Rabat: Manshūrāt Kulliyat al-Adab, 1992)], as well as a number of more recent studies. Sadly, however, such secondary sources struggle to become “essential” in a field that remains resolutely dominated by Anglophone materials (Varlık’s bibliographic essay does a good job of integrating recent Turkish scholarship into her survey, not to mention scholarship in multiple European languages).