History of Infectious Disease in the Islamicate World

This working group intends to make an “emergency intervention” to foster the developing field of epidemiological history by gathering together various experts in history of medicine and medieval Islamic studies and prepare a cluster of working translations of key texts relating to the experience of infectious disease history in the Middle East and North Africa. Our intent is to jump-start work in the field and see what a new configuration of the field of infectious disease history might look like when framed outside of Eurocentric narratives. We do not intend to “fix” the parameters of the field from the outset, especially since we are doing this work in a moment of urgency as the current pandemic forces us to see the past with new eyes.

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Upcoming Meetings

  • Tuesday, April 4, 2023 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EDT

    Discussions on smallpox and smallpox vaccination according to Şanizade - Yasemin Akçagüner (Columbia University, New York)

  • Tuesday, May 2, 2023 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EDT

    TBA - Seçil Yılmaz (University of Pennslyvania)

Past Meetings

  • March 7, 2023

    Merits of the Plague by Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani: Reflections on a New Translation - Joel Blecher (George Washington University) and Mairaj Syed (University of California, Davis)
    In this session, Joel Blecher and Mairaj Syed will discuss their forthcoming translation of Ibn Hajar's plague treatise "Merits of the Plague" (Penguin, March 2023).  They will not only share their experience of the process of translation but also discuss possible venues of scholarly research based on the translation. 

  • February 7, 2023

    Cholera, the Hijaz Railroad: A Reversed Reasoning? - Benan Grams (Georgetown University, Washington DC.)
    Nineteenth century’s contemporaries and later historians agree that ships and trains, modernized transportation technologies powered by the steam engine, facilitated the rapid spread of cholera, an infectious disease that was endemic to the Ganges Valley in India, to the rest of the world. Therefore, it was not surprising that when the Ottoman government announced its Hijaz railroad project, Western press expressed concerns, anticipating another route for cholera to spread after the Hajj pilgrimage from Hijaz to the Levant and the regions connected to it commercially. 
     This article explores the possibility of taking a different approach to the relationship between cholera and modern projects of transportation. Europeans’ control over key quarantine locations in the Mediterranean and the perceived humiliation Ottoman Muslims endured may have created popular support for the idea of the Hijaz railroad a decade before the actual initiation of the project. Such an approach would provide an additional lens to examine the Hijaz railroad project that is different from the conventional geo-political standpoint that has focused on the project’s ideological discourse and the political significance.

  • January 3, 2023

    Muteferriqa: Expanding Frontiers in Ottoman and Turkish Studies and Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Historical Research - C. Ozan Ceyhan (Miletos Inc.)
    "Muteferriqa is an online research portal that contains an exceptionally rich collection of printed materials published in the Ottoman Empire, including mainly books and periodicals printed from the 18th to mid-20th century. It provides much more than a typical primary sources database through its enhanced search features, and its functionalities enabling discovery in both textual and visual content of the source materials. Muteferriqa overcomes language barriers in research and paves the way for cross-domain research collaborations by letting its users to search and read both in Turkish and in English in addition to Ottoman Turkish. In this presentation, I aim to demonstrate Muteferriqa and discuss the opportunities to expand frontiers for studies in the history of infectious disease."

  • December 6, 2022

    A Metaphor for Contagion in Qusṭā ibn Lūqā’s Book on Contagion - Shahrzad Irannejad (GRK 1876, JGU Mainz)

    The concept of contagion is a highly contested one in the medical tradition of the Islamicate world. Although several diseases are sporadically deemed as contagious within some medical encyclopediae, the very concept of contagion has rarely been discussed as a self-sufficient concept within the conventional, humoral paradigm. A significant exception, however, is the treatise On Contagion by Qusṭā ibn Lūqā. This Arabic treatise written by a 9th century Melkite Christian author is dedicated solely to the discussion of the concept of contagion.
    The point of departure of the present article is an “accurate” definition this treatise offers from the concept, using a metaphor. Using methods of textual scholarship, this article offers a close reading of the relevant passages from this short, but rich treatise, contextualizing it within two contexts: one Greek/humoral and another Arabo-Islamic. Drawing inspiration from conceptual metaphor theory, the article stresses the importance of the question why, despite the potential efficacy of the concept CONTAGION IS A SPARK presented in this treatise, this metaphor is not traceable in the works of the next generations of authors within the Islamicate tradition.
    This paper is based partially on the project “Bodies of Knowledge Facing Epidemics: (Islamicate) Humoral Medicine  vs. Prophetic Medicine” undertaken at Orient-Institut Istanbul, in which my overarching question throughout has been: "What strategies do individual actors (both historically and in contemporary Iran) develop to navigate the tension between empirical observation of the phenomenon of contagion and the resistance of their respective knowledge paradigms to the integration of the concept of contagion?"


  • November 1, 2022

    Influenza in Late Ottoman and British Occupied Iraq - Isacar Bolaños (California State University, Long Beach)
    "In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, influenza spread across the world in two major pandemics—one in 1889-1893, the other in 1918-1920. This paper examines the effects of these pandemics in Iraq during the periods of Ottoman and British rule. It demonstrates that while influenza certainly had an effect on the region, Ottoman and British officials viewed cholera and malaria as bigger issues of concern, particularly in light of Iraq’s ecology and its relation to epidemic diseases. Not only does this reveal an important instance of continuity in how the Ottomans and the British addressed matters of disease control in Iraq; it also suggests that greater attention must be placed on the specificity of location when narrating the global history of influenza, especially in light of recent scholarship that has revealed significant differences in how societies across the Middle East experienced influenza when compared to societies in other parts of the world."  

  • October 4, 2022

    Medical eclecticism and changing epistemologies of disease in the Ottoman medical corpus in the late seventeenth century: A critical approach to the perspectives and concepts (Tunahan Durmaz)
    Based on a chapter in progress for my dissertation, this presentation aims to discuss the issue of change and transformation in the late seventeenth-century Ottoman medical corpus. The late seventeenth century was a period in which Ottoman medical writers densely interacted with contemporary European medicine. Until now scholars of Ottoman science and medicine have approached this phenomenon from several perspectives such as the concept of “new” and translation and so on. In this regard, I intend to adopt an approach through which we can emphasize the eclectic nature of medical knowledge in this corpus. The image emerging via this critical assessment serves as a background to my empirical analysis of the epistemology of disease. Mainly focusing on the writings of two consecutive head physicians at the Ottoman court Sâlih b. Nasrullah b. Sellûm el-Halebî (d. 1669) and Hayâtîzâde Mustafa Feyzî Efendi (d. 1692), I aim to explore the perceptions of disease through the issues of medical authorship and empiricism.   

  • June 7, 2022

    "Don’t Spit on the Ground!:" Anti-Spitting Campaigns and Spittoons in Public Spaces in Early Republican Istanbul, Zehra Betül Atasoy
    Tuberculosis was one of the leading causes of death in early twentieth-century Turkey. The systematic fight against TB would only start after World War II when the state implemented new policies. Before these nationwide attempts, reducing the sputum vector contagion focused on anti-spitting campaigns by changing public manners. I investigate these campaigns to curb tuberculosis transmission in the early Republican period and the placement of spittoons in public spaces such as streets, squares, and public transit, along with places of treatment. I explore these campaigns through their execution by the Istanbul Municipal Police and by examining public opinion and physicians’ comments and suggestions. 

  • May 3, 2022

    Plague, Climate, and Migration: Rural Depopulation in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire During the Little Ice Age (Nükhet Varlık)

    The effects of the Little Ice Age on Ottoman rural society have been so far examined with respect to political and economic changes, social upheaval, and migration. What remains to be better understood is how recurring outbreaks of plague of that era further aggravated this fraught society. Ottoman archival and narrative sources suggest that recurrent plagues led to radical changes in the empire’s demographic structure starting in the late sixteenth century. High levels of rural mortality paired with flight resulted in smaller settlements being abandoned in favor of larger towns and cities. In this presentation, I will discuss the demographic effects of plague on Ottoman society in the unusual climatic context of the Little Ice Age.


  • April 5, 2022

     A “Global” History of the Black Death: New Narratives for the Islamicate World, Monica Green 


    In February 2021, I presented to this group a talk, “Bringing Dols and Conrad into the Genomic Age,” which laid out how and why work from genetics (both paleo- and phylo-) was transforming what could be known about the geographic and even temporal scope of the late medieval plague pandemic we have come to know as the Black Death. My argument was that this expanded definition of the 2nd Plague Pandemic made the Islamicate world central to the whole larger phenomenon. Thus, approaching the question from a “global” perspective that spanned political regimes and even linguistic and cultural borders was essential.
    I am now completing my book, The Black Death: A Global History, and wish to return to the question of the centrality of the Islamicate world in how narratives about the pandemic should be framed, not only for research purposes but also (and even especially) for teaching, whether in the context of Islamic Studies or in general historical surveys. The COVID Pandemic has made very clear the need for “pandemic thinking”: conceiving of pandemics in ways that go beyond accretions of stories from sometimes random documentary accounts to multidisciplinary syntheses that attempt to explain how all the elements that go into creating pandemics—microbial, ecological, climatic, and of course human—fit together to move a disease across vast distances, landscapes, and cultural settings. In other words, this work needs to be scalar and it needs to be global.
    For this talk, I will focus on three elements: 1) the importance of recognizing the uninterrupted cultural history of plague in the Islamicate world, from its 7th-century origins on; 2) the new ways in which the Mongol Empire fits into the story of the Black Death; and 3) the ways in which historiographical accretions in both the Islamicate world and Christian Europe, starting in the 14th century, have occluded key insights that now need to be peeled away in order to recognize the pandemic in all its magnitude. I will conclude with some desiderata for future work.


  • March 1, 2022

    Two Plague Treatises from the Ottoman Empire (Ahmed Tahir Nur and Mehmet Emin Güleçyüz)
    In this session, Ahmed Tahir Nur (Yale University) and Mehmet Emin Güleçyüz (The University of Chicago) will present the contexts and contents of two Arabic plague treatises from the early sixteenth century Ottoman Empire that they are currently editing and preparing for publication. Ilyās b. Ibrāhīm’s Shield from Plagues and Epidemics and Idrīs-i Bidlīsī’s Refraining from Epidemic-Stricken Places were conceived under different conditions and served different purposes. Yet, both treatises were written during a major outbreak of plague, and were devoted primarily to a comprehensive treatment of infectious diseases in general and plagues in particular. Their authors’ theoretical and practical engagement with plague reveals the significance of these plague treatises as historical sources on a number of areas, including transmission of medical knowledge and epistemological, religious and legal debates of the time.

Group Conveners

  • Tunahan.Durmaz's picture

    Tunahan Durmaz

    Tunahan Durmaz is a first-year Ph.D. researcher in the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute, Florence. His research mainly focuses on Ottoman and European histories (15th to 18th centuries) with a special interest in social and cultural aspects of communicable diseases. Durmaz comes from a diverse background of humanities encompassing not only history but also history of art andarchitecture. He earned his BA (with honors) in History and Architecture (minor) in Middle East Technical University in June 2016, and his master’s degree in Sabancı University with a thesis titled “Family, Companions, and Death: Seyyid Hasan Nûrî Efendi’s Microcosm (1661-1665).”


  • HIDIW's picture

    Nukhet Varlik

    Nükhet Varlık is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University–Newark. She is a historian of the Ottoman Empire interested in disease, medicine, and public health. She is the author of Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: The Ottoman Experience, 1347–1600 (2015) and editor of Plague and Contagion in the Islamic Mediterranean (2017). Her new book project, “Empire, Ecology, and Plague: Rethinking the Second Pandemic (ca.1340s-ca.1940s),” examines the six-hundred-year Ottoman plague experiencein a global ecological context. In conjunction with this research, she is involved in developing the Black Death Digital Archive and contributing to multidisciplinary research projects that incorporate perspectives from palaeogenetics (ancient DNA research in particular), bioarchaeology, disease ecology, and climate science into historical inquiry.


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